The following MBW column comes from Eamonn Forde (inset photo), a longtime music industry journalist and author of The Last Days of EMI: Selling the Pig. His new book, Leaving the building: the lucrative afterlife of musical fieldsis now available through Omnibus Press.
The music industry is built on smoke and mirrors. This is both its inherent strength and its inherent weakness.
Recent responses to an impending Sex Pistols biopic and an equally impending KLF documentary, coming from each other’s central characters, raise important points about who is best placed to make that smoke and position those mirrors.
In the summer of 2021, filming for the biopic began Gun, based on the memoir of his former Sex Pistols teammate, lonely boy by Steve Jonesand led by Danny Boyle. Lydon, eager to derail the project, attempted to block the use of Sex Pistols music on the show but ultimately lost the High Court case (and later claimed to have been almost bankrupt everywhere).
Seeing the first trailer of GunLydon now claims that it is a “bourgeois fantasy” and everything was done behind his back. “Put words in John’s mouth and rewrite history,” runs a terse statement on his official website. “Disney stole the past and created a fairy tale, which bears little resemblance to the truth.” How he got all of this from a 42-second trailer is unclear, but it is, of course, his truth about “the truth.”
Compare this with the case of the new KLF Documentary. Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, two men who really understand the power of mythology and the Situationist farces that can come from the manipulation of facts, didn’t want to get involved, but they let it go anyway. the front. They even told director Chris Atkins that they loved the final piece.
Two series of “truths”; two contradictory responses to the way they are presented. Everyone’s truth is seen as false; the other accepts that truth can be contextual, conditional and compromised.
The Greeks, of course, have a term for this: alethiology (the study of truth). It is related to the academic pursuit of epistemology (the study of the scope and validity of knowledge).
It may seem a bit heavy to start a column, but it’s at the heart of a burgeoning sub-sector of the music industry – that of biopics and on-screen documentaries as well as memoirs on the page.
These are the building blocks of mythology that can be created around musicians and used to attract new generations of fans. If your story/mythology is as strong and resonant as your music, you will last. These are two sides of the same coin.
Putting the musicians in charge of the production chain in this narrative factory is good, but only up to a point. It is, after all, their history and their life that they are going to talk about. But they, assuming they can even remember everything, are invariably very selective in their telling of their lives – embellishing parts, eliminating other parts, eternally justifying everything they have done and said, often missing of self-reflexivity or self-awareness. It often reads as Alan Partridge’s Furious Insistence: “Needless to say, I had the last laugh.”
We have seen this, with gaping inevitability, play out in by Morrissey a bit selfish Autobiography in 2013. In it, he devoted what certainly looked like more pages to the court case after the Smiths disbanded (and why the ruling was just plain inhumane and wrong) than he wrote to the entire career and impact of the Smiths. Witness Morrissey’s desire to be cast, eternally, as the injured party. Have mercy on me, he moaned. Former bandmates, the music industry, the music press, and society at large are all out to get me, aided by the kind of mean judges who would dare call me out.”sneaky, truculent and unreliable”.
On more than 450 pages, the only statement was: only I can tell the truth. Not my truth. the truth.
To the right.
In the golden age of music documentaries and streaming biopics, too often the pop star or industry executive is directly involved as a writer, producer or even director. There’s a tough balance here between getting access (as well as getting the music rights) but not serving up 90 minutes of bland commentary and platitudes. They are less reliable narrators and less remarkable narrators.
When promoting Upside downa documentary on Creation Records in 2010, Alan McGee used it as an opportunity to repeat his scathing line that by David Cavanagh (medico-legal and magistrate) My magpie eyes are hungry for prizes book in 2001 was the “accountant’s tale”. McGee’s own 2013 autobiography, Creation storiesand the biopic 2021 that came out of it, both redefined disappointing in slightly different ways. If they were meant to be the bold, truthful broadsides of Cavanagh’s book, I’d be happy to sit down with the accountants.
When left to tell their own story, musicians and industry executives again and again give plenty of evidence to suggest they are not the right people for the job. Their sense of mythology is to simply say, in a multitude of different ways, how great they were, how misunderstood they were, how protected or betrayed they were by people who would be nothing without them and why, needless to say, they had the Last Laugh.
Rather than associating their names with errors or misjudgments and rather than suggesting that luck and the input of others may have played their part in their ascent, they solipsistically hijack the truth over the cliff.
Offering a twist on that line of The man who shot Liberty Valance (“When the Legend Comes True, Print the Legend”), Martin Scorsese’s 2019 documentary, Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story, gleefully blended reality and fantasy to build an even more contrary and contradictory mythology around a singer who, from the earliest stages, brazenly lied about himself as an act of high satire and mischievous misdirection. For example, in early interviews, he was pretend to be an orphan who traveled with a carnival. (Spoiler: He wasn’t and he didn’t.)
There should be many more sons about Sharon Stone going on tour with you in the 1970s, more stories of shaggy dogs inspired by Gene Simmons’ makeup, and more memories of talking heads that didn’t even exist.
It certainly makes reading/watching more entertaining than the partial, pious, pompous platitudes of many pop stars as they deliver a selective account of themselves.
In our post-truth world, perhaps more biopics, documentaries, and memoirs should focus their attention on the last lie, rather than the last laugh.
The music industry around the world