Zoë Howe acclaimed rock n roll biographer responsible for Typical Girls the first biography on the seminal all-girl punk band The Slits, interviewed by Simone Marie bassist from Primal Scream. ‘One of our favourite music writers,’ says Simone quoting from John Robb.
We quickly learn that Zoë grew up in a house full of records, her father was a rock DJ who allowed his five year old daughter free reign over his collection and in doing so she quickly gained a sense of ‘reverence for these sacred platters’. She describes herself as having the musical taste of an older man rather than that of a teenage girl, sharing the idea of herself rifling through record shops with Hawkwind roadie types.
Zoë began writing after realising the allure of the theatre alone, was not enough to sustain her during the lean times, an actor’s life is known for its precarity. Around the same time she had her own internet radio show – before they were a thing – playing punky reggae records. She describes the first time hearing The Slits cover of I heard it through the grapevine. ‘It’s such an incredible record, so much going on, you can’t tell if it’s a male or a female vocal…’
Zoë began writing her book on The Slits two years before the 30th anniversary of Cut the Slits heralded today for its artistic merit, for being trailblazing and hugely influential. Wanting to perhaps write the band back in to history, right wrongs and unpick the myths. Lead singer Ari Up often thought of the band as having been ‘written out of history’. Asked what it is that so attracted her to the story by Simone, Zoë said that its to do with how brave they were. “So dogged, how they were a strong gang, sticking together for over five years: not in it for the pose.’ She talked about her tremendous respect for the group, the way they endured sexism, physical attacks, were creatively brave enough to explore and push the music into the experimental.
It becomes clear that what drives Zoë apart, from a love for the music, it is the desire to capture the truth about bands, allow them the chance to say how they saw themselves, the industry: this crazy little thing called rock n roll. She does just that withBarbed Wire Kisses about Scottish band The Jesus and Mary Chain. Notorious for being nightmarish interviewees and for being constantly pissed Zoë wanted to tell a different story about the eighties alt rock shoe-gazers, oft described as dour and gloomy.
She reads an excerpt to the Humber Mouth audience just as the band are travelling by plane – for the first time – down to London to sign a record deal. There follows a rather nostalgic account bands just wouldn’t get away with that type of behaviour now (personally I wonder if the bands today are a patch on those in pre-internet days can you imagine a biography that goes ‘I woke up with a hangover so asked friends on Facebook for best hangover cures ?) of an artistic intervention on a Rod Stewart poster, more creativity expressed graffitiing on the gold discs then absolutely not smashing up the wall where all said gold discs are hanging. Bands just wouldn’t get away with that type of behaviour now. Personally I wonder if the bands today are a patch on those in pre-internet days. Can you imagine a biography that goes ‘I woke up with a hangover so asked Facebook friends to recommend best hangover cures?’ Zoë describes the Mary Chain as being ‘hilarious witty and very generous’ with their time while writing the book.
The conversation flows between the two women, we might almost be eavesdropping on two friends chatting… in this way we learn about how John from the Mary Chain once tried to teach Zoe to play the musical saw, how Palmolive (Slits drummer replaced by future Siouxse drummer Budgie pre-Cut) got her name and also how the album itself came to be called Cut, and how Zoe found herself interviewing the Who legendary guitarist Pete Townsend.
It’s not all sex drugs and rock n roll. Reflecting on some of the casualties who dwelled in dark places, Zoë talks about the thing that was not talked about in the music industry, mental health. It suited those behind the band to not intervene, the chaos, the outrageous antics fuelled the myths, myth-making increased the record-buying public’s idolisation of the band and the music and drove profits.
There follows a serious discussion around addiction, be that alcohol or drugs and how that is seen as part and parcel of the industry. No other job is there an acceptance, an expectation even that you will become damaged, perhaps permanently, by your employers.
In a very comprehensive couple of hours spent with Zoë and Simone, we cover Stevie Nicks ‘Not a one dimensional character’ and shine a light on some of the the stories behind the tempestuous recording of Rumours where even the dog is on drugs. The extreme tales of debauchery and lines of coke 7 miles long, has led rise to the band’s contemporaries today, when things begin to go south, saying, “Wouldn’t want to Fleetwood Mac it.”
There’s a cute story about Jools Holland and a cardigan, from Rock n Roll Gentleman Lee Brilleaux, mad letters from Fleetwood fans and fanatics. Also news of a new book and film project Dayglo around Poly Styrene front woman of punk band X-Ray Spex, more contradictions and conflicts to unpick. And then we learn that Zoë, previously known for highly detailed immersive music biographies, has written her first fictional novel called Shine On Marquee Moon. It’s a rock n roll tale that straddles the decades, featuring a fictional pompous eighties New Romantic band going back out on tour to pay the bills.