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Nick Kent, Corn Exchange, Church Street, Brighton, May 15
While the supposed antichrist Johnny Rotten fronts Country Life butter ads, the scribe his band denounced as the establishment’s voice remains the opinionated hack he always was.
“Radiohead are the only major band who excite me now,” says former NME and Face writer, Guardian and Libération columnist, Nick Kent.
“They are the only band who are genuinely forward thinking, they are the only band who are not tied up in this bulls*** idea of post- modernism that everything has already been invented and all we have to do is go back to stuff from the 1970s and 1960s and 1950s and 1980s and cobble it together.
“The other person I think is important is Rufus Wainwright, who has a classical music, opera sensibility, and not in a Freddie Mercury way, in an original way.”
Speaking from his Parisian home, his base for the past 22 years, he says his local French music scene – packed with singer-songwriters who all want to be Paul McCartney – is as dead as it is over here.
Standards have dropped thanks to laziness and lack of talent. In the 1960s a band had to be as good as if not better than their peers; it was the same in 1970s. If you were a professional musician you needed to be good and forward thinking. But that all changed when punk arrived – music stopped mattering.
Kent has a new book out, Apathy For The Devil, whose recipe is one part autobiography, one part history lesson. In the 1970s Kent hit the road with the biggest band in the country, Led Zeppelin, became friends with Iggy Pop, interviewed every artist that mattered including The MC5, The Stooges, Lou Reed and Captain Beefheart and saw the first Can concert as well as Ziggy Stardust’s debut.
“I’ve never read a book on 1970s music that dealt with the whole decade,” he says. “There are books on punk starting in 1976, books on new wave and books about individual acts.
But I’ve never read anything where you start with Mark Bolan and end with The Fall’s Mark Smith, something that gives an understanding of why it went from Rod Stewart and The Faces to Dr Feelgood to The Clash to the Sex Pistols and Joy Division. And I was there on ground zero in a way other writers weren’t.”
This is what set Kent apart. His approach was lifted from the New Journalism movement which had been in vogue in America in the 1950s and 1960s. Figures such as Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S Thompson embedded themselves into communities, wrote first-person narratives, were part of the story they were telling.
“I though rock music was ideal for that approach,” Kent enthuses. “What Hunter Thompson was doing with the Hell’s Angels, I wanted to do with the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and the Sex Pistols, because that’s where the story was. The deeper you get in with them, the more time you spend with them, the more you understand. To me it was like solving mysteries.”
Often Kent got too close. He had a two-month stint as guitarist in the Sex Pistols, played with the London SS, who would become The Damned and The Clash, and indulged the rock star life.
He was attacked by Sid Vicious with a bike chain, Adam And The Ants guitarist Matthew Ashman went for him with a potful of jam outside Camden’s Music Machine and, as was the era’s norm, Kent had a taste for drugs. Today we take our life lessons from yoga; Kent’s guru was Iggy Pop. “There was a philosophy the more drugs you took the more illuminated you became. I didn’t necessarily buy into that. I realised I wrote better when I didn’t have drugs in me. For performers who had to go through self-transformation before going on stage, the drugs helped.
“But the main thing is, like me, they enjoyed getting high. You can’t say it’s some career game plan, it’s about enjoyment. The problem is when use becomes addiction. You stop getting the highs, you trap yourself.”
Keith Richards was the hardest to keep up with, he says, whereas the Sex Pistols were the hardest to deal with: they revealed how low you have to go to become a rock phenomenon. They had absolutely no morals, Kent says, apart from Glen Matlock.
“They were criminal-minded young people. They had been to borstal. But they had no other choice. They were going to be rock stars or they were going to be in jail. They could not be trusted, so it was funny the only guy they trusted was Malcolm McLaren. No one is easier to exploit than stupid young criminals, and he saw himself as Fagin in Oliver Twist – they were his artful dodgers.
“Because he owned a shop and was ten years older, they trusted him implicitly, and he took them to the cleaners, not just for money.
Many people believed the Sex Pistols were his creation. They weren’t. Steve Jones found John Lydon and once he was in the group McLaren could not control anything.”
Kent abhors the Sex Pistols, and derides the loutish Jim Morrison, but he knows all writers need a story. When he joined NME circulation was 60,000. By mid-1973 the magazine sold 300,000 a week. The NME’s circulation today is 38,486.
Was the magazine’s 1970s heyday purely down to great writers adopting new literary styles and tackling great scenes?
“In my writing I was very conscious of creating an Englishness, a flamboyant ersatz Oscar Wilde-ish-ness,” Kent says. “But I remember the editor, Nick Logan, asked me into his office at that time to tell me about a reader survey they’d done about why so many bought it.
“They said it was for the photographs and back page gossip. I realised I was dealing with an audience with an incredibly short attention-span. If they are not reading my stuff it is my job to make them read, so I became a lot more flamboyant in the way I dressed, the way I behaved, the way I wrote; I was not going to be ignored.
If 200,000 people are buying the damn thing, they might as well f****** read it.”
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