March 26, 2011
It is easier to figure out cold fusion than it is to discuss rock and roll journalism without mentioning Mick Wall. He is to music writing what Keith Richards is to the guitar — he didn’t invent it, but he sure as hell made it his own.
Mick Wall began his career writing for a weekly music paper in the late Seventies and a few years later he jumped into a grass roots heavy metal magazine called Kerrang!. He quickly became its most popular writer and now thirty years later, Kerrang! is the biggest music periodical in circulation in the UK, with its own television and radio stations, branded tours, and massive annual awards ceremony.
Like Kerrang!, Mick Wall has also exploded as a force in the arena of rock journalism. He has penned nearly twenty music biographies, tackling a diverse range of subjects from immortal record producer John Peel to the howling tornado that is Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose. Rose was so unsettled by Wall’s book that he called him out by name in the song, “Get in the Ring,” from the Use Your Illusion II album.
Thirty years into the business, Wall is still cranking it out. In 2010 he released When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin, which is painstakingly researched and teeming with scores of new revelations about “the last great band of the sixties; the first great band of the seventies.” Though not the first book about Led Zeppelin, Giants is now widely accepted as the “definitive” account of the band, with disclosures so shocking that it has cost him his longstanding friendship with Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page.
Mick Wall writes for numerous newspapers and magazines around the world and continues to appear in music-based television shows and rock documentaries, delivering his unrestrained insight into the ever changing landscape of rock and roll.
Joe Daly: Thanks for your time this morning, Mick. You’ve got thirty years in the music business, so we’ve got a lot to cover. Let’s just dive right into your new book, shall we?
Mick Wall: Absolutely!
Led Zeppelin have been documented exhaustively by other authors – did you see a need for a fresh take on the band? What was your intended perspective?
There wasn’t a Zeppelin book out there that I actually wanted to read or that I felt told the story in the same way the stories have been told of Hendrix, Lennon, Dylan, Elvis… Hardcore Zep fans have a lot of fan-info and picture-type books out there, but as far as good, grown-up books about Zeppelin, the only one anyone would be caught dead reading was Hammer Of The Gods. HOTG was great for its time but that was over 20 years ago and it just doesn’t cut it today. It’s like a horror-movie version of a story, full of wonderfully thrilling but often simply not-true stories. There are a lot of “probably”s and “it is said”s in HOTG. Like the scene where “fans say” they saw smoke billowing from [Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy] Page’s house, Pope style, after [Zeppelin drummer John] Bonham’s death. It also treats Jimmy’s serious interest in the occult as witches-and-wardrobes, get-the-ouija-board-out stuff, which it really isn’t.
Anyway, the point is, HOTG was a really entertaining book for the times and it did a great deal to help put Zeppelin on the map in the 80s- a time when they could not have been less fashionable. But this was before Behind The Music, before the Internet, and before people had a more accurate idea of what the music biz was actually like in the Seventies. I wanted a book for people who regarded themselves as grown-up, intelligent and not easily shocked. My book is for people who have their own drugs and sex stories and their own insights into the fact that there is more to this world of ours than what the five senses allow.
The “Notes and Sources” section of Giants reflects an astonishing amount of research supporting this book- did your research turn up many surprises?
It was full of surprises, from start to finish. Research is the most fascinating part of doing a book like this. Example: before I sat down to actually start writing, after years of research, one way or another, I was very clear that [Zeppelin singer Robert] Plant should bury the hatchet and just do what we all want and get the band back together with Jimmy. By the end of the book, however, I was even more clear that Plant is right and hopefully will never do what Jimmy so desperately wants him to do- put the group back together, even on a part time basis. Let the legend live on, let the longing grow.
The O2 [Arena reunion show] really brought it home. Robert had everything the way he wanted it: “Stairway [to Heaven]” in the middle, buried away like a B-side, no acoustic section, and most of all absolutely no jamming, no spontaneity, and no tripping out on godhead. For me, that meant no true Zeppelin experience. Forget it, move on, Jimmy, like Robert has. Take a leaf out of Miles Davis’ and Bob Dylan’s books and make something new about what it’s like to be nearly 70, an old magus of rock, thwarted and hurt yet defiant and proud, or whatever it is he’s really feeling. Now that would be interesting…
One of the most unique aspects of Giants is the flashback device you use, writing as if you’re whispering into the ears of the band as you walk them through their lives- like a haunting, inner monologue version of “This Is Your Life.” What made you decide on this approach?
Two reasons: first, I hate “once upon a time…” beginnings, so I deliberately set the the start of the book nearer the action, dropping in just as they were forming in that dizzy summer of ’68. That meant I needed a device in order to tell the backstory some other way. And for me backstory is something that you carry with you right up to the present moment, so I wanted it to be there too even at the end of the book, not just the beginning.
Second, Zeppelin exist on a pedestal, either as heroes, or monsters, or simply as symbolic of some other-level experience. I wanted to demonstrate that while the music might lie within that realm, as people they were as ordinary, as petty, as motivated sometimes for all the wrong reasons, as we all are. That inside they were both weak and strong, sun and moon, light and dark. That they could be desperate dicks as well as musical supermen. That luck, good and bad, played its part, always. That they embodied the contradictions of humanity, same as us all. Call a cunt a cunt, that’s what I say. But also bathe in their wondrousness too. Hate it and love it and wonder why, knowing the answer, even as you fear it. Er, if you get me…
Yeah, we fans don’t always want to accept stories that knock down the rock star archetype. Which makes it even more notable that 40 years after they broke, people are still buying their albums and as Giants has shown, the demand for their story continues to run high. What’s the secret ingredient to their longevity?
First of all there’s the music. Without that there is no interest in the story. Zep’s music has stood up uncommonly well over the years. Better I would say than almost anybody else’s from the same period, with the exception of the best of the Rolling Stones, The Who and some isolated other records. I mean, even Hendrix and Cream sound dated, for example, in their productions, while the best of Zep sounds like it was done yesterday.
Then there’s what I would call the “James Dean Factor” – they died, almost, in their prime. We didn’t have to watch them get old and make worse and worse albums like with the Stones, or watch them grapple with trying to stay contemporary like U2. Zep were what they were in the same way the Romans were when they had orgies and fed Christians to the lions. The story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Their secret ingredient for me then, is that they are gone and haven’t really ever come back, nor could they. And I for one and glad of that, having seen the [Zeppelin reunion] show at the O2 Arena.
So you’re saying the Zeppelin story is over? If so, what was the end?
The end was when Robert Plant and his wife Maureen had that horrendous car crash in the summer of 1975. And when Jimmy Page got seriously hooked on smack, which had occurred a little before that. Presence, while still one of Jimmy’s favorite Zep albums, was a wash-out. There were a few good tracks as well as a few really half-assed ones. As for In Through The Out Door… terrible. Again, some highlights- “In The Evening,” “All Of My Love,” and a lot of eyewash.
Oh, it was great that [Zeppelin bass player] John Paul Jones had a lot more say [regarding the album’s production] because Jimmy was too out of it to make a worthwhile contribution anymore. One thing you can be certain of- Led Zeppelin did not end when Bonzo (drummer John “Bonzo” Bonham), who overdosed, died, as they still insist. If Bonzo had died after Zeppelin II would they have split then? Of course not. They split in 1980 because the band was already dead, rotten from within, long before Bonzo died (Bonzo died of accidental asphyxiation after downing 40 shots of vodka and choking on his vomit).
In 1977, Robert Plant’s five year old son Karac died suddenly from a viral infection. In your book you present the rather shocking revelation that neither Page, nor Jones, nor (Led Zeppelin manager) Peter Grant went to the boy’s funeral. How much damage did this inflict on the future of Led Zeppelin?
Immense damage, the fall-out from which still goes on in various ways today. Until then Robert was still in thrall to Jimmy and what he had created with Zeppelin. After that incident Jimmy no longer held the same mystique for Robert. He saw Jimmy for what he was at that point- someone low and only truly concerned with his own interests, which had narrowed dramatically. Jonesy? Robert never really cared about him anyway. Grant he did, but Robert always knew that Grant was Jimmy’s biggest fan. There was no one looking out for Robert in the same way. It hadn’t mattered before but it did now. It was also the beginning of Robert having much more power over what the band did or didn’t do next. He truly no longer cared and therefore was ready to walk at any point if they didn’t fit in with him. And that’s the way it remains to this day.
Peter Grant has always fascinated me. I recently published a piece on Rock and Roll’s most nefarious characters, listing Peter Grant at number 5. Was Grant really that much of a thug or was there more to the man than his fearsome persona?
Yes, Grant was everything he is depicted as in the book – and more. But I hope the book also shows how he became that way and why. How the world he came from – the only son of a single Jewish mother growing up in World War II, was dog eat dog. I think it was to his immense credit that he made sure he became one of the biggest dogs with the nastiest bite. Zeppelin certainly wouldn’t have had him any other way.
The trouble came in when Grant too became a junkie. People forget now that the Seventies really was another planet. Drugs weren’t drugs in those days- they were the chic spoils of success. I worked in the biz then and the deal was: no drug is addictive, only heroin, and even that was cool as long as you watched it wasn’t every day, and even if it did get out of hand, there was always the Dr. Feelgoods in Harley Street to “cure” you so that you could then start again. It kind of goes back to a fundamental point, which is that there were no road maps for Zeppelin. They were literally the first men in space, seeking out new thrills where no man except Caesar and [English occultist Aleister] Crowley had ever been.
Is it safe to say that Zeppelin could not have hit the heights they did, at least commercially, without Peter Grant?
Absolutely. They would have been huge like Deep Purple or The Faces, but they could not have become the record-breaking act they became almost instantly, outselling the Beatles, the Stones and Dylan. Elvis never asked to meet Ozzy Osbourne, you know (Elvis famously asked to meet Led Zeppelin after one of his 1974 Los Angeles shows)? I also remind everyone how smart Grant was, how well-mannered in “real” life, and often very gently spoken, and how easily hurt he could be when people took the piss out of his size or, the worse crime of all, if anyone tried to mess with his “boys” in Zeppelin. That’s when he turned scary. Very, very scary…
I’d like to talk a bit about music journalism in general. First off, how do you choose your projects?
In terms of books, I’m looking first and foremost for a good story that I don’t feel has been told adequately before and that has a good chance of selling well. Once upon a time you could go to an editor at a publishing house with a good idea for a book. Easy. Now even the best publishers need to run it all by their sales teams first. If they say it stinks there won’t be any book. Even if you insist, they might publish it but they will pay you so little that it simply isn’t worth the time it takes to do the job properly.
In terms of magazine and newspaper articles, really it’s an even more commercially-driven proposition in that I either get asked to do something or I have an idea which I will propose to a magazine. For me, ultimately, it all comes down to the story. Is it good enough? If the music is also titanic, well that’s a plus, but a book can be great even when the band is mediocre, like [Motley Crue biography] The Dirt and similar fare. Whereas a book can be disappointing even when the artist is great – like the [Guns N’ Roses guitarist] Slash book (Slash). Love Slash- boring punch-pulling book, though.
A reader quickly sees when a book is delivering an uncensored story or when they’re reading someone’s whitewash. To that point, I know you’re friends with some of rock’s largest figures. How do you handle conflicts where you’re friends with one of your subjects and they let their guard down, revealing some of their less-flattering behaviors?
I take it as a case-by-case situation. Context is everything. Example: I invited Jimmy Page to do his own book on Zep, told him we could make it like Dylan’s Chronicles, i.e. leave out anything that he didn’t want to deal with – sex, drugs, magick, and just cherry pick some revealing moments from his career which readers could still get off on because they would convey a sense of honesty.
When after a long period of “umming” and “ahhing,” it became clear he wasn’t going to go for it, I wrote to him telling him that my publishers were now considering getting someone to write a full-blooded, proper account then of Zeppelin and that I had put myself forward and would he like to be involved, perhaps? Again – silence. Anyway, long story short, by the time I came to sit down and write the book the O2 [reunion] show had happened and Jimmy had now become openly hostile towards me, admonishing Jason [Bonham, son of Bonzo and fill-in drummer for Led Zeppelin] for getting me a ticket and letting people know he didn’t approve. At which point, I felt free to write exactly the kind of book I had always wanted to do – one that was absolutely honest and true and said it exactly how I saw it.
Like the music itself, rock journalism is now open to anyone with a blog and an opinion. Is this good or bad news for rock journalism?
Probably bad, but it’s been a steady erosion for years now. The days when people like me and you would buy Rolling Stone or Creem and relish some big confrontation between Lester Bangs and Lou Reed are long gone. MTV was the beginning of the end. Once the music press lost the immense power it had to affect record sales and build reputations and careers, once a video on MTV sold more records than a cover of Rolling Stone, it was always going to have to compromise in order to survive.
The key is always access. Without it you don’t have a lot. These days that access is granted and controlled much more by the artists and gifted directly to their fans via the net and Twitter and Facebook, etc. The music press only gets a look-in as part of the schedule. I used to go on tour with Metallica for a week. Now you get a phone call. In terms of blogs, though, I think they are like guns, they are only as good or bad as the people that handle them.
Speaking of Metallica, I hear you’ve tackled their story in your next book. Care to share a bit about that?
Yes, I’ve finished a biography on Metallica called Enter Night. It should be out in the US sometime this spring.
Unlike Zeppelin, Metallica are still very much alive. With the release of Death Magnetic (2008), many among the Metallica faithful are convinced that the band still have something important to say. What made you decide to take on Metallica at this point in their career?
It’s not necessary to only write a book when the story is over. Metallica celebrate their 30th anniversary this year, which means they have been together nearly three times longer than Zeppelin were, or nearly four times longer than the Beatles. That’s plenty to be going on with.
Also, they’ve reached an interesting moment in their story, seemingly coming full-circle. Except that that’s an illusion. They are probably even further away right now from their Eighties selves, musically and personally, than they’ve ever been. They are less like a band now and more of a franchise. And that is a truly remarkable achievement for a group that set out positioned so far out on the edge. That’s certainly something none of their peers has had the brains or talent to consider, let alone come close to emulating.
Also, just like Zep, I didn’t see a good book out there on them that I would find captivating. The closest was Joel McIver’s book, which I admire, but it’s more of a fan book, packed with great info, but essentially written by a fan for other fans. I admire and respect Metallica but I was never a fan. How could I be when I’m older than them? And I don’t write fan books anymore. I write books, not for them – the band or the fans, but for us, the general reading population, dig?
I get it, although it seems that the subjects of such bios rarely do. Care to share any of the new revelations we can expect in Enter Night?
Well, it’s hard because obviously I don’t want to spoil things by giving away the good stuff. I would rather make the point that this is not a book written by a Metallica fan for other Metallica fans. This is a book written by an author who has known the band off and on, for over 25 years, who has known all the other big rock bands of the same era and before and many since, and who has also worked in the record biz as a PR, a manager and a record company exec. And who has written it for other grown-ups who have experienced life and who are big enough boys and girls to hear the truth, not the fairy tales.
So, no, they did not carry on after Cliff Burton (Metallica bassist who was killed in 1986) died because that was what Ciff would have wanted, as every other book and story you’ve ever read on the subject tells you. No, they carried on because that’s what Lars (Ulrich, Metallica drummer) and James (Hetfield, Metallica guitarist) wanted. Cliff, in fact, had been talking to James about replacing Lars just before he died.
Another example- yes of course they “sold out” by making the Black album with (producer) Bob Rock. That’s what makes them so great. How much duller would their story be if they had stayed like Slayer and just stayed “true to their roots?” Instead, they did an utterly fabulous thing and made an album not only better than the ones Bon Jovi and Guns N’ Roses had been making but that sold more. An act of courage and vision entirely lacking in most other groups.
And yes they really did want to sack Jason (Newsted, former Metallica bassist who replaced Burton) within weeks of him joining. They were talked out of it by their very shrewd manager Peter Mensch, but Jason remained the bitch of the group for the rest of his time with them. But these are just a few facets to the larger story. There really is much more in the book.
I have to ask this, and it’s somewhat loaded — Lars Ulrich often comes across as opinionated, somewhat arrogant, and he seems to revel in his accomplishments. Is this a fair assessment? What’s it like to interview him?
Lars is all those things and a hell of a lot more. I spoke to him again two weeks ago actually. He told me he’d bought the book and apologized for turning down the opportunity to be more directly involved in it. He wanted to be sure I knew it wasn’t a personal reflection on me. I had made them aware I was doing the book early on and made the same offer I had to Jimmy Page, about wanting to be as involved or not as they felt comfortable with. They passed, saying they felt the time wasn’t right for them to get all their skeletons out of the closet just yet, which I respected. Lars said that “We knew that if anyone would write a great Metallica book it would be you.” Class, see. And shrewd. I admire that very, very much.
Unlike most of the rock stars I’ve worked with over the past 35 years, he really does have a big brain. In terms of what it’s like to interview him, it’s easy because he loves to talk. It’s hard to get the right questions answered sometimes because he’s slick and he’s not going to blow his future plans, but he will make sure you go away with plenty of stuff to write about. And he’s funny and good company.
As author of the authoritative biography of Axl Rose, and given your historic entanglement with him, a Guns N’ Roses question is sort of mandatory. In a recent issue of Metal Hammer, you considered the question of whether Guns N’ Roses should hang it up or keep on going by providing a brief essay for each side of the argument. Assuming you personally favor one side to the other, which more accurately reflects your view?
Either they should all get back together — Axl, Slash, Duff, Izzy and Adler, not (Matt) Sorum, great drummer but not an original member, or Axl should quit it and just present himself as the solo act he has really been for over 15 years now. Chinese Democracy was a great album, just not a GN’R album.
But it’s too late really for it to happen. Everyone has been trying to make it happen for most of those 15 years. But the money may yet bring Axl to the table because the others are all ready for it. It would be like when the Sex Pistols got back together in the mid-Nineties- nothing like the original, just a nostalgia-fest, sort of like when the Stones tour, only probably not as good.
Every other day there’s some graph or blog lamenting the imminent demise of the music industry. How accurate is this concern? In this brave new world of digital music, how does a vital new band get known?
Essentially, I see it as much the same as it ever was. Cream will rise to the top, whatever platform it’s delivered on. What’s changed is that you don’t send some record company big-wig a cassette and hope the dick will maybe play three seconds of it before tossing it in a box with all the others. You put up a website or place the track on iTunes, or YouTube. And you play live, the one real growth area of the business which you cannot duplicate digitally or on the net.
The secret ingredient though – and this is where most young musicians wince and immediately flop down on the couch with their eyes closed and a joint in their mouths, already giving up, is hard work. I have known people that were infinitely more talented, and I mean by a very long way more than most of the bands I know that did make it. But they just didn’t want it bad enough. They didn’t suffer and sacrifice themselves and others enough. They didn’t want to miss the game on TV, their girlfriend gave them a hard time, they waited for somebody else to come along and kiss it all better. And they’re still waiting.
Lars Ulrich was never going to be the best drummer around and James Hetfield was so screwed-up with self-doubt that he was still hoping the band would get a “real” singer when they were working on their second album. But fucking hell, did they both work their assess off to make Metallica one of the best bands in the world. Doesn’t mean they weren’t dicks or soul-suckers some of the time. Who isn’t sometimes? But they slept on floors, they fired people, they took chances, faced ridicule, failure and fought on. The Black Album was selling out? Well, you try it, suckers, see how far you get.
In your book Appetite for Destruction, you tell the story of going to interview Poison with [iconic rock photographer] Ross Halfin in a New York stadium show, only to be locked in a storage room by Poison’s staff. Did they ever apologize?
Yes, they did, actually. But not before I tortured them good in print and on TV and anywhere else I could stick my snout at the time. We had been buddies before, see, and we became buddies again afterward. Well, me and Bret anyway. I mean, I liked Poison. They were fun, like Sweet or KISS or the Ronettes, dig?
I’m sure there are stories… OK, Finally, I’d like to end with a few either/or questions. Please pick one or the other, whichever comes to mind. Ready?
Highway to Hell or Back in Black?
Highway every time. I’m totally old school.
NWOBHM or Thrash?
Oooh, tricky… can I phone a friend (named Lars)?
Hah! Yes, but that’s your only lifeline.
OK. I’ll get back to you on that.
Little Richard or Richard Cole?
Little Richard. Lemmy told me the first time he met Little Richard he simply went up to him and said, “Because of you – me!” Richard had no idea who he was but he got the message. I also interviewed Little Richard once for TV and he was fantastic. A proper legend.
Grunge or glam?
Glam, because of Bowie and Roxy Music, total originals each. Grunge was great too but so gloomy and so end-of-the-world. What they both had in common though was how much they affected all other artists too. With glam, suddenly The Band’s beardy look was over and everyone from Zep to the Stones and Elton John were wearing glittery threads and platform shoes. With grunge suddenly the short hair and goatee and plaid shirt became the must-have-a-version-of-look. Grunge never inspired any silly pop groups either, like Sweet, Mud, Gary Glitter, Suzy Quatro…
Sharon Osbourne or Peter Grant?
Oh my god… are you sure I can’t ask the audience to vote on this one? Sharon was always so shrewd, as was Grant in his era, and both were supremely vengeful over perceived wrongs, and good at making and keeping threats. They were both funny as hell too. If I have to plump for one it will be Sharon. She has made so much more out of so much less, whereas with Jimmy and Zep Grant hit the jackpot.
Mick, you are a headbanger and a gentleman. Thanks for your time. I look forward to the new Metallica book this spring.
It has been a pleasure Joe. In the words of the great Savoy Brown (and many others too of course), take it easy, baby…