Toby Kidd chats to Simon Williams about his two new books, 1-2 Cut Your Hair, the story of Johnny Moped and The Fierce Panda Book: Pandamonium!: How Not To Run A Record Label
We meet in the Victoria, Dalston, Simon waiting at a table outside preparing for an evening of avid gig-going running between the Victoria and the Shacklewell Arms.
For those of you who know the record label Fierce Panda, you will know they are one of the hallmarks of the London independent music scene, and Simon is to all intents and purposes Fierce Panda. But as well as that, and before running Fierce Panda, Simon is a music journalist and was the Live Editor of NME in the ‘90s, keeping bands like Blur from being dropped and generally championing new bands. Since that time, he has been busy releasing bands (Coldplay, Supergrass, Desparate Journalist, oh and my band Hatcham Social amongst many many many others), putting on live events, such as the first London Arctic Monkeys show, and just generally supporting the music alternative music making communities. When I first moved to London in the early noughties, Club Fandango Fierce Panda nights in Camden were like a magical doorway into the indie music world.
The first time I knowingly met Simon Williams, he came to our rehearsal space in Redchurch Street and spoke with such enthusiasm and love about music and bands that I decided right there and then that we had to work with him.
We are here to talk about Simon’s new books: yes plural. Two very different animals that have, in some regards perhaps, a couple of similar themes, themes of class, the underdog, and the characters and lives lived in the streets of London.
And so we discuss…
Me (from now on Joyzine): So, tell us, how good does it feel to have not one but two books coming out right now?
Simon: Pretty odd, to be honest. The Johnny Moped book was finished two years ago, and then I started the panda one straight after and only finished it in June, so for them to come out three weeks apart is a bit haphazard, but par for the indie course, I guess. Certainly avoids the perils of Second Book Syndrome…
Joyzine: Let’s start with 1-2 Cut Your Hair: The Story of Johnny Moped. When did you first find out about Johnny Moped? How did writing this book come about?
Simon: I was just starting secondary school when Moped was getting gobbed on at the Roxy but I have musical friends who are old enough to have witnessed that very gobbing, and those punk rock stories have been passed down through the awestruck generations. The book basically gathers together all those anecdotes, no matter how much they wildly differ, into one coherent, if slightly berserk, whole, at a time when Damaged Goods seems to have reactivated the band in a way few have managed before.
Joyzine: Was Johnny Moped a band you had seen live before?
Simon: Considering the Mopeds sometimes took 16 years off between live events there weren’t a great amount of shows to see. I’ve made up for it since working on the book though.
Joyzine: Who or what has become your favourite part of the Johnny Moped story now you have written the book?
Simon: The curious thing about the Johnny Moped story is that the best stories frequently don’t feature Johnny at all, and it’s definitely a bit odd writing the history of a band who didn’t release a single single for 37 years. But original members Xerxes and Captain Sensible were especially brilliant to talk to, and the story about them saving the Electric Light Orchestra from splitting up onstage in 1973 was an absolute peach.
Joyzine: How long did it take to bring ELO into the story?!
Simon: About three minutes – I casually mentioned to Xerxes that I was intrigued to see that ELO’s first ever gig was at the Mopeds’ local, the Croydon Greyhound, and he said “Yeah, but their second gig there was the interesting one…”
Joyzine: Do you think it’s refreshing to hear a band discuss the punk era from a working class perspective, about not throwing all your Can records away on year zero ‘cos it’s all a bit of a pisstake’? A band as ingrained in punk as anyone else talking about their time in it without revering the conventional punk story?
Simon: It definitely makes a change from the usual cliches. I loved chatting to Marco Pirroni (Adam & The Ants and original Banshees guitarist) because back in ’78 he frowned upon people like the Mopeds because they didn’t shop at SEX or wear slashed binliners down the pub, and one day he realised that that actually made the Mopeds more punk rock than anyone else – they were so heroically uncool it actually made them weirdly cool.
Joyzine: Did you have a particular angle you wanted to explore with the Johnny Moped book?
Simon: Not especially. I just started off going down the pub in Croydon with Johnny himself and let him talk for a couple of hours over a few ciders, then took things from there. Captain Sensible’s son Ray Burns made the ‘Basically…Johnny Moped‘ documentary in 2013, which gave me a lot of angles and insider knowledge and also a sense that this was a story that needed to be told with empathy, not a load of mickey-taking.
Joyzine: Did you feel that it was important that someone so involved in the history of punk had their story told, when they were as part of it as the Damned or the Stranglers for instance?
Simon: Possibly, but that might be giving the whole historical angle a bit too much intellectual credence when it comes to the Mopeds. It’s just classic British behaviour to support the underdog and Moped have become defined by their relentless failures rather than any fleeting success. If they’d actually got onto Top Of The Pops in 1978 we might not be talking about them today.
Joyzine: If someone has never heard of Johnny Moped, where should they start? What song should they add to their playlist?
Simon: My favourite is actually one of their most recent songs, ‘Living In A Dream World’, but the Roxy romantics will shout for ‘Hard Loving’ Man’ and the punk lovers will croon along to ‘Darling, Let’s Have Another Baby’.
Joyzine: I have mentioned some themes I felt have relationships within the pages of both books, but did you feel any parallels between the Johnny Moped story and your Fierce Panda story? Or do they feel like two distinct narratives linked only by the closeness of the release schedules?
Simon: Well, both books mention ELO quite a lot, and there are some people in the Moped story who crop up in the panda book. I had to make sure I didn’t keep using the same jokes across both books as well, which was a bit difficult. But I guess the spirits of the stories are both the same – just as Moped never found success, so fierce panda has spent nearly 30 years not having a hit record. We’re all scrawny underdogs howling at the same harvest moon, after all.
Joyzine: It would be fair to say that the Fierce Panda book is a very personal story which the Johnny Moped one is not in the same way. Did you find it much easier to write the Johnny Moped book?
Simon: In one way no, because the Moped story involved chundering around the south east getting gently pissed with various band members and then having to transcribe those chats, whereas I didn’t interview anyone at all for the panda book so had no bloody transcribing to do. And in another way no as well, because with the Moped book there is a sense of responsibility you have to the man, the band, the near hits, the big myths… you’re aware that a lot of people have put a lot into the whole Moped story, and you don’t want to let them down. With the panda book it’s just my outpourings of petty rage and pretty melodies accrued from a lifetime of loafing about, and if anyone gets upset by it I quite literally couldn’t give a literary toss.
Joyzine: Moving on to the Fierce Panda book: Pandamonium!: How Not To Run A Record Label, how does it feel to have the deeply personal details of your life released to the public? Has it helped you to find ways to be open about these issues in general?
Simon: Having always been the shy and retiring type it is a bit odd to hear people tell me how shocked they are by some of the darker aspects of the book, and I certainly couldn’t be any more open in there. But equally when some people have heard my story they have immediately told me about some dark tumultuous moment from their past which I never knew about, which I certainly didn’t expect to happen.
Joyzine: There has been a lot of awareness raising in mental health these days, how important do you feel this is now? And do you feel it’s important that you bring this book out and discuss these issues?
Simon: I was talking to someone the other day who knew about the darker side of the book and they said their dad had killed himself when he was 56. They then said they wished they’d had this panda book when he was still alive, it could have changed everything. I have no complaints about the general state of mental health awareness – barely a show goes by on talkSPORT without some reference to looking after your mate, I’ve worked with CALM on an album project and I know the Samaritans phone number off by heart on the bridge over Stowmarket railway station, but ultimately you still make your own odd decisions, don’t you? My situation definitely wasn’t helped by being in a music industry which revels in its own collective worthiness but has an awkward habit of making individuals feel utterly sodding worthless.
Joyzine: I was thinking how it can be hard to talk about things in the music industry sometimes, as people are always ‘selling’. Do you feel that the ‘success’ myth that bands and labels have to keep selling in order to persuade other people to jump on board the said success is harmful to the mental health of people in the music industry?
Simon: I think the mental damage runs right through the industry, from people striving to stay at the very top getting a barrage of abuse from everyone below who hates them for their success to people on our entry level point staring forlornly at their streaming figures. I must admit that for the level of democratisation of the music nowadays, where absolutely anyone can get their music into the marketplace – which is really an excellent thing, and should humanise the musical world – the music industry is a much colder, more cynical place to be nowadays, especially compared to the mid-90s when we started. When the general major label A&R tactic appears to be employing Scoutbots to discover the new streaming sensation and focusing on signing 17 year old kids that only adds to the cynical coldness of it all.
Joyzine: Did you have moments in the book where you were like ‘wow we did that! What great times!’ ?
Simon: Christ no, the book is way too self-deprecating and the story too gloomy for that kind of self-celebration…I didn’t want to boast about any of our achievements, no matter how tiny. See, I’ve done it again! Small wonder it’s called ‘How Not To Run A Record Label’.
Joyzine: Have you found writing about the story of Fierce Panda has reconnected you with any people you may have lost contact with over the years who have been part of that journey with you?
Simon: Not really, because we’ve been trundling along doing this thing for so long that old friends or bands or colleagues on Facebook or whatever are pretty much up to speed with it all. When it actually comes out then I might see some people suddenly reappear out of the blue, but hopefully in a good way. There are also a few people who will be very, very alarmed to hear there is a book about Fierce Panda, and hopefully in a really nervous way.
Joyzine: In many ways it’s hard to get too detailed in this kind of context, are there any other things you would like to say about either or both books?
Simon: If you like one of them you’ll like both of them. And if you try one of them and find it to be pretentious self-indulgent bobbins then you’ll hate both of them. And if you like one but hate the other then you’re just weird beyond belief.
Joyzine: Have you enjoyed writing books now? After working in journalism for many years did this feel like a joyous moment of exploration, did you feel you could get more involved in a new way? Or was it just writing a longer article for you?
Simon: It’s been great fun, to be fair. To be even fairer, the Moped book is just basically 34 old school NME features chained together, and the panda book is just some bloke’s witterings from a few ghostly afternoons in the boozer. To be topical for a moment it ain’t exactly ‘Midnight’s Children’ we’re talking about here is it?
Joyzine: Have you got any plans for new Fierce Panda events or releases you think you should tell the readers about today?
Simon: We’ve got various book launch plans scuttling along the pipeline so come join the panda mailing list at www.fiercepanda.co.uk to be kept updated once I’ve been updated by the publishing grown-ups. And while you’re there check on the freshest and fruitiest of new release and gigging news from the likes of Desperate Journalist, Scrounge, Enjoyable Listens, China Bears, Moon Panda, Hatcham Social, Wynona Bleach, Solar Eyes, Albert Gold, Bag Of Cans, The Shatterheads and so many more.
And please look after this bear. Thank you.
1-2 Cut Your Hair, the story of Johnny Moped has just recently hit the shelves on 19th August through Damaged Goods and is an insight into one of the almost forgotten bands that shaped the punk world and a celebration of working-class lives in London. You may have recently discovered them through the film ‘Basically, Johnny Moped’ on Netflix where it is enjoying a very successful streamingness.
The Fierce Panda Book: Pandamonium!: How Not To Run A Record Label, came out even more recently via Nine Eight Books on the 1st of September, and you will find that underneath the enthusiasm there is also a darker story of our times which in my opinion is an important piece of writing in a genre so full of mythmaking and dangerous narratives. This book opens up about the struggles and pains that so many people have every day with complex and often ignored problems. A book about the precarity of the music industry and the creative world, as well as contemporary life in general.
As I say goodnight and stroll down Kingsland Road past my favourite 24-hour bagel shop, I remember how in a documentary I once called Fierce Panda the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore of record labels, that Fierce Panda felt insistently British, or perhaps London, idiosyncratic with a dark wit and critical humour. I still stand by this – in person Simon is always funny, erudite, and good company, and his books are the same, the sound of someone who is in love with music and telling stories, in love with bands, music scenes, and records. If you also have an infatuation with these things, you would probably do well to add them to your reading list.
Article by Toby Kidd
Interviewer Toby is in the band Hatcham Social who have a new best of album out called We Are The Weirdos on Fierce Panda Records which you can buy here, and he also has a solo album out on Crocodile Laboratories which you can listen to here.