How ex-NME legend gave me my break

TO CHELMSFORD to meet Paul Wellings over a mug of tea and a slice of nostalgia - including a lament about Top of the Pops, a sigh about football in the 21st Century, and the shortage of campaigning journalists like John Pilger.

TO CHELMSFORD to meet Paul Wellings over a mug of tea and a slice of nostalgia - including a lament about Top of the Pops, a sigh about football in the 21st Century, and the shortage of campaigning journalists like John Pilger.

But don't go thinking this is a quorum of the East Anglian branch of Grumpy Old Men. The joy of middle age is that there's a stash of experiences already banked, plus the optimism that the second-half is going to be just as good, if not better.

Paul's first 45 years, indeed, have proved a rich tapestry. In the 1980s he was a journalist on New Musical Express - better known as the NME - and has written for national newspapers.

There was a spell as a soul DJ with pirate radio and a long, if now dormant, friendship with legendary NME columnist Tony Parsons - best man at Paul's wedding.


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More recently, Paul has had a number of books published that explore themes he's passionate about. The latest - Sex, Lines and Videotape - features “a choice selection of the best one-liners, rants and repartee from the movies that I love”.

An earlier volume, I'm A Journalist . . . Get Me Out Of Here!, captured the colour of those days on the NME, which he relished.

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“It was a different time then. That makes me sound like I'm an old person's young person, as it were! Writing really mattered and pop music really mattered. Now, in the age of Pop Idol and the rest of it, it's a bit like writing about toothpaste.

“I'm not going to decry it and say it's no good any more and nostalgia ain't what it used to be, because there's some great stuff today on the R'n'B /hip-hop side - intelligent music - but there's not as much to write about as in my day - he said, sounding like an old man!”

In the good old days, Top of the Pops was the glue that held together the music scene. Paul rues its demise.

“I remember sitting round my nan's and seeing Alice Cooper sing School's Out for the first time, thinking 'This is something else.' Now I'm not really up with the charts.

“I saw the last Top of the Pops and thought it was a bit disappointing. They wheeled out all the people who I thought destroyed Radio 1 and Top of the Pops: The Hairy Cornflake (Dave Lee Travis) and Jimmy Savile - all those sorts of people. I always thought Top of the Pops was a bit more special than that. When John Peel was on there, for instance, it could be quite subversive in its day.”

What killed it? Was it that the music simply became not so special?

“I suppose people aren't so easily shocked. I remember when my dad saw David Bowie singing Starman for the first time, with all the make-up on. My dad's a very progressive, liberal chap, but he thought 'Who's the bloody hell's that?!' In 1972 that was really shocking. No-one's shocked by that now.”

The son of a PE teacher, Paul grew up in towns such as Hemel Hempstead and Harlow. He wrote stories for friends to pass around - tales “with rock-jawed heroes. Lots of stuff about football and kung fu. Laddish things.”

He became a journalist with a paper in Leighton Buzzard, then the music paper Sounds. One day he interviewed Tony Parsons, whose explosive writing on the NME had made him a legend. They hit it off and Parsons would be Paul's best friend for more than a decade. It also led to his next job.

“I said to him 'Sounds is a bit too rockist for me; I'm more of a soul boy. I want to write about black music and things like that.' He said 'I'll see if I can get you on here.' It sounds like shameless nepotism, but even in the rock press that old cliché about who you know was prevalent.”

Paul got the job - and a taste of pressure. Parsons had just left the NME, and editor Neil Spencer jokingly told his latest recruit “Oh, you're going to be the new Tony Parsons.”

Paul smiles. “Sadly, I wasn't. I was never as good a writer as Tony or Julie Burchill (Parsons's writing partner, then wife, then ex-wife). Tony's a millionaire and I'm sitting here knocking out very small non-fiction books and scraping a living.”

Sadly, they don't see each other these days. Life moved on and contact dropped off.

He's still got a soft spot for Parsons - someone we should cherish, and a great dad - but feels his old mate has sold out.

“I always regarded him as an old Labour type, a bit of a socialist, and now he's supporting George Bush during the Iraq war, eulogising about the Queen Mum when she died, talking about the colour of his hair dye. This is not the Tony Parsons I used to know. People like the Sex Pistols and The Clash would fawn at his feet. He was one of the hip young gunslingers.”

And what of the biting columnist Julie Burchill? Her stance, too, has changed over the years, hasn't it?

Paul thinks she takes an extremist position for effect. “I certainly don't like all that Stalinist stuff that she writes, and some of it is just liberal-baiting, but as a writer I think she is a real gem - the best pop writer I've ever read.”

He's kept in touch. “She's actually got a really big heart. Someone said she sounds like Pam Ayres on helium. You expect someone hard and acerbic, but she's not like that at all.”

After three or four years at the NME, Paul spent three on the Mirror and had a spell on the Evening Standard in the late 1980s.

Then another switch: pirate radio proving an outlet for his passion for R'n'B and hip-hop. A bit of freelance journalism kept the wolf from the door while Paul DJ-ed on LWR, the pirate station that launched Radio 1's Tim Westwood and Pete Tong.

“We played the rarest grooves from the most dangerous studios in areas like the North Peckham estate and helped launch Soul II Soul to become a mainstream act. Working on rebel radio was a joy, though there was no money in it at all.”

Ah, but there are some things money can't buy. A dream job came along that shaped Paul's personal life. A magazine commissioned him to go on a cruise and write about dance music around the world. One catch: while they'd offer a decent freelance rate, he would have to pay for the boat ticket.

Off to a travel agent. “They said the Canberra, the old Falklands ship, was going out in January for three months, and it's £4,000.” He'd got the money - just. “Basically I paid over my life savings. They said 'The only drawback is you'll be sharing a very small cabin with three old boys who are there on their retirement, and it's below water level.' So it's right near the crew quarters and the engines. The cheapest accommodation you can get . . .”

Still, the ship would call at places such as Papua New Guinea, Bombay and China - too good an opportunity to pass up, even though his fellow travellers' offputting false teeth and penchant for breaking wind often drove him from the cabin to sleep on a camp-bed on deck!

And - cue the theme tune to Love Boat - he met wife-to-be Lisa. “She was about the only woman under 70 on the boat,” he laughs. “She came from London and loved soul music.” She was going to Sydney to see relatives but wrote to Paul during the rest of his time at sea. More than 15 years on they have two children; Eve, eight, and Nathan, six.

Professionally, journalism wasn't proving very lucrative, so in the early 1990s Paul switched to media relations, with the odd bit of freelance journalism thrown in.

He says of his move to PR: “A lot of my journalist friends turned up their noses. 'You've defected to the dark side.' But it's slightly more lucrative and slightly more secure. I'd rather make a living as a full-time writer, but that's never going to happen with non-fiction.”

Have we wallowed too long in the comforting waters of nostalgia and watched our fingers go crinkly? Paul does, after all, reckon that British pop “is in a dreadful state”.

He grins. “Yeah, maybe. I am quite a sentimental person - I don't think there's anything wrong with sentimentality - but I do get quite excited by stuff coming out now: the latest Ken Loach film, or The Streets' latest album; the latest book by Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting). I'm not just going back to a bygone age, saying 'It was better in my day . . .' I do look back with fondness, but I do try to keep my focus on the future as well.”

CINEMA has always cast a spell. Paul Wellings remembers, for instance, sneaking in at the age of 14 to watch One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, then X-rated. Enthralled, he sat through all three afternoon screenings and that evening could quote lines verbatim.

His latest book - Sex, Lines and Videotape - is a collection of memorable lines, such as this from The Great Dictator, of 1940:

“Hannah! Can you hear me? Wherever you are, look up. Look up, Hannah. The clouds are lifting, the sun is breaking through. We're coming out of the darkness into the light. We're coming into a new world: a kindlier world, where men will rise above their greed, their hate and their brutality. Look up, Hannah. The soul of man has been given wings and at last he's beginning to fly. He's flying into the rainbow; into the light of hope. Look up, Hannah. Listen.”

Paul's favourite film is Blue Collar, starring Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel. The story's based on real events at an American car plant and includes mafia dealings and corrupt unions. “It's really dry humour; a powerful and moving film with lots of pathos.

“A line in it that's stuck with me to this day after I saw it in the late '70s - one that sounds really trite now - is: “They put the young against the old, the black against the white; everything they do is to keep us in our place.” I think that's so true about everything: whether it be to do with films or football or life.”

The industry might still be turning out good films, but Paul's annoyed at how difficult it can be to see them.

“You have to go to some godforsaken art-house cinema in London to find the best movies nowadays, because they don't make it through to the multiplexes that generally serve up a diet of car crashes and shoot-em-ups - video games taken to a different level.”

Sex, Lines and Videotape, a 74-page paperback, is published by The Progressive Press (www.theprogressivepress.co.uk) at about £4.99. ISBN: 0954612159. Other books by Paul Wellings can be found at www.amazon.co.uk

FOOTBALL has been part of Paul Wellings's life since he was a lad, but he's uneasy about the way the game's going.

His 2005 book Spend It Like Beckham discusses the greed, racism and homophobia in soccer over the last 30 years: “Agents, bungs and about fact that football is no longer the working man's game. It's about corporate entertainment and has turned into 'suits'.”

He's been a West Ham United fan for the last 30 years, and life at the club illustrates some of the tensions in the game.

The Hammers have signed two young Argentines in a move engineered by agents, and there's talk of a takeover backed by a property magnate less keen, it seems, on pretty football than the development opportunities offered by the Upton Park ground.

The buzz makes part of Paul think the glory days could be right around the corner: that his team, bolstered by fresh millions, could be battling for the Premiership title and competing in Europe.

“But there's another side of me that thinks 'That would be completely the wrong way, because we'd lose all the tradition and it would no longer be the club it once was.'

“The ticket price would go through the roof, you wouldn't get the kids coming through from the playing fields of east London. It would just be overseas buys. It would rip the heart out of the club and the community.”

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