[28 August 2011]
Mick Wall writes rock books for grown-ups.
Don’t believe me, just ask him.
Wall, who spent time early in his career writing rock books for sweaty, teenage fan boys, doesn’t do that anymore. Why? Because he likes the warts and all. Wall wants to get to the truth.
There was a time when Wall wasn’t always so worried about the truth.
Wall started freelance writing for the British music weekly Sounds in 1977. After that, he worked with punk bands at Step Forward Records and then worked as a publicist for Journey, Dire Straits and Black Sabbath.
Following his publicity job and a stint as a dishwasher at a “posh burger bar”, according to his memoir, Paranoid: Black Days with Sabbath and other Horror Stories, Wall got work in music journalism again writing features for Sounds. Lured by the pleasures of an expense account, Wall left Sounds and went to work for Virgin Records to work in publicity again.
After he was fired for “wayward behavior”, the editors at Sounds put Wall to work again in 1983 on a new offshoot publication that would focus strictly on heavy metal: Kerrang! Before long, Wall became the star writer at Kerrang! from its beginning until 1991. While there, he started writing rock biographies including books about Ozzy Osbourne, Ozzy Osbourne: Diary of a Madman and Guns & Roses, Guns & Roses: The Most Dangerous Band in the World.
Although he writes occasional pieces for British music monthly glossies Classic Rock (which Wall edited from 1998 to 2004) and Metal Hammer, he’s now better known as one of rock’s most talented biographers.
Besides writing the harrowing and hilarious drug memoir of his rock life, Paranoid: Black Days with Sabbath and other Horror Stories; Wall has written biographies on Iron Maiden, Iron Maiden: Run to the Hills, and Axl Rose, W.A.R.: The Unauthorized Biography of W. Axl Rose as well as the definitive 2009 Led Zeppelin biography, When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin. Wall’s most recent book, released recently in the US, is the Metallica biography Enter Night: A Biography of Metallica.
During the following e-mail interview, Wall sounds off on Metallica’s success in the aftermath of tragedy and band firings, spending time with his family instead of globe trotting with excessive rock stars, his future projects and what he thinks of Marillion these days.
After reading Enter Night, the reader comes away with personality categories for each character. Cliff is the hero, moral center and savior—maybe even the martyr for the band’s success. Lars is the egotistical and calculating businessman/leader. James is the ex-alcoholic loner with deep-rooted family issues. Kirk was the talented nice guy that fit right in and never tried to exert any leadership. And poor Jason. Jason was a guy who happened to play bass with Metallica for 14 years. I actually felt sorry for Jason. Am I on the mark with these assessments?
Broadly speaking, I would say that about sums it up. I hope the book is able to color in those details a little, too. Cliff was only human and had his faults. Lars is also great fun. James is kind and gentle. Kirk is smarter than he looks. And Jason had one hell of a zillion-dollar ride. Would anyone even know his name, if not for Metallica?
Cliff comes off as someone you had a lot of respect for. But do you think Metallica would have been as successful, had he lived?
Metallica was already successful before Cliff died. The book addresses the question of what turns their career might and might not have taken, had he lived. Certainly it’s the big sliding door moment of the band’s career. A tragedy that actually freed James and Lars to do their own thing.
You make subtle remarks in the book that Cliff would not have liked the band moving on so fast with his replacement. I think you make fun of Kirk when he tells you in an interview that Cliff would have wanted it that way. But during one of Cliff’s last interviews, doesn’t he talk about Lars dying, and then said the band would move on and keep on going?
I don’t believe my remarks were subtle, actually. I believe what I say is unequivocal. The band did not move on because “Cliff would have wanted it” which is what they said at the time. They did so because what else could they do? Guys like Lars and James who started the band before Cliff joined were certainly not going to throw in the towel just as their career was really taking off, even though they loved Cliff.
Like the Cliff question, do you think Metallica would have been as successful if they kept Dave Mustaine in the band?
I think the fact that Dave Mustaine was fired allowed Metallica to become much more focused. It allowed the same thing to happen to Dave for different reasons. The result was two amazing bands, both hugely successful.
There have been other books on Metallica, including a pretty good one by Metal Hammer writer Joel McIver. Did you write the book because you thought it was time someone did a more comprehensive bio that was not so fan-based? Obviously, you couldn’t have written this book if it was authorized by the band, right?
I didn’t write the book for fans and I didn’t write it for the band. I wrote it like I write all my books—for those of us who like good books. The story of Metallica is fascinating. Better than fiction. I felt it was time for a proper literary biography that was written for grown ups.
I was surprised to learn little tidbits about the band in your book— James fronting an L.A. glam band without a guitar to hide behind (I just can’t picture it); the band listening to Peter Gabriel and The Police on the tour bus (Not very Metal Up Your Ass); and, most of all, Lars being such a terrible drummer and taking lessons up to the time of Master of Puppets. Was there anything that surprised you in your research?
Not really. You have to understand I first met them when they were kids, nearly 30 years ago. The breadth of their musical interest was no surprise at all. It’s one of the main reasons they didn’t end up as Slayer or Iron Maiden.
Overall though, everything about the story surprised me. The main thing about my books is absolutely not to repeat what everyone else has said. To really think about things. To talk to those that were there, helping make key decisions, and to find out what was really going on, not what the fan writers say happened.
It’s all in the nuances. They have to tell their own story and as the author, you have to pay attention and try and lay them (the stories) down even when they don’t initially seem to make sense to you.
Back to Jason. You almost wonder why they even hired him. He was good enough on bass, but they didn’t like him personally, they treated him horribly, and they never had any intention of letting him into the creative process. Do you think it would have been the same story for any bassist they would have hired right after Cliff died?
No. It would have been completely different, for example, if (former Armored Saint bassist) Joey Vera had joined, because they knew Joey and respected him and his band. Jason was a fan who played Metallica covers. Simply not on the same level.
What’s the most important thing you want readers to take away from your Metallica story?
The truth. Not the fairy story. For good or ill.
You do some writing for Classic Rock and Metal Hammer these days, but today you are primarily known as rock biographer. I’m sure the pay is much better, but do you miss traveling around the world with musicians for Kerrang! Does that style of music journalism even exist anymore?
I don’t miss it at all. Things didn’t change, I did. I’m a dad with young kids and a gorgeous wife. I would rather be home with them, reading a book and listening to anything but heavy metal.
I’m guessing that Peter Makowski was a big influence on you. For those that don’t know, could you tell us a little about one of the great unsung British hard rock and metal journalists?
Pete was one of the great rock writers of the ‘70s. He was kind of like the UK’s version of Cameron Crowe. He started writing about Deep Purple and Zeppelin when he was like, 15. I met him when I was 17 and he was about 20.
He was not an influence on my writing, per se, but if it hadn’t been for Pete I would have never become a music journalist. I was a speed dealer and he was a writer for Sounds. I thought what he did sounded crummy, like homework. Then he came round one night to score some speed because he was leaving the next day for a trip with Lynyrd Skynyrd. The blinds fell from my eyes. Pete remains one of my oldest friends.
I loved your memoir, Paranoid about your time working in the music PR industry and in music journalism while hopelessly addicted to heroin. It’s sort of like Almost Famous meets Irving Welsh. Why was some of the memoir actually fiction, and can you say how much of it was fiction? And will there ever be a sequel?
I changed some names, squeezed together some events and characters, made some shit up, but really, really, really, the whole thing is true. Truer than true. There will be a sequel if anyone ever gives me money to write it.
Meanwhile, I’m working on a tangential novelette for Kindle called “Black Summer”, which is about the summer of 1983, when I finally got straight and a met a devil woman from Hell who fucked my brains out literally and figuratively, and when I was washing dishes and sleeping on floors, just before joining Kerrang!
Photo of Mick Wall (partial) by Linda Wall
What is the next book you are working on?
A big fuck-off biography of AC/DC. For the same reasons I wrote the Metallica and Led Zeppelin books. Only better. Seriously.
Finally, as a huge Marillion fan, I feel lucky to have a copy of the long out of print, very hard to find Marillion fan bio you wrote in the ‘80s summing up the Fish years, Market Square Heroes. Do you still listen to Marillion today and what do you think of the Steve Hogarth-era material?
I don’t listen to it, no. Though I still do play a Marillion on my weekly radio show on rock radio FM in the UK.
I like the Hogarth era, some great stuff. But let’s be honest, they really fucked up when they split with Fish. I hear they might be getting back together actually, though you didn’t get that from me…