An interview with
Michael O'Connell

By Beppe Colli
June 1, 2003

In the age of video, when literacy is said to be an increasingly scarce resource, one of the most heated topics concerns the relevance of the written word. And books about music are an interesting subgroup.

What is their current relevance for the reading audience is not terribly clear, due to the insufficient data about the topic. The majority of music magazines don't give much space to reviews of books about music anymore, except in the case of giant media figures - or when the magazine itself is the publisher of said tome.

So I thought this was a topic well worth investigating. And maybe we will get some clues about other stuff, too.

So I thought of Michael O'Connell, whom I've known for quite some time. In fact, Michael works at the Helter Skelter bookstore (now also a publishing house) in London: the place where I buy most of my books about music.

Last month I sent him some questions via e-mail, and it seems to me he had fun answering them.

As a first question I'd like to ask you about Helter Skelter: when did the shop open its doors? And: was it the first one in London to adopt a music books-only formula?

The shop opened in August 1995, though the idea had been bandied about for about two years before that between a few friends. Once we'd opened, a couple of people (one of whom was the author, Johnny Rogan) told us that there had been a similar shop in the late sixties, also in the Soho area. But it turned out it also sold pulp fiction, soft porn, crime etc. Of course, there were less than a hundred books on pop music in those days, so we were the first to have a bookshop dedicated to music - still are, in fact.

Starting from the days of the Beatles, there's always been a plethora of books "for teenage fans". In the days of the Internet, I'm curious about these kind of books - I suppose today's celebs being personalities such as Avril Lavigne or Britney Spears or Robbie Williams: are they still being published? And: do they sell much?

These kinds of books are still coming out. I've known publishers who will do little more than look at who's climbing the charts and throw out a book on these kinds of performers - I've even been a witness to a book on the Spice Girls being proposed, assembled and sent to the printers in a few hours! They are mass market titles which are at home in supermarkets as much as bookstores. We are, it has to be said, wilfully snobbish about such things: to me, people like Kylie, Britney and Robbie have nothing to do with music and I refuse to stock such things! So, I have no idea how many copies of these books sell, but I know they are still being published in droves: because people still try to sell them to me - and fail.

Looking on catalogues, I see a lot of books about "classic rock" artists and groups - The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, The Doors, Zappa, The Who, Neil Young and so on. Are those books for the most part bought by a "forty-something" audience or do you see an interest also from those who were not born when this music was new?

The thing that strikes me most about today's artists in comparison to the ones you mention is that they have very little outside their careers or music to talk about, and they don't seem to have fully-rounded personalities. The Beatles developing an interest in eastern mysticism, Jimmy Page flirting with the occult, Neil Young's strident political views: however transitory and gimmicky these things may or may not have been they do reveal depths to these people that today's stars don't seem to have - an interview with, say, Coldplay, will consist of them talking about their latest album, and little else. The classic rock artists threw themselves into a highly unpredictable - even dangerous - style of living which made their lives an adventure in itself, worthy to be read. I think there is a deepening sense that people like Coldplay, Radiohead or whoever have made a "career decision" and act accordingly. The rock'n'roll myths do live on and people of all ages will be interested in music will seek out innovators such as the ones you mention, so it's not true to say that these books are bought by 40somethings for the most part.

And what about groups from the punk and new wave era?

This is of interest in another way because it was one of the last manifestations of a music movement, like the hippie movement, or the mods. I think these kinds of books have enduring fascination to people because they convey memories of their own experiences when they were out and about - when people weren't sitting at computers at home so much, if at all, or even watching tv as much, and they had more money to spend.

I'm curious about the real amount of interest when it comes to anthologies by "celebrity writers", such as Lester Bangs's Psychotic Reactions And Carburator Dung or Nick Kent's The Dark Stuff. Or books by people like Richard Meltzer, Robert Christgau or Nick Tosches.

I think it's exaggerated a lot. Many of these writers end up doing these things because, well, it seems like a natural progression - and we find anthologies by sports writers, political columnists as well. Publishers would always give people like this the nod ahead of others. There is, frankly, little sense of excitement when a collection like this is being published. And I think people buy them because of who is being written about more than who has written the work. Some of these collections are handicapped because everything is collected - the beauty of the Nick Kent book is not only the high quality of his writing but also his brilliant "casting".

It has often been said that the best part of the really interesting writing:

a) occurred in the past, since for obvious commercial reasons nowadays music mags act mostly as "consumer guides" and are not places where intelligent, informed debates go on;

To be frank, I have never thought of music magazines as areas where intelligent and informed debates on music go on! Which magazines have done that, in this country? The "old" NME? Mojo? The Wire? The nearest we get to such a thing is when they ask people to vote for a top 100. At their best, all of these magazines are a) An accurate reflection of their readers and a "scene"; b) Are opinionated, which in an age of consumer guides is vital; c) Are reliable for information on music or artists presented in an entertaining or enlightening way. At their worst, all of these mags are simply repositories of facts staffed by people in quite a privileged position who have exactly the same debates as music fans do in pubs or at each other's houses - only they have them in the offices of NME, Mojo or the Wire, with each other. I don't think music journalists have ever wanted to engage their readers in a debate - if I understand your question correctly here - they just want to tell their readers what to listen. And they don't want any arguments. And I think this attitude is prevalent in every music fan - in this country, anyway. Part of me agrees with the stance, part of me doesn't. In any case, I think this is actually how music magazines started to become consumer guides, and it's nothing new.

b) was - and is - about artists whose main body of work is in the past, since new artists are for the most part only a rehash of things that already happened, and so not worth of much attention.

I think people have to accept that we are coming to an end of a cycle in what is called popular music, and the writing only reflects that. The 40something mags write ever more yearningly on rock's golden age, each anniversary (20, 30, 40 years since Sgt Pepper, 10, 15, 25 years since Elvis died - take your pick) is celebrated more feverishly than the last, and it is music journalists who proclaim the debt that a modern artist owes to a fading legend - far more stridently than any artist does. And do the artists themselves realise that they will be looked back on with the same careless curiosity that we have for Dick Burbage, Edmund Kean, Sarah Bernhardt or Charlie Chaplin? Each age has its own fascinating and heroic pop stars - it's not the preserve of people who have bands with drums, guitars and keyboards. Why are music journalists so nostalgic - I’m not sure, but think of this: there's a "new" music magazine out at the moment called the Word I'm sure you've seen - the latest cover star is... Morrissey!

What is the amount of current interest towards strains of "black music" such as the blues, Motown and Stax - as genres and with respect to individual artists like Marvin Gaye and so on?

Books on black music continue to be thin on the ground, considering how many of the classic artists like Elvis, Beatles, Stones etc. were influenced by them - they all have, if anything, too many books about them! The very high success rate of books on black music suggests that there is strong and continuing interest and publishers should look at it a bit more closely than they do.

And what about genres such as Progressive, Jazz and the various avant-garde currents?

Books on progressive rock are astonishingly successful. It's a genre that seems to inspire devotion quite unlike any other. The prog rock fans are like a minority sect who have been persecuted for years.

Jazz. My sense is - if books are anything to go by - that there is an aging and dwindling band of adherents to jazz. But this may be a faulty judgement: we have never had a jazz expert here and it may be that we have never really tapped into the potential that it might have.

Avant-garde. There is a healthy amount of interest here, of all ages, and it's nice to think that this is a reaction to the processed acts that proliferate these days.

I'd like to ask you a more general question: Do you see young people being as interested as in the past when it comes to discussions & debates about music that occur in printed form?

I should refer you back to my answer to 6 b) here. I think something, or somebody - of the stature of Elvis - is going to come along and entirely capture the imagination of almost all young people. At a stroke, "our" music will become antiquated, as Stravinsky's revolutionary and incendiary Rites of Spring has done. Already, cultural terrorists such as Cabaret Voltaire and Psychic TV have appeared in classical concert halls in London and, to me, this is a sign that a Year Zero is around the corner. This doesn’t mean that music will cease to be discussed and debated by young people, but the overall tenor of our culture suggests to me that it will be discussed less seriously than ever before, and as a packaged commodity made to convey instant and less lasting gratification. And I think less seriousness is a shame: you need seriousness as much as humour (as Leonard Cohen once said: "Seriousness is deeply agreeable to the heart" ). I hate to end on a bleak note but to redress the balance, those of us with a passion for "our" music should be a little more serious, and not fear becoming antiquated - though we should never lose our sense of humour!

© Beppe Colli 2003 | June 1, 2003