Duff emphasizes the dangers of nostalgia and the hazards of a band getting back again to try to grasp its earlier success.
Let’s begin with its cover: nine shots of the author, with a band’s name superimposed over each photo. Not Graham Duff’s saturnine or smiling face so much as his hairstyle stands out. Each snapshot of this author features whatever you’d expect a male fan of said band to wear at the time. Neatly, this graphic design conveys the spirit of this memoir describing 15 shows he attended, starting in 1974 at the age of 10, pausing at 50 in 2014. Nearly every musician or vocalist who’s found fame generates hero-worship, or iconoclastic takedown, among journalists, and a few fans fancying themselves writers. They analyze lyrics, regale anecdotes and document tours. Yet what’s often missing? Being there. Not as a performer up on stage or an interviewee backstage. But part of the feisty or fickle crowd, ready to rock.
Duff’s career as a screenwriter for horror, science fiction and dark comedy series and films finds its affinity with some formative influences included among the 15 inductees. Certainly, the inclusions of shows by Throbbing Gristle, with Duff sporting a devilish goatee under his bald pate or, 25 years earlier, Psychic TV, as he cocks his head beneath a Robert Smith Goth pouf, fit the profile for denizens of those who fancy themselves, as his website titles itself, Dangerous Minds. Yet as for most fans, the first concert he attended found him in more innocent company: chaperoned by his mother to witness the “English Elvis,” Cliff Richard, in 1974. Duff’s bowl cut and angelic features soon strive for a sterner mien.
He recounts a register of acts respectable by rock critic standards. Like so many of his time, entering his teens during the 1970s, David Bowie changed his listening tastes. Jumpstarted by a cassette of the later stage of the Beatles, young Graham learns from classmates how to expand his musical palate. John Peel’s radio broadcasts and The Man Who Fell to Earth star, augmented by shared 45 singles (how often we forget how much vinyl cost on a tight allowance), inspire Duff to catch the Jam. By 1978, punk seems dated. On to Twin-Tone ska, and then Joy Division. He wrangles a choice seat at the latter’s concert by posing as a writer. Which he was, as well as publisher, for the single issue of the fanzine, smartly titled considering his day job decades on Hex. His knack for the sounds of the times guides him. He follows the house music of the Shamen, his coiffeur at a peak, disheveled black asymmetrically swept sideways.
The ‘90s dawn as he fathers a boy, and suddenly, what was relegated as indie turns rave rock, as far as the chart success of Primal Scream. Duff’s style, now shorn to resemble an artiste from a Weimar cabaret, accompanies him to Glastonbury to see the reunited Velvet Underground. He’s honest enough to retell his true feelings at each event. Lou Reed keeps tinkering with and flubbing top lines and lyrics, and the ramshackle pace of much of that much-hyped gig reminds Duff how “frustrated” rather than elated a band’s slot can seem to a patient concertgoer who’s endured many opening acts for hours.
By the millennium’s fading, Duff, now with a trim cut and looking at last middle-aged, has found success as a creator, rather than consumer, of hip media. Beyond listening to Peel, Duff’s working for their BBC. Luckily, his late-‘80s attempt at dreadlocks ends as parental responsibilities temper his night-owl forays.
He catches Sleater-Kinney, learning of them to his chagrin only with their fourth album. The Strokes signal a revival of a garage-guitar approach blended with sophisticated production, as New Yorkers from privileged backgrounds dress in leather as did Lou Reed. Duff’s friend from “the recently reconvened” Wire, Colin Newman, predicts the return of big rock songs. The new century slows Duff down, as his own endeavors begin to curtail his gig-going and as his aging friends scatter, dutifully tied to their own jobs.
He combines recollections from his enviable vantage points at three-dozen concerts by the Fall (starting at 14) with an interview of Mark E. Smith. Duff accurately measures this Mancunian’s angle. He views his scrawled handwriting as he does the wordsmith’s efforts. “It’s difficult to make out at first look. You have to concentrate to fully understand both the content and the form. Like the Fall’s music.”
After documenting shows by Bowie, Massive Attack vs. Adam Curtis and his beloved Wire, Duff concludes with a brief coda nodding to the death of Smith as he was wrapping up this book. The narrative standouts (although both betray a reviewer’s shared bias) are Wire and the Fall, endured as the punks who refused to conform to punk itself, wary from the start of where it, and they, might wind up. When asked “years ago” if Smith would retire, he told Duff: “I mean, what do you wanna be, somebody who used to do something?” Rock music remains in the foreground accompanying Duff’s life quest.
Like his admired friends in the business, Duff emphasizes the dangers of nostalgia and the hazards of a band getting back again to try to grasp its earlier success. He titles his book wisely. He surveys the gigs, chosen for their emotional and physical impact on him, whether enlivening or deadening. And he enables readers to remain all ears, as he appends an excellent afterward on recommended listening.
Duff tells us an often-overlooked fact of life. Music only rarely, for most of us, becomes “the main event.” Relegation to the background for our chores, our romance, our commutes and our meals obscures the power of the notes and shouts and whispers, which serve as “soundtracks” enhancing “our experience of the world.”