From Weller to the Moon – in conversation with music writer Ian Snowball

Sleeve Master: Ian Snowball with artist Sir Peter Blake and the classic 1995 Paul Weller sleeve he designed

Ian Snowball was writing the foreword for a book on a Merseyside football casual turned Para when I called, having also recently co-authored Beatles-related novel A Hard Day’s Month with his friend Mark Baxter.

There are many more publications out there with his name on the cover too, but on this occasion I wanted to talk chiefly about his latest music biography, celebrating 40 years of Paul Weller recordings.

A big music fan for three and a half decades, I suggested down the line to his home in Kent that he has fingers in many pies.

“That’s the way it is really. It’s about spreading that network as far as possible, and it’s all good for keeping the profile up.”

Snowy, as he’s known, certainly has that profile at present. You wonder how he manages to fit in his career, working in family mediation.

Paul Weller – Sounds from the Studio (Red Planet, 2017) sets out to explore the musical journey of one of the most successful and influential of all UK artists. It includes interviews with solo years’ collaborators such as Noel Gallagher and Steve Cradock, Style Council partner Mick Talbot, ex-Jam bandmates Steve Brookes, Rick Buckler and Bruce Foxton, and other key players – from musicians, producers and engineers to family members.

The author’s own love of music can be traced back to a passion for The Jam at the turn of the 1980s. What was the first recording he splashed out on?

“The first I bought with my own money was That’s Entertainment, when I turned 11 in 1981. The record hadn’t been long out and I bought it with some birthday money. I marched off down to Woolworth’s in Maidstone. It was a picture sleeve, and I remember getting home, realising – as with many 7” singles around then – there wasn’t a middle bit. I can almost picture myself racing back down there to get an adapter so I could play the record. I’d have then played it over and over, as you did. The kids of today are missing out, aren’t they?”

What was it that resonated with him about Paul Weller and The Jam?

“I was going to a youth club and the part of town I lived in was Mod-heavy, rather than skinhead or punk, and the jukebox there had three Jam tracks – Going Underground, Start and That’s Entertainment. They’d get played countless times every evening, and I was already aware of The Jam, with Setting Sons the album I first heard. They were soon my band, with the Mod thing important to me and my crowd.

“I’ve a photo of me at 11, wearing a pair of desert boots, sta press trousers, V-neck jumper and button-down shirt. Boys today of that age don’t seem to have that passion or the music or surroundings.”

Or that sense of tribalism, really.

“That’s it. People were more old-headed back then. And that was my gateway into finding out about bands like The Who and Small Faces. With songs like The Kinks’ David Watts or The Who’s Disguises I heard The Jam versions first. The recorded version of So Sad About Us, for example, came out about a month after Keith Moon’s death, but they’d been playing it two or three years. I didn’t know that until doing the book with Rick though.”

He’s name-dropping there, having not only written a 2016 commemoration of The Who’s drummer in A Tribute to Keith Moon (There Is No Substitute), but also working with The Jam’s revered sticks-man Rick Buckler on 2015’s That’s Entertainment: My Life in The Jam, both Omnibus Press titles.

“I’m just off the phone from Rick, funnily enough. We’ve another book coming out, in fact two by the end of the year, one an illustrated graphic novel covering the early days to the end of 1977, part one in a three-book series. We’re working with a great illustrator, bringing it to life in a different way, a 1,000-copy collectors’ item. Rick was adamant he didn’t want serious illustrations, so we found someone who’s done things in his own style. It seems to be in vogue right now. I was talking to one of the guys from Madness about doing a similar thing next year. Again, people want something collectible.”

The Keith Moon book plus Ready Steady Girls (Suave Collective, 2016, with Mark Baxter and Jason Brummell), Thick As Thieves: Personal Situations with The Jam and Supersonic: Personal Situations with Oasis (both Marshall Cavendish, with Stuart Deabill) suggest you’ve targeted a ‘coffee table’ market.

“Yes, I like that sort of thing. I love reading, but not everyone’s a reader. Some people prefer to sit there with a cup of coffee and a Rich Tea, flick through a couple of pages, put it down, come back to it later.”

I suppose that concept of creating stylish publications with lots of great pictures goes back to Mod culture.

“Yeah, and I’ve been very fortunate that every book I’ve done for a publisher has had a nice quality to it. Hopefully that will continue, but it’s getting tougher, getting publishers to put hands in pockets.”

Snowy’s published list also includes co-writes with Blackpool-born Pete McKenna such as In the Blood, Once Upon a Tribe, Nightshift/All Souled Out and Black Music White Britain. Then there’s Tribe: Made in Britain with Martin Roach, Soul Driver: Ocean Colour Scene with Tony Briggs, and The Kids Are All Square: Medway Punk & Beyond with Bob Collins. Add to those his The Who: In the City and Long Hot Summer, and even a children’s novel, 2013’s Sky and the Bell Guardians, written with his daughter Josie when she was eight.

But back to The Jam – how did it work with Rick Buckler? I get the impression he was hands-on with the writing side, as opposed to many music autobiographies.

“He’d come to my place, we’d sit down, have a couple of hours with a phone on the table, me pumping him with questions and able to steer it through knowing The Jam history. We’d have a bite to eat, come back and do another hour. Or I’d go to his local, we’d have breakfast, chew the cud for a while then sit down for a couple more hours, or do the same at his. Over about nine months there was a lot of work, the worst thing the transcribing. Each session we’d end up with up to 9,000 words, about five hours’ work.

“But it was all his voice, and that’s so important. Richard Dolan, who ghost-wrote Tony McCarroll’s Oasis book, told me early on it’s all about catching the voice. There’s a skill with that – it doesn’t come easy.”

It certainly seems that he’s living the dream, talking to his music heroes. That’s nicely illustrated in the introduction to the Keith Moon book, mentioning one sunny afternoon at a polo club in Surrey, having a chinwag with Kenney Jones. As a big fan of The Who and Small Faces, that must have been a thrill.

“Yeah, and I play drums, so doing the Rick thing was massive as well. I’ve been playing since I was 15. I was also trying to talk Mick Avory of The Kinks into doing a book. I love it when I get to talk to these guys, and this summer I’ve travelled around the country with Steve White, doing In Conversation nights. He has a drum-kit with him too so we’ll be talking away, then I’ll ask him to give a demonstration of Dropping Bombs on the White House or something. We’ll talk about his time with Paul Weller and the Style Council over the years. And for the launch of the Weller book I had Mick Talbot down for an In Conversation. That was great too.”

Has he got to know Weller well over the years?

“I wouldn’t say I know him well, but he’s always been as good as gold with me. I probably came on to his radar when he wasn’t drinking, and that made a difference. Fortunately he also gave us that foreword for Thick as Thieves. I think he’s always just seen me as a fan, a grafter, and no threat. I’m not there to dig him out about anything. And he’s mellowed a lot.”

Going Underground: Ian Snowball with drumming legend Rick Buckler, and no doubt a distant echo

I always had the impression – probably from old NME interviews and the like – that he could be a bit of a grouch, and hard work. But now I detect a ready wit and humour. And you only have to revisit some of the Style Council videos to see that was there then too.

“I think so. With Mick the other night, we talked a bit about The Jam and the seriousness and how The Style Council was totally different, and how it seemed Paul was having more of a laugh, something Mick pretty much confirmed. That was a really nice night, giving a real personal, intimate insight into The Style Council, who I loved.”

Snowy stuck with Weller while others wavered, the likes of me having a spell away beyond 1987’s The Cost of Loving, feeling he’d temporarily lost his way.

“I think most people did. Don’t think you’re alone in that! I agree, but a lot of us became a certain age around that time. Life takes over, you get distracted. I was in that boat, but still bought the records.”

For me the Paul Weller Movement signalled a return to form, even including a couple of reworked Jam covers.

“Absolutely, and that was a great album that followed. And having done this book, I’ve been listening to it from a different place. In the car, driving from A to B, I’ll listen and hear different things now. And I came out of it with an even greater admiration and respect for Paul Weller as a musician. People buying the book have also told me they’re going back to listen to this or that album, giving it attention in a different way.”

While my favourite post-Jam spell involved the early solo LPs up to Stanley Road then 22 Dreams, there’s no doubt that Weller’s still making great records, such as this year’s A Kind Revolution, at the tender age of 59.

“I love the last album and really like the track with Boy George. Really superb. And I know he’s currently recording his next one, which from what I’ve heard is an acoustic album.”

He’s not one to hang around, is he.

“Absolutely! And you can only admire him for that.”

Snowy’s other books include one with Geoff Blythe and Pete McKenna about Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ early years, 2014’s The Team That Dreams in Caffs.

“That was all about the Searching For the Young Soul Rebels album, that one-year period in 1980, working with the band’s official photographer at the time, Mike Laye, using his photographs. That was another coffee table type work, all black and white images, and visually they were such a great band. They looked fantastic, and that lent itself nicely to that.”

How did the Keith Moon project come about? I’m guessing it was important to get that blessing from the family and estate, including his daughter.

“That was a huge part, but there was part of me – as a drummer – disappointed so much emphasis was put on how Keith Moon was the mad one, ‘the loon’. I’m not skirting around that but Tony Fletcher’s written about that side of it. I just felt there was another side to him that got over-looked, over-shadowed. That was my angle and I think that’s why people stepped up to get involved in the interviews, as I wanted to do something a lot more positive.”

We mentioned a few of those who came forward, such as Mick Avory, and there was also Slade’s Don Powell, another of my heroes.

“Don had a reputation as being a really nice fella, and was fantastic – it was good talking to him about the early days of being in bands. And Slade were such a huge act of course. He’s in Denmark these days. We stay in touch via email.”

There was also From Ronnie’s to Ravers, again with Stuart Deabill, a ‘50-year history of London clubs, right back to the jazz days’. Was Snowy a club regular in his youth?

“Yeah, especially in the acid house rave period. That was about the diversity of the city really, from jazz to soul, reggae and dance music in a city with such great heritage and clubs, not least from a Mod standpoint.”

Oh, for a chance to go back in time, nip down Wardour Street and pop into the Flamingo club in the ’60s, around the era Georgie Fame played there.

“Absolutely! I was fortunate enough to talk to people who went to those clubs, and it always fascinates me. I’m always up for subjects that perhaps haven’t been tapped into.”

Meanwhile, there’s still the day-job between assignments, although Snowy tells me writing’s ‘become a second profession’.

“I’m still working to pay the bills. It does take up a lot of time, but I’m fortunate I just do the projects I want to do. That makes it easier.”

So how did he get involved? Was he moving in those circles anyway, at venues and so on?

“You do bump into people, but even as a kid I liked writing letters, long before the world of email. I wrote a few bits for different fanzines as well, and it just took off from there. It seems a long time ago now but it’s only 10 years or so. And you just keep going.”

And when Pete Townshend and Paul Weller write introductions for your books, that must make up for all those hours at a computer keyboard and all those unanswered calls and emails.

“Yeah, and the nice thing is I hope I’ve built a bit of a reputation for positive books rather than slating people. That gets around. You get to know people who know those people, get the green light here and there.”

Sometimes it’s about getting past PR people and those in the way of your heroes. It can be frustrating.

“I’ve had my fair share of that, but fortunately there’s often a way around that. And if there’s too much aggro I’ll just drop it. But with Pete Townshend, his PA was amazing, so attentive and got things done, never rushed you, as opposed to others who just haven’t got the time of day.”

Taking Notes: Music writer Ian Snowball, with several titles already under his belt, takes a deserved breather

Paul Weller: Sounds from the Studio by Ian Snowball (£12.99, paperback) is available now via HMV, all good bookshop and online outlets, or via publisher Red Planet.

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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