Guest columnist GEORGE HENDERSON is shocked by a book of 1990s interviews with more than a few repugnant personalities.
Who The Hell…
“Who The Hell Does (insert name here) Think He/She Is?” was a monthly feature in Q magazine in the early ’90s. Tom Hibbert would interview only the most unbearable celebrities in a “give them enough rope” style, and they would usually deliver the evidence needed to hang them. I picked up a compilation of these pieces many years ago; last week I reread it on a whim, and I think you should do the same.
Hibbert, it turns out, has interviewed several of the world’s most horrible men, before they were otherwise exposed. There’s Sir Jimmy Savile (“I’m not a necrophiliac” – at least Hibbert asked) and Gary Glitter (“I was standing there on the balcony and I’d get the binoculars, and I was saying, ‘Send me up that one, I’ll have that one, and that one’, it was that easy”).
There’s also Rolf Harris – a maudlin narcissist, greedy to inflate even ironic praise (along the lines of “I suppose you invented world music with the didgeridoo in ‘Sunarise’?” “Why yes, I suppose I did invent world music”), with a seething sense of underappreciation which is never hidden for long. The interview reads like an excerpt from a criminal profiler’s memoir – it shouldn’t have taken hindsight to see that there was something badly wrong with this personality, and Harris isn’t even telling the rape jokes that went into his 1980s NME interview.
Cliff Richard is a pompous and subtly threatening prude, cancelling his own hit ‘Honky Tonk Angels’ after a fan explained the title to him, revisiting every negative detail of a career he seems to think has been thwarted by malevolent powers, lamenting his failure, twice, to win the Eurovision Song Contest with what should have been shoe-ins – complaints which come across as inexplicably unseemly when spoken by one of the most successful recording artists of the 1980s, someone whose entry in Eurovision, twice, seemed like cheating on the part of the Brits.
Chuck Berry, as well as being mean and nasty in every other way, begins his British tour with an unwanted advance on his publisher’s rep, then sulks and takes it out on everyone around him forever when she unsurprisingly rejects the old sleaze. (“I hate Chuck Berry more than anyone else in the world’, she wearily declares.”) Chuck Berry was once, long before this interview, a bona fide genius, who did actually invent the rock guitar song. Bad men can make great art. On the evidence here most of them don’t, but there’s still probably a correlation. As Nietzsche said of Haydn, “He came as close to genius as a man can who is only possessed of goodness”, and one wonders what Hibbert would have made of Beethoven’s reputation.
But genius, even once-troubled, now completely fucked-up genius, is a very rare commodity in Who The Hell. More common is the unlettered celebrity who’s developed a strong sense of their own wisdom from being attended by sycophants who applaud all their most outlandish thoughts. Thus, the brothers Goss – need I say more to anyone who’s watched the Bros documentary?
Boxer Chris Eubank’s musings make little sense and often alarm even in the context of boxing repartee. David Icke, on the other hand, shows us the freedom that surrendering to madness can bring if you’re not actually mad but long lost in pretending to be. A little while before being interviewed, he’d predicted the catastrophic destruction of New Zealand, the due date came and went, but he doesn’t seem embarrassed by our continued existence.
There’s a certain cultural gap when Hibbert’s cross-examining politically incorrect comedians. A somewhat sad and bewildered Benny Hill doesn’t know how to defend himself against the spurious critique of younger comics, the egregiously racist, sexist and homophobic “comic” (all of the many “jokes” quoted here, except the one he claims the Queen laughed at, are in fact just crude insults) Bernard Manning is left unscathed, but also somehow unexplained.
Freddy Starr is asked to explain wearing swastika underpants in a skit mocking Hitler and Eva Braun, I kid you not. Hibbert writes, only semi-ironically, about things being “ideologically incorrect” as if there is only one ideology, with a superior tone of Ben Elton-ish undergrad snark.
Playwright Dennis Potter (father of Sally) wins Hibbert over with lots of talk like “I know what you’re going to say and you know what I’m going to say, so why don’t you just fuck off?” But then Potter is the book’s other bona fide genius, a writer of some of the best TV drama ever screened, though understandably pilloried in the press at that time as “Dirty Des”, a “perv” and “voyeur”, for writing and directing Blackeyes and Secret Friends. He might be the only man in this book to have been obsessed with sex in the right way.
Potter’s 1996 dual series Karaoke/Cold Lazarus deserves a revival – it features a 24th-century corporate dystopia in which all approved reality is virtual and all experiences judged authentic, such as coffee or cigarettes, are banned, fighting a shadowy group of terrorists whose slogan is ‘Reality Or Nothing’, committed to restoring authenticity at any cost. Potter, chronically ill with the autoimmune disease he used as a plot device in The Singing Detective and soon to develop a fatal cancer, tells Hibbert that “I’ve retained enough of Christianity to know that worrying about one’s body is a very complicated blasphemy”.
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Does anyone else come out of the interview process well? Yoko Ono is left the same humourless pseudo-mystical bore she always was, and Ringo isn’t much better. Albert Goldman, the late lamented (by me at least) rock biographer, comes across as ridiculously unhip, but funny whether he knows it or not – Hibbert’s well-crafted caricature grants him a sort of immortality.
Nigel Kennedy, classical violinist extraordinaire, is an astonishing prat, with his brand-new loved-up wide boy palaver, adopted to make classical music “cool” again but every bit as wrong as Goldman’s gauche attempts to seem “hip” – “A miniskirted girl totters by on the other, sunny side of the street and ‘Nige’ is away – ‘Cor! Check that mate! Monster animallete mate!’”
Johnny Rotten is as opinionated, honest and informative as ever. But Jerry Hall’s conversation doesn’t offend and doesn’t add anything to Hibbert’s scathing assessment of her career. Perhaps Hibbert, or the Q readership, has a problem with women who, with no other obvious talents, become celebrities for their looks or the services they render famous men; in any case, I’m reminded of how by 1991 feminism came with a side order of misogyny for any woman perceived as letting the side down ideologically or otherwise, and why that third wave was a good idea.
Because the interviewee who comes out of the Who The Hell? process best is “tiny, blond, naïve and artless” topless model turned pop star Samantha Fox, patronised with some “ideologically correct” questions on feminism (“Boring!”, but answered well enough). Unschooled yet astute, Fox talks with a breathless and charming openness that’s pure Molly Bloom, and, as transcribed faithfully by the sneering Hibbert, gives us a passage that’s the best pop writing of its era, something that can only be quoted in full.
“My musical upbringing was ’70s really, wasn’t it? It was Gary Glitter and everybody and Suzi Quatro and The Osmonds and Cat Stevens and that and I can remember buying January by them Pilot whatsit and I remember buying Donna Summer stuff a lot and I buyed ‘Puppy Love’ when I was about five I think and I used to go roller-skating on a Sunday and it was always playing up Ally Pally and it was like going to the country ‘cos I used to live on the Holloway Road and we used to take a flask of sandwiches and it was like going on this big day trip and it was like ‘Puppy Love’ used to be playing and we used to skate around going oooh, Donny Osmond, hahaha, and oooh, Bay City Rollers, of course. God, I used to have tartan trousers and everything and a pair of white plimsolls with ‘Bay City Rollers’ written on them and tartan socks and when I got older I went to UK Subs and Stranglers I can remember and Three Degrees once with me mum and I loved the UK Subs and I used to like The Clash because I had a punk boyfriend and I suppose I didn’t have much choice ‘cos every time I went round to his house he’d play Sham 69 and he used to take me to all them concerts with people pogoing and gobbing everywhere and I used to stand there dodging the gobs ‘cos it was disgusting and it wasn’t really me, I don’t think.”
It was worth buying this book, at the op shop price, just to read that, I reckon, but the rest of Who The Hell is a time capsule of hubris, delusion, paranoia, perversion, bitterness and humour, accidental and intended, on a grand scale, which sums up the vibe of the early ’90s, and the traces left of the preceding decades in some very specially placed but mostly unreliable and selective memories, and is every bit as entertaining as it is appalling.