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John Clarkson - A Life in Music

  by Cila Warncke

published: 26 / 11 / 2022

John Clarkson - A Life in Music

Over-burdened book shelves loom above Pennyblackmusic editor John Clarkson: ‘People worry they’re going to collapse on me,’ he says with a smile. From a physics standpoint, it’s a legitimate concern but Clarkson is in the habit of quietly bending rules. He has helmed Pennyblackmusic for almost a quarter of a century (it turns 25 in September 2023). He has built – along with the site’s founder and tech maven Richard Banks a thriving music magazine on volunteer effort and goodwill. Pennyblackmusic arrived at the tail end of Britpop and while a host of bigger, better funded, more famous publications have faded into oblivion it continues to shine a light for independent music and artists. Clarkson, who is almost pathologically modest, bats away the suggestion that this is thanks to his work and the loyalty he inspires in the magazine’s writers and photographers. "‘We wouldn’t be here without Richard," he insists. This is true; it is no less true that without Clarkson’s tireless dedication and generosity of spirit, there would be no Pennyblackmusic. Here, he talks the music that shaped him, apocalyptic days and calling out John Lydon. What musical culture(s) did you identify with most strongly as a young person? Growing up in Morningside, Edinburgh, it was punk and David Bowie. When I went to secondary school there were about six record stores in walking distance from school. I didn’t fit in, so I started spending my lunchtime in the record shops – that’s where I got my early learning. I couldn’t afford albums so it was mostly buying singles of bands like The Stranglers, Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, ‘Babylon’s Burning’ by The Ruts. I remember Bowie performing ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ on 'Top of the Pops' – that was a moment. As an older teenager, I would spend my babysitting money to buy one or two albums a month. What was your experience of live music at the time? The first band I saw live was two weeks into uni – Tom Robinson. Before that, the only group I’d seen was a covers band Molten Gold at a school disco. The vocalist bagged off with the most attractive girl in the school. The boys in my class went off them instantly. How has your relationship with music evolved? It’s been a case of learning from bands. David Bowie worked with Lou Reed, so I got into him and the Velvet Underground. John Lydon talked about The Sensational Alex Harvey Band so I went backwards and got into them. This was in the days before the web, so it was being told about things, one thing gravitating to the next. What are the biggest differences in your musical taste between ‘then’ and ‘now’? I still love the Sex Pistols and the Clash, but it’s evolved. I’m much more into alt-country and Americana, I like some synth pop. It has mushroomed, basically. My tastes are much broader. Pennyblack came along at the right time. I was 32. It was the end of Britpop, I was bored by Oasis and Blur, though I liked Pulp. I wanted something beyond what was in the monthly music press. [Pennyblack] opened up a whole world of these bands who were putting out albums and singles in editions of 500 or 1,000 CDs – lots of which were fantastic. It was a revelation. What attracts you to an artist/band? Lyrics are so important. If a band is saying something, or trying to say something, that perks up my interest. Bands like The Walkabouts, Willard Grant Conspiracy, The National. [Pennyblack writer] Steve Miles who is in European Sun – his lyrics are fascinating. He’s singing about being a bloke in his 50s, how your expectations change, how you take pleasure in tiny things rather than big things. What’s a band you used to love that makes you cringe now? When I was 13, I thought Kiss was great. I was young and stupid. I like flamboyance in music, but now I find them so sexist. They’re the worst of the 1970s. Who’s an artist you came to late but now love unreservedly? Depeche Mode. I thought they were crap then saw a programme on Sky Arts of them playing live in Berlin and things just clicked. The Fall, as well, took years and years to get into. I got dragged to a gig by my partner and came out totally blown away. But again, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I did not get them. Three gigs that meant something extra-special? 1) The Waterboys, 1 April 1987. It was the year before 'Fisherman’s Blues' came out and they were playing an AIDS benefit at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, which is around the corner from me. They played an entire set of songs which nobody had heard from that album. I had never seen anyone do that before. It was a shocking moment. 2) Willard Grant Conspiracy, The Riverside Club, 21/6/1999, The Riverside was a tiny club in a back street in Glasgow which has been long flattened. I’d been doing Pennyblack for about nine months and spoke to Robert Fisher, their frontman, just before they came on. That was the start of our friendship. I would go on to see them about another twenty times and we would end up promoting gigs by them before Robert’s death in 2017. 3) Orchestral Manoeuvrers in the Dark, May 1985 at the Loughborough University Student Union. I’d not really been into synth pop but it was startling. I came away enthralled. I’ve loved them for almost 40 years now. Why did you create Pennyblackmusic? I didn’t. I’d been at uni with a bloke called Neil Landowski, who along with Richard established Pennyblackmusic as an online [record] shop. The mag was a sideline. Neil remembered I’d been into music, so he asked me to write an article. It was absolutely terrible, but I got hooked. They were selling records but not making a profit, so Neil dropped out. I had by then found myself in charge of the mag. What was your goal for the magazine? To represent these tiny bands that were pressing a few hundred records. I felt they deserved a voice. I still do. I’m proud of the fact that we do big names but also cover people who don’t get much of a voice in the press. How do you choose Pennyblack writers? We look for people who we would like to go to the pub with or out for tea and a cake with. There are people [working] on the site whom I’ve known for 20 years and have fantastic friendships with, but never met. What is Richard like? How does your collaboration work? It took a while for us to gel. Initially, he was Neil’s friend. One night I turned up at his place in Balham in South London and he had his old records out. We sat playing punk records for about two hours. That’s when we connected. How do you coordinate running Pennyblackmusic on a practical level? I phone Richard up. He never, never phones me. I try to phone him once a week, and to visit him in London at least two or three times a year. He’s not on Facebook, not on Twitter. He is quite a private person and I’ve learned to respect that. Why does music writing matter? Music is a microcosm of society. It affects what is going on culturally, and personally. I am conscious that when I’m talking to bands, I’m often talking about what is going on in the world. Great music taps into a society and what is going on in the bigger picture. What is different about writing about music in 2022 versus 1998? When we started Pennyblack in 1998 the world was in an okay space. Now, things are so dark, so apocalyptic, we are currently in one of the bleakest times that society has known. But music is much more accessible than it was in the 1970s, or even the 1990s – this is one of the best things about the 21st century. In the 1990s and early noughties, people didn’t go to gigs. Now, they are going en masse, despite things like Covid. It is a way of people taking themselves away from the blackness and bleakness. Music matters more now than it perhaps has since the 1970s and 1980s, when the world was last in a dark place. How does it feel to have outlasted so many major music magazines? It’s down to sheer belligerence – and to Richard. He’s seen us through every crisis. So many websites have gone down due to tech failings but he’s gotten us out of problems and kept developing the site. How much time do you spend on Pennyblack? Two hours a day and more at the weekends – probably 20 hours a week. I used to stay up till 2 a.m. working on it, but I’m older now, I’ve got Parkinson’s, I can’t do that any more. How has Parkinson's affected you? I am not going to stop. That isn’t an option. We’ve reduced the frequency of publication; we’re still publishing the same amount of articles, but in a less pressured way. What has Pennyblackmusic cost you? It has left me really tired, lots of times. My flat doesn’t get cleaned as often as it should. But the benefits have been vast. It has done a lot for me socially, It keeps evolving; it has never become boring. The benefits outweigh the things that are left undone. Describe an image that encapsulates your life in music. The Clash and the 'London Calling' album cover with Paul Simenon whacking his bass on the stage. It catches all the excitement and occasional frustration of music. What is your vocation outside of Pennyblack? For the last 35 years, I’ve run a library in a comprehensive school. I’m quite au fait with teen fiction. We’ve never made money on Pennyblack and I’m glad. It is beautiful because we haven’t done it for cash. We’ve done it because we care. What do you hope for the future of Pennyblackmusic? To keep going as long as possible. Take 5… 1. The first song you remember? ‘Puff The Magic Dragon’ When I was four or five my parents bought me the record, which came in a spectacular sleeve. That was my first piece of music. 2. The song you would play at a wedding? ‘White Wedding’ by Billy Idol. I saw him recently at the Hydro in Glasgow; he’s still fantastic. 3. The song you would play at a funeral? ‘Fare Thee Well’ by Willard Grant Conspiracy. It is the perfect record about death and passing on. 4. The artist you’d most like to interview? John Lydon. He has talked so much crap over the years, combined with absolute sense. I’d like to get to the real person; I don’t think I’d get far, but I’d like to try. 5. The artist you’d most like to be? John Cale. He writes great lyrics, has a beautiful voice, and at 80 continues to break new ground with each new record. 6. The song you never, never get tired of… ‘Ashes to Ashes’ by David Bowie. I’ve played it a thousand times.

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In her series, 'A Life in Music', in which she speaks to Pennyblackmusic staff about how music has affected and influenced them, Cila Warncke talks to Editor John Clarkson.

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