I’m Not with the Band: A Writer’s Life Lost in Music by Sylvia Patterson
(Sphere, hardback, 448 pages. Out now.)
Review by Emma Warren
Let’s get the bias out there straight away: I know Sylvia from my days working on staff at THE FACE, where she’d stomp in dressed precisely as she describes herself in this memoir – ‘like a Russian stormtrooper’. I also remember the green and orange platforms she wore as a kind of visual shorthand or armour, items which once prompted Prince to murmur assent about her ‘nice shoes’ as he swung past her post-interview.
Patterson is a self-deprecating and charming narrator and her first book is packed with very funny stories about some of the biggest pop stars on the planet. There are encounters with Johnny Cash and Madonna alongside chapters on a disastrous trip to LA with New Order, poolside interviews with Black Grape in Jamaica where she smoked so much weed she didn’t know which way was up, and a brilliantly comic interview with Beyoncé circa Destiny’s Child where she conducted the interview sat behind Bey and Michelle, with her face squashed between the coach seats. It’s an idiosyncratic search for The Meaning Of Life through the medium of asking pop stars silly questions.
It’s also a great document of a lost moment in time, where English absurdism and psychedelia rolled up with politicised indie and Stock, Aitkin & Waterman. Her depiction of the peak-era Smash Hits offices – ‘ver Hits’ as it’s called throughout – is ripe for screenplay. In fact, the whole book reads like an extension of that era in pop music where Smash Hits’ affectionate lunacy became mainstream. It was, she writes, ‘a teen-pop version of Private Eye edited by Spike Milligan in a particularly juvenile mood.’ Other publications might be available, and are mentioned throughout, but the memoir is told, and perhaps lived, through the lens of an eternal Smash Hits office, where Patterson and her colleagues would do phoners with ZZ Top about whether they sleep with their beards inside or outside their pyjamas.
The chapter where she goes to interview Patterson family hero Spike Milligan at home in Rye is a real highlight, as he and his wife offer a window into a different kind of family life: one where you can drink yourself silly and still wake up in a fluffy white duvet, as she discovers when the interview turns into an overnight stay.
It’s a different story at home in Perth, where Patterson was born without fully-developed skin. Her tendency toward medical and metaphorical sensitivity wasn’t helped by her mum’s severe alcoholism. She writes frankly and without drama about her family, and they sit behind the hyperactive hilarity and the grim lows that give this memoir its unfussy emotional punch.
I’m Not With The Band lays bare the poverty and insecurity of freelance life and Keepin It 4 Real when you don’t have a middle class family to fall back on: in the late ‘90s she’s pre-empting the housing crisis by moving nine times in 18 months and is properly broke, asking fruit and veg sellers what she can buy for 67p.
The kind of uncertainty Patterson embraced by a combination of choice and circumstance is mainstream now. We could do worse than listen to someone who knows how to navigate it – and who tells comical and entirely irreverent stories about pop stars at the same time.
We have three copies of I’m Not with the Band: A Writer’s Life Lost in Music to give away in this week’s newsletter competition. For the opportunity to win a copy, subscribe to our mailing list before 10am Friday morning (the sign-up bar can be found on the top right-hand side of the site.)
Both Emma and Sylvia will appear at Caught by the River Thames on Sunday 7 August. Emma talks to aural-art collective SoundCamp on The Waterfront Stage, whilst Sylvia joins Ted Kessler for ‘My Old Man’ – a discussion of dads – in The Walled Garden. More info & tickets here.