These days Mark Kermode draws a large, loyal audience every Friday afternoon for his Film Review show with Simon Mayo on BBC Radio 5 Live. Back in the late 80s, though, Saturday afternoon was Kermode’s prime slot for pulling a crowd, as double bassist with skiffle outfit The Railtown Bottlers for their weekly performances outside the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester’s St Ann’s Square.
It wasn’t the first band he’d been in by a long chalk but it was the first that audiences actively seemed to enjoy. Speaking to Northern Soul, Kermode says: “Actually making other people happy was a real revelation. I remember standing there looking out at the crowd, seeing them smile and thinking ‘I’ve literally not seen this before’. Because up until that point it was that whole thing of ‘I’ve suffered for my art, now it’s your turn’.”
Kermode has now charted this life-long and often ill-fated odyssey in the form of a new book, How Does It Feel?. From time as a Slade-loving child in 70s Hertfordshire to life as a teenager who builds his own guitar – albeit verrrrry slowly – to an active member of a whole raft of different bands, it illustrates Kermode’s sheer commitment to making music. He’s already written several insightful books about cinema and life as a film critic, but his original plan was for How Does It Feel? to pre-date them all.
“I first wanted to do it back in 2008,” Kermode says. “I wrote a piece for The Observer about playing in skiffle bands. Up until then I’d only written about film for them and I really, really enjoyed it. I thought ‘god, I would love to write a book about my history of being in bands’, so I went to a bunch of publishers and said I’d like to write a book about being in bands. They all went ‘that’s great, could you write a book about films?’. And that’s been happening ever since.”
For a time, he struggled to crowbar the ‘life in bands’ idea into a book about pop music in cinema, before having a despairing conversation in a pub with Jenny Lord of publishers Weidenfeld & Nicolson. “She said, ‘what you looking so down-fallen about?’ and I said ‘I’ve been trying to write this book for ten years’. She asked me what it was and I said, ‘it’s really about building an electric guitar when I was 13’. Jenny just went ‘I get that completely – you can write it for me’. Then the book wrote itself pretty fast because it’d spent ten years gestating.”
Curiously, the story of the book sees the young Kermode coming to terms with the fact that, although he loves performing, he doesn’t particularly want to be centre-stage and is happier not being front man. If there’s one time that you’re absolutely centre-stage, though, it’s when you’re writing a memoir.
“It’s certainly more personal than anything I’ve written before, which is not something that I’m greatly given to,” he admits. “But I found it very easy to write about those bands because, with the exception of [short-lived solo act] Henry One Hundred, I was always in them with other people. I did realise that standing at the back was the thing I wanted to do on stage. Writing a book is slightly different anyway because you’re just in your room or on the train or whatever, writing quite personally in your own head. Yeah, it is a complete contradiction though, but I am nothing if not contradictory. It’s basically ‘I like to stand at the back, excuse me while I stand up front and tell you all about it’.”
A good chunk of the book takes place during the 1980s when Kermode moved away from London to study English at Manchester University – as well as making his first forays into journalism writing film reviews for City Life magazine. And playing in loads of bands, obviously, which was easy enough in the circumstances.
“I came to the University in 1982 and at that point Manchester had the highest density student population of anywhere in the UK. So, you had a really astonishing situation whereby, because the Poly and the Uni and the Tech all had venues where you could play, anyone who was in a band could get a gig no problem.”
As though this didn’t keep him busy enough, as his time in Manchester went on Kermode became more and more engaged with politics. Living within the vibrant community of inner-city Hulme, he became an active part of the Viraj Mendis Defence Campaign. Since December 1986, Tamil supporter Mendis, who was under threat of deportation back to Sri Lanka, had claimed right of sanctuary within Hulme’s Church of the Ascension. Kermode recalls: “We used to have a rota that we would organise so there was always someone at the door of the church 24 hours a day. That was a massive commitment and there was a hardcore of the VMDC who looked after that. It was a really big news story. People forget about it now, but when they finally went in and dragged Viraj out [in January 1989], it was the first story on the national Six o’clock News. Although Viraj lost in the case of his campaign, there were they were umpteen other anti-deportation campaigns that were fought and won. There was an awful lot of politics around then because it was quite a divisive time. So you were either smashing the State or organising a gig, it was one of the two.”
It was during this time that Kermode discovered a love of skiffle, and he calls that and the foundation of the Railtown Bottlers “the big turning point in all this”. The adventures of the Bottlers loom large in the book, and fittingly, the Manchester date on Kermode’s promotional tour, at HOME on October 2, will include a one-off stage reunion of the band.
“I just I have a huge affection for the Bottlers and whereas the other shows on the book tour are basically me talking about a whole range of bands, the whole point of that HOME show it’s the first chance in a very long time for Bottlers to get back together again and play a proper gig. It really does feel like coming home because the Bottlers playing again in Manchester is very emotional for all of us.”
In fact, Northern Soul was present at Manchester’s Stoller Hall last year when Kermode’s current band, The Dodge Brothers, performed a live accompaniment to the silent film Beggars of Life. Two former Railtown Bottlers also happened to be in the audience and the set culminated in an impromptu band team-up. “Oh, well that’s typical Bottlers, right? So, The Dodge Brothers are playing Beggars of Life and it’s a big deal, but there’s a couple of Bottlers in the audience so how long will it take before they go ‘give us a go!’. The next thing you know, Al and Matt are up on stage. I mean, the Bottlers are a band who have never been backward in coming forward.”
How Does It Feel? looks right back to Kermode’s own childhood obsessions. So, as a father himself now, what would he say if his own children expressed a desire to become a musician or a film critic?
“Which one would I say to do? I’d say do both! I mean, the thing is I couldn’t write the film criticism stuff if I didn’t have the bands. They’ve always been the thing that I go back to that makes me happy.” In fact, his teenage son is a music fan and, by a happy accident, he played the opening guitar riff on a Dodge Brothers album recorded in the legendary Sun Studios. “I said to him afterwards ‘that’s it, it’s all downhill from here’. He has all the enthusiasm for the music that I do, but nobody wants to be in a band because their dad thought it was a good idea. Anyway, the music he likes is the kind of music that sounds to me like somebody cheese-gratering your ears. And that’s how it should be.”
And what would Kermode’s nine-year-old Slade-obsessed self think if he walked into a Dodge Brothers gig? “I’d say to him, ‘look kid, it actually happened, it worked out’. Believe me, even at that point when I used to think ‘I really, really want to be in Slade and be a famous pop star’, in the back of my mind there was always a voice that said ‘yeah, and that’s never going to happen’. Now, I’m a 55-year-old man, right? And I guarantee you I’m about to have the coolest day I could possibly imagine. I’m going to go on the radio and talk about films and then I’m going to go to Southampton, pick up a double bass and play a gig. Maybe it’ll be full, maybe it’ll be empty, I don’t know. All I know is, I can’t quite believe it worked out, particularly since I am, as I say in the book, really not a very good musician. But I am very enthusiastic.”
Mark Kermode’s How Does It Feel?: A Life of Musical Misadventures is out now as a hardback, e-book and an audiobook read by Mark.
Kermode appears with the Railtown Bottlers at HOME in Manchester on October 2.
The Dodge Brothers’ new album Drive Train is out now.
Read Kermode’s original 2008 Observer article on his love of skiffle.