1980-Northern-based working class teenagers and recent school leavers, John Barrett and Dave Carey, form their first band, industrial bedroom act Group Hex. It mutates into the more commercial-in-sound Killing Stars. As Killing Stars’ career starts to take off with the charismatic Barrett as its front man and they land a major record deal, guitarist Carey, suffering from stage fright, decides to leave...

2009-Killing Stars, having had three number one singles and album sales that have stretched into the millions, have long since broken up. Barrett is a “folded in drunk” with a solo career in decline. Carey, having stayed in their dilapidated home town, still has the dead-end job that he has held since leaving university as a journalist on a local newspaper. A drunken incident on a lunchtime television show, however, plunges Barrett back into the public eye, and he and Carey, after twenty years apart from one another, together...

‘The Last Mad Surge of Youth’ is the evocative debut novel of journalist and author, Mark Hodkinson. At one level a heartfelt depiction of the early 80s post-punk landscape scene, it is at another a dark rite-of-passage, and a tale of both the disappointments that come with getting older even if you have lived the dream and the ties that bind a long-term, but uneasy friendship.

Mark Hodkinson was born in Manchester and is now based in West Yorkshire. He has been a regular contributor to ‘The Times’ for the last decade and has also managed since 2004 Pomona Books, his own publishing firm, whose writers include, as well as Hodkinson, Simon Armitage, Ian McMillan, Barry Hines and Bill Nelson. He has also over the last twenty years published biographies of the Wedding Present, Marianne Faithfull, Simply Red and Queen, and written several books on football. His last book, ‘Believe in the Sign’(2007), which like ‘The Last Mad Surge of Youth’ is published on Pomona, was long-listed for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year.

In an interview with Pennyblackmusic, Mark Hodkinson spoke about ‘The Last Mad Surge of Youth’, which has taken fifteen years to write, and Pomona Books.

PB: Why did you call your book ‘The Last Mad Surge of Youth’? Its original title was ‘The End of Music’.

MH: It was. Then I realised that were lots of books called ‘The End of Something’ and it started to feel like a cliché. It began to feel overbearing after a while.

The line comes from the Chameleons first album, ‘Script of the Bridge’. It is a line from the spoken intro on ‘Don’t Fall’, the first track on that, and it had always stuck in my mind as a good phrase. I also used to work in Middleton, the town near Manchester from where they are from. I worked on the local paper and it was the first time that I had seen a group go from playing local gigs to being successful. It was a homage to that really.

PB: You first started working on the book about fifteen years ago, didn’t you?

MH: It does stem from that far back. It is a kind of an amalgam of lots of pieces that I have written and glued together. It is episodic and it has to be that way because I basically gathered up of a lot of material and then tried to put a narrative strand on it.

Over the years several big publishers came close to signing it and asked for various things to be changed or suggested that I make changes here and there and to appease them I did that. In the end though none of them went for it and so I reassembled it yet again in a way that I was completely happy with it with no real consideration of anyone being happy with it but myself.

I had realised that by that stage you can’t write by strength of committee.
I wish that I would have had that strength of character maybe fifteen years ago to think that and have just said, “This is how it is. If you don’t like it, I’ll self-publish it and I’ll do a smaller print.”

I was quite keen though that it came out on a big house because I realised with all the will in the world that you don’t have the same clout, and the ability to get them in the shops and get them reviewed and perceived in the right way, as you do with the bigger publishing companies.

PB: The book moves constantly between the past and the present, often two or three times on the same single page, and there are no chapters. Why did you decide to do that rather than have a more straightforward narrative, with a chapter in 1980 and then a chapter in 2009?

MH : I didn’t want to do chapters because the book that way felt more true to itself. I also tend to get bored if things are too long in one place. I think a lot of people do, so I decided to shift backwards and forwards.
It was an absolute nightmare pulling it all together. I had created this jigsaw that somehow I knew it fitted all together, but if it became slightly out of place then there was this constant danger that a part of the story would be lost or it would end up going off in the wrong direction.
Overall I thought it worked, but I would never do that again with a book. I would just like to do a straightforward linear narrative because doing that was too difficult. You continually have to think if this bit fits together with the next bit.

PB : The book describes Killing Stars’ emergence on the 80s independent scene, but just as they have signed their first record deal and are about to get famous you pull away and to focus on Carey’s career as a local journalist and then move back to both his and Barrett’s childhood. You don’t find out that much about the band’s time in the limelight and even why they split. Was that just something which didn’t interest you?

MH: I think that most bands, once they get signed and become reasonably successful, follow the same career arc. There are the really earnest first couple of albums, then the one where they start writing about what it has been like to tour the world, and then there is a fourth album where they start to fall out or to get drug habits

I felt that it had all been pretty well covered in other books already. I just didn’t feel that it would add that much to it. The bits that are always most interesting are the beginning, the desperation, the indignity, the absolute clamour for stardom and then the after bit when that has gone.

The other characters in the band, the bass player and the drummer, weren’t fleshed out on purpose because I wanted to continually get back to the kind of buddy element, and Carey and Barrett and the little decisions that they had made as young men that have affected them for the rest of their lives. We already know how they split up. They just got fed up with one another.

PB: It is a book about rock music at one level, but it is so much more than that, isn’t it? It is a book about relations between men and long term friends in particular and those who have been successful and those who have been left behind. Do you see that as a more dominant theme?

MH: I do. The rock band is just the kind of theme which holds it together. The real theme and what I have always been interested in is the relationships between people.

The thing about being in a band is that it really focuses friendships really quickly. You short circuit the way people usually inter-relate. You get down very quickly to finding out who is cowardly, who is brave, who is strong and who is weak. I love that about it and I wanted to put these characters in that kind of environment and to see how they developed afterwards.

People have asked if I am either Carey or Barrett and I don’t want to be either of them. I think that Carey was fairly cowardly. I would hate to think of myself kicking around my home town with the kind of bitterness that he holds, while Barrett, I suppose, is just far too arrogant.

PB: Carey comes across as fairly luckless. He leaves the band because he suffers from stage fright. He wants to be a writer, but he ends up stuck in a humdrum job. His wife dumps him for his best friend and then doesn’t even bother to tell him for two years. Do you see him as someone who has made a lot of bad choices and been weak or as a victim of fate?

MH: I don’t see him as a victim of fate. I see him as someone who has made the wrong decisions really. There are points in it where I say he tries to write for the music press and to do this and that, but he is always scared off at the first front. There is one point where he is put off because he doesn’t like the boozy tone of the person at the end of the phone. If you really want something, you don’t let something like that put you off.

He is not a character that can’t do things. He just doesn’t have that thing to take him through the threshold which Barrett has. Barrett would have grabbed it. Carey makes excuses for himself, but fundamentally he knows that he should have done more with his life and for no real reason I think.

It is weird talking about these characters like this because they just live in my head, but Barrett comments about Carey’s background being quite settled and his background, while working class, being quite posh. In other words it was more there for him than it was for Barrett, yet he missed that edge and that ability to grab it.

I am 45 now. I am at a stage now where you see things work their way through. I know people like them both.

PB: And Barrett in contrast is quite likeable, but he comes across as pretty ruthless in a lot of ways. He sleeps with all these women. He loses all his political values as he becomes successful and he runs off at one point with Carey’s wife. Do you see him as a bastard or as his second wife Esther tells him he is as “a ghost in your own life”?

MH : I see him as a ghost in his own life. I have a lot of respect for him.

At every stage he is still thinking about what the kids that would have bought his records at the beginning are thinking about him now. A lot of characters who have got to the same level of success as him wouldn’t be doing that. They’d just be lost in it completely.

He still relates to Carey even if it is in a clumsy and patronising way and even though he has moved on. There is a point in the book when they meet after an absence of three or four years and Barrett comes back to their home town to see Carey. The fact that he is hugging them and is genuinely pleased to see him shows that. The lads I knew that made it in bands never came home. They certainly wouldn’t look up ex-members of the band. They would say that they were going to, but they wouldn’t do it.

I think that Barrett has a lot going for him really and a lot of compassion. He didn’t really run off with Carey’s wife. He fell in love with her. At least that is what he would say (Laughs). His motive behind it is not a power thing where he wants to take his best friend’s wife. As far as she was concerned, the relationship and the marriage had expired. I think the fact that it was shielded from Carey for two years was probably done out of compassion and not to hurt him rather than to mock him in any way.

PB: You already had a pretty good career before that as a journalist for ‘The Times’ and you had written al several biographies. What made you start up Pomona?

MH: If you are writing, you are constantly shown manuscripts and asked for opinions. Some of them were really good and I would help people edit them and work on them and then I would find out that they were getting knocked back and not getting published for what I saw as crazy reasons. There were also books that should have been coming back into print that nobody wanted to do.

With my own book as well, I would get all these lovely e-mails from commissioning editors saying, “I love this book .I am going into a meeting on Tuesday. I am sure that they will be up for it.” Then the marketing department wouldn’t want to work on it or there would be some other daft reason.

I found that this was happening to a lot of my other writer friends as well. I never really set out to publish. I just thought if I don’t do this nobody else will. It has been great really because the kind of vacuum in which we are living now no one will take a risk on a book. That means that we are able to publish people like Simon Armitage and Ian MacMillan, writers that we have no right to, but just on enthusiasm really.

If we sell 2,000 copies then we will get our money back and if we do 5.000 we will have a few quid to share out. Most publishers can’t do that. They need everything to sell 20,000 to 30,000 copies,

PB: You have also got another two books of your own in the pipeline. What are those going to be about?

MH: When I was growing up there was a book around the house called ‘The Best of England’. It was about ten villages across England and the first book is a travelogue in which I go and visit these places with my two young lads. I am halfway through it at the moment and it is just a kind of reflection on England, travelling and being a Dad.

The other book is a fiction book and it is harder to explain. It is more freefall than ‘The Last Mad Surge of Youth’. I am not being pretentiously ambiguous (Laughs). I am still working out where I am going with it and haven’t got it all down properly yet.

They will both be harder books to self-publish because they are not so easily themed as ‘The Last Mad Surge of Youth’. They don’t have the music crossover. I went on purpose with ‘The Last Mad Surge of Youth’ first, knowing that it would be perhaps easier to let people know that it is out there, whereas the other two will stand and fall really on the writing. There is not an outlying peg to put them both on.

PB: You’re also going to be publishing later this year Stuart Murdoch from Belle and Sebastian’s debut book, ‘The Celestial Café’. What is that about?

MH: It is really the work that he has done on his blog on his own website, just more fleshed out. It is kind of a summary of the last ten or fifteen years. It is not that dissimilar to ‘The Last Mad Surge of Youth’ in that it is about a guy that formed the band and has become successful. Stuart is really good at reflecting and he is a really aware person and his writing is really good. There are, of course, other books out there like that, I wouldn’t say that he is a writer before he is a musician but he is certainly on a similar level. It is a really interesting piece of work.

PB: Final question. Do you have time to do much newspaper writing these days?

MH: I do a bit. I usually wait until I am phoned and asked to do it because I think that if I am constantly petitioning them with ideas I’ll never get the editing and the writing done that I want to do. Luckily I have got an ongoing relationship with ‘The Times’ where there are two or three people in there that will think, “Oh, Mark can get his head around this” so I get commissioned to do a lot of reviews.

It works really well. I am someone that I can’t stand not doing anything. I get easily bored and with Pomona, my writing and my kids my life is pretty busy. I would drive myself crazy otherwise.

PB: Thank you.

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