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NICK KENT - APATHY FOR THE DEVIL - REVIEW BY DICK PORTER

‘Do you know what the essential problem with the seventies really was? Too many flaky people. I should know. I ended up being one of them.'

Nick Kent

More than three decades on from the 1970s, it seems hard to discern why Nick Kent managed to rub so many people up the wrong way. So he slagged off a lot of mostly turgid bands – this seems wholly preferable to the current state of music journalism, whereby the vast majority of correspondents simply parrot the hyperbole of press releases in order to ensure that their supply of freebies continues to flow.

Of course, the whole idea of the contemporary-music-journo-as-minor-celebrity is something that we no longer have – possibly because much of today’s music press nostalgia driven, and the NME (the sole survivor from the pantheon of ‘inkies’ that also included Melody Maker, Sounds, Record Mirror, Black Echoes and Disc) is now little more than a poor man’s Smash Hits put together by a team of trainee accountants.

Like us all, Kent is a product of era and environment – both of which play significant roles in this memoir. At the start of the decade he is a shy teenager, cuckolded on the cusp of losing his virginity, by a bearded midget. By the end of the 370+ page odyssey, he’s a physically and psychologically battered chemical dustbin that has hosted more crabs than Mac Fisheries.

The way in which Kent’s status as a music journalist during the 1970s fluctuated was defined as the shifting political and musical landscape of that decade altered the perception of what a music journalist should be. In 1972, when Kent started contributing to the NME, glam rock was beginning its short-lived heyday, and stadium stuffers such as the Stones and Led Zep were still considered relevant. This was ideal for a young man who wanted to hang out with rock bands and grab himself a slice of the coke’n’groupies lifestyle that was then de rigueur. Shift forward seven or eight years and we’re waist deep in Thatcher’s clampdown, social relevance is the order of the day and any foppish, aging boy wonder, with florid literary pretensions is always likely to be out of place.

Apathy For The Devil is a very human book. Again, like the rest of us, Kent is not averse to a spot of self-mythologizing (it’s evident that he’d very much like to be viewed as a latter day Thomas de Quincey), or some self-aggrandisement (he talks up his role in the nascent Sex Pistols and refers to the Stones as ‘my boys’), and also a slice of self-delusion (despite being off his bollocks for great chunks of the period in question, he maintains a firm faith in his powers of recall, then tells us that Let It Rock was re-named Seditionaries). This is offset by some genuinely critical self analysis – he admits to feelings of self-loathing and later observes, ‘One thing I’ve learned from writing this book is that self-congratulation, self-justification, self-pity, and plain old bitterness don’t really make it as motors for good auto-biographical prose.’

Given the bitchy sectarianism that existed between many of those on the NME’s masthead during the 1970s, it’s no surprise to find that Apathy For The Devil includes some score-settling, or attempts to ‘set the record straight.’ In this respect, Kent can’t win. If he had refrained from exploring his often fractious relationships with colleagues and contemporaries, he’d have undoubtedly been criticised for glossing over some of the more contentious aspects of his career. As it stands, he’ll most probably be accused of using the memoir for an exercise in grudge-bearing.

Indeed, it seems that he’s already aroused the wrath of former NME staffer Julie Burchill, whose recent Observer review lambasted Kent for his lack of personal hygiene, prose style, drug consumption, and, oh, everything, really. The self-appointed voice of the working class (I’ve yet to meet a plumber, mechanic or spark who has the foggiest idea who the hell Burchill is) delivered something of a master class in shrill axe-grinding, lambasting Kent for his attitudes to women, his religious epiphany, the lack of laughs to be found in Apathy For The Devil, and his dodgy recall.

Only the last of these charges stands up – although unreconstructed, Kent’s attitudes to women were evidently informed by his sheltered upbringing (his parents shared ‘an ardent correspondence’ in lieu of a courtship) and his views were hardly misogynistic, especially given the context of the times. As I understand it, many young men have always wanted to fuck young women. Burchill’s mockery of his encounter with God is kinda rich coming from a Lutheran convert – either believing in a deity is laughable, or it ain’t. Additionally, there’s plenty of humour to be found here – whether it be Hawkwind’s schaudenfreude at Dave Brock’s haemorrhoids, Kent’s embarrassment at having to be naked alongside the monstrously endowed Iggy, or his description of the best way to endure two interminable hours of Jethro Tull (by getting blotto, of course). I guess it just depends on what makes you laugh.

Over among the aroma of Sanatogen and incontinence at Uncut, chief silly old sod Allan Jones looked up from his economy bag of Werther’s Originals just long enough to outscore Burchill in the hypocrisy stakes. Unusually opting to review a couple of music books this month, rather than writing about whatever he happens to have recently read, Jones harrumphs, ‘It’s sloppily written, lazily constructed, sketchily evocative of the times, prone to irritating factual error and a lot of retrospective score settling, mawkish (don’t get him started on Chrissie Hynde) self-aggrandising and quite humourless.’ Which’d be fine, if Jones didn’t devote quite so much of his tired old organ to bigging himself up every month. In that spirit, he opines, ‘In truth, Melody Maker had better writers than [Charles Shaar] Murray and Kent.’ Can’t think where Al was working in 1974...     

But then, as I began by saying, Nick Kent did seem to have a knack for pissing people off. Unfortunately for him, he was no street fighting man, and suffered several terrifying assaults – none more so than when he was almost stabbed to death by a quartet of ‘punk wannabes’ in Kings Cross. Most likely, this attack had its roots in the way that Kent was demonised by the likes of Malcolm McLaren and the original Ants.

As one might anticipate, the notorious 100 Club assault on Kent by Sid Vicious is also recounted in Apathy – the way in which Sid’s feeble attempts to pass himself off as some kind of tough nut succeeded in frightening Kent says much about the author’s minimal threshold for coping with violence (let’s face it – music journalists don’t tend to be hard men, the very idea that Tony Parsons’ mockney aggression could be viewed as in any way imposing is simply ridiculous). Kent also makes a number of well aimed points at the way in which Sid Vicious represents an absurd rock’n’roll icon, observing of Sid and Nancy’s doomed relationship, ‘How this scabby pair ended up becoming the token Romeo and Juliet of the late seventies is something I – and pretty much anyone else who knew them – still find bafflingly hard to take into full account.’

It’s apparent that Kent wanted his writing to affect the medium he was reporting on. Possibly, this ambition formed the core of a rod that he constructed for his own back. In order to do this, one has to be an exceptional writer. Although when he was on his game, Kent’s gonzo journalism was of the highest order, his prose didn’t live up to such impossibly lofty standards. Nick Kent was, at his best, an outstanding music journalist, but having been set up (or set himself up, depending on your point of view), as the zenith of literate rock-crit, he became a sitting target for a queue of people itching to kick his legs out from under him. That said, his contribution to the medium is far more significant than the likes of Jones, Burchill or Parsons, and light years in advance of anything you’re likely to find in the NME today.

Review by Dick Porter 12/03/10