Tuesday, 3 October 2017

“As Potentially Explosive as the Contents of My Head or My Underpants”: An interview with Fred Vermorel - Part 2

Fred Vermorel first met Malcolm McLaren in 1963 when they were students at Harrow Art School. The two shared an interest in chaos, scandal and, later, Situationism: ideas which steered the development of the Sex Pistols and punk. 

This is part two of the interview.
Click here for parts one or three.


In the ‘Fantastic Voyeur’ piece, you describe yourself as playing the part of the ‘mad professor.’ I think you have played up a ‘dirty old man’ reading.

Yeah  definitely.

In what sense has that personalisation of subversive strategies ever been a blessing or a curse?

It hasn’t been a problem except for people who lack a sense of irony, like Kate Bush fans who seemed to think that I really was a voyeur. Maybe I was, but I don’t think I was. They were affronted by it, and just didn’t understand what I was doing. If anything, it was a kind of performance voyeurism, performance stalking, like Sophie Calle’s early work. Like her, I defined a project and then just let things happen  and kept copious notes. When the Secret History book came out there were furious denunciations. They called me ‘Fraud Immoral’  instead of Fred Vermorel, which I thought was hilarious  and various other things like that. I thought, at the time, “I wonder why they’re so angry,” and I was also really puzzled by the fact that the book was so successful. It’s even now, still the best-selling book on her.

One clue to that came when I talked to some Cambridge students, all boys. They used to go into one of the girl’s rooms for drinking sessions. This girl was a Kate Bush fan and had a copy of my book. In order to entertain themselves, these students would take this book down and read from it aloud, and then roll on the floor laughing. And I thought, “Yeah, they get it,” these people realized it was comical. They thought it was just absurd. Because why the hell should anyone care about Kate Bush’s grandfather, or her great grandfather, or her father for that matter?

There’s a number of things that come from that. What you turned those fans into was anti-fans, because they morally disapprove of what you’ve done, but also, in doing that, you prompted their creativity!

Yeah  that’s true.

There’s multiple ironies there. The absurdity about caring for something that isn’t there is an interesting point, because now, in a sense, media industries have taken that further, perhaps.


At The Country Music Hall of Fame, you don’t only look at original cowboy boots, or something like that, but actually someone archiving a record, so it’s like, how far can you get from the original subject.

I totally agree with you. It’s gone a lot further than I anticipated. Originally, when I gave that book in to Music Sales, there was no chapter about her. I was very proud of that. I thought, “I’ve written a whole book about her and there’s no mention of her in it!” Chris, the editor there, he was an old hippy and he smelt a rat. He said, “No – you can’t do this. You’ve got to have something about her in there.” So I grudgingly wrote the final chapter about when she’s born, and then her life, and some sentimental stuff about her songs. I did quite like her music, really, but I wouldn’t have raved about it.

No, but you’re right about it. It’s got more extreme. I was recently looking at a film called Anti-Viral (Cronenberg, 2012)

Have you seen that?

Yes  I have.

I’m going to show that to my students.

It’s about celebrity and how far it’s going.

Yeah  I also show it in the context of a clinic in LA, that offers a sperm donation from, not your star, but a lookalike. So if you want your baby to look a bit like Brad Pitt, you choose a lookalike who looks like Brad Pitt, and he will be your donor.

And that’s now seriously running, without any joke?

When I first saw it, I thought, “This must be a joke.” But when I checked it out, it seemed to be a legitimate concern. In retrospect, it doesn’t really surprise me, but you’re right: it’s gone beyond the bounds of surrealism.

Without any Situationist assistance.

Exactly. We live in a Situationist nightmare. There’s an article I read recently suggesting that Donald Trump is a Sex Pistol, because a lot of his rhetoric and the way he acts is very much like that. Deliberately chaotic and incoherent. Loud mouthed and foul mouthed. Because it’s like, what’s the next thing that’s going to happen: “What am I going to tweet next” or “Am I going to start a war, or not. Can I be bothered?” He’s Pere Ubu come to life with nuclear weapons.

I can see the thinking behind that. I saw him described recently as a ‘reckless narcissist,’ which kind of pins it. And the idea that all of US foreign policy would hang on what his family think and what he’s going to tweet today.

Yeah  and the fate of the world, in fact.

I think there’s a sense in which different music genres position fans differently.


What views, from the Pistols end of it, did punk take of music fandom? What place did punk offer to its own fans? Often fandom was associated with following, but with punk, was it like ‘killing your heroes’ and all that?

I’m not sure about that. I don’t have a neat answer to that. I’ve tried to make sense of it when I’ve lectured about it, by suggesting there’s a kind of cultural history in fandom, which you can trace from ‘Baseball Annies’ to Beatlemania, or from the advent of screaming as an accepted mode of behavior in concerts: a kind of acceleration or intensification. There are also plateaus, benchmarks. A line from the Johnnie Ray concerts in the mid 1950s to the David Bowie final Ziggy concert where people couldn’t believe what the fans were doing. Which was hushed up at the time.  I spoke to one music critic who was there and really shocked. To quote Starlust, a fan we called Julie told us: 

I was at the Hammersmith Odeon when Bowie killed off Ziggy in '73. I got trampled to death! A lot of men were throwing off their underwear and showing their c**ks all over the place. A lot of fluid was flying about. One girl was actually sucking someone off at the same time as trying to listen to what was going on. I thought it was so extraordinary because nobody had any inhibitions. I remember that around me nobody gave a shit really about doing these things because it was rumoured that maybe this was the last time Bowie would perform. Maybe this was the last time Ziggy would be here. And everyone's got to get in on this because otherwise you're just a square. So everyone just took their clothes off. And w**king was nothing. There was a guy next to me who was w**king in time to one track and I thought: My God! What does he do when he's alone? Then I suddenly realized that all the things I'd been doing were perfectly OK. Because here were people doing it with each other and sharing it. How wonderful, you know. So get off on that. And I thought I'd never seen so many c**ks in my life.”

When Pennebaker was filming Bowie, the far more interesting thing would have been to turn the camera around on to the fans. After that, there was a kind of cult -


Before I move on to that though, have you heard of Johnnie Ray?


Because, as far as I can make out, Johnnie Ray was the first performer whose audience did what I call the ‘Beatlemania package,’ which was pissing, and screaming, and masturbation in public. When I found that out, I tried to trace back to the people who’d been at the Johnnie Ray concerts, and I was able to do some interviews. It does seem there was a qualitative difference from Sinatra concerts, for example, where they did scream and go crazy, but not to that extent. One ex-caretaker who was at a Johnnie Ray concert at a London venue told me, “It was the first time we found knickers under the seats.” That sums up quite a lot, I think.

Taking up the plateaus theme, maybe what happened was that fandom  having gone through a process  having gone as far as it could do with Bowie  what could it do except negate itself a bit like a Hegelian dialectic?, where a phenomenon turns into its opposite. So post-Bowie punk fans negated  refused  their fandom: by ritualized gobbing and throwing things at the stars, by insulting the stars, by becoming the stars, and by abolishing the distance, the difference. But I think, now, looking back on it, that’s a bit contrived. But there may be something in it. Do you see what I mean?

Ironically, I need to go to the toilet now!

That’s not ironic at all!

… This is where things become interesting, I think, not that they weren’t before. That whole history of emotional excess; what interests me is that by the 1960s, managers were talking about fans and engendering that excitement. In the 1950s, Elvis’s manager was putting people in the front rows during his TV appearances, and things. So there was always an element of encouragement, or manipulation, or participation, or involvement with getting that reaction. What’s interesting about that is that it isn’t the case that the performance, the elitist critique of it, and the audience are separate things. It seems to me that they’re all bound up together, and that mutual binding creates that trajectory of excess in some ways, doesn’t it?

It gets into a dynamic, which is an acceleration and something coming to a point where it can no longer go any further, so it turns into something else, into its antithesis.

Even before punk, glam rock is very aware of the place of fandom and rock stardom. Recently I saw the film Privilege (Watkins, 1967) with Jon Paul Jones  interesting in terms of its portrayal of Beatlemania. Also, I’ve read in the Jon Savage archive, of fans writing to the Pistols and saying, “We’re individualists, but we still love you, Johnny.” So they had to negotiate the contradiction, like everybody else.We were talking about Malcolm pushing the Pistols into more anarchic situations, but how do we square the fact that a lot of people in punk didn’t know those ideas?

You mean the Situationist ideas? I think a lot of them are common sense, well not common sense, but they can be easily picked up on. One of the things the situationists wanted to do was to get away from big books and libraries, and try and create comic strips which encapsulated their ideas and gestures. Like the thing that happened in Strasbourg when the students took over the university, and spent all the union money on propaganda posters, and obscene comics, which they plastered Strasbourg with. Anyone can understand what that means without understanding the deeper theory behind it: you understand it’s fun, it’s provocative, and it spreads the word.

And it also reflects a generation gap.

Yes. Exactly, yeah.

The thing I find interesting looking back on the 1960s is that the attitude to World War II seems different, in that now – there was that famous moment when, was it Prince Harry or someone dressed as a Nazi and it seemed quite shocking  whereas it seems to me that in the 1960s there was a kind of generational thing: lambasting the previous generation by alluding to the war in different ways?

I wasn’t aware of that.

Stuff like Peter Fonda in The Wild Angels (Corman, 1966) wearing a swastika?

Oh yeah, from the American point of view, maybe.

Coming back to collage  ‘treatise by example’ seems central to your concern for presenting material over the years.

What I’ve done? Yeah  I think so.

What would you say are its assumptions and limitations?

One of the assumptions is that you should intervene. You can’t not intervene, so you may as well do it consciously. One of the pitfalls of that is that is when you do intervene there’s a contradiction which you can’t get out of.

Also, isn’t there a sense in which, if people don’t know you’re doing that, they might take it the wrong way. If they don’t know that it’s an artistic strategy, they might get confused?

Well, they would get confused if they don’t know it’s an artistic strategy, but it’s also a research strategy. It’s just a question of ethics, I suppose. I remember once me and Judy set out to find the human realities behind certain tabloid stories  extreme situations, as we saw them. One was a story about a 3 or 4 year-old girl who was sighted. Her name was Dawn, and both her parents were blind. The story was a very spoony, tabloid tale about how Dawn would lead her parents through supermarkets when they were shopping. Dawn was “the eyes of her parents.” I wondered about the existential situation of that child. That’s very dramatic. Her parents can’t see. She can. How does she make sense of that? So we approached the family. We did it very carefully, and the parents were fine. Their social worker was also fine, that we could talk to the family and, eventually, to the kid. You can’t interview a kid. What you do is just play with her in the garden, and you just wait for her to say something. She started to tell us stuff, and soon we realized that the kid couldn’t make any sense of this. In fact, she thought that her parents could really see, and they were pretending that couldn’t. Or lying. So, to find out, she did a little scientific experiment, several of them. She used to put things in the hallway to trip them up. If they tripped over them, she’d think, “Oh  maybe they can’t see.” When we realized that, we were in a real dilemma. What do you do? Do you warn the parents? Because that’s betraying the kid’s confidence. What would you have done?

Hmmm… I would not have told the parents, and I would have taken it that it was their responsibility to check where they were going.

We didn’t think that far. We didn’t tell the parents, and we removed ourselves from that situation without showing them we were worried, because we felt, obviously, we might actually push something in that situation and disturb a very fragile relationship they had there. We didn’t want to be involved with someone breaking their neck, either. Do you see what I mean? That’s a very extreme example.

You’ve got a double bind of confidences there.

Anything you get into, you’re going to affect those people. Even interviewing relatives or ex-friends of Kate Bush’s family, suddenly they were different people, because we’d knocked on their door, interviewed them, and showed them they were important in some respects.

Did that create secondary or reflected celebrity? Was that the concern.

No, not really. It wasn’t that. It’s just that when you go into any situation, where you need to interview non-professionals as it were, you’re liable to intervene, so you may as well be bold and intervene properly. So if you think it’s unethical or dangerous, then you need to just dissolve it in some way, by walking away or doing something.

Which is interesting, because that highly ethical approach is almost the opposite to the Situationist method!

Yeah, but we were trained by Charles Parker, and he drummed it into us that you shouldn’t go hurting people.

I guess at the end of the day, scholars usually begin from an impulse of caring about people.


And it’s ironic if the results are far from that.

Sometimes, though, the process can be dangerous to the interviewer. For my BA, my final audio project was an interview documentary in Northern Ireland. I wanted to talk to children about their perspective on the troubles. It was 1971, a volatile time. Judy came with me and we drove in our Morris Minor to Londonderry and camped just outside. Wandering around the Bogside with a camera and a Uher and approaching rioting kids seemed very grown up. It was also pretty reckless. We were at different times caught in a multiple car bomb attack while in a Chinese restaurant, and also after a shoot-out between a sniper and an armoured car advised by a kindly woman to get the hell out as we’d attracted the interest of the IRA. You see, all revolutionaries in those days, including provos, had a uniform of long hair and casual clothes, but being a Mod Situationist mine was cropped, plus I dressed formally  I've never worn jeans! This adventure ended when one day we were picked up by two stern men in the Bogside and instructed to follow them. We were escorted into a tower block flat. Here we were interrogated by a woman clearly suspicious about our motives. Luckily, I could cite good Roman Catholic affiliations like my parish priest back in South Ruislip  that seemed to swing it. But she told us to leave Derry immediately and not come back. Which we did. I had crassly supposed that the Northern Irish situation was akin to Paris ’68, but it was a lot more murderous and menacing.

In Fashion and Perversity you wrote, “Malcolm thought the rock industry was really about kids having sex and wanted to rub its nose in the fact.” To what extent would it be fair to say your own work re-articulates a Freudian view, in a sense: seeing consumer culture as evoking instinctual responses from the audience that civilization then represses?

That’s a bit of a loaded question!

It is.

Can you break it down a bit?

Yes. I guess I was putting a Freudian frame on the idea that the media industries invites people into situations of excessive desire or dark fantasies. In your work, it seems you blame the industry for that.

Well, it’s not the industry. It's wider. Definitely, consumer capitalism does exploit a Freudian agenda or a model of subjectivity which is fraught with forbidden desires, with impulses that escalate and can explode. That model of subjectivity permeates everything, including how fans see themselves and how stars see themselves, as repositories of limitless desire and spiraling appetite.

In a lot of fan studies that seems to be bracketed off, and people want to talk about fan creativity or fan community.

I think because a lot of the people doing that are fans and they want to justify what they do in terms of how they feel. My starting point was that I didn’t understand how fans feel, because it seemed to me to be a form of self-abasement. The only person I was possibly a fan of was Sartre. 

When I was in Paris, there was a café I would go to for my breakfast, and there was an American there, who I got talking to. I think he was from Yale French Studies and he was interviewing Sartre. As we got talking – I’d read loads of Sartre and was dead into him  he realized I was a big fan. So he said, “Would you like to meet him?” He saw him every afternoon in his apartment, where they were doing these interviews. I thought about it, and my instinctive feeling was no, and I said no. Then I wondered why not. I rationalized it to myself by saying, “I would have had nothing to say to him, except the fact that I just wanted to be in his presence.” I felt that would be abasing me and wasting his time. What I later realized was how complex fanhood was, because it wasn’t about self-abasement. That was a kind of trivial and dismissive approach. Though there was also a kernel of abjection in fanhood which some fan studies scholars find embarrassing. But it wasn’t simple, it wasn’t one dimensional. It was nuanced. It was complicated. There was also a sense of ambivalence within it, which interested me too.

There is so much going on there: admiration, inspiration, following, perhaps not following. Those ‘meet and greet’ situations  I was a fan of Howard Devoto; I was quite a big fan of Magazine for quite a while. They took a lot of ideas from punk and kept an artistic interest. I met Howard Devoto at one of those ‘meet and greet’ after parties, and I thought, “What can you say in two seconds to a person, anyway?”I just said, “Thanks for showing us what’s possible in music.” He chuckled. There’s nothing to say, in that sense.

Did you see the BBC programme that was made from Starlust? It was called ‘Fans,’ and made by a guy called Andy Batten-Foster.

Not the recent BBC4 one? Years ago. I’ve seen clips on YouTube.

You know Patricia, the Bowie fan, who fantasizes about murdering him, is in there saying the same thing, which got raised eyebrows. It’s got some good stuff. One of the things we did there with Batten-Foster, I was interested in what happens when fans meet stars  what actually does happen. We engineered some meetings, including one with a fan of Shaking Stevens. Exactly the same thing seems to happen. Either people feel tongue tied, or they don’t want to say anything, or they say they feel faint, or they do faint. If you think about it, all of those behaviours are about absenting yourself. You don’t want to be there any more. You spend all those endless efforts trying to meet the person, and when you’re in front of them, you have nothing to say. That really interested me: you evacuate yourself.

Why do you think that is?

I think it’s because there is nothing to say. You’re confronted with Shaking Stevens, who is this guy in a wooly jumper with a Welsh accent. A very homely guy. He’s no longer this series of images, layers of images that you’ve built up. He’s no longer the fantasy that you’ve projected on to your interior screen.

What I was interested in was the instant reaction. The other way you can see this was if you go onto a photo archive, you can find many photos of fans meeting stars like Prince or whoever. Often they’re crying. This is one thing fans do: they cry. They “burst” into tears. That weepiness goes back to the first fan mail, letters sent to Rousseau, which are full of weepiness and lamentation and intensely personal while being oddly detached. The only sense that I can make of that is: you don’t want this situation, this contact, after the dream, it’s painful.

It always reminds me of Artaud, the bodily fluids part of it.

Yes, that’s a good point.

In a book I’ve written called Understanding Fandom (2013), I talk about that: a fan meets Gregory Peck. He is shaking her hand, going, “How are you? Let me hear about you.” She just says, “I’m your biggest fan.” There seems to be a will to retain the relationship as a fannish relationship.

Yeah, that’s true.

Interviewing Elvis fans, one of the things that surprised me, a bit, was that often their fantasies were about things like being on the front row at concerts. It wasn’t about being Elvis, or married to him, or whatever it was. It was actually about being the best fan.

I’ve often felt that as well. Also, some of the most lurid, pornographic fan fantasies are actually about wanting to be someone’s friend. They don’t really want to screw these people, but they would like to get a phone call from them in the middle of the night  asking for advice or solace as a friend would. Reciprocity. Just a kind of easy friendship  a yearning for recognition or innocent love  in the way that the psychologist Alfred Binet called fetishism a form of love: ‘amorous fixation,’ he called it.


Yeah, affiliation. It’s love not sex that motivates them. It’s often couched as sex because in our culture sex is a reasonable  an available or plausible discourse for ‘amorous fixation,’ this obsessive intensity. It’s not considered reasonable or even sane to obsess over a star  to build a shrine to them, just because you just want to be their best friend.

That’s interesting. To what extent was The Secret History of KateBush an extension of the ideas that informed punk and your previous work?

It came out of  a prequel to it.

The Princess of Suburbia?

Yeah, The Princess of Suburbia.

I basically wanted to write something about music, and just wanted to do something different from punk. I looked around. She seemed to be very different from punk when I saw her. The first idea I had was to lampoon the form, and try and create a very lurid account of her that was designed to look like a concert programme. One that had gone horribly wrong, like EMI had had a paroxysm. It was printed on heavy glossy paper. That sold quite well, but we got legal problems.

Then I went on and did The Secret History with Music Sales, because she’d got quite established by then.

The ideas around it weren’t so much about punk, but I was still playing with the biography/hagiography form, playing with the logic of the form, and so forth. In the same way that the Pistols’ biog was about trying to deconstruct the form.

One reason behind Pistols’ book was, when punk started off, my most earnest desire was to finish my MA and I was spending a lot of time reading in the British Museum. I was doing something on Victorian photography and getting involved  sidetracked really, by reading newspaper stories. When I was reading some of these fascinating stories, I thought, “It’s a shame you can’t go behind them, and find out what’s behind these stories, because no one’s ever going to know.” So when the Pistols started to happen, I thought this is my opportunity to do something which will enable future generations to get behind this and see what was behind those headlines, and those shocking stories. This was one motivation I had.

Is that a possible project, insofar that the headlines then shape the myths that shape the story?

Of course  I was being a bit naïve there. They inform the behavior, and the outcome, and the trajectory of it as well.

Also your form there was kind of epistolary, wasn’t it? Almost, like, diarized?

Episodic. I was very much into docudrama and documentary movies. You got back then a lot of politicized documentaries, Brechtian type cut-ups and that sort of stuff. Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil (1968), or The Hour of the Furnaces (Solanas and Getino, 1968), about Latin America.

Going on from that, do you now think that subjectless biography is possible?

Subjectless? No. It’s more and more impossible, and there’s more and more elaboration of alternatives. Have you read that book about, what’s it called? About Dick Hebdige. It’s a kind of love story; there’s a woman and she’s in love with somebody called Dick. It’s I Love Dick (1997) by Chris Kraus, and it’s got a lot of double entendres, and it’s become quite successful. I was introduced to that book by someone at Kingston who told me about this book saying, “You know it’s about Dick Hebdige?” I didn’t know about that at all. Then I realized it’s an unusually candid book from an "academic." Fanhood isn’t something academics readily admit to, but it’s rife, as pointed out in a sharp essay by Alan McKee, "The Fans of Cultural Theory." Another book I discuss in class is Madame Depardieu and the Beautiful Strangers (2007), in which the film critic Antonia Quirke confesses her vocation was chosen so she can sit in dark rooms ogling and fantasizing about stars she fancies  which has messed up her real love life no end. So there are some really interesting reflexive stances available, more and more so.

Do you know Caroline Sullivan’s book on the Bay City Rollers, Bye Bye Baby (1999)?

Yeah, I do.

That’s quite an interesting book.

It’s a very good book.

The way that the power differences change towards the end of the book is fascinating.

And the way that it had an impact on her life, through the foundation of her career.

Yes, interesting. Can you tell us about the separation of the facts from the myths in terms of the story of the Kate Bush biography, because there’s lots of different things going round online that I’ve seen.

I’ve played around with that myself, because, for example, you know I wrote a book called Fandemonium.

I put a lot of true factoids in there, and, out of mischievousness, I put in a made-up factoid about a Kate Bush fan who was so obsessed that he collected her bath water. Then I read a straight-laced, American academic's account, where he po-facedly recited this as a fact. He even added to it that this fan had rented an apartment in the same block as Kate Bush  whereas she lived in a house with her brothers  and that the fan then bottled this water for sale. I thought: Well, why don't you check it? How can you just say that without double checking it? I got some kind of mischievous glee out of it, but do you see what I mean: it gets kind of entangled.


Do you know the Tom Kummer story?


Tom Kummer was a journalist who worked for a number of mainstream Swiss and German magazines and newspapers. All his colleagues were deeply jealous. He was a showbiz columnist and he got all these interviews with people like Sharon Stone, and all these top ranking stars: Brad Pitt. And he got all these secrets. Like Brad Pitt saying he had things hanging out of his nose, “sometimes for days,” and his then-wife saying that she wore transparent underwear to please him. Or Sharon Stone who said she was a virtual nymphomaniac who desired to "irritate men from wholly different classes of society," and had homosexual fantasies: "men will always remain pigs." Or Mike Tyson who confessed to Kummer that he enjoyed eating cockroaches, and quoted Hemingway and Einstein and Nietzsche… So colleagues were deeply jealous of Kummer, and this went on for years. He was so feted that a book had been published of his interviews with a glowing tribute by his editor. His Sharon Stone interview was turned into another book that is still available on Amazon. Eventually he was rumbled by one colleague after he interviewed that pop star who was married to the guy who killed himself, shot himself in the 1980s?

Not Courtney Love?

He interviewed Courtney Love, who gave the most amazing interview, and even though she’s pretty whacky, you’d think she wouldn’t have said stuff like, "Minotauruses are eating the genitals of the moon," "All my poems are on fire!" and, "There are seagulls on the Riviera, slurping ice-cooled gin and tonics." One colleague got suspicious and she went back over Kummer’s interviews. She realized that what he’d been doing was pillaging other people’s interviews, cobbling them together, which is normal journalistic practice, and then completely inventing stuff. Also, inventing the fact that he’d been there on his own with these celebs, which he wasn’t.

He was rumbled and disgraced. Everyone had really red faces. He’s since gone to LA, where he’s a tennis coach. A film was made about him, called Bad Boy Kummer (Gimes, 2010).

It’s in German, but you can find it with British subtitles. I thought, that’s a great example of the fact that stardom is an artefact. In one interview, after he was found out, he said, “So what? I’m a gonzo journalist. This is postmodernism. It’s a different 
 new, territory.”

In a sense, he was pursuing your project further than you.

Yeah  because who cares what these people really said? What also fascinated me was that the people behind these business enterprises like Brad Pitt had never objected. They never said, “No, he didn’t meet them. He didn’t go down to so-and-so’s house in LA and hang out for two days with them.” It’s as if there’s a level of celebrity discourse where just as what’s public fuses with what’s private, what is true or plausible is irrelevant, has no purchase. A realm of fantasy and “fake news.” Kim Kardashian is the final destination maybe of Karl Kraus’ observations about the corrupting seductions of newspaper-speak.

Returning to that kind of extension of stereotyping of fandom into the public sphere, did you ever have an ethical sense of, maybe this is damaging to fans?

To fans? How do you mean? I don’t have an obligation to fans, I don’t think.

What’s interesting to me is that when people reviewed your books, they talked about the Barry Manilow fan.

Which one?

The one who said that she wouldn’t sleep with her own husband.

Yeah  the thing is about those fans is that you have to read it with a pinch of salt, and realize they are acting out fanhood, aren’t they? That’s one thing I try to stress, that people aren’t gripped by fanhood. They decide to be fans. There is agency there.

There must be a sense in which people are using fandom as a social alibi for eccentric behaviour.


Going back to the stories and things, there was one I read about you by Stephen Wells. Did you see that one?


Yes, something like: Fred worked for EMI, and then Kate Bushed ended up having an affair with him?

Ah, yeah  me and Swells had a kind of duel! He was a friend of mine before he went to America. We would wind one another up with emails and preposterous stories and so on. I think that was possibly debris of that. There were loads of them, but they didn’t all find their way online.

But they were very entertaining.

He would make up things about me, and I would make up things about him.

I thought I was going to meet Aleister Crowley. I’m kind of disappointed! I think I’m going to have to write a book called, Stalking Fred Vermorel.

Oh, you are talking about the Satanic thing? When Kate Bush supposedly had my baby and it turned out to be Satan? Swells was kind of stalking me, and I was stalking him back. In revenge for that Satan story I claimed he’d been b***ered by the NME editor over a photocopy machine. He was delighted! You know he was an NME writer?

He’s dead now, isn’t he?

Yes, he died about ten years ago in America.

You enrolled at the Polytechnic of Central London when it ran the only course on mass media in the country. What did you learn, in those early days of media studies?

That was a great course, because they didn’t know what they were doing. So they were sort of making it up as they went along. It was just up the road from the BBC, Broadcasting House, so we had a lot of input from Charles Parker, who was great influence. There were some good people on there: Paddy Scannell, Roger McNally. They were kind of inventing the curriculum – it was the only course of its kind at the time, so it was kind of disparate. A third of it was practice in studios. A third of it was theory, supposedly, of media, which didn’t exist at that time, except for some banal empiricist stuff from America, and a third of it was another academic subject. So you could do English or history. I chose to do history with McNally. So it was an interesting course.

With the theory thing, I had a number of disputes with them, because I went as someone supposedly sophisticated, with a Situationist background. I objected very strongly to the American communication theory thing. They did try and address that by bringing in a bit of semiology, and so on, but it was in its infancy. David Cardiff, mostly, was doing that. Do you know David Cardiff?

I think I’ve heard his name.

He didn’t write that much. He abandoned teaching to become a painter. He was the husband of Lynn Barber. A very nice guy. I think the thing that struck me about that course was that all the tutors were young, so we had a lot of contact with them. We would go drinking with them every night. Visit their homes. The classes were small. It was a really good course, despite itself, it didn’t have any reason to be good, but it just turned out to be really good.

And were there ideas from that time that stayed with you and informed your work?

Well, yeah. David Cardiff came from a psychology background, and he talked about psychoanalysis quite a lot. Although, I have to say, much of my formation was done before that. 

It was erratic and piecemeal. I was early addicted to public libraries and read The GoodSoldier Schweik alongside Just William and Biggles books.  That was the great thing about libraries in those days, before they got weeded and rationalized  and underfunded. The surreal juxtapositions browsing could bring up. There was no scrutiny or control. All you needed was a library ticket and you got the real deal: the actual words of Carl Gustav Jung on proper paper and thumbed and sometimes annotated by unknown strangers.  My father, who’d attended a science university in Paris was an amateur philosopher keen on Henri Bergson. When he found me reading Freud he advised me to “start at the beginning”  with Plato. So I borrowed Timaeus, which I enjoyed, but got bogged down in The Republic. 

Being maths-phobic I failed my 11 plus and went to an RC secondary modern which was a cut above other secondary moderns. In particular the English teacher there, Donald Young, took me under his wing and coached me through early “A” levels. He also encouraged me to read Lady Chatterly’s Lover, The Screwtape Letters and Raymond Williams. The plan was to transfer to Harrow Grammar school and then aim for Cambridge. Fortunately  or not?  my bus to school each day passed Harrow Art School where I got an eyeful of the dudes and belles lounging outside in the street, and then ten minutes later took me past the playground of Harrow Grammar, full of schoolboys in cadet uniforms marching up and down. The idea of putting on uniform terrified me even more than the idea of homework, so I chose art school. 

That was where my higher education started because at 16 and 17 you really take things in. The people at Harrow talked about Surrealism and Dadaism, Freud and Miró and sexual deviance. One gay third year student tried to groom me by giving me a biography of Rimbaud. I never succumbed but got in with a crowd who introduced me to London gay clubs like the Huntsman in Berwick Street. It was the vibe and the gorgeous lesbians with their dance moves and put downs that drew me there  I introduced Malcolm to the Huntsman. I did my first life drawing classes at Harrow  the nude female models were a culture shock  it was a rite of passage. Another big influence on me (as well as Malcolm) was the portrait painter, Theo Ramos, who tutored and befriended us. Theo had a Jackson Pollock in his Chelsea flat and was a mine of theory and anecdotes. He was disappointed when I gave up painting for writing.  After finishing my foundation year at Harrow I bummed about and haunted public libraries for about two years until I eventually went to Paris.  So I was kind of self-taught to an extent, before I went back into education.

The problem with being an autodidact is that you get opinionated and lack context. So I was lucky in my undergrad years to have tutors clued up enough to knock that out of me. With my MA at Sussex the thing felt like a finishing school for beautiful people, and after being based at 309 Regent Street the Sussex campus was parish pump. Later, I did a spell at the RCA – enrolled for a PhD which I never completed at the time, as the RCA is a wonderful employment exchange and I got too busy teaching. The Humanities seminars there, run by Lawrence Gane, were genial and controversial, plus I learnt how to teach by copying Chris Frayling’s lecturing style  a master class.

In your PhD commentary you talked about academic authors and trends that have attracted and repelled you. Can you summarize some of your thinking on different areas?

That’s such a big question. What was the context I said that in?

Just talking about people like Bourdieu and cultural studies.

Well, the cultural studies thing which at first excited me started to perplex me in the way that it got ossified at a certain point and people started to teach it by rote. Like chalking up on a board: What’s the difference between a signifier and signified? If you think about it, there’s no f***ing difference at all. They try and make out it’s something you can learn. When it got codified like that it became boring. Because originally it was a game; a bit like the Oulipo writers. 

Also I noticed it became circulated. It became rife in the NME. Then marketing people picked it up and so it became meaningless, to an extent. The idea of subcultures, for example, became diffused and diluted, and turned into a marketing scam, which it already was with punk, really, by that time. It didn’t appall me. It just didn’t interest me particularly.

I also noticed that cultural studies people weren’t out in the field; they spent most of their time theorizing on pretty tenuous material. Like Hebdige on punk: heavy on theory but based on what? A comparison I use in lectures is between Hebdige’s Subculture and Bourdieu’s Distinction. They were both published the same year. Bourdieu’s book is densely argued, but it’s based on a mass of empirical evidence. But where is the basis for Subculture  other than some subcultural tourism?

At that time, I was also very interested in cultural history, and I found most of the best cultural historians were Americans for one reason or another. So I was spending a lot of time reading them: the history of the cigarette, the cultural history of boredom, or whatever.

Right, sort of like material culture, and stuff?

Right, and sort of anthropology and ethnography based. I liked their approach because it was at least substantial and well researched. The French have a genius for being mysterious and abstract, but they can do it. When British academics take it on, it often falls flat. They’re just obtuse.

Too conservative?

They just don’t have that playfulness. They don’t understand that semiotics should be a playful thing. It’s like surrealism, more than a system. Well, I could be wrong about that; maybe it is a system.

Was ethnography part of the mix for you? Like the Chicago School?

Yeah, definitely  I came to the Chicago School quite late. I was interested in Franz Boas and Margaret Mead. Everybody was in those days.

It makes a lot of sense.

Sartre was an influence as well in the type of thing I took on. My original intention was to write fiction. I was very involved with reading fiction as an apprenticeship. Then I read Sartre sneeringly saying: Who wants to write fiction these days when you’ve got psychoanalysis? When you’ve got ethnography? When you’ve got all these marvellous ways of approaching reality, which is always stranger than anything anyone can make up. That’s always stuck with me. I always think, what people say and do, you can never beat it, so why make stuff up?

Tell me about existentialism. How did that inform what you were interested in?

It was just something that was around at the time – which shows my age, really  at the time everybody was thinking about Sartre and reading Sartre, and I read as much as I could. I also read Simone de Beauvoir, who I found a real education. Have you read her autobiographies? She wrote a series of biographies of her and Sartre, where she scrupulously detailed everything that they read, so I would use those as a reading list. I heard about Cesare Pavese from her, so I’d go off to the library and get a load of Pavese. Or Nelson Algren and Kafka or Merleau-Ponty, whatever. That was my education in a sense. But existentialism  it’s a very big subject, isn’t it?

It is. The more I read, the more I understand how pervasive existentialism was, particularly in the 1950s, the late 1950s.

Yeah  absolutely: 1950s to early 1960s. Then it started to fade when Foucault came on the scene.

There always seems to be something existentially doomed about rock stars and pop stars.


Which, kind of culminates in punk, in some ways, but then, as you’ve said yourself – Pete Doherty, or whoever – those roles are still being replayed.


From what I know, would it be fair to say that you were forwarding a kind of perverse potential in pop fandom, in a sense ‘punking’ fans, or had previous music already done that?

Well, I think previous music had already done it. I was trying to ascertain, to express, their thoughts and feelings. One thing that drove me with the Starlust project was that nobody had considered celebrity from the viewpoint of the consumers, the audience.

There was good material about how and why celebrity works from Orrin Klapp or Edgar Morin’s The Stars, and Boorstin’s The Image was a major contribution to that  The Image was plundered  by Debord for The Society of the Spectacle, and eventually led to Baudrillard’s insights. But Klapp and Boorstin were sometimes blinkered by a high-minded liberalism, and generally too, all these early studies were predicated on the charisma or the industry viewpoint  that there is something special, “star quality,” some magic, that is possessed by the star and beams out and penetrates the fan who is a more or less passive, and a simplistically grateful recipient. Plus at that time, everything that had been written about fans was, I felt, deeply trivial and patronizing. Nobody had really let them speak in their own voices. That’s one thing that I got from Parker: give them their voice. The only thing that troubled me was that sometimes, some of these people were pretty inarticulate. So I did sometimes have trouble in disassembling and reassembling what they said, so it made a kind of consecutive narrative. I always tried my best to be true to what the spirit of what they were saying was. It did worry me sometimes that maybe I was making it a little bit too pat. But mostly you didn’t have to do that. Patricia, who’d done that long interview about her Bowie fetish, it was almost like catharsis with her. It was like 'abreaction'  to use the analytical term. She just started, and she went on for about an hour and a half  I’ve still got the tapes – and she doesn’t stop. And she doesn’t stop, she doesn’t flinch, she doesn’t deviate, and she says all that stuff. It’s verbatim, what she said. We didn’t have any problem with that. We just transcribed it and put it out. Other people were the same. 

I don’t know if you remember: we didn’t use much of it, but there’s a fan there who was lucid dreaming. Marnie, we called her, after the Hitchcock character, because she didn’t want her name to be used. She was dreaming about Bowie. What happened was that we interviewed her, and she told us that she was dreaming about him. Because the dreams were so precise and vivid, we asked her then to start a dream journal, which she did do. It proved to be so good that we reproduced parts of it verbatim. I’ve still got that at home. There was tons more that we didn’t use, but those excerpts were brilliant. When I read that, I thought, well, Bowie couldn’t write anything like this, could he?

That registering of the fans creativity also connects to a kind of elitist conceit, in a sense, that the fans are more creative than the stars.

Yeah, I did have this motif that I used when people asked, when people were incredulous. Like Malcolm asked, “Why are you writing about fans?” I said, because fans are more interesting than stars. I could see his eyes going, “Oh  that’s a new one!” That was my mantra at the time: Forget the star, it’s the fan. It kept me going when people were saying, well, “What are you doing here?” You know.

You’re also a creative part of that, drawing on Hitchcock, and 

Of course  we are putting it together. We’re giving it a form, we’re giving it substance, and  as I said, sometimes what they were saying was so disconnected, because some of them were quite troubled. They would talk in bursts and then wander off. Then you would have to decide, do you want the wandering off stuff in there? Maybe we should keep some of it, to show that they’ve wandered off, but maybe we should trim it. So it’s an artistic decision, and that’s a bit worrying, but what can you do?

Also there’s a project of showing commonalities there, between what people say. One of the things that struck me is that people have different contents to their fantasies, and things, but there seems to be a similarity in their behavior.

Yeah  there was. That’s why I tried to break the fans down into three marketing categories: the Manilow type of category, the rock category  the Bowie category  and teen pop, which was Nick Heyward. We were lucky to get a lot of stuff on Heyward. We got masses of stuff from management offices and from fan clubs, and from advertising in the music press. At one time I advertised a telephone number in the NME where fans could leave messages.

My partner claims she’s in Starlust, as a Nick Heyward fan.

Could be. We got loads of stuff that we didn’t reproduce  stuff that was still rolling in after we published. From America, as well; we started to extend our tentacles to America and started to get stuff from there.

Did you know it was turned down to start with, Starlust? We were contracted to Constable. There was a woman there: a very nice woman, very helpful at the time, who gave us free rein. She was expecting a book that was packaged and narrated from a voice on high. One of the decisions I made early on was that this stuff was so interesting on its own terms, I’m not going to have my own voice, apart from this afterword that I put in there. I just wanted their voice.

We gave it to her in that form and she was a bit shocked, she didn’t know what to do, I think. So she left it on her desk and then she went on holiday. During her holiday, the managing director read it and blew his top. He said, “This is pornographic filth. There’s no way Constable is ever going to touch this stuff. We want our money back.” So we said, “Sod you. You’re not having your money back, but fine if you don’t want to publish it.” Then we went to Faber and Faber, and Pete Townsend, who was an editor at Faber tried to get them to publish it, because Townsend really liked it. They said, “No, it’s too filthy.” One of the things they always wanted was this voice above, saying, “It’s okay. There’s someone in control here. These fans aren’t really as dangerous or as worrisome as they might seem.” Do you know what I mean: the voice of sanity that guides you through? And I always resisted that. It was only then that we went to this rather trashy publisher –

WH Allen?

They said, “Whatever  we’ll do it.” Even then they tried to censor certain parts of it. There was a set-to in an editorial meeting when the sales director objected: "Look, I’ve got teenage daughters!"

The reason I’m smiling is that its sounds like a replay of the Pistols and the record companies.

I guess it was, yeah  I didn’t think of that.

In a way, I think a lot of your work is about exploitation. So what’s the place of agency in your understanding of music fandom?

Agency? You mean agency like self-will?

Yeah  the ability of individuals to make a difference.

I profoundly think, coming from an existentialist point of view, people are in control. They’re in charge, sometimes even when they act out madness or so-called addiction. In a kind of Laingian sense, they know they’re doing it. I do think it’s about agency. That’s one reason I wanted to give them their voice, and their way of saying things, and not corrupt it or dumb it down.

So for you the writing is part of the process of restoring agency?

Representing it, not restoring it.

Yeah  representing it. One of the things I took away from Starlust was that commonality of fan experience. Even though the fans were all different, they all had similar experiences.

They weren’t all fantasies. Don’t forget the groupie, and there were a few others we didn’t put in there, because it would have been a huge book otherwise. It was already about 100,000 words.

Have you ever thought of doing like an England’s Dreaming Tapes, like The Starlust Tapes?

I would have to get all my boxes out of storage, so I don’t know about that. What were you saying?

About agency.

Yes  I think that would be a bit of a pompous thing for me to claim  that I was ‘restoring.’ It was there to be found.

What I took away from Starlust was it was about the power of stardom. It one point elsewhere you described it as a ‘duet between the possessed and the non-possessed.’

That’s from a quote from the medievalist Peter Brown.

Yes – what interested me about that is that it’s also about power. People are mutually positioned. In my own work, I’ve explored that through totemism: that if lots of people pay attention to one person, they become a socially powerful person, particularly for the people who believe in their performance.

Yeah  I would agree with you. I had an argument with David Morley. David Morley wanted me to do a Starlust Mark 2, but about television viewers. That’s how I met him. He then became a tutor for the PhD I was doing at RCA at the time. Our argument was summed up when he declared to me, “Theory isn’t available to fans.” Because he wanted me to, again, insert that [narrator’s] voice in there. I really recoiled from that, because I thought, well, it’s their own theory. They are theorizing themselves through their expressions and behaviours.

To me, for example, Marnie is precisely what you’re saying about power. She talks about how Bowie takes her over, gets into her stomach, pulls out her entrails, paralyzes her, and she gets penetrated  by the beams of his gaze  well, that’s a kind of theory about power. That’s a game she’s playing, a performance, and she’s articulated that in a vivid way. She doesn’t need to talk about Adorno and Marcuse. I don’t think it would bring anything to the conversation even if she did, but maybe I’m wrong about that.

Another example would be Julie, witnessing fans acting out the final Ziggy concert at Hammersmith. She’s clear about how the experience transformed and certified her own private fanhood into a public arena. But she hardly needs me to say that for you to get it.

There’s a ritual that scholars (and students) should tick a box called “analysis” or “critical analysis” when they write up research. Commentary is expected. But commentary  analysis, can be embedded, implicit, in an encounter or an interview. Also relevant to that are the lessons of phenomenology  such as, for example, the argument about whether there can be anything “behind” or “inside” a description  qualities that can be hived off or recapitulated or rescued from description. At least, from “thick description.” Also, the critique of “depth” and supposedly hidden or masked meanings: whether there are levels of cultural phenomena or whether what you see is what you get; that’s all there is. I’m also struck by how when Barthes describes something  Einstein’s brain or Japanese cuisine, the “theory” is luminous, but when he tries to account for himself, to do theory itself, when he becomes Dr Semiotics, he falters and can get tiresome, even silly. In the same way that psychoanalytical case studies can die a death when the patient stops talking and the analyst starts pontificating.

There’s a lot of complexity here, insofar that you’re choosing that, and you’re choosing to give her a name, and you know some of those theories yourself.


Equally, the culture she’s in; at one point you almost say, “Well, actually, Freud’s in the air.”

Yes. There’s a theorization going on there. There are vacancies, aren’t there? There are niches in our culture which you can fill, performative spaces, like creating a shrine, experiencing a kind of mystical appropriation, a magical encounter, a fantastical intimacy, and so on. All of these vestiges and ghosts of archaic belief systems then become part of the pilgrimage of fanhood. In the same way, popularized psychoanalysis has disseminated plausible roles and motives, a model of desire, a symbolism appropriated and customized by fans. Do you see what I mean?

Kind of.

They’re theoretical spaces, is what I mean – opportunities to choose and assign certain behaviours. Precedents or roles.

You mean that the power dynamics of stardom and fandom set them up as possibilities and that people can then occupy them?

Exactly. They become hijacked or customized from redundant belief systems like the rituals and beliefs of pop mysticism like Lourdes, or the “symptoms” of classic hysteria. It’s tempting to suggest that fans are hysterics in the mould of Charcot’s patients, and the symptomology suggests that: shrieking, crying, expansive gestures, stiffened limbs, contortions, erotic displays, involuntary urination  you can tick all those off and think, well this is a modern form of that. But hysteria in that sense was always a cultural, not a medical condition. You can see that by the fact that it suddenly disappeared, both as expressivity and diagnosis, from medical waiting rooms around the turn of the 20th century. But that seductive bundle lingered in the culture linking up like a voodoo collage along with erotomania and mystical union or divine love, until it found a new medium, a new raison d'être, which was fanhood.

I was intrigued when you put elsewhere that in a sense boy band members or pop stars are new faces on the roles.


I think there is a certain amount of truth to that, but times changes as well, don’t they?

Yeah  I wonder what the internet is doing as well and social media. It hasn’t changed things, I don’t think, but it’s made them more interesting. One of the things I talk about in lectures is Taylor Swift and her strategy of appropriating fan behavior. Have you seen that video she’s done when she packs up Christmas presents for fans?

She’s supposedly filming herself doing it, wearing a Santa Claus hat, and it cuts to the fans receiving the presents, unpacking them and reading personal messages from Taylor Swift. They’re of course all in floods of tears, weeping and gasping and shrieking and so on. It’s all filmed cod-amateur, low tech and wobbly, as if from a fan’s perspective, like a fan art video. I thought, how exploitative can you get? But she’s playing that game. Co-opting a stereotype of fanhood into marketing and promo as an extension of her act, an imprint of her persona. I don’t think you could have played that before fan studies / fan culture  in its form now  had existed.

Well, certainly, if you go back to Elvis, the fans were always involved in the representation somehow. The use of social media perhaps adds a new kind of realism.

Yes  instant gratification and fantasy.

One of the things that troubles me about some of the writing on social media is some people are quite close to saying that the relationship between fans and stars, just because fans can have a more ‘equal’ relationship on social media with stars. I think that’s nonsense, personally.

Yeah, I think it is: follow the money, and the power and the opportunity. It’s not the same, is it?

Do you know what Miley Cyrus has done? I’ve heard that at some of her lives shows she actually takes a camera and puts it in the audience, and gets female fans to kiss each other, and things like that.

Does she? That’s interesting. I could use that in a lecture. I use other examples of star strategies and accounts  like Eminem’s video for 'Stan,' which at least tries to confront the fan’s predicament rather than obfuscating or appropriating it. Though the ending is a cop-out!

But not many artists would talk about this. Peter Gabriel was an exception. He’s an interesting guy because he’s one of the few rock stars who reads and archives their fan mail. He gave us access to it. Also, have you ever seen that thing where he throws himself backwards into the audience and they carry him round, and put him back? ‘Lay your hands on me,’ he’s singing while that’s going on. I thought that was fascinating. I interviewed a fan who was in the crowd, who then wrote in graphic detail what it felt like to be touching the man himself  the electricity, the feel, the sensualism…

It’s complete totemism.

Yeah, at the end of the day, he’s deposited back on stage and he’s the one who’s coining the money and having a life, the celebrity lifestyle.

This is the interesting thing: what the fans are getting out of it and what he’s getting out of it are two completely different things. One of the things that I think is interesting in recent times is how fan dedication, in a sense, is being monetized, so that you’ve got almost like ‘club class fandom’ where middle aged, rich people can buy into fan dedication, in different ways.

Yeah, that’s true.

Do you hold much truck with explanations of fandom as a ‘pseudo-religious’ activity? I know you’ve talked about ‘consumer mysticism’ before, but what do you feel are the limits of the comparison?

Well, that analogy often comes up. You can see that in La Dolce Vita (Fellini, 1960), can’t you? Fellini is playing with that idea right at the very end. The vision of the Virgin and the chanting, hypnotized pilgrims are analogous to the American star and her enthralled public and paparazzi. The way I would see it is that - again, there are certain spaces  images and narratives – abandoned by mystical cults and mystical behavior that you can choose to occupy. It can then seem appropriate – even scripted or inevitable – to make a shrine, to collect things, to make pilgrimages to sites. To pray, to invoke. To obsess and fret, and finally to pursue and to stalk. Remember Morin: “Every god is created to be eaten.” Do you see what I mean? It’s not so much that they’re being mystics. It’s that they’re re-cycling mystical modes of behavior.

And discourses.

And discourses, exactly, to express and enact their fanhood.

I can see that to a certain extent, certainly with discourses. Sometimes I feel that it is for want of a better mode of explanation. People just don’t have another frame; they want to get across how exciting and how magical things are.

Exactly. Another discourse they use is pornography  sex  because to be rabidly interested in someone may seem a bit weird. So you dress it up as a sexual frenzy, like, “I want to screw Barry Manilow.” Well, they don’t really, and they know he’s gay anyway. It is a discourse, as you are saying.

It becomes a way to talk to each other.

And to interact with one another, and they can do it in a ribald way.

Like a kind of hen party?

Yeah, exactly. Do you remember in Starlust there’s a Mani-gasm tape?


Which is a transcript of the real thing. When they play those at parties, they just roll around on the floor laughing, because they think it’s so funny.

Ironically, this is what people like Henry Jenkins would call ‘fan productivity,’ that they’re creating something there, but we need to put that in the context of power to see how it works.

Yes, because again it’s subversive. One thing we found with Manilow was that the Manilow fan club and the management wouldn’t have anything to do with us. They didn’t want us to speak to fans, in fact they tried to stop us, because they knew that they would be ribald and subversive, which is what they were. In the BBC movie they made on Starlust – there’s quite a lot of subversive Manilow fans in there, references to Barry’s willy and dancing with his effigy.

What do you mean by subversive in that context?

They subvert the seriousness of the enterprise. They subvert the idea that they’re in it for the music, because they’re definitely not. They’re in it for other things, otherwise unnamable things, and numinous experiences.

Well, I often find that idea  that, “Well, this is about the music and anybody else who is into this for a different reason is doing it wrong”  that seems to be a limiting discourse which people put out there, sometimes, to police things. So if we prize resistance in the audience, and don’t find subversive fantasies, should we be disappointed?

No. I think you just take things as they come. You’re not out there to pursue, I think, an agenda, are you?  Well you are, but the agenda is to find out what people say and how they behave and feel. That’s always surprising to me, and refreshing. What I was interesting to me, when doing this true crime project, was finding people from the 1950s to talk about that decade - which I can only dimly remember, and from a child’s perspective. They said some astonishing stuff to me, stuff that I could never have made up. That was really enlightening. So that’s the reason to do it.

In Starlust you drew on a range of academic and popular sources to create a hidden theory of fandom that skewered the culture industries, in some ways: putting fans first, contesting some stereotypes, but arguably, I think, perpetuating some ideas from mass culture criticism. Would you do anything differently in light of lessons learned and theoretical developments since Starlust?

Since Starlust was released? Well, I’ve read more Bourdieu now and would incorporate his notions about social and cultural capital, and “habitus,” as a dimension of how I approached the fans and did the research. I’d incorporate the lessons of Michael Billig’s Talking of the Royal Family (1991)  interviews as staged bouts of rhetoric which are multi-faceted and oblique.

Starlust was a product of a particular moment of fan culture. It was pre-Diana’s death and the Diana funeral, and all that marked a transition where the practices and appetites of fanhood became generalized. In some ways too, the book seems awfully dated now, the way that the fans write: all the handwriting, and the curly handwriting, and all that, which interested me at the time  the modes of communication. It was also pre-internet, before email and Twitter and Instagram. That’s a development I explore when lecturing  the first pop fan base I reckon was made by the Internet was Hanson  because Hanson’s emergence accidentally coincided with the ability of fans to create their own sites, which they did with profusion  most have long since gone  though I screen-grabbed some. The promotion of Hanson online was done by the fans, the management had no clue. It was also unrestrained and, by modern standards, dodgy: rife with erotic musings and imagery, some of it bordering on paedophilia. 

So I’d have to radically rethink. I’d also have to be aware of online etiquette and sensibilities. Some time ago, I got into hot water because I sent out online questionnaires, which don’t work. That also angered people, when they got unsolicited emails, which I can understand. It’s a different thing when you get a letter through the post or a phone call. It’s somehow less intrusive, so all of those things have to be taken into account. I don’t know how I’d go about it now, but I’d have to devise different strategies, because the institutional structures are different now. The management companies are also more wary, because they understand what you could draw out of it now.

And then the online forums would probably claim ownership of the words.

Exactly. People know about copyright and  yes  all of that stuff. It would be quite problematic. It’s a bit like, I always think, have you ever seen those Fred Wiseman documentaries? He was the first ‘fly on the wall’ documentarist. When you look back on those you realize they’re incredibly raw. It’s because people didn’t realize what they were going to look like. Now everybody knows, exactly. They manufacture and massage their appearance. They produce themselves. You’d have to take all that into account.

Some people are calling that ‘deep mediation’ now: everybody’s got their camera phones.

Yeah  selfies.

Yes. In 2008, you mentioned that you had material for a sequel to Starlust. Is that still on the agenda?

That was partly triggered by Morley’s interest, but then I didn’t pursue that. I’ve still got a load of material. The sequel was the other side of the coin, because we interviewed a lot of managers and psychiatrists, and people  fan club managers and journalists and so on  who weren’t particularly fans. I was going to construct more of a narrative from that, but I probably will use that material at some point.

Good  it will be interesting to see when it sees the light.

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