For a man whose job is to stay one step ahead of the music industry, has celebrity anecdotes galore, and still attends the best gigs around, Mark Beech hasn’t let it go to his head. “I am a dinosaur” he assures me, as I run over a few pre-interview plans. This is a critic who is now one of the most read in the world, has just released his third book, and still dreams of that elusive interview with Bowie. If that’s what Beech calls being a dinosaur, then count me in.
Once an Oxford student, now a renowned rock critic: a graduate of St Catherine’s College, Beech’s degree is a surprising world away from his dream job. I ask what was behind his choice of PPE, a little perplexed as I am. “It was one of those things I very nearly changed,” he explains, “I’ve always been interested in culture and popular culture […] there’s nothing that quite fitted that.” Closer to his love of music was the band comprised of him and a few friends, Marius and the Firebombers. “We were trying to think of the most ridiculous portentous name we could,” he laughs. Gigs included headlining in the JCR, a place Beech recalls “could get very out of hand”. Bottles were once thrown at Marius and the Firebombers, which he takes less as an insult and more as a proof of some degree of musical status. Beech’s future in performing however was not to be. “Coming off stage I realised, ‘I’m not going to be a rockstar, but I can write!’”
From his first concert coverage of Adam Ant at Oxford’s New Theatre, Beech has largely been there, done it, and got the t-shirt. He’s met musicians and singers galore, so I have high expectations for some off-the-wall anecdotes. Things look promising the moment I ask for any unusual or funny stories. “I’ve actually got a list of some of the odd things I’ve done,” he replies, and promptly begins to search around his office for it. There is an actual list of odd celebrity dealings. There are that many.
After a while the sound of rustling paper ceases. Beech launches into a story of Adam Ant and his dog, which he deems “quite funny”. “[The dog] hijacked our television interview,” he says exasperatedly, “it started to try to eat the microphone.” Not only are its snores audible on the interview recordings, but it then gassed the crew out of the room. “The dog decided to let off the most enormous fart!” Beech laughs. He tells me I won’t want to put the fart ending in the piece. I assure him that I most certainly do. Another one of Beech’s memorable “claims to fame” is a simple but priceless chance meeting with Amy Winehouse. “I went into the Hawley Arms […] on one of the days when she was actually serving”. Musical talent though she may have been, her serving apparently left a lot to be desired. Almost fondly he remembers receiving “about a triple gin and tonic, and the J2O went all over the place”.
Not every celebrity meet has gone so well though, and Beech has his fair share of bad experiences. An interview with Morrisey turned sour rapidly, a disappointing outcome for a man who has “always been a huge fan”. Simply having asked the singer ‘Do you like performing live?’ Beech got an unexpectedly haughty response. “He was quite unpleasant – ‘I don’t perform, I never perform, it’s not an act for me’. […] The interview very nearly ended after a few minutes because of that.”
Does Beech ever find himself, as many of us would, starstruck by the calibre of musician he frequently encounters? The answer is a resounding no. “You just have to get on with it,” he says decisively. “I don’t think I’ve ever really been starstruck.”
There must be a formula to becoming so popular a critic whose work is shared all over the world, some secret to doing certain things a certain way. Beech doesn’t think so. “I just try to do what I can do […] be honest. [When] listening to a record – do I like this?” There are definitely things to avoid however, and Beech isn’t a fan of pretentious reviews, but prefers to keep it simple and truthful. “Some critics are like ‘this is a great album, you readers won’t understand why but it is a great album,’” he says carefully, admitting he does know people of a similar attitude.
All You Need Is Rock, Beech’s third release, is a collection of selected reviews and articles from his Bloomberg column over the past decade. He’s worked eighteen years with Bloomberg, and has been a part of everything, from arts and culture management, to news editor, to head of the graphics department. His music column though is where he wants to stay firmly put for the foreseeable future, and All You Need Is Rock is a firm testament to that commitment. “I’ve been doing this for quite some time,” Beech says when I ask about the reason behind the book. “They’re all over the place basically,” he explains. “I really wanted to have it in one easy place to read.”
Whereas “many rock books are very snobby, writing only about critically acclaimed artists”, All You Need Is Rock features a wide variety of names. The opening article is Beech’s favourite piece: ‘Imagine there’s no shooting – Just John Lennon at 70’. A self-proclaimed John Lennon fan, Beech describes the former Beatle as a “flawed individual but also a total genius”. “It may be right it may be wrong,” he goes on to say. It’s not complete accuracy that Beech sought when he wrote it – it is more of a love letter to a great musician – but its insight has received support from the highest of places: “It generated a response from Yoko Ono, she went on to agree with many of the predictions.” Praise indeed.
Beech also takes pride in his predictions, including those of Lady Gaga’s future in music. “I was saying like ‘watch Lady Gaga she’s going to be big’.” Naturally pleased to be “before the curve”, and with a decade’s worth of critical experience behind him, I ask if he has any current hopes and predictions for new musicians. “I’ve been pushing La Roux for ages […] I like her new album a lot,” he begins, and then conveys a desire to see Jon Regen (“I think he could do well.”) and Alexa De Strange (“Really good, sound a bit like The Darkness. I’d be very disappointed if they didn’t make it.”) make it big. Unfortunately he can’t always anticipate the sometimes unpredictable taste of the public ear. Singer Eileen Rose he laments as having “never really quite made it” but maintains that she should have been a rising star.
Aside from the all-knowing gift of musical foresight – with a few hiccups – there are certainly perks of being a popular music critic, and for the most part it’s the free albums. Continually being sent CD’s, from well-known voices to obscure fringe bands, Beech receives roughly 1000 each year. However the real question is whether he in fact keeps them all. “Yes I do […] even the ones I don’t like,” he tells me. “I’ve got five copies of Ed Sheeran’s X!” It seems like the ideal set-up for easy present giving, no buying and no fretting necessary. Stamped and given strict confidentiality agreements though, Beech will still have to spend time thinking of gifts this Christmas. Instead, every CD is stored and Beech has found a new use for them. “I tweet a lot of bad album covers!”
There is talk of another book to follow All You Need Is Rock, “hopefully if this goes well”, and Beech estimates its release as “sometime next year”. A potential title, appropriately enough, is 10000 CDs Later.
So it looks like being a world renowned rock critic is one of the best jobs out there. Free CD’s, access to sold out and exclusive gigs, anecdotes with farting dogs… It has a lot of upsides, but as Beech warns, “sometimes it’s not as glamorous as it sounds”. It is too easy to forget there are requirements and demands attached to the role; Beech has to maintain a critical approach and can’t forget his job when rocking at a concert, something many of us would associate with a chance to let our hair down.
Even that isn’t much of a compromise in the big scheme of things, and it is obvious Beech loves his job. There will always be demand for new music and new artists, so it is unlikely he’ll be struggling for subject matter any time soon. There is also the elusive dream of the one that (so far) got away. “I’ve never interviewed Bowie, never done a one to one,” Beech says wistfully. “I don’t know if that’ll ever be probable.” Having once been in New York at the same time as Bowie was living there, Beech got a tip off from the studio too late. There’s still hope though. “If he’s a fan of my writing and reads this, you know,” Beech laughs. Well, if you are reading this Bowie; you have an interview to arrange.