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A Life Philosophic

The strange smells of success

The best album you’ve probably never heard?

A few weeks ago, I was reading an article about the best debut novelists in 2018 when one name seemingly leapt off the page and slapped me around the face. The accompanying photo and the article itself confirmed that the hot new writer in question was indeed the same man who I had interviewed in one the most interesting writing projects I have ever undertaken.

The seeds of this feature article were sown way back on the late 1980s. When I was an undergraduate, I had done some work experience at the Reading Evening Post. After my week was up, I continued to contribute extremely bad and ill-informed record reviews. Every week I’d cycle out to the paper’s offices the other side of town and pick up the week’s vinyl. We never got the really big releases, only the second-tier stuff the record companies needed plugging even in provincial newspapers.

Most of the records soon found themselves in charity shops, which didn’t so the bands or the shops much good. But two stood out as superior to the rest, so much so that in later years I re-bought them on CD. They were the debut releases of The Senators and King Swamp, both packed with great tunes, performed with character, well-produced on the Virgin label and with classy sleeves. Somehow, however, their talent hadn’t been rewarded. The Senators released two more albums before disbanding, King Swamp one.

Many years later, over a decade ago, I found myself wondering: what must it feel like to get that close the hitting the big time yet missing? Getting a contract with a major label was every band’s dream but in these cases it had marked the high point, not the start of something bigger. I pitched the idea to the Guardian’s magazine and they went for it.

I tracked all seven members of both bands down. Some had gone on to be successful in the music business in other ways. King Swamp guitarist Dominic Miller became Sting’s right-hand man, drummer Martyn Barker a respected session musician and composer, while for bassist Dave Allen Swamp was just one stage in a long musical career. Keyboardist Steve Halliwell had gone into teaching, while lead singer Walter Wray gave up his macho vocals to become a soft-spoken website designer. From The Senators, Jim Kitson became an actor while his brother Mick became an English teacher in Galway.

The story warmed my heart because there was very little bitterness, and no-car crashes, just a few licked wounds. The moral of the story was a simple but powerful one: what really mattered for all seven was the music, the creativity. As long as you can find a way of keeping on doing that, or whatever it is that moves you, you have succeeded as much as you need to, nice though it always is to get recognition and riches.

I loved the piece, but the Guardian editor did not. It was spiked, without even the opportunity to rework it. I was told it was due to crossed-wires, that they thought they were getting something about fame, not missing out on it. Perhaps there is some truth in this, but I have always suspected the real reason is that they expected more heartache, more breakdowns, and that the more upbeat truth was simply a less interesting narrative, at least from their point of view.

I never did publish the piece but fittingly, I consider it one of my most successful. Meeting wonderful, diverse people and learning from them is one the best reasons I have for writing. The process is the real reward, getting paid a means to that end. At the same time, it is as lovely coda to the story that one of its protagonists – Mick Kitson – is finally getting the recognition that all seven deserved.

So here’s to Mick, and also to the countless other creatives for whom sustaining their creativity is more than achievement enough.

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