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:: Spotlight :: Appetite For Destruction - Interview with author Mick Wall

By: Justin Donnelly

In his thirty years as a journalist, Mick Wall has lived the life that many budding music journalists can only dream about. Through his work with magazines such as Kerrang! (1983 - 1991), Metal Hammer (1992 - 1993), RAW (1993 - 1995), Classic Rock (1998 - 2004) and Mojo (2004 - 2006), Wall has travelled all over the world, conducted interviews with some of the biggest names to grace the hard rock/metal scene, and earned a reputation as one of the UK’s premier music journalists.

Although still contributing to a variety of magazines across the globe on a part time basis, and hosting a couple of radio shows in his spare time, most of Wall’s time these days is spent writing books, with his most successful and critically acclaimed effort being ‘When Giants Walk The Earth: A Biography Of Led Zeppelin’, which emerged in 2008.

Although it’s hardly what you would call an official follow-up to his Led Zeppelin tome, Wall has managed to find the time to compile a new book in the form of ‘Appetite For Destruction: The Mick Wall Interviews’. As the title would suggest, the book is a collection of interviews conducted by Wall from 1985 through to 1995 with some of the biggest names in the hard rock/metal scene.

With the book finally hitting the shelves, I decided to catch up with Wall in Oxfordshire to find out what it was like being a journalist through what is undoubtedly hard rock/metal’s classic era (The late ‘80’s/early ‘90’s), working alongside his co-conspirator/friend Ross Halfin and just where the idea for such a book came from.

“‘Appetite For Destruction’ is essentially an expanded version of my book ‘Star Trippin’: The Best Of Mick Wall 1985-91’, which came out in 2006 in celebration of Kerrang!’s twenty-fifth anniversary. ‘Star Trippin’’ was a self published effort, low key release with a very modest print run. You could only buy it via my website, and each copy was signed by me. It was never meant to be anything other than a memento really for some people that enjoyed those stories the first time around. We only did a few hundred copies, and they all went. I thought there would be hundreds of these things sitting in a garage somewhere in years to come. But lo and behold, they all went. And people bought them from all over the world. I really didn’t expect that there would be so many people interested in the book. But the idea to re-release the book came about when my editor asked if he could get a copy. As it so happens, I only had two copies left. One thing led to another, and eventually, ‘Star Trippin’’ became a kind of springboard to a more expanded version, which is now called ‘Appetite For Destruction’. Originally, ‘Star Trippin’’ had sixteen stories, along with introductions to all the stories. This new version now has thirty-one stories, and I’ve modified and improved some of the introductions that had originally appeared in ‘Star Trippin’’ to bring them up to date. I think it made them slightly better in my view, because I realise now that I’m writing for a much wider audience, especially given the unexpected success of ‘Star Trippin’’. And the codas for all of the stories are all brand new as well. There were no codas in ‘Star Trippin’’. Unlike ‘Star Trippin’’, ‘Appetite For Destruction’ is now something that everybody can get a hold of. I think this version is edited better, presented in a much more appealing package and it’s more than twice as long. I’m very happy with how it’s turned out.”

While the stories themselves are timeless, and the introductions provide a nice build up for the story that ensues, it’s actually the codas where Wall indulges in some retrospective and personal insight based on the stories. But while some of the codas reflect on the subject matter with words of warmth and good will, there are others when Wall isn’t afraid to speak his mind.

“These days, in complete contrast to the time when those stories were written, I almost care nothing about what people might think of what I have to say. Obviously there are exceptions. There are certain people that I have a deep regard for, and therefore I don’t want to insult them or offend them in any way. But by and large, I just feel that if you’re honest and say what you sincerely feel, without necessarily coming over too heavy about the whole thing, you should be allowed to express your own opinion. In those days though, it was a completely different ball game. Almost every artist that is in that book is someone that I would have interviewed at least seven, eight, nine or maybe ten times, whether it is for radio, television, or perhaps in preparation for future books. The key in those days was always access. I would interview Iron Maiden three times a year, and the only way you keep getting welcomed back was because they felt comfortable with you. They felt they could trust you. In other words, you weren’t going to go away and write the kind of story that they would absolutely hate. And again, there are always exceptions. But by and large in those days, I tried very hard to make it seem that I didn’t care. But really I did care, because I wanted to go back and do more stories with the same people later. At the time, there was no internet or satellite television (at least in the UK), and Kerrang! was the only game in town for groups like Metallica, Iron Maiden, Guns N Roses and Bon Jovi. So they were always pleased to see you as well. There was a great sort of camaraderie, a kind of ‘us against the world’ thing. It was simply more fun to be on the team, than not. I didn’t want to be that guy from the NME that thinks everyone is a f**king idiot, and all the music sucks. I loved that whole world, because they were such personalities, and often they had such great stories to tell. And of course, you travelled in style. It was everything I wanted rock ‘n’ roll to be as a kid. But I kind of got sick of that in the end, especially around the turn of ‘90’s. These days, I’m in a different place, and I try hard not to give two hoots what anyone thinks, and really try the best I can to say what I really mean.”

Having conducted so many interviews throughout the years meant that selecting stories for the new and improved ‘Appetite For Destruction’ was always going to be a hard choice. But despite the challenge, Wall’s selection criteria for the book were really quite simple.

“Originally with ‘Star Trippin’’, I simply decided to select one story each from the biggest artists. You have to remember that it was done very much as a side project. At the time that we did it, I really didn’t put a lot of thought into it. It was a very small thing, put together by a very small amount of people. It wasn’t like I had any intention of making any money from it. Consequently, we actually lost money on the book. But originally, my only thought was, ‘Hey, let’s put in one Black Sabbath, one Deep Purple, one Guns N’ Roses and one Metallica story. And that’s what I did. I just added what I hoped would be some of the more interesting stories to others out there. When it came to adding stories to ‘Appetite For Destruction’, there were quite a number of stories that I really wanted to add in there. The problem was that there were some that I simply couldn’t. The simple reason for that is that I don’t have the original manuscripts. These things were written on typewriters. And in those days, we had absolutely no idea that in twenty years there would be any interest or value in them at all. I mean I would bash this stuff out, hand it in to the editor and off it would go. I wouldn’t even make a copy of it for myself. So I had to literally try scanning the stories in from the original magazines. Now the thing about Kerrang! is that through most of the ‘80’s, and again, before computers, a lot of it was hand designed. You know, with tracing paper and projectors. And they used to use a lot of background tones. You couldn’t read the damn thing, let alone scan it. There’s a great interview I did with Rob Halford of Judas Priest which I so wanted in this book. But when I found the original, the opening double page spread - I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was unbelievable. It was yellow words, on a pink background! (Laughs) I stood there in my office, with the thing by the window, and I could barely read the thing. I thought, ‘To hell with this’. You couldn’t scan it that’s for sure. And then I thought about hand typing the thing in, because I really wanted this story. There were a few stories like that, where you would get a few pages that were scannable or readable, but then you would come across some that would have something like a beach scene, which was all sea and sand, clouds and people in colourful outfits, and you can’t read the bloody things. So there were plenty that I couldn’t use for that reason. Funnily enough, some of the best things I wrote weren’t always on the most famous people. Some of the best interviews I did were on groups that weren’t really first division in terms of fame. Actually, we ended up doing some really great stuff, stuff on groups like Thunder, The Quireboys and Dogs D’Amour. Some of my favourite works of those days went into those stories. Take for instance the ‘Rock In Rio’ story in ‘Appetite For Destruction’. There was actually a ‘Rock In Rio II’ story that was set some six years later. That for me is as easily as interesting and probably more interesting that the original feature. But you can not get that damn thing down onto a scanner or a computer. You would literally have to sit there and type it all in. And it was a three part story. The thing is like ten thousand words. And the thing is that I’m not really a typist. If I was a proper typist, I could sit there and have it done in no time. I’ve honestly had a go at some of these things, but they were simply beyond me. So the criteria was - can I scan it? Is it any good? What the hell was I thinking when I wrote it? And from those, I tried to pick the best of these stories.”

All the stories have their own stories themselves, but upon reading the Poison story, it’s mind blowing to find that Wall had managed to salvage a complete story out of what could only be described as an interviewer’s worst nightmare.

“That was a gift from the gods really. You write endless stories about how great a band are, and how great it was and all the interesting things that happened, but the one everyone wants to hear about is the one you said was a total nightmare and where everything that could have gone wrong, really does go wrong. It was just this bizarre situation. Actually, joining the dots now, I can see how something like that happens. It just drove Ross (Halfin) and me nuts to be stuck in this room for so many hours, but we absolutely let them have it. When I got to the typewriter, the story really wrote itself. I warned them that I was going to do it, and I told them about how pissed off I was, and how I was ‘Going to make them pay!’ But what’s weird now all these years later is how people refer to that story, and the description of the piece as being locked in a cupboard. It’s turned into this thing where I was apparently locked in a cupboard. And we weren’t. It was a fairly large room, just an empty one. And yes, the door was locked. But I now know of course that nothing makes a better story than when things go completely and utterly wrong.”

One of the major characters throughout ‘Appetite For Destruction’ is Wall’s travelling partner, friend and renowned photographer Ross Halfin. While Halfin’s reputation as a photographer is well known, those who know Halfin also know he’s not a man to be messed with either. And as the Poison piece clearly illustrates, Halfin is not one to stand by and be quiet when things start to go pear shaped.

“He’s really nice, but he still scares the hell out of me to this day! (Laughs) He has a website actually, and if you go to it, you can really get an idea of what it’s like to work with him. I’ve known Halfin for over thirty years, and he really is like a family member to me. And what doesn’t get said enough about Ross is that he’s a great friend, and a true friend when things are not really happening for you. There was a time for me in the ‘90’s when the phone really went dead. I mean these days, the phone is permanently dead, because everything is done by e-mail. But I mean in those days, everything was done via the phone, and it just went dead. He hung on in there through thick and thin, and in that same way, he was always there for me at a time when everyone else had abandoned ship. And it’s not just me, there are other people he had done that for. Not just for months, but sometimes for years at a time. He’s incredibly loyal. Now all that said, he’s also incredibly hard work sometimes. He’s very, very hard to deal with, and there have been many bands that hate his guts, and refuse to work with him anymore. But the overriding thing is his honesty. As far as he’s concerned, the music business is full of fakers and ass-suckers, and he’s not one of them. And he’s right. He’s absolutely right. We all bulls**t and lie to each other to get what we want, and he just won’t. He’s never played the game, and his saving grace is that he’s honest, and he takes amazing pictures. And of course, he’s also very funny. So travelling with him was always an experience. He would always burst into the dressing room. He would never stand on ceremony. He was utterly fearless. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have got half the stories I did. He would quite literally walk in there and say, ‘Come on you. Up against the wall. I’m going to take your picture. Mick’s here. You’ll like him, he takes a lot of drugs like you!’ He would just go in there and sort them out. I would really play the nice one. So it worked really well for the time that we worked together. There would other times where the band would be lining up for his photo, and without hesitation, he would turn to one of the members and say things like, ‘Hey! Do you think you could try any harder at looking so bored?’ They just weren’t used to being spoken to like that. And then there was the time I remember him saying to this one guy in a band, ‘You’re a bit N.L.W.W. aren’t you?’ The guy was like, ‘N.L.W.W.?’ And Ross said, ‘Yeah. No luck with women!’ The guy was just floored. There was another time when we were sitting by the pool at the Sunset Marque in L.A. This was around 1985, and Charlie Sexton had just released his debut album (1985’s ‘Pictures For Pleasure’). Anyway, Sexton, who had the quiff and the leathers image at the time, sat by the pool. We had been trying to attract the attention of the waiters for a drink, for some time, but when Sexton walked in all the waiters immediately moved towards him like a magnet. Now it wasn’t like they didn’t know who we were. Halfin virtually has a wing of the hotel named after him. Anyway, Halfin immediately gets pissed off and yells, ‘Oi! Never mind Johnny Vomit! Get me a f**king beer!’ To give Ross credit, it was a spot on comment. But as the same time, it was also somewhat embarrassing! Another time I remember there was a guy from MTV all dressed up in the gear, and when he walked by, Ross said, ‘Oi! What time you onstage then?’ The only thing is that it was eleven in the morning, and he wasn’t in a band at all - only in the gear. It was everything you were thinking, and something he had no problem saying out loud. He just had that wonderful way of absolutely putting everyone in their place. It was just so different to how everyone conducted business. You either loved him, or hated him. And for me, it was very much a case of loving him. Well, hated him and loved him at the same time.”

But despite the tough exterior, Wall says that inside, Halfin is quite a different person.

“Here’s the thing – he’s such a sensitive person, and he gets really hurt when people decide that they no longer want to work with him. He especially gets upset when they would prefer some smarmy guy to come in and suck up to the artists that they’re supposed to work with. But these days, you tend to see a lot of bands that want to be waited on more and more. That’s the reason why they became rock stars in the first place. And they’re not prepared to deal with Satan as he walks through the door telling them what a bunch of wankers they really are. I’ll give you another good example. We were working with The Black Crowes, and this was just before they got really, really big. The Black Crowes were wise enough to see Halfin was a great photographer, and that he wasn’t there to kiss ass. They saw Halfin as very valuable and refreshing, because they ended up working with him for years. But there came a moment where they could have clearly decided never to work with him again. It was back when they were just starting to make a name for themselves, and they were just about to come to London for their first shows. And in order to understand this story, you have to understand that Ross loves The Who. They’re the one group he’ll make exceptions for. There’s never been a greater group in the universe than The Who. The Beatles were a bunch of talent-less nobody’s, but The Who are gods. I can only assume that The Black Crowes went back and thought about this, and figured it out for themselves. But at the time, they were completely unaware of Halfin’s love of The Who. Anyway, it was a lovely day, and everyone was having a great time shooting photos and hanging around San Francisco. And at one point, (Vocalist) Chris Robinson turns around to Ross and asks, ‘Hey Ross, are you coming to our show in London’. And Ross turns around and bluntly says, ‘Leave it out. It’s not like you’re The Who is it!’ There was quite literally a moment of silence, but they eventually burst out laughing. It was fantastic. But he does the whole London thing, regardless of whether they get it or not. And they knew he meant it as well. But at the same time, it was such a contrast to how everybody was doing things. I think the two of us were a very good team, because sometimes it wouldn’t go down well, and I was the one smoothing things over. But at the time, he was the great photographer, and I was the one doing the great cover stories. So Kerrang! always had the consolation that despite being the biggest pain in their ass, at the end of it all, we would always deliver.”

Most would agree that the late ‘80’s/early ‘90’s was a great era for hard rock and metal in terms of music. And according to Wall, a great time for being a journalist as well, especially when compared to how magazines are managed in today’s musical climate.

“Going through the pages of Kerrang!, there were very occasional features that I had absolutely no recollection of writing, of who the artist was and why I did it in the first place. One example that comes to mind is Femme Fatale. I found an interview I did with their singer (Lorraine Lewis) around 1988. And I’m thinking, ‘Who the f**k is Femme Fatale? When did I ever interview them?’ And it eventually came back to me. I think I did it one day during my lunchbreak in order to get the record company to pay for a couple more nights at the hotel I was staying at. Or something like that anyway. So there was a bit of that, but mainly it was a fantastic time. I realised while I was doing it that it was a fantastic time. And I did sometimes think to myself, ‘When is it going to end? This can’t go on forever surely?’ That’s because I found it too extraordinary. Kerrang! was such an odd deal in those days. It was never expected to do well, so it had its own little room on the floor away from all the other magazines. These days, having been an editor at Classic Rock, its all marketing, strategies, mission statements and web branding. It’s endless all the bullshit you have to do these days. Plus every front cover you have has to be justified with group editors and publishers. In those days, we just used to put a band on the cover if we thought the album was good. Most of the groups were bands that no one had ever heard of before. We had groups like Chainsaw Massacre on the cover. Never to be heard of again. Rouge Male. Never to be heard of again. Crimson Glory. They were on the cover once. They used to wear silver masks. We just put them on the cover, and quite often, they would never be heard of again. And then we would put acts like Guns N’ Roses on the cover, long before anyone had ever heard of them. The very first time anyone had ever heard of Metallica was because we put them on the cover of Kerrang!. If we thought they were great, we would put them on the cover of Kerrang!, and there was nobody there to tell you not to do it, or asking why, or who our target audience was. We thought it was just metal, and that’s all there was to it. So there were aspects to it all that we didn’t know about. And we certainly didn’t realise just how lucky we were. But by and large, we knew it was a really exceptional situation, and absolutely took full advantage of it. We were constantly getting upgrades on planes, travelling around in limos and forever staying in great hotels. And Halfin and I got the best of it. We travelled all around the world many, many times. And in the last couple of years, we had it down to a fine art where we really didn’t have to leave Los Angeles. It was all concentrated in that place, because that was our favourite place to be. We would go there for one story that was supposed to keep us there for three days, and end up spending six weeks. Record company’s would fork out the money, because we were Halfin and Wall from Kerrang!, and anything we did was going to go on the cover. And going on the cover would guarantee a certain measure of sales on an album, or a certain number of tickets sold at their concerts. Not to mention that there was no other outlet for these bands in Britain at the time. It was great. We could do what we like. We were quite literally their guests. I mean Iron Maiden’s manager used to live in actor James Cagney’s old house, and we would be forever hanging out there doing laps in the pool, and popping down to the English pub The Cat And Fiddle. Of course, it wasn’t remotely English, because you would have these gorgeous girls bringing beers over on trays in this beautiful and wonderful climate of ninety-five degree heat! (Laughs) And of course, there were a load of drugs at the time. It was all just one long, unbelievable party. And because it wasn’t the NME, and it wasn’t The Smiths or The Cure, we were allowed to be the opposite of what you could possibly imagine. No one expected anything different. Of course they’re obnoxious lunatics, but they’re with Iron Maiden, or he’s with Ozzy Osbourne. But what they didn’t realised is that often we were playing chess, or reading books, or doing something that wasn’t what we were writing about. The moment was funny, and the key was laughs. The question was how much would you laugh, how hard will you laugh, and how seriously will you not take this at the end of the day.”

Overall, ‘Appetite For Destruction’ is a great read, full of great stories from an era the likes of which we may never see again. But while the book is entertaining and enthralling from start to finish, I had to ask what Wall hopes the reader may get out of the book?

“I don’t think there is anything specific, because the whole thing is still a surprise to me that it’s even made it to a book. The only rule I had compiling this is that I wouldn’t fall prey to the temptation to try and improve those stories. You have to remember they’re twenty to twenty-five years old now, and there’s barely a line that I read now that I couldn’t think that I could do better now. But I resisted that entirely. What you get is actually what came out in the magazine at the time. Because of that, a lot of it makes me cringe. I tell you what, if you go to the back of the book, skip to the very last story and go straight to the question and answer story I do with Duff McKagan and Slash of Guns N’ Roses. It occupies the last half a dozen pages of the book. It’s a previously unpublished interview I did for a radio station in London, which they refused to broadcast because they thought it was too surreal. What that means is that it was too filthy really. It was done around the height of all this around new years day in 1994 in L.A. I think that, more than anything else in the book gives you a real glimpse of what we were up to in those days. But in terms of what I want people to get out of it, I really didn’t start out with that idea. ‘Star Trippin’’ was a very modest little gift, if anybody should be interested for those few hundred lunatics that may be out there from back in those days when Kerrang! was celebrating its silver jubilee. Four years on, it’s this much bigger book that people can buy, and I feel very shy, but I wouldn’t dream of telling you what to get out of it. I only hope it’s entertaining, fun, and that they get a few laughs out of it really.”

As for the future, well Wall ensures me that he’s well and truly underway, and towards completion of his next book, with the subject being Metallica.

“That’s what I’m working on right now. This is the real proper follow up to the Led Zeppelin book ‘When Giants Walked The Earth’. I should be nearly finished, but of course I’m not. I’m a little behind actually. In the same way that I did the Led Zeppelin book, I want to try and tell it the best way that I can, because I truly don’t think that the story of Metallica has ever been told before, or at least not properly. I knew those guys very well in the early days, and right up to when they hit the big time. I mean Lars used to call me when I was in London to see if he could crash at my flat. That was in the very early days of course. He was still doing that right up until he was telling me that he was considering having an elevator built to get people up the side of the mountain where he lives to the front door of his new house. That was somewhere in the ‘90’s. In recent times, I’ve reconnected with them and done quite a few interviews with them. I think their story is an extraordinary one. It has lots of ups and downs, and you have to have those. No story is ever complete when you talk solely about the ups. It must speak of the downs as well. So I’m really stuck into it at the moment. I’m quite literally dreaming about the bloody thing, and I’m terrified that I’m not going to get it finished in time. But that situation’s normal, and that’s’ always the case. The book should be released in October 2010. At the moment, we’re discussing ideas what to call the book. I did have a title, but I’ve recently changed my mind. I had a meeting this afternoon. I went into the meeting thinking that I had an incredible title, only to come out of the meeting thing that I have an incredibly terrible title! (Laughs) Now we have to come up with something startlingly fresh and new! But I have no idea what that is at the moment. It’s only when I finish the darn thing that phrase will come to me. It was supposed to be delivered in April. But I can only really hope to finish the thing by June. These things take so bloody long. I love doing them, but I’m so terrible. I always leave things until the last minute to get my ass into gear and write the thing. I must say though, it’s a really interesting story. I’ve written about Metallica many times, and I know what sort of book I want to do. But out of research, and talking to people and sifting through the facts, you suddenly realise you know nothing. You think you knew it all, but you knew nothing! And that’s what makes it exciting for me, but also daunting. There’s no kind of easy bit, or any parts where you can simply skip through with relative ease. I know f**k all about it! I really had to start from scratch, and find out what that story is. And that’s the best part of it, and the part that drives you nuts because it takes you so long. I hope that makes sense, because speaking to a guy that writes books is a bit like talking to a lunatic that doesn’t make any sense! (Laughs)”

I would like to thank Mick Wall for his generous time and Brendan Fredericks at Hachette Australia for making the interview possible.

Appetite For Destruction: The Mick Wall Interviewsis out now through Hachette Australia books

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