Many of pop’s greatest icons – and not so greatest, let’s be honest – have put pen to paper (or commissioned a ghost writer) and told all about their struggle for success, life at the top, life thereafter, maybe even a second bite at the cherry. But no one, to our recollection, has ever written about their experiences on the other side of the fence in the crazy, exhilarating, all consuming ride that is the music industry. Just what is it like to be a dedicated pop fan?
Well, from our experiences over the last decade, we can vouch for being one of them, alas we’ve not written a book about them. Yet. But Malcolm McLean has done just that. His debut book ‘Freak Like Me’ charts how, as a shy and awkward teenager, bored and wanting to escape the drab suburbs of Surrey, he spent the best part of five or six years being awestruck, amused and even terrified in the company of some of the greatest – and not so greatest – popstars that were burning up the UK top 40 and were all over The Box music channel.
It’s as relentless a read as the charts were in the late 90s or early 00s, with every week a new number one single and the turnover of the names and acts behind them growing at an ever quickening rate, as a generation of pop fans slammed their bodies down and wound it all around, embraced double denim, lurid green sportswear and even misguided attempts at cornrows.
It’s a story that starts with Malcolm, just turned fifteen, recieving a phone call after school from his idol he’d viewed from afar for two years, Eternal singer Kéllé Bryan, inviting him down to leafy Elstree Studios in Borehamwood in the autumn of 1997 to see the girl group legends pre-record then new single ‘Angel of Mine’ for Top of the Pops, and stops off somewhere around 2002, at the same long running music show, as he chinwagged with Hear’Say star Myleene Klass outside Television Centre at sunset.
Along the way, there’s also encounters with the actual mums of Victoria Beckham and Emma Bunton, as they balanced recording and releasing the Spice Girls’ much maligned third album ‘Forever’ with solo careers of varying degrees of success. There’s tales of how future Bake Off hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins signed actual concrete just mere metres away from the BBC, when Geri Halliwell drunk dialled him after an awards show, and how he and his fellow pop devotees impressed both J from 5ive and B*Witched by blagging their way into the Brits in 1999 with fake backstage passes lovingly constructed via nothing more sophisticated than a laminator and Microsoft Paint.
But there’s other slightly more A list anecdotes too, of the kind that even Smash Hits weren’t getting access to – clocking Britney Spears being denied the opportunity to browse the branch of departed neckwear outlet Tie Rack at Heathrow Airport by her entourage, for instance. Or even how his friend Tasha’s promise to shave her hair off to Capital FM resulted in them winning an all expenses paid trip to see *NSYNC (Justin Timberlake’s boyband) on a date of their sold out US tour at the height of their fame.
And at the centre of it all, is a funny, frank and surprisingly moving coming of age story. As Malcolm balanced school and then later college and early working life, with all its teenage angst, harsh endurances of bullying and friendship politics, with hanging outside TV studios to see Louise Redknapp or even being given the seal of approval by a pre-mega fame Beyoncé Knowles for a £3 T-shirt, he found, much like Sugababes’ number one hit of 17 years ago, the ‘freaks like him’ with who he shared what sounded like an absolute hoot of a time.
Even though it’s a very honest account, ‘Freak Like Me’ doesn’t feel like a salacious kiss and tell of the redtop tabloid variety. Malcolm lovingly – even gently pokes fun – recollecting his teenage antics running around London in an age for pop music when you had to record your favourites performing bleary eyed on CD:UK on Saturday morning on VHS and track down their every move via internet pages that took half an hour to load. If you’re of a mind to revisit those times, or just want to read for yourself what pop was like when Ariana Grande was probably still in kindergarten, from a man who had front row seat access to it all, this is the book for you – and for us, the best book we’ve read all year.
‘Freak Like Me: Confessions of a 90s Pop Groupie‘ is out now, published by Red Door Publishing. Head to Malcolm’s website for the book, including specially curated Spotify playlists for accompanied listening. Twitter: @maltreateddd
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