12 Life Lessons from Four Decades in Music Journalism with Mick Wall
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with world-renowned music journalist and author Mick Wall for an episode of the Future Squared podcast.
Wall has worked inside the music industry since 1976. He is widely considered to be to music journalism what Keith Richards is to guitar. Since cutting his teeth for rock magazine Sounds in the 70s, Wall went on to work for the likes of Kerrang!, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mojo and Classic Rock magazine. He has also hosted various TV and radio programmes and co-produced several TV documentaries for the BBC, including When Albums Rules The World.
Mostly, though, Wall is now best-known as a biographer and author. He has published numerous bestsellers which draw from his time on the road with bands such as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Ozzy Osbourne, Guns n Roses (who ‘immortalised’ Wall in their song, Get In The Ring), Metallica, Motorhead, Iron Maiden and many more.
As I like to do on the podcast — which is all about unpacking lessons from across different disciplines to help people win at business, creative pursuits and in life — I enquired about the psyche behind the man and what really went into making it as a successful journalist and author.
With that, here are twelve life lessons from Mick Wall.
1 On Education
“In 1976, I lived in a share house in London with a bunch of hippies in their mid-20s. I didn’t read music papers anymore. I was getting my education from these guys who had all these records from artists I’d never heard of”. “That’s the way it was back then. There was no internet. You learned from people you knew.”
While I’m not advocating that you put down your books, drop out of that online course or, heaven forbid, stop reading this blog, Wall reminds us of pop-scientist Phil Ny’s sentiments that everybody you meet can teach you something.
2 On Rejection
“In 1976 I responded to an ad for a Sounds Magazine journalist which said and the crucial words were ‘no experience necessary’. I sent in test piece and it was rejected, sent some more, they got rejected, and this went on for quite a long time. I thought that I clearly wasn’t cut out for this and so I sent one last one and they sent me off to review a band in a little pub in London and it was baby steps from there.”
As I often like to say, every no gets you closer to a yes. Recently, I secured a book deal with a global publisher after getting rejected by agents and other publishers about 39 times first. I braced myself for a tidal wave of rejections, knowing full well that each one would get me closer to that yes. Rejection is never a nice feeling, but if Ihad given up after the discomfort and ego annihilation of the first twenty rejections then I never would have got my book deal.
3 On Perspective
In the early 80s, Wall’s journalism career wasn’t setting the world on fire just yet, and so he was planning to commence a degree in English at London University. However, during a two week trip to LA, after he told a friend his post-trip plans, his friend asked: “aren’t you already a writer?”
This made Wall see things in a different light. He had always conflated writer with author of novels, but this question made him realise that he was already a writer, so he delayed University for a year.
“That was 35 years ago and I’m still waiting to go.”
4 On Luck
In 1983, Wall got a gig as Kerrang!’s top writer, which was the biggest hard rock and heavy metal magazine of the 1980s, which was the biggest decade for the genre. Wall concedes that it was ‘right time, right place’, but “that was after I’d been right time, wrong place for about seven years”.
“You have to do the work and get good at what you do”.
A reminder of something that former World Series of Poker champion, Annie Duke, said in episode #228 of Future Squared; “by doing the work you can increase your chances of a ‘lucky’ outcome”.
Luck, after all, is simply the intersection of preparation and opportunity.
5 On Stories
“I liked the music but these guys (hard rock and heavy metal personalities like Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy Kilmeister of Motorhead and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin) had amazing stories. That’s what I liked most about them.”
Whatever line of work you’re in — particularly if you’re an entrepreneur or in the creative arts — you’ve got to tell stories in order to be memorable, relatable, reportable and in this age of social media, shareable.
6 On Having No Plan B
“Necessity is the mother of invention”.
Wall reminds us that what a lot of great bands and rock stars had in common was no plan B. “For them, it was do or die, they had to toil and fail repeatedly and still keep going because they had no choice.”
On this point, we unpacked the inspiring tale of Def Leppard’s drummer, Rick Allen, who famously continued to play drums for the band after losing his arm in a car accident, learning to play the drums with two legs, one arm, and a re-engineered drumkit.
In addition, we explored how Black Sabbath guitarist, Tony Iommi, lost the tips of his fingers cutting sheet metal in a factory in the early days of the band (ironically, on his last day at the factory). He then proceeded to, despite excruciating pain, make his own fingertips out of various materials before he landed on some that went on to influence his signature guitar sound and that of Sabbath’s — one of the biggest bands of the 70s and most influential in the world of heavy metal music.
7 On the Grit That Makes The Pearl
I reflected on a recent Instagram post from Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx in which he was pictured with a 76 Gibson Les Paul, and said that he bought it in the Trading Post with money he saved moving irrigation pipe at 5am, seven days a week on farms outside of Jerome, Idaho.
Like Sixx, before making it as a journalist, Wall worked on a building site, as a waiter, dishwasher, furniture remover, maintaining trees for the local council and as a kitchen porter.
“At the time that I started writing for Kerrang!, I worked at Heathrow Airport scrubbing enormous pots, the size of half a man which were used for the mass-produced airline food. You had to lean your whole body in to clean them. I’d turn up at 8am and there’d be a mountain of filthy disgusting pots. Talk about drudgery, it wasn't easy, it was horrible, but that humour you develop to do those things goes into the work later on.”
Wall went on to remind us that Ozzy Osbourne worked at a slaughterhouse and he would not even name the jobs that Lemmy Kilmister told him he did as a kid, instead opting for an audible “oh my god” instead. “It’s the grit makes the later work interesting”.
8 On Persistence versus Talent
“Some of the most talented, most gifted most exceptional musicians, didn’t make it, and the reason was that they were so gifted that they truly believed one day opportunity would knock on their door and a guy with a big chequebook would walk in and their life would be wonderful, and it just doesn’t work that way.
Ninety percent of it is just getting your ass out the door and just turning up regardless of how rotten you might feel.”
This reminded me of Carol Dweck’s work on mindset, whereby people who have a growth mindset, under which one believes that they can learn anything, are far more likely to succeed over people who have a fixed mindset and believe that ‘I’m either good at it or I’m not’.
It also made me recall of my favourite quotes of all time from former US President, Calvin Coolidge which reads as follows; “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
9 On Starting Before You’re Ready
“When I was an editor at Classic Rock magazine, the writers that did well for me were the ones that always said yes. The ones who would answer with “everything” when I asked them what they knew about, say, Black Sabbath. The ones who said yes before I finished asking the question.”
Far too much human potential is wasted by people who insist that they’re not ready yet because they’re either afraid of their ego being hurt or of less than perfect outcomes. But here’s the thing, nobody is perfect to begin with, and unless you start, you will never put in the hours to become ‘perfect’. And the thing about perfect is, it’s not something we ever truly reach. So stop stressing about being perfect and just get started. As Zig Ziglar used to say, “anything worth doing is worth doing poorly before you can do it well”.
10 On Turning Up When You Can’t Be Bothered
“The bands that make it are the ones that go out there as if they’re going to perform to thousands at the Sydney Opera House when actually they’re in the outback playing for three people and a dog”.
I recall reading about bands like KISS and Aerosmith in my younger years and how they would perform like rock stars on stage and act like rock stars off it, way before they made it. If you’re going to convince your audience of anything, regardless of what line of work you’re in, you need to convince yourself first.
11 On Chaos and Creativity
Today the web is awash with biohackers, our grocery stores are full of health supplements and we’re told to eat our kale and avocado salads, get our eight hours of sleep a night, exercise for 30 minutes and get 10,000 steps a day (all of which I’m guilty of advocating), yet some of the most influential albums of all time were written and recorded by bands who spent most of their days inebriated or otherwise under the influence, lived incredibly debauched lifestyles and usually slept until the late afternoon.
David Bowie can’t even remember recording Station to Station and according to one biography, during that time he was subsisting on a diet of red peppers, cocaine and milk. Noel Gallagher said that, before 1997, he had never written a song without the assistance of cocaine. The Beatles’ career and drugs coincide, and Revolver came during the height of their experimentation with LSD.
This was something that I had always struggled to reconcile, but Wall put it simply and echoed the earlier point about grit making the pearl; “the eight hours of sleep a night guy is going to put out music that’s just really vanilla”.
This shows up in all sorts of creative domains, including technology and entrepreneurship. MIT’s Building 20 was a cinderblock, asbestos-ridden building that was ultimately a place where the college’s misfits from different disciplines came together to throw things against the wall and see what stuck. Free of formality and rules, some of the more game-changing innovations of the 20th Century came out of Building 20 including the first ever video game, radar technology and computer hacking.
Innovation happens at intersections. In the case of Guns n Roses’ legendary Appetite for Destruction album, it happened at the intersection of cocaine, heroin, quaaludes, Jack Daniels, cigarettes, late nights and for some members of the band, turning tricks on the Sunset Strip.
12 On Endurance
Wall has just released the 220,000 word revised version of his Led Zeppelin Biography, When Giants Walked The Earth. I enquired as to where he derives his energy and enthusiasm from forty-two years after responding to that ad in Sounds magazine. He put it simply.
“No plan B. My kids. Because I love it.”
To listen to the entire conversation, find Future Squared wherever you get your podcasts and find us online at www.futuresquared.xyz