Pandamonium! How Not To Run A Record Label by Simon Williams
Nine Eight Books – out now
Pandamonium is the story of one man’s life which sounds like every indie kid’s dream – more than a decade as a writer with the NME, his own radio show with XFM not to mention the small matter of 28 years as head honcho of iconic label Fierce Panda, releasing in excess of 650 records and helping to launch the careers of bands such as Coldplay, Keane and Embrace. Trips to Australia with Garbage, LA with Rage Against The Machine and Milan with the Cure, Steve Lamacq as best man and Clint Boon as DJ at his wedding, staging gigs by The Arctic Monkeys, The Kaiser Chiefs and the Futureheads, and on and on (and on). The massive fly in the sweet-smelling indie ointment that is the life of Simon Williams is that, on New Year’s Eve 2019, he tried to end it.
It’s not too much of a spoiler to tell you that the author’s dramatic suicide attempts thankfully failed, which is why he’s here to share his remarkable tale with us today. This is a fascinating book for any lover of indie music and those wanting an insight into the machinations of the unforgiving, cut-throat music industry. It is also a salutary reminder of the fragility of the human condition, even when everything looks good from the outside. Most of all, it is a most entertaining and, ironically, life-affirming read written with Williams’ trademark wit, gentle humour and, let’s be honest, silliness. Even the diary entries from his darkest hours are littered with quips; ‘The flying A & R man, lying dying in A&E. How poetic’ and, after 14 hours unsuccessfully attempting to take his own life; ‘In short, I think I have lost the will to die.’
One would assume that most people who decide to write a book about their life might be a little full of their own importance even to think that people would be interested in the story, but one thing Pandamonium definitely isn’t is an ego trip. Williams gives us some of his background story to set the scene, including the way his love for radio first blossomed during a prolonged spell in hospital as a kid. But this is not a linear autobiography laboriously listing every insignificant detail of the author’s existence, and you get the impression that the unassuming author doubts anyone would be bothered. Referring to his imperfect methodology of drawing together random memories whilst sitting in the pub, he explains; ‘Still, at least it saved on having to transcribe hours of mine or anyone else’s jib-jabberings.’ Instead, we are treated to a conversational stream of reminiscences and themes which helps to make Pandamonium such an entertaining work.
What we do learn is that, despite rubbing shoulders with potential stars of the future, attending industry bashes and staging sold out shows, the life of an indie record label boss is far from being all glamour. One of the recurring themes of Pandamonium is the basic contradiction between wanting the credit and success you deserve as a champion of upcoming bands and shunning the very mechanics of the industry which make this likely or even possible. Williams clearly likes to do things the right way but, as a result, it has often meant that larger labels have reaped the rewards of Fierce Panda’s uncompromisingly independent stance. Furthermore, the endless rounds of live performances, and attending countless gigs to ensure that the quality control is carried out first hand, is a surprisingly lonely existence, especially for someone with the author’s unremitting work ethic. It’s one thing travelling the world to hang out with top acts, another to do the Billy No Mates routine night after night on the toilet circuit for fear of letting one slip through the net.
It’s not clear exactly what pushed Simon Williams to his nadir, probably an accumulation of factors, but there does seem to be a recurring (if completely unjustified) sense of self-doubt, describing himself at one point as ‘The imposter boy for the broken generation’. The irony is that, despite the book’s title, this is in many ways a great success story. A quick look at the Fierce Panda website shows you that the label has a very strong roster to this day, even in an age when streaming is king, and the exhaustive discography at the end of the book is quite spectacular. Indeed, the author admits elsewhere that Fierce Panda is in fact quite well run and that ‘How Not To Build A Record Label’ might have been a more apt subtitle. With Pandamonium coming hot on the heels of his 1-2, Cut Your Hair! – The Story Of Johnny Moped book, we can add ‘accomplished author’ to the long list of achievements.
Happily, it seems that Simon has weathered the storm and his renewed optimism and enthusiasm is evident throughout the roller coaster ride that is Pandamonium. There is a strong sense that this is a cathartic exercise, putting things in perspective and learning from experience with lessons for all of us. First and foremost, this is an unremittingly exhilarating journey into the most alluring but most punishing world of the music industry, written with the flair of a natural storyteller who has definitely been there and done that.
Simon Williams will be in conversation at the Louder Than Words Festival – tickets here
All words by Robin Boardman. More writing from Robin on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive