I’ve read a lot of music biographies, but Broken Greek is in a league of its own. For a start the author, Pete Paphides, writes about music for a living rather than performing it. More importantly, while Broken Greek’s timeline begins, fairly traditionally, in the author’s infancy, six hundred pages later it ends with Paphides still in his early teens – an age at which many people are only just discovering bands. It is a measure of the authors’ precocious music obsessiveness that despite mostly relying on Paphides’ pre-pubescent experience of rock n roll his autobiography nevertheless provides a wonderfully evocative revisiting of punk, pop and rock, alongside a tender, sometimes poignant, and consistently laugh out loud funny examination of what it was like to be a young immigrant in 1970s and 1980s Britain.
Pete Paphides’ parents moved from Greek Cyprus to Birmingham when he was a toddler, his Dad hoping to find well-paid work in the then-booming Midlands’ car industry. Instead they ended up following the familiar path of other Cypriot immigrants, working all hours to gradually make a success of running a chip shop (the Greek chippy in the Midlands town of my adolescence was imaginatively called Tony’s Plaice).
Consequently, Paphides grew up playing pinball in the backroom of the chippy, earning the respect of older, cooler boys by thrashing them on every machine. Somewhat like Tommy, the fictional Pinball Wizard of 1970s film fame, Paphides spent much of these early childhood years as an elective mute, confused into silence by some combination of his own fears about fitting in and his parents gradual disillusionment with the life they had ended up with.
Broken Greek charts how his older brother’s carefully disguised love, and his own burgeoning fascination with pop music helped him mature into an identity of his choosing, and which eventually blossomed into a career as one of Britain’s most passionate, informed and articulate music journalists.
As someone of a similar vintage to Paphides, who also happens to have been born in Birmingham and grew up 30 miles away in Burton, another industrial Midlands town, there is much in Broken Greek to get nostalgic about.
It’s certainly possible I was shouting “A new royal family / A wild nobility/ We are the family” and looking for some face paint to put a white stripe across my nose as I wallowed in Paphides’ retold joy at seeing Adam and the Ants on Top of the Pops for the first time. I thought I had been a big Ant fan, and certainly still accord pride of shelf space to a complete set of Adam and the Ants singles, but it took reading Broken Greek for me to learn that the Ants’ two-drummer set-up had been inspired by a recording of Burundi drummers given to Adam by Malcolm Maclaren, as a sort of guilty parting gift before he unceremoniously (and with disastrously poor commercial judgement) dropped him from his management roster in favour of exploiting Bow Wow Wow.
Although everything leads back to music with Paphides, it’s not his only source material. I loved his observation that many of the bands of our generation betray the influence of the “otherworldliness of the music they had heard on early 1970s children’s programmes”. I had never previously understood the subconscious connection between bands I loved and a shared childhood watching Bagpuss!
Similarly, I was smiling and gesticulating away in salute of Paphides’ recollections of the three hours of precious Saturday mornings our generation used to dedicated to Noel Edmonds’ Multi-Coloured Swap Shop – “so long that it swallowed other programmes, like a snake swallows other animals”, and featuring “John Craven from John Craven’s Newsround – who managed to retain a slightly detached ‘newsy’ air about him throughout the show, as if he might suddenly be needed to tell us about some urgent new changes to the way maths was taught in schools.” I imagine someone has written a thesis about this, but in some ways Shop Swap was an early advert for a circular economy, given that the show was anchored around the conceit of kids swapping toys that they had tired of but someone else might want.
If the weekends were dedicated to record shops and childrens’ television, at school Pete struggled to find acceptance, or at least feel comfortable with his place in the playground hierarchy. There are several hilarious descriptions of his attempts to ingratiate himself with the cool kids, my favourite of which is this passage about an unlikely, and ultimately calamitous opportunity to join the school rugby team:
“Ten minutes isn’t a long time to make an impression, but I was , in my own way, sensational. I joined a scrum that already had the required number of people in it and then, minutes later, when the ball appeared to land in my arms my momentary confusion at seeing it passed backwards promoted me to run with it in the wrong direction. Only when my teammate Geoffrey Hill angrily tackled me [in rugby this means wrestling them to the ground] did I realise what I’d done. Unable to face the journey back to school in the minibus, I told Mr Nash [the sports teacher] that my dad was picking me up. Usually a stickler when it came to making everyone shower, Mr Nash made no attempt to stop me as I put on my trousers over my shorts and scurried through Hartfield’s silent, unfamiliar playground and out of the gates. That was it for me and rugby.”
Music is what gets him through (including helping forge an otherwise unlikely friendship with the leader of the class pack) and while Leo Sayer seems an unlikely early musical hero given Paphides’ later cultured taste, the affinity is clear when he recalls how Sayer “wore a canary-yellow v-neck jumper and his hair was a dense halo of curls. He looked utterly incapable of managing his day-to-day situation without the pity of grown-ups”.
Elsewhere there are similarly loving vignettes about Abba (for whom Broken Greek has given me a new level of appreciation), The Jam, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Specials, Madness, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and, of course, George Michael – a fellow child of Greek Cypriot parents, who was catapulted to fame in the early 1980s. The discovery of, and subsequent obsession with, each band is convincingly related to a development in Paphides’ childhood to such an extent that his youth appears to have been truly interwoven with music. I just don’t know how he’d cope if he ever got invited onto Desert Island Discs – 80 records wouldn’t be enough, never mind eight.
The encyclopaedic music knowledge and brilliant wordsmithery aside, Broken Greek is ultimately an honest, heart-warming account of the confusions and joys of childhood, in which music inspired the best moments, while also soundtracking the difficult descent into adulthood. “I wanted everything to stay exactly as it was”, writes Paphides of his mid-teens, “If there could be a way of making the transition from childhood to adulthood without attracting any attention or having anyone pass judgement or scrutinising your progress, that’s the route I would have taken.” That sounds familiar too.
Indeed, Paphides’ memory of the music related to even mundane events in his life borders on the extraordinary, no matter if one allows for the fact that this was a boy who taped the The Tube in order to study every detail of favourite bands’ performances, to the extent that he still appears to have total recall in middle age. The music nut in me is envious but impressed, although not so much at his similarly 20:20 recall of his first Pot Noodle.
All in all Broken Greek is a music-lovers dream biography – life-affirming, funny, tender, occasionally sad but always informative and wonderfully nostalgic for anyone whose youth was also steeped in musical discovery. And I’m dead proud to say that my copy was signed thus by Pete Paphides (at the Crickhowell Literary Festival no less) “From one music obsessive to another”.