National Velvet ► Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used To Be

During my long career as a professional writer, there have been times that I was on staff and on a publication’s masthead and other times that I freelanced. As a freelancer, I would take just about any job that involved jamming words together. Once I wrote an entire work of fiction for a corporate brochure that made Scarborough, Ontario, Canada sound like a great place to live and work. It was fiction because I didn’t really feel that Scarborough was a great place to live and work. Despite my dislike for Scarberia, as it is derisively called, the brochure won an award by the City of Scarborough, which couldn’t read through to the sarcasm.  Another of my freelance jobs was writing for record companies. Occasionally these were the dry sales sheets, 200 words tops, which the salesmen would use to get the rack-jobbers to stock the LP. These were boring and tedious to write, but I could bang off up to 10 a day. However, my favourite writing for record companies was when I was hired to write artist biographies. These always involved meeting and interviewing the artists and I liked to spend as much time as possible with the artist/band before I ever sat down to write. And that’s how I came to meet National Velvet, when I was hired to write their biography.

Aside from the actual music, artist bios are one of the most important calling cards a band and/or record company has.
Before the first note of music is even heard, the artist biography is
often fully digested. Artist bios are a tricky business. Every word must
be right. The bio needs to capture the essence of the band or artists. It needs to make the reader WANT to play the record. It needs to tell you everything you need to know about the band, yet retain some mystery that can only be solved by listening to the music. There is no formula for writing an artists’ bio. Every one is different because every artist is different.

National Velvet were more different than most. NV was a Canadian Goth band before Goth was named Goth. Intrepid Records, distributed by Capital Records Canada, was preparing the release of their first National Velvet LP and hired me to write the bio. I spent about a week with the band, on and off. I went to a few rehearsals, met them in a coffee shop or two, and then someone’s living room. I took notes on how they interacted while recording all their words for posterity. When I felt I had enough, I went back to my belfry to write. One of the things I was struck with after re-reading all the notes I had taken (and which I still have and just used to refreshed my memory) is how thoughtful the band was about their place in the city, the music industry, the record business. I decided that the band’s thoughtful considerations deserved a thoughtful consideration in the biography, which I would blend with the dark, back alleys of the city. Sort of The Dark Knight meets The Hudsucker Proxy.

When I finally had a 1st draft I was happy with I showed it to the record company, the client.  That’s how it worked. Once I had something I liked, I would show it to the client who would tell me whether they liked the path I was on. If so, we’d kick the first draft around 5 or 10 or 15 times, until everyone was happy with the final product. If, in the alternative, the client hated it I would be back at square one, using their ideas to form an entirely new first draft.

In this case Intrepid Records didn’t much like the bio. While it managed to capture the band and the dark underbelly of the city, it came across as far too portentous, far too weighty.  They said, “We like everything about it, except it’s far too serious. What if we made it a cartoon instead?”

It must be noted that the band was not my client. I only had to make the
record company happy. If the band liked the biography the record company
chose to represent them with, that it was a happy bonus.

I wasn’t sure how this raw-edged Goth band would like being turned into a cartoon, but that was hardly my problem. The record company was paying the shots and I won’t get paid until they approve a final draft. So I go back to my belfry with a new task: Create a band biography that is dark without being serious because it needs to come off as a cartoon while, at the same time, capture the essence of these individuals.  Amazingly, that’s just what I did. I used contact sheets of the band’s photo session to create a comic book featuring the band collectively and individually. The words inside the word balloons were their own words. The words of the comic book narrator (me) conveyed the dark throb of the city surrounding the band, while the off-camera record company exec kept putting his 2 cents in for the commercial considerations. Yeah, I know; it was weird as hell. When I went back with that new 1st draft I was fully prepared for them to reject it and throw me out of the office forever.

However, that’s not what happened. It was one of the few times in my career that a first draft of something was also the last draft. Everyone loved it except me. It’s not that I didn’t like the words I wrote, or the concept. It had always been the execution that bothered me. It was supposed to mimic a comic book, but I felt there was only a passing resemblance to a comic book. A typed narration at the bottom, with intentional strike-outs over intentional typos was not part of my concept.

No matter. I got paid.

Skip ahead some 25 years. . . .

Skip ahead some 25 years and my son, who was so much of a National Velvet fan when he was a teen that he bought the LP, tells me he’s going to be seeing National Velvet in Ottawa and will be taking one of the biographies I gave him a million years ago with him.

He returned with a happy surprise: The band not only autographed the bio, but part of the inscription was praise for the concept that I felt never worked properly.


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And thanks, Justin!!!

Here’s National Velvet’s big hit!!! Flesh Under Skin!!!

About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.