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Ovolo Books and Clarksdale Books





Digger talks to Mark Neeter at Ovolo Books and Clarksdale Books. Clarksdale are a specialist independent publisher of rock and pop-related books, driven by a desire to produce quality, fun and unusual titles.

Digger: Hello Mark. Can you please tell us a little of your background and the background to Ovolo and Clarksdale?

Mark: Ovolo has been publishing books for some years and amongst those we've done a few music books. It's one of my enthusiasms and I decided that I wanted at Ovolo to publish more music books in different areas. It seemed sensible to create an imprint for our music books and so that's how Clarksdale came about.

Digger: There are other people publishing music books but a lot of them seem to be 'playing at it' and there seems to be room for specialists.

Mark: We like to think that what we do is driven by trying to do things well. So with our books, I'm not interested in publishing cut and paste that aren't any good or things that are trivial. They can be lightweight but they want to be done well even if they're an abbreviated version of something.

Digger: Yes.

Mark: So we're trying to write well and make sure it's something that people enjoy reading and owning and looking at. If it interests us and we think it's good then we'll have a go at publishing it.

Digger: Can you please give us an idea of the variety of book offerings you have?


Mark: Yes, we've got 77 Sulphate Strip, which is a book by a journalist who was involved very heavily in the early days of punk and, in fact, wrote with Malcolm McLaren his unpublished autobiography. That's a really great read. It's a very unique look at the world of punk. As well as reusing a lot of Barry Cain's original material, he went back to lots of the major players and asked them the same questions he asked them when he was working as a journalist in the 1970s. So there's long interviews and a particularly good one with John Lydon in which he reveals a great deal that hasn't been published elsewhere. And actually John Lydon himself recommended the book on his website, which is a pretty unknown thing for him to do really. He's not renowned for liking journalists. Lydon, according to Barry, is one of the best interviewees ever and if you give him the right question you just get fantastic answers and he's very entertaining; difficult but entertaining.

We've also done a really nice picture book which is based around 500 Lost Gems Of The Sixties in which we photographed every single single (Both laugh) that's covered in the book and there's picture sleeves and a bit about each of the tracks. That's another kind of offering.


Digger: Are they all unknowns or are there are a few there that people might have an idea of?

Mark: No, they're not all unknowns, but they're often maybe lesser-known tracks by well-known people or really greater tracks that didn't quite make the charts in the way they should have done.

Digger: There are so many gems like that. I found My Friend Jack by The Smoke on Youtube last night - that's another one that should have been bigger.

Mark: Yes, so it's an attempt to look at what didn't happen if you like.

Digger: It was a complete lottery in lots of ways, whether a group or song made it, wasn't it?

Mark: It was being on the right label at the right time. With some of them you can hear why they didn't quite make it. But they're still worthy of attention and quite often tell a story about how someone arrived at a given time and place. Someone like Glen Campbell, for instance, who before Wichita Lineman had worked a lot including with Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. He'd just never quite made it because the singles were just not quite the right one to break the artist but nevertheless there was some interesting stuff. 



And then, more recently, we are now into a whole new phase of publishing music books having launched the imprint - although it's not being launched officially until September, but having started releasing books under Clarksdale's name we've just launched a book called Breakfast In Nudie Suits by a guy called Ian Dunlop. It's a kind of road book - it's about a trip across The USA in 1968 from LA heading east. Ian was in the International Submarine Band with Gram Parsons and during the journey he remembers back to the times when he and Gram and the other members of the band were trying to bring 'New Country' to the masses. Both 'Old Country' kind of people who hated it and rock audiences who also hated it. (Digger laughs) So they found themselves in an interesting place. Now it's regarded as the birth of Old Country, which is now very big, but back then it was just regarded as weird. And it's a good tale of how hard it can be to go against the accepted trend of the time. It's a really well-written book, he's a great writer and he met all kinds of fascinating people along the way - Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Dave Crosby, Leon Russell - there's all kinds of people in the book.

Digger: Some great names.

Mark: It's a really good flavour of what it was like to be in LA in 1968, living in Laurel Canyon and that kind of area and just being part of that community.

Digger: Sounds terrific.

Mark: Especially someone who's slightly on the outside looking in rather than a full insider. A great book and we've had some very positive reviews. Uncut have made it their book of the month for August 2011 so that's really good.

Digger: Are you living the dream in a sense Mark? (Mark laughs) It's your passion and it's doing very well...

Mark: I'm not living the dream because I'm probably too old and too wise to want to live that dream anymore. Because it's probably an illusion. Apart from the money, I think there's a lot about rock and roll and fame and performing that actually is pretty destructive to people's lives. But, I am enjoying immensely reading about this stuff and almost it's like these are the books I want to read and by being involved in producing them I can actually read them.

Digger: I'm not interested in fiction at all. I have to read about real people and real events, don't you?

Mark: I do and I try to make sure that what we do is not something that's been done in the same way by someone else before. I don't really see much point in churning out the same thing again because I wouldn't want to buy it unless it was done a lot better than anyone else had done it. And that's hard - to find things that are well written and that hold the attention.

Digger: And that don't regurgitate the same old...

Mark: Inaccuracies and myths? (Laughs) Yes, there's a lot of interesting people out there who were involved in the music business with a lot of interesting stories and it's quite nice to find them. If they can write, or if we can put them together with someone who can write, it can be quite rewarding. But I think for every book that we've produced there are probably ten ideas or things that are submitted that just don't make the grade in one way or another. They're either not well enough written or they're just too thin in their content to really sustain a book - there are some good ideas but they don't necessarily warrant a whole book.

Digger: And of course, at the end of the day they, have to be commercial as well.

Mark: Very much so. We're not here to produce books just because I want to read about it. If I don't think that my interest is mainstream enough then I won't do it. We've got a book coming up which I won't reveal at the moment but it's about a particular person. It's not going to sell huge quantities but we're looking at doing it as something very special and being able to sell it for a lot of money so that there won't be many editions produced. And they'll have a much higher cover price, a bit like the Genesis kind of publishing model where they produce very limited editions signed by people and with all sorts of high production values. And that's the only way I can see to do books that have relatively limited interest if you like in terms of the number of people who will read them. This particular book's worth doing because we've got an intriguing story and particular access, but not as a conventional book. Although I'll probably be proved wrong! That's the danger as a publisher - you have to guess. It's like an educated form of gambling.

Digger: It's like the music business or TV and film or any of those. I was talking to people in the theatre earlier on and they haven't got a clue what's going to work and what isn't. It's weird isn't it?

Mark: Absolutely. You just have to try to put it out there and not take too much risk in doing it. If you spend too much money up-front then your risk is increased by so many fold and as an independent publisher we just can't afford to do that. If you're on of the big international publishers you can probably afford to throw a few things at the wall and see if they stick and pay big advances and so on but we can't do that.  

Digger: Are you positive and optimistic about the state of the music business these days compared to what some might see as its heyday?

Mark: No.

Digger: I thought you might say that. (Both laugh)

Mark: I don't know really, I mean it's always different and never stays the same for very long. Certainly if people are expecting it to be like it was in the sixties and the seventies I don't see that continuing. The whole method of delivery means it's changed and the whole attitude of the audience - it's the soundtrack for people's lives now rather than an event, I think. So the idea of someone's album coming out and you really wanting to go an hear it and it being a concept and having great artwork. Not quite the same now - "I'm going to download that track from iTunes." It's not part of a whole experience but the charts are similar to the way they were (Laughs) they're just not seeing anywhere near as many copies as they used to. There's so much more out there - there's computer games and in a way they're the new rock and roll.

Digger: Stand-up comedy is the new rock and roll as well. They're packing the theatres.

Mark: Yes, you could well argue that. It's very popular now. But if you look at the computer games, the soundtracks on those are selling much more and anyone who gets their music onto one of those is going to be heard far more by people than on single or CD or most tracks on iTunes. There's a load of people who love their music and who are interested in it and were around in the sixties and seventies and probably the eighties and remember all that stuff and that's who we publish to. They have a certain nostalgia for it, but also still enjoy it and want to maybe read about it what they couldn't read back then because people wouldn't talk about it then, because it was all too current. Now, not only are the stories coming out but you can get a perspective on how it played out and also the whole music catalogues are coming out so you've got Neil Young and Bob Dylan and people like that releasing all kinds of material. And you're getting collections of live stuff from The Who, The Kinks - putting out material that wasn't available in the past. There's a lot more that's accessible in a way and quite a lot of lost studio tracks that are being tagged onto albums when they're re-released.  Elvis Costello and people like that. There's an astonishing amount of tapes that did get lost and weren't released for one reason or another or in some cases they just didn't fit into the sequence of an album even though they might be a good track. Dylan recorded a track called Dignity that probably would have been the strongest thing on the album at the time but he chose not to put it on it. It's subsequently come out on some of his collections that he's produced later, but it was never on one of the original albums. An astonishingly good track and there's a lot of that out there and a lot of bands that got together and recorded something. Like Gene Clark, ex-Byrds, who put stuff together with other musicians but it never quite clicked at the time or saw the light of day or was deemed to be not commercially worth issuing by somebody like Columbia.

Digger: The Rock Atlas sounds just like my cup of tea. Britain and Ireland are major locations for places and events in rock history. Can you please tell us more about the book?



Mark: This is a brand new book that's coming out in the Autumn. It should be available late September. We're still finishing the last knockings of the production of it.

Digger: Last knockings!

Mark: This is the first of a series of Rock Atlases and is the UK and Ireland edition. It's a collection of items that are geographically-based about rock and pop and soul and all that kind of music in the UK and Ireland and it's got just under 600 entries. It ranges from locations of album shoots, to where pop festivals happened, to where people played, to where they were buried. Or to where major events happened in their lives that have been recorded in some important way, with a plaque or a statue or in some song and there's something about it that's important. Or they were photographed there. So it's very much a miscellany of things that you can either use to go and track where the settings are - every location is identified.

Digger: Have you got permissions from people for visitors?

Mark: No and we do say where it's a private house that it's not actually accessible and we do say to people to show consideration. We're not out to reveal the locations of where lots of people live. It does happen to mention in a few cases where people live but only because it's important to the way they produce their music and it influences it. It's not a crass tour guide book where you can say "On your left is Barry Gibb's house and on the right is Lulu's house." Or whatever. It works on two levels - it's laid-out geographically and you can use it to tour an area and go and see things - where Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields are and that kind of thing.

Digger: Where Hendrix died?

Mark: Where Hendrix died and also the flat where he lived that was also John Lennon and Yoko's home for a while. Those kinds of things but it's also, as a book, interesting to dip into because it's full of little stories. Things that, because David Roberts who wrote the book has travelled all around the country and met all kinds of people and talked to people whose stories were not terribly well-known and have not necessarily been reported before, we've got lots of nuggets about rock life. A hotel where The Beatles stayed in the sixties when John Lennon celebrated his 24th birthday and there are some original pictures that I don't think have seen the light of day that were taken there, along with the story of how it happened. Lots of gems about Hendrix playing in a pub basement in Norwich and the West Runton Pavilion where The Sex Pistols played and The Pretenders and Motorhead - amazing acts in this little seaside pavilion in the middle of nowhere on the north Norfolk coast. (Both laugh) I think The Sex Pistols actually played there on Christmas Day. (Laughs) It's an amazing story, but we've got stories right through from the fifties to the present day. The location of the shop where Mumford and Sons shot their album sleeve in King's Road.

Digger: Right up to date then?

Mark: Right up to date as well. New Boots and Panties - that fantastic shopfront that Ian Dury is photographed in front of - we've got the location of that. Just lots of things that, if you had it in the smallest room in the house you could definitely pick it up and read an item in a couple of minutes and put it down or you could read it from cover to cover. We think it's going to be quite an important book and certainly the big chain stores seem to be getting behind it in terms of their Christmas promotion this year. So if your readers are interested, certainly it's a good book to put on your Christmas list.

Digger: Good timing as well.

Mark: Yes, hopefully but also we've got a new book on Hendrix coming up which is interesting and we've got a really interesting new book on The Beatles coming up to celebrate the anniversary next year.

Digger: Any new angles?

Mark: Yes, it's very different. It's not a retread. It's something that I think will intrigue people and remind them of the times The Beatles were happening it and I'd like to tell you a little bit more about it nearer the time. It will be out next spring and it's a really interesting book. It will be a completely different take on the whole Beatles experience.

Digger: I'm presuming there are lots of photos in the books?

Mark: The Hendrix one has a picture section, The Beatles one is going to be very picture-based. The Rock Atlas has got hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of full-colour illustrations in it throughout.

Digger: I have to have pictures in my books! You wrote The Boats That Really Rocked, the true story of  offshore pirate radio in the sixties UK. We interviewed Johnnie Walker and consider the pirates as key contributors to our popular music culture. What do you think has been the lasting legacy of what the pirates did and what they achieved?

Mark: I wrote it but it's not out. (Laughs) I was involved in the offshore radio scene back in the seventies and I sat down to write the book and I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to write. But as a publisher, you tend to be very busy dealing with other books and so I've never got quite round to finishing it. I have to say my own keeping to deadlines on that one has been lamentably bad. But when it's finished I'm sure it's going to be interesting. One day. I wouldn't advise anyone to hold their breath because everything else has got in the way of doing it.

Digger: What a shame.

Mark: Yes, it probably is a shame but I need a clear run at it to write it and it's one of those things where it had a very specific form and I struggled because I keep on getting interrupted by life.

Digger: The movie The Boat That Rocked didn't pretend to be biographical.

Mark: No.

Digger: It was just a bit of fun and very fluffy.

Mark: It was his imagination of what it might have been like to have been out there, but what he did actually do was to take the bare bones of the story of Radio Caroline and immensely exaggerate it.

Digger: It turned into Dunkirk/Titanic at the end!

Mark: (Laughs) The only time a boat actually sank was Caroline's boat The Mi Amigo and it wasn't as a result of what the government did, it was what the weather and old age had done and she carried on long after people thought she shouldn't have been afloat.

Digger: There was a shooting on one of the pirate forts.

Mark: Yes, that shooting of Reg Calvert by Major Oliver Smedley, a pirate station rival, effectively gave the government an excuse to get heavy and to close the pirates down.

Digger: It was Johnnie Walker who held out as the last DJ - all the other DJs jumped ships and headed straight over to Radio One.

Mark: Absolutely, and Johnnie Walker is obviously the basis of one of the characters in the film. He carried on broadcasting at midnight and that's what happened. But it wasn't quite as glamorous as that and there weren't hordes of young ladies clambering to get out there. It was by that stage a long way off the coast and pretty stormy and over the next six months conditions got a lot worse when the money started to dry up a bit. And they were forced to play for Philip Solomon - do you remember Major Minor Records?

Digger: It rings a bell.

Mark: Philip Solomon was an entrepreneur who had a record label called Major Minor Records and it had The Bachelors and people like that. And he got involved with funding Caroline after the Marine Offences Act came into being and so the playlist got more middle of the road with people like David McWilliams and The Days of Pearly Spencer which was on that label. Basically there were times when, famously, Johnnie Walker literally threw the records out of the porthole and said "I'm not playing this rubbish." And threw them overboard so they couldn't be played.

Digger: Excellent.

Mark: That was the sixties and the seventies didn't get a lot of publicity about it but Caroline was very big in the seventies as an album station - it was the only station in the seventies playing album tracks 24 hours a day and that was very, very popular with the audience then. It was all Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and ELP.

Digger: The pirate ended up being people moving round blocks of flats.

Mark: Ah well that's an entirely different ball game and it's funny that the paranoia the authorities had, and unless you experience it you don't really know how paranoid they were about a ship in international waters, but they were very concerned about them. Yet they seem to do almost nothing about the hundreds of stations in London which are broadcasting 24 hours a day illegally and actually encroaching on the legal stations' frequencies. And some of them are linked to drugs and raves and illegal activities. I don't class that as pirate radio in the same way. The sixties pirates did it because they were filling a vacuum.

Digger: It's a difficult thing for people to understand now but we had one TV station with one pop show on per week and it was really lame and if you were lucky you'd hear a bit of pop music on the radio.

Mark: On a Saturday morning on Brian Matthew's Saturday Club. The rest of it was Worker's Playtime. The BBC Orchestra playing light orchestral hits.

Digger: The Light Programme, The Third Service and The Home Service.

Mark: Absolutely and they said "There's no demand for pop music."!! So when Caroline turned up in '64 that lie was broken wide open and there clearly was a demand. People in positions of power always want to control things.

Digger: What are the best things about running Ovolo and Clarksdale Mark?

Mark: I suppose being involved in doing something during the day that is both fun and legal and not being stuck doing something that I hate. Enjoyment really is what I'd say. It's not, as you alluded to earlier, not always an easy life. I'm very unlikely to be a millionaire any time soon.

Digger: You just keep your wits about you and work hard and generate your luck.

Mark: Yes. And the book industry is in a huge time of change, both in terms of how books are sold with the high street changing and also with the arrival of technology. I think books are going to survive for some things, because it's still quite a convenient packaging for material you want to read. But there's also a lot of people, and a lot of areas, where it's going to make sense to download. Just today as we speak we've launched our first eBook which is Breakfast In Nudie Suits. It's available on Amazon's Kindle and the iTunes Store. 

Digger: Is the cost similar to what you'd pay for printed books?

Mark: No. We're doing them quite a bit cheaper because partly the reality is that people are not going to expect to pay so much for an electronic product and also our costs aren't as high. There are still costs involved in it and obviously the authors still need to earn some money from it. But I think also if we price it too high - I think eBooks are quite a spur of the moment purchase and when it's 5.99 or 6.99 it's probably not too much of a decision - it's a bit like a 0.59p App or something. But if it's 15 then maybe you'd think "Hmm, I don't know about that." When it's a physical book and you see it in the bookshop you think "Yes, that's worth 15."

Digger: You see some books that have been priced down in the stores 30, 40 or 50%.

Mark: We don't like false pricing and I like to price a book at what it's worth - Amazon choose to price the books themselves and they pay us a price based on the RRP the same as any other retailer and then they choose to discount it so that's up to Amazon really.

Digger: What sort of feedback are you getting from your readers?

Mark: Well, we get quite a lot of feedback actually, which is good. And they like what we do. We haven't had much on 'Breakfast' because it's only literally come out in the last week. The reviews have been very positive.

Digger: Are people taking the trouble to email you?

Mark: Email and writing to us with conventional pen and paper.

Digger: Good God!

Mark: I know! (Both laugh) Mainly emails though, although we have had about fifteen letters in. It's always interesting to hear from people and we love that. We've got a blog and we've got a website, so hopefully people will find us at or 'Clarksdale Books' whichever they choose. And the whole point of having Clarksdale was to reinforce the music bit.

Digger: Can you tell us what there is to look forward to in the future?

Mark: You mean apart from ruling the world?! I think just to keep producing books that hopefully people will want to read. We've got a list of about twenty ideas that we want to take forward but if anyone has got an idea or fancies writing a book or has information or pictures or anything really that they think is worth doing. I like to think that we'll always give anyone a listen and we'll be honest with people about what we think of its potential. Obviously we're not always right and they should carry on talking to other people. But we're always interested in people's stories and approaches and we're not going to be dictated to by what are the conventional disciplines as to what a book should be about. If someone has a story about a band or anything really and it's good then we'll be interested.

Digger: So you've got these twenty ideas - are a lot of these in preliminary production as it were?

Mark: No, there's a mix. The ideas are really the concepts that aren't yet in some stage of production. There's probably in total another ten or so books that have been commissioned, or are in the process of being commissioned.

Digger: So you might have people like Dave Roberts gallivanting around elsewhere?

Mark: Yes, we've got plans for two definite further Rock Atlases and ideas for another twenty. The two specific ideas are being worked on now.

Digger: That's definitely going to be a biggie, I'm sure. It will be the one which will allow you to do all the other esoteric stuff.

Mark: I hope so. Either that or you'll be able to pick one up for about 1.99 in the discount book shops. (Both laugh) I'm rather hopeful that we're onto something that people are going to love. It's all interesting things and you can go and see and do something if you want to, but you don't need to and there's enough there to say "This is an interesting story" or "I always wondered where that picture was taken." 

Digger: Thanks Mark for talking to us.

Mark: Thank you David.



Ovolo/Clarksdale Books

Ovolo is an independent publisher of books and a member of the IPG. Clarksdale is an imprint that publishes a variety of rock and popular music-related titles.

  • 500 Lost Gems of the Sixties
  • 70s Pop Genius Quiz Book
  • Breakfast in Nudie Suits (a unique glimpse into the Gram Parsons legend)
  • Rock Atlas (500 great music locations worthy of pilgrimage in the UK and Ireland. Covering artists as diverse as The Beatles, Stones, The Who, Bowie, Bolan, New Order, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Queen, AC/DC, Michael Jackson, Sex Pistols, The Stranglers, Depeche Mode, Oasis, Arctic Monkeys, Adele, Kaiser Chiefs and Mumford & Sons.)
Ovolo/Clarksdale Books have more exciting titles in the pipeline so be sure to visit our website regularly.

01480 891777






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