Interview: Ruth And Martin’s Album Club Say Stewart Lee Was Right To Slam David Bowie

Is there a gigantic album that has constantly eluded you? A classic moment of music history that you’ve just straight up not bothered with, whether it’s ‘Nevermind’ or ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ or ‘Rumours’? If so, then Ruth And Martin’s Album Club is your place to go and repent.

RAM, as it’s affectionately known, is a place where writers, comedians, musicians, actors, and basically anyone is invited to confess about the enormously popular albums they’ve never listened to. Ruth and Martin then ask the guest to listen to the album three times and report back with their findings in the form of a rather wordy, but worthwhile blog. Some find that they have found a new great album to listen to. Others, not so much.

Earlier this week, comedian Stewart Lee revealed that he had never listened to David Bowie’s 1972 masterpiece ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ in full. When he did? He hated it and even claimed the album made him feel ‘sick’. Tough crowd.

RAM has certainly struck a chord with online readers – the pair have now published 60 entries on the blog, amassed over 10k followers on Twitter and will release their first book later this year. Not bad for a blog that started because Martin had never listened to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’.

We spoke to Martin – full name Martin Fitzgerald – about Stewart Lee’s unflinching response to Bowie’s most famous album, the albums he’s missed and why the club is so successful.

Were you expecting that reaction from Stewart Lee in his piece?
“No. We’ve done over 60 editions now so I have kind got to the point where I don’t expect a reaction at all because in the past when I’ve done that, I’ve got that wrong. So all I knew from Stewart was that he had never listened to any David Bowie albums before, so it was clear that he didn’t particularly like David Bowie or have never felt interested enough to listen to an entire album. I wasn’t shocked by it – ultimately I think it’s a really good piece. It’s an honest reaction and that’s really what the club is all about. If everyone liked the albums we gave them it’d be a boring thing. He put a lot of effort into it and he argued his point eloquently, it wasn’t a hatchet job and in the end there was a part of him that seemed to strike a note that he almost wished that he could like it.”

Did you get offended at all when he’s trashing one of your favourite albums or do you respect his angle?
“Not at all, we’ve had far worse on the club and ultimately it isn’t my album. I didn’t write the album, I just like the album. But it’s one of hundreds of albums that I like. The whole point of the club is to see if there is such a thing as universally good album, whether if you give something like that to Stewart Lee whether he will like it or not.”

“I think one of the things that caused a little bit of controversy and why it became the story that it is now is there are some people who refuse to believe that Stewart had not heard that album and they thought Stewart was being contrary. All I can say to that is that we sent Stewart 25 different albums and he’d heard all of them apart from the Bowie one and ‘Illmatic’ by Nas, and he actually suggested he do that because he’d never heard it [Ziggy Stardust] or Nas. You can kinda see why Stewart isn’t on Twitter because you had a lot of people saying either he’s just saying this for the sake of it or how can you possibly not like that album. The reverse of that is that a lot of people who don’t like David Bowie have come out and said ‘Thank God someone said this’.”

Did you ever expect the project to get this big?
“Without sounding arrogant, I thought it would. Because I just thought it was a great idea and as soon as we launched it, people loved the idea. I think also that there’s a lot of people out there that really really like music but they’ve never been given the chance to talk about it because it’s just not what they do. I kind of thought it would get big. It’s going to be a book this year, with the best editions included and some TV production companies have been in touch about a possible TV show and maybe even a live show. It would be incorrect and modest of me to say I didn’t think it wouldn’t get kind of big because I always knew that it would.”

Is that because you think it strikes a nerve with some people and inspires people to go and listen to these records?
“I think it was part of that but what I wanted to do was to do two things – I wanted to challenge the status quo on a lot of these conversations. For example whenever we do a prog album, we always give it to a woman because womens’ voices around Pink Floyd are non-existent really. We thought it would be quite nice to have these juxtapositions, because whenever you watch some of those talking head programmes about prog rock, it’s always just a bunch of fellas. So we thought; ‘Why don’t we get women to do Pink Floyd?’, ‘Why don’t we get a gay guy to do Guns N’ Roses’? And then ‘let’s get a fella from the House Of Lords doing Public Enemy‘. So somehow, without it being too forced, create some of these juxtapositions and see what happens because so many of those conversations have been dominated by straight white men.”

“The other thing I wanted to do was to challenge the accepted wisdom around these albums so for every piece we do, I do an intro and when I’m writing those intros, I’m already doing it for an album that often hundreds of thousands of words have already been written. What we’re trying to do is to find something new within that story which may have not been told before. That’s what is so interesting – you’re giving people a chance who haven’t listen to an album to explain why they haven’t listened to a particular album and say what they thought.”

“It’s not meant to be nostalgic, even though a lot of the albums are old, we have done some new albums (Taylor Swift, Sun Kil Moon), but generally speaking the albums are old and being given a fresh listen. We did ‘Pet Sounds’ a couple of weeks ago and the guest was Bonnie Greer – a black American playwright who in the ‘60s was living in Chicago where there aren’t any beaches, there is no California sun and she was going through civil rights [movement]. Her line about The Beach Boys which was great was ‘the only time I went down to the beach was to de-segregate it’. So here you’re having someone who The Beach Boys meant absolutely nothing to her life in Chicago growing up as a black teenager – yet ‘Pet Sounds’ is considered one of the greatest albums of all time so what happens if you now make her listen to that album?”

Are there any albums you still haven’t listened to that you feel like you need to?
“Yeah, I think so. I’ve never listened to a Weezer album in full! I’ve never listened to that King Crimson one with the funny album cover. I’ve never listened to ‘Wish You Were Here’ by Pink Floyd and the point is here is that everyone has missed something – that’s the unofficial tagline of the club. The person we had the most difficulty with was Ian Rankin. I sent him about 70 albums and he’s heard them all, like really obscure stuff as well. Then I said – ‘how about Madonna’s debut?’ And he’d never heard that. So sometimes it’s those ones in plain sight that you miss.”

Who are your dream guests?
“That’s a good question. I’d really like more singers and musicians. When we had Martin Carr from The Boo Radleys on – he was one of the best guests. But it was interesting that during their time as a musicians, they sometime found it hard to keep up with stuff that was around.”

What about Kanye West?
“Yeah. If he did it properly! Can you organise that?”

Finally, what is the one record you think everyone needs to listen to at least once in their life?
“I honestly don’t think there is one. This club is almost sort of a reaction to against those a ‘1001 Albums You Must Listen To Before You Die’ – it’s like go fuck yourself! I hate that. I think people should listen to what they want to listen to.”

Head to Ruth And Martin’s Album Club to read all 60 entries and follow them on social media.