Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The angry man of pop turns 60

We’ve grown so used to old rockers reaching their 60th birthday – with The Sun making unfunny remarks about Johnny Rockstar being old enough to claim his free bus pass – that it tends not to garner comment any more.

But today we should celebrate the 60th birthday of one particular British musical institution – the one which launched my media career: the New Musical Express.

First published on March 7, 1952, the NME became, during the late '70s and '80s part of a quintet weeklies with its two main broadsheet rivals, Melody Maker and Sounds, Record Mirror and Disc (not to mention the frothy Smash Hits - a pure pop tome that had started life a postermag).

Pop music was a rather genteel affair when the NME first went to press. The No.1 that week was Al Martino's Here In My Heart). But as rock'n'roll took off over the following decade, the paper became a more crucial barometer of popular taste, chronicling the rise of Beatles and Stones, of the Merseybeat and British Blues Boom, not to mention pitching the rivalries that made the era so easy to write for.

As pop morphed into rock as the '60s evolved, and chirpsome two-and-a-half minute hits gave way to gargantuan wigouts, the NME transformed further into a more serious organ for the more serious punter. Gigs at London's Rainbow Theatre and The Marquee would be populated by bearded, earnest young men in army surplus greatcoats, clutching copies of the NME and the latest album of whomever they were there to see, frantically scribbling down meaningful observations about the 20-minute guitar solos they were then being subjected to.

The '70s became the NME's golden era: it was a decade that began awash with denim and ended with the almost illogical event of Pink Floyd's Another Brick In The Wall Part 2 topping the UK charts, giving rise to the oft-used phrase "Like punk never 'appened". The '70s was also the decade that British music journalism found its editorial feet, leaving behind the somewhat convivial relationship it had with the 'press agents' of major acts in the previous decade, and developing a voice of its own...with an attitude.

NME writers like Charles Shaar Murray and Nick Kent took on the cultural zeitgeist of the day, becoming 'names' in their own right. There is an apocryphal tale about Kent being asked for his autograph as he sat down for lunch with David Bowie and Lou Reed in a Manhattan restaurant, though this had less to do with his writing prowess reaching New York and more to do with the fact he looked more like a rock star than most rock stars. It was a time where rock journalists enjoyed a different type of relationship with the artists they were covering, and the NME reveled in this coseyness (and a shared enjoyment of certain substances).

Punk was arguably the NME's zenith. It became the maypole around which the paper's most pungent legends danced, be it stories of journalists overdosing or having proper office punch-ups. As the mainstay bands of the British music press focused on their seemingly endless American stadium tours in 1974 and 1975, it became clear that something was stirring in the clubs of New York. Soon something was stirring in London, too, and the NME threw out the challenge for a pair of "hip young gunslingers" to join the editorial team and report on the burgeoning punk scene. The successful applicants were Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill. Under pioneering magazine legend Nick Logan as editor, Parsons and Burchill (then still a schoolgirl from Bristol) sunk themselves into the music scene at a raw pitch.

"I was just a kid from Billericay," Parsons remembers in The History of the NME: High Times and Low Lives at the World's Most Famous Music Magazine, Pat Long's excellent book chronicling the NME's 60 years to date. "[I was] 22 years-old, probably a young 22 years-old, and there were people who spent the weekend not just taking heroin but taking heroin with Keith Richards. Not just smoking dope but smoking dope with Bob Marley. It was like joining bohemia. This was '76: post-Pill, pre-AIDS. It was pretty wild."

Parsons' style of decidedly unsycophantic writing was exactly what the NME was about: " When my feelings about music were changing in the eaely ’70s NME seemed to articulate that," he tells Long. "I was a David Bowie fan and I took my first girlfriend to see him at Earl’s Court on the Aladdin Sane tour and it was a horrible experience. There were people everywhere being drunk and vomiting and the bouncers were very rough and Bowie was disengaged – probably coked out of his mind – and it was not that intimate inclusive experience that the music was to me. Nick Kent wrote a very vicious bitchy review in the NME and I just thought ‘that’s exactly how I feel'."

As I found myself - writing my first live review for the NME while still at school - the paper was open to younger journalists, cultivating a justifiable reputation for tapping into the street, rather than an elevated view of the street. It was with this sprit that Parsons and Burchill heralded in the next generation of star writers, the likes of Paul Morley, Barney Hoskyns and former fanzine writer Danny Baker (who joined originally as the paper's receptionist at it is legendary Carnaby Street offices).

The NME was, though, at times an intimidating newspaper to write for, thanks to the establishment of unassailable reputations and rock star-sized egos to match. "The NME was hard work, especially on the editorial side," former editor Neil Spencer recently recalled. "The writers had more of a demented ride. They'd go off and take drugs with musicians in exotic locations and enjoy themselves, and then come back and write their pieces overnight and deliver them by hand. It was crazy, but ultimately you've got to have somebody signing off pages and writing headlines, and it was very tough at times, especially when writers flaked out as they did. What do you do on Tuesday afternoon at the printers with half a cover story on Boy George? It still annoys me."

Before the NME moved to corporate IPC Magazines offices near Waterloo Station (and, at one point, High Holborn), it had been based in London's Carnaby Street. The street had long since abandoned its Mary Quant 'swinging sixties' cool and had become a rather depressing thoroughfare of crap tourist-mugging shops. The NME office was, according to Spencer, "a bear pit." He recalls: "Everyone had very abrupt opinions on who should be on the cover and how many words everybody should have and who was going to write the lead review and so on. There was a lot of turf being fought over, so a big part of my job as editor was to balance the factions in the paper."


Margaret Thatcher winning the 1979 general election changed so much about the UK. A country that had seemed grey and dull, but livened up by the sheer audacity of punk in 1976, suddenly became a colder, more fearful place. Amid the post-punk musical backdrop of acts like Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Nick Lowe, Ian Dury & The Blockheads and Squeeze, not to mention the resurgence of ska and the Mod revival, came a new political sensibility that pulled the NME into another new editorial direction - and arguably marked the start of the decline in the music press being the force of influence it once was.

Internally the NME's journalists became embroiled in the sort of arguments about direction that the artists they were supposed to be covering got into. As the pop of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet chided with the emerging hip-hop scene, factions developed between those who felt the NME should cast a wider net of the entire cultural universe, and those who felt it should maintain its denim dependency and write only about rock.

On the bright side, the NME opened itself up to women, both as readers but also as writers. Julie Burchill had challenged the paper as a bastion of testosterone-fuelled rock, and in her wake - and, ironically, shadowing the rise of Thatcher - the paper became more inclusive of women on the staff and female acts appearing on the newsprint itself. There are those who don't look back on the early 80s in Britain with the same lens of doom and gloom. Margaret Thatcher may have made the UK a fearful and hope-free place to be young, but music, nevertheless, provided the release. Amid race riots and anti-nuclear protests, the NME ploughed on, undergoing further transformation from earnest rock fan to all-round cultural observer.

"Music and politics became inextricably entwined," wrote Neil Spencer in The Observer in 2005. "As ever, there was plenty of escapism - it's one of pop's jobs to provide Durans and Hayzee Fantayzees - but there was also idealism, anger, and artistic adventure. There was, for sure, a surfeit of earnest young men with George Orwell haircuts posing disconsolately in the shells of dead factories, one response to the 'No Future' we had been warned of by the Pistols."

Looking back, however, the '80s weren't so kind to the NME, and not just because yours truly posted possibly its first and last Phil Collins live review. It didn’t just struggle to choose between music genre, it struggled to choose between being a music magazine and a watchtower for the socio-political cultures of the time. The rise of CND, the miners strike and movements like the Labour Party-supported Red Wedge came along (with Paul Weller and Billy Bragg as its standard bearers) appeared to pull the paper in the direction of becoming a student agit-prop magazine with added album reviews, a seriousness that clashed with the brighter moments of the decade which Smash Hits covered with delight.

The arrival of Britpop in the '90s gave the NME second wind. As Oasis and their breed unashamedly raided their parents' record collections to recreate, if nothing else, the pulse and vibe of the '60s - whether the Gallaghers' Beatle fixation or Blur's flirtation with the psychedelic whimsy of Syd Barrett - the NME took a ringside seat as the likes of Pulp, Elastica, Suede et al bridged Indy cred with mainstream acceptability.

The rivalry between Oasis and Blur was a boon to the press in general, but to the NME in particular. On August 12, 1995, the paper ran its famous 'Blur v Oasis' front cover.

"It was the cover that defined my editorship," Steve Sutherland, who was at the NME's helm at the time, told The Guardian recently. "It also defined my era and it put NME back on the map as central to what was going on in Britain culturally at the time. And it made us famous for a brief period, so it was all very good."

"Noel Gallagher was saying things such as: 'Blur are a bunch of middle-class wankers trying to play hardball with working-class heroes'," says Sutherland. "It was brilliantly fuelled by both bands' cocaine input. They were both at the top of their game and both very competitive."

The rivalry - one which went way beyond the rough-and-tumble of the Beatles/Stones era - ratcheted up a notch after the NME's news team learned that Blur and Oasis were scheduled to release their new singles - Country House and Roll With It - on the same day. "We decided to have a bit of fun with this and make some mischief," says Sutherland. "We created this front cover with Damon Albarn on the left looking very arrogant and Liam Gallagher on the right looking very combative, and we modelled it on an old Ali v Fraser boxing poster. We set it up as a proper sporting event."

Blur eventually won the chart bout. "It was a soap opera," Sutherland said in The Guardian. "Soap operas are great for people who work on newspapers and magazines because you can become part of the story and it never really ends. We sold a lot of copies off the back of it, and the NME became famous again, and it became synonymous with the glory years of Britpop."

While Britpop was gurgling away like an overactive child that had been overdoing the sugar, 'upstairs' at the NME its publishers IPC Magazines were scratching their heads trying to work out what the new-fangled Internet meant for the increasingly expensive publishing industry. As hikes in raw newsprint prices continued, and magazines started shedding editorial staff left right and center, the NME and its brethren were facing an uncertain future. In 1996 the NME launched an online edition, getting ahead of the curve with its core readership who were soon to start abandoning physical media altogether for their music consumption.

"There are two types of music, good and bad, and genre doesn't come into that."
Today, 60 years-old, the NME is still going, abeit no longer a "music paper" but a decidedly more populist glossy magazine. And, shock-horror, since September 2009 it has been edited by a woman, Krissi Murison, who took over the reigns at the age of 28.

"One of the main challenges I faced when I took over the NME was making a 60-year-old music magazine as relevant today as it always has been," Murison told The Guardian.

"Added to that, I'm not just editing the print version, it's the website as well, and now a lot of people get their daily NME fix via Twitter and Facebook, so managing all those strands is a big challenge."

Perhaps unconsciously drawing reference to the internecine editorial wars of her prededecessors, Murison appears to maintain a clear head when it comes to what the magazine - in all its forms - has to cover: "People always say to me that such-and-such is an NME band but that doesn't mean much to me. There are two types of music, good and bad, and genre doesn't come into that."

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