I bought the NME yesterday. I suppose I’m just a sucker for those “500 Greatest Albums” lists and honestly – who isn’t? Who doesn’t get a little frisson when they see a music magazine making such a list? Who doesn’t want to read the list and argue about the choices? Who doesn’t think “I could do better than that”? This list will be discussed In pubs and at gigs and at online forums until the fuss dies down and the next list comes out – isn’t it Mojo’s turn next?
My first memories of the music press was my father’s copies of Melody Maker in the mid 70s. I don’t remember reading them, but I do remember them being around the house, and the adverts inside intrigued me more than anything. There was always a full page advert for Bang and Olufson hifis, weirdly futuristic beasts of chrome and glass. There were adverts for tape splicers and dust bugs. And there was an advert at the back offering t-shirts with designs and slogans – some of which I understood and recognised and some I would understand later in life. At six I wouldn’t know that a design of a line going into a prism and being dispersed into a spectrum of shades from black to white (remember, these were the monochrome Seventies) was the cover of a Pink Floyd album. I certainly didn’t understand “Yea, though I walk through the valley of death I will fear no evil, for I am the meanest son of a bitch in the valley”. But I did like the design of a little yellow cartoon teddy bear (the bear would become the mascot of Hesketh Racing with the addition of a racing driver’s helmet), so much so that my parents bought me a small t-shirt with the teddy bear on it which I kept until I was about eleven. I’m not sure why my father bought the Melody Maker during that period, maybe just to keep up with what was going on. I recognised the style enough to understand the jokes in “The Goodies File” (which I had at the time) when their musical “Super-Pope” was reviewed by the MM, and was number one in their charts ahead of “Cliff’s Dirty Songbook” and “******** to the lot of ’em” by John Lennon. But it all stopped by 1977. Maybe he didn’t like the direction of punk. There was one more issue of MM bought a few years later. It was late Autumn 81 with OMD on the cover, the tagline being “Dancing in the ruins of the Western World” – when I heard “Georgia” in ’83 I thought to myself “Why do I recognise that line?”.
I started to take an interest in the music press myself in February 1984. I would love to say how cool I was that the first MM I bought was the Morrissey front cover to promote The Smiths’ debut album, but sadly it was a few weeks before that and it was a huge shot of Howard Jones’ grinning face tilting at 45 degrees on the cover. I’d just bought tickets for his gig in Cardiff St David’s Hall for April 84 and wanted to know more about him. Within weeks I’d changed my mind and sold the tickets to Lesley and Elaine from my class in school. (As an aside here, I’ve always felt slightly bitter about Lesley – our birthdays were close together and that year we promised to buy each other a single as a birthday present. So I bought her “Against all odds” by Phil Collins – it was what she wanted. I hated Phil Collins and hated having to buy his vile record. But did she return the favour and buy me “Thieves like us” by New Order? Did she hell! And have I forgiven her? Obviously not.) Ahem!
But from that moment on, Melody Maker became my magazine. There was Sounds and NME obviously, and Record Mirror and Smash Hits but I wasn’t interested in those. I had my own prejudices against them at the time. Smash Hits was “for kids” – it had words to songs, why would I want words to songs? If I liked a song enough I’d listen to it enough times to learn the words. I had read a friend’s Smash Hits and it just seemed hyped up and full of pop, not serious enough. And posters? The girls who sat around me in Maths all read Smash Hits and swooned over pictures of Simon Le Bon. Enough said there. (Even though I had crushes on all the girls and therefore reading Smash Hits might have given me a gateway into ‘their’ world – but no I didn’t think like that.) Record Mirror – well wasn’t it like Smash Hits? It looked like it. Sounds – well that was for heavy metal and punk. My brother started reading Sounds at the same time I took to MM. Enough said there too. But the NME… The NME was ‘serious’. It tackled big issues, it was political, it had serious writers, it had a reputation for deep thoughts and sensible well written articles. It was “too much” for me at fourteen. But MM was mine. I liked the range of music it covered, and the way the writers wrote about it. Over the next year I got to recognise the writers’ styles and know what they liked and disliked, and something just clicked between Melody Maker and me. I bought just about every issue from that point until MM closed down.
The NME was more difficult for me. I bought the occasional issue during ’84 if there was something that interested me in it but I couldn’t grasp what they were trying to do. It seemed deeper and more thoughtful, and I wasn’t ready for that at the time. I remember buying their ’85 issue of their writers’ Top 100 albums – “What’s going on” at number one – and thinking it was a very…classical list. I think I’ve mentioned before that my brother had a book of “200 greatest albums” from 1977 compiled by Paul Gambucinni which looked quite similar to the NME list – it was the same albums in a different order, with a few more recent albums thrown in (“Swordfishtrombones” by Tom Waits at number six for instance). But there was a definite sense that this list was iconical – and there was a slant towards soul and rhythm and blues music in the list – lots of Motown, Stax, James Brown. That’s how the NME was, it was aware of the history. Or so it seemed to me.
Was there a turning point for me with the NME? I suppose there must have been because by 1986 I was buying both NME and MM. I remember going to the newsagents around the corner from school to buy them both each Wednesday then sitting in a corner of the common room immersed in them. That Morrissey front cover for “The Queen Is Dead”… That may have been important. Later that year the “youth suicide” cover meant a lot to me. I know everyone mocks it as the worst cover ever and it knocked Lawrence of Felt off the cover and it was only time he might have got the chance but … To me it helped. In the period I was in Sheffield – September 87 to April 89 – I would be sat in the refectory reading both music papers then arguing the toss over the merits of grebo over metal over Marillion over indie with the circle of music heads on my course. MM was going through a purple patch during this period – Stubbs, Reynolds, Roberts. Stud Brothers, “Sonic cathedrals of sound”, you get the picture – so had the advantage in my eyes. NME was better on covering the acid house scene though, so I was happy reading both.
As time progressed into the Nineties, the two papers maintained their own distinct identities. MM championed more interesting music, but NME had the depth of knowledge. In March 1995 MM included a free book called “Unknown pleasures” where twenty of their writers picked one of their favourite albums to write about – lost albums, LPs that had been ignored at the time or forgotten. It was an incredibly inspiring read – Chris Roberts on “Don’t stand me down”, David Bennun on “No other”, Taylor Parkes on “The visitors”, Simon Reynolds on “Tusk”, then there was Microdisney and the Go-Betweens and Orange Juice and Led Zep and Neil Young… Fantastic writing on fantastic music. The kind of thing the NME would never do. In retrospect it was a last hurrah for that generation of MM writers – changes behind the scenes would lead to changes in the direction of the paper and a slow descent into scene chasing – the esteemed writers moved on to other places and nobody really took their place. By the close of the decade, Melody Maker was on the ropes, turning into a glossy magazine for nu-metals fans then just disappearing completely.
The NME however seemed to go from strength to strength during the late 90s, knowing their only opposition was declining and celebrating its own power in a post Britpop world. The NME says so-and-so is the best new band? It must be true because they say so. However I was getting fed up with their attitude, and two incidents would cause me to stop reading the NME altogether.
Firstly they championed Starsailor as the best new band in the UK. What a boring bunch of tosh they turned out to be. First rule of Band Club : Never name yourself after an album to which you’ll never ever achieve the greatness of. (Same goes for you, Scott 4, but I’ll get to that in time). Coldplay beat them to the top of the charts but the bitter taste of hype stuck with me – and the band – for a long time. Secondly, about a year later they championed Terris as the best new band in the UK. Now here was a band that I should technically have got behind. Terris were local boys from Newport where I live. Heavens, I knew their guitarist because he worked with me at the Office for National Statistics – but was eventually sacked for being consistently late and generally out-of-it. (And yes my band had three members working at the ONS at the time but we didn’t end up on Rough Trade….). But I hated Terris. I’d seen them twice at gigs around town, their singer moaning and screaming, the guitarist looking like a spliffed out nerd (whereas I was just a nerd), their bass player bouncing around like a baboon because he was playing a Radio Shack / Moog monosynth, the one I’d tried to buy in a second hand shop in Newport two years before but he’d got to it before I had got the cash together. (There can’t have been that many Radio Shack Moog monosynths in Newport around the late 90s). They were dreadful. And the NME thought they were the best new band in the UK? Get lost. So that was it for me and the NME.
Until yesterday. Once I’d got over the shock of nearly being run over by a van saying “Jesus Cares” in Tescos car park, I looked at the NME’s list of 500 albums and thought “God damn it, I’m going to have to buy this and examine it further”. So…where’s Husker Du? How come “Smile” by Brian Wilson is there but not by the Beach Boys? Is there any Elvis (and I don’t mean Costello)? Clearly everybody love a bit of Bowie and it’s his year this year but “Hunky Dory” at number three? Now if it was “Low”… If the poll was taken last year when he was still on hiatus would he have placed so highly? OK so I’m nit picking here. What they’ve done is got most of the right records in the canon of “classic rock albums”, given it their own spin with enough indie credibility and put it out there to feed debate, get people talking about the magazine and make the NME ‘important’ again. No surprises that this comes so soon after a major overhaul of the magazine, a cheap and easy way to get people to buy the magazine and raise the profile. Hell, it worked. I bought it, didn’t I?
But… I hear you cry…it’s not just the NME’s new writers. Look at the list of who contributed to the poll – almost one hundred NME writers past and present. “From the 60s swingers through the hip young gunslingers of the 70s…”. So are Julie Birchill and Tony Parsons on the list? Of course not. Contributions from Ian Penman or Paul Morley to the list? Are you joking? Dele Fadele or James Brown? Fat chance Kudos to Johnny Sharp (nee Cigarettes) in writing in the Quietus on his own thought processes for his input into the poll, and the problems of picking “favourites” over “greatest”. And how do you pick greatest anyway?
So now I’ve got a copy of the new improved NME, what do I think of it? The layout and format is ok, it’s clear and easy to read. Nice to have letters at the front. News, new bands, reviews, gig guide…all in place. But there’s a lack of focus, a lack of depth. Everything is surface. Maybe that’s because of the 500 albums list, but I miss the in-depth investigations, the serious discussions, the long articles with some sense of history or context. That’s not there. There are no revelations within the 500 LPs – the information on the albums is well rehearsed and old, the ‘lyrical’ revelations are banal – the lyrics to “Closer” depict Ian Curtis’ “fragile and declining mental state”. Wow, I’d never have guessed.
(And it’s a big BUT)
I remember being 13 with the “Top 200 albums” book I mentioned earlier. Looking at the albums there, the strange covers, the track listings with peculiar song titles, and comments from the writers who compiled the lists. It was a basic education in what was considered the ‘rock canon’ at that point. It introduced me to “Astral weeks” – an album I bought at the start of Summer ’83 alongside “Listen” by A Flock of Seagulls and “The luxury gap” by Heaven 17. I didn’t understand “Astral weeks” for another twenty years but I was listening to it, trying to work it out. The book was definitely pre-punk and there was too much Supertramp and Yes, but those were the times. In thirty years we may look back at this list as “close but no cigar – too much Arctic Monkeys and Yeah Yeah Yeahs”. But somewhere out there, a thirteen year old may be looking at the new NME list and thinking “Wow, I need to hear Public Enemy, and Neil Young, and…” And then turning to Spotify or Youtube to find out what these old records sound like. If it turns a few youngsters on to “Forever changes” or “3 feet high and rising” then that’s enough.
Anyway, “The Queen Is Dead” at number one, eh? They didn’t really like it at the time, you know. I remember reading the review in the common room in June ’86 – OH SHUT UP!
Next time : The routes and roots of “Roots”. But it may be a week or so.