23
Oct 99

It Was Like This

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Almost the first issue of the NME I bought had a Stuart Maconie album review in it which ended something like this: “There are only two possible marks for this record. One is zero and the other is (10)“, and I think that cheap move was the exact point when I became reluctantly addicted to the weekly rock press; its all-or-nothing lunacy, its ego-tripping and personality and pretensions and hopeless causes, and its flushes of writing so brilliant you could love it almost as much as the music it pretended to cover. The fact that ten years on I remember who wrote the piece speaks for itself, really.

The music weeklies hate people like me, of course: an ageing, nostalgic readership with heads full of glories past. I think as long as I’ve been reading the damn things there have been the occasional letters asking what happened to “the Maker of ’88” or certain fondly recalled NME hacks. These invariably draw the kind of pop-eyed response (from the Letters Ed if not the readership) that’s usually reserved for the odd far-right bonehead who writes in to complain when a black face makes a rare cover appearance. And I can sympathise, especially because there have been times when you look at old issues of the weeklies and shake your head in amazement that anybody at all was reading them. That first NME of mine was from 1989, a pretty stale period in the paper’s history when all it was doing was giving neurotic boy readers like me what they wanted (i.e. Morrissey, and plenty of him). Wind back three years and you find a desperation to put anything, anything at all on the cover except for pop music – William Leith on computer games? Neil Spencer on shopping? Fresh! Def! And four years before that is the notorious era of Morley and Penman, French critical theory and pop stars wearing curtains, and Chris Bohn trawling Berlin for any chalk-faced pot-bangers he could drag out of their squats long enough to give an interview.

All of which must have haemorrhaged readers, but they gave the weeklies character and inspiration. A lot of what Paul Morley wrote was arrant nonsense: to a reader who wanted rock writing to push forward, push harder like the music does, though, it must have been heady stuff. And similarly, there’s no way I’d be writing anything now if it hadn’t been for the weeklies teaching me to pay as much attention to style and bylines as I did to labels and tracklistings.

I’ll talk in Part 2 of this piece about the particular journalists who shook things up for me, but I want to say something general about why the weeklies mattered (and still do, sometimes). The key thing to bear in mind here is how grey and awful, how sewn-up and distanced, a magazine like Q is, and then to realise that Q was calmly designed to represent the antithesis of everything the NME stood for. Q was and is a magazine for people who know what they like: it’s not that Q’s readers don’t care about music, it’s just that their taste is fixed, and has been so for their whole listening lifetime. Proper songwriting, a bit of second-hand emotion, and the coffee-table version of last year’s innovation, mixed in with a nasty dose of derision for any music too pop or unpopular to fit that bill. The weeklies can be a bit like this too, proportional to how closed-minded the UK indie scene is at the time, but in general they’re read by people for whom taste is still a faultline. The most common criticisms of the weekly press – of its hypes and obsessions, of its vengeful rages and blind alleys, of the way it insists on treating music as public display as well as private pleasure – are just examples of how well it reflects its ideal readership.

The NME and Melody Maker were eclectic before that particular pose was a necessity, partly as a forced reaction to a weekly schedule where you have to fill 48 pages minimum. The NME, for example, had to have a banner album review with commissioned illo week-in week-out, and on slow weeks where the alt-pop heroes of the time were lying doggo that tended to mean hip-hop, or dance or pop or some crazy avant-garde shit. As a teenage reader keen to get his 70 penceworth each Wednesday, I would always read the lead review, and the good it did me just in terms of raising my awareness (of De La Soul, 808 State and Spacemen 3, for example) vindicated the paper’s catch-all policies. The numberless and dreadful bands-get-taken-bowling non-features that weekly publication compels were more than balanced by the massive amount of opinionated editorial coverage the NME and Melody Maker would allow. A splenetic, under-researched rant about the evils of “Trousers In Rock” or “Golf In Rock”, or one of the Maker’s magnificently pompous ‘Debates’ (“The Techno Debate”, the cover would thunder, and inside three spindly Goth readers would moan about how nobody took the Nephilim seriously anymore, and where have all the tunes gone anyway?) were not only cheaper than ten interviews, they tended to be more interesting too. They also – and this was crucial – kept the weeklies closer to the rambling fanzine world than to their professional glossy rivals, and served as an excellent way of getting to know which journalists were on your side, so to speak.

The journalistic personality cult is maybe the hoariest, hairiest bugbear for those folk who anathematise the UK press. The story I always heard is that when Q started up, writers were forbidden to use the word ‘I’, because it was the music that mattered, not the writer’s experience of it. Fair enough, there’s little worse than old warhorses playing at being Nick Kent or Lester Bangs and filing endless “How I got high with Iggy” stories, but this cutting-off of music from lived experience turned it into a commodity more surely than any marketing man or drum machine could have. The ‘self-indulgence’ which the ever-so-professional glossies hated is simply a reflection of the fact that listening to music and loving music is a desperately self-indulgent thing. You simply can’t be distanced from a great song, even an amber-set classic like “I Say A Little Prayer”, because the way those songs take you over is the very root of their greatness. Leaving the subjective out of music criticism either renders the experience inert or grossly universalises it, creating a ‘natural’ reaction to the Beatles (worship) or Napalm Death (amused metropolitan smirking) which is of course nothing of the sort.

That’s why the weekly rock press has been so vital to the way pop in this country is. Ten years ago I bought an NME, and read a review of an album called Freaky Trigger, and it helped set my life in a different direction. But while I started off reading the NME, its rival Melody Maker – vainglorious, intellectual, passionate, unpopulist and often splendidly wrong – is the music weekly I’ll always remember, the paper this website truly wouldn’t exist without. The end of October saw the publication of the first issue of Melody Maker in a magazine format, with Stereophonics and Catatonia on the cover to usher in the new era. Stereophonics, for goodness’ sake, the dullest band on Earth. What happened to the weeklies in the past five years? Let’s see, shall we?

To Be Continued…

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