On Friday I went to the first day of Mark Sinker’s Underground/Overground conference, about the British music press from 1968-1985 – dates that spanned the rise of the underground press, its colonisation of the music papers, and the besieging or breaking of its spirit during the 80s, under competitive pressure from style and pop mags. Mark picked 1985 because of Live Aid, which was barely mentioned on the day I was there. But it was also the foundation, or first plottings at any rate, of Q Magazine, much booed and hissed as villain. And it was the year the miners’ strike ended: on the panel I moderated, Cynthia Rose mentioned how miners’ wives would turn up in the offices of the thoroughly politicised NME.
This era of the press is mythical – the time just before I began reading about music. Some of its stories and inhabitants were passed down to me. The NME ran a wary, slightly sarky assessment of its 80s at the end of them: if it had been “a market-leading socialist youth paper” – Rose’s phrase – it no longer cared to admit it. But the idea of missing something special lingered. I read and was left cold by Nick Kent’s The Dark Stuff. I read and was quietly moved by Ian Macdonald’s collected writing. I read and revered Paul Morley’s Ask.
I even once ordered up a sheaf of 1975 NMEs from the Bodleian Library. This was its printed zenith as a cultural force – in terms of numbers, at least, which all the writers disdained, except when it suited them to boast. Circulation nudging a million, and it read that way – men (nearly always) telling boys (most likely) what to do, and knowing they’d be heard. The voice of the impatient older brother if we’re being kind. Of the prefect if we’re not. Later, I read the Schoolkids Issue of Oz, the magazine that put the underground press on trial and gave Charles Shaar Murray his start. It passed through my hands in 1997, almost thirty years on, a dispatch from a world that seemed completely lost. Full of mystique, of course. But it might as well have been the Boys Own Paper, for all it mattered then and there.
Could it matter? That was the question. The panelists mostly took the answer for granted. It was the pictures that got small. Their importance – in this little history – was self-evident. They confused it, perhaps, for relevance: but that exchange rate is not often favourable.
For myself, I was disappointed these guys seemed so unable to engage with music writing today. They saw nothing to engage with. Faced with questions about the present day, they were keener to assert their legacy than to understand it. I should save my criticisms of cantankery and bitterness until I’ve successfully dodged them: the conference made your fifties seem like an obstacle course. My gaggle of friends listened respectfully, at any rate – only once, when one panelist hymned the revolutionary virtue of listening to Sufjan on the car stereo, did we break into derisive giggles. It turns out I feel closer to people fifteen years younger than me than fifteen years older – but maybe everyone does.
There was still so much to enjoy. It was a beautifully sequenced event – the press built up and knocked down. Each panel had its own texture. Take the first – Richard Williams on the left, amused and sharp, feigning apology for being the straight press’ representative among underground legends, then slipping the stiletto between the ribs of their stories. Mark Williams on the right, laconic, full of pride at battles fought, reading the pile of International Times he’d brought along. In the middle, Shaar Murray himself, shades and a cane, a great performer and a nimble thinker, a treat to see in action. No moderator needed for that.
That panel reached furthest back, to the sixties. The fucking sixties again, right? But its most tantalising parts were glimpses of an earlier sixties, before The Sixties and its stories gentrified the place. A lived sixties, before the language and stances of rock writing hardened, before the fights about its importance were won. It takes careful work, as people are older now and repeating the legend is so seductive, but the most startling parts of the event were often the music critics’ prehistory as fans. (Imagine how rich – how much more diverse, too – the stories of people who didn’t become music critics must be.)
I listened with nervous attention to stories from my own prehistory – like the hostility between the NME and Smash Hits in the early 80s. I grew up on Smash Hits: later, I read Paul Morley and felt he was doing a very similar thing. I admired both: it was curious hearing his distaste for the magazine, his performance of not grasping the point of its silly questions. Morley’s Ask, and Smash Hits’ Biscuit Tin, and Tom Hibbert’s “Who The Hell -?” series in Q, all seemed to me aspects of the same technique – destabilise the interviewee, give them no more special treatment than they might earn on wits alone. Was asking a star’s favourite colour a stupid question? Maybe. Smash Hits knew it was a chance for a smart answer.
What was the rock press’ favourite colour? We could hazard a guess. The sharpest jabs I heard were contemporary, and raised by contemporaries like Paul Gilroy and Penny Reel – What about black music? Why so few women in the underground? Why so much praise for rock? Why so middle-class? Why remember the NME and not Blues And Soul? Whatever great things the undergrounds and the inkies passed down, they passed down these issues too – unresolved, left to grow and become more obvious. This unfinished business of the early music press became the business of subsequent generations of music writers. On some counts, the inheritors did far better.
Gilroy talked about “bromantic ethnographies of the NME” – I missed his panel but that phrase jumped at me on Twitter, and I laughed. But the sense of the work on an underground or weekly mag – the circus of sheer effort involved in bringing the bastard to land each week, that was grand to hear about, like a hundred years ago you might have heard men talk about life on a whaler. Here is where common ground might be found – the grind and the process now is different, but no less arduous. Perhaps less fun, if being smashed together with other people, pushed on at speed to care noisily about things is fun. That idea of fun was what sold the music press, or at least it did to me.
But could it matter? Here is the idea I came away with. There were two strands of work discussed here, two continuities, which existed in uneasy oscillation. (The clue, of course, is in the event’s title). One is – to quote Murray quoting an old editor – “about what the music’s about”. Life, sex, politics, idiocy, drugs, fashion, whatever. The other is about the music, and the stars – who sometimes include the writers. As to the first, the underground was never a music press. But the 80s NME wasn’t always one either: that “socialist youth paper” that put Arsenal’s Charlie Nicholas on the cover one week, Chaka Khan the next. Nor was ILX, an online community that tried to be about Music but found Everything flooding in. And nor is the warp and weft of a Twitter stream or Tumblr dashboard. These were and are places where music fights for its place amidst the beguiling clutter of culture. They tend not to make writers rich.
The second continuity – which doesn’t reveal itself easily as one, because different parts of it loathe each other – puts music at the centre and works at getting close to it. The cocksure gusto of the 70s NME, the avuncular common sense of Q, the delight in sound of early 90s Melody Maker, the earnest excavations of Pitchfork (or its UK equivalents): these might detest one another on a stylistic level, but it seems to me they have more in common than any of them do with Oz. The second continuity sometimes draws energy from the first – the NME reviving itself via the undergrounds, as told at Mark’s event – and sometimes reacts against it. Individuals cross and re-cross the tracks. But they’re not the same. Music is enough, says one voice. It never is, says the other.