19
May 15

A Great Big Clipper Ship

FT138 comments • 3,434 views

NME charlie nicholas 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.

Comments

1 4 5 6 All
  1. 126

    In a panel on the following day, Paul Gilroy takes issue somewhat with the self-mythologising at work in Morley’s spiel: “Paul Morley yesterday, I think, talked about writing the world that you wanted to be in. I’m sure this is a horrible thing to say, but the conceit of that is dreadful” — Gilroy coming from the position of music that was actually being made (primarily black music) being edged out of the world such a writer might want to be in. (The interesting tension for me being that between writers following their curiosity and reporting what was out there, but widely overlooked, and writers conjuring possibilities into being that sidelined what was out there… a tension because I’m drawn to both sides, and was pleased that sides were taken and defended.)

    My comeback on Frank’s Kind of Blue point (that it’s being all these shadowed, conflicted things is a strength) is simply that I’m attempting to explain why KoB *doesn’t* seem to work as a portal towards more and deeper exploration. Empirically (judging by its presence as the one jazz LP in a best-of list) it’s a stop point more than it’s a start point: the favourite jazz LP of many who take no further interest in jazz.

    So I don’t think the disputatious, niggly dimension can be drawing people in — I suspect that people come on it, hear it, read about it and are somewhat baffled by the celebratory misdescriptions, because these don’t match the odd and difficult music they’re hearing. Hence feel a little daunted by the gap between what’s apparently on the record which they maybe like or maybe feel uneasy about) and what all these experts are saying about it. Result: they decide jazz can’t really be for them, that something unspoken is going over their heads. Hence no further exploration. (And that this means the expression of the difficulty isn’t in itself effective enough to override an apparent consensus misperception, of a gorgeous piece of transcendent chill-out and seduction music — and that any impression of dissent it leaves the new listener with merely strengthens that listener’s inclination to doubt they really “get” jazz…)

    This would be a very hard thing to prove!

    (My reading of Miles is based on something you wrote about him years ago, as being the person within a pop form who performed with his back to his audiences… the instigator of the expression of a kind of reserved hostility within the performer-audience relationship, “two’s a crowd on my cloud” etc.)

  2. 127
    koganbot on 24 Jul 2016 #

    Of course, the point I was making about Miles was that Mark’s argumentative writing brought me in, specifically Mark’s argument about Miles’s argumentativeness. (Arguments about the past, and the past being an argument. Which is another reason we need this book!)

    Haven’t made it to Gilroy, but I’m really not feeling his point as you’ve presented it. There’s nothing about imagining a world, a world that could be, that precludes one from taking stock of the world that is — in fact, doing one can be a prime motive for doing the other. Conversely, focusing on what is poses the exact same problems, and is just as much a conceit: you still have to select, with all the exclusions and erasures that inevitably accompany doing so.

    What is includes arguments about what could be, anyway. But this is so abstract. The value of Morley’s vision — in both senses of the word — depends on the vision itself, on what he actually wrote.

    (Speaking of arguments, shouldn’t Mark Ellen and Nick Logan and the like be invited into the conversation?)

    Okay, Morley’s 1982 “Quick Before They Vanish” piece, let’s see how it operates. It courts and uses our response, e.g. wants us to balk at his claim to like everything (no one likes everything; that’s not what liking is about) and wants us to compare ourselves to those people who are into only the Pop Group, one side of a Roland Kirk LP, and just the best bits of Sandinista. Also, while the specificity, Pop Group–half-Kirk–bits o’ Sandinista, bring such people to life, we’re to recognize that they’re a type and they’re hyperbole, so it can be similar artists not those three in particular and there might be five not three, or 105 or 505, the important attribute being the progressive discernment and diminishment, from a group down to a side down to only the good bits.

    Morley’s tone has a certain uncertainty; there’s no hesitance, it’s a strong commanding voice that relies on us to amplify its doubts.

    He starts, “when people ask me what music I like… I say ‘everything.'” I think he’s trying to imply that, whatever their restrictions, the charts, for at least the moment, carry a message of everything, that they are somehow open to more than they’ll ever contain, but you can’t ever be sure what they’ll contain. In any event he likes everything, but then of course he immediately, deliberately contradicts this: it turns out not only doesn’t he like everything, here off the bat is this Genesis song at #10 that he can’t stand. So now that’s the challenge, does his “I like everything” manage to prosper nonetheless? Morley hates the next song too, Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been To Me.” “It’s a great feeling, isn’t it, to hate things?” He’s performing a quick martial arts wrist flick, so it’s not “I like Genesis and Charlene after all” but I like hate and I like that Genesis’s and Charlene’s presence here gives me the opportunity to hate them. By implication, this could also be standing on behalf of the bad bits of Sandinista. If Sandinista were all good would it be as good?

    (Okay, here’s something the piece isn’t stating, and if it’s implying it this may be inadvertent: but, if we’d be diminished without the opportunity to hate Genesis, we’re also diminished without the opportunity to put the Pop Group–Kirk–Sandinista Bits people in their place. They broaden Morley’s story just as much as Genesis and Charlene do. So we can say that — obviously — Morley includes these people in the story. But I don’t think we can meaningfully say the charts include them in their story.)

  3. 128
    koganbot on 24 Jul 2016 #

    Going forward, the Charts are a genre “in a world of its own, pleasured by its own making, but not a deceitful alternative to reality.” So, he’s anticipating that possibly in my mind — possibly in his own — anyway, in someone’s — there is the idea of the charts as a deceitful alternative to reality. But rather, he’s saying, it’s a fantastical reordering of the world, “a strange arrangement of facts and fictions,” neither a fake picture of the world nor an evasion of it, just its own playpen and odds-and-ends store, maybe. (But are these the only choices, and can’t it include elements of all these things, great inventions and hurtful lies, harmful escapism and daring escapes?)

    He makes the brief point that he “wouldn’t want a chart oozing with Haircut 100s, but certainly they can get their 1/30th of it.” [Am I reading right, “1/30th”? The type is too small, my eyes too poor, and the magnification gives me the blurs, so I’m not sure of the fraction.] This point seems unnecessary, because he’s already told us the chart’s an everything, not a one thing. But the point turns out necessary after all, since it sets up Morley’s concern over Duran Duran taking up 1/30th of the chart — so finally, though it’s a bare hint between the lines, and not nearly enough of a hint, we’ve arrived at the question of whether and how what’s on the charts is freezing out what isn’t. And Morley is hinting a potential affinity with the Pop Group–half-Kirk–Sandinista people after all. Maybe we should get rid of some bad bits.

    To refute this, Morley, and the charts, next give us Tight Fit, whose “Fantasy Island” with its range and variety (that’s how Morley hears it) compensates for “Duran Duran.” This is a pretty weak retort, actually. A stronger argument is made via assonance: “Duran Duran are ridiculously bland… Tight fit are a ridiculous blend.” So Duran Duran have made a useful contribution after all, at least to this piece. (But this doesn’t come close to relieving the discord in my mind. I’m sure Morley’s fine with letting such discord stand — discord’s a thing, too — but he should have given the discord a way louder voice.)

    Question: He claims the 12-inch of “Fantasy Island” is actually better than Led Zeppelin III. Is this a straight-up compliment, that he likes Led Zeppelin III but thinks “Fantasy Island” outdoes it? But what is the comparison? That Led Zeppelin are a ridiculous blend (which is kind of true), but Tight Fit are even more ridiculous, or more audacious? Zep was one of the weirdest great groups not to be known for their weirdness, Zep III perhaps the foremost flowering of their unemphasized strangeness. “Fantasy Island” has a great matter-of-fact camp overstatement, but it hardly ranks with Zeppelin’s perpetual extravagant overstatement, not to mention Zeppelin’s out-and-out offensiveness.

    Question 2: Was there a radio format in the UK in which radio stations would be playing all these songs? If not, and if the songs therefore are not rubbing shoulders and butting heads sonically, that undercuts the claim that the Charts constitute a world. If my memory is right Top 40 in the U.S. was fading as a format, playlists being more narrowcast. (MTV was coalescing into a kind of Top 40, but wasn’t close to there yet.)

    That’s where I’ll leave it, at least for now. What I like is the insistence that all chart songs are speaking to one another. Where this piece has a weakness it’s in choosing weak adversaries. Every time Morley uses the word “cool” the piece clanks, because he’s not interested in facing a cool that’s challenging and smart. No one in 1982 who was listening to the Pop Group and Roland Kirk and Sandinista was using that music to impose limits on themselves; such people were at least glancing at the charts, some were listening as hard as Morley, and those who veered away believed that their everything was way bigger than the Charts’. Their song of 1981 might have been “Double Dutch Bus,” and they were likely scarfing up import 12-inches by Taana Gardner and Afrika Bambaataa, and working out whether Marshall Crenshaw or Elvis Costello was the more interesting pop formalist. In NY, a friend of mine who was plumping for Sandinista was eagerly making me tapes of Chris Conner and Rosemary Clooney and Jerry Lee Lewis’s country years. A sax player I jammed with said if we were to form a band we should get someone like Teena Marie to sing lead. The people who did pull back into their fortresses, the hardcore punks and (in Britain) the oi kids, had more interesting and strong reasons than just dourness, ditto the people who’d rather hear something hard than something fun. All these people were due a critique, and in a few years they got one, from me, from the inside because I was one of them and to some extent still am. In this piece, at least, Morley didn’t get within miles of it — to a genuine critique — but he was trying out dance steps, to a beat he heard in his head, dancing out of a tomb, and I do think “everything” is a good word for it.

  4. 129

    Quick responses to the small stuff (as I’m busy with a shameless twitter promo-blitz this morning… )

    a: Yes, the fraction of the chart is 1/30th.
    b: Logan and Ellen should absolutely be brought into the argument (though Logan is unlikely to come: a very shy man, given how important he is).

  5. 130

    re morley & cool: picking on frank’s points just above, but also ed@80 and phil@85

    as someone closereading morley (much too closely) during these years, working things out as i went along, it never occurred to me that he was saying BACK IN THE BOX to the side of himself that gets tarred by the “cool” brush in those remarks — though rereading via frank’s fresh eyes now it’s not exactly an implausible reading!

    he wasn’t repudiating faust or joy division: he was arguing that they meant most and hardest when operating in a context that tight fit also existed in — and (i think) arguing that led zep iii and/or sandinista and/or (even) the pop group tended to create contexts round them which were (in the long run) impoverished… a context that (unconsciously but often definitively) excludes flash and glamour and vulgarity and shallowness and silliness, in the name of a relative cultural refinement that is initially stimulating, but after a while habitual and depleted

    (certainly the story of indie plays out this way, over years and decades: but between 78-83, morley was a strong booster of subway sect and swell maps and marine girls and orange juice and josef k — i didn’t and don’t think he was saying BACK IN YOUR BOX to any of this, more that they worked at their best alongside kim wilde and adam ant and ______ and ________ )

    as an editor and a would-be anthologist, i genuinely think of this somewhat strategically and formally and politically — how does one juxtapose the various pieces in best motion to unleash the best, most fruitful, most [?what exactly?] evolving near-future… in other words, i think in terms of the institutions of cultural democracy (which is a fancy way of talking about the internal technologies and practicalities of, specifically, magazines: tho it could also be radio or TV or festivals or even things like spotify i guess…)

    (a technical terms i often use to myself is “open” vs “closed” — which is to say, thinking about which enthusiasms generate open-ended curiosity towards the world outside them, and which generate closed-mindedness… and when and why and what you can do about this)

    ^^^and plus thinking hard about the implied inner politics here, which definitely has a top-down technocratic element, even if that isn’t a way i like to think about myself

  6. 131
    koganbot on 24 Jul 2016 #

    he wasn’t repudiating faust or joy division

    I’m not even remotely suggesting he was. The cool people he was using as a foil were those who (supposedly) made a point of listening only to, e.g., Faust and only the good bits of Joy Division. So that’s whom Morley’s wrestling, not Faust and Joy Division themselves.

    And in wrestling them I’m not hearing him say “BACK IN THE BOX,”* either to the cool people or to the side of him that gets tarred by the cool brush (whatever it is you think I think this cool side is). In fact I’m saying loudly that he’s making those cool people (his cool side, whatever) part of the story, which he pretty obviously is.

    But I am saying that he’s giving them weak arguments — the cool people, the purist people, the hard people, and the retro people — which weakens the piece considerably.

    *I’m assuming here by “BACK IN THE BOX” you mean “out of our sight.”

  7. 132

    yup i’m largely agreeing with your (ie frank’s) reading here and thus disagreeing with phil’s and ed’s (further up the thread, which is where “BACK IN THE BOX” comes from) — ie picking up on various disparate points made — but i guess i’m also trying to piece together (from memory) a broader picture of what pm’s implied overall position might have been as it evolved, partly bcz the argument you make in a weekly arrives more from the triangulation of lots of elements (stray sentences in reviews and features scattered across different pages and even issues)

    (one of the points cynthia rose stresses in the panel after this one is the sheer volume of writing undertaken at high speed in these titles in this era)

  8. 133
    koganbot on 25 Jul 2016 #

    Okay. It was the phrase “Frank’s fresh eyes” that threw me.

  9. 134
    koganbot on 26 Jul 2016 #

    That is, I don’t see where my fresh eyes should lead anyone to the idea that Morley could be construed as saying, “Indie kid back in the box” or “cool kid back in the box” or “the part of Morley that’s tarred with the cool brush should get stuffed back in the box,” or anything like that. Those are just misreadings, of the piece and, I’m guessing, of Morley. If anything he’s saying that the cool kids et al. need to get out of their various boxes. And even though I’d probably have agreed with that, back then and still, I think his shots at cool kids et al. aim at easy targets and straw boxes. Yes, I’ve said that for the third time now. And Mark’s filled in more of the story. Anyhow, a good argument would have to make the case that these people are indeed in boxes, would have to take into account the good reasons that interesting people end up there (were boxes the intended destination or did boxes just turn out to be the only available domicile?), would have to say why being boxed is bad (must everyone be an extrovert?), and then would have to give a sense of what an unboxed existence looks like. (As for the charts, I wouldn’t say it’s obvious, or right, that the charts themselves provide much of a model for unboxedness, but I see how in a particular moment they can produce surprising juxtapositions, can create visions if not embody them.) Anyhow, such arguments take effort.

  10. 135
    koganbot on 26 Jul 2016 #

    And then there’s the problem that, in coming up with a model for how people like us can extol Tight Fit, no matter how good the model and no matter how good the reasons we present, and how charmingly we present them, we end up fitting Tight Fit into our box.

    But in the meantime, to help perpetuate the conversation, here again is the Kickstarter link.

  11. 136
    koganbot on 26 Jul 2016 #

    (I didn’t write that well. We end up fitting our listening of Tight Fit into our box, and the lkistening of Tight Fit by people who take on our ideas.)

  12. 137

    Hi all who only get their news on this comments thread: the kickstarter succeeded and the project is funded! Which: wow! Also :o :o :) :) :D :D :D

    After a few days rest and self-gathering I will return to the discussion of Frank’s useful input (and everyone else’s), now perhaps rather less chaotically distracted.

  13. 138
    Mark M on 29 Dec 2016 #

    Incidentally, the NME is now literally underground in that its new offices are in the (windowless) basement of the Blue Fin Building in Bankside. Apparently, they do have a full bar down there (I don’t what its opening hours are), and while they no longer have natural light*, at least they haven’t been dispersed to the Isle Of Dogs or Farnborough, which is the fate of most of the other surviving Time Inc UK (formerly IPC) mags.

    *Back in the day, there were music journalists who shunned daylight anyway.

1 4 5 6 All

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)


Required

Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page