May 15

A Great Big Clipper Ship

FT140 comments • 4,161 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.


  1. 1
    Kevin on 19 May 2015 #


    I too was there, you make some interesting points, I plan to write up my own summary of the event.

    One thing I would proffer is that Charlie Nicholas’s appearance on the cover of NME was at a time when football was still a predominantly working class past-time, football and music were inextricably bound in match-going fans. Just a thought.

    Another thing is why should the notion of a ‘golden age’ be so repulsive?

    As I say, I need to go though my own notes and attempt to answer some lingering thoughts; your piece has given even more food.


  2. 2
    Tom on 19 May 2015 #

    Thanks Kevin –

    I hope I don’t give the impression that the idea of a Golden Age is repulsive! But I certainly think it isn’t a simple one. Even in the period Mark chose, there are multiple golden ages on offer – the underground press itself, the roaring 70s, the punk years, the crusading 80s. Each of these have their vocal detractors, and why not. (There are more golden ages afterwards, too.)

    Good point about Charlie Nicholas – and of course a paper with a socialist sense of mission would want to reflect working class interests. But that’s sort of the distinction I’m drawing – music as part of something wider, vs music as a central concern.

  3. 3
    Kevin on 19 May 2015 #

    Hello Tom,

    Not at all, sorry, I’m still trying to process it all hence my seemingly scatter gun approach. I suppose I sense that even talk of a time being ‘golden’ immediately raises defences around issues of age/gender, an argument highlighted by the attendance at Mark’s event, overwhelmingly white middle-aged males.

    Nevertheless, I hope to have a clearer overview of it and what I think in due course.

    Thanks again


  4. 4
    Mark M on 19 May 2015 #

    I think we need to separate out two things: 1) a lack of willingness to engage with music writing today, and 2) an assumption that it’s not as good as it used to be. I feel that both were evident at various points during U/O, but I think 1) is fair enough for people past a certain age and 2) isn’t. The correct thing to say is, ‘I haven’t a clue, but I’m sure/would like to think there’s loads of great stuff going on out there in forms I can’t even imagine.’

    Or maybe I’m saying that because it’s pretty much my own position – I have no idea what’s going on out there. On music and on movies, I largely only read people from the print era or people I know/who know people I know – but I never for an instance imagine that that’s all that’s out there.

  5. 5
    Mark M on 19 May 2015 #

    On another point, the one of sense of importance, it’s fairly easy to see how some of the writers could have got the idea considering not only the size of the readership, but how intensely serious about the papers some of them (we) were.

  6. 6
    Tom on 19 May 2015 #

    Oh, I don’t think they’re wrong about being important. And it’s wrong to think of them as a monolith of ageing white smuggitude (a continuum I’m surely on myself) – lots of different opinions and arguments on display.

    But like I say, importance in a historical story doesn’t necessarily translate to relevance to a current one. And even accepting every argument about decline, there’s a tightrope to walk – a sense of having it both ways re. the power of writers and editors. Could the old school, in their importance and relevance, have prevented the decline? If the answer is no – and it probably is – how can the new school be blamed for not magicking up a revival of that spirit?

  7. 7
    Mark M on 19 May 2015 #


  8. 8
    Tommy Mack on 20 May 2015 #

    “its most tantalising parts were glimpses of an earlier sixties, before The Sixties and its stories gentrified the place” – interesting point. Do you mean an earlier 60s as in early 60s, e.g. pre-Beatles before the era of myths and legends got started or an earlier 60s as in closer to or perhaps even during the decade itself before the mythology ossified into assumed historical fact?

    Disappointed I missed it, anyway. Nice title too, BTW!

  9. 9
    Kevin on 20 May 2015 #

    I think there’s also the huge issue of ‘what’s’ written about (as Tom mentioned), that period discussed combined revolutionary forms of music and music/popular culture writing, can that be said over the last 10 years/today? The monolith you speak of is history, if history’s boundaries have collapsed (a la Simon Reynolds et al) then how can anything be seen as being part of ‘history’? Can anyone seriously believe that in 40 years time music (e.g. Arctic Monkeys) and/or criticism (e.g. the plethora of online writing) will be worthy of the same reverence?

    It’s not always ‘fogeyism’ to mourn a period and be wistful of the progress attained.

    Sorry if this is rambling, as previously stated, this is good brain food.


  10. 10
    Phil on 20 May 2015 #

    When I read Jonathon Green’s Days in the Life (way back in the 1980s…) it gave me a real sense of the sixties before The Sixties. I think what you had – as with punk a decade later – was a very small ‘scene’, almost entirely based in London, with a few dozen people doing most of the moving & shaking, but with many, many more people reading the literature, going to gigs, going to demos and marches, growing (or cutting) their hair. And in both cases the core scene had the resonance it did because it encapsulated something millions of (young) people felt – a feeling of defeat & powerlessness, and a concomitant feeling of defiance, a revolt into creativity. If you start the Sixties with The Sixties – Woodstock, Biba, Sgt Pepper – you miss that drive; it’s like writing about the Nazis and starting in 1933, as if this regime emerged fully-formed from the earth one day.

  11. 11

    Kevin: what do you take the phrase “history’s boundaries have collapsed” actually to mean? I literally have no idea how you’re parsing it — partly because it could mean several, conflicting things.

    Phil: obviously many names were cited of those no longer with us to comment — Felix Dennis, Mick Farren, Penny Valentine, to name just three — but in a way (or anyway in my head), the presiding spirit ended up being someone who may not have been mentioned: John Hopkins, always known as “Hoppy”, a physicist-turned-photographer-turned-activist who died this January, who was personally known to — and important to — a significant proportion of the older participants (and some who in the end weren’t able to be participants). He’s all over the early stages of Days in the Life… when he was contributing to Melody Maker, which does not I think get a mention (it’s not in the index anyway). This is an element in their own story which is — as far as I know — absolutely off the radar of the young MM turks in the late 80s and 90s: that their arrival on and critical success at a title depended on the absolute expungement (if that’s a word) of its deep past (and historical radicalism). Val Wilmer and Richard Williams spoke to some of this in their marvellous session, but they only had 100 minutes to re-register and correct decades of misperception and forgetfulness — Val has already sent me a note full of things she’s cross with herself for not saying!

    One takeaway from me — derived as much as anything from something Cynthia Rose said to me — is that the horizon of historical awareness at any given moment on any of these titles was nearly nil; young people then were as blithely dismissive of the very recent past (on just as slim evidence) as young people can be today (those who aren’t temperamentally drawn to history as a topic, anyway). No one has a sense of what a paper was like before they themselves started reading it — how remarkably different it might have been. Rose is unusual in that the drive of her curiosity while she worked there sent her to the NME’s own archives: but even then the kind of reading you do during that kind of archival research is very different from the kind of reading you do as an eager teen trying to make sense of the actual world you find yourself in (and generally fighting against the weight of a received past for a space for yourself and how you think the world should be).

    Something about this gulf — which may be unbridgeable — is a continued thread in this story; of course it somehow maps onto the gap between how historians approach the past and how working cultural journalists approach it. (Which I’ve just realised is another meaning embedded in the underground/overground oscillation…)

    adding: i guess i shd out myself here as mark sinker btw

  12. 12
    Phil on 20 May 2015 #

    I looked back at my review of DITL when I was writing that comment, and very nearly quoted a line from John Hopkins. It says something about this process of institutional learning & forgetting, so here it is:

    seeing what you can and can’t do in the world, it may be that running around with banners isn’t always the best way to solve something. I think that a lot of what we did was making gestures because we didn’t really have the mechanisms of how the world worked down well enough.

    It’s sad if one generation after another is having to go through that learning process. On the other hand, when has one generation ever learnt from the one before? Not often e-bloody-nough, that’s when. Think on. Or in the words of the Beat in their political stage,

    Freedom’s just a new deodorant
    The money’s spent and you’ve been had
    If you don’t believe me, ask your Dad

    Just typing those words takes me back to the early 80s, and the virtuous circle the rock press – and especially NME, although I was a Sounds reader for a very long time – managed to create in those days: take pop music really seriously while at the same time talking about important stuff, and the musicians themselves would come to take what they were doing seriously and engage with important stuff, and everyone would benefit – more, better, pop culture! And then Green would desert us, and Elvis would run out of ideas, and Bono would turn up and sell it all back to us… but we didn’t know that then.

  13. 13

    as for learning from our predecessors, maybe i shd reach for another of my touchstones, mr harold “yes he’s a windbag” bloom, and note that intergenerational communication will never not be agonistic: that legacy is always more contest than it’s flow; that influence — in any of the senses it’s routinely deployed — doesn’t actually exist etc.

  14. 14
    Mark M on 20 May 2015 #

    ‘that the horizon of historical awareness at any given moment on any of these titles was nearly nil; young people then were as blithely dismissive of the very recent past (on just as slim evidence) as young people can be today (those who aren’t temperamentally drawn to history as a topic, anyway)’

    Yes, but… As I remember it, the NME went fairly big on the 10th anniversary of punk, and not just ‘this happened’ but ‘this happened on the pages of the NME.’ But maybe that was the start of what someone dubbed ‘retromania’…

    (Talking of which) on the other hand, the Melody Maker did indeed seem to be constantly in the process of forgetting its past, reinventing itself in a not-always happy way. As a side note, on what’s-officially-remembered vs what-happened, I think during the now-fetishised-in-some-places era of the Oxford-theory boys, the readership skewed considerably goth and much of the content of the paper actually reflected that.

  15. 15

    haha from what i recall of that pioneering anniversary issue* it was the epitome of lack of historical awareness — it certainly didn’t give any sense of what the paper had felt like 10 years before, quite the opposite

    *i was on-strength tho not on-staff when it was put together — i don’t recall knowing anything about it till the issue arrived though, and thinking it wasn’t very good

  16. 16
    Mark M on 20 May 2015 #

    Re15: OK, so just to be pedantic/precise, ‘historical awareness’ is nil, but that can also mean that as well as being ‘blithely dismissive of the very recent past’, they might also/instead use that recent past in ways that are (possibly unintentionally) wildly selective, ahistorical and self-serving?

  17. 17

    Indeed — but this process wasn’t invented by Danny Kelly, nor is it remotely a recent phenom (pace S.Reynolds). It’s a traumatic side-effect of expanding literacy and access: I’ve just finished reading the two novels Hilary Mantel’s so far written about Thomas Cromwell, and “selective, ahistorical and self-serving” is all over the use he (and his King, and his many foes) make of the Bible* now suddenly available to the Putney-born in un-gatekeepered non-Latin; and within a century the Henrician move — make these words say what *I* need them to mean — is culture-wide and manifests as the many internecine religious-political sects and tribes in and after the Civil War, and a world turned upside-down. Elective affinities of value out of self-interested reading: it’s where the power and allure comes from, as Phil suggests above, the sense of being part of a community, but it’s also where the rupture and the corruption begins (because a selection of these readers will always go on to be legislators; unacknowledged if yr a sub-editor, as you and I are).

    *Adding: obviously the Bible wasn’t the “recent past” even in the 16th century; the point is, it was (for a vastly expanded group of readers) a shared (and contested) territory, bold upstart parvenus going to war with priests and scholars over its meaning. In the mid-80s, the shared territory to hand was the music wars of the mid-70s.

  18. 18
    Kevin on 20 May 2015 #

    Scrambled thoughts, sorry, but, here’s a start:

    ‘History’s boundaries have collapsed’

    1. Events in history seem rootless, the 2nd World war is grabbed at all times and is more present now than it was 40 years ago. A song from 1957 is as easily available as one from 2015, multiple histories all existing at once ‘the glut’.

    2. Feel difficult feel times to think/see a past that remains there, a song/artefact being fixed in a certain time, it’s immediate retrieval part of the collage of everynow, past-iche’

    3. Clothes/style, it all seems a mish-mash of everything ever. Where the 60s saw clothes re/de-contextualised (fashion/political statement who knows) now the blend seems more just a nod back to when these clothes were appropriated

  19. 19
    Phil on 20 May 2015 #

    A song from 1957 is as easily available as one from 2015

    Yes and no. In a world where a blatant copy of Button Up Your Overcoat (1929) can be the UK’s Eurovision entry, it’d be foolish to deny that all that stuff is available, but I think rock’s continuous present started a bit later – say 1966? I argued back here that

    the way music now seems to stay in fashion indefinitely … is a very recent phenomenon: at the time of Dark side it would have seemed absurd to talk in this way about music that was 33 years old, or 13 years old for that matter. ‘Progressive’ rock wasn’t a genre to us then – it represented rock that had progressed, had left the past behind. (A few years later, many of us had similar views about the New Wave.)

    There’s another thought – has rock’s continuous present stopped?

  20. 20
    wichitalineman on 20 May 2015 #

    Re 19: “Blatant copy” – surely the Eurovision entry is a tribute to music of the late 20s. There’s also the Louis Armstrong-styled scat break. Having said that, I’ve been humming Button Up Your Overcoat to myself a lot in the last few weeks so that could explain it.

    As for blatant steals… I was watching Till The Clouds Roll By, the Jerome Kern story last night and wondered why his first Broadway hit They Didn’t Believe Me was so familiar. After racking my brains I realised it was purloined for the standard What a Difference a Day Makes twenty years later.

    Nothing to do with Mark’s conference, really. As you were…

  21. 21

    i was about to insist that to bring it back on-topic you have to trump my “nothing new under the sun” entries with something strictly pre-cromwell.t — then i realised this entire thread i’ve (unconsciously) been playing a version of mornington crescent where the secret game-winning phrase is literally “the lollards of pop” :D

  22. 22
    wichitalineman on 20 May 2015 #

    The one thing that didn’t embarrass me about the “it was better in the olden days” line on the Morley/Ingham/Hoskins panel was the comment Paul Morley made about missing a consensus. This really suggested that he doesn’t know where to look for the best contemporary music writing (or the best contemporary music, for that matter). There’s still a consensus on new cinema, books too. But I’m also lost on new music/new music writing, relying on tips from younger friends.

    Talking to a noted FT commenter on Friday night, the best part of two decades younger than me, he was mourning the demise of the blog. Which makes the demise of the weekly music papers feel like a very old story. And in turn makes me feel very old.

    As for Paul Morley’s apparent hatred of Smash Hits, I think that had to be a personal beef with Mark Ellen and/or David Hepworth.

  23. 23
    Phil on 20 May 2015 #

    A tribute’s a tribute, but a song on the same theme with an identical lyrical structure and a near-identical tune is just a rip-off. I found BUYO on Youtube (couldn’t find the Bonzos version, sadly) and played it to my unsuspecting family; my daughter said “that’s the same song” even before the vocals came in.

    #22 – knowing Mark Ellen’s sense of humour, I can’t imagine him and Paul Morley ever being on the same wavelength – certainly not in the 80s.

  24. 24
    Ed on 20 May 2015 #

    @21 Well, to stick with the Biblical theme, Gospel writers used OT verses to prove that Jesus was the Messiah. I think that counts.

    Maybe Themistocles’ spin on the Oracle at Delphi, if you want to go back a bit earlier.

  25. 25
    wichitalineman on 20 May 2015 #

    Sorry Phil, the tune isn’t “near-identical” – I’d agree the structure is similar (it’s a classic Broadway song structure) but if it was truly “ripping off” one of the most famous songs ever written other people would have called it out before it was selected for Eurovision.

  26. 26
    Phil on 20 May 2015 #

    The structure of “Blue suede shoes” or “If you love somebody set them free” is similar – this is a much closer likeness. As for the melody, listen to the way Ruth Etting sings the last verse/refrain – you just need to bend ‘Overcoat’ out of shape a bit and you’re practically there.

  27. 27
    koganbot on 21 May 2015 #

    Mark M @4:

    Or maybe I’m saying that because it’s pretty much my own position – I have no idea what’s going on out there. On music and on movies, I largely only read people from the print era or people I know/who know people I know – but I never for an instance imagine that that’s all that’s out there.

    Wait, are you or are you not counting those who post and comment at Freaky Trigger as people you know/who know people you know? Either way, the fact that you read and participate in Freaky Trigger means you do have some clue as to what’s going on out there. Why discount yourself? (And even if you didn’t read Freaky Trigger, why wouldn’t you count those you know/who know people you know as giving you some clue?)

  28. 28
    koganbot on 21 May 2015 #

    As for me, I’ve barely read any pre-’85 Britcrit except Charlie Gillett, Simon Frith, and Nik Cohn* — and for Cohn, it was his American-published stuff anyway (and that’s true of some of the Frith, as well — maybe got some early Penman in there, and I did read Melody Maker on and off in the late ’70s, early ’80s, when I dropped by my friend Bob Galipeau’s in NYC). So I wonder what surprises old Britain has for me.

    *And yes, I know he grew up in Northern Ireland, but I think he published mostly in Britain and America.

  29. 29
    Mark M on 21 May 2015 #

    Re27: Sorry, you’re right – that was a bit sweeping. People who post on FreakyTrigger are indeed covered by people I know/people who know people I know category – I first became aware of the site when I met Tom and Pete at someone’s birthday drinks down the pub*. Also, as that was over 15 years ago, it means that Freaky Trigger has lasted longer than many of the print publications I worked for – in the best way it feels like a bit of an institution (as Mark was pointing out, even Lollards of Pop started eight years ago).

    On the other hand, you’re right that the commenters include a disparate range of voices, with old reliables constantly being joined by new (sometimes much younger) voices with (again sometimes) very different takes on things. So, yes, I probably an aware of more than I was conceding.

    The other thing I do read regularly (again involving some of the same people) is The Singles Jukebox. Again, that seems to have been around for so long I’d be reluctant to use it to claim I had a grasp on the new, fizzing stuff that’s happening NOW! I’m not sure if any of the panellists at U/O had namechecked it, the young Turks would have been at all assuaged.

    *On Fleet St, as it happens.

  30. 30
    Mark M on 21 May 2015 #

    Incidentally, when the football player cover was mentioned at U/O, somebody in the audience volunteered the idea that it would have been Pat Nevin (sometime NME contributor, self-confessed Scottish indie kid, nippy winger for Chelsea FC in the mid-’80s), whereas in fact, as we now know, it was Charlie Nicholas, a very different beast altogether.

  31. 31
    Tom on 21 May 2015 #

    Newer sites/spaces I follow:

    One Week One Band (duh) (this is itself something of an institution) http://oneweekoneband.tumblr.com – does what it says on the tin. When it’s good OWOB is the best music writing in the world right now.

    Total Rewatch Live – Crystal Leww and Katharine St Asaph rewatching old MTV videos, quite pointedly http://totalrewatchlive.tumblr.com – pointed and funny.

    Grooves N Jams – Megan Harrington and er er someone else (sorry!!) (called David I think!) reviewing new stuff, I mention this mainly because I got a lot out of its recommendations last year! I like the two-hander style too. http://groovesnjams.tumblr.com

    Witchsong: witchsong.com A music site started (I think) by some of the young women who write for Rookie. I find this completely baffling a lot of the time and don’t read 90% of it, which is obviously not an indictment!

    Oh and I read FACT magazine on and off to hear about UK club music – the level of obscurantism sometimes makes Pitchfork read like Q but especially at end of year list time it’s a useful resource.

    Beyond that it’s individuals’ tumblrs, though some of the energy seems to have gone from that scene as a lot of the people in it are now making a living, or scratching one, writing for Pitchfork etc.

  32. 32
    Tom on 21 May 2015 #

    Re Nevin/Nicholas – they did another cover much later about football, in 1989. Maybe that was Pat Nevin? I am the classic stereotypical middle-class guy who only started paying attention with Italia 90 so I wouldn’t know :)

  33. 33
    Tom on 21 May 2015 #

    Unpicking the “collapse of history” – I haven’t actually read all of Retromania (which is where a lot of this comes from I think, or is crystallised) and I certainly don’t disagree with every part of its ideas as I understand them, but there’s a lot of different overlapping potential strands in this general reading of our times:

    1. The idea of music “progressing” (which tends to mean sounding different from one year to the next) and that this has slowed or stopped. (I am persuadable about this, with the caveat that I think progress can become a fetish obscuring other interesting stuff.)
    2. The idea that this is happening across popular culture in general. (I am very unconvinced by this part in particular)
    3. The idea that the internet has created a “perpetual present” where lots of historical things are available right now. (Again, yes, but this has played out in very different degrees and ways across different media.)
    4. The idea that the internet has broadened access to music, and to writing about music – so that ‘rock criticism’ as a community and practice has changed. (I think the clashes at U/O suggest this might be true.)
    5. The effects of online distribution and digitisation on the economics of music and music writing. (These feel sufficiently enormous to account for most of the other stuff anyhow.)
    6. The way in which as you get older years, like birthdays, start blurring anyway and you lose your sense of what might be the changes worth looking out for. (Alas)
    7. The way that as you get older you want to describe and defend what was specifically exciting about your youth. (I am really interested how this impulse is fought or surrendered to in different people and areas.)
    8. The basic operation of nostalgia and memory and the way things (music included) gets tied to memories of places and times. (This surely hasn’t changed.)

    These are all interesting and debatable things which it’s tempting to bundle up together into a grand theory. But I dunno if I buy all of the different parts. Even at the most basic level the question “Is music less exciting now than in 1988?” seems almost inseparable from “Am I still 15?”. And when I WAS 15 I listened to a lot of old music myself as well as the new – was I living in a perpetual now? It didn’t feel that way. Was I unusually historically minded? Maybe.

  34. 34
    Mark M on 21 May 2015 #

    Re32: Yes, 1989 had another football cover, but still no Pat – that one has someone in a Liverpool kit playing (an inflatable? I can only find a blurry pic) guitar (head not visible – presumably a hapless staffer made to dress up). Obviously, on an Italia 90 tip, John Barnes was on the cover with Barney that year.

    Re31: I do occasionally read OWOB, usually when you’ve plugged a particular act/topic week.

  35. 35
    Mark M on 21 May 2015 #

    One idea about the ‘perpetual now’ I’m particularly resistant to is Kevin’s (18, point 3) about clothes/style – this has been a line since the late ’80s at the very least – when a lot of people were aiming very hard for classic timelessness in reaction to what had gone before – but almost certainly goes back much further*.

    Then you look back at photos and people go, ‘Oh, my god, we look so ’80s!/’90s/whatever’. Which is true – pictures of some of my mates with bowl haircuts and Lennon shades and paisley shirts in the late ’80s never make me think it could really be the ’60s… likewise, with, say, that Donnie Brasco style (brown leather coats, sleazy shirts with wide collars) in the late ’90s.

    Or think about period films – no matter what period they are SET in, the period they are MADE in is almost always obvious. At the time, it’s easy to become blind to that.

    I very much doubt the beard-crazed 2012-15 period will be hard to spot in future pictures.

    *My dad is always banging on about how in the ’50s people working in the City were wearing bowler hats again as a postwar return-to-how-things-should-be, when they had been considered terribly passé in the 1930s.

  36. 36
    Phil on 21 May 2015 #

    I think the perpetual present of rock antedates the Internet. Perhaps it’s something to do with the professionalisation of rock music, or of rock management. When I was first getting into music in the 1970s, the early years of (say) the Kinks or the Beach Boys felt like relevant background to a continuing story, whereas the work of Joe Meek – or of an artist like Cliff Bennett – seemed like something you’d have to dig for. 40 years on this still feels broadly true, with roughly the same (blurry) frontier in the early 60s.

    Another stray memory: some time in the late 70s I picked up a secondhand copy of the Flock’s Dinosaur Swamps, having (a) read somewhere that this was an Urtext of US psychedelia and (b) been blown away by the cover (which is pretty amazing – wish I’d kept it now). I played it a couple of times and was baffled – couldn’t see the appeal at all. A friend said “When they made that it was basically before rock“. Which can’t be entirely true (it was released in 1970 – the same year as Abbey Road and the Yes Album) but certainly captured something about the sound of it: it didn’t sound like they’d listened to a lot of Cream or Led Zeppelin, put it that way. So there’s another way to divide up the decades: Before Rock, lasting till some time in the mid-60s (or longer if you’re on the West Coast); Rock, lasting from then until…???; and After Rock…???

  37. 37

    I’ve discussed this with some approval on ilx in the past, but one of the GREAT things NME was doing in the early 80s was its series of curated tapes, which simultaneously gathered the best of this year’s now (beginning with the epochal and still startling C81) but also offered informed glimpses into 50s R&B, jazz, reggae, country classic and modern, torch song and so on. I honestly find the complaint about the current availability of so much past and present weird, more a symptom of a kind of critical laziness (not to say incompetence) than any kind of valid critique of anything.* I don’t mind that cultural journalists are often bad historians — this is kind of built into the respective temperaments and ethos of the two disciplines — but I do find it annoying when the journalists are complaining that history, expanding to explore the rich contradictory depth of what actually happened (as opposed to what journalists had got into the habit of claiming had happened) is somehow making it harder for the journalists to do their jobs unchallenged, as once perhaps they did. Which is I’m afraid somewhat how I read the claim that “history’s boundaries have collapsed”.

    We live in a time of extremes of proximity, not just between cultural blocs formerly more safely distanced (or so it seemed, in the metropole), but also between present and strong representation of elements of the past (if it’s true that WW2 never seems to go away, it’s also now true that the Tudors are ever-present, for example): I think negotiating these proximities has become a *lot* more perilous, but we actually do have to negotiate this situation (and not just wish it away as a symptom); which inevitably means become expert in far more things than we perhaps formerly believed we signed up for. Mark M’s point about period films — which is to say, about better, more precise reading of the various contradictory signals in any given object of scrutiny** — speaks very strongly to me: bad-semiotics-as-political-shortcut is of course more widespread than ever, but the solution to this (I would insist) is *more* careful reading and listening, not less. All generalisations are maddening to someone: who’s being erased and why might it matter? is rarely a bad question.

    *(A much more serious complaint — at the heart of the seeming glut — is that such a lot is actually not available, or becoming quietly unavailable, and that this process is basically invisible. One of the strengths of some of the websites Tom lists is that they’re basically run by young people pushing back against this process of silent shut-down.)
    **e.g. Wolf Hall is in one sense about the Tudors, but in another — since it’s written by someone who’s our contemporary — is about us here and now. It’s silly to shut down either information-stream (and sillier still just to respond by saying “why aren’t we talking the future anymore?”)

  38. 38
    Steve Mannion on 21 May 2015 #

    #33 I relate to your last point as when I was 15 I also spent at least a third of my listening time enjoying older music (although notably not THAT old…1959-1989 essentially) whether on radio (Capital Gold) or tapes. I think a lot of this was to do with wanting insight into how teenagers of those times felt and what excited them about music rather than buying into a fixed idea of cool or Good Music from those at that point twice my age or more.

  39. 39
    Mark M on 21 May 2015 #

    One of the things I like about the film Adventureland (2009), set in 1987, is that the characters listen to a) indie music of that time (Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Mary Chain) but b) the music that they would have read that music is in some way a continuation of* from (Big Star, Velvet Underground) and c) pop music** of the time and (slightly more) of the relatively recent past, which, I think, especially considering that they are working in a down-at-heel amusement park, makes sense.

    (I think generally it’s a tricky business, the use of music in (recent) period films – quite often you feel that a song has been slung in because the director/soundtrack person likes it or the rights are cheap when it’s a few years out and a bit off culturally; but equally, as with furniture, clothes etc, nothing feels more wrong than a film in which everything is exactly 1987).

    *Tries vainly to dodge the ‘influence’ thing
    **Rightly including hair metal.

  40. 40
    Mark M on 21 May 2015 #

    Also, certainly in the ’80s, old music was often cheaper* – second-hand/charity shop, mid-price reissues or taped off an older sibling/uncle/aunt/parent etc’s vinyl.

    *As, indeed, it often is now for those of us who actually want to pay for it and don’t mind CDs.

  41. 41
    Mark M on 21 May 2015 #

    And libraries, of course!

  42. 42
    punctum on 21 May 2015 #

    I didn’t go to either of the Birkbeck days because (a) I was working on one of the days and (b) we had to urgently prioritise other stuff on the second day for work-related reasons. L thinks I might have got annoyed by what did go on but I only have the accounts here and (slightly) elsewhere to go by.

    Points in approximate order, then:
    1) a lack of willingness to engage with music writing today, and 2) an assumption that it’s not as good as it used to be: not fair to or for people of any age because it implies that history has been sorted out, that this was “their” story and woe betide any upstarts who dare to question, enlarge or advance it. Life’s either a series of continuous discoveries or it’s not worth having (to paraphrase my hero Max H). But the implication here appears to be “WE made the story happen and it was OUR time and when it was all over we made sure to pull the ladder up behind us so that NOBODY could climb it again.” And so you get laments about where’s the next Bangs/Kent etc. on the one hand while on the other you’re telling your reviewers never to use the first person singular in their writing and asking to retain copyright.

    The correct thing to say is, ‘I haven’t a clue, but I’m sure/would like to think there’s loads of great stuff going on out there in forms I can’t even imagine.’ INCORRECT – as a music writer it’s your bloody job to keep up with what your peers and successors are doing and thinking so get up off your arse, put that Spector biography or CSM aside, switch on your computer and see for yourself (I of course use “you” as a general howl into the wind rather than Mark M or anyone else personally).

    And that goes for printed matter as well: Chris O’Leary’s Rebel Rebel is the best book about Bowie I’ve ever read, but where are the in-store displays, the broadsheet rave reviews? Instead you get coffee-table Bowie On Bowie cut-and-paste jobs publicised, because the publisher’s bigger or better connected.

    if history’s boundaries have collapsed (a la Simon Reynolds et al) then how can anything be seen as being part of ‘history’? Can anyone seriously believe that in 40 years time music (e.g. Arctic Monkeys) and/or criticism (e.g. the plethora of online writing) will be worthy of the same reverence?

    Well (a) you shouldn’t take as gospel anything that SR says and (b) I’d be tempted to say that music writers would do well to forget about “history” but as the author of a largely unknown blog about number one albums I’d be shooting myself by saying that. (c) I’ll be very fortunate if I’m still alive in 40 years’ time but music and writing about it from the now (which in 40 years’ time will be 40 years ago) is I would argue worthier of reverence than the largely overrated piffle which preceded it. Not trying to be arrogant here but people 40 years hence will be talking about Carmody, McDonald, Ewing, Ingram, Fisher and me (amongst many, many others) with immense reverence. As for how the music will be viewed, that depends on the whims and fashions of 40 years from now, doesn’t it?

    No one has a sense of what a paper was like before they themselves started reading it — how remarkably different it might have been. I do because I spent months, if not years, of Saturday afternoons at the Mitchell Library as a teenager reading old MMs/NMEs etc. from before I started reading them (about 1969, since you ask; I was an early starter and I’m afraid if that’s how the Monitor people approached it then they got it wrong – and I can say that, because some of the ideas which flowed into the pages of that period’s MM were mine (“SO WHY DIDN’T YOU WRITE AT THE TIME THEN?” goes up the chorus. The answer is that I married young and had to make a living; my priorities were different from those of most other music writers) – because what I had in mind was a subtler continuation or modification of the Richard Williams/Steve Lake include-the-other ethos which got lost around 1980 for political reasons (only Lynden Barber was carrying that particular torch in early eighties MM).

    The one thing that didn’t embarrass me about the “it was better in the olden days” line on the Morley/Ingham/Hoskins panel was the comment Paul Morley made about missing a consensus. This really suggested that he doesn’t know where to look for the best contemporary music writing (or the best contemporary music, for that matter). There’s still a consensus on new cinema, books too. But I’m also lost on new music/new music writing, relying on tips from younger friends.
    He knew twelve years ago when he cited Ewing, me and a few others as the way to go in Words And Music but qualified his praise by saying we had all clearly taken him as a totem of influence. Actually with me and Morley it was a bit like Clough and Revie; I thought that I could do what he did, but that I could do it better, and so it has turned out (as things actually DID turn out, Penman was and is maybe leagues ahead of the rest of us but he doesn’t put himself about nearly as much, or as desperately, as PM does). Why the consensus on books/cinema – that’s just ancient snobbery which half a century of this writing hasn’t dispelled.

    Talking to a noted FT commenter on Friday night, the best part of two decades younger than me, he was mourning the demise of the blog. Which makes the demise of the weekly music papers feel like a very old story. And in turn makes me feel very old.
    Can’t comment on that because I almost never read blogs now apart from ones for which L and myself are responsible (and those to which we link, i.e. Bowiesongs, Croydon Municipal etc). That in itself makes me feel old because virtually all of the Dissensus people have long since stopped blogging and I’m nearly the last person of note from that period still doing it. Was it me who stopped moving, or the world?

    Finally, when I was 15, it was 1979 and I was too busy trying to keep up with new stuff to bother much with the past. Much like me at 51, really.

    The above is really messy and discontinuous but I’m on my lunch break.

  43. 43
    Mark M on 21 May 2015 #

    Re42: ‘The correct thing to say’ etc – I was thinking less about those actively covering music today, than those (the early panels) who are either actually retired or writing about something other than music or mostly doing obits these days. (Not that I belong in such company, but for the record I include myself among the retired as someone who half voluntarily and half through market forces no longer writes about music (other than arguing the toss in these comment sections).

    Of the panellists still earning their daily bread in the ‘industry’, I think Barney Hoskyns and Mark Pringle from Rock’s Back Pages were the ones who were most deliberately disengaged from the present (they said that RBP had someone younger to deal with 1990s onwards).

  44. 44
    punctum on 21 May 2015 #

    And they wonder why nobody will pay them $50 to access it? BH only one year older than Mark S; no excuse.

    Problem is with this false memory syndrome and musicians-should-be-my-butler system of anti-thinking prevalent among white, middle-aged, middle-class men (hey, I tick all four boxes; doesn’t make it right) which started with Hornby and encourages people to pretend that they always liked such and such a “classic” and that nothing deserved to be written about other than “classics.” The thing is there are other people banging on the door with things to say but you WON’T LET US IN. What are you old men afraid of?

  45. 45
    koganbot on 24 May 2015 #

    “The besieging or breaking of its spirit during the 80s, under competitive pressure from style and pop mags.”

    Question here would be, is this account accurate? — which I guess is two questions: (1) Is Tom being accurate as to how the panelists saw things (that they themselves came from the underground, or at least the spirit that inhabited them did, and that what broke them — it — the spirit — came from Outside, from “pop” and “style” mags)? (2) Assuming that a significant number of panelists did see things this way, are they right?

    Fwiw, I see no equivalently broken spirit in 1985 in the U.S., though maybe there was and I missed it. Anyway, I may be noticing (i) differences between U.S. and Britain, (ii) differences between me and Tom, (iii) differences between me and many others, (iv) etc. So:

    (i) In the U.S. in 1985 rockwrite/musicwrite was solidly embedded in the back pages of alternative weeklies, and rockwrite’s/musicwrite’s attitude then isn’t much different from Freaky Trigger’s attitude now which isn’t much different from Paul Nelson’s and Richard Goldstein’s and Bob Dylan’s in 1965 (i.e., good music can come from anywhere; let’s hope it sometimes embodies our social ideals, but let’s not assume it or require it; anyway, in ’85 Village Voice and ilk, coverage of hip-hop, dance, and r&b was assumed, along with alternative rock, of course). But also there was a massively big, mostly diy “underground” of connected mags and fanzines and hardcore punk bands and alternative and indie bands, likely encompassing many more writers than the Sixties “underground” press ever had. Maximum Rock N Roll and Op magazine and Forced Exposure come to mind as mags with reach (which is a big range there, actually, Op as interested in Ornette Coleman as in Black Flag), but every Middlesex village and farm had a hardcore band and an indie band and a zine. Some of the people who wrote for these also wrote for the “alternative” weeklies, and given that I was one of the zine people I’d say they included people who liked/wrote about hip-hop and dance and r&b and Madonna and Springsteen, but overall there was certainly a strong sense of alienation or difference from a “mainstream,” and much hostility towards and alienation from it. Back at the level of the alternative weeklies, there may have been as much alienation felt by the writers, but much more openness towards the culture they were alienated from, and much more skepticism of indie and alternative and undergrounds. Which is to say that their writers were in general smarter than the indie and hardcore brats were. And this relates to a point that doesn’t get emphasized enough: starting back in the folk magazine Sing Out! in the early and mid Sixties, rockwrite (folkwrite?) has always had a split between writer and reader, with the readers tending to want support for the music and ideals that brought them to the pages, but with the critics being actual, you know, critics, and therefore never totally buying into the idea of the counterculture or the superiority of the “underground” music they were championing.* Another split in “rock journalism” (or whatever) was between those who wrote features and artist profiles, on the one hand, and those who wrote the reviews, on the other. Again, this split is hardly absolute, but anyway when we think of “rockwrite” we tend to think of the latter. The former were more likely than the latter to be hard news guys, but they also tended to be more casually disdainful (and more kneejerk in their disdain) of the larger popular culture.

    Also: in the ’60s, underground mags were style mags with politics. Also, Esquire , which was a weird combo style mag and lit mag, published seminal writer Tom Wolfe and also the early work of Robert Christgau.

    Also: in the ’80s and ’90s, mags like Spin and Details sure felt like style mags to me, esp. Details. But they certainly published rockwrite/musicwrite. Also, fwiw, the only magazine-that-pays that I was ever on the masthead** for was the Australian Smash Hits circa 1990, whose writing styles/picture-caption styles didn’t seem much different from the amused style of classic ’70s Creem. (I’m thinking of one particular subfeature called “The Stars Try To Look Like Taylor Dayne” where photos of different stars were unearthed that were angled in such a way that made the stars’ hairstyles look like Taylor’s.)

    Also: in the Sixties there was a very lucrative pop music that many kids would dance to that was called “rock.” In the ’80s there was a very lucrative pop music that kids would dance to that was called “rock.” (Yes, what I just wrote is simplistic, but the tension between “rock” and “pop” is partly owing to the former being something of the latter and vice versa. Also, all forms of modern Anglo-American (etc.) music have related tensions, because the impulse to set oneself apart from the mainstream is itself a mainstream impulse.)

    Anyway, 1985 was a great time to start writing criticism, but not necessarily a great time to earn a living at it.

    (Maybe (ii) and (iii) and (iv) to come, but no guarantees.)

    *Of course, most mags and weeklies also had less committed and more general and mainstream readers who wanted insight into an outside they didn’t feel really a part of. But their attitudes weren’t all that different from the committed partisans, actually (as opposed to the critical attitudes of the critics).

    **I was on the masthead as “U.S. West Coast correspondent” so they could pretend a presence in the U.S., but I only ever wrote one piece for them, a review of Batman in which I called the Joker “Vatman” because he’d been disfigured when he’d been thrown into a vat of acid or something.

  46. 46
    koganbot on 24 May 2015 #

    (i) cont. I left out that in the U.S. the loose ’80s indie-alternative music and fanzine network also included indie labels and college radio stations. Not sure how important the latter were, but I would expect they were very important. My not necessarily correct impression is that from the ’50s through to the mid ’00s music audiences and genres in the U.S. were organized and to some extent created by radio, whereas in Britain the music mags played a much stronger role in organizing audiences (stronger than U.S. mags, and stronger — maybe — than British radio). In the U.S., for specialty musics that had a smaller audience, like jazz and folk, the press and local clubs were important; but again “public” and college radio off on the left of the dial also played a role. For sure, without the U.S. rock press, the ’70s punk rock movement wouldn’t have happened; but “punk” didn’t break BIG in ’70s U.S., and arguably wasn’t a mass music here until college radio hopped on board with punk and indie and alternative in the ’80s. —Btw, I think but don’t know for sure that college stations were among the first to go free-form and play “progressive” FM rock in the late ’60s. I assume (but again, don’t know) that these DJs read what we’re calling “rockwrite,” just as the college DJs read it in the ’80s; but that most commercial DJs had little time for the music press, with the possible exception of the AOR (album-oriented rock) DJs.

  47. 47

    Tom can speak to this better maybe — I had a million things in my head as I listened and was only getting an impressionistic sense of the various arguments — but yes, I think what he says reflects the consensus of the two panels on Friday afternoon, and therefore of its relevant participants (four of the six were active at NME during quite a tight period — late 70s/early 80s — which was deliberate on my part but also of course problematic). I think your point, Frank — that surely all this is part of the same overall thing? — is fair if you step back, but there wasn’t much space to step back in a very contested marketplace… or time to reflect either, on a paper where the relevant editors are commissioning, checking out stories, editing and proofing, and writing several thousand words a week: a fervid loyal collegiality develops, which can become close-minded as well as creative (the two possibly very closely linked), even among the temperamentally curious of mind. (I invited Cynthia Rose specifically because — then and later — I learnt such a lot from her about the journalistic technics of retaining one’s curiosity, and keeping space in one’s stories about people other than you for what THEY think, as opposed to what you think.)

    The highpoint of NME sales in the mid-70s had come at a point when the coverage of this overall territory was split between four inkies (all weekly) and maybe half a dozen somewhat more specialist or targeted titles (Black Echoes, Black Music, Blues & Soul, Zigzag all lasted the course: various monthlies vied for role of the UK Rolling Stone in the early/mid-70s, though all were shortlived). Towards the end of the 70s, the (lucrative) territory covered began to spawn many new kids [edit: kinds! tho “kids” does kinda work too] of targeted rivals — former NME editor Nick Logan invented two of them, Smash Hits and The Face — which, for a variety of reasons, quickly bled off a significant tranche of the potential readership of the inkies, targeting them at the young end in particular; NME’s and Melody Maker’s readership in particular began to slide — so there was a LOT of pressure within the editorial office, from corporate level, to reverse this slide by being more like the newcomers.

    (From some point probably in the punk era, the broadsheets also began to look to inherit some rock-paper readers, expanding their coverage of such matters as they considered relevant — generally socio-political — as a consequence. And the tabloids also found a way in — helped immeasurably by one Adam Ant, who, largely mocked and spurned by the rock papers, repaid this spite by creating a pop that worked well as splashes in the tabs. This is over-simplifying the Adam Ant story — he also made a point of appearing on kids’ TV far more than anyone before him except maybe Marc Bolan — but it’s not totally inaccurate.)

    And from the mid-80s (and thus outside my date remit in terms of inviting participants but perhaps unconsciously very relevant to it in terms of its stated endpoint), EMAP began developing titles that would deliberately target and cream off those older readers who had perhaps now more fondness for the music of ten or even 20 years before than the immediate present, and were also no longer so committed to such a wide-ranging (non)focus on extra-musical topics as NME in particular had deliberately evolved, and maintained for a surprisingly long time: readers with jobs, slightly more settled incomes and lifestyles. Readers who recognised they were no longer wannabe-bohemians (to reuse a word that spurred a degree of teasing on the the Saturday).

    Certainly there’s a narcissism-of-tiny-differences effect going on also — almost all of this was happening in London*, and various editors and writers were busily crossing between the various titles — but the sheer fact of market competition being won and lost hugely amplified the impression of siginficant difference. When EMAP’s Q debuted, as well as the bar on the use of the vertical pronoun in features and such, and the Ellen-Hepworth** injunction (noted by Paul Morley I think) that the prose should be less like Hunter Thompson and more like P.G.Wodehouse***, it was certainly rumoured at NME that a certain essay by Ian Penman was pinned up in the EMAP office as a prime example of what this title (i.e. Q) would never publish.

    (And intra-office rivalry and feuding being the thing it was at NME in 1986-88, this anti-Penman ruling found approval as well as contempt within the NME office, from which Penman had been sacked in July 1985****, allegedly a sacrifice demanded by management of the newly incoming editor, who was hired to turn a whole bunch of things round in respect of readership and style of address. One thing this editor did NOT change — interestingly enough — is the commitment to broadness of focus of topic, though I would argue that he had largely lost the staff needed to make this work for the readers, who perhaps began to feel hectored by its worthiness.)

    *For several years, Smash Hits and NME worked in offices across the street from one another, and could gaze crossly into one another’s windows
    **David Hepworth and Mark Ellen had both been stringers at NME at one point, not very successfully. Ellen — who was at college with Tony Blair and I believe remains a close friend, and tainted by this — came in for particular obloquy on day one. There was a suggestion that he had elaborated a media empire as a long cold revenging ruin of the careers of specific editors, for not being sent to India to write a piece on The Police, when he had been promised this feature in advance.*****
    ***I don’t necessarily think that a Wodehouseian approach to writing about pop is any kind of a bad thing, though I don’t really feel Q in particular achieved it
    ****This is possibly also among my unconscious reasons for picking 1985 as an end-date
    *****This is the kind of story that — even if false on the actual factual merits — is going to be treated as poetically true by many of those peripherally involved

  48. 48

    Adding: I think I could make a case that the most salient difference between the UK music press and the US music press may actually be that the former was for a key space primarily weekly, and the latter mainly monthly?

    haha also: I suspect my rendering of Frank’s overall point is very speedread compressed and contentious, but I think the rest of what I say is the beginnings of an answer. There’s actually a lot more to be said about the complexity of Morley’s relationship to SmashHits-think than was explored on the day: that he was more in synch with them than he then knew or today cares to recognise, or whatever. Again, Tom can probably say more about this, and better.

  49. 49
    koganbot on 24 May 2015 #

    Great response, Mark.

    “I think your point, Frank – that surely all this is part of the same overall thing?”

    Is that my point? Hmmm.

    To jump to (iii), “differences between me and many others,” my usual assumption, esp. in regard to our Musical Marginal Intelligentsia, is that the tensions that inspire and provoke us are also the ones that tear us up. We do our own spirit breaking.

    But putting aside who belongs to and how expansive our “Us” is, criticism as a commercial venture has always had the problem that it’s ensconced in journalism* without being what self-styled “journalists” consider to be journalism. Now, there’s no reason that a good critic can’t also have good reportorial skills, and a good reporter can’t have good critical skills — you’d think this combination would be a benefit for both. But basically journalism doesn’t like and doesn’t understand criticism. Fundamentally, journalism wants it off in lifestyle or the arts, it’s soft stuff, it’s not the real deal. So, from my point of view, journalism is Them, not Us.

    Now, the Sixties elevated the esteem of Rock; and lifestyle and arts actually draw in lots of readers, who at least want a consumer guide and taste advice, not to mention gossip. But even in rock and style mags, criticism is a strange not-quite-comprehensible beast. [Insert 50,000-word essay on criticism.] Summary: while putatively writing about the music and the artists, rockwrite is also — maybe even primarily, fundamentally — analyzing the reader. Or maybe not; maybe I’m just talking about the tiny little wing of rockcrit that encompasses Mark Sinker and Frank Kogan and friends.

    Whether it turns out I’m discussing an It whose spirit got crushed by Non-It, or an Us that rips itself up, I’d like to ask how one should fill in the following blank:

    Ian Penman got canned from NME for _________.

    Now, without knowing the reasons myself (the stuff about Thompson versus Wodehouse** and the bar on the vertical pronoun not providing enough clues, at least not ones I know how to read), my kneejerk guess is that the answer is “for being too intellectual.”

    But maybe it wasn’t phrased that way.

    To survive, mags evolved towards specialties (at a midnight legal proofreading gig in the early ’80s I met a guy who’d known of arguments over the direction of Sing Out! in the late ’60s; editor Irwin Silber wanted it to evolve into a critique of the overall popular culture, but he lost the argument and left and the zine pushed its focus onto traditionalist musics, at least so my proofing partner believed). Music sections, on the other hand, tend to stay broad. But the war between writer and reader cut across both. Big fisted journalist types assume they know what the reader wants. My assumption is that the reader doesn’t always know what she wants.

    *Except when it’s ensconced in academia: you could possibly call some “cultural studies” and Lit and sociology part of rockwrite, but in the time period we’re looking at there wasn’t much crossover, as far as I know, with Frith and Penman (and more?) being significant exceptions. I don’t assume Penman had any academic affiliations, but he drew on the stuff; so did Perry Meisel in the U.S., and of course Xgau and others had their eye on it, and Richard Meltzer is his own category here (critics who were kicked out of the academy); and some critics (e.g., Jim Miller, Debra Rae Cohen) ended up there.

    **Who are hardly opposites anyway.

  50. 50
    Andrew Farrell on 24 May 2015 #

    but equally, as with furniture, clothes etc, nothing feels more wrong than a film in which everything is exactly 1987 – someone (probably Sukrat!) pointed out in relation to I’m-going-to-say the recent Tinker Tailor films that furniture and clothes in actual use are basically never of the moment – as someone who grew up in the 80s, all my childhood photos are of a home full of “70s” stuff (less so as the decade wore on of course).

  51. 51
    koganbot on 24 May 2015 #

    “Music sections, on the other hand, tend to stay broad.”

    That is, music sections in, e.g., the Guardian or the Voice, etc. (that is, publications that aren’t only about “music”).

  52. 52

    I did actually do a bit of prep research on a panel looking at why “film studies” already had an academic presence and respectability that “rockwrite” didn’t by the end of the 70s — but the person I wanted to run the panel, though very interested, couldn’t make the dates. I think it’s an intriguing topic (and thanks to my chat with this person, have some theories, which I may put into shape in time for the book, if it happens). Penman’s portal into “academic” thinking (specifically structuralism and post-structuralism) was a consequence of his interest in the 70s UK film-theoretical avant garde (though he always had a sense of humour in print that they often didn’t).

    My problem with the “IP canned bcz ______” question is that I think I could organise my entire written output since 1985 as a series of conflicting answers to this question :(

  53. 53
    Mark M on 24 May 2015 #

    Penman never went to university, right? I think my take was that emboldened him in his use of references to academic theory. (What about Morley?)

    [Really annoyingly, the collected Penman, Vital Signs, doesn’t say which pieces came from which publications, which I find infuriating. So you get a year, but not a context. Which is a partial dehistorising process).

  54. 54
    Mark M on 24 May 2015 #

    I think it took the broadsheets a very long time to fully tune in to (wider) pop. As explained at U/O, they started doing it in the ’60s, but even in the mid/late ’80s The Guardian, for instance, could be quite random on how seriously or not it took music. I think the launch of the G2 section (1992) probably changed that – can’t remember when the Friday review was came in. Then one day we woke up and it was all bloody Glastonbury…

  55. 55
    koganbot on 25 May 2015 #

    “I see no equivalently broken spirit in 1985 in the U.S.”

    Wait! What! Really? If you read what I was actually writing at the time,* it’s consistently about how we shriveled our own possibilities, crawled into our niche and made big sour little gestures, puny results, defensive indie postures, the view from Tinyland.

    But this is where my own memory is confused and lost as to how I felt. Reading my actual old prose you get a WILDLY mixed message, as if the words are claiming one thing while doing something altogether different. There’s absolute self-assertion, stepping onto the stage (“The true autobiography of Bob Dylan isn’t an account of his life, or how he got to be that way, but of how it got to be that way, how we got to be that way”), here’s the analysis that’ll explain everything, now here’s another one, here’s the metaphor that cracks the shell and pierces the dome, the phrase that jars us loose. And here’s this song, you haven’t heard it but I have, or you didn’t understand it but I did.

    So, here’s the world we’ve created, feckless, eyes down, crabby, except I and you and everyone in it is actually the EXCEPTION!

    *Say 1985-1987, which in Real Punks would be “The Autobiography Of Bob Dylan,” “Spoonie Gee,” the first three Why Music Sucks essays, and “Sex Don’t Love Nobody,” which is part 2 of the Spoonie Gee trilogy.

  56. 56

    Conference being broadcast right now on Resonance 104.4FM (until 10pm BST): the website has facilities for internet streaming

  57. 57
    Mark M on 25 May 2015 #

    So I was able to catch up on the radio with some of the Saturday afternoon goings-on, which was the bit of the conference I missed. A few very quick thoughts:

    1) I genuinely don’t think Select undervalued* riot grrl because it didn’t fit with the magazine’s ‘male perspective’. If you asked me to name the two writers who set the tone at Select, I’d say (without a second’s hesitation) Sian Pattenden and Miranda Sawyer. I do think that (some of) riot grrl was too earnest for Select’s post-Smash Hits purposes. And there’s always that thing with movements that take a ‘this is happening without your permission’ line – can you then blame the supposed gatekeepers for ignoring it.

    2) Laura Snapes seem to say some contradictory things about the possibilities of getting paid to write about music nowadays versus then. At some point she suggested it was easier now, but also (as I understand it) that it shouldn’t be about a career and so that didn’t matter. Obviously its true that only a tiny number of people ever wrote for the professional music press, and a much smaller number even approached making a living from it (which ties in with the discussion of signing on in – I think – the Naylor/Pouncey/Fountain session, and it was much easier to live cheaply then). But some people did. If more people are getting some kind of paid employment out writing now, that’s awesome – as ever, I’d be interested in some proof.

    3) One thing that seems to have been underplayed somewhat over the course of the two days was fanzines. And that connects to the discussion about Tumblr etc – because lots of people did (although yes, many fewer than now) write about music for free in a way totally unhindered by the restraints of IPC/EMAP/Jann Wenner etc etc.

    4) Of course lots of the best writing about music is by people who don’t specialise in writing about music. That has never not been the case.

    5) And of course I’d say this as a sub (and as a middle-aged, middle-class white man), but I’m very much in favour of edited writing. Not least because given the chance between being edited by someone even half competent, and being able to express myself freely, I’ll take being edited any and every day.

    *Of course, you could say about riot grrl what Liz Naylor and Edwin Pouncey were saying about punk – the records were the least interesting bit.

  58. 58
    Mark M on 25 May 2015 #

    Also, someone made a slightly rubbish analogy between going into WHSmith but not feeling you have a buy all the music mags and going on the internet and not feeling you have to read everything available on music. Because in the shop you can see exactly what’s on sale, and (hooray) judge it by its cover. Whereas with the internet (and this is only a side-effect of one of its advantages), most of us only have the tiniest notion about what’s out there.

  59. 59
    punctum on 26 May 2015 #

    The question is, if you’re not one for merciless self-publicity (as I’m not), how do you get the good stuff on the internet noticed? Doing the sort of writing I do is, I’m sad to say, not the sort of thing that attracts passing web traffic, as opposed to simple cut & paste YouTube link/say a few words/oh nostalgia stuff which easily gets 40K+ hits a day. Somebody has to pick it out, pick it up and rave about it; if you do that yourself you run the risk of being branded an arrogant so-and-so. But if you don’t do anything the majority of the internet doesn’t know you exist.

    Agree with the point about editing, depending who the editor is.

  60. 60
    Tom on 26 May 2015 #

    Re. ease of getting paid – and bearing in mind Laura S and many others know a ton more about this than me! But one of the things I was saying in the real conference (i.e. the pub) afterwards is that I think it probably is easier to get initially paid: the number of openings for hip young gunslingers now is high! There are a lot of places that are open to new writers and that pay a little bit*, and music is very complicated so there’s always stuff that’s going on that you know about and others might not, and you can pitch about and earn a commission or two. So the prospects for a bright 18/19 year old now are way better than in the music press era, when the funnel was very narrow.

    BUT the wide funnel tapers horrendously now, and I think it’s harder than ever to then go on and make any kind of living doing music writing. In other words, the barrier has moved. The barrier between “not getting paid at all” and “getting published and paid” has lowered. But the barrier between “getting published and paid” and “turning that into an income” is massive now. Music writers have, clearly, never or very rarely been rich, but I think it’s much harder to be a 25 year old who wants rockwrite to be a job now than it ever has been.

    *There are even more that are reliant on new writers and the not paying thereof, of course.

  61. 61
    Tom on 26 May 2015 #

    Re. Morley and Smash Hits. One of the things about writing a LOT of words for a LONG time, as anyone on the music press of the time did, is that your ideas about what you thought and what you wrote will simply not tally with a lot of your readers’ ideas. My favourite Morley NME piece – and a massive influence (ha ha) on me – is Quick Before They Vanish, about the 1982 pop charts, which I read years later and quite by chance. That’s 1000 or so words at a time where he was probably writing a million a year – hardly surprising if the link (so clear to me) between that and Smash Hits is barely conscious or quite unremembered by him.

    (Music writers then, as with bloggers since, weren’t really putting a corpus of ideas together as throwing a series of elegantly shaped idea-filled bottles into a very big ocean: you simply don’t know what of you or your thought will survive, and as what to who. It takes a colossal and frustrating effort of will – and a certain amount of publishing luck – to gain any control over this process, and even then the outcome of it is far from sure.)

  62. 62
    punctum on 26 May 2015 #

    Yes, well unfortunately that piece came about because PM had a stupid in-house beef with another (now deceased) NME writer about jazz being better than pop with specific reference to a Rip Rig & Panic piece and that beef never resolved. So it now reads like a miserly grump.

    It probably is easier to get published as a music writer now if you’re starting out and prepared to write (about) anything.

  63. 63
    Mark M on 26 May 2015 #

    Re60: That makes sense (and makes sense of what Laura was saying).

  64. 64
    Phil on 26 May 2015 #

    Interesting point about payment. I was never a music writer, although at one point I was planning to be the next Dave McCullough, or Morley at a pinch – I had a brilliant idea for a piece about the new music in which the interpenetration of everyday life commerciality alienation ect ect was not challenged or denied but embraced within the music itself and this too was a political statement (examples being Go4 Scritti Politti and the track on the first Cure album where most of the lyrics come off the back of a bag of sugar – Each set includes/A turntable/A nine-inch icing bag with six high-definition nozzles…) …but rather embarrassingly I never actually wrote it. Actually (even more embarrassingly) I did try to write it once and ran out of things to say after about 100 words. (“Phensic and marmalade”! It’s so… it’s clearly all about… it’s a statement of… he said “Phensic”!)

    Aaanyway… I was never a music journo, but I did spend much of my 20s dreaming of Getting Into Journalism, which – like most people who manage it – I eventually did by way of a long string of non-paying gigs, ‘gigs’ in this case meaning ‘book reviews’. I can still remember how it felt when I realised that New Statesman and Society (as it then was) was not only going to print my review – with my name attached – but was actually going to pay me money! In the immortal words of Mr Osterberg, “Here comes success!”

    The thrill wore off when I realised, a few reviews down the line, that there was no way anyone could make a living like that. George Orwell’s portrait of the life of a book reviewer makes it look pretty grim, but at least there was a life – you could keep body and soul together that way. NS&S were paying £90 per thousand words for book reviews, which was worth more then than it is now but, frankly, not that much more. (When I went to work for a trade publication a few years later, our standard contributor rate was £200/thousand – and we didn’t ask people for 800 words.)

    Freelancing for the press people actually read was a weird experience, like the torments of Tantalus: on the one hand you were getting actual money for what you were doing, on the other there wasn’t the slightest, remotest possibility of getting enough in that way to give up the day job. It sounds like music journalism nowadays is pretty similar.

  65. 65
    Mark M on 26 May 2015 #

    Re64: Yes, a friend of mine of used to point out that if you got one piece in, say, the Guardian Guide a month, all the people you knew would think you were doing very well, when if that was all the work you were managing to get, you’d be starving.

    That said, at the end of the ’90s, most publications (film and TV sections of newspapers, magazines including Q and The Face) I was writing for were paying about £25 per 100* (if my memory is right). So if (and that was the big if) you could get a 1,500 word feature most weeks, and another one or something smaller some other weeks, then you could make a perfectly reasonably living. And it’s that level – the fairly prosperous but not famous jobbing freelancer – that (by friends’ accounts) has largely vanished.

    *American publications were always rumoured to pay a dollar a word – I never managed to learn first hand if that was true.

  66. 66
    Mark M on 26 May 2015 #

    Also, Select paid twice as much per word as late Melody Maker, that I’m pretty sure of.

    Oh, and what I do know is that freelancing subbing rates have declined in real terms over the past 15 years while the amount of work available has plummeted*.

    *As classical economics would suggest – labour glut, falling wages.

  67. 67
    Mark M on 26 May 2015 #

    Somebody I know happened to link on Facebook to this Buzzfeed piece from a couple of years ago – seems vaguely appropriate considering the mention of the site in the discussion… and the subject of the piece.

  68. 68
    Phil on 26 May 2015 #

    When I edited a (very boring trade) mag I brought in a short list of favoured contributors who got £250/thousand instead of the standard £200. It came in very handy when I went freelance myself!

    The only really generous client I remember is Private Eye, who paid ridiculously well – something like £300 per thousand, but with a lower limit of £50, so the less you wrote the better you got paid. But getting regular work from them was a matter of who you knew & what muck you could rake – nothing for your aspiring humorist-at-large; they had Francis Wheen for the stupid jokes and Craig Brown for the clever ones. I did get invited to an Eye lunch once, and sat next to Hislop & opposite the guest of honour (who was John Simpson). Nothing came of it though – I must have been more impressive on paper than in person.

    Which brings us back round to contemporary music journalism, at least in the form of a question: is getting work still about going to parties in London, or can you actually build a reputation online these days?

  69. 69
    Tom on 26 May 2015 #

    I built a reputation online and ended up with regular work – BUT I’ve always had far more offers and enquiries from US editors and publications than from the UK (where it was really only one editor at The Guardian who liked/likes my stuff, and a couple of Friends Of Popular – bless you all – who’ve recommended me for a piece or two here and there). So based on this anecdata I’d say networking matters for local work, but publications aren’t just local any more, and online rep is, or might be, good for getting non-local commissions.

    (And my style suits the American press better, to be honest. Of the Hunter and Wodehouse modes, I’m good at neither.)

  70. 70
    Mark M on 26 May 2015 #

    Networking (of a casual nature) definitely matters, if for no other reason than a commissioning editor will be reminded of your existence when they see you down the pub*. And it can be accidental – in the non-corporeal world, enterprising editors will pick up on Facebook rants, etc, which were never intended (I presume) as pitches.

    The stuff that’s way beyond my possible understanding is how/if a whirl of Tumblr reblogging, for instance, ends with certain voices coming to the fore that hyper-tuned-in editors-of-today can identify and use… if that’s even the idea.

    *Of course, ‘yes, you must do something for us’ conversations can be as well-intentioned-but-fruitless/patently insincere as ‘yes, we really should have lunch together soon.’

  71. 71

    For those who’d still like to catch some of my conference (quite a lot if you have the stamina!) it’s currently up on the front page of Resonance’s mixcloud: https://www.mixcloud.com/Resonance/

  72. 72
    Mark M on 1 Jun 2015 #

    A couple of further thoughts resulting from a chat involving Lord S and others in the pub yesterday:

    1) The current situation is sometimes discussed as an oppositional binary between the trad print mags on the one hand and the ‘internet’ (as some kind of undefinable other) on the other hand. As we were reminded yesterday, there are assorted newer, generally free, print publications out there, some of which (e.g. Loud And Quiet) are physically much more like an ’80s inkie than the current incarnation of the NME. Presumably, though, nobody’s getting paid on these things. Have any Freakytrigger readers written for any of them?

    2) A point I almost raised during the conference about now vs then in terms of the established music press is that in the late 2000s many magazines (and this definitely includes the Emap/Bauer and IPC/TimeInc music mags) lost their walls. In traditional magazine culture, having an office that belonged to that publication was very important – in your own space, it was possible to pretend that the big corporation you were working for was irrelevant. I’m imagining it would be hard to play at being this generation’s Julie Burchill or Nick Kent if you’re in an open-plan office that houses seven other magazines. The Bauer mags (Q and Mojo) also share subs, pic desks and probably designers.

  73. 73

    I wrote up some of my own thoughts, possibly not terribly clearly

  74. 74
    konvolutj on 2 Jun 2015 #

    re: 61 – Tom, where’s that Morley piece available?

  75. 75
    konvolutj on 2 Jun 2015 #

    re: the ease of getting paid – if Laura S is right things have changed a lot even since I started writing about music 7-8 years ago when I was still just about 18, though hardly fresh-faced. the mag that gave me my first break didn’t pay, except once (£10 for a column). the bigger leagues of the broadsheet & monthlies culture pages, or the remaining music mags (NME, Q, Mojo, etc), where people apparently made a living out of writing, seemed impossibly distant. now, years down the line, I only write for one place that pays, & then way below market rate. my sense is that most of the people making a (fairly precarious) living are either younger than me or a fair bit older: the people who pass for “hip young gunslingers” in the major print venues (Snapes & Kev Kharas at NME), & those in the really recent online venues (Noisey, Thump, RBMA, Pitchfork’s post-Jessica Hopper incarnation, to a lesser extent Buzzfeed, Grantland, The New Inquiry, Medium, etc.) my suspicion is that those making new careers in print got there through a combination of old-style networking & online rep, while the online types got there through Tumblr, Twitter, writing spec pieces, etc*. it’s entirely possible a lot of would-be music writers slipped through a gap between print & incoming digital regimes, inc. me – though I suppose that might be due to my own bad professional judgement (turning down HuffPo, mucking up internships, etc.)

    *The Quietus behaves as a print mag in this respect, as its editors only seem to publish people they met down the pub

  76. 76
    Phil on 2 Jun 2015 #

    Just read this, from Mark S’s tribute to Richard Cook, quoted by Marcello on TPL…

    “I remember: his three-fold plan.
    To change the way music was written about;
    which would change the way it was thought about;
    so as to change the way it was played.”

    Which I hadn’t seen when I wrote comment #12 – about

    the early 80s, and the virtuous circle the rock press … managed to create in those days: take pop music really seriously while at the same time talking about important stuff, and the musicians themselves would come to take what they were doing seriously and engage with important stuff, and everyone would benefit – more, better, pop culture!

    So it obviously worked, to an extent.

  77. 77
    Tom on 2 Jun 2015 #

    #74 it used to be on the FT servers, but now isn’t. How annoying! I may have to dig up the copy and re-scan it: no easy feat unfortunately given the state of my ‘storage’ room.

  78. 78

    It’s here (tho you’ll need a magnifying glass)

  79. 79
    koganbot on 6 Jun 2015 #

    Still haven’t had a chance to listen (if any of the conference is still up). Nor to read the Morley. But if Smash Hits had had an actual success and presence in the U.S. (it barely did), I could imagine my coming to resent it if its influence had been that, (1) while some other mags, in order to hold their fleeing audiences, began to copy Smash Hits in restricting language, disallowing explicit social analysis and idea-creation, etc., (2) yet other mags reacted in the other direction by giving up altogether on the lost audiences and instead concentrating on the self-serious readers who needed constant reinforcement of their own sense of importance. So in effect the intelligent, probing, self-questioning, self-mocking middle would be cut out.

    As it is, from my distance, I could appreciate and imitate Smash Hits, and even find its restrictions liberating (because I could leave the restrictions easily enough by opening up another mag). I remember 21 Jump Street star Johnny Depp being asked his favorite band and the interviewer then having to pretend he couldn’t quite hear Johnny’s answer, but it was “something like the Lemon Bagel Surfers.” In Australia, my friend David Nichols* edited the letters section under the name Black Type, choosing and thereby inspiring more kids to write fantastical, funny, wild letters that might vaguely refer to Kylie and Jason and Michael and Madonna but were really vehicles for the kids to hilariously pretend to be upset about their lives (“Dearest Blacky, I am a hamburger and my name is Whopper. The other day a man and a woman came into the shop I used to live in and ate my French friends and threw me in the rubbish”), with David of course understanding that the pretense was itself a pretense, that the kids were finding ways to express how desperate they actually were. After a couple of years David was removed from the letters detail, the editor-in-chief wanting less sociology.

    (Sorry my comments have been self-centered and have so far eluded the actual event; the point is not that rockwrite/musicwrite constituted one overall thing, which wasn’t true, fortunately, but that the various things did flow into and contest and feed and change and separate out from one another; that some temporary configurations of Merge-And-Separate worked better than others; meanwhile continents keep reforming and breaking off.)

    *at the time the drummer of the Cannanes.

  80. 80
    Ed on 7 Jun 2015 #

    @78, etc: Thanks for the link to the Morley piece, which brought back a rush of memories of becoming an NME reader at about that time or a little later.

    In particular, I was reminded how oppressive the ideology of “The Charts” felt at the time. It seemed as though we were being told that the most commercially successful and most visible music was also the best, and the coolest. (In spite of his disavowals, Morley is clearly acting as an arbiter of cool every bit as much as Shaar Murray or Kent.)

    That hegemonic standard of success seemed to leave very little room for alternative views. New Order, Associates and Depeche Mode were all part of The Charts, so why would anyone want to look for anything different? The idea that a band could be fantastic but remain obscure and unprofitable became intrinsically ridiculous.

    I can see that reading that a Tight Fit 12″ was better than Led Zeppelin III must have been fun at the time, (although really, by 1982, who was still flying the flag for Zeppelin, at the NME or anywhere else in popular culture?)

    But within a couple of years, the new orthodoxy – picked up by Morley’s less gifted followers and the mainstream press – felt stultifying.

    Yesterday’s liberators became tomorrow’s dictators. It’s a familiar story.

  81. 81
    koganbot on 7 Jun 2015 #

    A little time now, but no sound! Someday…

    In the meantime:

    Tom, I’ve read your account four or five times now, looking for something you promise but that I can’t find. Could it matter? you ask four paragraphs in. Seven paragraphs farther down, you ask it again. And what I’m expecting is, “This is what the panelists said they believed themselves at the time to be doing, and this is what the participants said mattered to them at the time about what they were doing.” And maybe also, “In retrospect, this is what they now think…”

    Where is it? Without it, our discussion here is circling around a vacuum.

    Did the participants themselves fail to answer, just assume that we’d know what they did and why it mattered? If so, what did they talk about instead? Your final two paragraphs, about getting close to the life versus getting close to the music,* are vague. Whose lives? Which music? What did it sound like? What happened?

    I understand that (i) the participants themselves aren’t the only ones who can answer such questions (what did they think they were doing? what were they doing?), that their living modern lives in the present may make their old modes of thought as unavailable to them as they are to us, until they or we do the actual work to disinter their lost worlds; (ii) at the time, precisely because of who they were, they may have been blind to some of what they were doing, not to mention what they failed to do; (iii) as I hinted when describing the Smash Hits letter pages, sometimes a prerequisite for doing something that matters is thinking it doesn’t matter; (iv) there can be all sorts of reasons to attend a conference like this one: to learn about the past, to get out of the rain (or sun), to get out of the house, to meet old friends, to meet new friends, to confirm old enmities, to look for a romantic partner, to have fun, to get ideas about what to write next, to get ideas about what never to write about again, to confirm one’s resentments about white male hegemony, to hear about good music you’d not known existed, to look for writers to join you on your next adventure, to look for potential bandmates, and so forth. “What was life like then, and what really happened?” aren’t the only questions worth asking. But for at least some of the things you want to do, having good answers to those questions can only help, and might be absolutely essential, and you’re not likely to get to those answers if you don’t know what these writers thought they were doing at the time. You can’t know what they left out if you don’t know what they did.

    (I realize that what you wrote was intended more as a blog post than an essay. Still, I’m simply puzzled that there wasn’t at least a parenthetical, “Obviously, the events themselves will have to wait for a later time, if there is time,” or some such.)

    *Seems like the same thing to me, btw.

  82. 82
    Phil on 7 Jun 2015 #

    #80 – “The idea that a band could be fantastic but remain obscure and unprofitable became intrinsically ridiculous.” And that was just what was so stifling about the 80s – nothing succeeded like success. On the up side, you did have some amazing and unpredictable people becoming huge stars – the Associates, Human League, Scritti Politti – and some unapologetically political pop making it big (the Beat, Working Week). On the down side, what was so right-on about “Wood Beez”?

  83. 83
    swanstep on 8 Jun 2015 #

    “The idea that a band could be fantastic but remain obscure and unprofitable became intrinsically ridiculous.”
    But to say (anything like) this is just to fall into Morley’s hyperbolic mode: there’s nothing ridiculous about *just a few* gifted weirdos and glorious chancers (or ‘amazing and unpredictables’) breaking through. *Most* of what will ultimately be perceived as having some value is a decidedly minority interest at the time and even later recognition won’t normally make anyone much profit. Even in revolutionary periods, the ‘relatively-few-winners-take-most’ logic of the marketplace prevails: no exceptions. I mean doubtless Comsat Angels and The Passage and The Raincoats (to mention three of my early ’80s faves at the time) and their record companies had the odd dark night of the soul about why they couldn’t become reliable stadium-fillers like The Cure or New Order (let alone crack America like the Durans or Culture Club). And probably the whole lot of ’em wondered how exactly U2 managed to become biggest of all their generation or two. But it wasn’t ridiculous that not everyone ended up huge or close to it; it was inevitable.

    If you’ve ever hung out in any music scene intensely for a while, at every tier down you go there’s an order of magnitude at least more artists who can’t get to the next level, who can’t get signed, who can’t do more than push out a single, who can’t even get gigs, and so on. And at every one of those levels there will be some (fatally flawed) diamonds. One or two of the best gigs I’ve ever been to are by bands that never released *anything* – they had magic and got to the ‘having gigs’ level but the main singer and writer was literally insane. Maybe if they’d been able to hold it together for a year or two then the sky was the limit, but they barely lasted a month. Too damn bad. While stirring breakthroughs by the few inspire, and may make for a few better pay-days for the happily on-trend further down the pyramid, there’ll always be plenty of good stuff being ignored and if Morley’s favorite genres are occupying lots of chart territory then other genres are being pushed off the map – someone’s Led Zep 3-inspired masterpiece never gets a chance to rise for example.

    @82, Phil. ‘What was so right-on about “Wood Beez”?’ Well, bringing Aretha Franklin to the masses was still vaguely right-on in 1982/1983, but really nothing.

  84. 84
    Tom on 8 Jun 2015 #

    My apologies, Frank. The piece is simply dressing up a series of notes and immediate memories into something that at least reads as if it might be unified. You long ago identified elliptically dancing around ideas without sinking the teeth in as my weakness, and unfortunately I like writing that way more the older I get. There is no hope for me!

    The first “Could it matter?” (addressed to the panel) is answered – or, explicitly, not answered – in its paragraph. Most of the panelists took their significance for granted – probably a function of the event, which was after all premised on the idea that something important had happened (and couldn’t have taken place without this premise!). I think that listening to the panels would give a better idea of what people imagined they were doing at the time. I’m not sure I agree that that’s the question I need to answer before I answer “Could it matter?” – since I framed that query as a basically selfish one, vis-a-vis getting old mags out of the Bodleian etc. (could the old music press mean anything TO ME? in other words) (trick question, since the answer is… *gestures awkwardly at entire website*)

    The final distinction is vague, I quite agree. It’s a bit of structural folderol attempting to dignify the basic niggle – expressed earlier – that the Morley and Smash Hits approach were simply not that far apart, and why was Morley pretending it was? The “socialist youth paper” approach seemed something different to me, closer in spirit to the undergrounds perhaps. Though buried behind all this is another interesting question – how good a fit was Morley with the rest of the NME of that era?

    Re. Black Type, I think you – or rather, Australia – was lucky to get the Black Type it did. Our version had the irreverence and the surrealism but not really the sociology, or not in a way that ever stood out. It’s a talent to bring these fictional editorial constructs to life in a way that galvanises readers – the old Stan Lee trick (which the 70s NME certainly had – and Charlie Murray is a big comics head, so I wish I’d thought to ask about this) of making the place of production itself seem an impossibly exciting part of the story.

  85. 85
    Phil on 8 Jun 2015 #

    Swanstep – I entirely agree. My point was that Morley’s born-again discovery of the charts carried just this kind of “back in your box, indie kid” sort of undertone, not to say overtone. It wasn’t without thought or justification; I can think of four separate arguments which Morley & co-thinkers put forward (more or less coherently, more or less explicitly) at the time, & none of them are actually wrong:

    1. Have you seen who’s actually in the charts? The Associates, Altered Images, Scritti Politti… I mean, the Associates – in the actual charts. Isn’t that a shift worth celebrating, or at least worth focusing a bit of attention on?
    2. Don’t tell me you didn’t start out with this stuff I mean, it’s pop, isn’t it. It’s pop! You were listening to Captain Beefheart and Big Star on your first transistor radio, were you? Were you? Get out.*
    3. Shiny! No, look, it genuinely is shiny! The “Trevor Horn produces Dollar” period, when “shiny yellow pop” was a thing to be celebrated in its own right. A fairly brief period, although it did eventually lead to Frankie.
    4. Have you thought that some artists are actually working in the medium of the charts… Then there was the tendency to champion new acts which only really made sense as chart acts – a bit of manipulation, a bit of image-for-image’s-sake, a bit of playing the record company’s game and there you were, not only on TOTP but doing something clever and ironic while you were there! I’m thinking of the likes of Kid Creole and ABC, but Frankie are also relevant here. I think this was the line of argument I hated most of all. (The failure of Sigue Sigue Sputnik is immensely gratifying in this context.)

    None of it was actually wrong, as I say, but it seemed to come packaged with a lot of self-congratulation and a sense that not getting into the charts was hopelessly uncool. Very 80s.

    *No, me neither, although it was a bit of a shock to realise that the Faust Tapes came out when I was 13 – not much more than a year after I got my first transistor radio. Took me a while to get into it, but I managed.

  86. 86
    Tom on 8 Jun 2015 #

    I have a lot more sympathy for Morley’s piece and what it implies than either of you – I have, after all, spent around half a million words at this point writing about number one hits – but the basic problem is that Smash Hits, at the time, was putting it into practice not as a tortuous and/or self-congratulatory intervention within the politics of a paper and its readership, but just as a basic organising principle of the world.

    Which Morley doesn’t agree with anyway, of course – the clue is in the title really! He’s writing about a moment when the charts work like this, which he knows perfectly well won’t and can’t last, but he wants to pay attention to it and write about it while it’s happening – while the jigsaw pieces are up in the air. The Comsat Angels of this world – as Swanstep accurately points out – will always be with us. The period when the Associates are in the Top 10 will not. Quick before they vanish, indeed.

  87. 87
    punctum on 9 Jun 2015 #

    Not actually the case – it was the name of a long-running, if intermittent, NME column about the charts which had been in place since 1974 (Gambaccini used to write it).

    The reasons why the Associates weren’t in the Top 10 more than once are many but most of them were of Billy’s choosing. Tell anybody in Scotland that the Associates won’t always be with “us.”

    Also fundamentally wrong of Swanstep to bracket the Raincoats and the Passage in with the Comsat Angels and to tar them all with the same aesthetically inaccurate brush. I don’t think that Fiction, Rough Trade or Cherry Red lost any sleep since that wasn’t what they, or these bands, were about.

  88. 88
    Tom on 9 Jun 2015 #

    Thanks for the clarification, Punctum.

  89. 89
    swanstep on 9 Jun 2015 #

    @85, 86. I think that the ‘Have you *seen* what’s in the charts these days?’ excitement that Morley wanted to convey about 1981/1982 was very legitimate. It’s true: when ‘Ghost Town’ is getting to #1 and ‘O Superman’ makes it to #2 and Japan’s ‘Ghosts’ gets to #5 – or in NZ, ‘Atmosphere’, ‘Love Will Tear’, and ‘Nelson Mandela’ all get to #1 – part of you thinks that anything is possible; that pricklish, anti-commercial bands like The Raincoats or The Passage might just make a similar breakthrough with their odd very accessible tunes: why not ‘Daddy’s Little Girl or ‘XOYO’ up near the top of the charts? (@punctum, 87. I’m aware that the Comsats were always more commercially minded than the other two – still their spiky first record put them in a somewhat similar spot of being beyond the pale for most ears at the time, which seemed so silly and unfair and why couldn’t ‘Independence Day’ make a breath-through for them? I wasn’t meaning to lump them together except as possible targets of ‘Why can’t more people switch on to this if they’ve turned on to Laurie Anderson?’ -type reasoning.)

    But while wondering whether ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’, ‘XOYO’, and ‘Independence Day’ might get high in the charts of the time (where they *should* be in some ideally enlightened pop-world – the sort of opinion that Morley and co expressed all the time – maybe if they got themselves provocative vids?) was indeed a kind of parlor-game of the time (for the musical chattering class) given the relative wildness of the charts, I just wanted to resist the grim idea that anyone ever seriously held – i.e., except as a piece of hyperbole – that the relative liveliness of the charts in a period was an argument that the masses of stuff that still didn’t get much chart traction was thereby ridiculous.

  90. 90
    flahr on 9 Jun 2015 #

    #83 “at least more artists who can’t get to the next level, who can’t get signed, who can’t do more than push out a single, who can’t even get gigs, and so on.”

    How disappointing of you to cop out at that ‘and so on’ – the palpable desire is to end with ‘who can’t even make music’. And rightly! Imagine how rich – how much more diverse, too – the music of people who didn’t ever make music must be.

    #84 “2. Don’t tell me you didn’t start out with this stuff I mean, it’s pop, isn’t it. It’s pop! You were listening to Captain Beefheart and Big Star on your first transistor radio, were you? Were you? Get out.”

    I’m surprised that Punctum didn’t respond to this upthread, because I recall him elsewhere insistently pointing out before that he was.

    It seems slightly unfair to expect a conference about rock writing of the past to inquist on whether rock writing of the past is actually worth talking about or not – unless you are secretly hoping the answer will be decided as ‘no’ during the first panel and the rest of the weekend will be spent in awkward silence.

    EDITED TO ADD: Also Paul Morley Simon Reynolds boo hiss ugh etc

  91. 91
    punctum on 9 Jun 2015 #

    Must have been somebody else who wrote comment #42 then.

  92. 92
    flahr on 9 Jun 2015 #

    I think I can be excused for not expecting your reply to a comment to come forty posts before that comment! ;-D

  93. 93
    Mark M on 9 Jun 2015 #

    Re90: ‘It seems slightly unfair…’ Absolutely: if you are being invited to discuss something in an academic setting, it seems reasonable to assume that the organisers and probably most of the audience believe there is some worth to the subject under discussion. As I understand it, some of Day 2 was designed as a partial corrective to too much wallowing in nostalgia. Alas, I think Ms Snapes took her role as debunker a bit too seriously, turning Hazel’s cheery ‘fuck off, granddad’into something a bit more brutal/rude.

  94. 94
    Tom on 9 Jun 2015 #

    #93 Given that one of my panelists famously headlined a cover feature on Freddie Mercury, “Is This Man A Prat?” maybe this is one of the things we can learn from the rock press!

    (I think there’s a world of difference between the questions being asked upthread – what were these people trying to do and did they manage it? – and the assumption the conference topic is worthy of study. You can accept the rock press is worth studying without taking for granted that its aims, methods and outcomes were noble ones. In fact you probably should.)

  95. 95
    flahr on 9 Jun 2015 #

    I was mainly replying to the OP, esp. “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.“. Obviously a conference should be as much/more about criticism as hagiography. Unless it’s about me of course. (No one has yet bid to host FlahrCon 2016 but it can only be a matter of time.)

  96. 96
    Mark M on 10 Jun 2015 #

    Re94/95: Yep, obviously questions there are by the dozen: about what the underground press was trying to do, what the music papers were trying to do, what the pop coverage in the broadsheets were trying to do, how far any of it worked, why the stuff that failed, failed, how those involved feel now about what they did then, what about the readers, what about people who weren’t white, whose parents didn’t live in semis in the Home Counties or weren’t men – where, if at all, did they fit in this story? Most of these, maybe all, of these questions were asked over the two days, if not necessarily answered. But all within the idea that this is something worth talking about.

  97. 97
    Tom on 6 Jul 2015 #

    The NME is to adopt Freaky Trigger’s pioneering pricing strategy. http://www.nme.com/news/various-artists/86702

  98. 98
    Tom on 6 Jul 2015 #

    Also interesting because it’s another example of the oscillation described above – the shift from 15,000 buying music fans to 300,000 freebie-grabbers means a widening in orientation to cover film, politics, gaming, etc. Not that I imagine we’re about to witness the rebirth of the undergrounds.

  99. 99
    Tom on 1 Oct 2015 #

    I was right about the oscillation. Though I didn’t imagine the whiplash would be quite this brutal. First three cover stars: Rihanna, Robert Pattinson, Chris Moyles.

  100. 100
    Ed on 1 Oct 2015 #

    Oddly, that makes it sound much more like the NME I used to follow religiously in the mid 80s than the Mojo Jr it had become.

    I can absolutely imagine the equivalent three figures from the 80s (Madonna, Kenneth Branagh, Steve Wright?) being cover stars. The treatments might have been rather different, though.

  101. 101
    Mark M on 10 Oct 2015 #

    I’ve talked about it elsewhere, but there’s occasionally a false notion afoot that the relationship between music journalism is totally one-sided. While many musicians are blithely unaware of the critical conversation in the press (and now online), others are totally immersed in it, certainly before they rise to fame, and sometimes after that. Which is by way of bringing up this fascinating interview with the artist formerly known as Terence Trent D’Arby, in which, along with many other things, he talks about hero-worshiping Burchill, Kent and CSM.

  102. 102
    Mark M on 23 Oct 2015 #

    BBC4’s Psychedelic Britannia is making me sympathise rather strongly with the ‘Fuck off, Granddad’ standpoint. God, these self-glorifying old bores…

  103. 103
    Pink champagne on 24 Oct 2015 #

    God yes, I only lasted two minutes at the start and then less than thirty seconds anytime I tried to switch back over. I wouldn’t mind but most of the music seemed pretty awful too.

  104. 104
    Tommy Mack on 24 Oct 2015 #

    #102/3 Punk Brittannia was full of ‘weren’t we great?’ onanism too though which punk was supposed to break down. Difference I suppose is that I still like most of the music.

  105. 105
    Ed on 24 Oct 2015 #

    Just wait until they do Blog Britannia.

  106. 106
    Phil on 24 Oct 2015 #

    Only watched the clip show so far, but that was pretty damn impressive. The Floyd, the ISB and Cream all (in different ways) showed How It’s Done, or at least showed how to take something as far as it can go.

  107. 107
    Mark M on 24 Oct 2015 #

    I had no issue with the clip show – it’s the retrospective self-celebration in the documentary itself that was wearying. It’s true (as per #104) that it is fairly standard in these kind of things, but there is a very particular self-satisfaction that belongs to the late ’60s types. In PB it seemed to infected people you might have expected to have a bit more perspective, e.g. in particular Robert Wyatt.

  108. 108
    Tommy Mack on 25 Oct 2015 #

    I wonder if they’re gonna do the same thing in forty years time with people like Ed Sheeran going “yeah, I was there at the launch of Apple Music. What bliss it was in that dawn to be alive…”

  109. 109
    Adam Puke on 25 Oct 2015 #

    “We literally, like, smashed that scene and totally fucking owned it”

  110. 110
    wichitalineman on 25 Oct 2015 #

    I only saw the last 20 mins but Vashti Bunyan’s music is in no way psychedelic, even if her story is loosely linked to a post-psych, talking to broccoli movement. The ISB’s latterday performance was just awful.

    It feels like a story that you could take in plenty of un-doc’d directions.

    Did it mention any of the Chocolate Soup/Rubble-type bands – Tintern Abbey, Virgin Sleep, Kaleidoscope? Or was it all Floyd, Soft Machine, ISB?

  111. 111
    Tommy Mack on 25 Oct 2015 #

    #110 An aside, I saw ISB at Canterbury Fayre* 12 years ago and knowing nothing other than my Dad’s comment that they were “the real hippy thing” I was deeply underwhelmed.

    Headliners were Arthur Lee who was blinding doing the whole of Forever Changes back when doing the whole of a classic album was a new retro thing and Robert Plant who was OK in a noodly, muso, ‘there’s much more to me than Zep you know’ way.

    Actually I penned this review:
    http://drownedinsound.com/in_depth/7923 (the comment about Alan McGee is crass and pointless and I’m not proud of it now especially as I rather like him and his mad maverick record label)

    Bizarrely but perhaps apt since I mentioned Punk Brittannia, Buzzcocks were also playing and I interviewed Pete Shelley who was great copy and unpretentious without being Paul McCartney-super-humble about it. Here it is http://drownedinsound.com/in_depth/7924-pete-shelley–still-buzzing

    Bit tangential but there you go…

  112. 112
    Adam Puke on 25 Oct 2015 #

    Vashti Bunyan seems an odd inclusion in many ways. I see her success as more a latterday internet-age phenomenon (based on a reissued album little heard at the time) appealing to a much younger nu-folky crowd, similar to Nick Drake’s re-branding a few years earlier in the late 90s. I doubt many people buying records by Soft Machine et al during their initial era would’ve been aware of her at the time. Could be wrong though!

  113. 113
    Andrew Farrell on 27 Oct 2015 #

    On the plus side, the scenes with the Beatles and the act (who I’ve horrifically forgotten) who made a decent fist of playing his guitar like a sitar caused me to go find a copy of Walk Hard on Youtube.

    (I did also think that Beatles aside (and indeed neither of them were on) no-one seemed to really be pushing the line that this was the Best Music Ever).

  114. 114
    Mark M on 27 Oct 2015 #

    Re113: It was Roy Wood demonstrating how you didn’t need to sod off to India to study sitar to get a sitar sound.

  115. 115
    Tommy Mack on 27 Oct 2015 #

    #114: I remember Dave Davies saying a similar thing about the detuned acoustic on See My Friends* – That they beat everyone else to a sitar sound and did so with very limited means. (So a bit ‘we are the best ever chiz chiz’ but I can take it from DD because he seems pretty egoless, certainly compared to his big brother!) I don’t recall him saying whether they were directly influenced by Indian classical music like The Beatles and Stones or whether they just envisioned a particular sound for the song which then turned out to bear parallels with the Indian-influenced sounds their contemporaries picked up the following year.

    *(in a documentary (BBC I think) about either the British Invasion or maybe actually about The Kinks.)

  116. 116
    wichitalineman on 28 Oct 2015 #

    Re 112: Apart from Donovan (who gave her the caravan) and people in the Immediate Records office (which she painted – and not in a hippy way), almost nobody had heard of her in the 60s. But I imagine she was included because of her none-more-hippy story. Nothing to do with psych, though.

    Re 115: According to Mick Avory, when asked where the influence came from, “all of us liked a curry.” Ray D gives a rather more florid explanation.

  117. 117

    I watched it last night and was also underwhelmed. It didn’t help that I’ve just been reviewing Jon Savage’s 1966, which I think does an excellent job of sketching what psychedelia emerged from, the forces and traumas in a hothouse year that made it so attractive

    1: the chronology in the documentary was often a bit of a mess (e.g. Nigel Planer as narrator saying that under LSD’s influence ppl became more anti-establishment and convention, and then showing clips of the aldermaston marches — which preceded LSD’s arrival in the UK by several years): the effect of this was very much to suggest that (LSD aside) the psychedelic movement more or less reactively bootstrapped itself into existence; but surely it’s intimately connected to (unmentioned) trends already present and the pressured complexity of a turbulent social context? [sav’s book is very good at detailing the sheer complexity of these various threads]

    2: nigel planer — just don’t! 30+ years of not understanding hippies is long enough

    3: i think the interviews were a lot of them thrown away: they fairly obviously just let the old men ramble about their glorytimes, then jigsawed these into an approximately suitable order for a pre-determined story — i think more pertinent and informed questions would probably have brought out much better, less smug-by-numbers responses (and i think more could have been done to press down on the obviously contradictory elements of the story — for example someone saying in passing that barry miles brought discipline and a work ethic to the movement, when the earlier, rather smug stance, seemed to be that everyone involved was fleeing such things) (also e.g. noting that a blues-purist clapton had quit the yardbirds in protest at its experimentation in early 66, then goes on to get a free pass for switching lanes and acting as the ultimate vector of the same experiment with cream) (fair point that getting a useable interview out of fkn ginger baker was never going to happen)

    4: specialist topic i know, and me being territorial, but it’s REALLY ANNOYING when everyone handwaves the fascination with classic children’s literature as nothing but lovely-idyll-surfing, especially when the backdrop is images from tenniel’s alice of the various monsters in the story — mole’s encounter with pan in wind in the willows is terrifying, the cheshire cat is not cute or fluffy or twee: in fact the entire wonderland story is a nightmarish chaos — and the soundtrack is dropping floydy phrases about madness and such to underline this**

    5: is there really no decent footage from back in the day of the incredible string band performing? i personally don’t really like them much even in their heyday, but they were pretty ill-served by the over-long long clip of a v sloppy present-day rehearsal, with mike heron’s voice and tuning entirely shot

    6: “originally reacting against the squares, ultimately eaten by the dilutions of too-wide popularity and commercialism” bah! we needed a lot more on what else they were reacting against. there were class and cultural currents barely touched on (the small faces and the move weren’t from the posh background of most of the others); and why did the out-cultural fascination switch so abruptly from black american pop — 1966 was a HUGE year in the UK for Motown — to e.g. indian or middle-eastern sonority?; plus there should have been a lot more on how the drugs of choice of the mod subculture, which had dominated the earlier years of 60s pop in the UK, london especially, were very much amphetamine-based — the incredible swiftness with which LSD swept all before it was rooted in the earlier pervasiveness of speed and the effects of its overuse; LSD initially widely seized on as a kind of a chill-out drug, blissed out and soothing — except with its own perils lurking

    7: the sneering at commerce is self-congratulatory bullshit of course: the entire excitement at the time was that this was avant-gardism able to manifest at a popular and a fashionable and a charting level, an apparent end-run of the high-low/art-mass dilemma

    8: on a purely musical level it really bugs me that pink floyd and soft machine are treated as in some way formally similar — they’re really really not very similar, in sound or in approach

    9: documentaries and everyone else plz to stop using the word “influence” as if it has any explanatory value at all — it’s exactly the point where questions about decisions ought to be go (“why are you choosing x as your cultural forebear?” ect ect)

    **(here’s something i wrote a few years ago abt miller’s alice, among others: http://old.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/feature/49605 )

  118. 118
    Tommy Mack on 28 Oct 2015 #

    Sukrat @ 117, Re: your point 3, have you seen Beware Of Mr Baker, the recent docu on Ginger? V. compelling, allowing the story to paint him as the monster he undoubtedly was but giving you a perverse sort of respect for a man who seemed to make life unfathomably difficult for himself* but still made some incredible music. I think it actually helped that the guy making the doc seemed like a bit of a prick too and so wasn’t afraid to get up in his face and make him answer difficult questions.

    *Obviously zero respect for the way he’s treated his wives and kids.

  119. 119

    haha to be honest i have not dared watch it yet :)

  120. 120
    Mark M on 28 Oct 2015 #

    Re117: There’s an ISB performance in the accompanying clip show, so that 2015 live performance in the doc, like the Zombies one, is somehow meant to be a treat for us (?!). Or else, those were Heron’s conditions for the interview.

  121. 121

    i rather liked the zombies one!

  122. 122
    Tommy Mack on 6 Nov 2015 #

    The lowest ebb of the NME so far? A poorly written advertorial for a shitty tablet noone wants* disguised as a list of best debut albums http://www.donotlink.com/h9dv

    *I assume that the Microsoft Surface 3 sucks because the Surface 2 did.

  123. 123
    glue_factory on 6 Nov 2015 #

    Re: 122. The new Surface has had noticeably better reviews compared to its previous incarnation. Unlike the NME.

    (I haven’t actually used one – so they might all be paid for, as far as I know)

  124. 124
    Pink champale on 9 Nov 2015 #

    @122 yep, that is incredible. The bit about drawing circles around the marks out of ten is the precise nadir I think.

  125. 125
    koganbot on 20 Jul 2016 #

    Bumping, because Mark’s book really needs to happen (Kickstarter here for A Hidden Landscape Once A Week, How UK music writing became a space for unruly curiosity, in the words of those who made it happen), and there’s only a week left for the kickstart to meet its target.

    I figure the best way to reengage interest is to jump back in media res to the conversation and argument. (Funny thing, the current result for me of the KIND OF BLEUGH, or seven better stand-alone ways into jazz in the early age of the long-playing disc thread was that, (a) as intended, I went into e.g. the output of the barely known-to-me Lee Konitz, and (b) not as intended, I began listening heavily across-the-board to Miles Davis, not that the thread wants to preclude this but it cautions against Miles (esp. Kind Of Blue) as a starting point. Pˆnk S Lord Sükråt Cunctør: “it is a sly, niggling, jittery record of odd subtle hard-to-pin-down not-very-nice emotions and evocations, which depends for its expressive intent on the listener having a pretty solid familiarity with the music of its day and what went before, for its devices and effects to come across properly” — well, properly or not, you’ve got me hooked — “Besides, there isn’t an era of the jazz he lived through that Miles wasn’t at odds with as he lived through it — which is not an uninteresting fact, but it does mean that you have to know something about what he might be at odds with in any given moment to follow where he’s taking it. And he sure as shit isn’t going to talk you through this dimension: he’s much more likely to remove explanatory props than supply them, just as he did with musicians, getting the performances he wanted not by discursive exploration among equals, but by undermining headfuck, borderline bullying, and sustained personal opacity. He is a great man! But he is neither a direct nor a generous artist; and much of his direction is counter-direction.” My contention might be that, whether you’re getting the argument right, if you’re catching something mid argument you’re more likely to catch that it matters. Even if the where and the why need decoding, you’ve got the motivation and the excitement. Some genres, rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop for instance, they start mid argument, mid fever, at least that’s where the original recordings seem to find them, there’s nowhere else.

    But then I’ve always been a counterpuncher.

    Which brings us to Paul Morley. I’d never read him — just yesterday, finally, I looked at the 1982 piece Tom referenced and Mark linked. I’ve still only listened to the first three panels, as lots of good but time-taking opportunities and projects were clicking in last October. Thought Panel 3 was head and shoulders above the other two, and Morley up head and shoulders on that one. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the better critic (Simon Frith once put panel 1’s Richard Williams as one of his two favorites ever, the other being Greil Marcus); just that Morley and that panel reanimated old arguments as if they could have a living presence, the issues not taken for granted and the outcome not guaranteed. (I lj’d it thus: “[Morley] defended the Pistols’ and the Damned’s sartorial showbiz tendencies by saying they were the types — as opposed to bloated ’70s superstars — who were actually embodying the glamorous cape of Little Richard (I think it was fellow panelist Barney Hoskyns’ sneering at the Clash’s cut-offs that moved Morley to rise in defense of the secret glamour of the boy punks). Looking at my sketchy notes, I see Morley saying that the writing then was ideological life or death, believed it could be experimental, that it represented extraordinary times. He repeated the word ‘Momentum.’ I get the image of a gigantic boulder rumbling from past to future, a rolling body of work ‘that you can try to copy or distort or change into something else.'”)

    And then that 1982 column: some deft soft shoe, quick jabs, and a couple of cross lefts, leaving me antsy and in competition…

  126. 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.)

  127. 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.)

  128. 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.

  129. 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).

  130. 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

  131. 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.”

  132. 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)

  133. 133
    koganbot on 25 Jul 2016 #

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

  134. 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.

  135. 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.

  136. 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.)

  137. 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.

  138. 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.

  139. 139
    Mark M on 15 May 2020 #

    Weirdly, there is now a print magazine called NME published by the company that bought the NME from TI Media (formerly Time Inc UK formerly IPC) – but it’s an Australian monthly. The newish owners like to refer to the UK print edition being ‘in hiatus’ rather than defunct.

  140. 140
    Mark M on 27 Jul 2020 #

    And it’s so long Q magazine. I had a curious (dubious?) relationship with Q in that I was very much against it when it first appeared (as a newish 15-year-old reader of the inkies), and probably only bought it four or five times over the years. On the other hand, I wrote for it on and off from 1997 to 2010 ( I think), beginning with a stint compiling the gig listings that was by far the best-paid work I’ve ever done in my life (truly, another age).

    I’m incredibly sorry for everyone who lost their jobs while being somewhat baffled by how it lasted quite so long.

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