May 15

A Great Big Clipper Ship

FT140 comments • 3,886 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.


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  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.


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    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.

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    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


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    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.

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    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.

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    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?

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    Mark M on 19 May 2015 #


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    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!

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    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.


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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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