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. 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.)

  2. 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.

  3. 63
    Mark M on 26 May 2015 #

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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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?

  9. 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.)

  10. 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.’

  11. 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/

  12. 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.

  13. 73

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

  14. 74
    konvolutj on 2 Jun 2015 #

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

  15. 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

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 78

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

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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”?

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 88
    Tom on 9 Jun 2015 #

    Thanks for the clarification, Punctum.

  29. 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.

  30. 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

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