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.


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  1. 91
    punctum on 9 Jun 2015 #

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

  2. 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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.)

  5. 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.)

  6. 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.

  7. 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

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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…

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 105
    Ed on 24 Oct 2015 #

    Just wait until they do Blog Britannia.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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…”

  19. 109
    Adam Puke on 25 Oct 2015 #

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

  20. 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?

  21. 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…

  22. 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!

  23. 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).

  24. 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.

  25. 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.)

  26. 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.

  27. 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 )

  28. 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.

  29. 119

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

  30. 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.

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