Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Heyday of the NME

There's a been a lot of talk this week about the closure of the NME's print edition - the end of an era and all that. In his Guardian obituary for the music paper, Alex Petridis reckoned the NME had umpteen “golden eras” which he said usually had less to do with the quality of the writing "than whether or not you were 17 or 18 when you were reading it".|

That's true-ish, but really, the legend of the NME as the cool, trend-setting weekly bible for music fans, was formed in the first half of the 1970s, which was really a hangover from the late 60s. It was a wild and often chaotic paper in those days, informed by the underground press vibe of Oz and IT, that had spawned some of the NME's own writers including Charles Shaar Murray and Nick Kent.

It was the first break with the formal traditions of music writing, passed down through the jazz age in the 50s and the still formal and respectful pop journalism of the 60s. The more anarchic style of the NME's new brand of hacks made star names out of maverick characters like CSM, Nick Kent, Mick Farren and Ian MacDonald.
They were given as much space as they wanted and used the opportunity to write think pieces about relatively obscure artists. Kent's long elegy to Nick Drake soon after the singer's death, was a landmark in UK rock journalism, influenced no doubt by the kind of intelligent analysis they had seen in Rolling Stone.

The central storyline of Kent's 1975 three-part series on Brian Wilson, 'The Last Beach Movie', was the collapse of the Beach Boys' 'Smile' project. It was the first time most of us had heard any details about the album Wilson was forced to abort in 1967 and Kent's detailed account was rightly acclaimed.

This was also a time when the market was clearly divided between pop and rock, albums and singles, US and UK - two very distinct music markets in those days. America was still a foreign land in those pre-cheap transatlantic travel days. The NME writers schooled us ordinary folk in the different music coming out of New York, Detroit, LA and San Francisco.

Meanwhile, the thinking freak's rock critic, Ian MacDonald, a Cambridge drop-out, was writing feature length pieces about Todd Rundgren, Steely Dan and Sparks - expanding our consciousness and daring us to go along for the ride. Ian Mac was the guy that turned me on to all these artists and more.

It wasn't all ground-breaking though; much of the rest of the NME was throwaway - entertaining that Thursday when it hit the streets but not meant to last. Nonetheless it was a reflection of the time. Rock had yet to become an 'industry'. The lunatics were still running the asylum. The Lone Groover, Tony Benyon's stoned cartoon character, was emblematic of the long-haired freak scene, a hangover from the sixties that persisted until the advent of punk. The NME's album reviews were often wildly funny, but often dismissive - and downright wrong - about albums and artists whose work is now justly revered. From Bowie to Joni to Marley and even the early punk scene - there are individual examples where the NME's writers didn't get it right.

But collectively they had great taste, as the 1974 Top 100 albums demonstrates. Every single one of those 100 albums remains a classic, which I suppose goes to support the idea that the period up to 1975 was the classic era for rock and roll.

No doubting that things changed from '77 onwards, and if truth be told, the NME's writers were as blindsided by the new wave as any of the other music mags. For a time though, in the first half of that decade, they created the lasting legend of the NME. The rebelliousness was now led by the musicians themselves, and arguably that's just another form of PR. But the legend of an NME full of edgy, exciting music writing allowed it to remain in business way beyond any of the other music papers of the time. Melody Maker and Sounds went the way of the dinosaurs. Smash Hits was wildly successful for 20 years but was closed in 2006. It's a wonder the NME lasted as long as it did.

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