Pop culture in the Thatcher/Reagan years and beyond, all photographed beautifully and polished to a high sheen. Paul Gorman guides us through the A-List parties and the corporate takeovers of 24 years of The Face.
The Story of The Face: The Magazine that Changed Culture
Thames and Hudson
"The Magazine That Changed Culture" is the strapline to Paul Gorman's The Story of the Face. For once, you can believe the hype. This is the story of how a niche magazine, conceived and written in tiny offices in London in the early '80s, first reflected and then defined one of the most exciting times in British culture in the last 100 years.
In the aftermath of punk rock, the youth of the UK (and beyond) were looking for another way to express themselves – something which wasn't as nihilistic as the "No Future" slogans proffered by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. A burgeoning mod movement went arm-in-arm with the re-emergence of ska and bluebeat and a demographic which were either too young or too alienated by punk's negativity now had a sound and crucially, a look of their own. A magazine that could reflect all that energy would be a massive success, right? Well… maybe.
The Face made its less than auspicious debut in May 1980. What set it apart immediately was the emphasis on image and visuals. News stories and interviews seemed almost secondary to the stylish and stylized photographs which accompanied them. For readers used to immersing themselves in the dense, dark prose of the NME, this was a brave new world. Paul Gorman has done an incredible job of documenting the history of The Face and has very wisely chosen to augment his reverent and factual text with hundreds of covers and reproductions of pages of the magazine. This is a coffee table book which justifies its dimensions.
It would have been easy to just collate a bunch of notable covers and images from the magazine, print them on glossy paper, whack some suitably '80s graphics on the slip cover and wait for the nostalgia hungry, late era baby boomers to lap it up. Gorman has gone further. No detail is too insignificant for him as he tells the story of Nick Logan's little magazine which grew from a trend-spotter to a trend-setter. This goes beyond nostalgia – The Story of The Face tells you as much about UK culture in the years between 1980-2004 as any textbook.
The Face came out just in time to report on sharp dressed mods and kids in their Two-tone finery. What came next was crucial - it was gifted with the arrival of "The Blitz Kids". The magazine was perfectly placed to document the emerging new romantic scene and the extravagantly dressed Spandau Ballet became their poster boys for a while. To augment this striking new look, The Face's graphic designer Neville Brody combined Soviet typefaces with El Lissitzky font to create a graphic style which came to define the '80s. His work takes pride of place here. The articles from the early- to mid-'80s crackle with a cock-sure swagger and strut and the writing is incredibly confident – brash, even. Possibly an alternative to Margaret Thatcher's no-fun, right-wing government, The Face's audience embraced hedonism, club culture, drugs and high fashion, greedily. It was the unruly but beautifully dressed kid brother of the NME.
Gorman does a great job of making sure that when The Face tackled subjects slightly heavier than whatever Boy George was wearing on "Top of the Pops", that we hear about them. How about this from 34 years ago: "Things would be so much better if we dropped the labels "menswear" and "womenswear" altogether – then we wouldn't have to endure those dreadful words: gender-bender, cross dressing, androgyny…" Was The Face really 30-odd years ahead of the curve? However, not all the writing was as positive. In 1988, when Julie Burchill (a former "infant terrible" scribe for the NME during the punk years) wrote a piece broadly in praise of Thatcher, staff writer and noted pop culture historian Jon Savage, resigned. One could argue however, that Thatcher with her "financial success by whatever means necessary" philosophy encapsulates the decade as much as anyone else.
The '90s came and presented a new set of challenges for the publication. Along comes the "new lad", happy to wear sports gear 24/7 and who wouldn't be seen dead in whatever Duran Duran were wearing that week. As a result, the quality of the photography is often far more interesting than the subjects of the photographs. Photographers had to delve deep into their bag of tricks to make the rather plain stars of britpop look as glamorous as their new romantic predecessors. In the case of Brett Anderson of Suede, with a little bit of digital enhancement, they almost succeeded.
The Story of The Face is an excellent work. Gorman has done his research – and plenty of it and the book is all the better for it. His writing is matter of fact and without inflection, which, on occasion, can come across as a little dry. When that happens, the reader always has the sumptuous visual imagery to turn to. He starts off the book as a wide-eyed fan in awe of the staff who wrote about colossally expensive designer clothing while struggling to pay their rent. As the magazine becomes more successful, the mood becomes somber and corporations and cartels replace writers and designers as the protagonists of the book. The Face folded in 2004. It achieved modest sales (130,000 worldwide in a good month) but had a significant effect on the look of the '80s and to a smaller extent, the '90s. Some of its rivals persevere, but none have had the impact of The Face.
Mixmag Media, a UK publishing group, bought the rights to the title of The Face last year and there are plans to relaunch the magazine. It'll be interesting to see which youth cults they choose to feature in the oddly disparate 20-teens. It will also be interesting to see how this affects a publication based in Charlotte, North Carolina called The Face Magazine, which has been happily trading, without litigation or connection to the subject of this book, since 2015. It's a brave move to relaunch something so iconic and something so rooted to a period in time. Hopefully, the rebooted magazine will be worthy of its own chapter in the updated version of Gorman's book. Regardless of that, The Story of The Face is a suitable tribute to an institution that became more important than its subject matter.