Totally Wired Paul Gorman

‘Totally Wired: The Rise and Fall of the Music Press’

In this excerpt from Paul Gorman’s history of music magazines, Totally Wired we experience the heady ascent of “rock and pop culture journalism” fueled by the seemingly endless energy of music fans.

Totally Wired: The Rise and Fall of the Music Press
Paul Gorman
Thames & Hudson
November 2022

“Everyone thought I was crazy”:
16, NME, and the Birth of Rock

A quarter of a century after the founding of The Melody Maker in London’s Denmark Street, Maurice Kinn installed new staff at offices across the road. Here, in 1952, they set about producing the renamed New Musical Express.

Kinn aggressively poached Melody Maker staffers, including advertising manager Percy Dickins, assistant editor Jack Baverstock and reporter Les Perrin, later to make his name as a publicist for the likes of the Rolling Stones. The editor was another Melody Maker alum, Ray Sonin, who—having won a “respectable sum of money on the British football pools”—had retired to write novels. But his track record as editor of the Maker lent credence to his later claims that it was he, not Kinn, who drove the transformation of what became NME.

“Everybody said we’d last five minutes,” said Dickins. “The target was £100 worth of advertising a week, and I did it. I’d built up contacts and some weeks I did more than that.”

“Percy had a slightly rarified air about him—his nickname was ‘Sir Percy,’” recalled songwriter Don Black, then an office boy at the paper. “Maurice seemed very authoritarian but I think that was because he was a very shy man.”

The first issue of the recharged publication hit British newsstands on March 7, 1952. “The presentation and contents will be fresh and stimulating,” declared editor Sonin, “because The New Musical Express will be produced by a brand new, handpicked staff of editorial experts with long experience in music journalism and an overall knowledge of the business.”

With issues expanded to sixteen pages, the front page emphasized photography in place of the jumble of stories posted by the previous regime. Moving the letters page upfront increased engagement with readers, while an expanded classified ads section brought in a much needed three pence per word. The back page was dominated by “Tail-pieces:” music industry gossip from Kinn, in the guise of “the Alley Cat”—a persona he used over the years to break news, spread tittle-tattle, promote his own acts and sometimes settle scores.

Takeup of the new version proved slow. “The paper kept on losing money hand over fist,” Kinn admitted. “I had to borrow money from my mother-in-law to keep it afloat. I felt like an idiot, like I’d made a mistake.” But he persevered. “[Kinn] thought of the idea of sending out free copies to show people what it was like and had his mum and dad in one of the rooms sending them out,” said Percy Dickins. “He put new life into it and it started to look better.” Kinn also invested in ads on Radio Luxembourg, a broadcaster that challenged the BBC’s monopoly. “That did it,” said Dickins.

As Musical Express, the paper had included an unobtrusive chart of sheet music sales. “There were names there like Johnny Ray, Frank Sinatra [and] Nat ‘King’ Cole, but they weren’t getting the coverage,” Kinn noted. “Instead it had been all about the big-band scene, which was fading away. So I got hold of the chart and said, ‘These are the people we should be covering. The chart should be the reason why people buy the paper.’”

In 1952, a deal was struck to license so-called “music popularity” charts from Billboard. The American trade journal had made strides towards desegregating popular music by replacing the title “Race” with “Rhythm & Blues” for its listing of African American songs. This opened White fans’ ears to pre-rock ’n’ roll Black music in the US, but NME chose four other charts, each with twenty-five places: Records Most Played by Disc Jockeys, Best Selling Pop Singles, Best Selling Sheet Music and Top Tunes in Britain.

NME’s course, however, was changed by the decision in November 1952 to print a chart based on sales from twenty British outlets. Sonin claimed credit for this, noting that he had an understanding of the commercial potential of charts from his twelve years at Melody Maker. Dickins claimed the chart was his idea: “I said to Ray, ‘This would be a good idea, to have the best-selling records,’ and he said, ‘Good idea, you set it up.’”

Dickins oversaw the collection of information from record shops, many of which were in London. “For the first time in the history of the British popular music business, an authentic weekly survey of the best selling ‘pop’ records has been devised and instituted,” trumpeted the intro to the “Record Hit Parade.” But amid post-war austerity, so small was the release schedule that the debut NME chart featured just twelve releases. Number one was “Here in My Heart” by Al Martino, who had fled the US mafia to live in England and would play a role based on his experiences in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Also represented were big names that Kinn was keen to include in the paper: Nat “King” Cole, Doris Day, Bing Crosby, Vera Lynn, Guy Mitchell, Johnny Ray and Jo Stafford.

The initial list of twenty chart reporting outlets was expanded to fifty-three, taking in northern hubs such as Liverpool and Manchester. “Each member of the paper’s staff was allocated a list of shops to call every Monday morning,” wrote Pat Long. “The results of these calls were passed to NME’s staff accountant, who took time from his duties on the payroll to collate and process the week’s research.”

The chart boosted NME’s profile sufficiently for it to become the basis of a show on Radio Luxembourg. That forced Melody Maker to follow suit, according to Mark Williams, “using its financial muscle to undermine NME by licensing its own pop charts to daily newspapers.”

In 1953, Kinn introduced what became a magazine standard: an annual awards event. He declared the first NME Poll Winners’ Concert “the night of the year” and, although the show was notionally based on readers’ votes, the paper’s editors and heavyweight music managers clearly had a hand in who appeared. A packed audience at London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall witnessed winners’ crowns being placed on bandleader Ted Heath, jazzers Johnny Dankworth and Ronnie Scott and singers Lita Roza and Dickie Valentine.

“Everyone thought I was crazy,” said Kinn. “They couldn’t see why kids would want to come along to see these acts on the same bill. To me, after years of packaging artists, it seemed obvious. The readers’ polls started to help push up the circulation.”

NME’s rising fortunes elevated Kinn to celebrity status. When Frank Sinatra arrived in London in 1953 after the collapse of his marriage to Ava Gardner (which had led to him being admitted to hospital suffering from “mental strain and exhaustion”), the singer poured his heart out in an NME interview. “He’d had a disastrous tour of Italy, where the fans had booed and called for Ava, but we gave him his chance to put his side of the story,” said Kinn. “He never forgot our support. A couple of years later my wife and I visited him in LA on the set of a movie he was making, and he flew us to Las Vegas and paid for our stay at the Sands.”

By the mid-1950s NME’s circulation was 100,000. “I bought my first Rolls-Royce,” recalled Kinn. Meanwhile, Melody Maker rose to 97,000 in 1955. The boom stemmed from an explosion in releases—and accompanying ads—from labels such as EMI, Columbia, HMV, MGM and Parlophone.

Represented by their own youth cult—neo-Edwardian peacocks the Teddy Boys—and targeted by records, films and new fashions, British teenagers had come to the fore. And so were born opportunities for publishers who catered to their tastes. Among the new weeklies was Record & Show Mirror (its title soon to be abbreviated), launched in 1954 by Isidore Green, who lured columnists such as Peter Hepple, future editor of The Stage, “for little in the way of reward.”

Record Mirror, wrote British academic Peter Mills, “was the first weekly to assume the reader as non-musician and furthermore to be as interested in the lives and preferences of the performers as their music. It became a respected if more lightweight companion to NME, the ‘poppiest’ of the weeklies.” The new title riled the market leaders by establishing its own singles chart, followed by the UK’s first album chart. Undaunted by a legal challenge—mounted on the basis that the younger magazine had infringed NME’s trademarks—Isidore Green declared Record Mirror’s charts “the most authentic.”

Nevertheless, Record Mirror failed to dent either NME’s or Maurice Kinn’s standing. Kinn came to know major players in the music business, including Elvis Presley and his notoriously protective manager Colonel Tom Parker: “He used to organize interviews with Elvis for me, always provided front row tickets and used to take regular adverts.” Parker later had Presley record a message to be played at a 1964 NME awards show. In it, the star wished “much continued success” to the Beatles, “as well as the other great recording artists in England.”

Melody Maker’s predilection for jazz, blues and folk left it unmoved by the emergence of rock ’n’ roll. A review of Presley’s UK breakthrough single “Heartbreak Hotel” dismissed him as “a very mannered singer” with “extremely poor diction.” Steve Race was equally unimpressed by “Hound Dog:” “Many times I have heard bad records, but for sheer repulsiveness coupled with the monotony of incoherence, ‘Hound Dog’ hit a new low.”

NME’s letters page gave young fans a forum to torment jazzers and, by association, Melody Maker readers. “Rock ’n’ roll provides excitement,” noted one. “What better music for young cats to jump to?”

The new genre went mainstream with the excited response to the film Rock Around the Clock in 1956. Newspapers seized on reports of public disorder in cinemas and demonized the Teddy Boys. Kinn leapt to the defense of his readers, accusing the press of “exaggerating and distorting the situation, instead of recognizing the riots as the hooliganism of an undisciplined minority.” And that autumn, according to Pat Long, “The paper was full of pieces on Fats Domino, Elvis, Bill Haley, Carl Perkins and the thirteen-year-old Frankie Lymon. Reading these interviews with wonder were hundreds of the children—among them John Lennon, Malcolm McLaren and Marc Bolan—who would later shape British pop music.”

A force in the 1960s counterculture and a music journalist in the seventies, Mick Farren hailed Kinn’s paper as “tougher than Melody Maker. It ran articles on Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee [Lewis], while the MM still had that jazzer, snotty attitude.” Even the staid John Major, later one of Britain’s Conservative prime ministers, was swayed. “In my youth,” he told Kinn, “the weekly copy of NME was an absolute must.”

“If any new artist came into the chart, it was almost the duty of the paper to cover them,” said broadcaster-to-be Charlie Gillett, who became so fixated with the charts that he cut them out each week. These proved useful when he wrote The Sound of the City, the first authoritative account of rock ’n’ roll in the post-war years.

Strained relations between Kinn and his editor Ray Sonin reached breaking point in 1957. The latter emigrated to Canada and launched his own paper, Music World, before switching to a distinguished career in radio. His replacement at NME was Andy Gray, a Canadian living in London. Meanwhile, Kinn and his wife entertained homegrown and visiting stars at cocktail parties in their Mayfair apartment. When Sammy Davis Jr was booked to play a season in London, the singer asked Kinn—who had met Davis during his residencies in Las Vegas—to throw him a gathering where he could meet British performers. “Everybody came along,” recalled Kinn. “Lonnie Donegan, Russ Conway, Janet Scott, Connie Francis, Lionel Blair, Alma Cogan, Dickie Valentine … everybody. That night [Davis] put on an impromptu performance. He sang, danced and told stories for forty minutes. That was his UK debut. Then he persuaded all the others to each do a turn. It helped launch his career here.”

Since Record Mirror had seen off Kinn’s attempts to close its chart, others entered the fray; notably Disc, founded by Charlie Buchan, a soccer star turned journalist who had established a publishing empire. There are stories that the young British singer Cliff Richard worked as an office assistant for Buchan. Certainly he would have been a member of the new record-buying demographic at whom the weekly was aimed. “Disc will live up to its name, spotlighting discs, the artists who make them and all the interesting backroom secrets from the recording studios,” proclaimed the first issue, which included three charts: a Top Twenty (“compiled from dealers’ returns all over the country”), American Top Tunes and a Juke Box Top Ten, with figures provided by the US trade magazine World’s Fair.

Columnists included DJ Pete Murray, a presenter of the BBC’s first pop television show, Six-Five Special. He was among the high-profile entertainment names who gathered to launch Disc in February 1958. The mood was dampened when Buchan announced that he would not make a celebratory speech because news had broken that eight Manchester United footballers had died in an air crash in Munich.

Nonetheless, Disc soon won an audience, thanks to cover stars such as Nat “King” Cole and the Native American-style singer Marvin Rainwater. The “Big Beat” page—news from America—featured unknowns such as the young African American quartet the Blossoms, later to become the voices of producer Phil Spector’s early hits. Advertisers included Britain’s first male boutique, Vince Man’s Shop, and Sherrick, the makers of an American-cut, denim “rock suit.”

Six-Five Special producer Jack Good was a popular contributor. “Good would take the whole column—probably 1,000 words—to write about ‘Duke of Earl’ by Gene Chandler or ‘Hey! Baby’ by Bruce Channel,” recalled Disc reader Richard Williams. “Although they were hits, they were nonetheless quite extreme in their own way, and he would write, ‘These are the best things you’ve ever heard.’ I really responded to that.”

Rather than cannibalizing each other’s sales, the four weeklies, each with different takes on the potent pop scene, stoked interest among a growing band of British fans. Elton John, in the late 1950s, “copied all the different singles charts out of Melody Maker, the New Musical Express, Record Mirror and Disc, then compiled the results, averaging them out into a personal chart of charts.”

But Disc’s emergence underlined Melody Maker’s lack of agility. The homemade skiffle craze—which went mainstream in Britain in 1957 when Lonnie Donegan scored chart-toppers with “Cumberland Gap” and “Gamblin’ Man”—was within Melody Maker’s purview, because it combined jazz, blues, and folk, genres the paper had long championed. However, the Maker remained hostile to rock ’n’ roll; a stance, according to Nick Johnstone, “rooted in the question of musical ability. The cult of the idol was growing, but critics accustomed to praising the merits of being able to play well found this hard to stomach.” Writer Steve Race railed against the new music as “sexually suggestive, simplistic, and lacking melody.” Citing the Imps’ tawdry novelty B-side “Dim Dumb Blonde”, Race lashed out at British youth for buying into “the cheapest music even America has produced”—overlooking the fact that the group were skiffling Lancastrians.

The paper’s first editor, Edgar Jackson, was brought out of retirement in 1958 to applaud the new wave of jazzers such as saxophonist Sonny Rollins and pianist Thelonious Monk. “A cultural war developed between the jazz intellectuals and the rock ’n’ roll hedonists,” noted Nick Johnstone. “Some of the finest jazz records of all time were made in the coming period, and it was only natural that the paper should enthusiastically endorse the growing diversity of jazz styles.”


Across the Atlantic, contemporary music had been the preserve of trade titles such as Billboard and Cashbox, while the jazz journal DownBeat—founded in Chicago in 1934—rode the waves from big band music and swing to modern jazz. John Hammond, New York stringer for Melody Maker at the start of the 1930s, personified its fiercely critical and intellectual approach, though DownBeat took heat for not featuring African American musicians such as Lester Young and Charlie Parker on its front pages until the 1950s.

DownBeat’s defenders, however, note that, between the covers, “There was no music magazine of the period more progressive or aggressive on the race issue, or in making sure that its readers understood the Black innovators.” And it was a hotbed for talent: among those who published their first journalism in DownBeat were the Turkish American brothers Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, who would champion Black music with Atlantic Records, where artists ranged from John Coltrane and Charles Mingus to Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.

According to the Los Angeles musicologist Harvey Kubernik, Phil Spector—Kubernik’s Fairfax High School pal—wrote to DownBeat in the mid-1950s to protest the exclusion of jazz guitarist Barney Kessel from an article. “A lot of people had letters printed in magazines before they jump-started their careers in music or the press,” said Kubernik. “It was a way of showing interest in the subject as well as being their only outlet.”

Intentionally devoid of DownBeat’s critical sensibilities was Seventeen, a bimonthly launched by the Hearst Corporation in 1944 to provide role models for teenage girls and school-leavers. On the back of the bobbysoxer phenomenon—fandom for crooners such as Frank Sinatra—Seventeen sold 500,000 copies an issue by “offering a non-patronizing approach that hit a chord by focusing on the barely recognized purchasing power of adolescents.” And it proved an important stepping stone for a generation of American talent: art director Marvin Israel, who had studied at Yale under the Bauhaus’s Josef Albers, commissioned work by photographers Diane and Allan Arbus, Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander.

Israel also took stunning portraits of James Dean and Elvis Presley. “In the context of a mainstream publication aimed at teenage girls,” wrote Martin Harrison, “Israel’s stark, uncompromising black and whites must have appeared unsettling, and only two of his 500 photographs of Elvis were published at the time.”

The teen market spawned a slew of vibrant newcomers—notably Dig, Hit Parader and 16, which laid the foundations for US music criticism in the 1960s and ’70s. Dig’s target market was made clear by the name of its publisher: Teenage Magazines. It emerged from Hollywood in 1955 alongside other bids to exploit the new demographic, such as Modern Teen and Teen Scene. “In sharp contrast with the moralistic flavor of earlier youth magazines,” one sociologist of the period concluded, “the post-war group is distinguished by its hedonistic values within an essentially amoral setting: the teen years are not ones of preparation for responsible adulthood, but of play and diversion.”

Dig was America’s hippest magazine, one in tune with what was really happening with fifties teens,” music critic Alan Betrock declared. “It was frequently a leader, rarely a follower. Early issues had rhythm and blues inserts—the first issue had an R&B flexidisc!—and a string of youthful reporters who were part of the scenes they covered.”

A Mad magazine-like humor permeated Dig’s pages, which documented the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, from custom cars and movies to fashion and hairstyles. Among the contributors was songwriter and producer Kim Fowley, later the man behind the Runaways. “He used it as an entrée into the record business,” says Harvey Kubernik. “Kim went to Goldstar Studios to interview the Champs when they were recording ‘Tequila.’ It was his way of getting in.” Fowley followed his Dig gig with a stint in record promotions, and topped the US chart with “Alley Oop” by his ensemble the Hollywood Argyles.

Dig itself fared less well. “By the early sixties, it deteriorated into just another teen idol mag,” lamented Betrock. But as Dig fell, Hit Parader rose. “Hit Parader evolved from a pop to a rock ’n’ roll magazine in the late fifties,” wrote Betrock. “Once there, it never looked back, always managing to cover whoever was in the charts, local favorites, deejays, movies and song lyrics. In its ’55 to ’63 years it was never too radical or adventurous, and there was less Black coverage than there should have been, but a good run of Hit Paraders profile just about anyone in rock ’n’ roll and are a good mirror of the charts and the times.”

“It was written intelligently, taking music away from the teenyboppers and putting it in a more serious context,” agreed record label operator and music magazine publisher Greg Shaw. Kubernik favored Hit Parader for “the newsprint—it was black and white, gritty. There were really good photos. I went for it rather than the trades like Cashbox and Billboard. They were expensive but not true to the music. I didn’t like seeing phrases like ‘race music’ with all these guys with phony smiles holding plaques up.”

But the title that can truly lay claim to inaugurating the era of rock writing was 16 magazine, despite its origins in the mid-1950s as a cash-in on Seventeen’s popularity by literary agent Jacques Chambrun. This thoroughly bad egg had embezzled a fortune from novelist W. Somerset Maugham, screenwriter Ben Hecht and Peyton Place author Grace Metalious. One element of Chambrun’s long con was to make much of his background: he claimed to have been born into the French aristocracy, though it is likely that he hailed from the Bronx. “He could be elegant or oily, depending on whom you asked,” noted The New Yorker. “Knox Burger, an editor and agent, once described Chambrun as a ‘feral character’ and said he would be perfect ‘if you were casting an unctuous Levantine villain in a 1950 film noir.’ He dyed his hair a deep black and threw Hugh Hefner-style parties in his basement pool.”

Having fleeced his clients, Chambrun scored a publishing sensation in 1956 with the one-off cash-in All About Elvis, built around previously published stories and photos of Presley bought from a newspaper editor in Memphis. When this sold out, Chambrun established a new magazine for teenage girls. Fellow agent Desmond Hall and journalist George Waller contributed, using female pseudonyms: editor-in-chief “Georgia Winters,” for example.

The first issue of 16, with Presley on the cover, appeared in 1957. Billed as “The magazine for girls,” it resembled, said American writer Margaret Moser, “one of those 1950s Hollywood scandal sheets minus the dirt. Plenty of Elvis coverage, snaps of Hollywood stars like Natalie Wood and Debra Paget, a quiz asking ‘Are your parents delinquent?’ and a feature on the Million Dollar Quartet [the retrospective name for a gathering of stars at an Elvis session in December 1956]. How honed-in was 16 on its audience in its first issue? Those iconic photos of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash at a piano in Sun Studios were 16’s exclusively.”

This set the tone for successive issues. “While Waller filled its pages with such hot young performers as Elvis, Pat Boone, even James Dean, he did not personally interview any of the subjects but worked from press releases, previously published material and some commissioned stories,” wrote Randi Reisfeld and Danny Fields in their history of the magazine. “From the get-go, 16 was done on the cheap. Waller worked from home and, while some funds were spent on photos and stories, Chambrun’s iron-clad rule was always, ‘Get it for as little as you can.’”

These economies didn’t stop the circulation’s steady rise. And 16 steadfastly shunned third-party advertising, despite the clamor from record labels, managers, agents and producers of goods aimed at the burgeoning teenage market. For the first twenty years of its existence, non-editorial space was reserved for in-house promotions. This would have deep-sixed any other title, but it honed the magazine’s appeal. “Fans were quick to realize 16 was the only place they could go to find information (such as it was) and photos,” wrote Reisfeld and Fields. “It was a fanbook for them, a Photoplay or Life, filled with the young stars they cared about.”

As subscription forms and readers’ letters poured in, the middle-aged men producing the copy and licensing the photography cast around for someone to assist. Chambrun’s chance encounter at a New York party with glamorous model Gloria Stavers was to lead 16 in a brave new direction. The seeds were sown for the development of what critic Dave Marsh described as “rock and pop culture journalism” and for the decades-long task of wresting dominance of the music press from White male writers.

Paul Gorman is a journalist, author, and commentator on visual culture. He has written a number of books including The Story of the Face: The Magazine that Changed Culture and Derek Boshier: Rethink / Re-entry. He has staged a number of exhibitions in the UK and France.

Excerpted from Totally Wired: The Rise and Fall of the Music Press, by Paul Gorman (footnotes omitted). © 2022 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London Text © 2022 Paul Gorman Reprinted by permission of Thames & Hudson Inc.  No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.