Friends and NME

The rock inkie has been a weekly institution in the UK for over three quarters of a century. So-called because cheap black and white news-print meant that the ink came off on your hands as you read it, these newspapers-cum-magazines have covered most nooks and crannies of the Anglo-American music scene since just after the First World War.

More recent times have seen some dramatic shifts in this marketplace, however. For one, printing technology has allowed both the arrival of colour and permanent ink which helps to keep the tell-tale signs off your fingers. Much more significant though, was the demise of Melody Maker, by decades the oldest of all the inkies, founded in 1926 and finally sent to the printshop in the sky in late 2000 when its owners clicked off the life support system.

Melody Maker had been ailing for years; the victim of an ever more crowded sector, in which technological innovations appeared to make the print media, already out-of-date the second an edition hit the news-stand, less attractive, less essential, than it had been in the heady 1960s and 1970s. In that golden era of British popular music, from the rise of the Beatles to the end of the Sex Pistols, there had been a string of inkies to feverishly absorb this torrent of cultural activity. The inkies were anxious to disseminate a flood of news and opinion to their information-hungry customers. New Musical Express, founded in 1952, ran neck-and-neck with Melody Maker during those exciting times. Record Mirror, in 1954,Disc, in 1958, then Sounds, in 1970, added their voices, too, to this hyperactive, journalistic joust.

Circulation wars between the principal players raged for over 20 years. NME grabbed the initiative in the wake of Merseybeat. MM hit back in the late ’60s as its serious tone more appropriately reflected the rise of progressive rock. NME struck early in the next decade as it hauled aboard a string of star underground writers — Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray and others — while Sounds, with its acclaimed coverage of punk and then heavy rock in the 1980s, never allowed its senior rivals a moment of complacency.

Yet this high water mark of British rock and pop journalism — obsessive, partisan, florid and sometimes vengeful — was to face a fresh challenge in the 1980s. The glossy magazine, produced on shiny, coated paper and able to reproduce full colour images with panache, emerged and speedily superseded the sales of the weeklies. The architect of this transformation was Nick Logan, the star editor of the classic mid-’70s NME, who jumped ship with new plans in mind. First he unveiled Smash Hits, an unapologetic pop fortnightly aimed at young teens which stormed the citadel in 1978. Within 10 years it was selling half a million copies, some way ahead, by then, of all the inkie sales combined. But it was his next venture, The Face, a 1980 arrival, that really confirmed that rock culture had moved into a new phase.

After the nihilistic excesses of punk — black eye liner, black bin bags and safety pins — the new decade dawned in different mood. The new romantics — posing peacocks and purveyors of a gleaming, deeply shallow, glamour — found their perfect print platform in Logan’s new magazine, quickly dubbed a “style bible”. The Face focused its attention on surface; the way things looked.

Within a year or two, rock’s image as a lumpen, politico-cultural force, had been renovated as catwalk soundtrack: the monochrome rantings of the Sex Pistols were replaced by the technicolor gestures of Duran Duran. In the video age, The Face was the place to project both your new sounds and your new wardrobe. While Logan created a buoyant independent company, it did not take long for one of the UK’s biggest magazine publishers, Emap, to realise that a mass readership rock glossy, more mainstream than the metro-cultism of The Face, could steal a march on the kingdom of the inkie. When Q was unwrapped in 1986, it combined glossy paper and colour photography with a respectful, somewhat anodyne approach to reporting bands past and present. Now that the Woodstock clan had been joined by the Live Aid generation, rock had almost picked up its pipe and slippers. The revolution — hippie or punk — was over. The Beatles and R.E.M. were now just the backing track to a mature, suburban lifestyle.

Sales of Q rapidly hit a monthly 200,000, and the inkies’ shrinkage accelerated. Record Mirror, which swallowed Disc in 1975, and Sounds both breathed their last in 1991, and the next 10 years saw NME and MM — both owned, somewhat surprisingly, by the same company, IPC — in a fight to the death, as the glossies and the internet conspired to sabotage those weekly shots of group gossip.

Eventually, as revealed, Melody Maker, just months from its 75th birthday fell from its perch. Its merger with NME was a marriage in name only: with ruthless, neo-Stalinist efficiency, its sister publication, always a blood-curdling rival, wiped MM from the memory banks almost instantly.

But the story has an ending, if not an entirely certain one. In 2002, NME chalks up its own half century and in a feisty promotional surge will attempt to relocate the last great inkie as an essential cog in the rock machine over the coming months. The campaign “NME 5.0” will include several special publications, double issues, live events and tie-ins with TV and radio.

It has, at least on the face of it, a potent ally. In summer 2001, AOL Time Warner, the world’s greatest media empire, snaffled IPC, leaving NME, and many other mainstays of the British magazine press, in US ownership. Sentiment isn’t normally a quality associated with Earth-spanning conglomerates, but the expectation is that New Musical Express, 50 years young, will step into the new millennium with hope, if not unbridled optimism. The internet may think it is the new, if unelected, king of rock reportage, but an inkie journal of outstanding pedigree still has the guts to challenge the cold, blue hum of the computer screen.