Friends and NME

Simon Warner

Now that the Woodstock clan had been joined by the Live Aid generation, rock had almost picked up its pipe and slippers.

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the victim of an ever more crowded sector, in which technological innovations appeared to make the print media, already out-of-date the second an edition hit the news-stand, less attractive, less essential, than it had been in the heady 1960s and 1970s.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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.