Thursday 17 October 2019

Barry Egan: How I lied about my sex - and ended up writing for the NME

As the legendary music paper stops its print run, Barry Egan recalls his mad, bad and crazy days there

Sinead O’Connor’s cover from October 1988 which Barry Egan wrote
Sinead O’Connor’s cover from October 1988 which Barry Egan wrote
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

I lied about my sex. I smuggled myself on to U Magazine in early 1987 as a woman writer. I didn't dress up as a woman. I merely sent in a few articles on spec - thinking that it being a women's mag, it wouldn't publish men.

However, U Magazine published an interview with I had done with make-up-heavy Leeds goth band The Mission. Having recently read that their lead singer Wayne Hussey would never give an interview to rock bible New Musical Express again after being burned by its writers too many times, I decid ed to rewrite my Mission interview into something camp and full of sub-Julie Burchill meanness and post it to NME's editor in London, Alan Lewis.

Much to Wayne Hussey's surprise, it appeared in the following week's edition, on the cover. It was a defining moment in my life - to have something published in the music paper that I grew up reading, in awe of the work of Paul Morley, Ian Penman, Tony Parsons and Ms Burchill. Within two months, I had interviewed Erasure, 10,000 Maniacs, Gaye Bykers On Acid and Red Hot Chili Peppers and I was getting published regularly. I was 20.

I flew to London with my clunky typewriter in my case and I met James Brown, the rather brilliant, young features editor of NME. He put me up in his flat for a few nights. He also let me guest edit the Thrills section one week and write the prestigious Singles Review column the next (you could say absolutely anything you liked, no matter how stupid or vicious… I remember with some regret writing something absolutely juvenile about a new Chris de Burgh single.)

I met Jimmy Page in a pub one night in London and Joe Strummer of The Clash another night. I went out with Shaun Ryder of Happy Mondays another evening and woke up in a flat somewhere in London the morning after. Those were mad, bad and crazy days at NME.

I was in awe of the NME writers that I met in the office on the 26th floor of a tower block on London's South Bank. They were so hip and intelligent and seemed so self-assured. (I felt like a young Paddy in London without friends.) Brilliant writers such as James Brown, Jack Barron, Barbara Ellen, David Quantick, Paolo Hewitt, Dele Fadele, Stuart Maconie, Stuart Bailey, and Steven Wells.

U2’s first NME cover in February 1981
U2’s first NME cover in February 1981

The latter was a ferocious communist with a shaved head and Docs and a red Fred Perry, who shouted a lot about class struggle. This shouting card-carrying member of the Socialist Workers Party was also extremely kind to me.

I used to stay with Steven (who sadly died of cancer in 2009) in his flat out by Wembley Stadium. He lived with Martin Hewes, the bassist in the revolutionary British skinhead soul trio The Redskins. I slept in a sleeping bag next to the cat on the kitchen floor while Steven and Martin sat up all night at the kitchen table talking shop.

This was usually shop-floor Trotsky (the Redskins' first single was called Lev Bronstein, that being Trotsky's real name) and eviscerating Neil Kinnock for taking the British Labour Party to what they saw as down a right-wing road after the left-wing 1983 election platform. "The longest suicide note in history", Gerald Kaufman called it.

In a sense, NME in the last 10 years had written just such a note. NME's demise, culminating with stopping its print edition last week after 65 years, was not a surprise to many, even any. The light went out a long time ago - and as such it has not been the NME as we knew and loved it. It had lost all credibility, long since stopped being a publication that musicians particularly cared about - no one lost sleep over a review or an opinion expressed by one of its writers.

For me, those brief magical 18 months at NME changed and in some senses made my working life. Writing for NME was not remotely normal in any sense. It was a different kind of writing. It was novelistic almost. It was slightly unhinged and personal.

Former NME legend of the 1970s Nick Kent in his memoir Apathy for the Devil put it well: "I wasn't writing about rock as an idea: I was writing about it as a full-blown, flesh-and-blood reality - surreal people living surreal, action-packed lives. From what I'd learned coming up, rock writing was fundamentally an action medium that best came to life when the writer was right in the thick of that action, yet removed enough to comprehend its possible consequences."

Jack Barron's interview with Nick Cave in Berlin in 1988 about his drug addiction (The Needle And The Damage Done) was a classic of its time.

Life moved at a peculiar pace at the NME. You never knew what - or when - something would happen that would change your life in some shape or form...

In the summer of 1988, I went to New York at barely a minute's notice with a young Irish singer with whom I had become friends. Over the course of a week bouncing around Manhattan and then Washington, Sinead O'Connor talked about how U2 were a virtual mafia in the Irish music industry and how much she didn't like U2.

It was truly astonishing stuff. So truly astonishing that NME held the interview for a week when I sent it to them in the post (on a typed manuscript that I wouldn't have kept a copy of) and went off and interviewed U2 about it.

I'm sure that The Edge, who was in the middle of promoting U2's new album Rattle and Hum, was delighted to field questions about Sinead's allegations about U2. His response became the headline in the U2 interview: "You don't actually believe Sinead, do you?"

The same edition of NME, with Sinead on the cover, had the headline on its front page: "Fighting Talk: Sinead O'Connor vs U2".

Inside were all Sinead's allegations about the world's biggest band. Inside also was the aforesaid interview with the world's biggest band about Sinead's allegations about them.

The Irish Independent reprinted the entire Sinead interview - without permission from me. My mother rang me from Dublin to tell me. Later, the Indo editor Vinnie Doyle paid me much more for the piece than I'd got from the NME (who were tight).

Hilariously, U2 and Sinead would soon(ish) kiss and make up. But I was on my own - left out in the cold for a few years by both Sinead and U2.

As a friend said, in the heel of the hunt, does any of this really matter? Not the things themselves certainly - which is water under the bridge a hundred thousand times.

I have long since kissed and made up with the great U2 and the even greater, and internationally-loved Sinead. The years roll by but nothing compares to her.

Sunday Independent

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