Sunday 18 February 2018

Know your 'NME': rise 'n' fall of a giant

John Meagher

John Meagher

There's nothing more tedious than the 'it was better in my day' merchants and when it comes to music, it's a hackneyed phrase that gets bandied about time and time again.

When I first started writing professionally about music in my early 20s, many of the more venerable critics I encountered seemed to dismiss every exciting new band as a poor facsimile of what had gone before and no matter how much promise a fledgling Irish act might show, it didn't matter because nothing they could do could compare to The Blades or the The Radiators or the Stars of Heaven in their pomp.

It's a similar story with NME, which for decades was Britain's most significant music magazine, and by extension, Ireland's too. You won't find many people talking about it any more. Like a once huge rock star reduced to playing the ever dwindling nostalgia circuit, NME's sales nose-dived to such an extent that its most recent sales figures were teetering around the 15,000-mark.

But in its late 1970s heyday it was shifting more than 300,000 copies per week and it was commanding a very significant audience right up to the Britpop years of the mid-1990s. It spoke strongly to me in the very early 1990s when it put bands like Primal Scream and Suede on the cover, although even then there was someone older and wiser who noted that NME they remembered was so much more worthwhile than the one I was holding.

It's in the news again of late after its parent company decided they'd had enough of puny sales and pledged to give it away as a free-sheet. Their plans involve printing 300,000 copies and making them available in universities, clubs and other places young folk might be gathered. It's certainly a different tack to those media organs that dispense entirely with print and hope that the online-only route will somehow deliver enough revenue to keep afloat.

I wish it well because, although not many read it in recent years, there were still occasional flashes of excellence. In particular, I was taken with a scholarly examination of the influences behind one of 2015's greatest albums, Kendrick Lamar's To Kill A Butterfly, and there was a revealing interview a couple of years ago with Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks, in which the writer was invited to the singer's Malibu mansion to talk about the making of Rumours.

But despite such highs, the magazine felt tired, irrespective of the numerous redesigns it had. It's willingness to big up mediocre acts did it no favours and it beggars belief that St Vincent was the only female on the front cover for the whole of last year.

Despite its efforts, it could never shake off the notion that its interests were very white, very male and very much about guitar bands.

The New Musical Express, to give it its full title, was first published in 1952 and featured comedy troupe The Goons on its inaugural cover. While it was a hit with the public, it was rival magazine Melody Maker that was seen as cutting edge in the 1960s, Britain's most extraordinary and fertile pop decade.

That would all change in the 1970s when NME championed up-and-coming bands delivering a powerful anti-establishment message. Its peak that decade would coincide nicely with punk's Year Zero, 1977, and a new breed of young writers, among them Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, would help give the magazine the sort of irreverent tone that just couldn't be found in the mainstream press on either side of the Irish Sea.

These so-called "hip young gunslingers" certainly weren't afraid of tooting their own trumpets.

It sold well in this country back then and it's no surprise that Hot Press was born around the same time.

Its importance was especially evident in the 1980s and the imprimatur of the magazine was often enough to generate bidding wars for unsigned bands. EMI coughed up a huge fee for New Wave hopefuls Sigue Sigue Sputnik in 1984, but the band failed to deliver the expected impact. (It was a similar story a decade later when both NME and Melody Maker got into a lather over Menswear, who would go on to bomb spectacularly.)

The Smiths were celebrated from the start and such was NME's enthusiasm for Morrissey et al that it sometimes felt as though the magazine was little more than a Smiths fanzine. Do a Google Image search to get a sense of just how often it saw fit to put the Mancunians on its cover.

Its 1980s influence was such that it could even kickstart new movements. C86 was an indie compilation cassette devised by NME writers and available for mail-order through the magazine and such was its influence that C86 would become a shorthand for a new breed of jangle-pop and 'shoe-gaze' bands.

While C86 was, according to then NME staffer Andrew Collins, "the most indie thing to have ever existed" it appeared at a time when the magazine was attempting to be a credible source of news and views for the era's most significant development - rap. Public Enemy would be cover stars on several occasions, but it was clear much of the readership wanted the publication to focus on unearthing the next Smiths instead.

Although it got in on the online game early - its website dates from 1996 - it struggled to engage with new readers after the turn of the millennium and its ability to be a game-changer seemed slight when compared to the arriviste on the other side of the pond,

While there's little or no chance of it returning to the cultural relevancy it once enjoyed, it may have a happier future than many predict. The very fact it will be a visible organ again - 300,000 is a significant print run for a freebie - will ensure, in the short-term at least, that it will find an audience.

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