Wednesday 13 November 2019

The day the music press died

A Bible for rock fans during the 80s and 90s, now the NME is set to close its print edition. Damian Corless traces the rise and fall of the once-great magazine

Got it covered: NME gave punk rock a platform and set up the Blur Vs Oasis rivalry
Got it covered: NME gave punk rock a platform and set up the Blur Vs Oasis rivalry

Damian Corless

The New Musical Express is no more. After 66 years on the news stands, it is going out with a whimper. It will survive as an online presence, but suspended animation in cyberspace is no fitting end for a title that was once a byword for living this life to the full.

In 1977, NME ran a series of supplements entitled 'A Consumers' Guide To The 1970s' covering music, politics, culture, literature, art and more. Riding high with sales topping 200,000, it was merely acknowledging what its devotees already knew - that NME was not just the planet's essential music Bible, but a Bible for all a teen could want to know about anything from toad-licking to the philosophy of Nietzsche.

Provocative, opinionated, foul-mouthed, incisive, deeply funny, bitchy and brilliant, it was a window on the whole wide world in 48 inky finger-staining pages. Week after week those pages repeated the mantra 'Do It Yourself', empowering wannabes like The Boomtown Rats and U2 with the conviction that they too could be pop stars.

My grumpy local newsagent was no fan of pop music, or of life in general, but at a time when very few shops in Ireland stocked NME, he had standing order for five copies every Thursday. One went on the magazine rack, the other four were kept behind the counter with names scrawled on the cover for collection. Those names were mine and those of my pal Emmett, Fionan Hanvey AKA Gavin Friday, and Paul Hewson AKA Bono - the NME was an incorrigible name-dropper.

If high seas kept the mail boat in Hollyhead, the mag wouldn't make it to Ireland, spelling the ruination of the whole week for many.

The NME was a key cultural influencer many times over. Stepping into the vanguard of rock'n'roll in the 1950s, it went on to champion The Beatles and The Stones who were fixtures at its annual Poll Winners' Concerts.

Jarvis Cocker cover
Jarvis Cocker cover

In the 1970s it was crucial to breaking David Bowie, T Rex and Roxy Music, before giving punk rock its most important platform.

With punk mediated by gifted gonzo writers like Tony Parsons, Ian Penman and Julie Burchill, thousands of Irish kids fell in love with discs they'd never heard - not with the sounds themselves, which never got played or sold here, but with the ideas behind the records.

The NME ran into its first big crisis in the late 1980s when its takeover by a big mainstream publisher coincided with a hate campaign aimed at it by the Tory-backed Responsible Society.

The Society targeted the NME and three mags aimed at teen girls, Just Seventeen, Loving and Honey. Loving was castigated for street slang like "stupid cow", but the fundamentalists came down hardest on the NME for printing four-letter words, publicising bands with Satanic names and promoting gay lifestyles.

Old cover with Sex Pistols
Old cover with Sex Pistols

The new owners stepped in. Political ads for leftie singers like Billy Bragg were refused. Features mysteriously went missing on the journey from the editorial department to the printers. Articles were butchered by unseen hands. After attempting to run a major piece on music censorship, two senior editors were suspended, followed by an exodus of top writers who left in sympathy and disgust.

The advent of rave culture dealt the NME another body blow. With scarcely any lyrics, and not much in the way of a political or intellectual framework, the new dance culture offered precious little for the remaining hacks to write about. The magazine engineered its own last hurrah in the mid-1990s when it successfully persuaded millions of young people that Britpop was a real, valid and happening thing. Happily for the NME, its backward looking Britpop bandwagon coincided with the emergence of exceptional acts like Oasis, Blur, Pulp and, working wonders in a parallel universe, Radiohead.

But even as the NME was setting up Blur Vs Oasis as a latter day Beatles Vs Stones, the mainstream press was stealing its clothes. Throughout the golden years of the NME, pop music had been a secret society. Oldies not admitted. Once the mainstream media realised there was money to be made from pop, that all-important sense of exclusiveness was gone forever.

It seems the days of the music press are numbered - another recent casualty was the Irish online publication, which published its final post this week. For the few remaining dedicated music magazines, it is unclear what the future holds.

Kurt Cobain cover
Kurt Cobain cover

Time ran out on the NME 20 years ago, but when it was great it was truly great.

Irish Independent

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