Hard News by Russell Brown

19

Friday Music: NME – it was fun while it lasted

The news that this week's New Musical Express will be the final print edition of the magazine has no impact on my life. I've never seen a copy of the freesheet version that was NME's last bid to stay in print in 2015 and I only ever even visit its website by accident. It says nothing to me about my life, basically.

But the news does remind me that for quite a few years, the NME said a great deal to me. It even, to some extent, determined the life I live now.

As I noted in this Audioculture memoir, in the late 1970s and early 1980s I would buy the NME most weeks and open it to see what the latest thing was. Or, rather, had been. It's almost unthinkable in the internet age, but NME made its way to New Zealand by surface mail and an issue would be two or three months old by the time it turned up on the shelves in Christchurch.

It mattered less than you might think, kids of today: the delay gave local record companies a chance to get their releases together and I think quite often the latest post-punk landmark would surface here about the same time the NME's review did. We accepted the tyranny of distance as a fact of life.

But the NME didn't just tell me about music: it made me think that writing about music was something I could do. It wasn't the first music writing I paid attention to – that was Gordon Campbell in The Listener (I have a particular memory of his lacerating review of Billy Joel's The Stranger) – but it gave me a powerful idea of what writing about music could be and how far it might stretch.

To be sure, my writing role models might not have been entirely healthy: Paul Morley and Ian Penman were wordy, pretentious and undisciplined at times. But they seemed to offer a more adventurous vision of journalism than anything else available to me at the time. The dullness of my first year as a cadet at the Christchurch Star was leavened when Rob White, the paper's record reviewer (at the time a Very Serious Job) kindly let me start interviewing my peers in bands.

The following year, half-mad in The Star's Timaru branch office, I wrote an ambitious, Morleyesque account of a gig at Linlcoln University where the Dance Exponents and The Clean played and the farming students smeared food on the walls. It was my first effort for Rip It Up, and within a year I had departed newspapers and moved to Auckland to become the magazine's deputy editor. Nothing would ever be the same again.

After I landed in London in 1986, my first job interview was where I'd dreamed it might be: at the NME office. I had arrived at the time of a couple of the paper's fairly frequent ideological wars, when the soul boys were set against the rock 'n' rollers and the traditional rock scribes against the ones who thought the kids needed to know (every week ideally) about Nietzsche.

I didn't get the job. I got on well enough with David Quantick and whoever else the other interviewer was and they were impressed that I'd basically been typesetting Rip It Up, but I had no layout skills for the sub's job that was on offer – and, they said, they possibly already had too many New Zealanders.

I can't recall what other countrymen might have been there, but David Swift, who had been my rock-writing contemporary at The Press when I was at The Star, was on the subs' bench. Later, Andy Fyfe, my flatmate from the year in Timaru, and former Mockers drummer Brendan Fitzgerald (whose first ever review I'd commissioned back at Rip It Up) would do the same job. I did feel a little left out.

I went to work in record shops and the next time I visited the NME office it had moved to the IPC towers on the South Bank of the Thames and I was in the midst of my brief, inglorious stint in music PR, for Buster Bloodvessel's relaunch of the Blue Beat label (just the label, not the back-catalogue, sadly). I walked in with our would-be girl group and the girls got quite a bit of attention, while I was a bit of a gooseberry.

I did connect with the odd NME legend. Steven "Seething" Wells, the skinhead firebrand, was a nice, endlessly enthusiastic bloke I'd chat to at press events. And former deputy editor Tony Stewart took me on as a writer after I'd gone in to interview for (again) a subbing job at Sounds, the less-cool (but still the first of the "inkies" to cover the Sex Pistols, by months) rival to NME.

Part of my pitch for myself was that I actually knew what it was like to help your mate's band load out at the end of the night, unlike most of the public schoolboys whose work crowded the columns of the music papers. So the scales were falling from my eyes somewhat now that I'd seen it all close-up.

Not long after that, Brendan bailed me up at a gig and told me I was far too good for Sounds and he'd sort it out for me at NME. It never happened, but it was an illustration of the way the NME writers saw themselves as the elite in their small, lively world. But I enjoyed writing for Sounds: I didn't have to battle to get the hip hop and reggae stories the way I might have at NME. And I'll always be grateful to Penny Reel, a weedy little white bloke and another NME alumnus, for explaining rocksteady reggae to me when I was given the job of reviewing the wonderful Sonia Pottinger collection Put On Your Best Dress.

Tony subsequently tapped me to come over to the new magazine he was editing: Select, a glossy whose ink didn't come off on your hands. That was great for a while and I followed Yello to Poland and met Youssou N'Dour in New York. But we fell out a bit: he was unpredictable and cliquey and I felt I didn't know the codes. It may not have helped that I told a mildly unflattering story about (future Loaded magazine founder) James Brown coming to one of my parties. It turned out that James had been Tony's protege at NME.

I started to think about Julie Burchill's immortal quote about there being nothing sadder than a 40 year-old man enthusing about the latest 7" single. And yet, I was still using NME as a tastemaker like I always had. When I was happily engulfed by acid house in 1988, I was ready because I'd I read someone raving about house music in the NME the year before.

By the time Fiona and I returned to New Zealand in 1991, I didn't want to make NME any more, I wanted to make The Face or iD – and, in a way, I did. I'm not sure I bought a single issue of NME after that. Why would you? Although NME was yet to have its last great fling with Britpop, the inkies as a concept were dying. Sounds closed down two weeks before I flew home.

I'll always be grateful to NME for its cultural and career guidance. The ephemeral nature of NME fame was often misunderstood and resented from outside, but it's exciting as a kid to be told that this new thing is the greatest thing ever (and by the time you realised it wasn't, everyone would have moved on). The idea that ambitious, pretentious reviews and surreal on-tour stories were journalism too was immensely enabling.

But the world has changed. The actual idea of music journalism – which was always bound more tightly to the needs and foibles of the music industry than we liked to think – has changed too. We don't always need people telling us a thing we don't yet have is a game-changer, because we can just go to Spotify or Soundcloud and find out for ourselves. It's still a fun thing to do – that's why you're reading this – and there's still a prize for being first, but music journalists are far less likely to be crucial cultural arbiters than they once were. That's all okay. It was fun while it lasted.

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Quite by chance, a part of my pop print past was waiting for me when I fired up Twitter this morning. Seems the KLF fansite KLF Online found that Audioculture memoir ...

I got a bit of a bollocking from my editor at The Catalogue, Richard Boon about it too. (Yes, that's the same Richard Boon who was the first manager of the Buzzzcocks and he was really nice bloke. He's a librarian now.)

I would also point out that I bucked the hype and gave the Manic Street Preachers' first album a bad review too – to be fair, it was quite rubbish.

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