It is heartening to get so many Facebook likes for observing the last rites of NME, heartening because it reflects the affection with which the UK’s weekly press, be it New Musical Express or Melody Maker or any of the rest, are still held by those who used to read them. Then again, maybe it’s not that surprising really because – staggering as it seems today – in their heyday, when MM was top of the heap selling 200,000 copies a week, NME wasn’t that far behind, on 180,000 I think, Sounds third with 100,000 and the two also-rans, Disc & Music Echo and Record Mirror, on 50,000 each. That’s 580,000 music papers sold every week in this little island of ours, over 30 million a year, and you can be sure that they were read by many more than that as they were passed around in colleges, offices, clubs, pubs, maybe even doctors’ waiting rooms. There were so many readers that it stands to reason that many of them will this week mourn not just NME but the weekly music press culture that was unique to the UK.
This mega-circulation era was around 1972, when MM was in its pomp, so much so that its publisher IPC Business Press was prepared to stump up for a staff member to live in New York (in an apartment paid for by them, inclusive of all utility and phone bills plus a living allowance exclusive of salary, same as foreign correspondents on the national press) and report back on what was happening in America, an expense that would cause bean-counters apoplexy today. Three of us got that wondrous gig, Roy Hollingworth, Michael Watts and myself, and I still believe it was the best job in the world in music journalism, better than any editorship, just absolute rock'n'roll nirvana regardless of the perks. MM’s success in the first half of the 1970s forged a bond between the staff that lasts to this day: Richard Williams, Chris Welch, Michael, Geoff Brown and myself meet for lunch about twice a year to relive old times, and most of us have been amongst the mourners at the funerals of those we have lost: Roy, our editor Ray Coleman, Carole Clerk and Rob Partridge. I liken it to having played together on a football team that long ago won the league title.
By the time the US job ended, in 1977, MM’s crown had slipped and NME was top dog, deservedly so under the editorship of Nick Logan with Charlie Murray, Nick Kent, Ian MacDonald and the rest carrying the torch that I like to think we had lit earlier in the decade. Nevertheless the combined circulation of the music weeklies, now joined by Kerrang! (surviving still) was still around half a million a week. (Any rivalry was strictly corporate. We were on friendly terms with the writers from other papers and one NME writer and I were ‘an item’ for a while.) This culture of weekly music magazines was exclusive to the UK; no other country saw anything like it. There were no national music weeklies to cater to fans in the US, only Lisa Robinson’s breathless New York weekly Rock Scene, dry weekly music business publications like Billboard and Cashbox and biweekly Rolling Stone. Elsewhere in Europe some countries boasted a single weekly or monthly paper, and in Australia there was Go-Set which syndicated articles from MM, as did one in Sweden. Only the UK had such a thriving weekly music press, and the competition between the titles was what kept us lively and on our toes.
It was an era way before computers or even commercial radio. Televised pop consisted only of Top Of The Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test. Acts had fan clubs that circulated newsletters but the only way to find out what your favourite act was up to, if they were going to release a new single or album or go out on tour, or if they were splitting up or changing personnel, was to read the music press. With those acts like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, who demurred from appearing on TV or using photographs of themselves on their album sleeves, the only way to found out what they actually looked like was to go and see them, not always an option, or look at the photographs of them in the music press.
Even though I lost touch with the ups and downs of the fortunes of NME and MM during the eighties I continued to read them. I began to think that NME was becoming too political for its own good, losing its way amidst an editorial policy that promoted left-wing ideology over music. I agreed with the ideology – it was the Thatcher era after all – but felt music magazines should cover music and political magazines politics. Meanwhile, MM seemed desperate to outdo A&R men by finding the next big thing before they did, which was admirable enough but resulted in a few sub-par acts appearing on the front page and being hailed as saviours when they were anything but. Both papers tended to ignore the really popular acts, the ones that were selling out arenas, because they were insufficiently hip in the eyes of their staff, and this had a detrimental effect on their circulation, giving rise to monthly magazines that treated musicians on the wrong side of 30 with more respect, in some cases probably more than they deserved. All of this coincided with the CD era in which music became a soundtrack to a certain lifestyle in which the participants didn’t care that much about the musicians whose user-friendly little silver discs they played as background music to dinner parties or in their cars and as a result weren’t much interested in reading about them. Then came the internet.
In the meantime I began to suspect, wrongly as it turned out, that the generation of young MM writers after my own might not welcome the company of those who’d gone before. I felt they might be envious of the largesse we’d enjoyed (that US job, the fairly outrageous record industry hospitality), that they might feel we had been too benign towards the acts compared to their more confrontational approach, and that they wouldn’t want to listen to any ‘in my day’ litanies so redolent of sports commentators who were once players themselves. Happily, this assumption was proved wrong after I commissioned a 90s-era MM writer to write a book for Omnibus Press and was invited to his wedding. Assuming that no one would be discourteous to me if I was accompanied by a 12-year-old girl I took my daughter Olivia along, but there I was, surrounded by the MM generation I thought might snub me, all of them eager to hear about the days when we sold 200,000 copies a week.
Now, that golden era of the weekly music press is a distant memory. As for myself, back in 1977, after seven years on MM I knew my time was up. When I turned 30 I thought I was too old to continue – which sounds ridiculous now – but I got out because I felt I couldn’t sustain the required enthusiasm in my writing. I wanted to try something else in music, which I did. Many years passed until, three years ago, I launched this blog at the suggestion of that same daughter. A few years earlier, aged 19, she’d worn a rare Keith Moon t-shirt of mine to a party and was surrounded by boys her own age wanting to know where she got it. When she explained that her dad used to know him and that he had been associated with The Who professionally, she was pestered with questions about me to the point where she wished she’d never worn the damn t-shirt. When Olivia told me this I figured it was time to start a blog and when, with her encouragement, I did so I rediscovered that same enthusiasm for writing about music and musicians that I had in the early seventies, though I’m not sure how long it’ll last.
But I digress. The loss of NME on top of all the rest is the final nail in the coffin of a culture that I mourn deeply because I was lucky enough to play a small role in it, and that makes me doubly sad.