TOTALLY WIRED: The Rise & Fall of the Music Press by Paul Gorman

The home computer and its promiscuous offspring the internet were wrecking balls, demolishing much that was worth treasuring. Amidst the debris they left behind, the typewriters, fax machines and paper maps, was the UK’s once magnificent weekly music press, the history and culture of which is the subject of Totally Wired

        Unlike the monthly music magazines of today, which rely largely on nostalgia, the institution Paul Gorman writes about was immediate, spontaneous, opinionated and uncontrollable. It stirred battles royal over content and musical direction, drug- and alcohol-induced recklessness and titanic egos that exploded in desperate power struggles. It was a vibrant, messy, unforgiving arena that gave voice to countless writers of note. Bought by millions and read by millions more, that it no longer exists in recognisable form makes Totally Wired a document of great importance for anyone studying the evolution of the UK’s print media during the 20th Century. It is also, in its own way, a despairing eulogy, a tragedy for both aspiring writers and the music industry itself. 

        Herein are documented the rise and fall of scores of music papers, from titans like New Musical Express and Melody Maker to radical papers like Oz and IT, from later, hugely successful, glossies like Smash Hits, The Face and Q to publications that were little more than Xeroxed fanzines, all of them staffed by schemers and dreamers drawn to the bright lights of pop, most of them engaging characters of one sort or another whose work is documented and, to some extent, assessed by colleagues and the author himself. Furthermore, although the emphasis is on the UK, Totally Wired extends its reach to the US with its dry trade journals like Billboard, twinkling teenybop mags like 16 and hard-nosed monthlies like Creem, and where the struggle to outshine Rolling Stone continues to this day.

        Totally Wired begins and ends with Melody Maker, my own alma mater, for the simple reason that, in 1926, it was the first music paper ever to be published anywhere, and, aside from a brief epilogue, Paul Gorman chooses to conclude his book at the turn of the millennium, which is when MM bit the dust. It might surprise some to discover that MM had the field to itself for 20 years, chronologically over a quarter of this book’s time span, until the arrival of Accordion Times & Musical Express, which after a change in ownership became NME in 1952. Thereafter, the rivalry between the two is one of Totally Wired’s many sub-plots, with NME eventually coming out on top, not just because it remained in print for 18 years longer than MM but because once Nick Logan took over the editor’s chair in 1973 it became more daring, more fun to read and sold more copies.

        Lest the impression is given here that the book’s focus is on these two publications, be assured this is far from the case. With the odd exception – see below – just about every music paper you care to name gets a mention, regardless of its significance, circulation or readership demographic. Paul Gorman’s remit is comprehensive – he’s fastidious about quoting circulation figures and largely impartial in his assessments of editorial quality – but while the tone of the book leans more towards the fortunes of the actual papers, the greater fascination for me (because I know or knew many of them) lies in the stories of those who created their content. Prominent among them are NME’s trio of seventies literati, Ian MacDonald, Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray, who were pitted against MM’s Richard Williams, Michael Watts and Allan Jones, amongst others, but also in the Hall of Fame of those who shaped our music press we find heroes both sung and unsung: Max Jones, Val Wilmer, Ray Coleman, Penny Valentine, Chris Welch, Caroline Coon, Pete Frame, Mick Farren, Julie Birchill, Tony Parsons, Neil Spencer, Mark Perry, David Hepworth, Mark Ellen, Alan Lewis, Barney Hoskyns, Paul Morley, Jon Savage and Chris Salewicz; and in the US Paul Williams, Greg Shaw, Gloria Stavers, Lisa Robinson, Lenny Kaye, Dave Marsh, Lester Bangs, Jon Landau and Rolling Stone supremo Jann Wenner. In Totally Wired we hear from, or about, them all, and apologies to those I’ve missed from this very selective list. 

There are omissions, among the most glaring Record Collector, launched in 1979 by Sean O’Mahoney, who under the pseudonym of Johnny Dean was also the mastermind behind The Beatles Book, the only periodical authorised by the group, which at its peak sold 300,000 copies per monthly issue, a statistic worth a mention in itself. Other, perhaps more understandable, omissions are Dark Star, the eccentric but discerning music ’zine issued sporadically between 1975 and 1980 that gave my great friend and noted rock biographer Johnny Rogan his first by-line, and Tony Fletcher’s nationally-distributed Jamming!. Also, the impression is given that the music press was limited to the UK and US but this is not the case. In the seventies MM’s content was licensed to Go-Set in Australia, and most counties in Continental Europe boasted at least one rock mag, my favourite France’s Inrockuptibles.  

But these is minor quibbles. Totally Wired is an exhaustive, superbly researched, 382-page volume about an important subject dear to my heart, illustrated with loads of front covers. The tragedy that is at the heart of the book, the death of our beloved music press, is best summed up by Q and Mojo founder David Hepworth in its closing words: “You’re going to miss the music press,” he wrote, addressing the music industry. “It did the one thing you failed to value. Through its lens it made your acts seem exciting and larger than life, even when they weren’t.”


TheRockerxx69 said...

Sadly just sold my 450 issues MM Collection !!!!

Erik Eriksson said...

Great review, but Julie Burchill's name seems to be misspelled.

Chris Charlesworth said...

Thanks Erik. Now corrected.

Anonymous said...

Hard to believe, Chris, that magnificent stream of coverage, comment and criticism flowed for 75 years at least and is now arid. I look forward to reading Paul Gorman’s book celebrating those wonderful decades of babble and bile.

Anonymous said...

Comment above, Simon Warner!