My copy of The History of the NME: High Times and Low Lives at the World's Most Famous Music Magazine arrived, and I read it with the fascinated fascination of the fascinated. I mentioned it was on its way here a few weeks ago, where I also said most of what I could say in this review. That's because I read the NME cover to cover for six or so years in the Seventies, and maintain enough memory of the writing to spill it out long before the actual history of the mag arrived.
It's a little difficult to explain the appeal of the weekly rag, The New Musical Express - the NME - to someone who comes across it these days, where it's a horribly foreshortened magazine with a webpage that commands slightly less respect than say, Brooklyn Vegan or TNT. But for a while, in the 1970s, when the post-hippie generation were growing up in their vast late-baby boom numbers and searching for their teenage expression, it was not only an arbiter of taste, but also the only window on society and politics that most of us (who had missed International Times and Oz) would see, at least until we left home and went to university.
I use the NME - Anarchy in the UK by the Sex Pistols
Musical Express started publishing in the forties, after cannibalizing and driving around a zombie publication called Accordion Times for a few years. (The thirties craze for accordions had, as they do, slowed to a standstill.) For a while, it had "incorporating accordion times" on its masthead, but eventually even that went away. The Musical Express cultivated a very British relationship with pop, and then rock when it was invented, by drinking with the stars and managers during the night and gossiping heavily about them during the day. Or rather, drinking any time after breakfast until the next dawn and then writing about them during any subsequent minutes between hangovers and the next round of drinks. Although the ME was well-placed to follow, report on, boost, and gossip about, the late fifties and early sixties stars - the 2i's crowd, the British Answers to Elvis (assuming we knew the questions)- it didn't quite *pop*, didn't really get one over on its early and permanent Moriarty, the Melody Maker. It reacted by changing its name to the New Musical Express. And although it grew mightily and prospered, it still wasn't differentiated. Rolling Stone appeared, and ate its lunch.
Things had to change. Then, "one afternoon at the end of 1971, Alan Smith was pulled out of the New Musical Express writers' room and sent for a crisis meeting with senior IPC staff". The "hands of the NME clock were at five to midnight and unless something was done within months to arrest the decline in sales, the magazine would be shut down." He was given three months to turn the paper around.
This turned out to be an unbelievably apropos time. Not only was February 1972 the date when I started buying newspapers and taking an interest in music and the world around me, it was also the approximate date when the younger siblings of the hippies, who had missed out on 1967, Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix and any associated Surrealistic Pillows, also all sat up and started to take notice. The book quotes cultural commentator Peter York (who he?): "The story of the seventies was the story of everyone getting in on what a minority got in the sixties because they were in the right place at the right time." That's a slightly different slant, but same effect: The NME modernized itself in a few weeks, brought in the best brains of the Underground Press, took in the effect of the music festivals, including Bowie's performance at Glastonbury Fayre, and absorbed the influence of Time Out and the burgeoning mimeographed fanzines.
Reading my underground press - That's All You Need by the Faces.
My favorite writers came on board - Nick Kent, Mick Farren and Charles Shaar Murray. The older writers were hippies, but sort of forward looking - they had, after all, produced Schoolkid's Oz - and all were prose stylists with a wonderful turn of phrase. Many of the newer writers had heard of this Rock'n'Roll shit and wanted a piece for themselves, and some, chiefly Nick Kent, were quite capable of outdoing their heroes in the drugs and rock'n'roll arena. (We don't hear a lot about the sex, although there seem to have been convulsions later based on who was screwing, or should be screwing, Julie Burchill.) NME continued to add excellent writers and more articles about what was happening - Rock Against Racism, gay rights, the UK's successful attacks on the remaining unions - all through the seventies. We had Tony Parsons - he was a hip young gunslinger, once - and Steven Wells (Seething Wells). Half a dozen other stars.
Nick Kent namechecked sarcastically as the best dressed man in town in Press Darlings, by Adam and the Ants. Nick couldn't catch a break - he was once beaten up by Sid Vicious.
Post punk, I pretty much stopped reading the NME, and according to the book, I wasn't the only one. It continued, of course, but with a vastly shrunken page count and weekly circulation. The ads went to the new glossies, as lifestyle magazines were becoming a thing and the readers drifted off, to adult life or to those glossies. New readers tended to go to new glossy Smash Hits, founded by NME staffers, but in color, funny and snarky, and concentrating on pop.
The book does seem to end not with a bang but a Wimpy, but perhaps that's just me, as the paper I knew did indeed collapse into the Big Whimper. It's a great read, if you were there, and that's from 1935 to 1980, or thereabouts.
I couldn't close a book review without complaining about the proof reading. This has few of the standard errors; I caught a "gyspy" and a "Quadrophrenia", and that was about it. But it has an instance of a startling new development in publishing. Language Log has noticed that ebooks tend to have people who do a global find-and-replace without considering what might be affected - in that case, a book where every instance of the word "kindle" was replaced by "Nook" which makes sense only if publishers are talking in the attached ads about the e-readers called Kindle and Nook, but not in the actual fictional text, where people are now apparently referring to lights as having being "Nookd". In this (non-e-) book, every instance of the word "matt" has disappeared. This may be because someone who features in the book is called "Mat" with one 't', but if that's true the expected replace function hasn't been performed. This means that in several cases, something really ers, or people are asked what's the er. In the first instance, which puzzled me for most of the book, until I worked it out, we were told about the "people responsible for foring text submitted by the journalists." Other than that, it's well written and edited.