The NME'S aging (and often dead) cover stars

Why aren't young, new acts getting any space on new music's real estate, the front cover of the New Musical Express?

Imagine the scene: as music journalists from across the world are summoned to the Alcor Cryonics Facility in Arizona for a mystery press conference, it’s not just the desert heat that’s causing them to sweat. They’ve been told to expect the biggest news in years, but what could it be? Rumours clog the forums on internet message boards; fans send frantic texts to one another; Twitter is flooded with ever-wilder speculation.

As the hacks are led into the vast metallic warehouse, a door in the corner suddenly opens. Out step three nigh-on spiritual figures – but ghosts, these are not. John Lennon, Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain have been brought back from the dead, in a medical revolution also marking a joyous day for three generations of music fans. The lead singers of Joy Division and Nirvana announce that they’re ready to put out new material (it turns out that being frozen and reanimated is a surprisingly effective cure for suicidal depression, and they’re really feeling quite chipper now), while a 40-year-old John Lennon proclaims he’s re-uniting with Paul McCartney, now 30 years his senior – though back home Ringo is still waiting for his phonecall.

And the journalists at NME? They can’t believe their luck. Immediately scrapping their plans for the next three issues, they give the legendary figures a cover interview each to mark their return.

Of course, this is as much a fantasy for scientists as it is for art directors at the New Musical Express. But despite Lennon, Curtis and Cobain remaining under the sod, and for donkeys years too, that didn’t stop the magazine famous for championing new bands from delving deep into their picture archives to use that long-gone trio for their cover images across three consecutive weeks last month.

Has NME forgotten what the "N" in its name stands for? Glancing at the shelves of your local newsagents these days, it would often be fair to think so.

Yes, the current issue can be forgiven a well-deserved nostalgic pat on its own back. Having been an integral part of Britain’s gig-going and record-buying culture for 60 years, it’s only appropriate for NME to celebrate its diamond anniversary with eight “collectors” front covers. It’s hardly the freshest selection of rock stars – there is surely little teenage excitement to be found in John Lydon, Patti Smith, the Gallagher brothers, Paul Weller and the Manic Street Preachers, even alongside the Arctic Monkeys and Brandon Flowers of The Killers. But then celebrating the past is what anniversary issues are all about.

Yet what of the modern NME on a standard week? This year we’ve also seen the Rolling Stones, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, David Bowie and Joe Strummer all featuring below that legendary masthead – names that would be more suited to Mojo or Uncut, the monthly organs of the middle-aged “50-quid-man”. Throw in other musicians who were at their peak 15 or more years ago – Blur, the Stone Roses, the Cure, the Gallaghers again – and a trend is there for all to see. Aging or dead rockers are increasingly laying claim to new music’s most highly valued real estate, previously reserved for the young and the new.

Of course, you can’t judge a magazine by its cover just as you can’t a book. Should 50-quid-man flick through the current issue, he’s unlikely to be familiar with Flying Lotus, King Krule, or Melody’s Echo Chamber. The inside of the magazine – one of the most beautifully designed on the market, produced by some of the most dedicated and passionate journalists around – is far from becoming a dad-rock bible.

But the NME’s front cover is one of those cultural institutions whose perceived importance and valued traditions mean people hold inordinately strong opinions on what they should be doing. Indeed, that’s why it’s worth writing a blog about it. Look at the anger vented in its letters pages when Lily Allen was chosen for the front a few years ago (it was probably the right decision as she was vying against The Automatic – remember them?). And how about the attention that the brilliantly bolshy naked Beth Ditto cover photo got?

T-shirts bearing classic NME covers are sold on the website these days, and Liam Gallagher says in the anniversary issue that he had “pictures from NME on my wall when I was a kid”. Would a cover of a musician who died decades earlier be worthy of a teenager sticking on the wall now, or for a T-shirt in years to come?

Personally, I can’t complain. After drunkenly bopping away to Franz Ferdinand and The Libertines during most of my drunken uni nights out – back when I would buy the NME week-in, week-out and blu-tacked the front covers to my bedroom door – the subsequent decline in the bubble of excitement around indie rock in favour of electro and hip-hop has left me cold, making me explore older artists’ back catalogues more often than discovering new bands. Save for Arcade Fire or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the surest way for the NME to secure me as a reader these days would admittedly involve sticking Bob Dylan or Neil Young on the front.

But perhaps that sums up the sadness of the situation. The magazine’s frequent decision to promote features on “heritage” acts from the past rather than interviews with exciting new groups such as Mercury Prize contenders Alt-J or Django Django must be commercially driven – either because the current crop of up-and-coming acts just aren’t deemed good enough, or because people listening to the hottest acts don’t care what the NME has to say anymore, leaving the magazine groping for older readers to sustain itself.

Indeed, while NME’s weekly readership fell by 13.5 per cent in the first six months of this year to 23,924, Uncut’s montly figure increased by 1.1 per cent to 63,033. The oldies’ pounds and pennies look to be winning out.

Cobain, Curtis and Lennon are immortal in rock folklore, but increasingly it’s merely the ghost of electricity that’s featuring on NME’s front covers rather than the real live thing. Without a renewed spark of life, is the magazine’s fate forlorn?

The anniversary cover featuring John Lennon.
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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser