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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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories