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.
Peter Kay's Car Share. BBC
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Peter Kay's Car Share will restore your faith in human beings

 I clutch at John and Kayleigh's potential for happiness as if at straws. 

I discovered Peter Kay’s Car Share about a year ago, by accident. BBC News at Ten had finished and there we were, slumped in our seats, despondent, unable to move. It came on, by my memory, immediately afterwards, and we zombies stared at it unthinkingly at first, unaware that we were in the presence of greatness. But it didn’t take long for the penny to drop and we’ve been obsessed ever since. A year on a, I am convinced – forgive the mild pomposity – that this is one of the most inspired and culturally significant television shows of our age.

Have you seen it? Perhaps you have: the first series, which was originally broadcast in 2015, won a couple of Baftas and was the most popular “box set” ever to be released on BBC iPlayer. The second – too short – series (Tuesdays, 9pm) concludes on BBC1 on 2 May. If you haven’t seen it, you need to. For one thing, it will make you smile. It is very funny, but it is also tender; its unstated subject being kindness, it has the ability briefly to restore one’s faith in human beings.

For another, it is rooted in provincial reality in a way no other television programme is right now. Try as I might to resist using the words “metropolitan bubble”, I can’t help but feel that those columnists who persist, post-Brexit vote, in trotting out every demeaning cliché it’s possible to imagine about the north and its apparently uniform population of “ordinary people” should be force-fed it. What Kay and his co-writers understand better than they do is that no one is “ordinary”. Every life comes with its kinks and idiosyncrasies, its survival mechanisms, its share of demented dreams.

John (Kay) and Kayleigh (Sian Gibson, utterly endearing and giving the performance of a lifetime) work in a supermarket somewhere in the environs of Bolton. He’s management; she works on the shopfloor in promotions. They share a car – he drives – to and from work. In the first series, this was an arrangement they had reached reluctantly, as a result of a work-sanctioned scheme. In the second, they’re doing it by choice. In short, they love each other, though as yet this is unspoken, at least on his part. As they travel, they listen to a cheesy radio station, Forever FM, which plays old hits, mostly from the 1980s (they’re in their forties, so this suits). Meanwhile, the world goes by: traffic jams and roundabouts, out-of-town superstores and suburban cul-de-sacs. It sounds bleak, and perhaps it is, in a way. You can’t ever see the horizon. But it’s summer, and the evenings are long, and everything is suffused with a soft light. Somehow, it takes you back.

They sing, they gossip, they tease, they reminisce, they laugh at one another’s jokes, and sometimes they have small battles, miniature fallings-out. In one episode – the finest of them all so far – they go to their work party dressed as Harry Potter (him) and Hagrid (her) and return home in the company of a Smurfette, also known as Elsie from the deli counter (a comic turn of cast-iron genius by Conleth Hill, the classical actor currently playing George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the West End of London).

Less accomplished writers than Kay, Gibson and Paul Coleman would have had the trio making gags about her blue face paint or singing the annoying Smurfs theme. But the show being truly brilliant, for the next 20 minutes no one mentions that there’s a huge, flirtatious Smurfette with a Northern Irish accent and an air that is at once vulnerable and slightly menacing in the front seat of John’s red Mini.

In this episode, loneliness – another of the themes in this series – threatens to rise up out of the drunken, early-hours darkness. But in the end they send it on its way. John and Kayleigh roll their eyes at Elsie’s vulgar antics but ultimately they’re glad of her, just as they’re glad of each other. John is a man who draws his neighbours’ curtains for them while they’re away; Kayleigh is a woman who can squeeze intense pleasure from almost anything, up to and including a two-for-one offer on tickets for a moderately rubbish safari park. I want them to be together so much. I clutch at their potential for happiness as if at straws. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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