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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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