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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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times