Behind NME lines

“Nice boys” like Nick Kent wrote about the louche stars of Seventies music in a sharp but open-minde

Golden ages are rarely worth the chasing, but if one wanted an optimal era for British rock journalism, it would probably be the period spanning 1972-78. The venue for this effer­vescing musicological tide was neither Melody Maker, at this point a rest home for retired jazzers, nor its younger rival Sounds, but that switched-on Seventies hipster bible, the New Musical Express. While there were any number of high-grade associate members, the real work in this revolution was performed by three people: Charles Shaar Murray, the late Ian MacDonald and Nick Kent.

Like many an aspiring writer who fetched up in countercultural west London in the early Seventies, none of these cynosures hailed from anywhere near the thronged, bohemian underground from which rock journalism nearly always aims to take its recruits - those "hip young gunslingers" that the NME advertised for in 1976 when it recruited Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons to make sense of punk.

Murray (born 1951) was Jewish and middle-class, the son of parents so trusting that when he came home once in the throes of an LSD trip, they genuinely didn't notice. MacDonald (born 1948) had been to Cambridge, where he briefly hung out with the elfin folk troubadour Nick Drake. Kent (born 1951) was the product of a God-fearing, bourgeois home - his father an EMI recording engineer who had worked with George Martin - who nearly read English at Oxford, and whose early journalism was filed from student digs at Bedford College.

As for the creative approach that the trio brought to an art form that, in its modern (or post-Beatles) state, had barely existed beyond a decade, there was little in the way of a collective template. Murray, iconoclastic but humorous, and not above telling Paul McCartney to his face that he'd made a below-par album, gave the impression of having read a great deal of Sixties-era American New Journalism. MacDonald was the in-house intellectual, the kind of reporter who would be sent to Cologne to interview the notably cerebral German band Can and understand the Stockhausen references. Kent's journalistic credo, meanwhile, is set out in his fraught and gamy Seventies memoir, Apathy for the Devil:

I wasn't writing about rock as an idea: I was writing about it as a full-blown, flesh-and-blood reality - surreal people living surreal, action-packed lives. From what I'd learned coming up, rock writing was fundamentally an action medium that best came to life when the writer was right in the thick of that action, yet removed enough to comprehend its possible consequences.

The difficulties that Kent sometimes had in preserving this detachment are, inevitably, part of his charm: "Lemmy offered me a taste . . . I didn't sleep after that for four whole days and nights . . . Sid didn't waste any words. He just lurched over and started kicking merry hell out of my seated form while brandishing his bike chain . . . Keith laid out a six-inch line of heroin and cocaine mixed together, snorted it, laid out another and handed me a rolled-up pound note . . . It was still 7am." The attentive reader will note that this is Kent's characteristic time zone, those parched, strung-out hours on either side of the haggard, west London dawn. If the Seventies were a lost decade then, as Cyril Connolly might have said, we know who lost them.

On the other hand, the moral vantage point, in a world conspicuously short on reflection or nuance, is what gave Kent's and Murray's Seventies journalism its charge. Once you detach the soundtrack's adrenalin rush, this, as wide-eyed histories of the era can forget, was a decade of violent nastiness: Vivienne Westwood inciting mayhem at punk gigs, Tony Parsons being encouraged by his inamorata, Burchill, to rough up Mick Farren in the NME office, Sid and Nancy reeling from one narcotic Sargasso Sea to another, staggering out of Kent's tower-block squat and leaving a bundle of used syringes under the mattress.

There is an ominous moment in a piece from 1979 collected in Murray's Shots from the Hip, in which he sits in Keith Richards's hotel suite, its tenant comatose on the floor, and shakes his head over the band of parasites making whoopee with the room tab. Similarly, Kent's ever-present companion is not some energetic groupie, but his conscience. Thirty-five years later, our man is still agonising about the drug dealer's hairdryer that was charged to a hotel tab ultimately settled by Jethro Tull. "Looking back now, I can't say I'm proud of this incident . . . It was just seedy junkie behaviour."

In serving up these accounts of his bygone feasting with panthers, and the moral ambiguity that underlay them, Kent is making an
important point about the changes that came over rock journalism in the late Seventies - a time when, as he admits, his own drug-addled sensibilities weren't functioning too well, and younger competition stuck a foot in the door. Essentially, he, Murray and MacDonald were fans of the medium they infiltrated. They were implicated in it, and occasionally undone by it, but at the same time they possessed sufficient integrity to award it a context - societal, demographic, personal - that 90 per cent of music writing habitually ignores. A context, more to the point, that struggled constantly to relate the music to the way in which its listeners ought to behave to one another. It was Murray, reviewing the Jam's All Mod Cons in 1978 (a review that affected me so much that I went out and bought the record the following morning), who remarked that if it caused one less fight in a pub, it would have served its purpose.

Come the later Seventies, popular music, like everything else, began to be theorised and conceptualised in a way that did wonders for its taxonomy - see, for example, Simon Reynolds's excellent Rip It Up and Start Again - while sometimes glossing over the particularity that lay at the music's core. It was the era when Baudrillard and the Human League marched bras dessus, bras dessous across the review pages, and the eternally symbolic figure of Joy Division's Ian Curtis was always supposed to be "brilliantly exemplifying" some sociological construct or other (when all he was really exemplifying was himself).

Although Kent doesn't mention such exponents of the newer orthodoxies as Jon Savage, author of the compendious England's Dreaming: the Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, or Ian Penman (Paul Morley gets a mention as "the world's most pretentious man"), their shadow hangs over his account of Malcolm McLaren's invention of the Sex Pistols. Far from the situationist messiah of airbrushed legend, Kent argues, McLaren was a pragmatist whose idols were the sharp Fifties operators from Tin Pan Alley.

Of all the modern art forms, perhaps, rock music is the one where the gap between fan and theorist looms widest. One reads a book such as Nick Hornby's 31 Songs - whose rapt subjectivity is just the faintest bit limiting - and yearns for some of Savage's analytical pizzazz. One goes back to Savage and remembers that, pace the Who's "Substitute", sometimes the simple things you hear aren't complicated. I once tried a little theorising on the late John Peel, specifically the "Tory view of rock music" line, which insists that the form peaked in 1967 and got nowhere. "You're overeducated," Peel complained. Fair enough, no doubt, but a part of me yearned to ask Peel how he could stand
to be so unreflective about the thing that had absorbed his entire adult life.

As Apathy for the Devil (which should be read in tandem with Kent's earlier collection The Dark Stuff) demonstrates, the mid-Seventies brought the end of a particular kind of music writing - humane, informed, optimistic - whose eventual wind-down probably reflects wider transformations taking place in the business itself: the end of youthful idealism and the rise of corporate rock. After that, the field was clear for brilliant exemplifications, and their cold-eyed stablemate "sonic architecture".

“Apathy for the Devil: a 1970s Memoir" is published by Faber & Faber (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 15 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Falklands II

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis