The Story of The Face: how the magazine became an essential yuppie accessory

Paul Gorman’s book seeks to “track the exciting highs and calamitous lows” of the magazine; frankly, I’ve seen more epic journeys on The X Factor.

“We are all vain at times,” Mr Pooter famously smugged after Carrie called him “quite a philosopher”. I’ll say! I’m not ashamed to admit that whenever I come across a book about the print media from 1976 onwards, I first look up my name in the index and pretty much decide whether it’s worth reading by how many pages I crop up on. Imagine my self-satisfied smirk on finding out that I merit a decent five entries in this account of The Face magazine, including my entire column from the first ever edition. But it’s true that pride comes before a fall and I cast the huge tome from me with a cry of horror when I read the following words:

Paul Gambaccini is the only truly professional DJ around, never babbling or forcing himself between the listener and the record, the nearest thing yet to that perfect, pure, ego-transcendent DJ who just announces the record and plays it on the mythical Spartan radio.

I was 20 years old, the hippest hack in Christendom – and bigging up Paul ruddy Gambaccini on the printed page for all the world to see! Could there be more of a metaphorical bucket of cold water thrown over my self-adoring anticipation of a lovely long romp through my calf country? Pauline Calf country, more like! Just as the summers of our youth were never really as warm as we remember them, neither were we really as cool as we dreamed we were.

Maybe it was this unfortunate introduction to the book, but it wasn’t a pleasant read for me. As well as my own cloth-eared musings, the presence of the magazine’s other writers – and I use that word loosely, as I would call one of those painting elephants an artist just because they can hold a brush in their trunk and daub paint on paper – reminded me just how rubbish the words that filled in the bits that weren’t the brilliant designs were (not forgetting the brilliant blank spaces, of course, another world-changing innovation of the publication).

Dylan Jones writes the foreword and it’s every bit as much of a lulu as I could hope; like some superannuated Nathan Barley, Jones imparts such gems as “1980 was Year Zero”, claims that the style rags “became the culture itself” and recalls “the most important events of the decade, from the emergence of Go Go Music to the proliferation of the Filofax”. Also much in evidence is Robert Elms, once summed up by the all-wise, ever-witty Peter York as “bright and banal as a button”. The Face certainly changed typefaces – but culture? Its credo was very much along the lines of Elms’s stunningly thick statement “Good things look good”. It may have copied a lot of Soviet graphics, but it certainly wasn’t the Russian revolution; on the contrary, style is the politics of the impotent.

This book seeks to “track the exciting highs and calamitous lows” of the magazine; frankly, I’ve seen more epic journeys on The X Factor. It was launched in 1980 and quickly attempted to push the idea of wearing ripped jeans as some kind of rebellious roar in the face of Thatcherism. One of the team fails to ask another member of the team to a party and they get upset. Loaded comes blundering in like a Red Bull in a china shop and steals their thunder. When the magazine is sued by Jason Donovan, of all people, for implying he’s gay, it nicely sums up the toytown playpen we ricocheted around kidding ourselves that we were kings of the world. Sales drop off, it gets gobbled up by a faceless corporation and sinks without trace.

There was only ever one remotely epic element of The Face – its creator Nick Logan, the chain-smoking, cancer-battling Essex mod whose nervous breakdown I myself, regrettably, contributed to as a high-spirited teenage NME hireling, and whose name even sounded like that of an eyeshade-sporting editor from a hard-headed Hollywood hack flick. Paying for everything himself, with no backers, he produced a magazine whose first edition boasted just five monochrome adverts; business was bad for so long that a few months in I remember saying to him, with somewhat atypical empathy, “Shall I wind it in a bit? Stop slagging everyone off?” He laughed hollowly and said, “Cheers, but it won’t make any difference!”

However, the magazine soon become the essential accessory on every yuppie’s coffee table, while being full of working-class upstarts banging on about the evils of Fatcherism. (When I wrote a very reasonable column trying to explain her, there was a mass outbreak of bed-wetting from the small, well-bred contingent on the magazine, who of course had to work hard at being socialists in a way the rest of us didn’t.)

But the media is a fickle mistress. There’s a shocking bit in the intro when the author takes Logan to an exhibition at the V&A called “British Design From 1948” as his plus one – Nick himself uninvited. In the gift shop, designs created by Logan are credited to his designer Neville Brody; nowhere in the 400-page catalogue is his name mentioned. The design snobs have closed ranks and erased the boy from Canvey Island. Little wonder that he advises some young guns excited to publish their first effort: “Whatever you do, don’t go into publishing. That is my ultimate advice. It is not what you think it is.”

Magazines are like Christmas baubles – they enchant for a season and then are best cast away. If people have sentimental feelings about them, they may be allowed to stick around – but they become so dull that at some point one forgets what one ever saw in them.

Magazines are meant to be strewn carelessly on a teenage bedroom floor, not pinned behind glass like paper butterflies. But those who have made a life’s work out of rouging the nipples of the corpse of youth culture and wheeling it out one more time will not easily be parted from their parasite host.

Despite its intentions, this book buries rather than praises The Face – and reminds us that the old saw expresses a desire to live fast and die young. Not live fast and get preserved in perpetuity by a bunch of hyped-up hoarders who have nothing to look forward to except their past. 

The Story of The Face: The Magazine that Changed Culture
Paul Gorman
Thames & Hudson, 352pp, £34.95

This article appears in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world