It’s a curious fact that, in public at least, there are very few right-wing rock stars. Some, like Phil Collins, who made good on his promise to leave the country if Labour won the 2005 General Election, vote Tory for tax reasons. Some, like Spandau Ballet singer Tony Hadley, who was rumoured to be seeking a Conservative electoral seat, espouse pro-Thatcherite views because it reminds them of the time in the 1980s when they were still having hits, rather than slogging round the revival circuit playing august rock venues like Lowestoft’s Marina Theatre.
Collins and Hadley are very much in the minority, however. Rock music’s default political stance is a version of libertarianism – a lot of rock stars like to imagine themselves as outlaw figures at odds with the strictures of workaday society, and a small state means, like, less hassle from The Man, man.
In Britain at least, the long-term guardian of rock music’s conscience – and occasional antagonist – was the music press, principally the weekly New Musical Express. Founded in 1952 as a tabloid for musicians advertising the latest harmonicas or guitar strings, by the time it reached its peak of influence in the mid-’70s, the NME was providing a steady wage and a willing audience to a whole generation of troublemakers and dissidents who’d learned their craft writing for the underground press.
NME was owned by the International Publishing Company, part of packaging company Reed International, publishers of Woman and Home, Horse and Hound and magazines about fishing, football and kid’s comics. The staff of the NME gleefully exploited their position to take the values, ideals and interests of the hippy underground – amplified rock music, drugs, sex, astrology, radical politics – and sneak them into the mainstream through IPC’s distribution network.
At its peak in the 1970s, the magazine was bought by a quarter of a million people weekly, but IPC estimated that it was read by four times as many – most NME readers being impoverished students or sixth formers who pass on the paper to friends when they’d finished with it. The values and causes that they discovered through the pages of the NME – along, of course, with the vibrant soundtrack – permeated way beyond the pages of a weekly rock newspaper into the wider culture.
Writing in 1980, the cultural commentator Peter York expressed amazement at what he found in the pages of a magazine sold alongside Shoot!, Bunty or the Sun in WH Smiths. “Peter York wrote a piece on NME for Harpers and Queen,” remembers Tony Parsons, one of the many household names who got his break writing for the paper, “and he said ‘you wouldn’t believe the stuff that’s in this paper: politics, drugs’. And this was true. There were people coming to work who’d had just fallen out of a drug den with Keith Richards.”
At a time when the TUC conference ended with a round of (female) strippers, or when Mr Humphries from Are You Being Served? was the only gay character on television, the NME advocated feminism and gay rights. It ran passionate cover stories about nuclear disarmament or green politics way before they were mainstream political issues. It advocated relaxing British marijuana laws and covered music festivals long before either became acceptable middle-class pastimes.
After a drunken concert appearance by Eric Clapton in August 1976 where the guitarist repeatedly shouted the National Front’s slogan “Keep Britain White” and called for action to be taken to “get the coons out”, it was on the letters pages of the NME that the Rock Against Racism movement coalesced. In the 1980s, during Neil Kinnock’s latter period as leader of the Labour party, no daily newspaper would give him even the smallest piece of positive coverage: NME put him on the cover twice, once, to their publisher’s chagrin, the week before the 1987 general election.
NME writers attended early meetings of the Red Wedge movement, rubbing shoulders with future New Labour architects like Peter Mandelson and Phillip Gould, who noticed how powerful rock music could be when it came to trying to court the youth vote. The result was Britain’s first rock’n’roll premier, the first British Prime Minister who’d grown up reading the NME every week. The ignominy of the Blair years aside Britain is a more accepting, more tolerant and more liberal place than it was forty years ago. The persistent influence of the New Musical Express, sixty years old next month, did much to make it that way.
Pat Long’s book “The History of The NME” is published on 12 March by Portico. For more information click here