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22 July 2020

Why we should mourn the loss of Q magazine

One of the founders of the music title on why it was “a thrill-ride at the front and a good shopping guide at the back”.

By David Hepworth

“Why’s it called Q?” asked the people at WHSmith. I muttered something about it having echoes of the cueing up of a track on a CD and also being the abbreviation for an interviewer’s question. The truth was we didn’t want to call it Rock Review.

The company that owned Q was enjoying success with Smash Hits and Just Seventeen, and needed to prove to the City that it could magically invent new, market-leading magazines. Hence Mark Ellen and I were tasked in 1986 with seeing if we could do something for the grown-up music market.

First and foremost we came up with something we wanted to read ourselves. It wasn’t completely self-indulgent. The time seemed right. Live Aid, which had happened the previous year, had dragged rock from its catacombs and brought it blinking into the daylight of prime time. People were being sold CD players on the basis of endless demonstrations of Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms. The NME was passing through a phase when it seemed more determined than usual to alienate the casual reader.

The music business had not yet succumbed to the worship of scale and therefore it was possible to get both Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan to give exclusive interviews for the first issue of a magazine which was only going to sell around 30,000 copies even if things went well. Then again, people weren’t exactly queueing up to profile artists such as McCartney and Dylan at the time because Q had not yet invented rock nostalgia.

Happily, things did go well. Even for an era where people still went into newsagents, picked things up and gave them a try, Q had a strong buzz right from the start. Every time we promoted it in the first few years more people bought it and a high proportion of them stayed with it.

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We could get stars such as Elton John, Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger because they knew we would give them a fair crack of the whip, even though we reserved the right to raise a quizzical eyebrow at their lapses in self-awareness. The classic Q template was set by the interview with Elton John in issue three: stardom made a monster out of me, now I’m here to apologise and sell you my new album. It never failed.

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Nobody was given copy approval. PRs were never permitted to sit in on interviews and we walked away from anybody who tried to impose conditions. The magazine had to open with a feature titled “Who The Hell Does So-and-So Think He Is?”, in which Tom Hibbert exposed the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Savile and Ronnie Biggs to his personal silent treatment, precisely because the drumbeat of the magazine was fame and what it does to people.

At its best, nobody did words and pictures better than Mark Ellen, art director Andy Cowles and the core team of Q. It was a joy to pick up every new issue. The picture of Led Zeppelin in full flight with Robert Plant howling into the microphone was headlined “The Hoarse Foreman Of The Apocalypse”. Of course it was. The one celebrating the unlikely pairing of Toyah and Robert Fripp, “Mr Chalk Loves Mrs Cheese”.  Couldn’t be anything else.

See also: David Hepworth on the Beatles’ Abbey Road, 50 years on

No magazine did jokes more lovingly than Q in those early days. Paul Du Noyer laboured long and hard over the light box, putting together a picture feature setting out to prove his theory that every band has one member who looks ill at ease in their uniform just so he could use the headline “Do I Have To Wear This, Boss?” Adrian Deevoy cooked up a list of “40 Celebs About Whom We Only Know One Thing”, thanks to which I still cannot see the name of actress Sarah Miles without thinking, “drinks her own urine”. No magazine ever went to more trouble to get good copy out of even the least accommodating rock star. This is how one writer took Van Morrison to meet his hero Spike Milligan, only to have the comedian concede that Morrison was “a bit strange”.

In the Nineties it became even bigger with new editorial stars such as Danny Kelly, Andrew Collins and Stuart Maconie, who came over from the NME because they could have more fun on Q. That’s the interesting thing that often gets lost. When you ask readers, particularly male readers, why they like a magazine, they reach for a reason that chimes with their image of themselves. It’s well-written. It’s got its heart in the right place. It’s eclectic. All these reasons sound good in a focus group but frankly they’re balls. The real reason they bought Q was because it was a thrill-ride at the front and it had a good shopping guide at the back.

A lot of the spirit of the magazine was owed to the fact that the Q office, particularly when Mark Ellen and Danny Kelly were in charge, could be the noisiest, most argumentative, most laughter-packed working environment in the media. Frankly it was never really built for the tappety-tappety world of digital. When somebody put on a record by Aphex Twin, chief proof reader and leading Dylan scholar John Bauldie would look over his glasses and shout, “Will somebody get that fax?” in gleeful emulation of a disapproving adult.

That was the magazine’s secret sauce. Nobody was trying to be hipper than thou or younger than they were, and nobody was trying to pretend they liked things that they didn’t. I stopped taking a personal interest in the late Nineties when a board-level decision was made to transfer the company’s music magazines to the tender mercies of the radio division. Radio has one customer, the advertiser, who is always right. Q sold a lot of advertising but readers had always been its key priority.

At its height, at the turn of the century, Q was selling more than 200,000 copies. Since then it has been the same story of steady contraction that has happened across the market for most print magazines. Now Q is closed. The company that owns it can’t see any upside and, thanks to Covid-19, no trade buyer can afford to take a chance. This is obviously very sad for the people who earned a living from it.

Everybody can always tell you how they would have saved it: fewer Liam Gallagher features; a better website; more of the groups I happen to like. All their grand schemes will never be proven or otherwise. I certainly don’t know how it could have been saved. Music journalism was a product of the age of print and paper; put it on a screen and it no longer crackles.

To the editorial team I would say this: it’s not your “fault”. You’re not a genius when the market’s running for you and you’re not a failure when it’s going the other way.

To the music business I would say, you’re going to miss the music press. Why? Because it did one thing you failed to value. Through its lens it made your acts seem exciting and larger than life, even when they weren’t.

David Hepworth was one of the founders of Q magazine. His books include “A Fabulous Creation: How the LP Saved Our Lives” (Bantam Press)

See also: Stephen Bush reviews Bob Dylan’s latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways

See also: Ellen Peirson-Hagger on what a summer without music festivals means for the industry