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7 December 2022

The rise and fall of the British music press  

In their glory days magazines such as NME and Melody Maker defined youth culture – but the quality of the writing was only part of the story.

By David Hepworth

Among the national treasures in the British Library in St Pancras in north London are its bound volumes of what were once Britain’s matchless range of music papers. To carefully turn the flaking pages of titles such as the NME and Melody Maker from the Sixties or the Seventies is to be reminded of a time when these weeklies occupied almost as great a space in the lives of the nation’s teenagers and young twenty-somethings as social media does today. The news pages burst with lists of upcoming tour dates for Van der Graaf Generator or Good Habit; in the feature pages bass players fire off about everything from free love to the Troubles in Northern Ireland; in the classifieds one might secure a tartan bum flap or a lead guitarist (“no time wasters”); and to the letters page you might direct a zinger concerning Ginger Baker’s Air Force which could, if you were very lucky, be considered sufficiently trenchant to see you dubbed LP Winner (the pen name adopted by John Lennon when sending in his own letters). This was not niche. This was mass media.

By the time these so-called inkies had been joined in the early Eighties by freshly booming teen magazines such as Smash Hits, millions of copies were zipping across newsagents’ counters every week, making figures such as Morrissey and Madonna famous when telly and Fleet Street didn’t know who they were.

Now these bound volumes are no longer being added to, Paul Gorman is free to give his story the ending it has needed. Nobody is better qualified to write the history of the music press. He has been here before with his oral history In Their Own Write in 2001, and he’s also got an eye for media (more useful in this context than an ear for music), which means he can consider Gloria Stavers’ American teenybopper phenomenon 16 as well as more esoteric reading matter like the punk zine Sniffin’ Glue and the dance title Jockey Slut in the understanding that they weren’t all trying to do the same thing.

Gorman’s a good enough interviewer to get his subjects, who are mostly former contributors, saying slightly more than they should, while being enough of a sceptical editor to know that nobody is more apt to exaggerate their own part than a reminiscing hack. Apparently, typewriters were being introduced to the street via the nearest window on such a regular basis in the Seventies and Eighties that I’m amazed I didn’t see it happen at least once.

Instead, I tend to line up with long-suffering editors like Nick Logan, who ran the NME in the Seventies and started Smash Hits and The Face shortly after,and had to deal with writers with an inflated sense of the incandescent power of their prose. Like all editors, he knew the content that actually kept readers coming back was the tour dates, pictures, small ads, song lyrics, colour posters and, in the case of NME, a very good crossword.

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By the time Ted Kessler became editor of the monthly magazine Q in 2016, all the above and more was available for free online. No wonder he was afraid that he would be Q’s last editor. Four years later his fear came true, which at least gave him the title for his book, which is a combination of personal memoir, war stories about wrangling the likes of Radiohead, Happy Mondays and Oasis, and rueful reflections on how things looked from within the industry when the tide was going out, never to return. In any area of media, when the market is expanding it’s hard to do much wrong, and as soon as it’s shrinking it’s impossible to do anything right.

Although there are times in Paul Gorman’s book when you might wish to hear from the readers and the read-about as well as the writers, there’s no doubt that he does a fine job of telling the whole story, from the launch of the Melody Maker as a monthly for dance band musicians in 1926 through to the closure of all the big titles in the 21st century.

Maybe his next project could be an accompanying scrapbook reflecting the fact that in their glory days music magazines were uniquely powerful time capsules wherein we absorbed the context along with the content, and the small ads mattered just as much as the big reads. Somebody should perform this service before all the magic in those bound volumes turns to dust.

Totally Wired: The Rise and Fall of the Music Press
Paul Gorman
Thames and Hudson, 384pp, £25

Paper Cuts: How I Destroyed the British Music Press and Other Misadventures
Ted Kessler
White Rabbit, 320pp, £18.99

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special