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8 May 2000

Raging against the machine of state

Can the music magazine NME get its readers back by going political, asks Duncan Parrish

By Duncan Parrish

The tattered Warhol-like array, in a classic rock poster arrangement, appeared on hoardings across London in January. “VOTE KEN” yelled each ad. Livingstone himself appeared above the words, though this was well before the mayoral race had even begun. It looked like a bit of cheeky pre-emptive campaigning, but in fact the adverts were for the New Musical Express, Britain’s bestselling music paper.

For the NME‘s readership, teens and twentysomethings brought up during the apathetic Nineties, a political contest that might be won by someone who represents their interests is unusual – exciting, even. The paper has certainly been doing its best to make it appear so, holding a benefit gig with Fat Boy Slim to raise funds for Ken’s campaign, splashing him across its covers in London and giving him a chance to explain his policies inside. The NME has also spent the year prominently supporting a number of bands with strong political interests in direct action, freedom of speech and even – gulp – “community work”.

As young protesters take to digging up Parliament Square, and as Livingstone wins round the youth vote, the NME is in tune with its anti-Establishment readers. A new young radicalism may be emerging in an art college near you.

As with the anti-capitalist movements that led to the World Trade Organisation, City and now May Day protests, the signs of serious discontent in the music press have been around for a number of years. In a political lightning strike of an issue that appeared two years ago, the NME asked: “Ever had the feeling you’ve been cheated? Rock’n’roll takes on the government.” Pages of disillusioned idols poured scorn on new Labour’s oppression of youthful liberty – welfare-to-work, tuition fees, police curfews and no debate on drugs. Until that moment, the NME and the bands it featured had appeared broadly supportive of the Blair government – or, rather, cosily indifferent. Suddenly, the paper had woken from the apolitical coma that was Britpop and regained its rightful position as an opponent of the Establishment.

The NME, like the generation that it seeks to represent, starts the new century in search of an identity. It now sells an emaciated 76,000 copies a week, down from the legendary quarter of a million sales during the punk era, although its “actual readership” of 455,000 suggests that it is still a potent force. The NME has its detractors. A search of broadsheet comment on the paper during the Nineties comes up with not a single positive article: all claim that it has had its day. It can never recapture the savage bite of the punk era, claim the critics; it has not stood up to the barrage of new media, from the lad magazines to MTV, from the internet to dance culture – all competing for the attentions of its youth market.

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But as a young new editor, Ben Knowles, takes the helm, it seems that more sharp 21st-century politics and less hazy Nineties irony is in store. “The last five or six years have probably been the least political in the NME‘s history,” says Knowles. “The paper had perhaps become party to the attitude that young people are apathetic and that they didn’t care about single issues. All these myths about the apathetic nature of the Nineties, as opposed to the activism of the Sixties and Eighties – it’s rubbish.”

This decade-long lull did, in fact, mirror youth’s disaffection with all things political. After the sharp battle lines of the Thatcherite era, culminating in the activism associated with the poll tax and the Criminal Justice Act, the inevitability of a Labour victory in the Nineties blunted the concerns of many young people. At the same time, Britpop saw the rise of determinedly apolitical bands like Oasis – a group also widely heralded as part of the new Labour consensus. Travis, another Britpop group, recently boasted: “We don’t stand for anything, really.”

But the tide is beginning to turn. As the NME put it in January: “The year 2000 is the year pop gets angry.”

The new editor agrees: “Two of the best and biggest albums this year are Exterminate by Primal Scream and Community Music by Asian Dub Foundation. They’re both overtly and brashly political albums, and that’s kind of indicative of what’s happening to a lot of the new bands.”

While these groups are going down a storm critically, there is as yet no politicised group that can release the charts from the suffocating stranglehold of corporate pop. Until the decade’s Dylan appears, those who, like Knowles, aim to encourage a musical and political renaissance, will have to make do with bands like Rage Against The Machine, whose lyrics lash out against capitalist oppression – in the shape of the FBI and big corporations. They weren’t too popular in their native America, where they were accused of supporting cop killers.

On this side of the Atlantic, the most politicised band is probably Primal Scream, whose fury at “no civil disobedience” fuels the lyrics of their new title track. Even if the popularity of both groups speaks of an awakening of young people’s social conscience, Knowles is wary of turning his mag into a soapbox. “I don’t want to see the NME ending up preaching,” he says, “because that’s patronising to the people that aren’t interested. What I’d like to see the NME doing is almost to be providing the information to people, because if you do that, it’s incredible what they can do with it.”

Admirable though this mission to explain is, it does highlight another problem with the new radicalism. While bands warn of the perils of the WTO and demonstrators march against global capitalism, very few of the young generation can coherently argue a case for reform of the global financial system – or indeed for a state-owned London Underground.

The violence that erupted following the May Day protest proved that Knowles’s vision of a politically sophisticated youth culture is still a long way off. Perhaps the emergence of a political new wave has already boosted the NME‘s circulation – but it still hasn’t changed the goalposts of political debate.

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