One evening in the late 1980s, returning from my part-time job teaching “scallies” ethnomethodology in Skelmersdale, I opened a letter with a London postmark. It was from James Brown, features editor of the New Musical Express, saying he’d liked the unsolicited “stuff” I’d sent and offering me a job. Thirty years on, it remains the single most thrilling and pivotal moment of my life.
I was at NME for five dizzy years, two as deputy editor, during which one plum job I gave myself was writing its history for the 40th birthday issue. This involved weeks among the bound volumes with Ian MacDonald, Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray, Ian Penman, Danny Baker, Burchill, Parsons, Morley – some of the sharpest, wittiest writers this country has produced in any field. I loved writing its history. I never thought to be writing one of its obituaries.
The last print edition of the NME appeared on 9 March, the end of a chapter in British culture and publishing that began in 1952 when Musical Express and Accordion Times relaunched as NME. Down the years it could be accused of many things: incompetence, illiteracy, irrelevancy even in its garish dotage, but never sentimentality. So the eulogies to it were oddly touching, spattered with some snarkiness on social media from the kind of minor indie popster who wouldn’t have sold even the small amount of records they did without the paper.
When Johnny Rotten drawled “I use the NME and I use anarchy” in “God Save the Queen”, he was archly acknowledging its power even as he sneered. The importance of the NME, indeed the UK pop press in general, would baffle and exasperate foreign rock aristocrats. Michael Hutchence whimpered to me once, “What is it with you guys and this paper?” schmoozing me as he did, very aware of how a warm NME piece could confer that elusive, desired “cool” on his stadium-filling band. By the end, it had waned to a flimsy, marginal freesheet.
But NME’s primacy was unarguable for most of its life. In the Sixties, it defined an era with bulletins from the Beatles, the Stones, Scott Walker, Dusty Springfield et al. In its Seventies heyday, it acquired a countercultural swagger as it championed punk and its aftermath. In the 1980s, it invented “indie” and “Madchester” and took itself less seriously. It was slow to the Britpop renaissance (once of the reasons I jumped ship) but rallied briefly via the Libertines and the Strokes.
Factionalised debates over “direction” of the sort beloved of British liberal institutions were always the paper’s natural state. I arrived during a truce in the so-called hip hop wars between those who felt more space should be given to rap culture and those who, while acknowledging this, knew a Morrissey cover would always sell more than a Public Enemy one.
What finally did for the NME was a combination of factors. Disruptive technological advances – streaming, blogging, Twitter – sidelined it as they did the 78, the player piano, and the fan club. But I would also blame the dwindling of rock culture itself and the decline of the voluble, visible, quotable rock star that, from Mark E Smith to the Manic Street Preachers, the paper adored and needed.
Outside close family, it’s hard to imagine anyone being interested in a combative, allusion-strewn 10,000 words about Chris Martin or Ed Sheeran’s views on Wittgenstein, veganism or Wim Wenders. Similarly, the era of Beyoncé, Rihanna and Drake called for new kinds of pop media and discourse: chatty, starstruck and aspirational, rather than the gonzo intellectualism of the inkies, which survives in a diluted, more adult version in the broadsheets.
NME’s demise is, as those minor popsters have said, just one of those things. Dry your eyes. But there’s a deeper loss. With the disappearance of the British weekly pop press – Sounds, Melody Maker, Smash Hits and Record Mirror went years ago – another route into the world of letters, art and entertainment for working-class talents has gone, leaving us scrabbling for fun among the entitled public-school contrarian wits and their terrible record collections.
This article appears in the 14 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game