Friday, 9 March 2018

RIP New Musical Express (print edition) - and how it got me my first job in TV News

50 years ago, Thursday evenings were the most exciting time of the week for me. That was when my father would return from work (Air Attaché at the Norwegian Embassy in Belgrave Square) clutching the latest, hot-off-the-press issues of three weekly music papers - New Musical Express, Record Mirror and Disc, which were available a day earlier in Central London than in Wimbledon. All three would have been read from cover to cover by the time I switched the light out that night, and I'd already be looking forward to next Thursday's batch. I may have been struggling with Latin and Maths at school (and would continue to do so) but when it came to pop music, I was pretty damn near omniscient. I was reminded of those halcyon days last week while reading Shake It Up Baby!: Notes From A Pop Music Reporter 1961-1972, the entertaining memoirs of the music journalist, Norman Jopling. He worked for Record Mirror, which was probably my favourite music paper (my least favourite was...

...Melody Maker - it was full of jazz, which meant nothing to me).

Despite only being 17 years old when he started writing for Record Mirror, Jopling was responsible for almost all of its early emphasis on R&B, which didn't half pay dividends when the British R&B Mind you, he wasn't initially a fan of British efforts in the genre:
I became resigned to the fact that British rhythm & blues, in my closeted opinion, was even more useless than British rock’n’roll, which had at least produced a handful of good records.  
His attitude changed dramatically during a reluctant visit to the Station Hotel in Richmond on a Sunday evening in early '63 to check out a new band, which he knew were going to be rubbish. He arrived late to find the place heaving:
It was one of those Bo Diddley songs with a Bo Diddley beat. I’d never heard anything like it in a live act. I’d never felt anything like it. The place shook, everyone in the audience was wet with sweat, the sound was bouncing off the walls, throbbing, utterly irresistible. It lifted me up and swept me along, song after song. The personnel in the group were not entirely unfamiliar. I recognised a couple of them from playing on and off with [Alexis] Korner, and the singer I’d seen several times in the Star Cafe in Great Chapel Street which did a decent five-bob lunch. He was known to everyone there simply as “the rhythm & blues singer”. I thought it was a joke till I saw him perform. But the sound they made together was nothing like Korner’s worthy troupe. This was alchemy. It was perfect – rhythm & blues in Chicago couldn’t have been any more exciting than this. I was almost in a state of shock. After the initial rush, my brain switched back on and my first thought was like, we could do it. White people could do it. Well, that’s how it seemed at the time. Maybe white people never got to do it any better than the Stones did in those early days, , which is why the music changed and became rock music, that mulatto child of rhythm & blues that white people actually could do.
Oh, I don't know - the Peter Green incarnation of Fleetwood Mac made a pretty good fist of it - but I know what he means. In any case, Record Mirror was the first of the pop papers to do a feature on The Rolling Stones (not the one pictured). Jopling's musical instincts were evidently close to mine at the time (though he'd later drop acid and end up adoring Captain Beefheart). In the early '60s he was a true believer in raw American rock'n'roll. Record Mirror reflected Jopling's tastes to an extent - which was fine by me. It was also the first paper to publish extended American record charts, and specialist R&B charts - both of which I remember poring over and feeling frustrated that there was nowhere to hear most of the records mentioned. It was also the first pop paper to introduce colour, after it was bought by the Sunday Express editor, John Junor, who wanted to experiment with the process (and who sounds like a very decent boss, especially given his total lack of interest in pop music).

New Musical Express was bigger and richer and more professional-looking and sold more copies than its rivals - but I associate it (probably unfairly) with oodles of tosh about Helen Shapiro, Frank Ifield, Frankie Vaughan and suchlike: it definitely wasn't hip back then (although that would change). As for Disc, I seem to remember it as a cheeky, zippy, innovative little number - my second favourite behind Record Mirror.  All three titles - four, given that Melody Maker finally woke up and forsook its elitist Jazz Club inclinations - benefitted immensely from the revolution in British pop from '62/'63 onwards: circulation and advertising revenue rocketed. I kept reading them until, I suppose, 1968 or 1969, when America had rediscovered its musical mojo and the infinitely cooler Rolling Stone became available in the UK.
I ignored British pop papers until the emergence of punk made them seem relevant again - yes, I admit it, I used to read everything by Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons (NEL had published Parsons' first novel, The Kids, in 1976, when I was the company's PR person - I met him once, when he assured me we'd turn each other into BIG stars: at least I kept my part of the bargain). I began reading the NME regularly again in 1977 - Rolling Stone had turned into a depressing snoozefest - and might even have bought the occasional copy of Sounds, which had been around since 1970. I gave up pop papers once and for all around the time the New Romantics appeared: I was far too old for this nonsense, they weren't covering the sort of music I was listening to, and the random-word-generator pretentiousness of NME's latest crop of writers was truly insufferable.

Nevertheless, the hours I'd wasted reading all that tosh came in really handy when I was eventually interviewed for a job with the BBC Nine O'Clock News in 1986. I was asked how I'd go about tracking down Boy George, who'd gone to ground after the revelation that he was a major league heroin addict. Not only did his chum Marilyn live in Westbourne Terrace, where I'd just bought a flat, but I was able to sound immensely knowledgable about who to approach on the pop papers, safe in the knowledge that my interviewers wouldn't know a damn thing about them. It worked like a charm: despite being far too old and not having any experience as a journalist, I was offered the job.

Thanks, NME!

Disc stopped spinning in 1975, when it merged with Record Mirror - which shattered in 1991, the same year that Sounds fell silent. Melody Maker stopped making melodies in 2000, when it merged with New Musical Express - which earned a brief reprieve by became a freebie in 2015, but whose 66-year history as a print publication crashed into the buffers earlier today.


  1. Great post. I can remember the 'infinitely cooler' imported Rolling Stone arriving at the newsagents with bits cut out of it occasionally, presumably to avoid the distributors falling foul of our more challenging libel and obscenity laws. This was after all the time when WH Smith refused to stock Private Eye for essentially the same reasons. The major impression the revamped NME made on me in the 70s was to leave ink all over my hands.

    Having said that, for a while it was an independent spirit in a field mostly full of PR puff pieces. What always struck me about the music press was how limited the range of its interests was, based on the assumption that if you were into West Coast bands like Buffalo Springfield, you couldn't possibly want to know what the Temptations were up to. Eventually, the obsession with artists who appealed mostly to rock journalists - Zappa, Beefheart, Lou Reed, Talking Heads etc - left the impression that the NME was written for an exclusive clientele of the truly hip which obviously didn't include me. Like you, I returned to it during the Burchill/Parsons era but only briefly before once again the editors assumed that no one who liked the Clash would mind if they sneered at anything with four or more chords and a keyboard player.

    Still, something has gone. As we have discussed before, Mojo and Uncut are still bought but only half-read before lying on the coffee table until it's recycling time.

  2. I rarely bought any of these (unless of course Adam Faith was on the front page) until the British invasion and my interest in lists in all shapes and sizes urged this impatient teenager to try and find some form of statistical analysis of their conquest of Billboard - chart positions ,record sales in good old fashioned US dollars etc without actually going to the trouble of reading an article, together with some unquantifiable stuff like which group had the best vocalists, writers, guitar players, drummers, most influence on the contemporary music scene, even to how their enormous earnings, providing it hadn't been dispersed amongst shady agents and various hangers on,had been divvied up amongst four or five band members.And,indeed how was this filthy lucre spent - not all on pot, Jack Daniels and broads gracious me no. At least Jagger was pretty savvy about finances.
    Anyway I could never quite find what I wanted.