Sleeping with the NME: how the British music press picked up a dose of the crap

Back in the speed-addled, black-eyelinered days of my early adolescence, the NME had bite, balls, and brio. And it still had nothing on Melody Maker. Every Wednesday lunchtime saw me, lower lip bitten with anticipation, heading into town to snag the latest issue of each; our newsagent stocked all of three copies, and I never found out who, if anyone, bought the others. For me and others like me – small-town, provincial or suburban kids beyond the pale of London’s bright lights, with mass internet access as yet untapped, gazing wide-eyed on stories of the gig-circuit – the weekly music press served as a channel of cultural discovery and as the cool older brother we didn’t have.

So scalpel-sharp was music journalism at that time that I can still recall features, reviews and even some lines from them, both the building up and the demolition jobs. Taylor Parkes skewering the Cult of Richey with a cutting You don’t deal with depression by making it the focal point of your personality – you have to rage against it, perpetually. Neil Kulkarni’s still-astonishing wrecking-ball swing at Kula Shaker and the post-Oasis consensus (Crucially, retro-accusations are less important than pointing out how deadly dull the bulk of this LP is, in a way that only true scumcunt hippies can be: “K” … shits itself in fear of the future (1973) and stinks of living death) which at the time made for what felt like genuinely revolutionary reading.

And yes, it was fucking political. NME’s former editor Neil Spencer claims the pre-Britpop music press treated music as part of a wider oppositional culture in which the angry and intelligent political consciousness of bands like S*M*A*S*H and Asian Dub Foundation was considered an asset rather than an embarrassment. Encompassing the world beyond music, as well as music beyond the mainstream, the NME and MM took on fascism, racism, sexism, Morrissey, Thatcher and Blair. More sophisticated than the sledgehammer sludge of many more overtly political publications, a certain left-wing sensibility shone through the best of their writing like sunlight through stained glass.

But, as every Libertines fan knows, the best things never last. Whereas Spencer blames IPC for the NME’s political castration, the decline and fall of Melody Maker has been generally attributed to its enforcing of what Parkes and Kulkarni identified as a ‘kid’s taste’ PR-led consensus and its aimless chasing of a demographic which already had Smash Hits. The latter half of the Nineties, with its rapid turnover of scenes and genres, saw the paper hitch its wagon to a succession of shortlived stars, including Nu-Metal and, notoriously and prematurely, RoMo, before its last-gasp glossification and eventual merger with NME.

The gulf between then and now is perhaps most apparent in the NME’s current attitude to the industry and its failure to adequately define itself against a cultural mainstream. Whereas Kulkarni trained his sights on mainstream radio and MTV as peddlers of the creativity-crushing Kids Consensus, the NME now revels in unholy commercial alliances, sponsorships and tie-in deals. The dangers inherent in this trend were exemplified in 2005 by the controversy over its Top 50 albums list. The ensuing furore both dealt a blow to what little of NME’s credibility remained, and proved that the paper had fallen prey to a system largely built on mutual backscratching where, yes, there’s only music so that there’s new ringtones.

The NME’s present incarnation – a dishwater-dull industry cum-rag with an editor who resembles a spoon in a suit – is of course merely reflective of a more widespread erosion of choice and illusion of independence which currently infects most aspects of culture and politics. The music industry in particular will always aspire to Johnny Rotten’s vision of ‘a bloated old vampire’, and nothing has filed down its fangs so much as the relocation of sharing, discussion and critical analysis of music to online publications, networks and forums. As for the NME, appearing in its pages these days is akin to standing on a moonlit Transylvanian balcony in a billowing nightdress bellowing ‘Come and get me, Vlad!'; you’ll be drained dry and thrown aside for something juicier within weeks. Hope lies in the blogs.

18 comments

  1. rilke

    Hi sorry for butting in. I stumbled across your blog a few days ago and have been enjoying the reviews =]
    This isn’t going to be a popular opinion but I don’t think Conor Mcnicholas is a bad editor. He’s not stupid or politically apathetic judging by the interview he gave to Instigate debate

    The topshop/shockwave wank is most likely due to IPC. I don’t think the editor or the writers have any say or power over the adspace etc. I’m not sure but that probably goes for who they put on the cover too which is why the killers etc are on it about ten times a year. I’m not saying the NME’s perfect but it isn’t a glorified comic or worse then it was ten years ago.
    Sorry for rambling over your blog =]

    • Rhian

      Hi Rilke,

      Glad you like the reviews :) No worries about rambling, it’s always nice to hear feedback! Do you mind me asking how you happened across this blog?

      Thanks for your comment here too. I do think Conor is intelligent and switched-on, but he seems too happy with IPC pulling his strings for that intelligence to come through in the way he’s handled his editorship.

      x

      • rilke

        I think it was through someone mentioning it on livejournal, can’t remember who, sorry! I’ve joined a few libs groups there.

        i think he’d basically lose his job if he went against them tbh. the next editor they get could be even worse.
        I was about ten when melody maker crashed so I don’t really remember it, did the NME and MM change at the same time?
        x

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  6. H

    Thank goodness for you and for this article. I thought it was me getting old and cynical, but no, seriously, NME really has hit the skids, hasn’t it? I grew up wanting to wrtie for NME or any of the other music press, having bought all of them every week since I was 13, for much the reasons you descibe in the aritcle.

    I realised last week that I hadn’t bothered for about a year.

    H

    • Rhian Jones

      Cheers, m’dear :).

      Yes, as a teen I would have killed to write for MM or NME, but these days I’m damned if I can see any point in it. So many more interesting and sparky channels for music journalism have sprung up online while the music press has gone from bad to worse.

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  11. Ed

    Will be interested to see what happens at NME. Conor McNicholas may have known about branding (oh goody!) but is this not a job for the marketing department rather than the editor? I miss the political edge; i now have a subscription to The Wire which is much more cutting edge, and I hope the new editor will try and take NME to being a magazine that is less like Heat and more concerned with music, of all genres, not just indie.

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