Another time, another place. At its peak, in the 70’s, it could sell as many as a quarter of a million copies an edition. The Guardian and the FT would be pleased with that today. This Friday will be its last ever print edition, a free sheet. In the end they could not give it away.
I first became aware of the music press triumvirate in the early 1970’s. Melody Maker (MM) dominated as the voice of the music establishment, founded in 1926. Sounds was born as the difficult sibling in 1970 championing Prog Rock, in 1952 NME was founded as the first UK music paper to include a singles chart reflecting Billboard’s success in the USA. Record Mirror and Disc brought up the sales rear totalling five weekly popular music papers.
This was a time when Top of the Pops, and Radio One ruled. There were only four TV stations and every teenager was watching TOTP’s on a Thursday night devouring the chart sounds. The Old Grey Whistle Test launched on BBC2 in 1971 to reflect the broader pop scene, but its late evening slot was beyond the bedtimes of most schoolchildren, and too niche to pull older teenagers from the pub. The music scene was burgeoning with talent and interest, the mainstream media had neither the space, nor interest, to capitalise on it.
In those first years of the 1970’s, I read the MM as the bible of popular music. But there was a problem. It was boring. It also felt like an old hippy paper. As prog rock bit, so the self-indulgence of MMs writing became bloated. Jazz was still covered, the technical prowess of the likes of Yes, Mike Oldfield, Pink Floyd and their ilk revered. It was not what a young teenager wanted to read. For me, Bowie was when the pendulum swung forever. MM covered Ziggy, but NME understood it, and their coverage of Bowie’s Wembley concerts in 76 was superb. NME was as burdened by the rock monolith as MM but was the first to recognise it. In 1972 , in the face of declining sales, and closure, a new editor , deputy editor and writers were brought in. They quadrupled sales.
NME staff writers were rock stars in their own right. Frank Zappa famously argued “Rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, in order to provide articles for people who can’t read”, but the new wave of British music journalists in the 1970s changed all of that. Alan Smith and Nick Logan recruited the cream of the underground press, Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray, Tony Tyler, Chrissie Hynde and Ian McDonald followed by enfants terrible Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill as punk broke. Mick Farren, Danny Baker and Paul Morley also contributed to a formidable writing roster.
It was exciting. It was hip. Although initially not in the vanguard of punk, it understood that the first phase of rock was over. Its influence is impossible to overstate. If you wanted to know who was playing anywhere in the UK, news of new tours, band break ups, band reunions, record releases and gossip, NME had it every week. It was an essential weekly purchase. The writing was terrific for a time, with the writers strapped to the pulse of what was happening, and an esoteric vocabulary I still use today. In the end the writing did eat itself. Reviews that did not mention the artist or songs, but were instead a platform for the journalist, became a quirky badge of honour. But we loved them for it.
It was also political; anti- fascist, pro Anti -Nazi league and Rock Against Racism, socialist by nature, anti- nuke, pro- Greenham Common protests. It mattered to teenagers. I learned about new bands from them. I certainly saw live acts simply on their recommendation, I bought, and didn’t buy, singles and albums on the basis of their imprimatur. The Clash and the Slits were in, the Kursaal Flyers were not.
Punk / New wave was perfect for them. The sheer volume of new acts and new releases meant that an informed opinion was vital – and for a time, NME was that vehicle. Of course it couldn’t last and with the New Romantics came The Face , Smash Hits, and MTV carving out space, together with the tabloids and broadsheets increasingly giving editorial , review and gig news room in their publications. Their stylistic and factual hegemony on popular music was at an end.
It did have subsequent flurries, most notably with Brit pop, but the landscape had changed irrevocably, the glories of the 70’s would never return. Sixty-six years is a good run for any publication. It has had a good run. The cycle is over, the wheel has turned, but the impression it has left on the fortunes of pop culture endures.