Once a vital lifeline to pop-picking teenagers when the pirates had yet to set sail and the BBC Light Programme swung to terminally upbeat orchestral mood music, Radio Luxembourg finally gave up the ghost of the 208 wavelength in 1991. It continued to broadcast on the Astra satellite system for a while, but to all extents and purposes its era was over. Sometimes it’s best to admit the end of the road has arrived. This week, it was announced the NME – or for older readers, the New Musical Express – would be reduced to a virtual ‘indie’ version of the free newspaper, ‘Metro’, to be given away for nothing, just like the music its dwindling readership listen to. What’s the point?
Although I was too young for the Golden Age of the British music press in the 1970s (‘Shiver and Shake’ meant more to me than Melody Maker in 1973), it was still relatively healthy when I would purchase the weeklies from the mid-80s onwards. The first signs that something was changing came one week in 1991 when Sounds and Record Mirror (the latter no longer an inky monochrome product) folded simultaneously. The rest of the decade was left to the two old-timers, the NME and Melody Maker, to battle it out like a pair of once-great heavyweights reduced to the ignominy of fairground pugilism as their respective circulations continued to plummet. MM was re-launched as a glossy at the end of the 1990s, resembling a student ‘Smash Hits’; and this last-ditch attempt at staving off the inevitable bombed. Within a year, the 75-year-old newsstand institution vanished for good.
Pre-rock ‘n’ roll, the music papers in this country were akin to trade magazines, aimed at jazz musicians in their thirties or forties and not selling many copies to those outside of the music industry. The 1952 entry of the NME into the market may have suggested more-of-the-same, especially with its rather quaint original title of ‘Accordion Times and Musical Express’; but the great innovation of the newcomer was the introduction of the UK’s first-ever chart listing the best-selling records of the week, something that reflected the increasing ascendancy of the vinyl record over sheet music. The first No.1? ‘Here in My Heart’ by Al Martino.
The advent of rock ‘n’ roll may have been initially greeted with a rather condescending sniffiness by the British music press, but when the publishers realised giving extensive coverage to Elvis would boost circulation and bring in a vast, untapped young readership, they gradually embraced it. With the astronomical rise of The Beatles and the Stones in 1963/64, the NME and Melody Maker were firmly enshrined as adolescent bibles, a pivotal middle-man between the bands and the fans. The NME reached a sales peak of 306,881 a week during this period and sales remained healthy throughout the decade. The NME Poll Winner’s Concerts were televised annually in the mid-60s, the era’s equivalent of the Brit Awards; and the dream line-ups at some of these events read like a who’s who of Swinging London’s musical movers and shakers.
Despite their immense success in the Beat Boom years, the level of journalism in both the NME and Melody Maker was of a kind that one would today associate with boy-band fan mags. It was with the arrival of America’s Rolling Stone in 1967 that ‘pop’ journalism progressed to ‘rock’ writing. Writers that in a previous age would have penned articles in broadsheet newspapers were now reporting on popular music with a lyrical gravitas that had once been the preserve of Classical. Melody Maker was the first British weekly to reflect this maturity, recruiting highbrow writers such as Richard Williams, Michael Watts and Chris Welch. The NME was slow to keep up with the changing climate and the debut of Sounds in 1970, a music paper very much in synch with the move from frivolous singles to serious albums, threatened the continuing existence of a music weekly that appeared rooted in the more lightweight showbizzy pop scene of the pre-psychedelic 60s.
Salvation came in 1972 with the gate-crashing of several journalists from the thriving underground press such as Charles Shaar Murray, Mick Farren and Nick Kent, bringing with them an irreverent wit and perceptive prose that set the style of the NME for the rest of the 70s. Along with the iconic photography of Pennie Smith, the influx of fresh blood revitalised a fading brand and by the mid-70s, the NME was outstripping its rivals. There was a mischievous aspect to the tone of the paper by this stage; Bryan Ferry took umbrage with an apparent lack of respect he received from the writers and the paper responded by refusing to name him properly, referring to him as ‘Byron Ferrari’ and various other plays upon his actual name because the writers knew it annoyed him. In a pre-internet and widespread Virgin/HMV age, the NME was the dedicated music fan’s Koran; even clothes were purchased via mail-order in its small-ads. For those not fortunate enough to live within a stone’s throw of the King’s Road, the best way to purchase loon-pants was via the NME. It really was a lifestyle magazine as much as Cosmopolitan.
Although initially slow to pick up on punk, the NME’s recruitment of Tony Parsons, Julie Burchill and Paul Morley gave another kiss of life to the paper that carried it into the 80s. The political elements of punk and post-punk, especially in the lyrics of The Clash, The Jam and The Specials, was reflected in the NME, which often focused on issues beyond music such as the controversial Youth Opportunities Schemes of the early Thatcher Government, even stretching to making Labour leader Neil Kinnock a cover star. The Leftish leanings of the paper reached a PC peak in the middle of the 80s, with writers such as Stephen Wells hectoring the readership in a manner that often made the magazine akin to a humourless musical equivalent of Socialist Worker.
The 1990s was hard going. The consciously anti-personality rhetoric of the dance scene was something all the traditional music papers struggled to deal with; the introduction of glossy music monthlies such as Vox, Select, Muzik, Uncut and Mojo was a severe challenge to the old weeklies; and though Britpop gave both the NME and Melody Maker a brief shot in the arm, sales seemed fixed in an irreversible decline. The rise of the internet at the turn of the twenty-first century dealt a killer blow to many of the monthly magazines that had challenged the old music weeklies in the 90s, but also claimed the scalp of the NME’s long-term rival, Melody Maker. The disappearance of the latter was like the disappearance of the Daily Mirror would be to the Sun.
The last survivor of an age in which music news was weekly rather than daily (or monthly), the NME staggered on alone in the 2000s and 2010s, faced with the instant newsflashes of the internet (ironically capitalised on by the NME’s highly successful online edition) on one hand and the often-excellent in-depth writing on rock’s golden years in Uncut and Mojo on the other. The NME seemed uncertain as to what its role was anymore, as likely to put The Beatles on its front cover as The Libertines.
The announcement this week that the final remaining music weekly is to become a freebie is sad, but symptomatic of the dismantling of the intertwined network that for decades defined the British music scene – John Peel, the music press, the charts, Top of the Pops. Like Radio Luxembourg relegated to the Astra satellite in 1992, the NME becoming something to be given away is testament to the increasing irrelevance of what was once a cultural touchstone for an age that is now in its death throes. There is no alternative anymore; we are all products of the leisure industry now.