Three Decades of Cross-Cultural Utopianism in British Music Writing

The history of England’s fertile music press reveals as much about the opinionated English youth who created it as it does the music they covered in the second half of the 20th century.

Mark Sinker | A Hidden Landscape Once a Week Strange Attractor Press | February 2019 | 32 minutes (6,436 words)

 

It was late 1986, and I was frustrated. I’d given up my day-job to dedicate myself full-time to writing, but I wasn’t getting much work, and what I did get was paying almost nothing. Only one title was giving me the freedom to find my voice — Richard Cook’s still-small monthly The Wire, where he was building a team of new young writers — and it paid worst of all. No surprise I wasn’t getting enough paid work: Mostly I wrote about free improvised music and the more intransigent offshoots of post-punk, but I’d also seen King Sunny Ade play at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1983, and fallen in love with West African pop, its dancing brightness and the strangeness of its vocal lines. Others were writing about it, no one very well. Or so I felt. I was young, and young often means arrogant. Two things had drawn me to the music-writing of that era, the weeklies in particular: its opinionated mischief-making humor, and the sense of young people travelling by touch, learning as they went — finding out about the wider world by throwing themselves out into that world. Master both, and there’s your recipe for professional success, I thought. I had a head full of ideas about what music should and shouldn’t be, and was intensely willing to argue about them.

The LP in front of me was Coming Home, debut release of a group of South African exiles under the collective name Kintone. Its quietly melodic afrojazz — with hints of Weather Report, but far less flashy — went right over my head that aggrieved autumn. I had come to hate jazz writing which damned musicians with bland praise, leaving readers swimming unconvinced in routinized tact. But re-listening now, 30 years on, I have to say I no longer hear what apparently so riled me then, when I scorned instrumental prowess and sneered at a cartoon idea of the meaning of fusion.

Talk about learning lessons in public. It was a ridiculous, self-regarding performance on my part. One of the group, guitarist Russell Herman, contacted me, hunting down my home phone number, to take me to task. Vehemently. My right to pronounce scathing judgment — an activity I entirely took for granted — could be the denial of oxygen itself to those surviving on the margins. Apartheid was still entirely in force in 1986 — however inadvertently, a snide record review could be a cruel erasure.

We discovered when we talked it through face-to-face that there was shared ground, and I wrote a friendly feature on them in a subsequent issue of Wire, but it’s fair to say that many of my concerns — debates about rock and pop and modernism, experiment and noise and glamour — interested Kintone not at all. They had other matters on their minds in those times, and understandably so.

I had a head full of ideas about what music should and shouldn’t be, and was intensely willing to argue about them.

This is an embarrassing story for me now, but self-flagellation is less the point than the politics of the encounter. The story of the UK music press in the era that this anthology covers, the early 1960s to the late 80s, is one of gatekeeping and its discontents, a long, many-sided tussle over authority and access. What’s good and who decides? Who ought to be deciding, and who selects the deciders? Which habits to challenge, which conventions to confront; when do gossip and spiteful fun turn bad? Who knows what, who’s talking to who — who pays for it all and what’s their cut? Should the critic channel the musician pushed to the margins by the industry, or the reader the industry is often bamboozling? What sells? What’s interesting? Who gets to speak?

Land on the wrong page of almost any publication mentioned here, from Oz to Melody Maker to The Face, and you’re immersed in a welter of teenage obsession, confusion, ignorance, and malice. Posturing, feuds, very bad writing about very bad music — except over the period examined, this was also a remarkable and an unlikely cultural pocket developing largely unnoticed by the wider media, in which could be found valuable engagement with any number of off-mainstream projects: Besides music, you might discover films, fashion, street theatre, science fiction, poetry and vanguard art, radical politics and cultural theory — and hints, too, maybe, on how to access the sexual or pharmaceutical netherworlds.

This was a hidden landscape that changed from week to week: In every issue, or nearly every issue, there’d be something new and unexpected to explore. But there was something else here, too, which offered a thread of continuity even as the personnel changed. Sometime in the early ’70s, on a ground-soil of entertainment industry information, a loam of pop-cult ephemera, a handful of exiles fleeing the defeated ’60s underground would establish a kind of settlement, a small counter-colonial outpost right in the decaying heart of the entertainment industry’s empire-as-was. Here would be set up a shrine to the various dissident values that had sparked their ambitions and sense of possibility — and as a shrine it often rang with a ribald self-mockery, because this too was something of a countercultural tic. As early as 1970, writer Charles Shaar Murray, just 19 and arriving at Oz, was already cheekily reversing the polarities to clown the “hype, bullshit and hustling on the so-called progressive scene.” Pop, he says, is “simple and honest: put it on the radio and people hear it and if they like it, they buy it. That’s all, that’s how they sold a million ‘Love Grows’ and five million of ‘Sugar, Sugar.’ The music is crap, but the people are honest. With us, half the music is good, but half the people are dishonest.” And if the shrine itself was less and less revered as the years passed, it nevertheless cast a spell for a surprisingly long time over this implausible secluded little space, literate in its own ideals and shibboleths, rich in arcane legends, quarrels and delusions.


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Some of the quarrels and the legends went back almost to the dawn of jazz itself, of course. Founded in 1926 to cover the dance-band scene, Melody Maker (MM) was the oldest of the UK music weeklies. Arriving in 1952, New Musical Express (NME), rising from the ashes of Accordion Times and Musical Express, marking out its territory as the pioneer of the pop singles chart, was enthusiastic for the upsurge of rock ‘n’ roll, which it covered largely as a novelty music. Record Mirror was founded in 1954 and in 1956 began carrying the official UK chart, the same year its prime rival Disc emerged. The early ’60s saw a cheerful wave of teenybop titles, starting with 1959’s Boyfriend — every week a new pop star thus identified, aimed at girls but focused on music — and continuing in various modes with Mersey Beat (1961), Beat Monthly (1963), Big Beat, Music Echo, Rave, and Fabulous, later Fabulous 208 (all 1964), along with many here-today-gone-next-month titles springing up purely to exploit a specific group or star.

So this was the pop-cult loam — and the writing about it was never entirely ephemeral. MM was respected and professional, if perhaps a little staid in the face of the ’60s pop explosion (in 1964, newcomer Chris Welch would note that most of MM’s writers favored jazz; for a long time its contributors had to be able to read sheet music). It described itself as a “musicians’ paper” — its nether pages a forest of want ads for bands and (in later years) reviews of tech. Jazz and folk it covered admirably seriously, acknowledging the political issues pertinent to both. Shrewd, bereted and beloved, jazz writer Max Jones would be immortalized by Bob Dylan as the bamboozled Mr. Jones: “something is happening but you don’t know what it is…” In 1965, perhaps to discover what it was, MM hired Max’s 16-year-old son Nick, in case he knew.

But in fact the jazz perspective was anything but fusty, and sometimes intensely alert to music’s radical cultural roles in the US and the UK. Photographer and historian Val Wilmer’s contributions were very much a logical development of what already was, and yet a sign of something new as well: this young white woman from Streatham, and her care to document so rigorously and so sympathetically. She began working for an underfelt of small black-run magazines and later became a conduit to MM’s readers for the voices of free jazz, which often embraced an openly revolutionary politics.

Not all the important music being made at this time was so lovingly covered, though, as writer and reggae scholar the late Penny Reel attests. Despite Jamaica putting out what Reel calls “the third largest number of records after England and the United States,” the UK music press seemed barely aware of the richness of ska, so it had to be hunted out by enthusiasts, disc by disc. And here was a young white working-class man, from one of the poorest parts of East London, far more drawn to these sounds than anything in his own background, and to the clubs and the dives they emerged from. This too felt new.

Land on the wrong page of almost any publication mentioned here, from Oz to Melody Maker to The Face, and you’re immersed in a welter of teenage obsession, confusion, ignorance, and malice.

By 1967 and the release of Sergeant Pepper, the Beatles had emerged as an implacable cross-cultural force, at once radical and middlebrow — and now the counterculture also broke through into the mainstream press. “Rock” was the new name of the music that was somehow both harbinger and social glue of many of the changes — and a story that required interpreting. Though he was mocked for it, William Mann, classical critic at The Times, wrote (correctly) of the Beatles’ “pan-diatonic clusters.” Geoffrey Cannon kept readers of the Guardian, the Listener¸ and New Society informed. As well as columnist Nik Cohn, an early partisan of pop against the flattening threat of rock, the Observer hired a BBC film-maker, Tony Palmer, as their commentator. The Sunday color supplements flirted with Carnaby Street tourist hipsterism, court illustrator to the Beatles Alan Aldridge kept busy at the Sunday Times, and so on.

But as the cultural turmoil accelerated after 1966, it was evident that the established broadsheet press, with its earnest duty to explain, adapt, or denounce, simply had the wrong antennae for what was emerging, good and bad. Because London was at this time a ferment of sit-ins and lockouts, arts labs, folk and blues clubs, happenings and demos. Psychedelia, with its collective trips and its lightshows, had a foothold in both clubland and art galleries. And at the heart of all, a Liverpool beat-group boyband, once beset by shrieking mobs, creating insouciant media copy just by being smarter than the hacks sent to confront them, now also made films and songs cycles: Pepper was a concept album linking vaudeville and music hall at one end, Pop Art and fluxus-type pranks at the other, while ‘All You Need Is Love’ would debut as a live global broadcast link-up. Meanwhile Lennon was wooing Yoko Ono at the Indica gallery, and would soon be chatting to Tariq Ali of radical underground magazine Black Dwarf.

Avidly if naively following events in the US and on the continent, the UK counterculture sought to remake politics from the ground up. And readers needed guidance through the chaos, this unprecedented worldwide collision of pop culture and radical protest, not to mention every kind of fad and pose and predatory put-on, turning to the underground press to sort the good from the bad. To International Times (IT or It or it, founded in 1966) or to Oz (founded in Australia in 1963, arriving in the UK in 1967) and its short-lived offshoot ink. Or to the offspring of an unsuccessful attempt to run a UK version of Rolling Stone, variously named Friends of Rolling Stone, Friends, and finally Frendz. In 1968 Tony Elliott founded Time Out, a one-sheet listings magazine that would expand into a London institution, with sections devoted to racial equality, police brutality, housing, transport, agitprop, mysticism, and more.

This was a culture making it up as it went along, its primary glue being — as Charles Shaar Murray notes — its music, a music considered by its fans to be nudging humanity towards a better future. Today, a half-century on, the original valence of the word “progressive” is largely dissipated. It’s become a monosyllable in a thoughtless genre pigeonhole — prog rock or just prog — but it remains totemic in the lost language of this hidden landscape. Which is why it’s worth trying to recover a sense of the future many hoped we were progressing towards. In 1970, a large contingent of the staff at the now-venerable Melody Maker, led by then-editor Jack Hutton, left to found a new rock weekly, which became Sounds. The territory covered wasn’t very different, but it was centered less on jazz or chart-pop than on progressive rock.

In the mid ’60s, when the charts had become the primary forum for imaginative exploration, the conversation had moved song by competing song, and NME had prospered. Now that longer discussions of LPs were the focus, NME was flailing and threatened with closure. In 1973, in desperation, it hired writers from the dwindling underground press: Murray from Oz, Mick Farren from it, Nick Kent from Frendz. The paper was revamped, with longer features, a quick-witted and irreverent fourthwall-busting editorial stance and layout style, half Private Eye, half Monty Python, and the popular and useful innovation of the Gig Guide listings.

This turned the paper’s fortunes round so sharply that it became market-leader and agenda-setter for nearly a decade, despite the churn among young writers. A kind of bundling was key, a bundling of roles, attitudes, and topics. People bought music papers to answer basic questions which ran a wide arc, from amused consumer-convenience to something rather more anxiously, earnestly zeitgeisty: When’s the album? Is it any good? Where are they playing? Is it MY kind of thing? Does this music MATTER? The pop dream beset by doubts, the doubts aired — as often as not — as gags.

“Imagined communities,” as the historian Benedict Anderson terms them, cluster not only round language but also round the technologies of the written word, particularly newspapers. As you bought and read these papers, you knew there were thousands of others like you, all with identical access and commitment to and self-taught recognition of facts and (tour)dates and names and values. Such shared written totems, argues Anderson, were how the early settler-led independence movements fashioned themselves into nationalisms, as colonies passionately fought to separate from the imperial metropole.

In the dynamic Anderson sketches, there’d typically be an unofficial use language that was a whirl of borrowings, street inventions, and code-shifts, in all directions. In fact there’d be several, because a pidgin is not a patois is not a creole. A pidgin is a patchwork of words from two clashing tongues, its grammar often simplified for ease of communication. A patois is the adaptive form of the language of the colonized or the transplanted: as much a matter of concealment as communication (there’s grammatically as much in Jamaican patois of Yoruba or Twi as there is of English). But what interests Anderson is the creole, the adaptive form the settlers developed, as amplified and accelerated by print technology. A speaking caught between cultures, a creole became respectable as new written form in the colony. And yet — just as participants in the Boston Tea Party, a revolt against imperial taxation, dressed as Native Americans — in its more fierce separatist forms, it often clothed itself in the forms and manners of the harder-pressed in the same locale.

The word is derived from criollo, a term for the settler community so intimately linked to the motherland, and yet disdained by it too. Those gathered into such a creole, this hard-to-unravel cross-ply of status and expression, were nearly always blocked from rising to their best level of achievement back home. As convinced of its talent as it was conflicted about its identity, such a community hungered for the cultural and intellectual validation of the metropole — and at the same time yearned for freedom from it.

Now a mild kind of imagined community can be fashioned round any publication, round escape into the micro-market passions of the cat-lover, the trainspotter, the self-trepanner. This book explores something more charged: an imagined creole, a semi-invisible counter-colony established at the post-colonial moment within the mother nation. Some were trying out full-on MC5-style cosplay: ‘White Panthers’ as the self-appointed bros-in-arms of their black precursors. Others seemed simply to wish they’d been born elsewhere. Creole means language as well as community, and this one emerged replete with its own blues-boy jargon, rich in words borrowed from the jazz argot of the early part of the century, such as hip or cool, or man as a mode of address. Courtesy the Beats and the New Journalism, it was more than somewhat American in rhythm and outlook, though later it would trend for a time quasi-Rastafarian, as reggae made itself felt. Much of the excitement of the mid-60s rock project came via what Charles Shaar Murray calls “creative misunderstandings of the source material” — certainly among the misunderstandings was a fan-fiction resistance stance as cosplay, an idealistic insider-outsider code-shifting.

In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. du Bois had identified a double consciousness in groups that society keeps marginal, and traumatized. No major black English-language intellectuals — C.L.R. James in Trinidad, say, or Leroi Jones in the US — had direct presence in the UK music press in the ’60s, but still there were white writers taking pains to ensure that the black originators weren’t entirely edged out of this utopian commonality: Val Wilmer, Penny Reel, Richard Williams, Murray himself… As young people danced and drank and ate and smoked together, perhaps glimpsing a passage to something deeper (did I mention the fanfic?), here was the distant self-inflicted mirror of that double-consciousness, a conflicted white self-marginalization, half intermittently acknowledged complicity, half radical hope.

And within the imagined creole that clustered round them were some of the most talented, naturally curious young writers in the English language (alongside — this bears repeating — some of the worst and least curious). Though only a handful would make it out to the wider world as anything but specialist reviewers: either those who bailed early, or, tellingly, those who made their bones ferociously rejecting many countercultural values.

Still, the most seasoned warriors, hard-bitten veterans of the ’60s children’s crusades, had landed at NME defending the underground’s values and honor even as they acknowledged its demise. “We don’t just write about the music,” Murray recalls his NME colleague Tony Tyler saying. “We write about what the music’s about.” Which is partly how this paper — its tone as primary guardian caustic, hilarious, the opposite of earnest — ensured these dissident values remained at large within this secret playground for many years to come. These values were: free love, legalized drugs, racial harmony, an end to war, liberation from mechanized drudgery and suffocating routine.

As it reached out to a more working-class readership, Sounds had increasingly fashioned itself round street-bred rock, the scruffy denimclad journeyman blues boogie many now saw as the deepest spirit of the counterculture. But it too covered a wide range of music, its loyalty to prog lasting deep into the ’80s, by which time it was helping create a lasting media niche for metal. And it was also quickest to respond to punk, especially via Jonh Ingham, an Australian transplanted to London from a first-hand encounter with the Californian scene in the late ’60s. To someone with this trajectory, the Sex Pistols seemed a long-awaited, chaotic strike against the by-now bedded-in smugness and self-regard of the progressive ideal.

Still, the most seasoned warriors, hard-bitten veterans of the ’60s children’s crusades, had landed at NME defending the underground’s values and honor even as they acknowledged its demise.

The weekly that most successfully continued riding the chart-pop wave out of the ’60s was Record Mirror. Swallowing its main surviving rival Disc in 1975, it remained the home of the official BBC charts — catnip to some — and the quality of its coverage of disco was far ahead of all rivals, thanks to the tireless inventiveness of James Hamilton finding ways to describe beats.

Countering the influx of New Journalistic practice elsewhere, stubbornly committed to the old-fashioned virtues of clarity and keeping yourself out of the story, Melody Maker was perhaps the least formally ambitious of the weeklies. But this was misleading. Its coverage of jazz and folk had linked it to political undercurrents long predating the underground, and it was still often the first to spot trends, from the Velvet Underground to reggae. Until 1980 it maintained the deepest coverage of the widest spread of musical genres.

Rolling Stone, compromised US guardian of at least a strained version of the countercultural ethos, also continued to be an inspiration, though no lasting equivalent was ever established in the UK. Contenders in the early ’70s included Frendz, Mark Williams’ Strange Days, Cream (not to be confused with the US title CREEM), and Let It Rock. The closest was perhaps Street Life. As likely to put Spain’s King Juan Carlos on the cover as Pete Townshend or Bryan Ferry, it was a source of long deeply researched articles on all manner of topics (Juan Carlos had just saved Spanish democracy from a fascist coup). Enormously admired by the cognoscenti, Street Life was sadly short-lived, the plug pulled after just over a year.

There’d long been small journals supplying information, impassioned expertise, knowledgeably researched detail, driven by the sense they were championing music not adequately served by the weeklies: jazz, folk, country; blues and soul at Blues & Soul, which began publishing in 1967. Alert to overlooked histories, these were by no means necessarily backward-looking: championing the black music favored in UK clubs in the ’60s, the late Dave Godin — the gay fan-scholar who coined the term ‘Northern Soul’ — foresaw some of the dance-music dynamic of the ’80s. But in the ’70s, three new things happened. First, rock itself began to exhibit the symptoms of being long-lived, complete with forgotten backwaters. Second, the appeal of some of the overlooked types of music began to seem much more evidently political: if chart breakout was still sought — sales as the voice of the people! — its absence was often (in the same breath) considered a mark of credibility. Third, there was less sense than ever that these overlooked musical forms existed only on the margins.

Back in 1969, naming it for a Captain Beefheart song, Pete Frame had started ZigZag, as a kind of samizdat for the countercultural faithful, to cover figures he felt the music press were ignoring, such as Beefheart himself. Though the weeklies had picked up some of the slack, ZigZag continued intermittently in this corrective mode into the mid ’80s. In 1973, Melody Maker writer Alan Lewis persuaded its owners IPC to set up Black Music, not least to provide a platform for the pioneering black British writer Carl Gayle. All kinds of music — including soul, funk, and disco — were now overtly, indeed eagerly, political. Most strikingly, reggae now had its defiantly Rastafarian wing, prophetic, apocalyptic, minatory. Pressure Drop emerged in 1975, to focus entirely on reggae: there, and later at NME, Penny Reel was crafting a gorgeous written style which at its peak inflected the language of Rastafarianism through the lens of a Runyon-esque romance of gangsters, grifters, singers, players, and producers.

Even classic ’60s pop got its pushback, with Brian Hogg’s Bam Balam, a harbinger of the punk fanzine explosion. I’ll come to punk shortly — it’s unavoidable, for good and evil — but arguably the most embattled counter-insurgency of the era came from the tiniest of all these magazines. Flyspeck-dogged over a four-year run, Musics magazine patched together projects and practices that sought to upend all process and form and tradition and habit in music, everything from free improvisation to interspecies music, plus music made by actual children. Longstanding among its many editors, David Toop — later one of the first UK writers to write with any authority about rap — tells this story and what came after for him in the ’80s, mainly at The Face.

Rolling Stone, compromised US guardian of at least a strained version of the countercultural ethos, also continued to be an inspiration, though no lasting equivalent was ever established in the UK.

A specialist magazine tends to cleave hard to the perceived narrowness of its readers’ interests. But as inheritors (often despite themselves) of the legacy of the underground press, with its sense of mission to supply “alternative” information, these tiny challengers were different. Whatever the pretext, whatever the genre-hook, the entire world was potentially their subject.

Underpaid and exploited, required to deliver a phenomenal weekly word rate, rock writing was a self-motivated discipline improvising a language to tackle these contradictory ideas, establishing for the reader practical canons of judgment out of this thrilling car-crash of the world’s styles, from the Mississippi Delta via the Caribbean, Africa and the Indian subcontinent, to dreams of the robot future. Something new every week: The industry is built on planned obsolescence, and churn demands churn. The sub-generational turnover of contributors at these titles is as striking as it is unsentimental. All but the very strongest writers will burn out and move on after a couple of years, tying up the identities of the best-known papers in a competitive jangle of feuds and fashion-shifts. Continuity — meaning a recognizable look and sense and stance to allow readers to fashion a loyalty— is maintained at a less stellar level: the editors ensuring copy is structured, the researchers fashioning the chart pages, the photographers, of course — all of whom tending to stay with a paper far longer.

Awash with daddy’s money, the counterculture had also always attracted the idea-hungry, change-hungry literate working class, into this bohemian sub-world where they began to have a control over their own creative lives that their parents had never even dreamed of. But the self-reinvention of a few was a mounting personality crisis for many, uncertain what they connected to, past and future, and who they were becoming. Reaction was inevitable.

Ian Hunter’s Diary of a Rock’n’Roll Star details the let-down day-by-day, touring with mid-league midlands rockers Mott the Hoople, arriving in 1972 in his long-promised land America. He sees the unaccustomed thrill of trans-Atlantic flight devolve into stress and grind and disenchantment, plane-hops up and down the USA, and the uneasy realization that the rewards here would only ever accrue to a few, however amazing the shows were. The dreamy progressive utopia was a delusion, perhaps even a trap, and music-writers increasingly knew their readers knew it. Once the USA had been the shining city on a hill; now a new quasi-religious metaphor took its place, borrowed from the Rastafarians — that we were all living in kidnapped exile in a grim Babylon, the hated invader-abductor that was also, for many, the birth home.

For hippies, music had been the universal language; for punks, musicianship would be suspect, all this cluttered information and the time required to process it — the sitars and harpsichords of the first rock decade’s outward-turned explorations a class trick played on the excluded. Who even had the time to get good at all this stuff, let alone the opportunity? And you didn’t need to chum around with world-weary rock-stars on Lear Jets to encounter fucked-up disillusion and trudge. Rock? If this is the people’s music, shouldn’t it be about ordinary people’s lives? A gleeful know-nothing energy would became the bedrock of social authenticity, a rage of the particular and the local, demanding loudly assertive (and too-quickly generic) sketches of what it was to have nothing. A music reflecting damaged backgrounds, the experience of the left-behind: those realizing that the places they had thought to escape they were very much still stuck in.

Between 1976-80, several related things happen, surprisingly quickly. First, of course, is punk; second, an unusually public sub-generational shift in name writers on the music weeklies; which led, third, to a greatly increased mainstream interest in the affairs of the same weeklies; fourth, the electric blue note began no longer to function as index of and glue for the music’s universalism; fifth, the fight for women to be paid a different kind of notice began to take effect; sixth, the complex countercultural adoration-disdain for pop began once more to mutate; seventh, even as the affairs and attitudes in the imagined counter-colonial micro-community-bled more and more up into the mainstream media, British music, somehow the source of the world’s idea of universal teen revolt, began to pull its horns back in. In a world enjoying global broadcast linkup, the post-imperial British yen for “anywhere but here” was beginning to come to an end.

Even in the late ’70s, a multiplicity of titles — going far out beyond those just about music — existed in an argumentative post-underground space that seemed to share writers and readers.

In the 1960s and early ’70s, the rock-centered counter-culture presented itself more or less as a single conjoined terrain, in which every fashion spasm had its day at the top. Even in the late ’70s, a multiplicity of titles — going far out beyond those just about music — existed in an argumentative post-underground space that seemed to share writers and readers; too strong, perhaps, to claim everyone read everything, but there was much crossover and inter-title movement. After punk, the time of the tribes: each insisting, as punk had, that it alone was the true inheritor — though of what exactly was no longer clear. If pluralism remained a value, the value of a single location for its expression did not. Choice began to mean choosing not to socialize: these fans like metal, those like funk, others enjoy jazz, trad or free, and all have their different magazines.

After all, the evident problem with editorial bundling is that it risks irritating any readers there for just one topic, especially now that every new sub-genre believed it had the punky right — and the tools — to seize the moment and the spotlight, and change the world. A more populist glue was needed, to keep the many subjects from whirling away from one another. Both Sounds and NME had made a success of punk, but as it evolved it pulled them in very different directions. The most intensely political of the weeklies, NME was enthused enough by post-punk’s experiments to dive deep into the post-structuralist semiotics of music, film and everything else, an urchin hermeneutics that divided readers. By contrast, Sounds largely favored the wing of punk suspicious of anything intellectual or art — and when this lost its flavour, it turned (with conspicuous success) to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. A monthly metal-based offshoot, Kerrang!, is still happily publishing.

Meanwhile, Melody Maker had been badly mauled by punk, but editor Richard Williams was beginning to put together a strong editorial team to retrench its rep as the best for intelligent coverage, of jazz and folk as before, as well as post-punk. Sadly his plans were interrupted by a company-wide strike at IPC in 1980, over freelance payrates. When management demanded he publish a scab issue, Williams quit, as did his best writers. The pluralist project was shelved and the MM that emerged was feeble, confused and diminished: it ditched its jazz and folk sections entirely and wouldn’t rediscover a convincing voice for several years.

It was obvious by now the music weeklies were no longer the only place the widest conversation was happening. If it’s wrong to say the center of gravity shifted, that’s because the challengers were offering a new center — one of frivolity. The Face and Smash Hits reflected the bright, instant pluralism of the charts — the energy of people thrown together in a club, dancing together now, tomorrow scattered, the latter now hitting its witty, glossy stride. Younger readers in particular were now better targeted than ever by publishers, and siphoned away into different pop habits.

Nonetheless, NME weathered the same IPC strike with editorial self-confidence undimmed, able now deftly to pick up some of the constituencies and contributors that MM’s management were stupidly casting away. Long strong on reggae, by 1981-82 it was expanding coverage of jazz and experimental noise. Tackling anything from Neubauten to Sinatra and Kid Creole to Cecil Taylor, it was becoming a meet-point where you could learn about Leo Baxendale or the Metaphysical Poets, Ghanaian highlife or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Kathy Acker or Jacques Lacan or the Angry Brigade, as if they all existed somewhere on the same cultural plane, distinct but in mutual reach of one another — and (and this was key) in reach of the reader. It had an excellent film and television section, strong book reviews, effective political antennae, and some of the best photographers working. Certainly nothing else like this was available nationally, at this time or perhaps any other.

This was pluralism as a kind of energized vanguard duty: a belief that everything should be placed in reach, pop and avant-garde, and everything wrong with either set out. But punk’s success in getting impenetrable yammer to sweep all before it would not be repeated, and it was a risky time to commit to the experimental. After 1973, NME had dominated the ’70s circulation wars; from around 1980 it was always fighting a rearguard action. It had reduced coverage of metal to occasional hostile jabs, and the strike allowed loyal readers a break in the weekly habit, the opportunity to shop around. A significant number never returned.

It was obvious by now the music weeklies were no longer the only place the widest conversation was happening.

By 1984, NME ran a feature across two issues boldly supporting the miners’ strike, a provocative move in a year that IPC saw a second strike, which the paper’s freelancers and staff again honored. The following year, when Bob Geldof organized Live Aid, he more or less ignored the music press entirely, heading straight to television and the tabloids for attention and donation streams for his globe-spanning, money-raising, conscience-salving project. In the ’70s Rock Against Racism had re-tooled the all-day rock festival to fashion a successful resistance coalition against the fascists, alongside a politics of active audience involvement. But by 1985, the music press lacked the heft to generate creative or critical responses to Live Aid — and besides, music press editorial was an increasingly professionalized affair, those with degrees in media shouldering aside those who’d worked their way up from glue-boy. Much of the earlier crackle of excitement had arisen from daily office banter and debate — between all ages, classes, races, and genders, across a variety of titles in debate with one another. In the niche-structured world, this kind of encounter no longer happened so much; the many enclaves were no longer well able to interact with one another. There were probably more titles than ever — but far less sense that writers all read one another’s work, or any longer came together as a larger argumentative family.

To me, 1985 feels like the end-point of something. Not that the imagined creole ended there — its descendants exist even today, dispersed but tenacious across the internet. Nonetheless, round about the middle of the ’80s, the community could no longer claim its primary topics and pretexts as purely its own, and how it went about its business was now very much policed by its marketing departments. The churn had obscured its sense of its own history. NME did pitch in behind the Red Wedge movement in support of Labour in 1986, and endorsed Neil Kinnock with a cover story in 1987. But there was something wan and forced about this; as if a break had been made with a deeper countercultural identity. Individuals would continue to bear their own highly politicized torches — none more rowdily than the late Steven Wells — but the battleground had evidently shifted elsewhere and the will to gaze outwards was diminished. Think of Morrissey complaining about music that “says nothing to me about my life,” and how this — alongside hostile asides like “reggae is vile” — might in fact abut a growing indifference to anything outside a reactionary and parochial incuriosity.

Perhaps the best way to underscore what was vanishing is to take a quick look at the one title that continued — at least into the mid ’90s — to pursue intellectual pluralism as a virtue, as a project with radical verve, not to mention a continued affinity for jazz. It’s also the magazine I edited for a short while: The Wire.

More importantly, it’s the magazine Richard Cook edited for several years. The magazine had started in 1982 as a tiny scrappy quarterly to service the jazz fans that the Melody Maker had recently deserted; Cook had arrived from NME in 1985 to transform it into a stylish monthly piggybacking on a hipster-centered jazz mini-boom (a boom kiboshed by the 1987 market crash). In 1990 he put Michael Jackson on the cover and pushed towards an ultramontane full-spectrum broad-mindedness: a war on all niche instincts, perhaps especially those of the avant-garde. The paradox being that such pluralism was elsewhere becoming an entirely minority passion. NME’s pluralism in particular had been taking a more and more truculently moralizing and worthy tone, until it was ditched in a 1988 turnabout, for a much narrower, deliberately and cheerily laddish line. And when I quit NME for a very brief stay at Melody Maker that same year, I was told I couldn’t write about Ronald Shannon Jackson (“We don’t do jazz”): since its re-emergence in the mid-80s, a renewal achieved by writers I consider friends, even allies, MM hadn’t been afraid to be intellectually demanding, and accordingly gave some black music a limited coverage. But its understanding of them was rarely deep or complex, and its politics were often little more than a gleeful accelerationist nihilism.

In his first Wire editorial, in 1985, Cook had called for a conversation able to handle everything from Oscar Peterson to Einsturzende Neubauten: to handle the collision of life-won high technique and smash-it-all iconoclasm. Indeed “collision” was actually briefly a term, for a mini-trend in post-No Wave proto-hiphop fusion. It was easy enough for white British writers to react to Public Enemy’s ‘Bring the Noise’ as if it were purely chaotic self-realized futurist disruption, punker than punk — and to ignore the extent that hip hop was also very much, in Greg Tate’s valuable phrase, “ancestor worship.” The fact remains, just at the point the UK music weeklies had largely culled jazz from its pages, here it was returning, as traces and echoes in the soundscapes rap was building for itself — a new black music, at once in plain sight and underground, just like jazz and rock before it, exploratory engagement with its own history an inbuilt element, a layered, internally and half-consciously contradictory world-spanning shout back against congealed or privileged versions of the universal. The UK rock press did in fact respond reasonably strongly to rap — but what it once knew, of the black music past especially, it had long cut itself off from. History is never just a museum, least of all a cozy one.

***

Mark Sinker is a music writer, journalist, and former editor of The Wire magazine.

Excerpted from A Hidden Landscape Once a Week: The Unruly Curiosity of the UK Music Press in the 1960s-80s, in the Words of Those Who Were There, edited by Mark Sinker, Distributed by The MIT Press for Strange Attractor Press.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath