Marcus Berkmann

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The History of the NME

Pat Long

Portico, pp. 240, £

I used to read NME when I was young. Of course I did. I was obsessed by pop music in its every colour and my youth happened to coincide with the old inky’s heyday, or certainly one of them. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the New Musical Express was one of four weekly music magazines. Record Mirror was for kids (people a year or two younger than us). Melody Maker was worthy and a bit dull. Sounds was brash and lively, but too keen on heavy rock for my taste. NME was broader in range and more ambitious in tone, and it had the writers: strung-out drug zombie Nick Kent, blues ideologue Charles Shaar Murray, the teenage lunatic Julie Burchill and frog-faced Tony Parsons, whose sneer spoke for a generation.

They all wrote with a certainty I found both repulsive and curiously impressive. Here was the arrogance of youth unhindered by self-restraint or, crucially, subeditors. It took me ages to realise that most of these people were only a year or two older than me. I rarely missed a copy and kept back issues in a huge pile in my bedroom cupboard. Of course, what was marginal and trivial 30 years ago now lies at the very hub of popular culture. Alumni of the NME infest every corner of public life. Astoundingly, the magazine is still going, and celebrates its 60th birthday this year.

Pat Long worked there in the early 2000s, but his history of the magazine only takes us up to the end of the 1990s, long after most of us ceased to care. It seems only appropriate that this hardback is infinitely tattier than it has any right to be, and that its ink comes off on your hands.The magazine arose in 1952 from the timely merger of Musical Express and Accordion Times: the Goons, Big Bill Broonzy and bandleader Ted Heath were on the first front cover. But the story really takes flight in the early 1970s, when the paper fully embraced the New Journalism. Hacks didn’t just write about music, they lived it, spending days, sometimes weeks, with the subjects of their interviews. The pieces they eventually wrote when they came out of hospital were usually incredibly long, as well as incredible, in the original sense of the word.

Punk blew away the hippy writers, few of whom had even reached 30. In the early 1980s the incomprehensible pseudo-academic babblings of Paul Morley and Ian Penman stretched readers’ patience to snapping point, but it was the ranting Red Wedge years of the mid-1980s that finally saw me off. Also, I wasn’t interested in the Smiths, and that didn’t leave much else to read.

The History of the NME isn’t really about music, though. It’s about magazines, and their importance in our lives. For many years I wrote mainly for newspapers, and wasn’t very happy. Now I write mainly for magazines and am happier, if poorer. The best magazines are like clubs, both for readers and for writers, and the warming pleasure of belonging to that club never quite wears off. At its peak, the NME was a hotbed of endless infighting, excessive drug use and too many meetings in pubs. It shouted too loud and not enough people listened. In the 1980s the likes of Smash Hits and Q magazines roared past it and left it in their wake. But for many of its former writers, as for some of its readers, these were the best of days. Pat Long knits his story together with a clear and unsentimental eye, and a certain amount of amazement that any of it happened at all.