Like many people I was saddened to hear about the demise of the NME as a printed publication. It was such a big story that it made all the national TV news bulletins, but the reality is that it isn’t really that much of a shock.
I would argue that the reason the NME made the news bulletins is because the producers and editors of those programmes are of a generation when the NME really meant something. But that special aura went some time ago and when it moved to a free print edition model in 2015 the writing was definitely on the wall.
There will be lots of talk about why it has come to this but essentially it has to be about the growth of digital and the proliferation of channels for music discovery and music content generation.
NME thrived when there were limited ways to discover new music and for people of my generation the trusted filters were always John Peel and the NME (which was always cooler than Melody Maker and Sounds).
There will be lots of chatter and analysis over the next few days about why this has happened and what it means for music journalism but I’m not going to go there. For me the NME is a very personal thing. I was lucky enough to write for the magazine on and off on a freelance basis for over a decade and it isn’t over-stating it to say that nearly everything else I have done since then (including working at the BME) has come about because of my work there and the friends and connections I made as a result.
I started writing for NME when I was 18 and it was a huge deal for me. For me and my mates the NME was the bible and knowledge of what the NME said set us apart and allowed us to sneer at our non-NME reading contemporaries. The NME had the best writers, the best photographers (and consequently the best covers) and it was funny and irreverent to boot. You waited for it to come out on a Wednesday and basically the records you bought and the gigs you went to were conditioned by what the NME said and what John Peel played.
I naively thought ‘ I love the NME, I’m mad about music, and I quite like writing so the NME would love to have me wouldn’t they?’. I duly wrote a review of a gig I’d just been to and posted off my way too long and badly handwritten scrawl to the NME offices in the glamorous sounding Carnaby Street. Astonishingly they liked it and a few days later I got a call from the then Live section editor Paul Du Noyer asking me to review some gigs in Liverpool for them.
So I suddenly found myself writing for my favourite magazine alongside the likes of Du Noyer, Paul Morley, Barney Hoskyns, Danny Baker, and even the great Burchill and Parsons. I’d have done it for nothing but the fools even paid me for it! I was made up just seeing my name in print, getting loads of records sent to me and getting on guestlists for gigs. When I was doing a story in London I even got to go to the Carnaby Street offices which was incredibly exciting for a kid who had only ever been to the capital city once before in my entire life. I got to work with great photographers like Kevin Cummins, got to meet people I admired, and became trusted to write features and be given more column inches and hence more money.
After a couple of my reviews were printed I became a professional writer, or so I thought, by buying a second hand manual typewriter! The technology of print in those days was primitive so most of my reviews were battered out on this old machine and stuck in the post. The NME in those days was set on a Monday, printed on a Tuesday and on the streets on a Wednesday. If they needed something off me urgently for the Monday deadline I had to go to Lime Street station and stick the review and any photos on the train via a service called Red Star. The NME then biked it from Euston to the printer. It sounds primitive now but made the whole process feel exciting to a young writer like myself. Later on in my writing career faxes made things easier but were also notoriously unreliable.
I kind of drifted away from the music world for a year or two and then out of the blue got a call from the then features editor at the NME, James Brown. He remembered my stuff and wanted me to start covering the Liverpool music scene for them. This was the time of The La’s, The Farm, Real People and just down the road The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays were on the rise so it was a great time to be back and fully immersed in what was happening.
Suddenly I was back on the NME roller coaster and being a bit older I fully embraced the madness and excesses of the music industry that existed in the late 80’s. People were still buying records and the invention of CDs provided a huge boost to back catalogues. Record companies were subsequently awash with money and they weren’t scared to spend it on music PR and taking journalists all around the world with their artists.
Again, I worked with a great group of people. James Brown was fun to hang out with and a great writer but there was also Stuart Maconie, Steve Lamacq, Andrew Collins, Simon Williams, Mary Ann Hobbs, Andrew Collins, David Quantic,Helen Mead and many more. It was an office full of larger than life characters and there were many creative and sometimes childish tensions between the different factions in the office which made it an interesting and often hilarious place to be.
I probably worked more for Steve Lamacq than anyone else and from Steve I learned the important lesson that most music journalism takes place in the pub and that it is really advantageous to be able to write decent copy while still drunk or massively hungover! I’d go to their offices (now in the less glamorous Kings Reach Tower) but in reality most days involved being in the pub from 12. O Clock onwards, hanging out with other journos from both NME and the Melody Maker as well as the odd musician or two who would turn up to join us for a drink. I don’t actually remember anyone ever eating anything (other than a packet of crisps maybe) on these long afternoons but there was never any flagging in the general piss taking and gossiping. Steve and Simon Williams devoured new music with passion and seemed to have a new favourite band every week. There was always much debate about whether these bands were actually any good or not. Steve and Simon would argue passionately in their defence despite the fact that they would have moved on to someone completely new a week or so later.
I have absolutely no idea how these people managed to get a magazine out weekly but somehow it appeared and it was normally pretty good. To be fair much as he liked a pint and a fag in the pub Lamacq was a trained journalist and really cared about the quality of the writing in the NME.
Not everyone was as conscientious as Steve though! Music writers as a rule aren’t the most reliable at turning in copy to a deadline because of all the obvious distractions of a life that revolves around going to gigs and hanging out with musicians. This meant that occasionally you would get a panicked phone call from someone like Steve saying something along the lines of ‘Can you write me a review in half an hour because someone hasn’t turned in their piece and I have got a space to fill’.
I look back on that period of my life with real fondness although it was a chaotic and sometimes ridiculous lifestyle. I was getting to write about bands I loved, hanging out with great people, partying, getting the odd international assignment, and actually getting paid for it!
I wrote for other cool publications like The Face, ID, and Mixmag but the one that always meant far and away the most to me was NME. It still feels like something of a privilege to have played a very small part in its glorious history.