Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Know Your NME

Title: NME
Cover date: 22/29 December 2007

I'm often bemused by the enthusiasm with which people describe New Musical Express as out of touch, irrelevant and in all ways pointless. This begs the question: what is the point of NME? Is it to shape opinion, break new bands and generally influence the pop music landscape in Britain? Or is it to present information about artists from an (at least nominally) independent viewpoint that, unlike fluff-heavy press releases and other label-approved promo material, might help people decide whether or not they like a given band? I think it's the latter and, as such, it's as relevant as it's ever been. These days you might be able to read official interviews with bands online, and discuss them with fans around the world, and download their entire back catalogue in twelve seconds -- but NME is there to bring readers controversy, uncensored comments, warts-and-all stuff, as well as literate, thoughtful criticism from knowledgeable writers.

In reality that's bullshit, of course. It's difficult for NME to publish anything genuinely controversial about an artist -- at least, if they want the artist ever to cooperate with the magazine again. (Morrissey doesn't count.) But that's the theory, and it's been enough to attract a steady readership for over 50 years. Particularly when British guitar music is going through a successful period -- which it currently is, or so we're told -- NME, by its very nature, is relevant.

Arctic Monkeys, who adorn the cover of this “Special Xmas Issue!”, are without doubt the band of the year. The year 2006, that is. It's entirely possible that NME is planning to stick them on the front of its Special Xmas Issue every year from now until Alex Turner breathes his cheeky-Northern-laddish-poet-etc last in a Sheffield nursing home, but Favourite Worst Nightmare -- a reference, I believe, to a recurring dream of Admiral Neck's in which the band release the same album every year for a thousand years to fawning critical acclaim and massive sales -- was no-one's album of the year, not even NME's. Still, it's partly redeemed by this, probably the most bizarrely unflattering picture of anyone to ever appear on the cover of a magazine:

Frightening. Anyway, the Monkeys are meant to appeal to a group of people NME hopes will buy this Special Xmas Issue: middle-aged men who used to read it regularly and now want to appear cool in front of their kids. Those people know who Arctic Monkeys are, whereas they might not have heard of, say, Arcade Fire or Biffy Clyro. Just to confirm this, the long list of the artists featured in this issue includes dad-friendly music aplenty -- Radiohead, Muse, Ian Brown, The Verve. This isn't a typical cover, I suppose, but it's startling to see such an open admission that the supposedly cutting-edge NME is far less concerned with having its finger on the pulse than it is with attracting 50 Quid Man.

Page 3 Conor McNicholas's editor's letter starts, unpromisingly, “So here it is Merry Christmas and, oh my god, what have we done?” Disregarding the egregious punctuation and startling lack of originality, this is a transparent and misguided attempt to paint the mag as outrageous and daring. But McNicholas sticks with it, talking of the “collective madness that takes over the NME office” at Christmas and how this issue contains “all the jokes that were considered too bad taste [sic] to make it in earlier”. Because we're wild and crazee and we just don't care, yeah?! And that includes you, the reader, because you can also look forward to “a useful guide to the bits of '07 you were probably at but don't remember”. We're all one big, drunken, debauched gang! Even when I was a student, self-consciously drinking a lot and trying to keep up with what was cool in music, this would have struck me as naff in the extreme.

This page is headed “Contents” but, instead of a full list of contents, there's a band index so you can head straight to the news about the artist you like. Just like you can on the internet! Evidently NME has accepted that people aren't going to scour the whole issue hanging on every word. That's probably just as well.

Page 4 The News section starts with two full-page pictures of bands onstage, Manic Street Preachers at Brixton Academy and Arctic Monkeys (natch) at Alexandra Palace. I don't know what they're doing here -- putting these up front seems a very celeb-mag thing to do. When I turn to News, I want news. Ah, here it is, page 6. And it's good stuff: a story and interview about Bloc Party's new material, a brief obituary of Ike Turner (I don't think this is a sop to the dads -- NME has always been prepared to acknowledge the debt today's music owes to the past, to its credit) and general newsy bits over seven pages. I like the solid red-and-black design of this section -- it's strong and bold and an info-packed, authoritative start to the mag.

Page 17 Here begins the NME Does Christmas section. You can tell because it says it at the top of the page. Also, the headline says “It's Chriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiistmas!” and there's a picture of CSS's Lovefoxxx popping out of a Christmas present. There's also a far too lengthy introduction telling you in forensic detail exactly what's coming your way in this section. Even the dullest-witted reader will probably have an inkling. This is just filler.

Over the page is an interview with CSS that is, frankly, a waste of space. Surely the point of interviews, from the publication's point of view, is to provoke people into saying things that readers want to read -- whether funny or evocative or thoughtful or revealing or even silly. Here, NME gives CSS some Christmas gifts, records the band's reactions, and prints them. That's pretty much it. Sample quotes:

“It's amazing! Eatable money!”

“I like them because they're good to use on the tour bus.”

“Ira gave me these, they're very nice and usable.”

“I have a mug that's like a snowman and it has sweets inside and a straw.”

“It's amazing! It's money you can actually eat! It's really good money!"

NME has made the elementary mistake of assuming that anything the members of CSS say is inherently interesting just because they are pop stars. Now CSS are a lovely band and they make lovely music. But this is no more entertaining than any bunch of strangers opening their Christmas presents would be. There are brief bits about how Christmas is celebrated in Brazil (mainly food and drink and family and Santa -- exotic!) and the band's Christmas show at the Manchester Academy. Then it just sort of stops, but not before the writer signs off with a lame pun. “CSS: Suck suck suck their art Yule.” You came up with that just for us, Mark Beaumont? Oh, you shouldn't have! Because it's shit.

Page 21 NME presents The Best Christmas Gigs Of All Time That No-One On The Current NME Staff Went To! Joy Division at the Hope & Anchor in 1978? Sex Pistols at Ivanhoe's, Huddersfield, in 1977? The fecking Beatles? This is just patronising. Nobody wants to be preached to about how things were Brilliant In The Old Days You Know. Especially by people who weren't there.

Then there's an interview with the Kooks, because nothing says "festive season" like a bunch of stage-school kids whining (no, seriously -- it's like the Christmas episode of EastEnders), followed by Ian Brown's Search For The Real Spirit Of Xmas, in which the unfinished monkey man confirms the impression given by the level of political awareness on his 2007 album The World Is Yours -- i.e. he's not all that bright. Then there's the traditional “Take some minor indie musicians out and get them drunk” Christmas feature, which expands the mistake made in the CSS feature to the nth degree: pop stars just saying anything is dull, but drunk pop stars just saying anything is likely to induce clinical depression.

Page 30 Kaiser Chiefs talk about their plans for 2008 (a tour and some new material -- can you believe it??) and there's an alternative Christmas speech from Brandon Flowers. Sorry, from Brandon Flowers's moustache! It seems that this is a regular feature. And rightly so, because it's hilarious! The moustache says rude things, you see! It's mean about Dave Grohl and Pete Doherty and it says “fuck”! Oh, I really must make a doctor's appointment about this ache in my sides. Here's that zaniness the editor's letter promised, and it's every bit as painful as expected.

Page 34 NME asks Jon McClure from Reverend And The Makers, TV's Lorraine Kelly, Manic Street Preachers' Nicky Wire and comedian Josie Long to comment on the year's biggest records. I like stuff like this, especially when it involves witty people who are prepared to say what they think: McClure and Wire are both outspoken, while Long has an outsider's point of view that is welcome. The inclusion of Kelly seems like more of that forced wackiness (students love daytime TV, you know! Yes they do! I’m sure of it!) but it largely backfires, because she's nice about everyone and says more or less what your mum would in the same situation.

Hey hey, it's the (Arctic) Monkeys! Wow, that was an annoyingly clichéd and obvious intro. Not as clichéd and obvious as this headline, though:

Satan's little helpers, you see! Because they're dangerous rock n' rollers! Dear me. The Arctic Monkeys have always struck me as homey types who prefer going round their nan's for tea to smashing up hotel rooms, but no, it has been decreed that they are devilish. Hum. Actually, they're pretty good value, and four pages' worth of their thoughts on the events of 2007 is a far better read than most bands' would be. Yeah, all right, they deserve their place on the cover. At least NME didn't lead on that godawful CSS interview.

Page 40 A prize quiz, headlined "Lethal Quizzle". I must say I don't remember this reliance on terrible puns from when I used to read NME semi-regularly. I realise there's pressure to come up with headlines quickly when you work on a weekly publication, but the head's still got to serve a purpose, right? It's meant to attract the reader's attention while informing him or her what the piece is about. This says "quiz", true, but it draws this reader to roll his eyes and turn the page…

….to the start of The Story Of The Year, which is introduced with another load of filler text telling us what we're going to be reading. Get on with it! This section reviews the year month by month over eight pages, with a timeline and a brief piece about the most significant thing that happened in music in each month. This tends to be “Band X played gig”. No joke -- January (Arcade Fire), March (My Chemical Romance), April (the Libertines' brief reunion), June (Muse) and December (Wombats) are all basically this dog-bites-man “story”. Three more are pretty much “Band released album” -- Cribs in February, Biffy Clyro in August and Radiohead in October. Only the last of these is in any way important. November's main news is that a big-name band that had split up got back together, “blasting back into the public consciousness”! I suppose the Led Zeppelin reunion was quite a big deal, it was covered in depth by all the mainstream press and -- oh, what's that? The Verve, is it? Um. I must say the date on which they blasted back into etc is not burned on my brain.

In May, though, NME put a nude Beth Ditto on its cover, which was without doubt the most interesting thing the mag did all year. It's rare enough for a woman to appear on the front page as it is, but an overweight, opinionated lesbian thrusting her magnificent naked bottom at us and belligerently inviting us to kiss it? That's my idea of a cover. Women's mags talk the talk about weight issues and size zero and being happy with who you are, but it took a music mag with a largely young male readership to confront the issue head-on with this arresting image.

I might go so far as to say this was the best cover any British magazine printed in 2007. I love it. Seriously, kudos.

Page um ah For some reason NME dispenses with page numbers in this section so, short of counting, I don't know which page the Quotes Of The Year are on. One thing I do know is that pop stars are, in the main, self-involved idiots incapable of stringing a coherent thought together. Then there's a list of random amusing things that happened in 2007, including The Year In Our Office which, as you might imagine, was outrageous and zany. I am baffled by this insistence on demonstrating how outrageous and zany NME's staff are, and not just because in my experience journalists tend to be soft middle-class sorts who don't like any drug stronger than beer and are reduced to tears by the slightest adversity. (Myself certainly not excluded.) This is the sort of thing that makes readers think journalists are smug, overprivileged fools who would rather be famous than knowledgeable or useful.

Page 59 I've never understood the point, apart from general publicity for the band, of live reviews. It's not like they give you someone's opinion, or even useful information, about something you might buy. The best they can hope is to say, “On this night, the band sounded like this, IMHO, and if they're still on tour, and if they play a similar set at a similar venue and get a similar crowd reaction, and if tickets are still available and if you purchase one and go to see them, that gig might be a similar experience to the one I had.” Yeah, thanks. All right, live reviews might serve a purpose for identifying up-and-coming bands you may not have heard of, or who you have heard on the radio and might want to see. With this in mind, the first live review is... Led Zeppelin.

Page 65 Here begins 21 pages of adverts for live shows. This might seem excessive -- it's certainly tedious when you're flicking through looking for some actual editorial content -- but really this is what NME is for. You can get lists of who's playing in loads of places, obviously, but this grid-based, colourful layout is surely the best means of presenting the information. Yes, I like live ads; they're pretty. They usually come with cunning little graphics that look nice while also giving you information on two levels: (1) details of live shows and (2) whether the band is worth bothering with. You can tell a lot from live ads. Some have the info you need presented in a clean and clear fashion with an attractive colour scheme:

Others have some sort of kerazee picture that's nothing to do with anything:

A list of band names on a ticket agency's website can't tell you that a given band is more annoying than three days of hiccups. Only a picture of green fighting stags can do that.

There's some back-of-the-book bits and pieces, including an unsigned bands round-up, Behind NME Lines in which we get a glimpse into how the mag is put together (the magic ingredient: zaniness!) and the weekly gig guide. Um, am I missing something? I assume that the record reviews are absent because there weren't enough relevant releases in the weeks before Christmas. Nevertheless, it's a surprise to get to the end of an issue of NME and realise that no music was reviewed. There isn't even a Best of 2007 list. I understand why they want to split the review of the year over two issues -- bigger sales -- but the occasional reader would surely expect it to be here, and would come away disappointed. NME's Top 50 of 2007 is here, anyway.

Page 98 The last page is an interview called "Peter Robinson vs", which looks like a regular feature. I've long thought that Robinson, the founder of the consistently wonderful Popjustice, can make anything funny and he's particularly good at interviews, asking silly-seeming questions that draw surprisingly revealing answers. But interviewing Peaches Geldof is a challenge too far, even for him.

NME is a solid package, a well-structured mag that contains exactly what you'd expect it to -- music news, interviews and (normally) reviews, plus that impressively extensive live ads/gig guide section. I'm sure it's as “relevant” as it's ever been, if you accept that its primary purpose is to provide the sort of editorial you can't get elsewhere, rather than decreeing what is good or bad, cool or uncool. Relevance is one thing, but reverence is another -- this is almost all written pretty straight, with an assumption throughout that pop stars are Brilliant and their every utterance is Wise and Meaningful and Fascinating. Is it too much to ask that they make more of an attempt to entertain us? I'm sure most NME readers take their music seriously, but that doesn't mean they don't have a sense of humour, or wouldn't like to see the piss taken out of a few pop stars.

There are a few subtle pushes to visit the mag's website, NME.com, and a page selling the NME-branded digital TV channel, but in general there's a feeling that it's still the mid-1990s in NME world -- that nothing is really happening unless it's in NME, that NME is still the main source for all things music, that live shows and album releases are huge events in the music calendar. In a way that's admirable -- a great live show can still make the heart race and arguably it's how music should be experienced, as part of a crowd, a community -- but the mag barely acknowledges that this isn't how most people consume music these days, especially its young target readership. The staff would probably tell you that NME is aimed at people who are out every night, going to gigs, getting drunk, living the visceral experience that the music scene offers. This would ring hollow. On the other hand, what would be the point of a magazine about iPod playlists? I guess they have to keep up appearances.

It's hard to see a way NME can drag itself into 2008 while remaining a paper-based publication but, while it's still a going concern, it could do with getting over itself. On top of everything else it was, that terrific Beth Ditto cover was fun, and that's what NME needs more of. Genuine, life-affirming, big big fun. Instead of that horrid zaniness.


Admiral Neck said...

You've succeeded in making me nostalgic for Melody Maker. Those were the days. I bought both titles and thought NME was the dumb cousin to MM's roll-neck-sweater wearing sophisticate. The thing that set these papers apart (and made tolerable the pointless puff pieces filled with bands saying all the oldies like, "We're doing it for ourselves, etc.") was that there were some good writers trying desperately to emulate Hunter Thompson. Taylor Parkes, Caitlin Moran, Andrew Mueller (before his brain fell out): they were superb.

Okay, so you had to put up with schmucks like David Stubbs, the vile Everett True, and pompous superdouche / Nathan Barley idol Paul Morley, but there were more good than bad. The way you have described the current NME makes it sound like vibrant prose is missing now. Without that, I cannot see the point of the magazine at all, as that was all it had going for it.

And I agree, the Beth Ditto cover was a magnificent idea. Much better than her woeful "What Would Beth Ditto Do?" column in The Guardian.

Masticator said...

The irony, of course, is that not enough people could tell the difference between the two, which led to the Maker being relaunched as a glossy mag, then folded into NME -- supposedly, at least, although within weeks of the merger you'd have had to look pretty closely to find a scrap of MM sensibility remaining.

You're absolutely right about the quality of the writing, and even the more infuriating Maker writers could often be compelling -- Everett True was always worth reading. (Although not Morley. I'm not insane.) Perhaps it's just cyclical, and some more faboo writers will come along to reinvigorate the paper soon, but I'm not holding my breath.

If you want my opinion -- and I know you do --IPC could do worse than turn NME over to Peter Robinson, who supplies the kind of passion, wit and irreverence that NME lacks on Popjustice daily. Naturally there's a danger that it'd turn into Pet Shop Boys Weekly, but would that be worse than the turgid tedium McNicholas is serving up now? At least Robinson knows what the internet is.

And if they ever want to resurrect anything from the glory days of Melody Maker, Mr Agreeable is long overdue a recall -- he'd f***ing kick Brandon Flowers's f***ing Moustache in the, er, mouth!