Dick Tracy's first and only cover story, investigating record
and tape piracy. July 22nd, 1978.
It was a recent weekend Guardian magazine profile of Tony Parsons that initially triggered all this off – a flood of memories. Tony, now a best-selling novelist and a regular columnist for The Mirror, was interviewed in connection with his just-published novel ‘Stories We Could Tell’ based on his time at the New Musical Express (NME). The least said about that the better. Paul Morley's review 'Those Weren't The Days' is right on the button I think.
My story begins back in the days of what was then called the ‘underground press’. I was part of Frendz magazine, one of a number of nationally-distributed haphazardly-produced mags and papers that documented the counter-culture of the period. It was here that I met Nick Kent who turned up and asked me if he could write some rock reviews for the papers. Good writers of any kind were hard to come by, particularly ones that didn’t want paying, and within a few weeks Nick was pumping out live and record reviews that immediately convinced that here was man with real talent. We became best mates
Within a few weeks it seemed, Nick was suddenly everywhere, hanging out with the Grateful Dead and Keith Richards. (He took me once to Richards house in Chelsea but he wasn’t in). I remember travelling down to Brighton with him on a coach with Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, hanging out in Wembley with the legendary San Fran rock band The Flaming Groovies (later seeing them live with Nick at their appearance at the legendary Iggy Pop gig at the Kings Cross cinema)
Frendz, in its last incarnation, was being designed in Osterley by Pennie Smith (later to acquire legendary status as a rock photographer par excellence for the NME) in her funky converted railway station pad, helped by our dear departed friend Kevin Sparrow. I remember Roxy Music being the big thing at the time.
Inevitably Frendz came to a close – there was no money left and only a few survivors on the staff – and our last issue, designed by George Snow, featured news of an exclusive Lou Reed piece by Nick Kent which never materialised, we had to print a big apology in the paper. By now Nick and Pennie had migrated to the NME.
The New Musical Express (NME), founded in 1962, had begun recruiting from the underground press and Nick and Charles Shaar Murray, one of the schoolkids featured in the infamous OZ issue that became the subject of the longest obscenity case in British legal history, between them ushered in a whole new era of rock writing – inspired by Lester Bangs and Creem magazine – that made the paper a must-read for so many at that time. This was New Journalism of an irreverent drug-fuelled kind that captured the spirit of the times.
It must be remembered that, at that time, there was no coverage of music in the national press at all – except for headlines when one of the Beatles got married or such like. Hence the strength of the music press and feelings that attached to them. This was vital reading for music fans and the NME along with its rivals Melody Maker and Sounds saw their circulations rise rapidly during the 1970s with the NME way out on top in a dominant position before the decade was out.
Clustered here were the some of the best writers and editors around – the late great Ian McDonald, Tony Tyler and the editor Nick Logan, who would go on to found Smash Hits and subsequently his own magazine The Face, the style bible for the decade to come.
I was determined to get into the paper if I could and it was thanks to Mick Farren, former editor of International Times, who had also joined up, that I managed to get a gig around 1976. I believe my first piece was a three-line story about a guitar-plucking contest which carried my by-line. I remember leaping up-and-down with excitement. I had made it into the NME – the nearest thing we’ve ever had in this country to a national youth newspaper.
Amongst the great writers on NME were Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill, perhaps the best known now to a mass audience, but music journalist afficianados will recognise not only Kent, Murray and Farren but also the truly excellent Chris Salewicz, Vivien Goldman, Brian Case, Danny Baker, Paul Morley et al
The best source of information to date on NME and the other papers of the period is ‘In Their Own Write: Adventures in the Music Press’ by Paul Gorman [Sanctuary Publishing 2001], consisting entirely of interleaved interviews with the above mentioned and others.
What is missing from this account, and from other assessments I have read about the NME is the fact that although the paper carried principally music journalism, there was also a great deal of material on books, films and the general youth culture.
From my earliest days at the NME it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to be able to compete with the music writers but I found my niche as the person who wrote everything that wasn’t music. In the process, I became Dick Tracy, investigative journalist and, under that nom de plume, wrote a considerable amount of stories between 1976-82. A few pieces appeared under my own name but Dick Tracy acquired a bigger profile and cachet than my real identity.
So much so that the following small notice was run in the paper on May 20th 1978 in connection with a piece I wrote called ‘Cloning Papers’:
‘Contrary to popular belief, Dick Tracy is not the pseudonym used for NME team efforts. Tracy is one man who works alone, albeit with occasional help from both inside and outside NME central. The only journalist to unearth the covert activities of the Animal Liberation Front, the only journalist to present an alternative view of Operation Julie acid purge, Dick Tracy now offers the most convincing theory to date about The Man Who Was Cloned.’ [An interview with David Rorvik, author of ‘In His Image’ which claimed to be the true story of the first human cloning]
I don’t have a complete record of everything I wrote during this period so what follows is a fraction of the total but includes some of the most important stuff:
FILMS: During the mid-1970s cinema attendances had collapsed, to be subsequently revived by the new generation of sfx films led by Star Wars. The film industry was desperate to get coverage in the NME and I was, in the beginning, one of the paper’s principal film writers, with access to major film studios, artists and writers.
- Exclusive first- run interview with Julian Temple about the first Sex Pistols film
- The first piece, some six months before the film was released, on ‘Quadrophenia’ followed by interviews with Franc Roddam and Phil Daniels.
- Interview with Milos Forman about ‘Hair’.
- Interview with Steven Spielberg about ‘Close Encounters’
- Interview with Billie Hayes and Brad Davis, the actor who played him in ‘Midnight Express’
- Feature on the films of Clint Eastwood.
- UNPUBLISHED: Interview with David Mingay on the Clash film ‘Rude Boy.’
PLUS: Numerous reviews of movies beginning with ‘The Missouri Breaks’ (Jack Nicholson/Marlon Brando)
DRUGS: Wrote a regular drug column called Inside Dope. Major pieces on Keith Richard’s heroin trial, on British drug prisoners on foreign jails, on Operation Julie.
- Worked as part of a team, with Angus Mckinnon, Ian McDonald and others, to produce the four-page NME Guide to the Nuclear Age. There was a nuclear explosion on the cover of that week’s issue. (June 11th 1977)
- Numerous pieces on the Animal Liberation Front and the birth of what has become a worldwide radical movement.
- Number of pieces on the Save The Whale movement and campaigns – the biggest environmental issue of that time. Also the seal culls in Newfoundland
Much of this sort of coverage was taken up in a more expansive form by Andrew Tyler, who now runs the excellent Animal Aid. Hats off to a great writer. See details of his latest campaign here.
MUSIC BUSINESS: I was one of the first journalists to write investigative pieces about the music industry itself, profiling major corporations and pillaging the trade papers of the times for juicy leads. This led to MY ONLY COVER STORY, on Record Piracy. Also did major piece on The Elvis Industry following the death of the King plus similar piece on the mass cross-marketing of Saturday Night Fever.
The NME years were genuinely exciting. The power and reputation of the paper was such that doors opened wherever you went. Johnny Rotten, Paula Yates, The Stranglers and the like would drop round the office, always full of the pressure cooker atmosphere of a weekly paper.
Yes, I spent a lot of time in the legendary ‘kinderbunker’ with Tony and Julie, who liked what I was doing and were real mates to me, inviting me to a number of punk events – like the memorable Johnny Thunders deportation party – encouraging me to go and interview Blondie but also supporting the animal liberation coverage I was writing for the paper.
I was not a major figure on the paper but I made a contribution. Thanks to Chris Salewicz for saying in ‘In Their Own Write’: ‘John May was very good as Dick Tracy. He started the film coverage with what was called Silver Screen and he was quite instrumental in changing the paper.’
Thanks also to Phil McNeill, who took a real interest in the investigative journalism I was writing and supported some very ambitious and difficult stories.
So much more to be said. Consider this a 1st Draft memory exercise.
1. Mick Farren’s account of those times can be found in his biography ‘Give The Anarchist A Cigarette’. I am covered by a sentence that reads: ‘Old underground press contacts came up with stories on bizarre media events, weird performance art, animal rights, the environment, recreational drugs and drug enforcement.’
2. For Neil Spencer’s recent account as his period as editor (1978-85), see here.
3 Am currently chasing up the ‘Inky Fingers’ documentary on the NME, shown on July 4th, 2005, on BBC4. Some of you lucky people who can get digital tv will have seen it already. Further comments to come.
4. A huge amount of journalism from the NME and other music papers can be found at
www.rocksbackpages.com. Highly recommended.