Monday, March 05, 2012


This week the NME will be celebrating its 60th birthday, an occasion marked by the publication of this first full-length history of the paper by Pat Long, who served his time on the paper during the Noughties.
Both the anniversary and the book arrive at a time when questions are being asked about the relevance of the weekly paper in our digital world. [See: Michael Hahn’s piece in The Guardian].

According to this, NME’s weekly circulation has fallen to 27,650 whilst its website gets 7 million unique visitors a month. Krissi Murison, the current editor, remains bullish about the paper’s prospects, claiming that the print edition still brings in the major part of NME's revenues and denying that the paper will soon become a free-sheet.

Pat Long has a fascinating story to tell. It begins with the accordion boom of the 1930s when ‘Britain found itself in the grip of  an absolute mania for accordion music’. The movement had its own magazine – Accordion Times – first published in 1935. By the mid-1940s, the boom had bust and AW only narrowly avoided closure by merging with a brand-new 4pp black-and-white tabloid – the Musical Express, launched on the first Friday in October 1946. By the end of the decade it had become the biggest selling weekly music paper in the country on the back of the Big Band craze, outstripping its rival, the Melody Maker, which had been founded in 1926.

But by 1952, the Musical Express itself was in deep trouble. Circulation had fallen to 20,000 a week and the paper was haemorrhaging money. Enter a white knight in the rotund form of Jewish music impresario Maurice Kinn, who bought the title for £1000 (an estimated £20,000 in today’s money), found offices at 5 Denmark Street (Tin Pan Alley as it was known) and launched the New Musical Express on Friday 7th March 1952 with a cover featuring The Goons, Big Bill Broonzy and band leader Ted Heath.

The NME had a new hipper style and combined accessible and well-informed journalistic coverage of both showbusiness and popular music in an attractive pictorial format. Sales were modest until Kinn came up with the idea of publishing Britain’s first-ever UK singles chart. [The American trade paper Billboard published the first ever Hit Parade music chart in its 4th Jan 1936 issue. Long says this was a list of the most played songs on jukeboxes but I can’t find confirmation of this.]

The chart was based on sales from 20 London shops (later expanded to 53). Within a few weeks, circulation had leapt by 50%. ‘Crucially’, writes Long, ‘this new list reflected NME’s shift in emphasis from covering the writer of the song to its performer, simultaneously opening up a new market for the music press…record buyers and fans’.

Kinn managed to persuade Radio Luxembourg to use the NME charts via the auspices of Derek Johnson, then programme administrator for the station. He later worked for the NME as a freelance and then joined the staff as News Editor in 1957, a position he held until his retirement in 1986.

Kinn’s other innovation was The NME Awards ceremony, first staged at London’s Albert Hall in 1953; it became a annual highlight of the music calendar and survives to this day, albeit in a slightly different form. NME sales boomed during the rock ‘n’ roll era but peaked mid-decade. Sales and advertising headed in a downward spiral until, in late 1962, Kinn agreed to sell the title for £500,000 to the newly-formed International Publishing Co (IPC) – at that time the largest media conglomerate in the world, formed out of a rationalisation of the Mirror Group, which controlled a huge stable of magazines with interests also in printing, book publishing and tv. The NME was moved from its scruffy Denmark Street office to IPCs building in the Strand next to the Savoy where formality and suits & ties were required.

Kinn continued to be the paper’s Executive Editor and retained his gossip column (The Alley Cat) plus an expenses budget for showbiz parties. His close relationship with Brian Epstein (who had been to school with Kinn’s wife’s brother and was later to be the Kinn’s neighbour) ensured prime access to the Beatles and sales rose steadily despite increasing competition from not only its long-time rivals Melody Maker and Record Mirror (launched 17th June 1954) but also from new mags like Beat Instrumental (launched as Beat Monthly in 1963), Fabulous (launched 18th Feb 1964 with a Beatles cover and pull-out poster, which sold 1 million copies) and Rave (an A4-size monthly, also launched in 1964, which was selling a quarter of a million copies a month by 1966).

But from mid-decade on its circulation began to decline once more, mainly due to the conventional editorship of Andy Gray – a tubby pipe-smoking, golf-playing middle-aged man. The NME’s style, which had changed little since the 1950s was looking dangerously out-of-date and out-of-touch.

Further competition came from music mags and papers like Zigzag (16th April 1969) Sounds (10th Oct 1970),  and Bob Houston’s Cream but also from the Underground Press – the likes of OZ, IT and Friends. By the early 1970s, Melody Maker was still selling 200,000 copies a week while the NME’s sales were down to 130,000 and below. At the end of 1971, Alan Smith, an NME staffer since 1962, was summoned to IPC and told the paper was in the 'last-chance saloon' and that he had three months to reverse the NME’s decline.

They commissioned him initially to produce a new-look NME for distribution in London and the South-East only. With the help of Roy Carr and Nick Logan (later to be NME’s editor) they set out to change the paper’s direction. One new innovation was a Gig Guide and this really boosted sales. On the back of this, Smith was given charge of the national issue, which was re-launched on 5th Feb 1972. His editorial described the new publication as being ‘an intelligent weekly paper for music people who rate Beefheart but don’t necessarily slam Bolan’.

Smith and Logan then started hiring new blood from the underground press -  initially the two star writers Charles Shaar Murray and Nick Kent who between them established a new style of rock journalism, inspired by Lester Bangs and the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson and Norman Mailer, that placed the NME on a fast-growing upwards curve.
From 1972-1977, under the editorship of Smith and his successor Nick Logan the paper became a legendary force, with rocketing sales and huge influence. By 1973 it was selling over 200,000 copies a week. {Smith claims, in a comment to this post, that he achieved an ABC circulation of 272,000)

Kent and Murray aside, the NME attracted a stellar cast of great writers and editors,  including  the legendary Mick Farren (IT/White Panther/Deviant), Tony Tyler (lofty polymath), Ian McDonald (NME’s Eno), Chris Salewicz and Vivien Goldman (pioneering writers on reggae, punk and African music), Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill (the hip young gunslingers of Punk) plus brilliant photographers like Pennie Smith, Joe Stevens (Captain Snaps), Chalkie Davies and later Anton Corbin and artists like Tony Benyon, Ray Lowry, Edward and Alan Moore.

For Long and many others these were the golden years when the lunatics took over the asylum, made merry and burned with a passion, Much of what happened at that time has passed into rock mythology – the fights, the busts, the battles with the corporation, the drugs, the excess. It was not to last and and for many it ended badly. But while it lasted, the NME became the closest thing this country has ever had to a genuine youth newspaper that for hundreds of thousands was absolutely required reading every week.

The story, 0f course, does not end there, Under Neil Spencer’s editorship, during the Thatcher Years, the paper became decidedly left-wing and politically active, through its support of initiatives like Rock Against Racism and Red Wedge. As the music shifted to post-punk and beyond, new writers like Paul Morley and Ian Penman emerged, applying the post-modern theories of French philosophers like Derrida and Baudrillard to bands like Devo and Talking Heads.

Between the 1980s and the 2000s, the NME continued to spark intermittently as new musical genres and scenes emerged, flared and died. The narrative reports a constant stream of battles, between members of staff, between staff and editor, between editor and corporation, between corporation and unions.
Little consensus remained. The soul boys embraced the emergence of hip-hop and rap; the rock lads went determinedly indie. The house/rave culture came and went. The Smiths and Morrissey dominated the paper for a while. Grunge lifted sales as did Britpop.

But music, which had once been the sole preserve of the music press had gone mainstream and all the papers suffered to a greater or lesser extent, Sounds and Record Mirror closed in 1991. In 2000, Melody Maker merged with the NME ending an 50-year era of rivalry. The digital age may well be the final blow to the paper’s long and glorious existence.

Pat Long’s account almost inevitably contains some flaws and errors. It was Mark Williams not Richard Williams who lost his editorship chance due to a coke bust. A big gap is the fact Nick Logan, one of the paper’s most creative editors, was not interviewed for the book. The chapter on the underground press needs a revise. The photo reproduction is poor. It seems strange that there are no NME front-cover images.

These small caveats aside, this is a really nice edition to have and to hold and Pat Long is to be congratulated. He’s a good story-teller with a clear, readable style. The book is well-researched and carefully constructed. It will appeal to several generations of readers and will shift a lot of copies. But it  will certainly not be the last word on the subject.

[The History of the NME by Pat Long is published by Portico Books.]


AlanNME said...

Apologies for drawing the following to your attention re your item, ' NME Is 60'. I was not an NME 'stringer' when appointed Editor in 1972. I'd been a staff writer with NME since '62. Nick Logan did not edit the 'alternative' NME supplement and Gig Guide which preceded my Editorship; I did. In fact, it was its success that led to my appointment. Having been told by IPC's management that the title was in 'the last chance saloon' and 'at five to 12' (forgive my modesty - I've since been described on occasions as 'The Man Who Saved The NME'), I achieved an ABC circulation of 272,000 , way above the 200,000 peak you ascribe to Logan. Percy Dickens was a great Advertisement Director, not Editor. Thanks guys, corrections much appreciated. Alan Smith.

Alice Johnson said...

brill work! extremely helpful