Clearing out the contents of my old house about a fortnight ago I came across two bin liners full of old NMEs.
Against my better instincts I decided to chuck the lot of them, but kept back one edition from 1997, which I decided to keep not because it evoked any special private significance, but because even a brief skim-read was enough to confirm all my bleakest suspicions about the decline of a publication that until recently meant a very great deal to a significant minority of intelligent music listeners in Britain.
Now, I am aware that, when I bought my first copy of the paper as a twelve year-old in the second Britpop summer of 1996, its acknowledged ‘70s-‘80s heyday of Charles Shaar Murray, Ian McDonald, Paul Morley and Simon Reynolds lay some years in the past. Nevertheless, glancing cursorily through articles on Coldcut, Scarfo, Beck, Foo Fighters and the like, I was reminded just how subtle and literate the NME could be, even up to the late-‘90s when I became a reader.
I’ve been meaning to count the words in this edition of 1997, and to do the same for a 2008 issue. Frankly I’m far too lazy for that, but just looking at the size of the pages it’s clear that anyone with the patience to do this would come out with two radically disparate figures (I reckon 2008 NME is about five times smaller than its 1997 counterpart). Whereas the first page of 2008 NME features a glib, cliché-ridden editorial written by current imbecile of an editor Conor McNicholas, as well as a list of contents in the lifestyle magazine mould, 1997 NME has four sizeable, well-written news pieces. Where 2008 NME’s musical remit begins and ends with ‘indie’ in the narrowest, Topshop-defined sense, 1997 NME had Vibes - a four-page dance section - as well as sections on television, film, and even books (yes books!). I can remember being energised by political articles in the NME of the late-nineties: a timely attack on the mass-hysteria surrounding Diana’s death only a few days after her funeral; a defence of Marilyn Manson following Columbine; a front cover featuring Ken Livingstone just before the London mayoral elections. Today’s NME Awards are sponsored by Shockwaves, a fact emblematic of the new arch-corporatist bent of the paper, and sad indication of how far it has strayed from its politicised past.
Linguistically too, standards have declined markedly. In the 1997 issue singles page Keith Cameron (probably my favourite writer back in the day) uses words like ‘eulogising’, ‘curmudgeonly’, and ‘iconoclasts’ to describe records by Travis and Cornershop that are probably unworthy of such an articulate response. This kind of vocabulary would be wholly alien in the NME of the present day (Conor McNicholas uses the phrase ‘dive-y venues’ in the editorial of this week’s issue, for instance) a fact which strikes me as being almost unutterably depressing.
Since its inception in the wake of punk, British indie music established a formidable tradition of intelligence, ideology, poetry and subversion, and it was largely through cultural mainstays such as the NME (as well as people like John Peel) that this tradition was able to flourish. From Joy Division and The Smiths through to Pulp, Radiohead and The Beta Band, successive artists were able to rely on a witty, sophisticated critical element in British cultural life, at the heart of which was the NME: a bastion of political radicalism, good taste and innovation that could be relied upon to seek-out and champion all that was creative and original on the margins of the national scene.
My own experiences with independent music were almost all the result of obsessive cover-to-cover readings of the NME every Wednesday. The NME opened up a world of idealism, eclecticism, wit and analytical depth that played an inestimably influential role in determining my attitudes towards music, and indeed art of all kinds, attitudes that I largely still hold. I didn’t read all that many books as a fifteen year-old, but I read the NME weekly in its entirety, and at that time this was enough to foster and maintain my interest in writing and critical thinking, so much so that my English lit. essays for many years read like NME album reviews. The NME of today, which reads increasingly like a scarcely more expansive Smash Hits, or a musical Nuts, would not be able to have anything like the same impact on an impressionable teenager, hungry for ideas and living in an isolated corner of rural northern England. This, truly, is a tragedy of colossal proportions.
If you want to find nuanced, incisive music journalism in 2008 you’ll have to look across the pond, via the internet, to Pitchfork, the website that has seemingly inherited wholesale the NME’s position as arbiter of the musical underground. Nothing wrong with this of course, but indicative more than anything else that North America has nigh-on entirely stolen our thunder as far as resolutely anti-mainstream popular music is concerned. If we want to rival the artistic successes of our transatlantic counterparts when it comes to producing left-field, progressive music, and if we want to do away with the fancy-dress indie cabaret of the BRIT school ascendancy, the NME is going to have to rediscover some of its former lucid intelligence and rebelliousness, or else some new figurehead for alternative culture will have to emerge to replace it. Otherwise, pretty soon our tradition of radical independent music in this country may be totally and irreparably lost.