I liked it, I liked it, yes I did

John Harris grew up writing for NME and Melody Maker. He misses the old rock journalism
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The Independent Culture

In the days before it became an embarrassment of printed riches, the average British newsagent shop was an austere-looking place. Its shelves had little to fear from each shipment of magazines: there was a clutch of women's titles, the Radio and TV Times, the age-old "top shelf", and one or two journals devoted to angling. Any culturally aware suburbanite was inevitably drawn to a small handful of weekly music papers - they alone represented a hotline toLondon's fashionable elite.

In the days before it became an embarrassment of printed riches, the average British newsagent shop was an austere-looking place. Its shelves had little to fear from each shipment of magazines: there was a clutch of women's titles, the Radio and TV Times, the age-old "top shelf", and one or two journals devoted to angling. Any culturally aware suburbanite was inevitably drawn to a small handful of weekly music papers - they alone represented a hotline toLondon's fashionable elite.

As detailed in its forthcoming History of 20th-Century Music, Melody Maker was the first. It was founded in 1926, and thereby given 30 years to prepare for the arrival of rock. By then, MM had been joined by NME, and the pair eventually jostled with Sounds, an invention of the 1970s that superceded such fusty also-rans as Disc and Music Echo.

The three papers covered similar ground, but the punk explosion threw their differences into sharp relief. Sounds, thanks to the young Garry Bushell, championed the proletarian end of the upsurge, christened Oi! NME, having recruited Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons via an appeal for "hip younggunslingers", used punk as the basis for a polemicising standpoint which reached its apogee with the musical war on the National Front. Melody Maker, meanwhile, hedged its bets. Though the revolution was seemingly unstoppable, its writers were still in love with such dependable bores as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bad Company and Jethro Tull.

Such variation, though complicated by fresh musical advances, informed the progress of the music papers until the early 1990s. Sounds, bedevilled by an unshakeably down-market identity, perished in 1991 - leaving its two rivals to establish a relationship akin to sibling rivalry. Positioned on adjacent floors of the IPC Magazines building in London (a fact which has long given their rivalry a surreal twist), they established diametrically opposed house styles. NME was brazen, confident, and knowingly funny. Melody Maker shuffled into the corner of the common room and seemed to think populism was a crime.

Having cut my teeth at Sounds, I worked for the Maker - as only those who work there call it - for a brief period up until 1992. Its atmosphere was unrelentingly precious. When I first walked into the office, the reviews editor peered over a partition at his favourite writer and yelled "Loved the line about a spearmint soundbath, Chris" (the piece was about Janet Jackson, weirdly enough). The ambience was hardly conducive to the ambitions of a callow 21-year-old outsider, and I was eventually rescued by an altogether friendlier NME.

This, in truth, represented immersion in a milieu that I had long worshipped. Unlike MM, the NME was distinguished by a lineage of near-iconic writers, neatly divided into two camps. There were those who had burnt bright, sensed the onset of age, and retired to a mythical life on the margins: Nick Kent, whose anthology The Dark Stuff soon became a set journalistic text; Mick Farren, who was now resident in New York, reportedly writing science fiction; and Charles Shaar Murray, who lived a secluded life in north London and wrote the odd book.

Altogether more blessed were the people who had proved the NME to be a incredible clearing-house for ascendant talent. Burchill and Parsons eventuallyhad their verbosity bankrolled by the mainstream press. Stuart Cosgrove had gone from losing the NME's "hip-hop wars" to being a head ofprogramming at Channel 4. Paul Morley used his elevated mindset to couch Frankie Goes To Hollywood in terms of a serious art statement. And so itwent on. Of the people who held staff positions at the time of my arrival at NME, four are now successful national broadcasters: one is an EastEndersscriptwriter, one is deputy editor of GQ and another - the notorious though surprisingly charming James Brown - founded Loaded.

The music papers' inbuilt notion of their own importance, however, was under threat. "Style" publishing was busy proving that musicians need not speakexclusively through the tatty medium of newsprint. The launch of Q in 1986 only assisted the glossy heresy - and the "lad mag" would soon take it fullcircle. Meanwhile, Radio 1 was about to realise that it should start dipping its foot into youth culture rather than the frazzled worldview of Dave Lee Travisand Simon Bates. Bit by bit, the papers' monopoly was being chipped away.

Accompanying all this was another sea-change: the fall from grace of the stereotypical music journalist. During my time at the NME, we erected a scruffyshrine to some of the aforementioned alumni. They stared down at our Apple Macs, frozen within a world of bullet-belts, midday spliffs, and copy filed oncereal packets. For all their gonzoid glamour, the modern world simply would not have let them carry on - forced to define itself against a snowballingnumber of competitors, the weekly music press had to trumpet an altogether more strait-laced set of virtues. It was time for reliable reviews, rather thanMarxist critiques; scoop-laden interviews instead of didactic "think-pieces".

Ironically, it was Melody Maker, unencumbered by the kind of old-school baggage carried by the NME, that was hit hardest by the cultural shrapnel impacting on the music press. Loath to drop either its devotion to either "personality journalism" or critical pretension - I remember a 1992 review of Manic Street Preachers based on Foucault - it started to speak to no one but itself. By 1994, just as Blur, Oasis and the rest of the Britpop school attachedjump-leads to the music weeklies' constituency, it had been all but eclipsed by its rival downstairs.

Of course, you wouldn't know it from reading the Melody Maker History of 20th Century Music. Beginning at a time at which the paper could respond to the black domination of jazz with the headline "Mike sees signs of a white revival", the book simply races through the Melody Maker's coverage of successive musical developments - as if its author was charged with nothing more imaginative than ploughing through a stockroom full of back issues. Only selective reproductions of covers are able to convey any kind of magic. If you were born before the mid-1970s, some of the images here - of the Sex Pistols, the Smiths, Kurt Cobain and scores of others - might well prompt a nostalgic double-take.

Incidentally, this volume's appearance is founded on yet another proof of the music press's long-term decline. Though NME still enjoys relative commercial health, the ever-more-ailing Melody Maker has decided to jettison its established format altogether. Later this month it enters a new life as an A4 glossy aimed at indie-oriented teenagers, with nary a Marxist critique or "think-piece" in sight.

It makes eminent sense, of course - but any provincial box-bedroomer who remembers the weeklies' halcyon era will greet the change with a sigh of sadness. Would that the newsagents' stocks were halved, bullet-belts came back into fashion, and the inky words of your icons still came off on yourfingers.

'The Melody Maker History of 20th-Century Popular Music' by Nick Johnstone (Bloomsbury, £25) is published on 4 November

John Harris is editor of 'Select'

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