“No other country in the world takes music as seriously as we do,” says Pat Long, ex- NME editor and author of the hugely entertaining The History of the NME. A bold statement, but one that’s entirely befitting for someone who used to work at the world’s most famous music weekly, a paper that became as famous for its breathlessly hysterical prose (“The Best Band on the Planet!” screamed a front cover story on the Alabama Shakes just a few weeks ago), as the bands it covered.
For 60 years—60!—the NME has been in the business of covering and creating pop scenes, slaying sacred cows, providing a voice for alternative Britain, and a training ground for some of the U.K.’s finest pop culture commentators, from Nick Kent and Tony Parsons, to Paul Morley and the late, great Steven Wells (“a world class, championship-level ranter and irritant,” says Long). And it’s all here in author Pat Long’s riveting history, a history that pretty much amounts to a love letter to not just the NME and its inordinate influence in the U.K., but to the golden years of British pop and pop culture, in all its wayward, splenetic, magnificently contradictory glory.
PW chatted with Long by phone from his home in the U.K. about the book, the magazine and what it all means.
It’s hard, particularly for American readers, to grasp just how culturally significant the NME was. What did it mean to you growing up?
It was a lifeline. I grew up in a little country village in the middle of nowhere, and the NME gave me a cultural education. It was a genuine alternative voice—we’re talking the early ’90s here—and it opened up a whole new world to me that I didn’t know existed ... and for God knows how many bored, disaffected teenagers across the country, Wednesday morning, when the NME came out, was a really big event.
It developed a highly distinctive writing style, too, which has been copied widely ...
Absolutely. Part of the reason NME survived was the way in which it covered music and that’s irreverent, witty, knowing, sarcastic and inclusive. Looking around now, there’s not a whole lot of writing that covers music in the way NME, at its best did, in a way that’s entertaining. I mean, I read Pitchfork occasionally, and there’s not many jokes in it, is there?
The phrase “po-faced, chin- stroking anal retentives” does spring to mind.
[Laughs] Right! One thing the NME did do really well was to be witty, frequently at the expense of bands you loved. It would often pillory these bands and I think someone like Steven Wells was a genius for that. He was one of the all-time greats. He would just take groups—and the readers—to task, in a way that other papers just would not have allowed.
Britain’s always had an insatiable appetite for gossip and the next big thing, and the NME was great at capitalizing on that.
There’s a mania in the U.K. for novelty and the NME’s always fed off that. Also, from the point of view from having worked there, you have to have, effectively, 50 (there’s an X-mas double issue) exciting new bands to put on the cover each week. It’s a ridiculous amount of pressure ... but the currency of the NME is novelty, and inevitably it’s gonna generate a huge turnover of acts.
Your book seems to be not just a celebration of the NME but of a symbiotic golden age of pop and pop culture.
That’s true. You don’t have that great monolithic underground scene now. That cultural landscape has been completely fractured.
It could be argued that, Internet aside, the whole Britpop era, where bands that would have previously existed on the margins suddenly became chart-topping stars, spelled the end of NME as the cultural force it had been.
Sure, and those bands had absolutely no allegiance to any indie scene. All those Britpop bands wanted to be on Sony Records ... that’s partly why I end the book in 1999, not just because of the rise of the Internet, but because I think the end of Britpop was a watershed. It was the last gasp of the NME’s influence, as they were covering Blur or whoever, and it was seen as the source. And then suddenly, everybody in Britain became a Blur or Oasis fan, suddenly the underground had become totally mainstream.
Despite the impact of the dreaded Internet, at the end of the book, you sound pretty optimistic, convinced the NME will survive another 60 years. Why?
Fundamentally, NME still sells something like 30,000 copies a week, the point being it still makes money for its publishers, IPC, and it will keep going as long as it makes money. And it doesn’t take a lot to put out a music weekly, because if nothing else, writers are still desperate to write for them, and they’ll do it for an absolute pittance. It’s a brand now.
There’s a lot of talk of the various golden ages of the NME. What was its golden age for you?
The golden age of NME is basically whenever you’re 17 and reading it, and music’s the most important thing in the world and that’s it ... The thing to remember is, people have always—always—moaned about how the NME isn’t as good as it was in their youth. And I found this fantastic letter to the paper complaining how standards had slipped, and the writing just wasn’t as good as it used to be. And this letter was from 1953! A year after NME had launched ...
Time for a big Bang breakthrough?