Good riddance, the bitter hack

Thumbing through battered copies of NME music magazine from the 80’s recently, two things really stood out for me. The first, great photography. The second, how generally awful the writing was. That “awful” is two-pronged here – it was both poor and vitriolic. The singles and album review pages were veritable abbatoirs, new releases invariably damned, doomed, slaughtered. Why so much contempt?

There’s an old cliché that music journalists are just frustrated musicians. Or at least, bitterly envious of musicians. After all, when you’re sitting in your bedsit with only a typewriter and a pile of shitty records for company, who wouldn’t want to swap it for the fame, the adoration, the money, the sex, the drugs, the all-expenses-paid lifestyle that comes with being a popstar? There’s a real sense of “Why them and why not me?” running through British music journalism from punk until well into the late 90’s. “I’ll show that pretty boy popstar in his Kensington mansion who’s really got the power here!” When the record label flew a hack to hang out with the band, LA poolside, a glowing album review wasn’t necessarily on the cards. Sycophancy could turn to downright animosity overnight.

“Miscreant pop music attempting to disgrace its fealty to any number of sources. It seems to stumble when a stride is called for and winds up notating needless obscurities. Vacancy trussed up as abstraction is not the stuff of success, in any sense.”

– Richard Cook’s review of The Go-Betweens’ ‘Hammer The Hammer’ single, NME, 3rd July 1982

A teenager in the 80’s, thankfully, I didn’t give a fuck whether Paul Morley or Charles Shaar-Murray hated the new Talk Talk single. I instinctively knew what I liked and the opinions of others, superstar scribe or not, went in one ear and out the other. In fact, I’ve never quite connected with this notion that just because you have a podium and a loudhailer, your opinion is the gospel.

“This LP is a shambles. It sounds like it might have taken 37 minutes to record. Lucy tells me that it took five months, during which time Marc Almond quit at least three times. What a fragile little brat. That might be the nicest thing I say about him in this review.”

– Paul Morley review of Soft Cell’s ‘This Last Night In Sodom’ album, NME, 17th March 1984

As a “musician” myself, when reviews of my records started to hit the likes of NME, Melody Maker and The Wire in the mid-90’s, although I was glad of any publicity, I automatically didn’t trust it. Those reviews were generally favourable, if never gushing but when I finally got something akin to a soft drubbing in NME (a direct plea to stop me singing), my first reaction was to laugh. Did a six out of 10 review affect sales of the record? Doubtful. Did I stop singing? No. After all, wasn’t this just one person’s opinion? The hundreds (on occasion, thousands) of fans at our concerts didn’t seem to have any issue with my vocals. Or at least, if they did, they didn’t feel the need to tell me.

Others didn’t find bad reviews so funny. In its heyday, NME was selling around 300,000 copies per week, so a bad review might’ve damaged more than just your fragile ego. Bands who couldn’t get a break with the press or radio, simply threw in the towel. These magazines are full of names that mean nothing or very little in 2021 (though I find it incredible how many others are still going strong all these years later).

“The more dismissive and poorly written my reviews, the more the NME applauded me. They wanted the bad publicity. Hate mail now spilled out of the post room and they liked it. They liked it bad and that was good.”

– Chrissie Hynde (on her time at NME, pre-Pretenders, from her memoir, ‘Reckless’)

It’s interesting to see the odd musician on the NME payroll in the 70’s and 80’s, many of whom were more than happy to put solidarity aside when it came to their peers. Or perhaps that was the point? Crush the opposition? Hynde later admits that she was sorry for spending “a year slagging off bands, saying everything was shit,” that it was merely : “a cover-up for my poor writing skills – arrogance over ability. It had even occurred to me once or twice that if someone was that critical, they should get out there and try it themselves.”

“hack1

/hak/

verb

  1. cut with rough or heavy blows.”

Working for a notable record label during the Britpop years, I came to not only abhor editors and journalists but equally the lickspittle press officers employed to buddy up to them. At any given Pulp gig, for example, you can bet your ass that the noise coming from the back of the room was a circle of reviewers, drunk on PR expenses, who wouldn’t remember much at all by the morning. That the press officers considered themselves important by association imbued them with an almost reptilian quality. And as any music industry accountant will tell you, at the end of the day, the one surety of a record campaign is that the press officers and radio pluggers get a paycheck. For bands, there is no such surety.

So, where did it all go wrong for the likes of NME?

“If I’m a young music fan, I don’t care what other people think about music – I can listen to it myself and write about it on my own blog. There’s no need for that third party anymore, which is tragic.”

– Andrew Collins, features editor of NME and Q magazines between 1995 and 1997

Is it tragic though? Isn’t it wonderful that we don’t need that third party opinion? Did we ever need it? Can’t we make up our own minds? Surely, all we really need is the news and the facts? Despite year-on-year slowly diminishing sales, the editors of the British music press that are actually still surviving seem to recognise that vitriol doesn’t pay, that being “punk” about a record or a band just makes you sound bitter and lonely. There’s very little nastiness to be found in Mojo or Uncut these days. Albums which might’ve merited a mere one star in the past have been quietly dumped at the nearest charity shop, no time or column inches wasted. Ignorance can sometimes be the kindest medicine.

The last time I checked, NME had migrated to being an online celebrity gossip blog that appeared not to discern between the merits of, say, Adele or Sleaford Mods. By the time it ceased to be a physical magazine in 2018, all the superstar hacks had long since departed and any credibility it had was but a distant memory. At its 80’s peak, NME may have sold over 300k copies a week but by 2013, average weekly print sales were dozing around the 18,000 mark. (Barely half the circulation of its IPC-published sister magazine, Melody Maker, when that finally shut up shop in 2000).

Marc Almond has, of course, survived Paul Morley’s puerile review. Soft Cell have over 25 million sales and six UK top 10 singles to their name. They’re also playing live again and have a new album out in Spring 2022. Paul Morley’s new book, a biography of Factory Records’ supremo, Tony Wilson, is out this month. I suspect he has somewhat revised his opinion of Almond, if perhaps not of ‘This Last Night In Sodom.’

These days, telling people that the first record I ever released (in 1996) was, “Single Of The Week in Melody Maker!” generally elicits blank stares. We have long moved on, of course. We have Twitter for our unpleasantness, we have the comments boxes on Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, etc. And there, we’re all given free rein to be merciless. We no longer need someone else to be nasty on our behalves.

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