Seven NME covers that shook the world

It's NME's 70th birthday this week! To celebrate, we're publishing articles that look back on an uproarious musical legacy. Today: these unforgettable shots

It’s our birthday this week! Over its 70-year existence, NME has had the great and good of the music world on its cover, creating countless pieces of iconic imagery. These covers stand alone as works of art, be they David Bowie‘s silhouette in 1976 or Blur and Oasis facing off in Britpop’s most infamous moment in 1995. There are plenty of other NME covers that have shaken the world with their brilliance, and here are just seven of them. We’ve tried to avoid the obvious ones (though some we just couldn’t resist) with a golden image picked to represent each kaleidoscopic decade.

Elvis Presley, 1961

Elvis Presley 1961 NME cover

Back when entrepreneur Maurice Kinn launched NME in 1952, it took the form of a trade weekly, honing on charts and sales more than the stories behind the songs. But as the magazine grew, its focus began to shift more towards tabloid content, like this issue’s “Is Elvis Presley’s Career In Danger?” cover line in 1961, accompanied by a steely pic of the King of Rock’n’Roll. At the time, it undoubtedly would have shaken Presley’s fans more than his infamous hips.

The Beatles, 1967

The Beatles 1967 nme cover

If you think the aforementioned infamous Blur vs Oasis cover of 1995 was the first time NME had pitted two bands against each other, you might want to think again. Way back in 1967, a July issue saw the magazine put The Beatles and The Monkees on one front cover, highlighting the US group’s arrival on the British charts. “Beatles v Monkees – and Beatles are winning this week!”, the cover line read. Yes, it was much less inflammatory than the Britpop chart battle that would take its spot nearly 30 years later, but still an early example of the competitive spirit the magazine would try and fan across many decades.

This early imaginary war was a lot friendlier than ones other artists would get themselves embroiled in, with The Monkees citing the Fab Four’s influence on them and Liverpool’s finest giving the LA quartet their props too. “It’s obvious what’s happening, there’s talent there,” George Harrison once said of the band. “When they get it all sorted out, they might turn out to be the best.”

The Slits, 1978

“Before punk rock there were no women in bands,” Neil Spencer, who was assistant editor in October 1978, told Pat Long for the latter’s 2012 book, The History of the NME: High times and low lives at the world’s most famous music magazine. “There was a group called Fanny and that was about it. Then after punk you get The Slits. A big difference.”

The Slits certainly did make a big difference in the music scene of the late ‘70s, ushering in new sounds as well as showing there was space for women to co-exist in the chaotic punk world. They thrived on rhythm rather than the three-chord chug of their male peers, and made songs made to dance to instead of just pogoing, but also filled their music with big topics such as consumerism (‘Spend, Spend, Spend’). They forged new ground and left behind a legacy that would inspire everyone from Warpaint to Sleater-Kinney, The Cure to Crystal Castles.

In 1978, before the release of their seminal album ‘Cut’, The Slits appeared on the front cover of NME for the very first time. While a later cover appearance would see them covered in mud, here a striking image of teenage frontwoman Ari Up, mouth agape and eyes daubed in electric blue, took up the whole page: “the most disorientatingly bedazzling […] visual,” as Nick Kent would describe the band in his accompanying feature. It’s an example of a truly arresting cover – almost as arresting as the band themselves.

The Stone Roses, 1989

OK, so this is one of the ones you’ll have seen already, but it’s so stunning it’s worth re-celebrating. Of all of the iconic covers that have adorned NME in the last 70 years, there are few as memorable as The Stone Roses’ 1989 shoot. Under the yellow cover line “Never Mind The Pollocks, Here’s The Stone Roses”, the legendary Manchester band peered out from pools and puddles of blue and white paint, artfully flicked over their faces and bodies.

“John Squire, the band’s lead guitarist, was an artist, and painting featured quite a lot on their album sleeves, and I think it was around this time that they’d been involved in a paint-throwing incident,” Alan Lewis, who was editor between 1987 and 1990, told The Guardian. “They had a falling out with their original manager and went to his office and threw a lot of paint around. So paint was in the air with the Roses, so to speak, and probably Kevin [Cummins, photographer] capitalised on that.”

If every magazine cover tries to capture a band’s story in one single photo, then this image did that job beautifully, presenting a group who were colourful, messy and absolutely unforgettable.

Aaliyah, 2001

Broadband opened up a whole new world for music fans: suddenly you could listen to Destiny’s Child next to Slipknot next to Aaliyah, unbound by genre tastes or constraints. And NME duly followed suit, featuring all of these artists on the cover in the early ’00s. In just under two months, the Aaliyah issue of NME would take on new significance. The singer died in a plane crash at just 22 years old, making it her only appearance on the cover. The issue became one of her final interviews, capturing a moment in time where the already acclaimed artist was on the cusp of moving onto another level, taking Hollywood with Romeo Must Die as well as achieving yet more greatness with her music.

Beth Ditto, 2007

Beth Ditto 2007 NME cover

When The Gossip’s Beth Ditto stripped off for the cover of NME in 2007, it was before the body positivity movement had become a true mainstream idea. Back then, seeing a plus-size woman on the front of magazines and in the media in general – clothed or not – was even rarer than it is now. Predictably, the Arkansas punk’s decision to stand hand on nude hip staring down the barrel of NME photographer Ellis Parrinder’s camera ignited a huge conversation, within the indie scene and beyond. Some decried the image while others lavished it (and Ditto) with praise, from Courtney Love to feminist scholar Germaine Greer.

NME had enough courage to put the coolest woman on the planet on the cover, and Beth Ditto has given them the kind of picture that they can use: attention-getting but certainly not obscene,” the latter said. “Her intention is to force acceptance of her body type, five-feet tall and 15 stone, and by this strategy to challenge the conventional imagery of women.”

It certainly did that. Ditto’s has gone on to be branded one of the most controversial magazine covers ever, highlighting the divisive nature of a woman refusing to be shamed for not fitting into society’s unrealistic – and misogynistic – body standards.

Self Esteem, 2021

NME Cover 2021 Self Esteem

Back in 1999, when Britney Spears was just 27, the pop princess appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone lying on pink sating sheets dressed in only her underwear and an unbuttoned shirt. It’s a classic example of the sexualisation of female pop artists that still persists today – something Self Esteem’s Rebecca Lucy Taylor sent up on her first NME cover in 2021.

Taylor’s updated take on the iconic (if problematic) Britney shoot saw her switch out Spears’ toy Teletubby for Kermit The Frog and sprinkle her satin sheets with crisps and a reduced supermarket sandwich. “I want to show, really authentically, what I look like in bed,” she told NME in the accompanying interview. “The reality is that women don’t look like [the Rolling Stone cover] in bed.”

Of course, any time a woman dares to challenge our patriarchal society’s perceptions or ideals of what women should look like or how they should act, there’s a heated reaction – and Self Esteem’s cover was no different. Some failed to grasp the underlying message in the star’s pose, but those who did celebrated an artist reclaiming space for those who fall outside of the accepted beauty standard and fully confident in herself, physically and creatively.

Proof, if it were ever needed, that NME is still starting heated debates after 70 glorious years.

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