Riffs, Rucks And Reviews – NME’s First 63 Years On The Rock ‘N’ Roll Frontline

As any writer who’s ever refereed the letters page will tell you, nothing boils the blood of NME readers quite like a list. Of what, it hardly matters; music fans rarely need an excuse to vent over the arbitrary and subjective. So it’s fitting that it was an act of list making which first put the New Musical Express – the mongrel offspring of a 1946 merger between two ailing music publications, the Accordion Times and the Musical Express – on the map.

In 1952, with the Musical Express (they’d long since dropped the ‘Accordion Times’ bit) just minutes away from going into receivership, London music promoter Maurice Kinn agreed to buy the paper for the sum of £1,000. On the cover of its final issue, he promised readers that its new guise would be, “fresh and stimulating, because the New Musical Express will be produced by a brand-new, handpicked staff of editorial experts with long experience in music journalism.” Sure enough, the New Musical Express – whose first issue was dated 7 March 1952 – had a vibrant, lively tone which distinguished it from the dryer, dourer style of its main competitor, Melody Maker (a rivalry which would continue for the next 50 years). The paper continued to struggle for its first eight months, however, until Kinn – following the lead of the US trade magazine Billboard – decided to publish a weekly rundown of the best-selling releases in the record shops of London. Topping sales on that first week of 14 November 1952 was American crooner Al Martino with ‘Here In My Heart’, and 3272 weeks later, Kinn’s editorial gimmick lives on as the UK singles chart.

At a time when a song’s popularity was still measured by the sales of its sheet music, Kinn and Percy Dickins, his second-in-command, had been far-sighted enough to predict the phonograph record’s explosion in popularity, and within a few short weeks of the chart’s introduction, NME saw a 50% rise in circulation. What they couldn’t have foreseen, however, was the effect the chart would have on the course of British music and, ultimately, of the magazine itself.

The 1950s were the age of the teenager, and of a new kind of music made for, and often by, them: rock ’n’ roll. While the jazz-minded Melody Maker adopted a generally dismissive view of rock ’n’ roll, seeing it as a strange American fad that would inevitably pass, NME looked at their singles chart and saw a fast-growing niche not being catered for by anyone else. In The History of the NME, his superlative chronicle of the title’s first 50 years, former staffer Pat Long writes that, “by the autumn of 1956, the paper was full of pieces on Fats Domino, Elvis, Bill Haley, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent and the 13-year-old Frankie Lymon. Reading these interviews with wonder were hundreds of the children – among them John Lennon, Malcolm McLaren and Marc Bolan – who would later shape British pop music.” It was an early example of the almost symbiotic relationship NME has, at various points throughout its history, enjoyed with the musicians featured in its pages.

Yet precisely because of that relationship, the paper’s fortunes have always been tied to the strength of the scenes it reports on, and at the dawn of the 1960s, with the rock ’n’ roll craze seemingly at an end and the British pop charts barren, NME’s sales dwindled once more. In 1962, Maurice Kinn finally decided to offload the paper to media magnate Cecil Harmsworth King’s newly-formed International Publishing Company (or IPC) for £500,000, though one of the stipulations of the deal was that Kinn could stay on as executive director and continue. It was a decision Kinn would come to regret almost as soon as a Liverpool-based stringer (and future NME editor) named Alan Smith wrote the words, “Things are beginning to move for The Beatles…” in early 1963.

The Beatles gave NME the first of its many second winds. They were a cultural phenomenon the likes of which had never been seen, but they were also right on NME’s doorstep, and far more accessible than the American rock ’n’ roll artists the paper had previously thrived by covering. NME fostered a close relationship with the band, who played the inaugural Poll Winners’ Party in 1963, and every year after that until 1966, where their fifteen-minute set at the Wembley Empire Pool marked their final appearance on a British stage. Meanwhile, as London started to swing, NME writers began moving in the social circles of bands like The Rolling Stones (another Poll Winners’ Party fixture), The Who and The Kinks, ensuring the paper became the newsiest and best connected of the music weeklies.

As those bands pushed pop music into ever-more adventurous and sophisticated territory, however, rock journalism struggled to keep up. Music was becoming more expressive, more meaningful and more and more important to the young people who consumed it, but the house style imposed at executive level meant that NME was writing about Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix in the same glib tone we’d used for Cliff Richard. The weekly charts continued to dictate the paper’s direction, and as tension grew between the younger staffers and the middle-aged editorial team, NME began to seem quaint, archaic and out of step with the times.

Once again, NME entered the new decade in a perilous position, and in late 1971, Alan Smith was installed as editor and given three months to turn the paper’s fortunes around before IPC wound it up for good. But Smith would do more than that: he would hire an entirely new staff and embark upon a root-and-branch reinvention. “We’re happy to stick pretension where it belongs,” he told readers in his first issue. “Simply, NME will be an intelligent weekly paper for music people who rate Beefheart, but don’t necessarily slam Bolan.”

Two of the new writers Smith hired – Charles Shaar Murray and Nick Kent – were integral to NME’s transformation from a failing title on the verge of closure to the most the successful one in the IPC stable. Poached from the underground press, Kent and Murray brought instant depth and credibility to the new-look NME: they were young, passionate and impossibly hip, and wrote about rock music with the eloquent conviction and high-mindedness it deserved. They also looked and lived like the artists they wrote about: it was a time of excess, of record company expense accounts, of flying around the world at the drop of a hat to go and hang out with Bowie, Jagger or Led Zeppelin, and in true New Journalism style, the writers themselves often became the story. Kent’s exploits, in particular, would become the stuff of legend: he would join an early incarnation of the Sex Pistols, got whipped with a motorcycle chain by Sid Vicious, and embarked on a doomed, smack-addled bromance with Keith Richards that almost killed him. These were heady times to be an NME journalist, but they were hazardous ones, too.

Under the influence of staffers like Charles Shaar Murray and Ian MacDonald, the NME office became a place where editorial meetings were held in clouds of dope smoke and copy was written on teeth-grinding amounts of amphetamines. The title itself became a subversive countercultural bible, rock music’s unofficial paper of record, but the arrival of punk – heralded by Mick Farren’s seminal 1976 essay The Titanic Sails at Dawn – would propel NME to even greater heights.

While the paper had given the Sex Pistols their first piece of press coverage (and was later namechecked in the lyrics of ‘Anarchy in the UK’), NME was slow to embrace punk, but the arrival of Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill would soon change that. After answering an ad in the paper looking for ‘hip young gunslingers’, Parsons and Burchill would ultimately come to represent another changing of the guard: younger and better-connected to the punk scene than their predecessors, their writing gave NME an eloquence, influence and circulation which far outstripped its rivals.

Punk politicised everything it touched, and by the late ‘70s and early 80s, NME had developed a strong social conscience, editorialising against Margaret Thatcher and the National Front, championing the Rock Against Racism campaign and later throwing its support behind Red Wedge, a left-wing collective of artists committed to ousting Thatcher at 1987 General Election. But music – specifically new music – remained NME’s mission, and to some extent, the paper and emergent independent scene of the 1980s would come to define each other. NME faithfully reported on the goings-on at labels like Rough Trade, Postcard and Factory, but with its C81 and C86 cassette compilations, also helped to define and contextualize these scenes for readers who lived far from where they were happening. Meanwhile, ‘indie’ acts like The Smiths – whose frontman, Morrissey, had once been a fixture of the letters page – became the paper’s new deities.

Conflict loomed, however, in the form of the ‘hip-hop wars’, when the office became factionalised between adherents of the predominately white, traditionalist rock music many of the writers regarded as the paper’s purview, and the impossibly exciting sounds coming from the streets of black America. The hip-hop warriors eventually won, and twenty-five years before Kanye West upset the rock aristocracy by announcing himself “the number one rock star on the planet,” the 8 October 1988 cover of NME declared Public Enemy “the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world.”

Indie remained the paper’s bread and butter, however, and a series of questionable late-‘80s cover stars (Cilla Black, anyone?) hinted at a scene in the doldrums. Things were briefly enlivened by the advent of baggy and acid house, as well as the inimitable, apoplectic scribblings of Steven ‘Swells’ Wells, but it wasn’t until the arrival of Britpop that the magazine began to flourish again. The great Blur vs Oasis battle began at the NME Brat Awards (a modern-day successor to the old Poll Winners Party) in January 1995, and the flames were stoked further by the mischief-making cover of 12 August 1995, in which Liam Gallagher and Damon Albarn were depicted as rival boxers ahead of the looming chart battle between ‘Roll With It’ and ‘Country House’. Such was the appetite for all things Oasis, a recording of the Gallagher brothers’ riotous 1994 interview with NME’s John Harris, titled ‘Wibbling Rivalry’ and released on Fierce Panda, even managed to sneak into the UK singles chart.

In the modern era, NME was the first major publication to champion bands like The Strokes, The White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys and countless others who would go on to set the musical agenda for the next decade. Throughout its existence, the paper has weathered huge musical and technological sea changes in the industry it covers, bearing witness to the births of rock ‘n’ roll, Beatlemania, punk rock, hip-hop, the internet and the MP3, and in 1996 launched its online arm, NME.com, presaging the publishing industry’s move from print to digital. Change has been its only real constant, which is why every generation looks back on its own NME differently, and invariably through rose-tinted shades. It was always better back in whichever day you read it, because no publication survives this long by staying the same: the paper has always had to adapt to the times, and move with them when necessary. Across every epoch of rock ‘n’ roll, through the ups and downs, the lulls and booms, NME has always been at the forefront of new music, a source not only of news and reviews, but of debate, dissent, and above all, passion. We approach the future cognisant of the most valuable lesson learned from our past: that music doesn’t stand still, and we can’t afford to, either.

Own a piece of history – NME’s commemorative issue is now available in all good newsagents and available to order online.