NME of the people: clockwise from top left, the last ever issue; Pamela Des Barres with Alice Cooper; Suede’s Brett Anderson; the German group Can; and seventies rockers Slade

Rock of pages: it's a golden age for music writing—so why is the pleasure bittersweet?

The current gang of pop writers are the best we've ever had. But are they eulogising a dying art form?
June 18, 2018

For a generation of middle-aged and mostly male British rock fans, 8th March 2018 was a date fit to be carved in stone. On that day the proprietors of the New Musical Express, founded in 1952, announced they would be closing the print edition and, like other magazines blasted by the zephyrs of technological change, concentrating on the website. Curiously, none of the people who took to newspaper columns to lament the NME’s passing seemed to have much interest in the contemporary magazine—the final incarnation was a flimsy free-sheet handed out in student union bars and HMV. No, their grief was focused on a golden age—the period 1974-81—when the magazine offered a template for how you might approach the notoriously tricky subject of writing seriously about rock and roll.

Forty years ago, as the Sex Pistols slid rancorously off the map, there were a quarter of a million NME kids. I was one of them, drawn not only by the lustre of the journalistic talent (Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray, Mick Farren, Julie Burchill) but by the suspicion that it offered a gateway to a bohemian and vaguely counter-cultural world.

It was in the NME that I first read an interview with Ian McEwan, heard mention of JG Ballard (a great influence on the punk dystopians) and, a bit later, when the writers expanded to include theory-minded egg-heads like Paul Morley and Ian Penman, came across the names of Baudrillard and Derrida. The enticing scent that blew out of its 64 weekly pages was, to quote biographer Joe Hagan writing about Rolling Stone, not “just about music, but the things and the attitudes that the music embraces.”

And what were they? The pre-digital rock experience was founded on an almost mythological compact between the fan and the group or singer. Fans wanted advance news, gossip, and above all corroboration of the mighty genius that they had set out to worship, and the music magazine worked as a conduit. The performer could exist at some stratospherically detached remove (a jet-setting, yacht-piloting superstar) or he could be a super-charged version of the boy, or sometimes girl, next door. Still the fan’s attitude was the same—fanatic, completist, narrowly possessive.

Between 1978 and 1982, The Jam were “my” group, in the same way that Norwich City were “my” football team or George Orwell was “my” writer. Paul Weller’s song-writing prompted the same reaction in me that Orwell had to Henry Miller: “He knows all about me... He wrote this specially for me.” All of which was given greater significance by the fact Weller was a working-class autodidact from Woking, while I studied modern history at St John’s College, Oxford.

Serious writing about rock and roll did not, of course, begin with the NME. Its origins can be traced back to the moment that music critic Wilfrid Mellers detected “pentatonic clusters” in the Beatles’ early work. Crawdaddy, the first highbrow US music magazine, was in business by 1966. But it was Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone, launched from San Francisco in the autumn of 1967, which demonstrated that high-end rock and roll writing could make money. As Mick Jagger once remarked, “though he didn’t invent serious pop criticism, Jann was the one who popularised it.”

Wenner was one of the thousands of baby-boomers for whom the Beatles and the Stones were not only individually fascinating but a collective springboard to the celebrity-strewn world they yearned to inhabit. Journalism, as Hagan puts it in Sticky Fingers, his biography of Wenner, “was his VIP pass to everything he hoped to be.”

Not that these ambitions debarred you from facing several different ways at once. If Rolling Stone was forged in the crucible of the mid-1960s West Coast counter-culture, then its highly astute founding editor soon discovered that he could only succeed by taking the counter-culture mainstream.

Tom Wolfe (who died in May) and Hunter S Thompson were swiftly piped on board; celebrity interviewees included Dustin Hoffman and the Democrat presidential candidate George McGovern. But however thronged the pages might have been with Richard Brautigan’s poetry or Roy Lichtenstein’s pop art montages, Wenner rarely forgot about the elemental compact between fan and star.

From the start, Rolling Stone was crammed with Beatles gossip. Wenner’s cultivation of the Fab Four’s publicist Derek Taylor paid a spectacular final dividend with the two-part interview with John Lennon in 1970, the year the band split up. By this time Rolling Stone’s circulation was well north of 200,000.

There was an equally spectacular falling out after Wenner reneged on the deal he had cut with Lennon and printed the interview in book form. He could afford to do this because, as Hagan points out, he no longer needed the person who had made him famous.

All this lets loose another spectre that lurked near the heart of the fan/star contract: straightforward, or sometimes not so straightforward, exploitation. In the context of the late-1960s “freedom” usually meant the freedom of men to exploit women. I’m With the Band, first published in 1987, and now reissued with an extra helping of salacity, is an odd book altogether. Like Jann Wenner, Pamela Des Barres was a fan-girl, whose Beatles-fixated high school diaries (“I love Paul, I’m in love with his body”) turn out to be an uncannily prophetic résumé of her young-adult life.

Graduating to the West Coast scene in late adolescence, Des Barres was a companion to Jagger, Jimmy Page and Noel Redding, who played bass for Jimi Hendrix. Soon she became a leading light of the GTOs, aka “Girls Together Outrageously,” a socio-musical art collective sponsored by Frank Zappa, and an associate of the Plaster-Casterers, who took impressions of rock-star genitalia.

The girls clearly wanted to have fun but on their own terms, and were keen on self-empowerment. But given that you are never quite sure who is exploiting whom—Des Barres was still at school when she began hanging out with bands—all this grants her recollections an oddly discomfiting tone: “Mick Jagger was clearly a very intelligent person but I wanted to treat him like a stud.” An awareness of what you want is undercut by a stifling sense of what is expected of you, and complicated by your inability to calibrate the two.

In much the same way, the Viv Albertine of Clothes, Clothes Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys (2016), a memoir of her time in the Slits, is simultaneously a feminist trailblazer and a woman who feels herself almost obliged to have oral sex with John Lydon.

Clearly, the myths and legends of rock and roll—its bad boys, its Satanist chic, its elegant wastrels—are a mixed blessing. Most, though by no means all, of the first wave of serious books about rock music were written by music journalists who had personal experience of the mythologising process.

Stanley Booth, whose The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones (1984), memorialises the 1969 tour of the US, was a Keith Richards obsessive who nearly died in the rapt pursuit of his idol’s lifestyle. Jon Savage, author of England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock (1992), a pioneering work of musical sociology, was a one-time trainee lawyer whose legal career was irrecoverably pitched off course by exposure to the abrasive soundtrack of the summer of 1976.

*** Meanwhile another brand of writer was beginning to move into a firmament once populated by the music press scribe: the musician him—or herself. The old-style rock memoir, quite often ghost-written by a name-checked amanuensis, was usually little more than a cavalcade of birds, boodle and platinum discs. It takes a work like Brett Anderson’s autobiography to advertise just how far the genre has advanced in the last couple of decades. Just as his band Suede, with its intellectual tang and modish lyrics, was a cut above your average rock band, so Anderson, despite a weakness for unnecessary adverbs, is a cut above the average rock-memoirist.

In fact, the distinctive aspect of Coal Black Mornings lies not in the accounts of his time on the frontline of mid-1990s Britpop, but of the time before he was famous. Anderson, who hails from a village on the fringe of Haywards Heath, is circumspect enough to realise that large amounts of native pop music comes from the English suburbs, conceived by teenagers “yearning for the thrill and promise beyond.”

Not, of course, that the old-style rock memoir ever went away. The charm of So Here It Is, the fan-funded autobiography of the guitarist from 1970s glam-rock behemoths Slade, is that it could have been written at any time over the past 50 years. Dave Hill has no social or political awareness to speak of (Enoch Powell, his mother’s MP, is mentioned without comment), and the rewards of success are entirely material (“Well done, son,” Hill senior remarks, greeting him on the doorstep of his posh new house).

It is redeemed by both its guilelessness and the sense—quite as marked as in Anderson’s more upmarket effort—of a personal myth triumphantly vindicated, in this case the working-class boy from the West Midlands who scores half-a-dozen Number One singles and a Rolls-Royce with the number plate YOB1.

Over half a century since Jann Wenner set to work in a marketplace dominated by teen magazines like 16 and Tiger Beat, we inhabit a golden age of serious music writing. Some of the original fans grew up and began writing; hundreds of thousands more acquired the disposable income necessary to create a market for those books. One of the by-products is a work like All Gates Open, a mammoth celebration of a once obscure avant-garde German group from the 1970s called Can, with erudite contributions from its Stockhausen-tutored keyboard player.

One irony is that the accomplishment on display in writing about bygone rock should seem so superior to the music now being made. Last year David Hepworth argued in Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars that traditional rock and roll is more or less dead, ruined by the digital consumer’s privileging of the track over the artist.

If the fan/star compact survives, it does so in the vast “heritage rock” market of classic album remasters, Uncut and Mojo magazines and tribute acts. You doubt that anyone will ever do for U2 what Rob Young has done for Can. On the other hand, the “death of rock” argument was going strong back in the days of James Callaghan’s premiership and the IMF crisis, when I first became an NME kid.