In our age of algorithms, streaming and always-on infotainment, a world in which popular (and semi-popular) music is scarce seems strange and distant. Today music is an omnipresent utility flowing into homes, phones and open plan offices. Not so long ago if a pop song wasn’t on the radio it could be expensive and hard to find; searching out a single song could be laborious. This scarcity and sense of mystery was one of the key reasons a whole publishing world was built in Britain around popular music’s excitable chatter. From the serious “inkies” such as NME, Melody Maker and Sounds, to poptimistic titles such as Disc, Record Mirror and Smash Hits, on to jazz, soul and reggae titles like Black Echoes and Black Music, most musical tastes were catered for. Whether in specialist titles or more pluralistic general publications, nearly everyone could get their print pop fix.
Building on a weekend of talks and panels at Birkbeck College in 2015, A Hidden Landscape Once A Week attempts to give an outline of the cultural milieu of the British music press from the mid sixties to mid eighties. It has been put together by former NME contributor and Wire editor, Mark Sinker. I first encountered Sinker on music messageboards in the mid 2000s speaking in a strange lower-case mash-up of l33t speak and Molesworth. He seemed – like many inhabiting the wild hinterlands of online – to be channeling some half-forgotten or not yet invented language. By corralling a wide variety of contributors and perspectives, taking in the sixties underground press, jazz journals of the pre-rock era, black music publications and the feminist press, Sinker seems again to be summoning some lost languages of the recent past.
The book itself does not contain any excerpts or reprints from actual articles, so if, like me, you didn’t live through the period you end up reading reconstructions of descriptions. Everything is half- glimpsed, filtered through the memories of unreliable narrators. It reenacts dormant arguments, battles between gatekeepers and upstarts long thought lost and won. Some of these arguments tap into deep and still-relevant doubts around race, gender and class, whilst others are perhaps less pressing, such as issues around the musical value of The Clash. The key arguments, counter arguments and questions are outlined in an opening essay by Sinker that is worth the cover price alone. He writes in a passionate, learned but tricksy style that owes much to the music press of his youth. If sentences like “critical thinking can never not be a codeshifting dance across a double consciousness, however small-scale or intimate it may seem” intrigue rather than irritate, you’re in for a pretty good time.
Throughout the book we are introduced to a wide-ranging cast of contributors who variously wrote, edited and read the music press of the era. Whilst Sinker has chosen to avoid some of the more famous names to emerge from the music press such as Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, we do get contributions from the likes of Paul Morley and Charles Shaar Murray, names familiar to those who have grown up on a diet of BBC nostalgia shows. The book peers much further than the average BBC4 documentary though. We are introduced to figures less likely to feature in official histories, such as jazz photographer Val Wilmer and Mancunian riot grrrl pioneer Liz Naylor, whose exploration of the feminist press’ reaction to punk rock shines a light on what was happening alongside the rock ‘n’ roll romanticism of the mainstream music press. Other figures who have died or are otherwise unavailable emerge through the words of others. Rock Against Racism pioneer David Widgery and reggae writer Carl Gayle in particular are keenly celebrated.
One of the recurring themes in the various contributions is the idea of escape – that somewhere in the pages of rock reviews one might find a secret chord combination that could lead the lost out of suburban purgatory. Like Ordnance Survey maps for teenage gnostics the music press stands in as the guidebook for a transcendent landscape. One version of the music press offered weak teenage selves a new series of opinions to align themselves with when they couldn’t match the conditions of worth their hometowns demanded. The music journalist is ordained as hip priest, the intermediary between the gospel of Bob Dylan, Joe Strummer or Rick Wakeman and their flocks of followers. Often the words came before the tunes, people would find themselves enthused by interviews and reviews before even hearing a note.
Yet, the marginalisation and loneliness that led many impressionable teens to the music press came in different shades. Sometimes it was the lived reality of a hostile, racialised society, sometimes the description “Lou Reed as lifestyle” summed it up. Naylor describes a hostile environment when entering the offices of the ‘90s NME, a room full of angry young men lashing out from a newly found position of privilege – supposed outsiders slipping smoothly into the bully pulpit. We all know how easily an angry young man becomes a grumpy old one.
How the musical countercultures fit in with concrete political actions is a contested issue that a number of the contributors wrestle with. A pointed distinction is made by underground press to NME stalwart Charles Shaar Murray between the “psychedelic left” and the “boring left”. The section on the Rock Against Racism movement and its allies in the inkies makes convincing links between pluralistic critical impulses, racially diverse acts sharing page and stage space and political struggle. Sinker makes a convincing argument that the remarkably un-psychedelic real-world realities of workplace relations in the publishing industry seem to have driven the decline of a pluralistic music press. Strikes and solidarity, those hallmarks of the “boring left”, were the key battlegrounds in the era’s managerialist creep, and their defeat eventually extinguished the radical potential of the inkies. The moment it became just about the music was the moment the game was up for the radical energies of the music press. Like the diligent sub-editors who made stream of consciousness rock reviews fit on the page, maybe it was the boring left which made the psychedelic left possible.
Because the book contains so many different voices, the early sixties to mid eighties time frame is often ignored, but Sinker himself clearly sees the dream of a truly counter-cultural music press dying sometime around 1985. His dismissal of the intellectually demanding late eighties Melody Maker as “gleeful accelerationist nihilism” seems a little unfair when star writer Simon Reynolds has since created a cottage industry of dense rock tomes over the last thirty or so years. As late as 2001, the NME’s cover stars still had an ‘anything goes’ eclecticism that could range from Daft Punk and Destiny’s Child to Aphex Twin and Andrew WK. That said, Sinker seems correct in his observation that something significant changed in the mid eighties. Rock and pop music smartened up and became a part of establishment politics with Live Aid, whilst the tides of Thatcherism pushed the counter-cultural left – both boring and psychedelic – into a desperate rearguard action.
In the year 2000, just before it ended with the ignominy of featuring Fred Durst on their final cover, Melody Maker named The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead the greatest album ever made. Thirteen years later, just before it dissolved into digital irrelevance, NME bestowed the same honour on the album. Despite only registering as NME’s ninth and Melody Maker’s sixth best album of 1986 on its initial release, in the intervening years it became the totemic artefact of what was left of the British music press. Maybe this was because The Smiths’ lead singer Morrissey was himself a product of the press. He had spent his lonely teenage years writing fevered letters to various publications before his own elevation to stardom. The album is in some respects a reflecting-back of some of the dominant values that had incubated in the music press during the era covered in Hidden Landscape. The Smiths answered the question of what “Lou Reed as lifestyle” might look like when adopted by lonely British teens. It would be witty and defiant but it would also be cynical, solipsistic and self-pitying. It would also be white, very very white. Can you see the signs of what would – in Morrissey’s case – curdle into unapologetic reaction within The Queen is Dead? Perhaps. You can definitely see the album as a tombstone for rock as pluralistic counterculture. The world was no longer there to be changed but to hide from. There is no escape.
What happened to the other energies when the music press professionalised and the connection with the counter cultural element was slowly disengaged? I think a couple of important clues can be found in rapidly gentrifying East London. The Dalston peace mural is a large painting on the wall of a building in Hackney, situated mere metres away from jazz and avant garde venue Cafe Oto where some vestige of the radical musical counterculture lives on, and many stalwarts of the radical music press still congregate. Finished in 1985, the mural depicts the 1983 Hackney Peace Carnival, its colourful imagery bursting with all the disparate threads of the anti-war eighties. Determinedly multicultural, it places trade unionists next to jazz musicians. Within its vibrant canvas one can discern a synthesis of the strands of leftist counterculture standing against the recharged imperial ambitions of Thatcherism. A Hidden Landscape ends at this moment, when British left counterculture can be seen to have fatally severed itself from the world of rock ‘n’ roll. Perhaps this split explains the deep loathing of Jeremy Corbyn by that generation of journalists who came to prominence in the music press at the tail end of the eighties and began to colonise the broadsheets as the nineties stumbled into the twenty- first century, such as David Quantick, Andrew Mueller, Caitlin Moran, Stuart Maconie, Barbara Ellen and John Harris, among others.
More than any other figure, Corbyn is a flashback to the idealistic, pluralistic but determinedly unfashionable past. A flashback to the splitting of the tribes, a nagging reminder of messiness supposedly moved past. All that feeling and disagreement which should have been subsumed between a third-way diet of good taste. Without the left’s political imperative – whether psychedelic or boring – a kind of cool consumerism has defined much of the post- eighties British music press; endless star ratings, top 100 lists and the same stories repeated on loop. There have been disagreements over the years, but even the supposedly radical act of praising styles from outside the classic rock canon can quickly pall. The idea that everything is accessible is attractive, but without getting into arguments around relativism, this approach can lead to a kind of bloodless dilettantism. A passionless play of ideas never truly committed to. You can’t build a world without a few principles.
The final blow, certainly for the weekly music press, came when the internet made the gatekeeping role obsolete. Where the music press of yore was suggestive of Sinker’s hidden landscape, the slowly-emerging cosmos of the internet could not be as easily mapped. When I wrote about music – without pay – for a long lost webzine called Stylus, it did not feel like I was exploring or unveiling a hidden landscape. I felt like some remote satellite bouncing ideas around with people who may as well have been lightyears away. In a sense this was the inevitable endpoint. Music criticism kicked into top gear when it moved away from the community of the concert and the dancefloor to the intense aloneness of the recorded song. Indeed, some of Hidden Landscape’s contributors express a dislike of music which is purpose built for audience enjoyment rather than artist-focused exploration. Maybe that’s why modern music writing pushes subjectivity away; it’s easier to bestow the nebulous rewards of influence and importance than to admit the value of what a song says in solitude. Often the music critic superego can become limiting. Going to gigs and asking “is this good?” rather than having a good time can make life rather lonely.
Throughout the book different contributors disparage the present in light of the past. Indeed, as Sinker himself acknowledges, half the reason for the book’s timescale is that it ends around the time he began writing for NME. Can things ever seem quite as exciting as they did the first time? Isn’t pop a deeply teenage kick? Sinker himself is aware of these questions and the opening essay and the deliberate contradictions of the contributors shows a pointed attempt to sidestep the tendency to denigrate the culture of the present. A constant asking of, was it as really as good as you make out? Much pissing on the present plays out as a side effect of debilitating nostalgia for days gone by: the paralysis of an unresolved youth. Recorded music and by extension the hip priests of the press presented the notion that there are others like you out there. For many this was a transformative encounter that showed them they were less alone than they thought, that they were party to hidden information – part of the in-crowd. The circle turns quickly though, and for almost everyone there comes a moment when you realise you are no longer on top of things, time has slipped away and someone else, someone younger knows the way now.
At the beginning of the book Sinker’s introductory essay introduces the idea of “doubts aired as gags”, summing up the post-countercultural jester spirit – the deflation of progressive pretension with humour. This is then twisted to “doubts aired as provocations”, the classic critical move of putting your argument in the strongest possible terms. Don’t say a band are good, say they will change your life. Sinker’s tacit trust in the dictum “doubts aired as provocations” is what seems to allow his editorial hand to fill the text with multiple voices which often contradict and compete with one another. The final essay is by Paul Gilroy, who urges us to turn away from “informal ethnographies of the NME office circa 1977” and instead centre publications like Black Music and Black Echoes. He asks us to seriously examine the heavily racialised gatekeeping that informed the discourse around music in the UK. The book ends on a proposal to build a “counter history of this deluded, post colonial country”. It’s a pointed editorial choice that seems in the spirit of the elusive energy the book attempts to recapture – that maybe the rituals of the music press were never just about music, but about world building. It’s the feeling that words and music alone could bring something radically new into view, something outside and apart from one’s self, not just the pasty reflection of Spotify’s Discover weekly playlist, but a whole new world.