Friday, March 7, 2008

Introduction to Beijar O Céu [Kiss the Sky] anthology, published in Brazil by Loja Conrad, 2006.

by Simon Reynolds

I’m the child of a peculiar institution, a cultural space that no longer exists and that in hindsight seems highly improbable: the British music press.

I started reading the UK weekly music papers--New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Sounds, Record Mirror--when I was sixteen, back in 1979; that was the context in which I first encountered rock criticism and first got the idea that writing about popular music was cool, exciting, something worth dedicating one’s life to. The British press was then--late Seventies and early Eighties--at the absolute height of its power. New Musical Express, or as it’s better known, NME, sold about a quarter of a million copies every week; the other three sold another 350 thousand or so between them; the actual readership for the papers was much bigger, because every copy was on average read by three or four people. To my mind, during this period the British papers were also at the peak of their quality as critical writing (others disagree, locating the golden age earlier, in the mid-Seventies). The journalists, especially those on NME, were taking all kinds of risks, experimenting with form, and generally shooting for the stars.

A few years later, in my early twenties, I participated in what is generally considered the last “golden” phase of the Uk weekly music press, which ran from the late Eighties into the early Nineties, and was largely concentrated in Melody Maker. By this point the music papers were already deep into a long-term sales decline; different kinds of media, from glossy pop papers like Smash Hits to monthly rock magazines like Q to “style bibles” like The Face had weakened the cultural centrality of the weekly papers (nicknamed the “inkies” because they were black-and-white newsprint publications that left ink on your fingers), and there was much more coverage of pop music on TV than there’d been in the 1970s. Still, even with their prestige and authority weakened, the weekly music press continued to serve as an arena for ideas and mischief-making, they were a glorious playground for pretentious young hotheads like myself.

All through this period, from 1974 onwards, NME was the Big One, the paper whose verdict really counted, the weekly with most of the best writers. Melody Maker had once been the top paper; back the late Sixties and early Seventies it was the voice of the UK’s “progressive” underground, but it had been damaged by punk and, when I joined, it was still looking for a new identity, and trailing third in sales after Sounds and NME. However, me and some like-minded comrades were able to turn around Melody Maker’s reputation with surprising speed, stealing from NME the status it held as the thinking person’s music paper, and establishing Melody Maker as both the intellectual’s favourite and the magazine that discovered new bands first. We never managed to catch up with NME’s circulation figures, but soon overtook the other two, Sounds and Record Mirror (both of whom eventually went out of business).

The rivalry between Melody Maker and NME is a curious thing, because they were both owned by the same media conglomerate, IPC. During the golden period for the music press, IPC and EMAP (the company that owned Sounds) didn’t interfere in the daily operations of the music papers, because they sold well and, being cheap to maintain, were highly profitable. The music press had a captive market both in terms of advertisers (the record industry had hardly any other ways of reaching the record-buying and concert-going audience with their adverts for albums or tours) and in terms of readership (there were very few alternative sources of information about rock--this is an era before the internet, before widespread TV coverage of pop music, before the massive explosion of rock books and rock specialist magazines). So IPC and EMAP, not really understanding rock culture anyway, let the papers do their own thing. Why mess with a winning formula? Besides, this was an era long before market research became an integral part of the steering of magazines’ editorial direction.

Thanks to this policy of benign neglect, the UK music press evolved into a curious space of cultural autonomy divorced from the pressures of the market. In terms of their structural ownership and distribution (which was nationwide and omnipresent), the papers were corporate and mainstream; in terms of their content and attitude, the vibe that oozed from every headline and picture caption, they were underground. Indeed, many of the early 70s writers came from the Sixties underground press, hippie magazines like International Times and Oz; later, they tended to come from the punk and postpunk fanzines. As a result of all these factors--being left alone by their owners, the record industry being dependent on them for advertising and for actual editorial coverage in terms of reviews and interviews, the sheer vastness of their readership--the music papers developed a feeling of invincibility and entitlement. They felt like they could do anything they wanted, so they did. The papers became a forum for all kinds of adventurous writing--experiments with form, poetical self-indulgence, stuff that was highly political, or that drew on cutting-edge critical theory and philosophy. They would routinely run confrontational interviews with stars and hilariously abusive reviews of albums, yet the record companies would have to accept it with a forced smile, and continue paying for adverts.

In those days, because of the amount of advertising pages from the record industry, the papers had a lot of space, and so word-counts were long. Features with iconic figures like David Bowie might be so protracted and in-depth they’d be split into two parts running on successive weeks; a lead album review might be longer than a feature is today, running to a couple of thousand words. Even an ordinary down-page record review could be 1000 words long (today 150 words is considered a handsome amount, with some mags expecting reviewers to describe a record in 60 words). All this largesse gave writers space in which to speculate, write around the subject, get word-drunk or use the album review format as an excuse to write a mini-manifesto. In addition to the regular kind of things you’d expect from a music paper, there would be thinkpieces and overviews, and historical pieces rescuing certain artists from obscurity (this was a time before the explosion of retro culture, so a lot of information was impossible to find, and you certainly couldn’t go on the web). Back then, the music papers also covered a lot of stuff that wasn’t strictly music--articles on politics or wider cultural trends, pieces on film and literature (usually if they had some kind of “rock” vibe, as with certain authors--William Burrough, JG Ballard--who had some kind of affinity to music culture). But everything was filtered through the prism of music, which (as in the 1960s) was the centre of youth culture, the glue that connected everything together.

Now, not everyone who read the papers was into this kind of intensely wide-ranging and far-fetched rock writing. The majority of the readership probably bought the papers for the news pages, the gig guide, the interviews with well-known artists, the gossip column. But a substantial minority of the readership was into the ultra-serious analysis, the theoretical speculations, the febrile prose-poem paeans to favored records, and the meta-meta talk about the future of rock/the value of music/the point of criticism itself. This sort of writing could frequently be off-putting to casual readers, as it had a tendency to be over-heated and over-written, full of insider terms to the point of almost being in code, and ridiculously polarized in its opinions (artists or artifacts tended to be either GOD or utterly lamentable/pernicious/deplorable). But, if you were into this sort of rock criticism, it was a massive rush to read, almost as intoxicating as the music itself. I belonged to that core minority of music press fiends when I was a teenager, and as a writer I would go on to feed that inner hardcore, in the process helping to breed the next generation of addicts (most of whom now do their work through blogs--basically online fanzines--rather than in music papers, of which there is only one now, NME, a pale shadow of what it used to be.).

Some of the pieces in this collection come from my years, roughly 1986 to 1994, at the fevered heart of the UK music press--an example is the Morrissey interview, which was split across two successive weeks in Melody Maker. Others, clearer and calmer in tone, were written for more mainstream magazines, either during that time or after, when I’d settled in New York and was freelancing for a much wider range of magazines with different expectations in terms of lucidity and how much the writer should explain things to a layperson. There are also a series of selections from The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock’n’Roll, a book co-written with my wife Joy Press, and in America published on an academic press. This stuff showcases my more theory-driven side, although the taste for French post-structuralist thought and feminist psychoanalysis was actually something I originally acquired not through a stint in academia but through reading NME, where writers like Ian Penman, Barney Hoskyns and Paul Morley would bolster their rhetoric with quotations from Barthes, Bataille, Foucault, Derrida, Kristeva, Nietzche, etc.

Apart from the sheer excitement of the writing in NME back then, what hooked me into thinking of rock criticism as my vocation in life was--if I’m honest--the messianic and megalomaniac tone of the writers (Morley and Hoskyns being prime examples and the two biggest formative influences on what I do). I think of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous quotation, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Well, these critics carried themselves as though they were laying down the law for the rock world, they had the prose swagger of guys who thought they alone had the vision and they alone had the balls to perceive and dictate the righteous path for music to follow. They acted as if they had a lot of power, and they actually appeared to have it too, in the sense of influencing bands, by creating a climate of sensibility in which certain ideas/values/attitudes/sounds became “sexy”. That was something that appealed to me, someone who loved music but had no musical ability as such--the impact these writers had showed me that a rock critic could actually make a contribution to the scene. Perhaps the greatest example of rock writer as prophet is someone I didn’t read until much latter, after I was fully formed: Lester Bangs, who basically changed the course of rock history, by formulating the aesthetic and ethos of punk rock years before punk actually came into being. The writers I grabbed onto as a teenage NME reader were the British equivalents of Bangs in the sense that they were partisan, they championed certain sounds and promoted certain ideas of what music should be and where it should go. You can get this syndrome in other forms of criticism--Clement Greenberg with abstract expressionism in painting, Pauline Kael in film writing--but nothing like to the same extent as in rock writing.

The fact that fiery young egos could thrive in this media environment owes a lot to the structural nature of the UK music press at that time: the fact that they were weekly papers with a lot of space to fill each week encouraged a rapid turnover of trends and discoveries of new bands, and the competition between the four weeklies for readers made that turnover even more frantic. The result was a hothouse atmosphere of trend-spotting and scene building, hype and premature exaltations. But there were also real ideological schisms and aesthetic disputes at this time. The papers would be identified with particular sounds (postpunk in the case of NME, Oi! punk and metal with Sounds) or even particular philosophies of music. In my era, there was rivalry between Melody Maker (or rather a faction within MM) and NME (or rather a particular bunch of writers who dominated that paper). Me and my crew were hailing the return of rock, inspired by largely American indie bands like Husker Du, Pixies, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Dinosaur Jr and a few UK equivalents like My Bloody Valentine. Loop and Spacemen 3; the faction on NME were soul boys who believed that rock was dead, passé, an embarrassment, and that only black music was valid. So there was a war of words across the great gulf between NME and Melody Maker (in physical terms the divide consisted of a single floor in IPC’s gigantic King’s Reach Tower in South London!). My piece on rap, Sick or Sweet, is connected to that argument, in so far as it claims that hip hop has more in common attitude-wise with punk and sonically with the underground noise rock of the late 80s, than it does with soul. As well as verbal warfare between different music papers, there were also rivalries internal to each paper: the NME soul boys were attempting to crush the indie-rock fans on that paper who liked groups such as the Jesus and Mary Chain and Wedding Present, while on Melody Maker my “return of rock” gang squabbled with another group of writers who had a more pop sensiblity. Today, all these disagreements and diatribes seem amusing to me, but at the time they were intensely serious; it really felt like something was at stake.

From the early Nineties onwards, I started to grow away from the UK music press, geographically (I’d moved to America) and professionally (writing for lots of different kinds of magazines) but also emotionally (I’d begun to grow up). Over the years, some of that adolescent urgency and argumentativeness has gone, replaced by more measured and sober critique (I’ve also developed some actual journalistic skills--one of the odd things about the UK music papers was that they let people write features who had no training in reporting whatsoever!). But, deep in my heart of hearts, I still think rock writing should be how it was when I was a youth. It ought to be zealous, ardent, ridiculously polarized in its judgements; it must risk absurdity by taking things too seriously; it should be drunk with its own power (for how else can it hope to intoxicate the reader?). When I am reading a piece of rock writing today, no matter how admirably written or insightful or wise it is, there remains a part of me, disappointed, that is still looking for the sensations I got as a teenage reader--blood boiling with excitement, body trembling with a sense of the article’s momentousness. Oh, the writing itself doesn’t necessarily have to be wild and raving, to froth at the mouth like a rabid dog; it can be precise, controlled, severe even. But its effect should be like Truth punching you in the mouth. It should shake with the vibration that Nietzche (who wrote the first masterpiece of rock criticism, The Birth of Tragedy a century before rock even existed) called “the world-will”. What Iggy Pop called “raw power”.

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