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A Hub Of Potential: Mark Sinker On The UK Music Press
Colm McAuliffe , April 14th, 2019 10:09

With his new book out now from Strange Attractor Press, A Hidden Landscape Once A Week: The Unruly Curiosity of the UK Music Press in the 1960s-80s, former Wire editor Mark Sinker tells Colm McAuliffe about the highs and lows of the old inkies and weeklies

image credit: Savage Pencil

What’s left to be said about the music press in the 1970s and 1980s, other than extolling the “bromantic ethnography of the NME office”, as Paul Gilroy puts it? The battles being fought across the pages of the Melody Maker, NME, Sounds and Smash Hits have long since lost their fervour. Today, there are innumerable and immediate outlets for anyone with a hot take on pop culture; indeed, such thinking is no longer espoused or opposed so much as unthinkingly presupposed. But if the form of critical culture pioneered by the music press is a thing of the past, this opens it up for retrospective reconsideration. Insofar as a specific genre or theory feels like its ‘over’, perhaps its historical closure leaves it newly illuminated in ways which weren’t possible when it was pressingly present.

Mark Sinker’s A Hidden Landscape Once A Week takes a view of the music press from this reflexive perspective and provides a contextual account of the ‘unruly’ curiosity of the UK music press, during an era when the circulation of the NME alone was hitting a quarter of a million. The unruliness is key to Sinker’s account in that he doesn’t provide a linear history of the era but presents us with an anthology of conversations and essays largely emanating from a conference on the topic held at Birkbeck, University of London, in May 2015.

This approach produces a kind of conceptual clarity; the method of historical reconstruction reflects the unruliness of the object. Sinker sets out to follow the trajectories of the music press not as a spurious whole but one that is fissured by historical fault lines traced from the late 1960s counterculture right up to the overwhelming political anxieties of the early 1980s. Accordingly, Sinker’s anthology eschews any straightforward path and we encounter many culs-de-sacs, steep turns and surprising vistas, often seemingly in real time as the transcription of conference discussions are interrupted by a disputative voice in the crowd or followed in the anthology with an essay demonstrating a contrarian viewpoint.

All of this makes for intoxicating reading. Certain voices begin to echo throughout the entire anthology with a particular resonance: Val Wilmer, Richard Williams and the late Penny Reel offer consistent and occasionally confrontational insight while a conference panel entitled “The Changing Make-up of Bohemia” proffers a critique of the conference itself along with an amusing takedown of Paul Morley’s “dreadful conceit”. But this epitomises the meta-critical spirit both described and celebrated in the book. “In this book are some early maps of the achievements and the pitfalls of encounter as conflicted possibility… doubts aired as provocations,” remarks Sinker in his introduction. I caught up with him on a windswept evening in east London to find out more.

First of all, how did this conference on the music press come about in the first place?

MS: Dr. Joe Brooker [from the Department of English and Humanities at Birkbeck] is the reason it happened at all. It was at his birthday when I asked him to get me over to Birkbeck to give lectures to his students – I felt they would enjoy it and would learn something.

He said that I should apply to do some research at Birkbeck [on the topic of the music press and politics] so I put a proposal for research at the university. When writing out the proposal, I didn’t quite know how my research would “impact upon academia” so I asked around and people said it would make a great conference. So I threw together my idea of the conference along with an imaginary wish list of people. I didn’t get the research position but they were very interested in the idea of the conference so I put together a separate application for the conference.

I realised that the notion that crystallised everything for me – and made it appeal to Birkbeck’s sensibilities – was ‘what are the politics of music journalism?’ which in a way was always my topic but I hadn’t clarified it to myself in those terms until I had to think of ways to impress someone who wasn’t a publisher.

As a practical thing, I was costing it more sensibly so I wasn’t bringing anyone over from America, for example, but I wanted it to be focused upon the UK anyway. My introductory paragraph in the book explains the story of that. People were very enthusiastic – mainly. A few people were a bit daunted by the fact that it was academic in tone and they were [non-academic] journalists or other responses were just ‘I don’t care anymore…’

This comes up as a thread throughout the anthology: a division between the writers steeped in ‘theory’ and those who defiantly avoided such a thing.

I think it is [a thread]. I went to college, studied philosophy or whatever, but was much more drawn to autodidacts in terms of the things I was reading. I was doing maths and philosophy – with a focus on moral philosophy. I was very excited by the kinds of people that Ian Penman, especially, was talking about and I wanted to talk about these people. And, on the whole, my tutors didn’t know who people were. I was at New College, Oxford which was very analytical – at the time, there was a lot of pushback on AJ Ayer but because it was maths and philosophy, you [were studying people] people like Michael Dummett and [Gottlob] Frege. When you’re still eighteen, you had to understand it and I ploughed through it and picked up something [useful].

And you must have been at a prime age to be experiencing the likes of [Ian] Penman and Paul Morley at this time.

I started reading the rock papers quite late as I hadn’t been particularly caught up in music as a younger teenager. I was at school, reading the NME at the common room table and liking the look of it, getting very pulled in to the feel of it. This was 1977 so it was high-time for punk rock – I didn’t know this then – and Tony [Parsons] and Julie [Burchill] had only just arrived some months before and were tearing everything upside down. The older writers were pushing back or embracing it. I remember being very strongly struck by a piece by Charles Shaar Murray on Bowie at the time of Heroes, but I didn’t really know much about him at the time.

Was there a feeling at this time that the music press represented some form of ‘centre’ and you were still on the periphery?

Well, I grew up near Shrewsbury surrounded by farms but I wouldn’t necessarily say the NME was at the centre but it was talking about things that I was absolutely drawn to – I wanted to find out more, I was wide open for everything it was about. And I still think, now, that looking back, the high-point for me was the NME seemed as if it could be about everything. In principal you could somehow imagine that an issue could land and someone would be talking about Michael Dummett and Frege in the context of rock culture or punk. Now I don’t think that ever happened – but somehow there was something about it which was simultaneously countercultural – setting aside from the “grown up” way of doing things – but also it allowed itself to explore and discuss and explain everything. That was very important to me.

The “theory” aspect of it was important, I was there and I loved it! What was interesting to me was that it was a way of talking about all these other things that were jigsaw-ed in all round it. And one of the things I found increasingly disappointing, ten or so years later, by which time “theory” had embedded itself in academia, was how limited its scope was in terms of topics it discussed. It seemed like it became a way of narrowing things down rather than opening them up. I was very embedded still in writing about music and I was very territorial, [thinking] ‘the way WE think about it – that ‘we’ being a spectral idea in itself! – was better than the [other] way’.

You started writing for the NME around 1983. The concept of a music writer feels like it was a much more realisable form then. You just went in and did it and somehow eked out a living.

It sort of was. I was enormously confident – over confident, in terms of what it looks like now! – that I could write. I was less confident about the extent of my knowledge of music because I had started [becoming interested in music] so late. I was always had a bit of imposter syndrome about this. I didn’t know what a lot things sounded like yet. Getting hold of music was difficult, you had to pay even if it was for bashed up secondhand things and you had to decide which [record] you went for. I felt like I was building up a knowledge base at high speed and quite late in terms of how to think about it but in terms of the space, I had a strong idea. I was a freelancer for five years or so and for the last two or three years, I had carved out a niche.

One of the most striking voices in the book is Cynthia Rose, who perhaps is one of the few people to address the economic realities of being a music journalist.

One of the things I didn’t grasp at the time, when you’re young your sense of people being, say, four years older than you as being tremendously established and that’s the pinnacle of the profession. I assumed it would expand and establish itself in a way that was completely nuts. But people were already speaking about [the profession] being weird, even in their late twenties. That was also part of the discussion. It’s like an absent topic from the book.

One of the interesting things about getting people in for the conference was that there were two distinct people; one was like Penny Reel, Charlie Murray and that’s still what they do [or did], they were music writers and/or still involved in the field of music. And they’d set out to be that, that’s what they had become. Whereas there’s a whole group of people there who had gone on to be some kind of journalist, probably culturally directed but not thinking of themselves [as a music journalist]. In fact, I’m not sure Cynthia ever thought of herself as a music journalist, she was a journalist on a music paper.

One of the reasons I asked her to do it – when I first encountered her, she was talking about it in terms of what the practice of journalism was and this re-orientated the way I thought about the profession. She was very clear about it. Unlike some people I was encountering who were editors, she was just very friendly and approachable and would say, do it like this, don’t do it like that! I could have done with a lot more of this from other people!

If you read this, you do get the sense – from Charlie – encountering old school journalists because they were editors and them telling him to rewrite or go ask this – that old fashioned beat journalist thing had, by the early 1980s, begun to fade and you were getting probably a bit too many writerly divas who were working with other people as editors but who weren’t necessarily thinking clearly about how to make them better writers. That’s definitely a thread through the book – this was beginning to dissolve through the 1980s and continues to this day.

It’s more like you would get your work re-written but you wouldn’t get an explanation of how to think more clearly about it. That’s because the editors – I’m really only thinking of the NME now – maybe the thing I’m asking is completely unrealistic but I think it is something that ten years before people were trained up to be better writers. The faith in the writer as auteur by the editor had got a bit out of hand. I was enjoying the fact that writers had been allowed to go where they wanted so I think I also felt that at the time. The man shouldn’t be oppressing our stylistic genius! Actually, only a few people could get with away that.

In many respects, the ‘start’ of this book is focused around the 1960s counterculture – Oz, IT magazine and so on. On reading the story recounted of these publications, I’m reminded of the sociologist Jürgen Habermas’s comment which declares “the 1960s avant garde was a culture arising from the centre of bourgeois society itself. Its threat could be easily contained because it was surrounded by the institutions and apparatus of its opponents.”

Yes – I think, to some extent, that’s evident from the story as it is. What is [more] interesting is that something more complicated was happening, the potential for some sort of free flow or dialogue with the music press which I don’t think was quite so middle class. It wasn’t working class but you had access to it.

Some of the writers really were from lower middle class or below that but they were talented writers who read a lot. Penny Reel is the exemplar of that. In terms of the underground and especially the International Times, Jonathon Green says to Penny in the conference that he was the only working class member of the underground - but I don’t really think that’s true and Penny didn’t really think that’s true.

He was the only one who ended up being a storied writer, perhaps, but I don’t think it was true that people who were turning up to those [UFO] shows at the Roundhouse or wherever were [entirely middle class]. I think it was a meeting point for lots of different kinds of people. It was certainly paid for by daddy’s money, largely, but it was in a sense open and people like the Beatles weren’t absolutely from the lowest class but were certainly on the border between middle and working class. Music and entertainment has always been a way through for people of [lower classes].

The core of this book feels like it’s centred around a change in ‘rock’ journalism of the 1970s where there was a shift from the fact-driven, serious opinions of the early 1970s to a more discursive, less hierarchical tone around the time of punk and new wave.

I’m not sure if I agree with that. The thing about the NME from the time of Charlie and Mick [Farren], less Nick Kent (he’s not a funny writer), is that it was a very funny paper. It was quite playful and it was under the editorship of Nick Logan and they were funny and they poked fun [at others]. I think [your point] has more validity if you’re looking at the American approach. Rolling Stone was earnest - we’re setting up a canon for the future! – but Creem and Fusion were funny and poked fun at it and were interested in this being an aesthetic that took itself apart. That’s not how Melody Maker was but it’s definitely how NME and Sounds were, Sounds anyway, from the mid 1970s.

Mischievous is perhaps a better word than playful because it was often quite spiteful. I don’t think they were successful because they were earnest – even though there was a lot of earnestness around – I mean I was quite earnest. [Paul] Morley isn’t a funny writer – [Ian] Penman is – and I think in different moods I was drawn to both. I was earnest and thought there was a project and you were onside or you were not. And what that was for me has changed a lot for me over time.

Paul Gilroy speaks towards the end of the book about a problematic hagiography existing in terms of the music press. But the reality was presumably much more grim and unglamorous and probably quite competitive.

It was certainly more competitive once I got there. But when Charlie’s talking about a kind of cabal who would gather at Ian MacDonald’s flat and talk through what the ‘thing’ was, there were cliques, people having fun, trying to draw the line between what’s good and what’s bad, what’s right and what’s wrong – the former is the aesthetic side of it and the latter is the political side – and to work out all of that.

Nobody was earning money. It’s an under discussed element – which is someone else’s book, really. One of the things which I think is mentioned in one of the conversations is when Penny Reel made an interjection saying that the cliques were essentially to do with who favoured which kind of drug, and that is a really interesting topic but it’s not one I feel legally competent to explore!

Rock Against Racism prefigures a lot of the conversations in the book. But its coverage in the music press at the time now reads deeply worrying; I can remember reading through an entire issue of Sounds from 1978 dedicated to the movement yet, at the same time, sharing space with some hideously anti-Irish cartoons, depicting Irish punks as backwards, incapable of counting “1,2,3,4” to begin a song.

I can’t speak for what Sounds was like – I came to quite dislike Sounds by the late 1970s. The writers that I liked had mostly left and yes, it had taken on a different tone. That hectoring tone… Yes, one of the things you encounter in print in the late 1970s is exactly that juxtaposition of the critique and the thing criticised right next to each other. And what you actually see play out over the next decade, or just a bit less, is the critique beginning to be removed or displaced so that you would get arguments.

The 1980s were anxious for many reasons but a lot of it was the feeling that we were working through these issues for the first time. Maybe something like that had been happening… working through what the language ought to be and working through the tangle of identity politics. How you address what Professor Griff says. That was all going on at the time.

And it’s not much different to today. It’s more intense today, the places you can make “mistakes” are everywhere – the landscape is much more detailed. But a lot of the anxiety feels like it’s very similar to that time in the 1980s. Media is surprisingly path dependent. A lot of its structures and practices carry on long after they ought to be adjusting, in this kind of way. The fact that the internet has totally transformed the pressure points and connections and monetizations, we’re still pushing our way through.

Finally, we’ve spoke a lot about the writers and the structures behind the press but what about the readers? Do you have any sense as to who was the specific audience reading the music press? It might not always have been people who wanted to read interviews with musicians; I suspect many people used the music press as a listings magazine as much as anything else.

I assume every week significant proportions of the readers were looking to follow who they already followed. It’s probably embedded in the idea of a music paper that you at least to some extent are looking at something new and something you didn’t know. The Spotify algorithm going ‘if you like this then you’ll like that ‘ – the press was a less robotic version of that. You open it and you’re looking for affinities. You sense you have affinities, looking for connections – you’re reaching out to someone and someone is reaching out to you. This is a hub of potential and no one makes all the connections that are on offer – that would be an insane amount of connections!

A Hidden Landscape Once A Week by Mark Sinker is published by Strange Attractor