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Tome On The Range

Desperate Journalists: Music In Print, 1950–2000
Alex Burrows , November 26th, 2022 09:15

In his new book Totally Wired, Paul Gorman gives a scholarly account of the UK and US music press in the late twentieth century

Photo credit: Alex Burrows

In 1953, just a year after buying Musical Express and relaunching it as the New Musical Express, Maurice Kinn bagged the mother of all music press scoops – with Frank Sinatra. The globally popular singer was emotionally smarting from the breakdown of his marriage to Ava Gardner which was compounded by a frosty reception on tour in Italy before he arrived in London. Grateful for the opportunity to tell his side of a story being played out across the international press, the Chairman of the Board wasn’t one to forget the paper’s support. Two years later, he gave Kinn and his wife quite possibly the first and one of the ultimate music press freebies by flying them to Las Vegas for an all-expenses paid stay at the Sands Casino.

The anecdote both celebrates the leverage of the twentieth century’s music press but also hints at the excess that would at least partly inform its downfall. An accomplished historian and curator who has written multiple books on subjects including Malcolm McLaren, Barney Bubbles, and The Face magazine, Paul Gorman’s Totally Wired: The Rise and Fall of the Music Press is as much an in-depth document of the mainstream popular music industry from mid-century to the turn of the millennium.

Bold in scope, Totally Wired’s ambitiously broad remit to cover fifty years of a single sector of journalism across both the UK and USA means it isn’t exhaustive in nature. While it documents some of the best and worst of that era’s music press, Gorman’s book isn’t the usual series of breathless music hack war stories and cartoonish flights of fancy that have been done to death over the past two decades, symptomatic of the self-publicising egotism once associated with the medium. Instead, the book takes a historian’s eye view of an industry that once made the morally reprehensible mainstream British tabloid press look as pastoral as a parish newsletter.

While interviewing many music press names from throughout the era, it’s a typically insightful quote from DJ John Peel that Gorman uses to highlight the target of much derision aimed at the sector: “Ultimately what the reviewers were doing was reviewing themselves”. Peel is describing the short-lived early 70s magazine Let It Rock but over a decade later it might also be applied to writers associated with the NME and Melody Maker where the caricature of glib music journalism reached its nadir in the late 80s. In a chapter ironically titled ‘We’re happy to stick pretension where it belongs’, Gorman emphasises an interview with Uriah Heep’s Ken Hensely headlined: “So tell me Ken, why is it Uriah Heep drive rock critics to suicide”, citing a Rolling Stone writer who’d threatened to kill herself if the heavy ‘n’ humble prog rockers became successful. Gorman also later cites Charles Shaar Murray’s notoriously blunt dismissal of The Clash in the NME when Murray suggested the band should kill themselves with carbon monoxide poisoning. Joe Strummer found the review so offensive he wrote ‘Garageland’ as a response. “The journalists were bigger than the artists themselves,” Gorman is told by music aficionado and novelist Nick Hornby who himself was once put off applying for a job at the NME because of the writers’ reputation.

But the worst criticism that can be directed at the press of the era was its disgraceful lack of diversity. Dominated by white men for decades, both the UK and US music press were misogynistic in the extreme and, worse, glacial in addressing its own shortcomings. Female journalists like Editor-In-Chief of US teen mag 16, Gloria Stavers and Melody Maker’s Caroline Coon were treated little better than groupies by bands and even their male colleagues. Coon tells how she was abused with “howls, catcalls, jeers” upon entering her place of work. Following the advent of punk, Coon would quit Melody Maker following her Editor’s request that she wrote a regular gossip column titled ‘Bitch’. But Stavers and Coon were pioneering journalists, along with the likes of Chrissie Hynde, Penny Valentine, Barbara Charone, Sylvie Simmons, and Vivien Goldman. Despite the inexplicable longevity of the press’s male dominance, they opened the door for an equally influential influx of women writers, from Julie Burchill to Caitlin Moran.

Equally shameful was the era’s meagre lack of writers of colour. Gorman identifies the issues of the period, not least Black Music’s editorship by Alan Lewis. A highly respected music journalist, Lewis started at Melody Maker in the 60s before co-founding Black Music, after which he would go on to launch Sounds, Kerrang, Loaded, Vox and Muzik. But as Gorman elucidates, his editorship of Black Music was described by broadcaster, writer and campaigner Darcus Howe as “cultural imperialism”. Black Music would help launch the careers of influential Black music press writers Carl Gayle, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Idris Walters but representation of Black voices throughout the wider music press would remain an issue in the UK for a considerable time.

Much like those commentators who regularly bemoan the ‘death of rock’ with reassuring regularity, the death of music journalism has also been greatly exaggerated. It’s a mistake to believe an entire medium died – even when much of the music press either closed, scaled back its print products, or moved solely online from the 90s onwards. While Gorman namechecks just two online music publications – The Quietus and Pitchfork – in passing, the book’s overall tone feels like nostalgia for a previous era.

Gorman mentions the twenty-first century’s atomisation of the press as if decentralisation were a bad thing. Ultimately, this may be dependent on one’s personal music tastes, but music journalism had to decentralise to survive. This was bad news for a mainstream press driven solely by product sales and ad revenue, but it was the case across the board for the entire industry. Spooked by the capabilities of the internet’s file sharing and social media capabilities, the cumbersome and antiquated business treated the advent of digital music as the enemy. Without the agility to pivot – along with the stubborn intransigence to remodel its business practices at the expense of profit – the industry fell over.

Despite an acute analysis of the short-lived hipster 90s boutique magazine scenes – Grand Royal, Ray Gun, Ben Is Dead and notable riot grrrl era zine Girl Frenzy – Gorman strangely fails to acknowledge some of the sole remaining print magazines of the 80s and 90s. Unfashionable perhaps, but by no means unrespected, niche titles Metal Hammer and Classic Rock are conspicuous by their absence in the book. Since the 2010s, the latter has outmanoeuvred its competition, titles Mojo and Uncut, by consolidating both its print and digital products. Specialist but global, Classic Rock reaches an audience of over a million per week through its website, social media and print products combined – by far outstripping any of the old weeklies’ readership – even at the height of 80s music press sales. Its sister magazine, the highly successful Prog magazine, even launched as a print magazine in the post-digital age of 2005. Like Classic Rock, it continues to serve a loyal and passionate international community of both fans and artists.

Rampant egotism was rife amongst the late twentieth-century music press which elevated the self-importance of its writers beyond those it even wrote about. Coupled with the overwhelming moral and ethically absent entitlement of regular payola, freebies, kickbacks and junkets that would likely scandalise a publication in any other sector of mainstream journalism, the writers themselves must take at least some of the blame when the gravy train finally derailed. There’s an important distinction to make between the liggers along for the ride and the truly gifted. There is no denying the talent of UK music journalists – Hepworth, Ellen, Maconie, Lamacq, Moran, and Quantick, to name just a few – who would go on to equal or even greater things.

Music is art and in the right hands, the accompanying critical prose can be equally as uplifting, inspirational, or simply entertaining. Gorman’s ambitious book largely objectively documents the strengths and weaknesses of the music press, instead leaving his interview subjects to pass judgement on its successes and failings. While some of the era’s magazines may have fallen by the wayside, music journalism itself has evolved, matured, and focused. Just as it once did in the days of printed product, in the words of Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, it gets deep in the heart of you and under your skin.

Totally Wired: The Rise and Fall of the Music Press by Paul Gorman is published by Thames & Hudson. Paul Gorman will be signing copies of Totally Wired at Foyles, London, on 1st December