I remember very vividly, yet barely remember at all, the young man I was when I first started out as a music journalist back in 1986. I did possess some virtues; I was pretentious, for a start.
However, I was disaffected by the state of contemporary music and music journalism, which I had consumed at the expense of all else. I was ostensibly at Oxford to read English Language and Literature. Instead, I read the NME. Good decision, incidentally – not a day goes by in which I feel a single pang of regret at not immersing myself more thoroughly in the words of Sir Phillip Sidney or Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. I met Simon Reynolds. We were part of a collective that produced the wallsheet/magazine Margin, followed by the magazine Monitor, whose almost brutally sober typeface and outlook was an implied riposte to the unkempt amateurism of the indie fanzine culture of the mid-80s.
At this point, I wasn’t listening to the dominant new pop and UK indie rock of the day. Not The Pet Shop Boys, The Wedding Present, The Style Council, The Housemartins, The Eurythmics. I found them dull, tepid and unambitious, sonically at least, by comparison with the caustic, inventive post-punk that existed in the dub crater left by the explosion of The Sex Pistols, modified combinations of guitar and electronics, or the New Pop into which it had evolved, the likes of Scritti Politti, Simple Minds. ABC. I daresay the likes of Paul Heaton, Paul Weller, Neil Tennant were generating wry lyrical content for their fans to cock an ear to but in keeping with the first principles of 20th century art, I was far more interested in form than content. The only music I listened to was American R&B, funk imports and avant garde classical and jazz music, sourced from second hand record shops and music libraries.
I was married at 22. I had taken up work as a trainee chartered accountant. I felt quite old. I developed the notion, back in 1986 that rock and pop were on the brink of an ecological crisis, had run out of virgin territory, sources to plunder, shocks to perpetrate. I shared Simon Reynolds’ opinion that music was “massively over-determined by punk” by the mid-80s, rock reduced to mere pebbles of smallness and half-arsed irony, as evidenced on the NME’s C86 cassette compilation, so grey and reductive compared with the glorious vintage of C81. The decline felt terminal. There was nowhere further for rock or pop to go, except to delve into their pasts, go vintage, second hand, in search of a lost originality, authenticity, soul. That Kraftwerk made what was effectively their final studio album, Electric Cafe, in 1986, felt like a full stop for Futurism in pop. Their work was done.
In 1986, I wrote a piece for Monitor, pouring scorn on a Melody Maker feature extolling the virtuous of an upcoming crop of new bands in what I considered to be fatuously sanguine terms that evaporated under scrutiny. Hadn’t I said that there was nowhere for rock and pop to go? By this point, Simon Reynolds had joined Melody Maker and I was drawing a thoroughly miserable wage as a trainee at the accountancy firm Arthur Young, unable to admit that I was completely unsuited to the work, still less the culture. Much as I tried to encourage myself, like a stubborn dog, to get down to boning up on T-accounts and the like and get with the corporate exhortations delivered by men and woman far too young to do things “the AY way”, my true self stubbornly refused to budge, pining obscurely for some other walk of life. But not music journalism, of course. Rock and pop, as I had already established, had nowhere further to go? As for Melody Maker, well, Simon Reynolds could write for them, of course, but I’d burnt my bridges there with my fearless scorn.
And so it was that in July of 1986, I received a call from Frank Owen, freelancer at Melody Maker passing on a message from the editors wondering if I’d be interested in writing some reviews for the paper. This was my chance to draw myself to my full height and loftily refuse this kind but inappropriate offer. After all, rock and pop had nowhere further to go and it would be a waste of my years to dedicate them to the futile pretence that things could be otherwise by writing for the music press? However, I forsook that chance, instead replied “Yesplease”, practically biting the mouthpiece off the receiver as I did so. And, despite only being on a promise of a couple of trial live reviews I met with my managers at Arthur Young to inform them of my decision to quit immediately. “We think you’ve made the right decision,” they said, not, I suspect because they saw a glowing future for me in music journalism – young as they were, I don’t think they knew that there was such a thing as music journalism – but because they saw no future whatsoever for me in the world of chartered accountancy. They let me go with six weeks’ paid notice, telling me that they would call me into the office if they needed me. Since my main contribution to Arthur Young had been to waste space, it was unsurprising that I received no call and six week’s paid grace to build up my freelancing career.
The sun never streamed as hard in my life as it did in those first few weeks at Melody Maker, July and August, the Summer holiday months. Melody Maker’s offices were in High Holborn, opposite the Shaftesbury theatre, right on the edge of old and un-disappeared Holborn. I hung out at coffee bars, the Pollo restaurant with freelancers Frank Owen, Caroline Sullivan and Simon Reynolds, mainly. I recall little of our conversations except a general air of celebration that there we were, right there and then. In Soho, amid the New Romantic stragglers, the soulboys, the Goths, the neo-glam stripey trousered jetsam bobbing about in an anonymous sea of Shake’n’Vac mid-80s ordinaries – doing things the MM way.
My first ever printed review was of James “Blood” Ulmer, live at the Electric Ballroom, Camden, one of the few venues of that era that still stands. The harmolodics funk guru was wearing hideous pea-green flares, a semiotic detail to which, as a trousers-obsessed young man, I was fully alive; in my review I coined in the aphorism, The Wider The Flares, The Badder The Funk. In July 1986, this was a rock solid truth. I’d deal in such provisional Truths, set in stone but ephemeral, throughout my early years as a music writer. Still, in those few months, there wasn’t that much to disabuse my notion that music was lapping about in terminal, anticlimactic waters. Granted, I interviewed Janet Jackson, reviewed Miles Davis at Wembley and for my first cover story interviewed Johny Brown’s Band Of Holy Joy (a friend to this day). But there was a rather laboured, earnest, neo-soul blandness about 1986, coupled with a drearily spikeless indie aesthetic, the apotheosis of which was The Housemartins’ chart topping cover of The Isley Brothers’ “Caravan Of Love”.
Simon and I defined against the NME and our editors mischievously encouraged our waspish digs at their writers, despite NME supposedly being our IPC stablemates. We celebrated the things they seemed to subdue or decry; excess, the primacy of aesthetics over the dreary, lumpen politico-pop of “soul-cialism” and Red Wedge. Black rock (AR Kane!), not white soul. The spectacular, big-haired silliness of Goth, which NME regarded as beneath its dignity, leaving the Maker freer access to the likes of The Cure and The Mission – coverage of them and the readership they attracted, we regarded as a means of subsidising our more avant garde forays, even though we ungratefully took the piss out of Goths, especially when they wrote angry missives to the letters page, flies to wanton boys.
Come 1987 and multiple tsunamis of new music were hoving in from all sides, come to wash over and pull to the bottom of the sea the small, the mediocre, the white socked chancers who had held dull sway since the apparent near-revolution of the class of 1982 had petered out. Essentially, the dialectical wheel had turned in UK discourse at least – rock was no longer a dirty word. Simon Reynolds had hailed Hüsker Du’s hurricanes of fiercely sculpted guitarsound as represented “the return of rock”. They, along with Butthole Surfers, Swans, Dinosaur Jr, Throwing Muses, Big Black and Sonic Youth had been rumbling since the early 80s across the Atlantic but now they were joined by Ireland’s My Bloody Valentine as well as the UK’s Loops and feedback artisans AR Kane.
Meanwhile, hip-hop, with the likes of Public Enemy championed very early in Melody Maker by Frank Owen was beginning to flow, its modernity disconcerting to those who only venerated black music of a certain vintage and were mistrustful of new forms such as rap and Techno. And then there was Europe: The Sugarcubes and The Young Gods both in their different ways offering foreign alternatives to Anglo-American orthodoxy.
Expansiveness was the thing now; extravagance and innovation in terms of form and overwhelming sonics taking precedent over lyrical content and big upfront “characters”. Nothing against Elvis Costello, a fine lyricist and character but there was something anti-Costello about the new spirit of the age we felt we’d divined. I expressed as much in a live review of EC, written in the form of a dialogue between pro-and anti Costello sentiments. For my pains I received an un-ambivalent item in the post sent by a Costello with a note enclosed – a kipper, which he suggested I slap myself around the face with a few times to bring myself to my senses.
At last, there was something to write about, musics whose material significance you could celebrate, luxuriantly, in language. This offended the austere, the unpretentious, the conservative, who believed in the values of temperance and stolid prose which dealt in time-honoured cliche. My early writing took its cue from the much reviled Paul Morley and Ian Penman – I admired the way in which they debunked and exploded the shopworn language and assumptions of the discourse around music. One example, by Morley, stuck with me in particular – when he referred, in the early 80s to “hard groups like Depeche Mode”. He was doing more than taking the piss out of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal types, for whom Depeche Mode, in their mincey little shirts pushing buttons on their synths were soft as shite. He was deliberately scotching the notion that “hardness”, ie density, substance, durability, consisted in macho heavy metal guitar histrionics, effort and sweat. Ironically Depeche Mode did endure in a way that The Tygers Of Pan Tang did not but they wouldn’t have had to for what he said to have held true.
Like most writers, I’m embarrassed by my earliest work. It might have impressed some but I alone, as all writers know alone, the secret of how callow and naive I was back then. By 1987, however, I was, for the most part, metaphorically and literally drunk on self-confidence and alcohol. I was one of the boys, a regular at the rock’n’roll table, on drinking terms with the editors. I had my own nickname – The Wing Commander – and my own catchphrase (‘a single barely stains the glass”). By early 1987 I was a staff writer. In the 1986 piece which I’d derided, features editor Steve Sutherland did make the point that there were too many people in music journalism who regarded it as a mere stepping stone before “fucking off to write about cinema”, or maybe go work for the broadsheets. Simon and me harboured no such ambitions. So far as we were concerned, we were at the absolute pinnacle, at the centre of modern cultural relevancy. Melody Maker! In 1987! I remember bumping into Paul Morley at a Maker party, who listened politely as I urged him to drop whatever he was doing – ZTT, television, or whatever – and join us at the Maker. Why would he not? I remember Dan Ackroyd talking about how when he was enjoying his first flush of success at Saturday Night Live, he felt like he “owned” Manhattan. We felt much the same way about London, or at least the corner of it we occupied.
Music journalism, including my own these days, tends to skew towards the facts – real, true things you can flesh out a bit with celebration, interpretation, description, and, these days, a lot of retrospection, now that the smoke has cleared somewhat. Back then, the smoke was still billowing and facts were much harder to come by. How did one come by a fact? Press clippings? These might well merely be recycling inaccuracies from previous press clippings. The horse’s mouth? Yes, although interviewees were defensive, much to my intense disappointment, either evading pertinent truths, self-mythologising or simply mis-remembering stuff.
So, I for one, tended to eschew “facts” – boring, grey, stolid little things for dullards – in favour of descriptive prose, blackening the page with torrents of adjectives, similes, grand, celebratory claims. It was sometimes as if the musicians themselves were looking on in quiet confusion as I put on a pyrotechnic display intended to mirror the physical sonic force of the music they generated; and, when you were interviewing a J Mascis, for example, you had to do a lot of the heavy verbal lifting yourself.
We were barely edited – sometimes there were complaints about what we’d written but these tended to be after the fact. I’m glad, in retrospect. We were allowed our heads, our hands. It would have been very easy for the senior editors to have resented us and they certainly took the piss out of some of what we did but they couldn’t have been more supportive, appreciative of the energy, the force of the new we purported to represent, standing by and letting it fall where it may.
In 1986 I had gloomily predicted that the End Was Nigh for Rock and pop. Two years later, I declared that 1988 was the greatest ever year for music. This was not just a claim for the great fresh waves of music that had crashed over the past two years, which we felt only we at the Maker were properly celebrating. It was a Futurist provocation, a massive rhetorical snook to what I regarded as the enfeebling, half-arsed postmodern enervation of the mid-to-late 80s, the increasing retrospection, all of this ironically exacerbated by the technological innovation of the sampler. Only the hip-hoppers and The Young Gods used this technology properly, I argued, rather than as mere machinery for nostalgia and reference to the supposedly better past. Despite the increasingly fawning, nostalgic reverence for the past, there was a future after all and this was it.
Those days of play were among the best of my life. I’ll be revisiting some of what I wrote on this site as well as looking back to those Maker (and NME, Vox, and Uncut among others) days. Not everything. I’m not just embarrassed about certain things I wrote in the 1980s, and the 1990s but genuinely quite ashamed. I’m a very different person today, with different priorities. Back then, I was all about the primacy of aesthetics. They were almost a moral issue as for as I was concerned. I decried what I saw as the mediocre with a righteous, evangelical fervour, as if mediocrity, which I tended to equate with orthodoxy, were the biggest sin. Part of this was because I regarded bad music as a public affliction, to be endured involuntarily. It was unjust, I argued, that I had heard “Baby Jane” by Rod Stewart some 80 times in my life when I despised it more than any other song. Bad music warranted an excoriation beyond even that extended to, say, Jeffrey Archer novels – at least they weren’t read out over public tannoy systems.
These days, this simply isn’t an issue for me. I don’t feel any great need to lambast Ed Sheeran because he doesn’t impinge on my world. I never hear his music. I’m pretty sure I’ve no more (knowingly) heard a track by Adele any more than I’ve read a single word of Harry Potter. They may have vast market share but they exist in a separate dimension from the one I inhabit.
My fervour spilled over into a sense of cultural tribalism, another aspect of the 80s. Quite often, I would lambast artists essentially for not being The Young Gods. I felt personally at odds with people who did not feel the same way. Today, I reserve those feelings for politics, and the schism between centre left and centre right. I’m a good deal more left wing these days, albeit of the armchair variety. Back in the 80s, I was certainly, vaguely, pro-Labour and anti-Thatcher but would have devoted more thought and energy to the debilitating effect earnest politicizing was liable to have on pop, in all its mania, excess and materiality for its own sake.
Not that I don’t think there’s a place for genuine anger in music journalism, anger at music; among the best exponents of this is Neil Kulkarni and his forceful takedowns of the likes of Oasis and the rest of the “English Rock Defence League”. He is very well positioned to understand the racist undertow that has always coursed beneath white English rock, and how and where that has surfaced unapologetically in these Brexit times.
The late, pre-internet 20th century was a different time, a better and worse time. It was the world that made me and I had a very small role in making it. Maybe that different boy was onto something.