Extracts from Mark Sinker’s introduction to A Hidden Landscape Once A Week: The Unruly Curiosity Of The UK Music Press In The 1960s-80s, In The Words Of Those Who Were There
(In May 2015 Mark Sinker convened a conference at Birkbeck, University of London, to discuss the emergence and evolution of the countercultural voice in the UK, as inflected through the rock papers and music press. As well as essays and memoirs from and interviews with participants, as illustrated by Savage Pencil, the book includes select edited transcripts of some of these panels.)
From Mark Sinker’s introduction: The story of the music press in the era that this anthology covers, the early 1960s to the late 80s, is one of gatekeeping and its discontents, a long, many-sided tussle over authority and access. What’s good and who decides? Who ought to be deciding, and who selects the deciders? Which habits to challenge, which conventions to confront; when do gossip and spiteful fun turn bad? Who knows what, who’s talking to who — who pays for it all and what’s their cut? Land on the wrong page of almost any publication mentioned here and you’re immersed in a welter of teenage obsession, confusion, ignorance and malice. Posturing, feuds, very bad writing about very bad music — except over the period examined, this was also a remarkable and an unlikely cultural pocket developing largely unnoticed by the wider media, in which could be found valuable engagement with any number of off–mainstream projects: besides music, obviously, you might discover films, fashion, street theatre, science fiction, poetry and vanguard art, radical politics and cultural theory — and hints, too, maybe, on how to access the sexual or pharmaceutical netherworlds. This was a hidden landscape that changed from week to week: in every issue, or nearly every issue, there’d be something new and unexpected to explore.
Extract from Panel 3: Rhetorics of Outsider Style and the Implicit Politics of Critical Stance
(Paul Morley and Barney Hoskyns of NME in its imperial phase talk arrogance and ambition with Jonh Ingham of Sounds, the first writer to recognise what the Sex Pistols might be opening up… )
PM: This great moment when New Order or Siouxsie or Depeche Mode — or even Simple Minds at that point — were on Top of the Pops. It seemed like an act of invasion into a cosy world. Billy Mackenzie and the Associates seemed to be some sort of triumph, which confirmed how we’d been writing and what we’d been writing about. There was change, even though it was obviously establishment change, but it seemed like change. It seemed better and different.
Toby Litt (chair): Doesn’t that give up the outsiderness? Doesn’t that mean that two weeks later the Associates will be on the cover of Smash Hits saying yellow is their favourite colour?
PM: It was all moving so quickly and you were making decisions so quickly that it didn’t seem that way. I mean, even with Frankie my adverts were basically attacking Wham! and Duran Duran. So I was still making that ideological protrusion. And in a way it became too dominant. The manifesto situation dominated, and I look at it now with some embarrassment. But that was the willing of something into being — and I had taken it seriously, and that was why I had wanted to be a writer. So for a couple of weeks I did will it into being — and then George Michael was number one again and we had to start all over again.
TL: Jonh, there came a point at which you disengaged from the writing and moved on to other things. Was it the music or the political disengagement?
JI: I burnt out on the writing. At the end of the day there’s kind of two stories if you’re doing features: either you’re on the road with a band or you’re in the room with a band, and those two stories can get very old after you’ve written hundreds of them. Before Grundy nobody expected what did happen to happen — which was like the whole place knew about it in just one day, and suddenly every 15-year-old in the country had something to get excited about, for better or worse. The assumption had been that it would just kind of roll through 1977, and by about 78 or 79 would become really popular in a traditional sort of way. When it all blew up like that I thought, “This looks interesting, what can I do?” So there was a degree of that.
The photographers and designers who were caught up in it in the latter part of 1976 — like Linder in Manchester with record sleeves — decided to get into that kind of world and take the philosophies and the ideas in the air and apply them to how they looked at the world. In my case I decided that I’d get into management. First of all I wanted to start a record company because that looked like a cool idea, but a lawyer told me you’ve got a conflict of interests if you are a record company and manage a band. So we thought, “OK, let’s manage a band,” and I ended up with Generation X, so that’s what I did for the next three years, four years.
TL: So you’re also crossing over from writing to world-building. You’re trying to make the band.
JI: Seriously though, you kind of get it from what Paul’s talking about. Why do you want to get involved in doing these kind of things if you don’t want to get the maximum amount of success from it you can? Because you’ve got to believe that you’re working with the best people that are making the music, and that therefore they should be as successful in the biggest possible sense.
TL: But Barney, what you’re specifically interested in, isn’t it what success does? Isn’t that darkening of the 60s into the 70s what the operation of success does to these musicians?
BH: To a large extent I think yes. I seem to return like a moth to a flame to that narrative. I don’t know why. There’s some sort of morbid fascination with it, I suppose. But to return to what Paul was saying earlier. You were talking about ideological battles with Smash Hits across the way. I remember there was a guy called Steve Taylor who had a late night pop chatshow called Loose Talk — and he wrote a piece [we think for the Virgin Rock Yearbook — ed.] rather grandly called ‘The Death of the Swiftian Function’, which basically said the NME was dead, the idea of the personality journalist was over, Nick Kent was over. We’re in the 80s now: greed is good, the consumer rules, it’s about expensive flashy stuff and having fun and going on holiday with George Michael or whatever. Just nutty stuff really. So even though the 80s produced some extraordinary characters — like Morrissey, Nick Cave, the late lamented Billy MacKenzie, these were extraordinary, eccentric characters in the middle of the sort of nightmare of Nick Heywood and Spandau Ballet. With all due respect.
Extract from Panel 6: Did Punk Affirm the Underground’s Values – or Challenge Them?
(Liz Naylor of the Manchester fanzine City Fun, later a prime mover in UK riot grrrl, talks to cartoonist-writer Edwin Pouncey aka Savage Pencil, of Sounds, NME and currently The Wire, about how these publications first called to them…)
LN: I think it’s remarkable how close the Second World War was to the 1970s.
EP: Yes, I always keep thinking this, and how weird it was.
LN: Because I consider the 1990s like yesterday, but I work with people who weren’t born then, and consider them a very long time ago. We grew up in an era where the Second World War wasn’t very long previously. My mother still behaves to this day like the Second World War is still on.
EP: I was born in 1951, so about six years afterwards. Six years is nothing. I think it must have been so weird for our parents as well, to see their children grow up and then rebel against them ten years later. And they went, “But we’ve saved the world and you don’t want it! What? What are you doing?”
LN: Rebellion is a form of acting out, isn’t it? It’s emotional acting out. I think for me, the interesting thing about punk and post-punk is it’s a time of confusion, and there’s almost quite an androgynous movement. It wasn’t very blokey. And I don’t know whether that was to do with the amount of speed that people were taking. But, you know, it’s very unsexual — and then it all settles back down into normal sort of boy stuff.
EP: But to carry on this thing I’ve just said, “We’ve saved the world and you don’t want it.” Then punk comes along and all the people who created progressive rock are like “But we’ve changed music and you don’t want it, you want to destroy it!” It’s almost reflecting that same scenario, isn’t it? Like crash and burn again, you know — let’s do it again, let’s just rip it up again, start again, keep ripping things up.
LN: I think one of the sadnesses is that that doesn’t seem to particularly exist now, that sort of desire. I don’t know. Or maybe it’s too fragmented, maybe I don’t understand where it exists, that desire to reinvent, to rip it up. It must be continuing somewhere, in little pockets.
EP: All I knew was that I was alone. I was alone in Leeds. I’d have Trout Mask Replica on and I’d try and drag friends up there to listen to it. And they’d sit there and listen to a side of it, and go, “Well, I’d better go home and have my tea now.” So it was just really, really like you were just alone, you know.
LN: We’re not coming out of this too well, are we? Like really sad, lonely people!
EP: Sad, lonely, pathetic people. Freaks. But I didn’t have any other freaks I could relate to, you know what I mean, they were all just like totally straight and going off to university. Boring really. So it seemed like punk did give access to a lot of freak-dom. You did meet a lot of it.
LN: Or maybe they were just more functional than us, Edwin, rather than boring. Maybe it’s about functionality, about being more able to be in the world. So to get back to my idea about trauma, there were people trying to work out something because they’re not able to be in the world.
Extract from Panel 7: The Changing Make-up of Bohemia: Who Was Reading When?
(Cynthia Rose of NME and latterly The Wire talks to the late Penny Reel, pioneer reggae writer, and academics Simon Frith and Paul Gilroy, both respected music writers in their day, about what gets left out of the story… )
CR: Yesterday I noticed that — I think, again, people were just interested in pursuing a certain line of thought and not particularly thinking of the context around it — but the fact is that there was a missing element all the way through which was going on at exactly the same time. So that, for instance, when people start talking about technology, the terrible crushing force of technology that now rules everybody... well, technology did make possible the whole warehouse party, rare groove thing, this burst of new record stores, this scene. That was technology, too, wiring record turntables into light posts and having a party.
SF: You could say the most significant do it yourself culture was not punk necessarily, but pirate radio.
CR: I would totally agree with that, because it involved more people. And while it became a media phenomenon in a way, it was actually via commodities and the people who made them got the money from them — and that was the difference with punk as well.
PG: I agree with the diagnosis, and I’m wondering how much that’s because the body sort of disappears out of it. I don’t think it’s just dancing. How seriously do people write about intoxication? There are a number of other things like that, the corporeal or, I don’t know, somatic aspects of life and being. There’s something really oddly cerebral about the way this is supposed to be opened up to judgment. So I think that the loss of dance [from the story] and the loss of interest in that is actually to do with a bigger set of problems about where the body is in this.That’s actually one reason why I feel so strongly about the history of Rock Against Racism — because I think that their founding commitment to black and white bands sharing a space for performance is absolutely critical to the way that things develop around them. So, yes, the body’s a problem for people anyway, and sharing space is an issue which has a history, and you’re absolutely right that the dance histories and dance spaces of that are fundamental.
At the same time I can remember thinking in maybe 1980, going round the back of Digbeth Civic Hall in Birmingham, Quaker City, and some sound system come up from London or whatever, and they’re playing "Bad to Worse" by Burning Spear, over and over. They’d let it play and then put it back on. It’s like it’s going from bad to worse, over and over again, and I’m beginning to think “What kind of a space is this, actually? It’s doing my head in, and I hadn’t smoked that much.” How people dance in that. There’s a bigger story to be told about what dancing was. It’s not just dancing.
PR: Dancing was central to my love of music.There were two strands. There was working-class venues in which people stood around in mohair suits snarling at each other, and there were the middle-class venues, like Middle Earth and the Roundhouse, where people were very welcoming and very middle-class. And of course I was attracted to the middle class because, as I said, I didn’t like fighting because it brought pain — and me and pain never got on. So I had the head thing — I’d go to Glastonbury and nod away to the Incredible String Band — and I had the dancing thing, where I’d dance all night to the twist and hoochy coochie coo, because that was really where I come from. But it wasn’t a matter of where I’d come from, it was also a case of where I was going. I think that we’re not born to be the same thing, we’re born to grow and develop. So I’ve got interested in Mamie Smith, that you can’t really dance to, and I got interested in Chubby Checker that you can, and Hank Ballard, and I got interested in the Incredible String Band that you can’t dance to. So my taste in music is quite wide, although some people would say it’s limited because it’s virtually all black. That’s it.
SF: When you first started writing who did you envision your readers to be.
PR: Whoever read it.
SF: But did you think of who it may be?
PR: No. I just thought whoever read it might get something out of this. I’m trying to tell people something. I’m trying to tell people that really you should be listening to Delroy Wilson, and not Pete Townshend or Paul Weller.
A Hidden Landscape Once A Week: The Unruly Curiosity Of The British Music Press From The '60s To The '80s… By Those Who Made It Happen is published by Strange Attractor Press in February 2019 and is available to pre-order now.