Mark Sinker is the editor of A Hidden Landscape Once a Week, a critical history of the UK music press “in the words of those who were there.” With the bulk of its pages transcribed verbatim from a conference on music criticism organized by Sinker—and with the book itself funded through Sinker’s successful Kickstarter campaign—Landscape is comprised of roundtable discussions and debates, one on one interviews, and personal essays, a compelling brew handily (which is to say coherently) pieced together, as various themes emerge and re-emerge throughout, with few interesting digressions left to wither and die. There’s a heady stretch of activity covered here: the story begins with Val Wilmer’s groundbreaking jazz coverage in the ’60s, finds new footing later that decade with the (post-LSD) rise of the underground press (typified by Oz), broadens that sensibility considerably in the ’70s as a number of counter-culture-identified writers migrate to the music weeklies (NME, Melody Maker, Sounds), and climaxes in the early ’80s with the convergence of mass popularity and critical theory in the pages of NME (though not without Smash Hits causing a pop-is-IT insurrection from the sidelines).
I was at least passingly familiar with some of the publications discussed here, and some of the conference participants (Simon Frith, Richard Williams, Charles Shaar Murray, Paul Morley, Barney Hoskyns et al.), but the book opened my eyes to a lot. Just as reading a great piece of music criticism can send me on a trip for days listening to the music I’ve just read about, digging into Sinker’s book led me back to the the decades-old stash of British weeklies I’m now extremely glad I hung on to. (Many of them appear to have gone through a paper shredder, but hey.) Perusing my early ’80s issues of NME in concurrence with the book, I was engaging with a world I only dimly perceived as such at seventeen, in my thirst and mania for bands and just-bands.
Mark Sinker’s writing first reached me through the I Love Music and I Love Everything chat boards, the greatest chat boards ever created, and Sinker’s voice was always a primary attraction there, even to a lurker like myself. (I don’t know if he still posts much; I barely check in myself these days.) In the early ’90s, Sinker edited (and from what I understand, helped make more readable) The Wire, and has also contributed to NME, Sight and Sound, Village Voice, etc. marksinker.co.uk will take you further down the path of what he’s been, and continues to be, up to.
It was a pleasure to chat with Mark last April about A Hidden Landscape, in fact, the first non-email interview I’ve conducted with a writer in maybe two decades. It was also my first transcontinental conversation via Skype, which proved a little problematic; a bad connection (and re-connection) rendered many of Mark’s comments indecipherable, and it was only with his generous help that I was able to complete and clarify the transcription in the first place. Thank you, Mark!
I hope you enjoy the conversation. Moreso, I hope you purchase the book.
SW: A Hidden Landscape Once a Week covers a lot of terrain in the history of English music criticism, starting with jazz writing in the ’50s, and central to that is the weekly publication—particularly during the ’70s and ’80s—of NME, Melody Maker, and Sounds, magazines which were an integral part of a larger conversation about pop music. Give me a little synopsis of how this worked in context for yourself. I take it that buying these publications—which I think came out every Thursday?—was a central weekly event for you?
MS: Yes, from around the age of 17, which was 1977, I began, at first, pretty much buying all three a week—Sounds came out on Wednesday, and Melody Maker and NME came out on Thursday, if I remember correctly. And over the next two or three years I ended up really being a very very loyal and intense NME reader, and the others gradually fell by the wayside. But certainly NME and Sounds every week, if I could. The only week I remember missing, at that point, is the week Keith Moon died, because both were completely sold out.
SW: How did the book come together? I know it started as a 2015 conference on music writing, but was it always your intention to turn it into a book?
MS: Yes, I had a plan to write and research a book about the idea of—I mean, essentially, the aesthetics of rock writing, what’s going on in writing—this or that style they’re bringing to the table to explore music—and how that’s changed over the years. And I was trying to pitch a research—well, fashion a pitch for a research grant to Birkbeck, which is the university that ran the conference. But one of the things that happens when you’re pitching is, they say, “Well, this research sounds interesting but we need some sense of what you think its impact will be?” And I didn’t have a clue. I thought, “Probably none at all!”—but I knew that wasn’t a good thing to say, so I quizzed some of my friends who work in academia, and they said, oh, a good thing to say is, “Once I’ve done this it could lead to a conference.” And so, with about five minutes before the deadline for the pitch actually ended, I was thinking, “A conference! A conference! Who can I say can come to this conference? It could be—” And I just really came up with the best-sounding conference I could think of, slightly pitching it towards politics because I knew that would pique Birkbeck’s interest. And so at no notice at all I came up with the idea of something, and submitted a big list of, you know, if-at-all-possible names. And I didn’t get the research grant, but they loved the idea of the conference, and gave me a little bit of money towards putting that together a few months later. And since then I got it all structured and went ahead with my best possible idea of it, because that’s what I’d written down. And on the whole—apart from people who were actually busy, or too far away and I couldn’t afford to fly them in, and a couple of people who felt a bit daunted by the context or who just weren’t interested—yes, I did persuade most of them to come, and it all came together.
SW: Regarding the format of the resulting book, it is quite unique. You’ve got one-on-one interviews in there, panel discussions from the conference, and you also commissioned some personal essays, which are really great. So I’m just wondering, while you were in the editing and compiling phase of the book, did it fall into place as a coherent narrative, or because you had mapped out the book, as you’re telling me—or the idea of a book—in conjunction with the conference, were you able to plan that upfront?
MS: There wasn’t very much planning upfront for the conference, it was more to do with, if some people could come on Friday and some only on the Saturday, how could I fashion a panel which fitted with who was able to be there at this or that time? And then what topics would make sense, once I worked out what the panels could possibly be. And then Tom Ewing, of Freaky Trigger, when he was writing it up, pointed out something which I hadn’t really noticed, which was that day one was structured round the narrative which celebrates this basic history, and day two was the people picking holes in it. He said he’d never attended a conference this well-structured. Well, I hadn’t planned to structure it like that at all! That’s just what happened as a consequence of when people were available. But once he put that idea in my mind, that gave me a little bit of a sense of what I wanted to do with the book. And because I had the panels recorded so that we could broadcast them, it wasn’t very difficult to get them transcribed without me having to transcribe, whatever it is—12 hours or something. I could send them off to someone my sister uses who would do a good job not very expensively. And that gave me, I suppose, about a third of the book. But when I was talking to the publisher, he said, “Well, I don’t think we can just run a book which is just transcripts, we need to think of something else to go with it.” And so, I started to think of how I wanted to—actually I think I’d already half got that idea, I think the publisher had already said that to me, because I know that I was talking to people at the conference about the possibility of them writing something afterwards. But it was all a bit up in the air then, so I was really just seeing if it was going to be possible.
And the structure of the book, I guess, once I had—yeah, I think it followed the panels, I think I swapped the first two around in the book, but the other panels are basically in the order they happened on the day, so it follows it reasonably closely.
SW: And it is essentially in chronological order, in terms of the story of the UK press itself. You start the book off with Val Wilmer, who was born in the ’40s, and started doing writing and photography, for Melody Maker and some other publications, I think, in the late ’50s or something like that. So it does go back quite a ways.
MS: I think she was working for other, smaller magazines back then, little black magazines? Her Melody Maker work doesn’t start until the early ’60s. I actually should double-check that, but it’s around then. [MS: according to her autobiography, Wilmer began working for Melody Maker in the mid-60s, after—and very much as a consequence of—her first encounters with the radical wing of black free jazz in New York.]
SW: Okay. On the subject of the participants, let’s mention a few of them. You have Val Wilmer, who goes back a fair way, you have, from the ’70s and ’80s, some of the more well-known names, like Paul Morley, Simon Frith, Richard Williams, Penny Reel, Cynthia Rose, Charles Shaar Murray. My question is, did you get the sense upfront that the contributors were eager to participate in having this story, or their version of the story, told? And conversely, did you meet with any resistance from some of the people who did end up participating, or who didn’t want to participate?
MS: Well, there were a couple of people who didn’t want to participate. I won’t really name any names, I don’t think, but—well, actually I will name Nik Cohn, of Awop Bop a Loo Bop. I contacted him, and he was just very skeptical about the worth of the whole thing. I mean, he was very friendly about it, but he obviously thought, “Who cares? I don’t want to have anything to do with this, and who cares anyway, it was all rubbish!” I don’t know exactly what he thinks, but he was very skeptical of it. And there were a couple of writers from the ’70s who I wanted to take part who were basically journalists, and seemed a bit daunted by it being an academic, or seemingly an academic, context. Which, to me, it wasn’t, really. Birkbeck is a place that was helping me put it on, but its content was not intended in any sense to be academic. But I think they felt that they somehow would be sitting up there being asked difficult questions by Professor This and Dr That. So they were saying, “No, I don’t think I would like that,” and I just couldn’t persuade them. And then there were a couple who did take part but who also thought that at first [about questions from professors]—but I just basically said to people that what I wanted was for participants to tell their story, to tell what happened to them and what they were thinking, so you can’t get caught out! And so a couple of people who were perhaps a bit, “I’m not sure,” came, and in fact, those people seemed to enjoy it, because they felt they did actually have to dig in to their past. And people who had gone on to do other things, not necessarily ending up as music journalists at all, were digging back into something they did when they were younger, which actually they realized they were quite proud of, and hadn’t thought about for many years. So that was nice—it was a nice little dimension to it. There wasn’t a huge number of those people, but there were two or three.
SW: Reading the book, I got the feeling that some of the participants were really quite interested in having the story told, as they remember it, and yet there are a lot of contradictory memories of what happened at various times, and people address questions differently, that sort of thing. Any general thoughts on that? Did you feel there was a consistent [collective] memory about certain things, or was there almost a Rashomon effect, where everyone just saw it their own way, and they collided with each other?
MS: I think one of the things that’s worth remembering is that the different papers were rivals, so that on the one hand within one paper you’d probably have a reasonably agreed-on memory of stuff—even if it included quite contentious things, where people were disagreeing strongly, but everyone was, as it were, in the circle of recognized collective memory. But when you’re imagining what’s going on in that office over there, which is a different paper, then I think that’s a place the perspectives can move quite some way apart, even though these things were happening at the same time. So that’s one thing to think about. Another thing is that, this sort of generational churn—well, it’s not even generational, really, it’s every two or three years that a newer set of younger writers were coming through, and sweeping out the old, and I think that, even though it’s 40 years ago, I think there’s still some aspects of those battles which are not really resolved. And an outsider, which I am, who’s reading both sides, I can kind of piece things together into a fuller story. But I think there’s still, you know, bruised egos and hurt feelings. I don’t think there was terribly much of that actually going on at the conference, but there was a little. That’s definitely part of the story.
SW: And politics is one area where some of the contradictions and so forth come through. There’s a thread of politics all throughout the book, really, it crops up a lot. I don’t know if you would even describe it as a political book, I may describe it as such. But even when participants are directly asked, “Is what you were doing political?” there isn’t even necessarily an agreement about what is meant by the question. There’s one exchange that’s really fascinating between Barney Hoskyns and Paul Morley, and that question is asked, and though they don’t seem like worlds apart, they approach the question itself quite differently. When you were reading NME at the height of your interest in it, did the politics jump out at you at the time?
MS: It absolutely did, and there was politics, at that point, in the straightforward meaning of it. That was when Rock Against Racism formed, so there was agitation to drive the Nazis out of music, and that sort of thing, which couldn’t be more political. And there was just a general left-wing feel to the NME that I was very drawn to. I think less so at some of the other papers, their politics was more—what’s the word?—well, confused in some ways, or had more input from different sides. And at age 19 or whatever I wasn’t so drawn to that kind of on-the-page confusion. I mean, now I find it more interesting, but that’s the difference between a historical and critical perspective looking back, versus how I was responding to it back as a teenager, in the immediate moment. So yeah, I knew it was political, and it was political in a way that I didn’t have other access to, and I think that’s quite important. But I definitely think—I would like to think—that the book is political, but I was very conscious when I introduced that word that I was introducing it in a way that I hoped people would interpret it differently, and that the differences would emerge on to the page, if you see what I mean. I didn’t set out one particular definition of “the political”—I implied with the title that it’s going to be about politics but then let people interpret that as they needed to.
SW: Sort of tied in with that, I really like the line in your introduction, “Whatever the pretext, whatever the genre hook, the entire world was potentially their subject.” Why, at that time in particular [late ’70s, early ’80s], do you think this vast canvas was available, or was part of the dialogue, in a way that it maybe wasn’t prior to that and has only been available since then in more fragmented ways or something? How did that all come together?
MS: Well, my thesis, I guess, is that it arrived from the underground press, which was mostly London-based—the papers that sprang up to explain the counterculture to itself in the ’60s. Which were partly dealing with the new, young rock and pop aristocracy, and all kinds of art people, whoever were surrounded by that, and funded it to some extent. I mean a lot of it was parents’ money—but also New Money, from the fact that, you know, the Beatles or whoever just had colossal amounts of money and put it into these events and these magazines and these happenings and whatever. And I think it was just part of the—this youth cultural pressure, that people over a certain age had lost control of the world and didn’t understand the world and we, the new—this coming generation—it is our duty and our joy to explain it to ourselves and to everyone else and to rescue everything. So I think that energy is still flickering through the rock papers later, which is to say in the late ’70s. And it’s partly because the actual writers and editors transferred from the underground press, which, as I said, was being bankrolled by pop stars because it essentially had no money. Only a small number of people were actually reading and paying for the underground press, a few hundred, maybe a very few thousand? It had generated—nurtured—a small number of very talented writers, and a smaller number of talented editors, and some of them ended up working for the music press, which seemed like a good platform—the music was a good occasion to discuss all these things.
But also you had to bring out something every week, and NME had a readership of a quarter-million at one point in the late ’70s, and all the other rock papers and magazines and whatever, must have been pushing that up to at least a million, maybe more—it’s a hard thing to actually enumerate. So that’s part of why it happens. And in a funny way, the difference between that and what happened in America is the platform of this pre-existing entertainment press. So these papers weren’t invented from whole cloth, in the sense that Rolling Stone or Creem or Fusion were. But they already existed to discuss jazz or folk or pop music, and were already coming out every week, except with a bunch of new writers now invading who pushed them in slightly different directions. I mean, that’s oversimplifying it. So that Sounds for example actually was invented in 1970—but it was an offshoot of Melody Maker, so it sort of fits this pattern in its own way.
SW: You emphasize in your introduction that the work that is being covered in the book comprises its own language, or that it has the characteristics of some particular dialects. You bring up the terms “patois” and “pidgin” but you zero in on the term “creole,” which you describe as “a speaking caught between cultures.” What are the cultures here—the underground/overground?
MS: No, I think I mean more the idea of black-American (and to some extent black-Caribbean) discourse as being something that white writers were, in a way, adopting, to signal allegiance and to borrow some kind of energy—political, but also, maybe sexual—as a way of talking about sex. Which I think was part of what people were worrying about and thinking about in the late ’60s. And so, there is this complicated process of—it’s not exactly mimicry, but it is a kind of demonstration where we’re with them rather than with you, in the way that the conversation or the discourse or whatever you want to call it is. And I think it basically derives from America. The Beat Poets had been doing it a bit, earlier music writers in the ’60s had been doing it a bit, and writers like Norman Mailer had been adopting it in order to expand the palette of writing, and the New Journalism had also been expanding the palette by a sort of heightened subjectivity, and by pushing into territories which were previously taboo—as to race and sex and violence, political violence and so on. And I think this kind of—I think it’s a tone, really, I’m not sure that I can think of an exact term for it—but it’s just a way of speaking or a way of writing, which is very, very evident in the late underground press and the early rock papers, as being naturally discursive in one sense but actually not in quite how you would encounter people speaking if you haven’t been reading these papers.
SW: The idea of race itself is explored throughout the book. You have an interview with—sorry, I forget the person’s name—who took on the publication called Black Music—
MS: Alan Lewis.
SW: Right, and there’s an interview with him. How in general was the coverage, in your opinion, of black music in the UK press during the—again, I keep sort of sticking to the ’70s/’80s moment, it’s just the period I’m most familiar with. One of the reasons I ask the question is, I remember in the period when I was purchasing NME and Melody Maker—when I could get my hands on them in Canada—I was always struck by things like, I’d pick up an issue of NME and they’d have Chic on the cover or something. I don’t want to overstate the case, but you would not get Chic on the cover of Rolling Stone. They’d get coverage in the Village Voice and the New York Rocker, but from my perspective at least, it seemed like NME covered black music pretty widely. But is that your perspective, as someone who obviously read it much more closely?
MS: Well, I think it was a constant battle of people partly to expand their areas of taste and interest, which meant that sometimes there was more black music and sometimes there was less. But there was certainly an awareness that it merited regular coverage, and that it was important to hire experts in it, and people sympathetic to it, and that they were also pushing for space and pushing for a language that would explain that the space was justified. And I think, on the whole, the editorial staff, really for as long as I can remember, but certainly the staffs at Melody Maker and all of the three big papers—and Record Mirror, which was slightly different, it had a slightly different reach, younger pop listeners, less male and so on—the need for coverage of black music was something that people were aware of and consciously pushing to be larger, given that the basic sales pressure, if you like, of these papers that were going out all over the country, was probably pushing a certain kind of British white rock. So there was a constant back and forth—sometimes good-natured, sometimes anything but good-natured—about what was getting covered and how, and whether there was, you know, too much of this, too much of that—what was new and mattered because it was new. And this has always been talked out, talked through.
The writers pushing for it were drawn partly from a group who formerly considered themselves mods, which would be people who were very, very committed to black American music being better than white British music. And that this was so obvious that it could be considered self-evident, therefore the rhetoric reflects that. And I think that much of the push comes from this contingent. Certainly, I know that Lewis considers that he was a mod at one point—I mean, it’s silly to sort of enumerate the mods, because they’re not the only contingent, some of the other people were big jazz fans and not mods at all. Anyway, part of the reason was that they wanted to get across how much better this music was than that, and that at some points the “this” meant black music in one of its various forms, and the “that” meant white rock, and that was one of the battles that was constantly being fought over, and, you know, it was exciting. There’s a complicated argument being elaborated there, about the changing nature of a society and its values, and at least some of the time it’s being elaborated in useful and valuable ways.
SW: There’s a quote from Penny Reel, I think—his main beat was reggae and ska—but at one point in the book—I think it was him—he said something like he hadn’t even bothered to listen to a Clash record, or a U2 record, like it just did not interest him at all.
MS: Yeah, that was Penny.
SW: Another theme that jumps out at me is in regards to the idea that rock criticism has always been burdened with an inferiority complex—the idea that writing about music is a lowly form of expression. Now, you did mention something about how politics played a key part in it—almost like music was in some ways just a thing—I don’t want to say just a thing—that they could latch on to, to write about a wider range of stuff. But in terms of that inferiority complex, it came up a few times in the panel discussions, and there seemed to be a little bit of a different perspective on that from some of the contributors, some asserted that what they were doing, or what their publications were doing, was very important and made contributions to our understanding of music and culture etc. Whereas a few others were still a little let’s-not-elevate-what-we-did-too-much—is that a fair assessment, do you think?
MS: I think that probably is, I think temperamentally those two strands are present. I suppose I tend to see the second one as more defensive than authentic, but that might not be fair. People committed themselves to this role, when it really doesn’t pay very well, and as you said, it wasn’t very respected and in some ways still isn’t, and yet that’s what they decided they wanted to do, and so even if they’re then saying, “Well of course, it’s just pop music, and it doesn’t really matter,” you still have to step back and say, “Well, if it doesn’t matter, why are you doing it?” Obviously not everyone, people have necessarily moved out of music journalism because it’s actually quite a hard thing to do in the UK, only a very small number of people ever make a good living out of it. I carry on writing on the internet because I enjoy it, even though I’m not paid, and I can also write about whatever other things I enjoy writing about. But I think for some of them that’s because they actually care about music more rather than less, and they don’t want to be in the position of getting jaded for not very much pay, knocking out a 300-word review of such and such every week, so they choose to make a living writing about something else that they actually care about, and then keep music because it matters.
SW: With the NME being quite political, and, going back to your quote about how they took on the entire world, or had the capacity to do so—was there a backlash among readers about this sort of thinking (getting away from music-only coverage)?
MS: I don’t think I’d call it a backlash exactly. I think what happened was that new publications began to emerge, which were much better at focusing on one specific aspect of this “everything” and it drew readers off towards those new publications. For example, NME covered everything except it decided that it didn’t approve of metal. That was a decision made at some point in the late ‘70s, and kept to, really, for some years. What that meant was that other titles could then cover metal in much greater depth and with much greater enthusiasm, and people who loved metal would go to the other papers, obviously. Various genres were covered in more depth by, not necessarily specialist magazines, but the different rock papers covered them differently, and they each sort of pushed in towards their own sensibility, and when the style magazines started, they too were covering different kinds of genres differently. Which weren’t necessarily being taken seriously in the right kind of way by the rock papers. So, I think what happened was that this idea of a general readership was dissipating. And anyway, how many readers are there who considered themselves “general,” apart from me? I don’t think there was very many of them. And people were drawn towards these papers that covered a lot of different things, which therefore gathered a general readership but not necessarily very intentionally. And then, in the ‘80s the targeting of readers got much more sophisticated, with surveys and things like that. Magazines began to focus as much on self-defined target demographics. I mean this is something I didn’t remember at the time of the book, but someone was just chatting about it on Twitter. They said, “I think it’s sad that Q Magazine didn’t have a section on books or films.’ But someone else pointed out that when it started, for the first few issues, it had a book section, and it had a film section, and they were obviously taking that seriously, but then they checked their surveys and they found that the kind of readers who gravitated to Q didn’t really care whether or not they ran reviews of films and books, so those sections just dwindled, and then vanished. And that’s, I think, that was part of the process of unexpected discovery—this idea of the serendipity of arriving at the paper if it’s to read about Goth or whatever, and then finding out that you were actually really interested in French cinema, which was on the next page but you hadn’t planned for that at all. That kind of unexpected crossover became much less available. But I don’t think people had really gone to it, thinking, you know, picked the paper up, “what I most want out of this is what I don’t know that I want”—if that’s what they got anyway.
SW: You mentioned Nik Cohn already, but I’m curious also about another non-participant, Julie Burchill, and I think you suggested in your introduction that—well, you tell me, is it that her fame would have overshadowed the story?
MS: I think when I very first drew up the idea of the conference, I’m pretty sure I had her on my wish list. Then I was thinking, “Well, actually, she’s really very much more famous than everyone else, and not really famous now so much for her opinions on music, which she hasn’t really talked about in any great depth for several decades.” And I thought, “Well, on one hand, if she is on the list, lots of people would come to see her talk, but on the other hand, it would be an influx of people who weren’t necessarily very interested in the specific topic,” which I felt needed at that time to be encouraged a bit more delicately. So really, the larger names—I mean, the three that I mention are Burchill, Danny Baker, who is very well known here in the UK, and Germaine Greer, who’s from a little bit earlier, but did write about music things in Oz in the late ’60s and very early ’70s—
SW: Right, and I will just interject quickly and say that was something that really interested me, I had no idea of that.
MS: But all of them, I felt they were too big for the project as I specifically wanted it to expand, because I was really keen that people be heard whose names did not necessarily resound outside the rooms that I continue to inhabit. Paul Morley is quite famous outside of that but he’s so clearly committed to music, all of his books have been about that. And Charles Shaar Murray, perhaps a little less known now, but someone who was very important and had a significant platform for a long time, right into the ’90s. And I wanted to make sure that people would come and were able to speak for what I felt were the right reasons, and I think my feeling is that these bigger names—I mean, I’d really be interested in what they think of it and how they respond—inviting someone who was too big in a small arena—I think it would’ve distorted it, that’s how I felt. Anyway, I mean, I might have been wrong, but that’s how I felt.
SW: So, one of the subjects I have to admit I was expecting to see more on it—though I’m not suggesting I’m disappointed about this, necessarily—was the idea of “rockism.” I was thinking that might be a little more explored, and the idea of the whole New Pop thing—I believe Paul Morley and Ian Penman were crucial to advancing some of those ideas during the ’80s? So how or where does all that fit in and not fit in to your story?
MS: Ian wasn’t available for the conference. And he didn’t think he’d be able to write something for the book deadline. And Paul was at the conference and actually said he would contribute an essay but in the end other projects got in the way so he wasn’t able to. So those are the two who I think would have been the focus of that specific discussion —though today Ian probably doesn’t care about this subject either way. But in a lot of ways, the intensity of that discussion emerged really a lot later. I mean, the actual word drops into the world in 1983, it’s true, and there was a little bit of byplay with it for a while—but it re-emerged some time later with a much greater reach and intensity of discussion. And actually I think re-emerged really in not a very helpful or insightful context, but to explain that I would want to try and capture how I understood it and to sort of pin down what it had meant in 1983—but I didn’t really want to set people off discussing it who hadn’t been discussing it at the time, which applies to almost all the people who talk about it now. One of the younger contributors, Bob Stanley, talks about it in his pop book, Yeah Yeah Yeah. So he is definitely interested in it, and his piece in the book is about Smash Hits—but he’s able to write it [cogently] because that’s the paper he was reading when he was younger.
SW: Yeah, I thought it was interesting—Smash Hits was obviously not excluded from the book, it is almost central to it in some ways, but I was a little surprised—and again, from my perspective, as someone who gets to this stuff in a much different fashion than anyone in the UK—by some of the animus expressed towards Smash Hits from some of the people who weren’t part of it. But I sort of like Bob Stanley’s line, in refutation of Paul Morley, he says, “Wasn’t his New Pop manifesto largely being reproduced by his perceived rival?” So, I guess he’s positing the idea that Smash Hits was the realization of some of the New Pop ideas that might have been floating around the NME. Is that how you see that?
MS: Well, I think that—I’m not convinced it is actually a realization of how Morley saw things, or at least I don’t really think that’s exactly how he saw things, because I think his aesthetic always has this strain, or a kind of avant-garde stripe, right through the middle of it. But, yes, I think in a sense the shift over to making pop the centre of everything, rather than rock, was achieved much more effectively by Smash Hits. And I do think it’s very interesting, the intensity of the rivalry [between the weeklies and Smash Hits], which seems to be more to do with personalities and people just disliking one another, and rivalries between publications, than it does to do with different perspectives on the music itself.
SW: When I was looking through some of my NMEs recently, when I was starting to think about your book and so forth—actually you said that ‘rockism,’ the term, came out in 1983, so I guess that explains this—but I did notice a preponderance of the word “rock” with scare quotes around it.
MS: Yeah, I think I would say that the attitude to the word “rock” around 1979-80, from Morley especially, is to expand the word enormously, so that it’s going all the way from, I don’t know, Keith Jarrett and Steve Reich to some of the weirder industrial things like, I don’t know, Throbbing Gristle or Clock DVA, or—and I also think it’s very interesting that Penman and Morley, when they very first started writing, they wrote a lot about jazz—but this falls away a bit as the paper hires more specialist jazz writers. And I think that they were trying to refashion the meaning of the word rock—and that’s why as a term I like the idea of ‘New Musick,’ which was specifically invented into another paper [i.e. Sounds] and then ported over as a concept, without this name, to NME, and refashioned as if it is its own. And the idea that rock (or New Musick, or New Pop) encompassed quite a wide range—or could encompass this—only lasted for a few months even, or certainly not more than a year. For example, I remember in maybe 1979, Morley talking about Rick Springfield, and clearly turning over in his mind whether he could expand his idea of the music that didn’t quite have a name so that it could perhaps encompass Rick Springfield, who he obviously had affection for. Whereas a year later, or two years later, Springfield would obviously be “rock,” but in a bad sense. But there was this open moment, where this—whatever this music was called—had expanded so broadly that it covered a huge amount of chart pop, jazz, old-fashioned rock, except for the actual rock we hate—which, again, was up for discussion. Open because older artists would somehow redeem themselves, with a record people did actually like. I mean, I can’t name this Rick Springfield record, it may just have been the fact that—is he—oh no, that’s Nils Lofgren. See, I don’t mean Rick Springfield, I always get these muddled, I mean Nils Lofgren…
SW: Who later played with Bruce Springsteen…
MS: Yeah, it may be that. And Springsteen was always, I mean, he becomes a touchstone of a particular kind of attitude toward traditional rock a little later, but at this point [i.e. 1979-80] he’s still very much up for grabs, like what direction is he going in? Darkness on the Edge of Town is quite Bowie-esque, that aspect of what he’s doing is being toyed with. The other thing is who’s in, who’s out, and how do you talk about it, is changing from week to week. And it’s different with different writers, and those writers are arguing strongly with one another. Penman never really liked rock music. He didn’t like punk, and he didn’t like rock music, he doesn’t like the sound of the electric guitar, really, or at least of the electric rock guitar. And so he was always just quite dismissive about it. But although he and Morley are assumed to be this double act, their tastes don’t really overlap that much at all. They’re just—they were friends, they are friends. But they weren’t arguing in the same direction.
SW: There’s a page in the NME (July 3, 1982; Kevin Rowland on the cover), which I obsessed over—one of those pages where I would just read the reviews over and over. In it, there’s a two-page spread of reviews, one is of ABC’s The Lexicon of Love, by Phil McNeill, there’s also a review of Imperial Bedroom by Richard Cook, someone who’s very close to your heart, Paul Morley does a Human League album, Love and Dance, which I think is a follow-up to Dare, a remix record, and then you’ve got Charles Shaar Murray doing Pete Townshend’s All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, and when I re-read Murray on Townshend—the first time I would have read these pages in probably 30 or 35 years—for some reason I was surprised that it was pretty much a rave review, and I just thought that was kind of neat, it did sort of challenge my assumptions a little bit that it was all about—you know, that there was a continuity or conformity of taste, when it came to being about always after the new.
MS: I think it must have been very interesting and—well, I know this, because I’ve talked to him about it—but it must have been complicated and difficult and interesting—and not necessarily in the best way—for someone like Charlie who’s not yet out of his twenties, I don’t think, in 1980—or he might be, I can’t remember exactly how old he is [note: Murray’s 68 later this year, and was 29 in 1980]. But he dealt with the fact that he had been cast as the guardian of the old, when he’s not that old, and he is still very enthusiastic about elements of the music that he liked for the decade he’s been writing about them, and he’s battling […] for these things to be looked well upon in this space, which is, I think, quite pitiless towards the recent past. I mean, I definitely think that is part of the context. But in that, there are people who are allowed through, absolutely, who are allowed through despite not being young and new. And some of what’s going on is finding ways to describe these people to appeal to the things which allow them to be redeemed.
SW: Let’s end with a quote I have from a short piece you wrote recently about the book: “In retrospect, perhaps, the surprise is that this mix of elements made sense for as long as it did. I wonder, a lot, if something this useful, this transformative, can ever be reconvened.” You’ve done a good job explicating what was transformative, both in the book and here with me now, but did working on the book, or being engaged in all these discussions, did it help provide any answers to the other question—“if something this useful, this transformative, can ever be reconvened”?
MS: I think the question was pushing itself up against me all the time, but partly because I was putting it together in the context of current politics and just the fact that, if you’re working on the laptop, unless you’re incredibly disciplined, you have two or three other pages open where you’re checking in on whatever awful thing is happening in the world now. And part of the grimness of that is watching friends, mostly younger friends, working for, like a sequence of magazines in the UK and in the US—really slightly more in the US, but it’s happening here as well—where some publication that they’ve enjoyed working for, and has been a success for a short while, and been more or less what they wanted, has been shutting down or changing or being bought up by bad people or all of these kinds of things. So, this was the context as I was writing it: that even what has been maintained of what you might call these lines of possibility, gradually all seemed to be submerging, close to hand or far away.
In many ways it was chance that the world I’m describing, this expanded idea of what ‘rock-writing’ could mean, came together. Or at least if not chance it wasn’t something that people sat down in advance and planned. And they somehow pulled off something which lasted for quite a long time—in the limited context and potential that they had, and I don’t know where that could be done now. The internet works in a very different way. There’s things about the internet I really like but it’s very hard to sustain this idea of a community where there are these kind of different layers, or rings, of involvement. So, the sense that there’s the editors and the writers who are arguing and discussing the possibility of, as we said, covering absolutely everything, talking about everything. The pretext is the entire world—including readers at different levels of engagement, dropping in to inform themselves—and it involves quite a lot of people. And it’s really unclear to me how that kind of setup could once again coalesce. And it may be that’s just because I completely lack imagination about possible models that aren’t several decades old. They can’t be resuscitated, that’s not the way forward. I mean, maybe there is a way to overcome the inertia of path dependency or something, which I am too old to remotely imagine. You know, I hope so, I think it would be exciting! But I’m not going to be the person who imagines it, or the person who runs it.