I’d like to say a few Words

In the pre-Twitter, pre-blog world of the mid-Nineties, I used to buy the NME as much for the singles adverts as the coruscatingly jagged reviews. It was a weekly event, a world of temptation and salvation, and an identity badge held between slightly grubby, inky fingers in front of schoolmates. I’ve been reading music magazines for over twenty years, graduating from Smash Hits to the weeklies, before adding an arsenal of monthly titles to bolster my curiosity and empty my wallet. They were already an integral part of my life before I started writing for one. The reviews section always felt like my spiritual home. The NME big reviews, often accompanied by grand illustrations, were urgent and biting, while the pages of Q and Select allowed you to luxuriate a little longer in the thoughts of many great writers. The losses of Vox, Melody Maker and a grotesquely redesigned Select were hard to take, suggesting that if the magazines were ailing so too was the music.

The early Noughties were a barren time for lovers of the music press. The NME had lost me, wandering off down a (now thankfully reversed) skinny-jeaned route to hell, with more emphasis on pictures than words, while Q was finding it very hard to adjust to a digital world where its original readers had moved towards Mojo, with its fifteen Beatles cover a year. New titles came and went, including the flimsy but spiky BANG! and the woefully limp X-Ray. Into a world of non-ironic Mel C covers and anti-stories about what The Strokes weren’t doing, came Word. With its lower-case masthead and dour picture of Nick Cave on the cover, it didn’t exactly scream “vital music ranting here,” but it did stand out. I took a punt and spent a National Express journey in its company. It wasn’t perfect, by any means, but it seemed to be taking contemporary music seriously at a time when few others were. Early issues with substantial pieces on Blur, Elvis Costello and a peculiar new device called the iPod sealed the deal.

A few months after welcoming it to the well-thumbed family, I finally decided to pursue a boyhood dream to get some music writing published and, with email the great leveller in terms of making yourself known, I set about contacting a few of my music writing heroes. When the call from Paul Du Noyer came, it took my twenty year old Literature student self a little while to take it all in but, within minutes, I’d been commissioned to write a page on Elvis Costello, covering three reissues and his jazz album, ‘North‘. Should you wish to put yourself through some slightly torturous bus analogies, you can see that article here.

 

From then on, I was one of Word’s reviews team for almost four years. It was a thrill which never waned, a novelty which never wore off, to go and flick through the magazine in Smiths, despite a copy residing at home, in order to see my work on sale. In a shop. Not that I was deluded enough to think anyone was buying it because I was in it. But I was in it. And that was what mattered. When the Word team rejigged the magazine and thinned down the reviews section, I was no longer required. I found it hard to be annoyed as I couldn’t quite believe I’d got away with it for as long as I had. The support and encouragement of Du Noyer and Jude Rogers, who would quickly take over the reviews section, meant a great deal and without those two particular people, I very much doubt I would still be reviewing today or writing this very piece. That is just one of the many reasons that made Friday’s announcement of the closure of The Word such a kick in the guts.

With the NME having recovered under recently departed editor Krissi Murison’s fine stewardship and Q as good as it has even been with former Word scribe Andrew Harrison in charge and a stellar team of writers in its pages, things didn’t feel quite so bleak for the music press of late. Word is beloved of many media folk but never quite seemed to attract the wider audience it needed. I had occasionally wondered how long it would continue to fight the good fight, but was always reassured by the dependable brash swagger of Mark Ellen and David Hepworth. Was it perfect? No. Is there more to atone for than just that Dido cover way back in 2003? Certainly. But was Word Magazine a creative, welcoming and enthusiastic community which offered something genuinely different? Without doubt, and I will miss it greatly. The great motto for every aspect of the music making, selling and reporting industries seems to be ‘adapt or die’, and yet here was something else which still didn’t work. Maybe there’s just no place for a wide variety of music magazines in the 21st century? Whatever the grim reality of the current situation, the end of this particular magazine hurts more than most. The complete set sits upstairs and will get revisited in the coming weeks. For all the tips, the laughs, the sighs, the ideas, the tunes and the work: thank you. Word.

Lists and High Street Losses

I love a good list, me. The end of year issues of all of the music magazines are an absolute delight, allowing me to peruse vast swathes of numerically arranged albums deemed to be the finest from the last twelve months. Invariably, one or two records pop up so often that I realise I must have genuinely passed on something suitably splendid and onto the ‘to buy’ list they go. However, there is a distant cousin of these lists, one who only visits occasionally but always kicks up a fuss when he does. This particular breed looks to provide a guide to the best albums not just of one year but of many, such as “The 250 greatest albums of Q’s lifetime” in this month’s issue. This gave voters twenty five years’ worth of releases to select from and, of course, they chose magnificently. I mean, it’s not like Q readers would have Mumford & Sons in their top 100 or ‘No Line On The Horizon’ anywhere near even the lower echelons of such a list, right? Right? Stop backing away from me.

q 250

Such inclusions are so utterly breathtakingly bizarre that the presence of ‘K’ by Kula Shaker at 211 is something I’m finding considerably less offensive than I thought I might. Internet campaign, anybody? The incessant jizzing over all things Bono leaves a sickly taste in the mouth but things get truly hilarious when you move further up the list. Apparently, ‘Under The Iron Sea’, the second album by Keane is at 51. If you’re anything like me, this prompted an even more horrifying thought than the simple recognition of this particular placing. Yep, if this is as high as 51, where the fuck has their debut managed to get to? 34 is the quite staggering answer. As if in some kind of cunning PR move to avoid people totally incontinent with rage at such idiocy, the Q readership ensured that everybody was distracted by the record reaching number 32. ‘Sam’s Town’ by The Killers.

These lists are always worth a browse, reminding you of records you used to love, if nothing else. They’re always topped by ‘OK Computer’ and Oasis’ first two albums and there’s always a sizeable spattering of albums released close to the point of compilation. But this one does seem worse than most. It’s probably worth the £3.99 for the laugh it’ll give you.

Perhaps buy it from HMV, they could do with the extra pennies at the moment. Music writers seem to be split between dancing on its sorry music hating grating and agonising about the possible impact upon labels and artists. It’s odd, I can’t really imagine high streets without HMV but at the same time I’ve pretty much adjusted to that state of affairs already. I only really go in now to sort of my monthly quota of ‘facial displays of scorn’, actively looking to be annoyed in much the same way as people actually buy the Daily Mail each morning. It’s been an abysmal place to try and buy music for several years now and it’s fairly clear that when it comes to what used to be its core business, management don’t really give a shit anymore. It’s quite understandable that music is no longer the priority in this climate, but that doesn’t automatically necessitate it being sidelined to the point of decay. By also continuing to shoot themselves in the foot by running their own VAT-avoiding Guernsey based website in direct competition with itself – serving to highlight just how expensive their high street shops are – they display the same lack of self-awareness that keeps Nipper, the gramophone loving dog, as their logo. I can’t say I’d be especially sad to see HMV go, not that I think it’s likely to happen any time too soon, but I understand what its symbolic value is. One has to wonder, however, were the entertainment monopoly suddenly removed, could independent retails begin to crawl back out of the woodwork on the outskirts of towns once more? As Oxford prepares to welcome a new indie store and Derby delights in the return of BPM, we can, perhaps, begin to hope.

Really I need a rapper to just talk bollocks over the start of this, and then I’ll have loads of readers

Sitting here, air-drumming along to ‘A Certain Trigger‘ as I am, I am reminded of just why I love music so much, and spend so much of my hard-earned cash upon it. It really can pick you up, give you a massive great shake and set you on your feet again.
Whilst purchasing a few bits and bobs in Morrisons earlier, I was drawn to their ‘Chart CDs for £7’ offer. Naturally, the choice isn’t exactly broad, and I enjoyed smirking at the big pile of unloved Athlete albums, but I was reminded that I’d toyed with picking up the Rihanna album a few weeks back. ‘Umbrella‘ started off as something I found quite annoying – quite possibly simply because lots of people like it, but it grew and grew until I finally realised that it’s a piece of perfect pop. Factor in the new single, ‘Shut Up and Drive‘ and I was sold. Turns out that the album is really good record, and that the pop masterclass is present for pretty much the duration. I’m not ashamed to admit my liking for pop – the Girls Aloud and Sugababes singles collections are both fantastic sets – but I have to confess that I didn’t imagine a few months back that I’d be enjoying a Rihanna album quite so much.
I also didn’t imagine I’d be particularly impressed by an issue of Q magazine, but lo-and-behold, the new ‘Songwriting issue‘ is a great record. Interviews with Stipey, Bjork, Rufus Wainwright and Nick Cave amongst many others and Cash For Questions is Girls Aloud. The Editor’s note suggests it’ll be normal, lists-r-us fodder next month. They do have a sense of humour, mind. On the letters page, someone’s written in to point out that there’s a Scandinavian magazine called Q. The Q response is, “Do they do lists?”