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.

A Week With… 7. Massive Attack – 100th Window

JP AWW 07

The first issue of Word Magazine appeared in February 2003, visually arresting with its Nick Cave cover and little flap telling you more about the contents and seemingly an alternative take on music journalism. To a certain extent, it has remained true to that purpose, although it’s far less revolutionary than it thinks it is. Having said that, I suspect I will be a reader forever, even if quality control slips, as it was the esteemed organ in which I got my first shot at reviewing. Paul Du Noyer and Jude Rogers ensured that I was kept in a healthy supply of free CDs but never quite comfortable enough to presume I would automatically get in the next issue. After some three and a half years of reasonably regular column inches, I was quietly jettisoned without explanation. The range of reviewers slowly slimmed until the very latest issue of the now definite-article enhanced, and New Stateman aping (in shape, if not content) The Word hit the shops last week. Now, only the big five or six reviews are farmed out to their top writers, while the smaller reviews are all done in house. Amongst those few ‘big’ reviews this month, is a positive and wisely argued piece on the new Massive Attack album ‘Heligoland’. Why is this relevant? That first issue had much the same space dedicated to ‘100th Window’ by the very same band. It did a fine job of putting the album in context for me and, reading about another music fan’s struggle to get their head around the music, it helped me to get to grips with what was, essentially, an underwhelming release from an extraordinary band. The ever-engaging Andrew Harrison described the record as “difficult to get into, but hard to get out of too,” and I soon knew what he meant.

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I became strangely obsessed with ‘cracking’ this album. I was sure that my initial sense of it as something cold and uninviting was down to a lack of familiarity and that, if I made the effort, it would all soon slot into place. I spent numerous glum National Express journeys poring over those nine tracks, my decrepit CD walkman rarely having anything else for company. Listening to it now, it’s hard not to think of the, frankly shit, emotions associated with that period in my life. What also comes to mind though is the fact that I never reached a conclusion. I just stopped listening to it at some point and never really went back. I don’t remember deciding it was crap but I don’t remember deciding it wasn’t, either. It just dropped off the radar and sat on the shelf gathering dust.

Returning to ‘100th Window’ this week has been a chore. Knowing that they have since produced a record a truly wonderful as ‘Heligoland’ makes this whole period of Massive Attack’s history stick in the throat a little. The corrupted soul and rhythmic cunning of their new album makes the autistically insular paranoia of ‘100th Window’ seem so utterly benign that it takes a concerted effort just to make it through to the end.

Sinead O’Connor’s appearances can be discounted without much effort. ‘What Your Soul Sings’ and ‘A Prayer For England’ are horribly jarring, whiny and utterly lacking in character. Yes, she’s absolutely recognisable, but then so are Piers Morgan and chronic flatulence. Horace Andy attempts to polish a turd with ‘Everywhen’ and ‘Name Taken’ but then I couldn’t hum either of these back to you right now. The tracks on which 3D takes lead vocals are a mixed bag, ‘Butterfly Caught’ and ‘Future Proof’ standing tallest and actually meriting repeat listens, but, fuck me, there must be easier ways to keep your ears entertained. Piers Morgan with chronic flatulence, perhaps?

I am now actually more disparaging about this album as a result of ‘Heligoland’. At the time of its release, ‘100th Window’ was the Massive Attack album we’d been waiting five years for. It was our duty to train ourselves until we liked it. It wasn’t them, it was us. Except it wasn’t. It was a blip. It’s the soundtrack at a wake for a few motherboards and a failed attempt to graft on some much needed RAM.

Oh, and before anyone emails telling me I’ve screwed up, the picture above deliberately links to ‘Heligoland’. I wouldn’t want anyone to put themselves through ‘100th Window’ on my account.

The Power Of The Written (The) Word

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m not a huge fan of Jo Whiley. I used to love the Evening Session in the Jo and Steve days and I have very fond memories of her interview with Nicky Wire when the Manics were taking their tentative first steps after the disappearance of Richey, but these days I find her daytime show largely uninspiring and thus choose not to subject myself to that particular radio output. Having said all of that, her Session days alone guarantee her a certain immunity from the kind of hatred doled out to people like Bowman. I don’t actively dislike Whiley, I just steer clear aside from her appearances on Glasto coverage.

All of which begs the question, where the hell did Rob Fitzpatrick‘s venom come from in his interview with her in the latest issue of The Word? Under the title, ‘The Bland Leading The Bland’, he proceeds to administer a sizeable shoeing, relentlessly picking at the fact that she doesn’t come off the back of a Nickelback song saying, “Well, that was a load of shit, wasn’t it listeners?” I don’t for a second suspect that Fitzpatrick doesn’t understand the requirements of daytime radio and thus I can only assume that he chooses to overlook the fact that the vast majority of daytime jocks follow a similar policy. It’s hard to imagine the host of a predominantly music-based show playing stuff that’s popular with the listeners and then calling it toss hanging around for long. Ok, Mark & Lard always used to leave less than subtle hints after a song they didn’t like and Moyles has taken to slagging off, well, Nickelback recently but it’s hardly the norm for people to just slag off the tunes they’re playing. Radcliffe and Moyles both focus on banter and entertainment in the links ahead of the music, so they’re possibly not even fair points of comparison. Whichever way you look at it, being in an almost relentlessly good mood is hardly a crime and announcing songs whilst clearly rather jolly is hardly the most ringing endorsement ever proffered upon a piece of music.

What really prompted me to have a rant on here was playing the ‘Now Hear This’ CD that comes free with each issue. Fitzpatrick’s opening question – or deliberately provocative and slightly infantile statement, to be more accurate – was ‘Jo Whiley, you are The Voice of Boring Indie’. Has he heard some of the mediocre, tinpot shite being served up as music directly recommended by The Word team? The odd track (Tony Allen, Marina And The Diamonds and the previously loved on here, Priscilla Ahn) is worthy of note, but tracks by The Scaremongers, Findlay Brown, Julie Feeney, The Yeah Yous and Sharon Robinson, amongst others, are utterly tedious musical wallpaper. As The Word slowly retreats to the middle-ground of safe, hoary old rockdom, it takes the piss to turn around and have a go at Jo Whiley for peddling mediocrity. What revolutionary topic adorns the cover of the latest issue? ‘Why The Beatles are underrated’. How remarkably smart, post-modern and brain-buggeringly original. Presumably, sales are a bit slow, people want holiday reading, the upcoming remasters will be getting more and more press and, perhaps most importantly, put any old shit about The Beatles in a magazine and you’ll sell loads.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the writing of a number of the people who appear in The Word’s pages – I shall forever be indebted to Paul Du Noyer for the leg-up he gave me into reviewing and the lovely Jude Rogers is one of the most splendidly jolly people writing about music right now – but this kind of lazy hatchet job is not becoming and it does make them look like a bunch of smug, middle-aged wankers. To inspire a vitriolic defence of Jo Whiley from someone who doesn’t really have all that much time for her in the first place is perhaps exactly why this is actually a very good piece of writing, but I can’t reconcile that with treating somebody who’s doing a decent job of what she’s required to with so little respect.

Anyway, couldn’t they have used those column inches to do a similar job on Bowman?