From the ages of around 15 to 18 I religiously bought the NME every Wednesday. It was a huge influence in my musical life at an impressionable age. I sat in the low-slung blue chairs of the Sixth Form common room and devoured the pages.
Around the same time The Strokes’ Is This It was released. This was a seminal moment in my youth. It marked a point where I no longer needed to fill the gap that had existed since the end of the Britpop of my childhood with chart compilation CDs, illegal downloads of UK Garage and that weird third album by Skunk Anansie. It sowed into the dirt of the end of the last century the Converse hi-top trodden seeds of the guitar band revival to come.
NME helped me fill gaps in my knowledge of music past. I discovered bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, and it helped me figure out whether I liked Morrissey or not (turned out I didn’t, turned out I was right).
It helped me find brand new music and see and sometimes meet bands in tiny venues before they went on to fill arenas. Kings of Leon at Camden’s Electric Ballroom and Parva (later to become Kaiser Chiefs) at Harlow Square are examples.
But there were problems.
They made many mistakes. To quote an erstwhile friend “what are So Solid Crew doing on the cover of that greebo magazine?”.
They seemed overly conscious of the gravity of musical history and their supposed role in it. This clearly weighed heavily on them to the extent that they desperately attempted to create new ‘scenes’ from seemingly disparate groups of bands. ‘No Name’ (The Cooper Temple Clause, Ikara Colt) and ‘The New Rock Revolution’ (The Datsuns, The D4) spring to mind. The latter ‘scene’ seemed to typify the publication’s narrow view of music and obsession with ephemeral cool.
In November 2002 the NME editor of the time described ‘The New Rock Revolution’ as follows:
“Once in a generation something so revolutionary happens in music that afterwards nothing is ever the same again. Right now, that’s exactly what’s happening.
“The last 12 months have been one of the most amazing periods for music in living memory. After five years where pop culture has amounted to little more than a seemingly endless conveyor belt of bland and contrived non-entities, kids across the planet are suddenly, and spontaneously, rediscovering the thrill of rock music.”
All music since 1997 had been shit and NME had the answer. I lapped it up. Unfortunately, it was the opposite of spontaneous. Nobody was talking about it other than them. The only organic thing about it was the wood that made the paper it was printed on. The so-called scene did little more than continue to produce more “bland and contrived non-entities”, only with tighter jeans and worse haircuts. They so desperately wanted it to be a thing but glam-rock, punk, new romantic or Britpop it was not.
Friends and peers would be heard to say “James likes all the ‘The…’ bands”. I would retort sarcastically with “yes I like The Stevie Wonder and The Led Zeppelin” but so permeating was NME’s influence, I genuinely struggled to find contemporary examples to counter this unwanted designation.
Keeping up with what to like was especially difficult when from one week to the next they could turn from kissing the feet of the coolest new band around, to slagging off the very same charlatan upstart chancers just seven days later. And when, although quite rightly, different writers did not agree it was just plain confusing. I remember a particularly furious Mark Beaumont diatribe against The Darkness only for another writer to review album Permission to Land without fanfare, scoring it a respectable 7/10.
I was attempting and spectacularly failing to dress in a certain way. I became more partisan in my musical taste, refusing to enjoy nights out where the ‘right’ kind of music wasn’t being played. I parted company with some fantastic albums like Leftfield’s Leftism in case my CD collection was to be judged by an indie scenester. I dismissed what I realised with hindsight was the creative genius of artists like The Streets. Things weren’t all bad. I still retained the sense to see that The Libertines were terrible, in spite of their inexplicable popularity.
Was everything I was listening to really as good as I was being told it was? Who was I? Was I cool enough? I had opened my mind to some great music of the past but was now stifled in the present. This was not healthy.
I stopped buying the magazine when I went to university, ostensibly for financial reasons. But a bigger, more existential cause still played on my mind. I had become beholden to their every view to the extent that I began to question my own tastes. Things I liked just because I liked them I stopped listening to. I only liked things because I was told I should.
Soon after this, Bloc Party released Silent Alarm. I’d say this was the next seminal album in my musical life. They were Bloc Party not The Bloc Party. They had a singer, a drummer, a guitarist and a bass player but they sounded totally different to The Strokes. One of them even had decent hair. I saw them at the notoriously soulless Manchester Academy and we jostled and sweated and had our toes stamped on down at the front. Afterwards my companion remarked “I’ve not jumped up and down like that at a gig for ages”. The boring-as-fuck “bland and contrived non-entities” had not induced us to move at a gig for years. And we’d missed it. Boy had we missed it. The New Rock Revolution was over.
I reflected on some advice I was given by a music teacher at school: “just because you don’t like a certain song or type of music, it does not mean it is bad”. Just because we give an album or a gig a good or bad review, it doesn’t mean that you should or shouldn’t listen to it. Make your own mind up. We are Picky Bastards after all.
Word by James Spearing.