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When the British music press was a psychedelic tunnel to another world

Image provided by the author.

Image provided by the author.

You picked up the NME on Thursday mornings in those days, the early ’70s, when it was still called New Musical Express. To open it was to pass through a door into a different world, to enter (as music-writer Paul Morley, still only a reader then, recalls) an “extraordinary tunnel” of almost psychedelic possibility.

By late 1977, when I was reading Morley in a now much punkier NME, the revelations were as likely to be about disenchantment as mind-expansion. Here was one-time underground wild child Charles Shaar Murray talking to David Bowie, for example, about “Heroes” and Eno and Berlin, for example; catching up since their last meet four years before on how glam turned out, on the delusions of stardom, on change and bad politics, on art as a process distinct from intention or understanding. The tone was shadowed and thoughtful, an understated requiem for several ’60s utopias: two intelligent people exploring ideas and events far beyond the reach of any official education I was then getting, or would go on to get — and really unlike anything available in other media (unless it was the rival music titles). I so badly wanted in on conversations like these, and to master the arcane background knowledge that grounded them.

The anthology I’ve been putting together over the last couple of years, A Hidden Landscape Once a Week, explores where these conversations were arriving from, and how rich and unexpected they made the subterranean world of UK music-writing: what it meant to those who made it, how it drew people in, the effects it had, and where it all went. Morley and Murray both contribute, describing from different vantage points how the anything-goes sensibilities of the London-based underground magazines of the late ’60s (Oz, say, or Frendz) had burst in on the pre-existing music magazines, and refashioned them into something without precedent. How a trade press devoted to chart placing, record releases, and tour dates mutated to be able to touch on drugs and free love, better racial politics and an end to inherited evil—to sketch, week on week, the countercultural getting of a better world… and why it might not come about just yet.

Rock and roll was the lingua franca of the late ’60s underground. But this story was never just about rock: It’s about the horizon-busting that took place when American pop—especially black American pop—landed in the depleted post-Empire world of ’50s Britain, and how young listeners responded to the new vistas they sensed opening up. In the anthology, we also hear from Val Wilmer, who as photographer and interviewer in the Melody Maker made space for the insurgent activism of free jazz. And from the late Penny Reel, pioneer reggae writer-turned-scholar, who introduced a wider generation to the metaphors of deep exile embedded in Rastafarian prophecy. Pop historians Bob Stanley and Jon Savage join editors and commentators— Simon Frith, David Toop, Paul Gilroy, many others—to elaborate this tangled tale from all angles outside and within.

There were no less than five UK-wide music weeklies in the early ’70s (the others were Sounds, Record Mirror and Disc) and they formed a jostling space in which many musics wrangled to be the voice of something more precise, and more urgent, than simply the restive spirit of youth. From the early’60s to the mid-’80s, this was a collective space for crosstalk of all kinds. Here, and in a scatter of monthlies and influentially insurgent or specialist fanzines, you found access to many kinds of music, plus films, fashion, street theatre, science fiction, comics, poetry, and vanguard art, radical politics and cultural theory, all largely overlooked elsewhere. In a context of pop gossip and a quasi-political intransigence still vital as late as the mid-’80s, the best possible shape of the immediate future was being hammered out.

In this cockpit of untrammeled curiosity, writers were travelling by touch only just ahead of their readers, out into the wider world or back into the overlooked past, guiding and guessing for them. But it was always also a world of limits. In the end, the earlier waves of readers would grow up and settle in their revealed tastes, glad perhaps to rid of the more excitable, sometimes angrier reaches of openness. By which time ’80s niche-marketing had targeted this space all to splinters anyway.

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.