Professional music critics did not know how to review the Beatles’ 1966 album Revolver. With its tonal and thematic coherence, as well as its anticipatory psychedelia, it was more than a collection of songs: it had to be considered as a whole. This presented a formal challenge to those who were accustomed to evaluating LPs song-by-song, with frothy, lightweight copy. ‘[The critics at the time] want to take it seriously,’ says rock-press archivist Mark Pringle. ‘They want to write about it seriously, but they haven’t got the language for it, because they are set in their particular pop-music journalist ways.’ So, they end up writing lines like: it’s a ‘beaty little toe tapper with an interesting guitar solo’. What the underground press did, Pringle continues, was ‘liberate everyone to try and find new ways of describing the music’.
This insight – taken from the transcript of a panel held as part of the 2015 ‘Underground/Overground’ symposium at Birkbeck University – is reproduced in the recent publication A Hidden Landscape Once a Week (2019), compiled by former Wire editor Mark Sinker. The book presents essays, interviews and conversations that reflect on and historicize the proliferation of weekly and monthly music magazines, both underground and mainstream, with their ‘new ways of describing’ the sound and vision of post-1960s Britain. It is a eulogy to that period of intense artistic production and political activity – when a new genre was invented as often as worker militancy stopped the production line – prompting trains of thought that are worth continuing into the present.
‘I was captivated by the music press as something that was really like a spaceship landing in my sensibility in the mid-to-late 1970s [growing up in rural Shropshire],’ Sinker tells me. A Hidden Landscape Once a Week profiles publications including International Times, Melody Maker, NME and Oz, among many others. A few louche anecdotes are recounted: music journalist Tony Stewart recalls walking into the NME offices in the early 1970s to hear a tape being played of another journalist’s sexual activities on tour with Creedence Clearwater Revival. But this is really a story about intellectual openings, the wiring of politics into culture and a cohort of often self-taught writers who were gloriously convinced of the world-historical importance of music. It’s a world of 5,000-word Q&As with David Bowie, album reviews that drop references to poststructuralism and take New Journalistic delight in over-using the first person, and a political bent that is staunchly Left.
These were the publications that convinced Sinker to become a music writer. Or, rather, that music would be his way into writing about the world. ‘What was good about these papers was that they covered all these different areas and made them accessible. So, a reader would come in to read about punk or rock but go out knowledgeable about cinema or newly aware of black radical politics. I found that enormously exciting,’ he says. The music ‘inkies’ staged a first encounter for many teenagers, starved of anything interesting in their parents’ newspapers, with figures like Kathy Acker, Amiri Baraka and Roland Barthes. (Sinker studied philosophy at Oxford after reading about Barthes in the NME, only to find none of his tutors had heard of or were interested in French Theory.) The tone often was ironic, self-derisory; the style less literary and finely edited than its US equivalents; and it was all steeped in ‘teenage confusion, obsession, ignorance and malice’. But these were also virtues.
So, too, was the commitment to an alternative vision of the world. In one essay, Cynthia Rose reframes the NME as a ‘socialist music paper’, since it backed the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the women protesters at Greenham Common and the striking miners. But these commitments had limits. Sinker ends the book with a short piece by Paul Gilroy, the black theorist, who is sceptical of bromantic ‘ethnographies of the NME office circa 1977’, having encountered gatekeeping at publications like Sounds when he tried to challenge the self-appointed white custodians of black culture. He also makes note of a famous Oz cover from 1970 – a ‘host of naked black women […] cavort before the reader in a fantastic orgy’ – as evidence that colonial habits of thinking persisted among supposed radicals.
From a present-day standpoint, in which the Right finds little opposition from a cultural landscape characterized by pastiche and remakes – what music critic Simon Reynolds has dubbed ‘retromania’ – what stands out in A Hidden Landscape Once a Week is the political economy that underwrote the endeavour. This was a period of rising real wages and affordable housing. When Sinker arrived in London in the early 1980s, half of his friends were living in perfectly habitable squats: ‘They were left alone by local councils because [the attitude was] better people be housed than not.’ It wasn’t until the 1990s that neoliberalism, with its transfer of debts from the state to individual, turned the screw. The music writer Charles Shaar Murray, interviewed by Sinker for the book, imagines the 1960s as emerging from the postwar expansion of higher education, particularly in art schools: ‘People from the working class and lower middle class could now receive the kind of education that had only been available to the children of the wealthy,’ he says. ‘People were meeting and mingling, on a more or less equal basis, who 20 years earlier would have never met at all.’ Similarly, youth clubs, many of which have shuttered under austerity, were an important incubator of grime music in the 2000s.
If a rebalancing of power, away from capital and toward labour, is one precondition for prising open those horizons again, other developments seem even less easily reversible, like the corporate capture of the internet. Technological developments were fruitful in the 1970s; journalist Mark Williams explains that the ‘underground press emerged almost entirely as a consequence of the IBM golfball typesetter and the development of relatively cheap web-offset printing’. Correspondingly, the 2000s saw a burst of critical fluency with the self-publishing of the blogosphere; websites like Mark Fisher’s k-punk perhaps being the best inheritor of the ‘hidden landscape’ metaphor – an otherworldly space for readers on the margins. As Sinker tells me, however, this phenomenon of ‘writing [in one’s] free time and the gift economy were incredibly exciting and liberating, but it was very quickly turned against us’ – creating the conditions for a glut of easily exploitable writers. This was exemplified recently by the story of Rachel McMahon, a 19-year-old college student, who has written 692 quizzes for Buzzfeed, earning the company at least US$200,000, yet whose only recompense has been a few gift cards and coffee mugs. Her story came to light a few weeks after another round of journalist redundancies were announced at Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, Vice and other publications that originally took their cue from the creative spirit of the early internet.
Does the music press even exist anymore? Pitchfork (which may soon be paywalled) and The Wire maintain standards for serious and expansive writing, but would kill for the time when the NME was selling 250,000 copies per week. Audiences are more fragmented, too. In his introduction, Sinker discusses the notion of imagined communities, taken from Benedict Anderson’s account, in his eponymous 1983 book, of the formation of political nationalisms. Readers clustered around print titles that represented them: an imagined community glued together by the physical technology of the magazine. Sinker thinks of the internet as his ‘dream medium in many ways’, but it has also changed this reader-publisher relationship: ‘The way you read a magazine,’ Sinker tells me, ‘is you start at the beginning and leaf through. You skip some bits, but you glance at them. So, you’re aware that they’re part of the space you’re in. And I don’t think internet publishing works like that. You go straight to the thing you want.’
A dispersed audience reflects a diverse landscape; there is no one medium or art form that sits in the centre of the culture like popular music did: television and even food seem to be just as, if not more, important. Fifty years since critics struggled to articulate the sound of Revolver, album releases are rarely seismic events and, if they are, it’s because they consciously try something else, as with Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade (2016), or for contingent reasons – like a surprise release date or unorthodox payment method. We relate to music through algorithmically generated playlists, DJ mixes and music videos. Most writing about music we encounter on a weekly basis is not in magazines but in YouTube comments, below those videos. Recognizing these facts of dethronement and fragmentation might be the place for musicians, and the self-appointed custodians in what remains of the music press, to start thinking, against the odds, of something new.
Main image: Brian Jones reading Melody Maker, 1964. Courtesy: Iconic Images/Getty Images; photograph: Terry O'Neill