or NOTES ON A NOBLE IDEAL UNDONE BY ITS OWN WARRING FLAWS…
(I wrote this up to place somewhere grown-up and get some traction, but no joy for one reason or another — the Camelot theme not entirely inapposite, esp.if you’ve read The Once and Future King. Kickstarter is still here and closes Wednesday 27 July at 4.26pm UK time.)
We have an idea of the UK music press in the 70s — a notion of great names engaged in earthy debate about rock and pop, of fearless mockery of foolish or pretentious stars, of a generation of self-taught giants walking the earth in those golden black-and-white days. We can list names: Murray and Kent, Parsons and Burchill, Penman and Morley, Danny Baker, Garry Bushell, Jon Savage… With satisfaction (or amusement), we note that some of them have clambered up to the sustainably rewarded end of public chatter — which if nothing else suggests that their first professional gigs must have been an effective proving ground.
It’s a picture distorted with hindsight, though. At the time, it was for the most part a much wider, quieter, almost invisible world. A cluster of titles that you engaged with as an intense subcultural doorway away from the routines of life: yes, there’d be a pop-star on the cover, major or rising or weird, but inside… well, inside you found all kinds of things. It reached a lot of people — sometimes as many as a million a week — and, unlike official culture, it didn’t shut them out. As writer-agitator and one-time label boss Liz Naylor puts it on one of the promo vids, “It was very difficult to access information in the 70s! The music press was my education…”
The four weeklies were NME, Melody Maker, Sounds and Record Mirror. Echoes (sometimes Black Echoes) was a bi-weekly for black music — especially good on soul and reggae. There were several monthlies: Zigzag and Let It Rock and the superb, short-lived, much-lamented Street Life: precursors of Q or Mojo, you could say, but much much more than just this. Because — aside from the endless underfelt of free and alt.listings magazines — the music press had been where the spirit of the underground press had ended up: the brief strange countercultural spark of Oz, IT, Frendz, Ink, when late 60s youth had revolted against war and the technocracy, against racism, against timidity and prudishness, and for unfettered (yes chaotic, yes naive) expression. Writers and editors and designers — some extremely talented, but without a hope of rising far in the then-mainstream media — had crossed over out of this fervid, para-political subculture into the music press, partly because rock was the soundtrack of the counterculture, so that to make sense of rock you had to grasp the language and ideals and utopias of this teenage revolt, if only to wrangle with them, to rescue the good from the bad. And as a consequence this was a world full of curiosity about comics and cult films, liminal and radical politics, about musics and activities of communities and undergrounds from all over the world, America, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa — about everything in the world you couldn’t routinely access, which television skimped and normal newspapers didn’t remotely understand.
Last year I ran a conference at Birkbeck, to explore some of this crossover and how it turned out, called Underground Overground: The Changing Politics of UK Music-Writing 1968-85 (scroll down for more). This year I’m running a kickstarter for a book called A Hidden Landscape Once a Week (subtitle “How UK music-writing became a space for unruly curiosity, in the words of those who made it happen”), which will anthologise extracts from last year’s panels with critical essays exploring issues raised — including the day-to-day practical backroom aspect of putting such a paper together. Panellists and contributors include Charles Shaar Murray, Val Wilmer, Richard Williams, Paul Gilroy, Paul Morley, Simon Frith, David Toop, Cynthia Rose and Penny Reel — people from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives and obsessions, which bohemian mix was key to the sensibility in question; “a conversation,” to quote the kickstarter blurb, “that musician, writer and reading fan all joined… a cheerful collective wrangling that echoes the crackles of dissent and tension in the songs it explores: the disputatiousness as well as the joy.” Alongside the hype and silliness, there was always a care and a fascination with possibility, with portals into all manner of other spaces hinted at in the music, and beyond it. For a decade and more, in a wider culture of stifled parochialism, this was a world of serendipity and surprise encounter. This will be a book that explores this world’s values and flaws, how it was established and maintained, and where its echoes can be found today — or rebuilt, in a very different, noisier, information-saturated context.
[ADDING: the “warring flaws” sub-head wasn’t on the piece I submitted — it didn’t have a heading at all — and only popped into my mind as I was fiddling with a framing to go here. What exactly do I mean by it (since it probably changes the tone and even the meaning of what follows)? Something like this: that what I think became dispersed — by all kinds of pressures, some extremely hard to fight — was a cast of mind in editing, which was, for a while, able to corral the impatience and rivalry and cattiness and worse that you always find among talented writers, into something unexpectedly collectively rich and generous. The mystery of where this came from — whose the design was, if design there was, and what the accident was, if it was accident — is one of the mysteries that brings me back to the subject. The Arthurian image implies that its virtues and its flaws are intextricably tangled: but I don’t know that this is actually so… ]