Thursday 8 March 2018

RIP The NME - The End of an Era - my personal recollections of it's glory years

"THE BEGINNING, there was boredom. The seventies had dawned with rock's Old Masters of the '60's plagued with a fatal disease virtually unique in post James-Dean youth culture- They hadn't died while they were still young."
(Tony Parsons - The NME October 29th, 1977).

The Fall, Wire, The Yachts, Joy Division, The Monochrome Set, Alternative TV. These are part of the debt I owe the New Musical Express, as it was then known. Without the NME, I'd have seen none of these bands in my golden years of gig going in 1977 and 1978. Don't get me wrong, I've seen glorious gigs since then. Rather strangely, last year (2017) was perhaps the best year for several decades for live music, but 77/78 was the golden age. The first gig of this era was the Ramones at The Roundhouse on June 6th 1977 at The Roundhouse, with the Talking Heads and The Saints. I'd woken up that morning, with no interest in music at all. I'd seen those strange beasts, the Sex Pistols on The Bill Grundy show and thought it hilarious, as 14 year old boys do, when Uncle Jack farts at a family gathering. I'd heard murmerings about punk, but it wasn't on the telly, and there was none on the daytime radio that I listened to. My favourite shows were things like the Kenny Everett show, who was anarchic, but from another era. I wasn't interested. I was probably what would be described these days as depressed. When I was thirteen, I'd been put on Valium by a paedatrician, to calm me down. I hated myself and thought myself a freak, although I'd never shared these feelings with anyone. As the youngest of six siblings, I knew any sign of weakness would result in merciless teasing, humiliation and a  lifetime of misery. I was at Finchley Catholic High School, at the time 90% Irish, mostly from Kilburn and Cricklewood. As someone who identified themselves as English and one of the smallest children in the class (I was an August baby, born two months premature, so really I should have been in the year lower), from middle class Mill Hill, I was not part of any gang. I felt like a total outsider. My Dad had kindly built me "The Hut", a den at the bottom of the garden. I'd lock myself away and fantasise that I'd be kidnapped by sex mad, nubile, nymphomaniac aliens in a UFO. That was about as good as it got.

At lunch, my sister Caroline asked if I would like to come to see The Ramones, as her friend had a spare ticket. I'd never heard of them. She played me the 12" version of "Sheena is a Punk Rocker". Caroline was 19 at the time and into music. I thought they sounded like the Beach Boys. I have always got on well with Caroline, so I thought it was fun. My Mum told her "He's only 14, if he turns out a wrong 'un, we'll blame you!". So it was we went along.  I've written about what happened before, The Roundhouse put my reminiscences on their 50th anniversary website.

In short, on that night I found a meaning in life. Wheras I'd found the mainstream music scene dull beyond belief (that's why I started the blog with a quote from the era from Tony Parsons in the NME), Punk was a revelation. I couldn't get enough. At FCHS, punk was despised by many. I got into a few scraps as a result. One of my best friends at FCHS was Pete Conway. Pete was another Mill Hill boy. Pete had been ostracised by many, as someone in his class had started a false and vicious rumour that he was gay. At the time being gay was perhaps the most dangerous lifestyle at all at FCHS and homophobia was endemic and institutionalised. I'd not believed the rumours about Pete, but it was physically dangerous to be too matey with him in school. I mentioned to Pete that I'd seen the Ramones and they were great. He said that he'd been listening to Punk rock because his elder sister Mel had gotten into it. We decided to form a band more or less on the spot.  The thing about the 77/78 music scene was that you wanted to be the first one on your block to find new bands. As a Catholic, I found the Punk Holy Trinity. There were three main sources of input. The Holy Ghost was the Record shop in Mill Hill Broadway. This was run by Neil. Neil was a soulboy who hated punk, but was a sound bloke. The rep would come in to see him with a carload of records every Tuesday. He knew my tastes and so he'd take all of the new punk releases (there really weren't many at that time, one or two a month). Neil introduced me to The Heartbreakers and The Dickies, most notably. He'd say "if you don't buy this, I'll get into trouble for ordering it". Pete Conway was banned from the shop for starting a fight with Neil, when Neil had said he hated the Clash and that Junior Mervins version of Police and Thieves was better. In the heirarchy, next was The John Peel show on BBC Radio 1. Peel did the slot between 10pm and Midnight. Peel got me into the Buzzcocks and the Clash. I listened to the show almost every night for years. The top of the tree was The NME. Wheras Neil played music was released, Peel played bands that had either released music or were able to get on his show, The NME reviewed a dozen or so gigs a week, so with support bands, you got to hear of 20-30 bands. There was also the gig listings. For us, it was The Marquee, The Roundhouse and The Music Machine as the main venues.

The NME championed Punk. Older hacks like Charles Shaar Murray jumped on the bandwagon, revitalised by the energy. The NME then employed the "young Turks" Danny Baker, Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill. They were the vanguard of punk. When I left FCHS for pastures new at Orange Hill Senior High School, it was like getting out of prison and waking up in Heaven. Wheras Punk was viewed with suspicion by the mainstream of the FCHS pupils (not my group of mates, I hasten to add, but we were like a secret society), it was fully embraced at Orange Hill. Not only that, but there were girls at the school. It seemed like everyone was in a band. I soon got chatting to Boz and Phil, who were in The Cult Heroes, a punk/Rockabilly mashup that soon morphed into chart band The Polecats. Then there was John, Nick and Nick who had Cardiac Arrest, a Dr Feelgood style R&B band. Craig and Mark had a bubblegum punk band called "The Heretics" and Phil had some designs on an Electro Punk band on the lines of Tubeway Army. As I mentioned above, Pete and I had formed the False Dots, but we hadn't got any instruments and couldn't play. We spent most of 1977/78 trying to sort that out. Pete's Dad disapproved of music. Pete dropped out of school, got a job as an apprentice butcher at Dewhurst and bought a bass. At first, he'd leave it at my house as he was worried his Dad would smash it up. I borrowed my sisters Columbus Les Paul copy. I then bought a FAL amp. One of my old mates from St Vincents Primary, Joe turned up at Orange Hill after being expelled from Bishop Douglas for punching a teacher. Joe was a fiery character from an Irish family, but was in many ways a genius. He and his twin brother Chris, who hadn't been expelled got a band together. They had managed to secure enough equipment to actually have a band!  My Dad, sick of myself and Pete making a racket, offered us the use of the derelict caretakers cottage at Bunns Lane works for rehearsals, in exchange for £2 a week in cash. I agreed with Joe that if he gave us £1 a week and we could all use his gear, we'd set up a studio and they could use it twice a week. That is how Mill Hill Music Complex was born.

Joe and myself were best mates at Orange Hill for a year. We were both outsiders. We'd both read the NME avidly. We'd do the NME crossword. Joe was really into Punk/Art combo Wire. Joe showed me a review of Pink Flag in NME and suggested that this was the way to go. As a result, I found myself at The Marquee, as they previewed Chairs Missing. I realised immediately that Wire had moved punk on by about a million years. They never sold many albums, but I think they pretty much invented the "Indie music" sound. I had a weekly subscription to NME and I still have them all in a tea chest.

My love affair with The NME finished when I was 18. When I finished my A-Levels, I moved to Stockholm for six months. I'd been to see Johnny Thunders at Dingwalls and met a beautiful Swedish girl. I'd invited myself to stay with her. I was smitten (she was distinctly less so, but put up with me for the duration). I took a guitar, some clothes, my lyric book and a few key copies of the NME. It may sound bizarre, but my plan was to do what Bowie had done with Heroes. I knew I needed massive lifestyle changes and I needed to get my head together. I though that if I was in a foreign city, out of my comfort zone, I could write a "Punk Concept Album".  This all ended when my then girlfriend saw the lyrics and wrongly concluded that she was the subject of the album and that I hadn't asked her permission. Ironically the song that really irked her was "Not All She Seems", which I'd written with Pete Conway three years earlier and was the tale of a drug addicted, transvestite prostitute who killed herself due to a society that doesn't accept different people. We'd written the song as we wanted to make the most extreme statement we could. We thought that a song sympathetic to someone who was marginal in every way would gain us notoriety. It certainly inflamed one person I used to know. It was whilst in Stockholm that I realised the music world had again tilted on its access. My girlfriend asked if I wanted to see this amazing new band from London at The Underground club. We found ourselves at a Duran Duran gig. I managed to blag us backstage and wangled a guest pass for the following show at The Ritz. I got chatting to Simon Le Bon and Andy Taylor, who were absolutely brilliant fun. Simon told me he used to live in Hendon and we had a long chat about the pubs and Brent Cross. I asked about music and Simon told me "The world has moved on from Punk, New Romantic is the thing now". Duran Duran were awesome, I still love the band, but it most certainly wasn't punk.

When I got back, it was like the NME had been taken over by aliens. Punk was old hat. I couldn't even read it, I couldn't do the cross word. No one wanted to go to punk gigs with me. Pete Conway had long departed the band. My new partner in crime was Paul Hircombe. Paul suggested we move with the times. He suggested that we get a female singer and try and do the new Romantic thing.

The band recorded a song and had a deal with 101 Records, but the line up imploded before anything was released. One track made it on to a compilation called Directions. For years, I absolutely hated this track, but in hindsight I think it is not too bad. I wrote it when my Sister Val had a terrible bike accident. We were told she was having brain surgery and would most probably not last the night. As it was she made a full recovery. In the circumstances I thought that it's probably the most appropriate song to mark the end of the NME. Of course the NME will continue in an online form. It won't be the same. It hasn't been the same for a long time in truth. For me it died around the time that we made this piece of music.

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