British Press Shocker!

Teenybopper mag whomps trad rags in sales war

Mark Ellen; Features Editor, Smash Hits Magazine, March 1, 1983. Credit: Virginia Turbett/Redferns/Getty

A profile for one of the weekly British music papers, like Melody Maker or the New Musical Express (NME), is so simple that, well, a chimp could probably do it. At least that's what Mark Ellen and Ian Birch, two editors from another English music magazine called Smash Hits, are saying after they've emptied a few pints of lager at a pub around the corner from their Carnaby Street office.

If it's that easy, then go ahead, boys, tell us how it's done.

'''Hi,''' the 29-year-old Ellen begins, verbally sketching out a typical NME or Melody Maker introduction. "'I'm sitting in the back of the taxi, and I'm reading Les Enfants Terribles, and it's really affecting my life.'"

"'And I've also just seen the new Wim Wenders film,'" continues Ellen's 32-year-old sidekick, Birch. "'And I'm really depressed.'"

"'And the sunset reminds me of.…'"

Before Ellen can finish his thought, deep as it may be, Birch cuts him off: ''There: that alone should take up the first 1,500 words.''

"But," Ellen persists, "then you meet David Sylvian from the band Japan, and things become very complicated."

To those who have even a passing acquaintance with such longstanding British music publications as the NME, Melody Maker or Sounds, Ellen and Birch's improvisations ought to sound hilariously familiar. Over the past couple of years, those papers have perfected a kind of self-indulgent, pseudoacademic, first-person style of writing in which the author and his feelings often take precedence over the subject and his opinions. (In fact, it's not uncommon for the writer's name to appear in type as large as that used for the performer's name.)

But what gives Ellen and Birch the right to poke fun at their colleagues in the press? Well, Smash Hits does.

In 1978, Smash Hits — a glossy, fortnightly pop magazine that's big on color photos, song lyrics and short, breezy, largely unopinionated articles — sprang up from nowhere and literally demolished all the competition. The publication now sells just about 400,000 copies of each issue— an astonishing figure in a country with a population of only 55 million. And while Smash Hits' circulation continues to rise, those other music papers, the ones that ardent Anglophiles have been searching out on the U.S. newsstands for more than a decade, seem as though they're just about ready to go the way of, say, America's dearly departed Crawdaddy magazine.

There are two major factors that distinguish the British music press from their counterparts in America. One is the sheer number of publications. In addition to the NME, Melody Maker and Sounds, there are two other weekly magazines: No. 1, a Smash Hits imitator that just began publishing this year, and Record Mirror, a former newsprint tabloid that recently switched to a glossy format. Then, of course, there's Smash Hits, which comes out every other week, and, finally, The Face, a slick, extremely classy monthly that delves into such areas as film, fashion and politics, as well as music.

The other characteristic that distinguishes the British publications from the American ones is their influence on the music scene. Most U.S. record companies will tell you that the American press rarely has any impact in terms of getting acts signed or selling records. In Britain, however, the press's power has, from time to time, been undeniable.

Take the case of U2. Back in 1978, when U2 were still struggling to break out of their hometown of Dublin, their lead singer, Bono, journeyed to London, armed with about a half-dozen demo tapes and a list of journalists. He was convinced that if he could get just one of those writers to do a story on U2, the band would have a much better shot at landing a recording contract.

He was right. ''We were on the cover of Record Mirror some time before we were signed,'' says Paul McGuinness, the group's manager. ''And the week we were signed by Island, there was a four-page feature in the NME, written by Paul Morley, who was then the preeminent London music journalist.''

Morley agrees that the music press's influence was at its zenith during that period from the middle to late Seventies. ''Papers like the NME and Sounds shaped the surface of the pop culture,'' he says. But times have changed, and now, says Morley, ''they've completely lost that influence. They're looked upon with a certain amount of scorn, and they don't sell as many copies.''

Indeed, the circulation figures for the NME, Sounds, Melody Maker and Record Mirror would be enough to drive a profit-minded publisher right out his office window. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which monitors magazine sales, the NME's circulation has declined from 217,000 in 1980 to its current figure of 140,465; Sounds has dropped from 173,000 to 116,499 in the same period; Record Mirror has slipped from 127,000 to 98,168; and Melody Maker has plunged to an embarrassing 63,219 from its 1980 figure of 120,000 and from an early-Seventies high of over 200,000.

The most obvious explanation for the demise of these once-powerful and prestigious papers is the ever-volatile British music scene. Pop is in. Good looks sell. Though groups like U2, New Order, and Echo and the Bunnymen still do well in the U.K., the charts are now being dominated by a new breed of teen idols — bands like Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Culture Club and Wham!

''The fans of that music are, for the most part, very young,'' says Neil Spencer, the bookish-looking 34-year-old editor of the NME. ''And all they want are glossy pictures of Duran Duran to stick up on their bedroom walls.''

Which makes Smash Hits the perfect magazine for that teenybop contingent and its pop-star heroes. ''I think Smash Hits does a great service to the kids,'' enthuses Paul Berrow, who, along with his brother, oversees the affairs of Duran Duran. ''And it's very valuable for any band that decides to pay attention to its image. That's what it's all about — image. And in order to communicate an image, you need a publication that will publish the photographs you supply them with. And, hopefully, those photographs are a reflection of what the band is thinking and what its values are, at least in a superficial way.''

That kind of journalism doesn't exactly send Spencer running for his pencil. ''We are a bit of a grown-up publication,'' he says. ''And I have no interest in editing a fab-pix issue. Besides, Smash Hits, quite honestly, has got that market. We can't compete with Smash Hits.''

''The music-paper market is never static,'' says Richard Williams, who edited Melody Maker from 1978 to 1980 and who is now the pop-music critic for the London Times. ''It's a genre that's in constant evolution.'' It's true: The British music press has always seemed a bit like a horse race, with one publication gaining a big lead over the others, only to be passed by another paper when a new musical trend captures the public's fancy.

Melody Maker was the first out of the gate, being established in 1926 as a periodical that printed mainly song lyrics — a ploy that its owner, a music publisher, thought would encourage sheet-music sales. The paper gradually began covering the popular music of the day — jazz, big bands and so forth — and pretty much was alone in the field until the NME entered the race in 1952.

Concentrating on such teen phenomenons as Frank Sinatra and the bobby-soxers, and Elvis Presley and the first wave of rock & rollers, the NME took a lighter, more fanzine-oriented approach than Melody Maker. By the height of Beatlemania in the mid-Sixties, the NME was the undisputed front-runner, with an all-time-high circulation of 380,000.

Meanwhile, Melody Maker's editors were looking askance at such ''trivial'' musical developments. ''We have a long history of ignoring important things,'' jokes Michael Oldfield, Melody Maker's current editor. ''Somewhere in the files there's a review of Elvis Presley's first single, saying he's got no chance. And there are a lot of stories about when Bob Dylan first came over to England and was thrown out of here for singing in the office.''

Alarmed by the NME's success, however, Melody Maker grudgingly began paying more attention to the burgeoning pop scene. Still, it continued to cover more ''serious'' music, like jazz and blues, and it also was gaining a reputation as the ''musician's magazine.'' Its back pages carried information about new instruments and related products, as well as the now legendary ''Musicians Wanted'' and ''Musicians Available'' ads. (Scores of British bands, from Led Zeppelin to the Jam, have formed through Melody Maker's classified section.)

When such ''pomp rock'' acts as Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer started to take control of the charts in the late Sixties, Melody Maker's highbrow approach began to pay off. ''That was considered to be more intelligent music, and Melody Maker was considered to be the more intelligent paper,'' explains the 33-year-old Oldfield, who, despite his near-shoulder-length hair, should not be confused with the musician of the same name.

As Melody Maker once again raced to the front of the pack, the NME appeared to be on the verge of collapse. One would think that the near-certain death of their biggest competitor would have had the publishers of Melody Maker reaching for some bottles of Dom Perignon. Instead, IPC Magazines Ltd., the company that owns Melody Maker, came to the rescue of the NME, buying the ailing paper and pumping enough capital into it to keep it running.

(In recent years, IPC's ownership of the NME and Melody Maker has led to numerous rumors that the two papers ultimately plan to merge. Not so, claims Oldfield. ''Melody Maker, despite its small circulation, is a hugely profitable paper, as is the NME. If you merged the two, you'd cut your profit. It'd be daft.'' To make matters even more incestuous, IPC also runs No. 1, the Smash Hits ripoff.)

Given a new lease on life by IPC, the NME started to rebuild. The fanzine style of writing was given the boot, and gradually a new crop of young, ambitious journalists — like Morley, Charles Shaar Murray, Nick Kent, Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill — was brought in. Borrowing heavily from America's gonzo journalism, these newcomers started displaying their distinctive personalities in long, in-depth, highly opinionated pieces that were frequently witty, more often than not savage and almost always entertaining.

It was not really surprising, then, that when the battle cry of punk began rising from the streets of London in 1976, the NME — along with a relative newcomer to the sweepstakes called Sounds — stood ready and able to cover these new bands, which were dead set against all the music Melody Maker had been championing.

''The NME had the kind of writers for punk, and they handled it much better than we did,'' admits Oldfield. Though Melody Maker did pay some attention to this new phenomenon, ''it just pissed off the older audience. There were lots of angry letters from people saying how disgraceful and disgusting it was that we were covering something like punk.''

The NME was soon back in the lead, though Sounds, which mixed a large dose of heavy metal in with its punk coverage, squeezed into first place for a while in 1981. But as punk and, later, New Wave, gave way to safer, more commercial forms of music, many of the NME's name writers left the fold. And thus far, most of their replacements have seemed like nothing more than feeble impersonators.

''It's just appalling,'' says Paul Morley, who is now working with producer Trevor Horn. ''The whole craft of writing, the whole art of criticism doesn't exist anymore. And there's so much space to be filled every week that these writers go out week in, week out to get another piece — Eurythmics, U2, Simple Minds and on and on. And they cease to have anything to say.'' Thus, the notorious ''I'm sitting in the back of the taxi'' introductions, or the tedious, 10,000-word sociological overviews on the state of America, written, as Smash Hits' Mark Ellen points out, by someone who's only ''seen America for 15 minutes from a hotel-room window.''

And as the NME, Sounds and Melody Maker have been jockeying for positions in the last couple of years, they've become more zealous than ever about finding and promoting the Next Big Thing. ''Everyone is so hysterical to discover something new,'' says Morley, ''that very minor acts get publicized as being absolutely fantastic. Every week in Melody Maker, some strange new group is written about as if it's the most exciting thing that ever happened.''

And despite all the searching, no one has really been able to turn up the Next Big Thing. No one, that is, except Nick Logan.

Richard Williams calls Nick Logan ''The most interesting force in the British music press. Over the past 10 years, he's really the only one who's been able to see the market changes coming, and the fashion and style changes, and devise a way of dealing with them in journalistic terms.''

In fact, it was Nick Logan who was largely responsible for the success of the NME in the late Seventies. It was also Nick Logan who, upon leaving the NME, founded Smash Hits in November 1978. And, once again, it was Nick Logan who launched The Face in May 1980.

On a quiet, drizzly Friday afternoon, the day after the latest issue of The Face was put to bed, Logan is sitting behind his desk in the office he shares with his assistant editor, Paul Rambali. Short and slender, with thinning brown hair, Logan, who is 36, hardly comes across as the kind of imposing publishing genius one might expect, given his reputation. Low-key and relaxed, he speaks in a quiet, measured way, occasionally stopping to light another of his Silk Cut cigarettes or to answer his own phone.

''I've always been interested in the visual side of magazines,'' says Logan, who began his career twenty years ago as a writer on a small newspaper. ''But there was a limit to what I could do with the NME, since it's a black-and-white, ad-heavy weekly. So I decided that my utopia would be to have a monthly magazine, which I would keep fairly simple so I could handle everything myself.''

To secure financing, Logan developed ideas for about six different magazines, ranging from a tabloid version of The Face to Smash Hits. It was the latter magazine that intrigued publishers, and Logan agreed to give it a shot, though he did have one stipulation: he would edit it under the pseudonym of Chris Hall. ''I thought most people at the NME would laugh at what I was doing,'' he says, having the last laugh.

Logan had come up with the Smash Hits concept because he sensed that many of the punk bands were actually on the verge of becoming successful pop groups. ''Give the kids six months, I thought, and they probably won't be buying Sham 69 records, but they will be buying the Jam.'' However, from the start, EMAP National Publications Ltd., the firm that was bankrolling Smash Hits, was wary: For one thing, they wanted to call the magazine Disco Fever. ''Can you imagine it still being around if they'd done that?'' Logan asks. ''I mean, I wasn't interested in covering John Travolta!''

Logan held firm, insisting that the magazine's name not be changed and that it cover punk. EMAP finally gave in, and Smash Hits became one of the biggest British publishing successes since the English edition of Cosmopolitan, selling 166,000 copies after only only six months.

Logan, though, was still restless. Smash Hits was not his idea of utopia, and he was tired of squabbles with publishers and battles over ad quotas. So in June 1979, he left Smash Hits behind, emptied his savings account of 5,000 pounds (about $11,000 then) and set about creating The Face. From the start, he was determined not to accept any outside funding. Given that most new magazines spend millions of dollars to get off the ground, that dream might have seemed impossible. But Logan made it work. By keeping his staff small — he currently employs only five people — and his overhead low, Logan has managed to keep The Face afloat and even to turn a small profit, despite a British circulation of only 58,638.

That sales figure belies The Face's overall importance, says Richard Williams. ''The Face may only be bought by 60,000 people, but they are a very important 60,000 people. People at the sharp end of taste.'' With its striking layouts and four-color photography, The Face is one of the most attractive publications in Britain or America. And while it is widely perceived as a music magazine, its editorial content — which includes everything from fashion layouts to self-proclaimed ''supercommie'' Julie Burchill's political screeds — is much broader and more intelligently written than that of any similar British publication.

''The time for the all-music format seems to have passed,'' Logan says. ''Particularly the way that Melody Maker and Sounds are doing it. So we're trying to keep a certain distance from that. I only check out one of the music papers, the one I used to work for [NME]. I just can't bring myself to look at the others; they depress me too much.''

''You know,'' says Mark Ellen of Smash Hits, after ordering one last pint of Foster's, ''we've never believed in taking things especially seriously. We've never believed that music was a particularly precious subject.''

Ian Birch nods in agreement. ''That's the last thing in the world we wanted to think.''

Given the current music climate in Britain, that lack of respect would appear to be a blessing. As The Face's assistant editor, Paul Rambali, observes, ''There was a time when music was much more pertinent to the culture. Records aren't selling as much, and people are spending more time playing video games, for instance. Generally, music doesn't play such an important part in people's lives. It's just got less to say about our lives.'' In addition, all of the music magazines are facing competition from a new medium for rock & roll — television. Channel Four, a new, youth-oriented station, is now broadcasting several rock shows, such as The Tube and Switch, while the advent of cable TV in England in 1984 should bring with it at least one MTV-type channel.

But while Ellen and Birch seem to have come to terms with life in the Eighties (Smash Hits is considering a video magazine), the tabloids are still stuck in the Seventies. Sounds seems the most oblivious to the changing environment, as it continues to concentrate on hard-core punk and heavy metal; a recent issue contained a two-page feature on Uriah Heep, of all groups. Melody Maker, on the other hand, is desperately going after the Smash Hits audience with predictable covers of such pretty-boy pop acts as Duran Duran, Nick Heyward and Spandau Ballet. The question its editors seem unable to answer, however, is why people would want to buy a largely black-and-white newspaper when they can read about the same acts in the glossy, colorful Smash Hits.

Of the three tabloids, the NME is making the strongest effort to alter its approach. Setting its sights on an older, more mature audience, the paper has expanded its coverage to include film, books, politics and other related subjects. The stories are also getting shorter and more concise, and, according to current editor Neil Spencer, a new format, similar to that of Rolling Stone's, is being considered.

That's all well and good, but the NME may still be doomed by its intellectual sensibility. ''You should hear them,'' says freelancer Mark Steels, who writes for Smash Hits and Time Out, a weekly London entertainment guide. ''They sit in the bar and discuss the Nietzschean undertones of their covers.''

And what covers they are: Eddie and Sunshine, a New Wave cabaret act; the Southern Death Cult, a ''positive punk'' group that graced the front page shortly before they'd broken up; Collapsing New Buildings, a Berlin band whose sound is distinguished by clanging metal and buzzing power drills; and the Test Department, a similar outfit that hails from the UK.

Obviously, commerciality is not a big priority. ''I don't think it's a very wise idea on the part of the NME to put a picture on its cover of an obscure German group in a swimming pool, especially when it was shot through a kind of dusky filter,'' says Smash Hits Birch. ''The most important part of a magazine is the cover, and people don't even know who it is that's on the cover of the NME.''

''And,'' adds Ellen, ''when they read the little caption that tells who it is, people still don't know.'' He shakes his head in disbelief and takes another sip of lager. Ellen and Birch have every right to be laughing, because they're on top. They're hot. But the history of the British music press has proved one thing: No magazine can stay number one forever. Not Melody Maker. Not the NME. And a few years from now, when another new musical trend has conquered the British Isles, it seems a pretty safe bet that Smash Hits will have surrendered its title, too.