Aidan Smith: Stop sneering! The NME genuinely changed my life

Aidan Smith was inspired to become a journalist by the NME, which has just stopped printing the famous music magazine and gone web only.

The NME's Charles Shaar Murray with Phil Lynott, of Thin Lizzy fame, in the background (Picture: Ray Stevenson/Rex/Shutterstock)
The NME's Charles Shaar Murray with Phil Lynott, of Thin Lizzy fame, in the background (Picture: Ray Stevenson/Rex/Shutterstock)

The other day on eBay, looking for something entirely different, I ended up with a copy of the first music weekly I ever bought. The original had long since got lost but I remembered everything about the issue, from the front-page news of band tours and splits to the back-of-the-book personals from lonely freaks looking for love with conditions attached: “Dundee area, must like Sabbath, Purple, Heap, no skinheads.”

For the uninitiated, this unholy trinity were Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Uriah Heep – major bands back on 7 April, 1973 – and thumbing the mag’s yellowed pages was wonderful. Until I got to the middle: where the heck was the free colour poster? I went straight back onto eBay and, amazingly, found one. It cost rather more than I’m prepared to admit but was sent in a tube of the stoutest cardboard, having been lovingly ironed flat by its previous owner. I was 16 again and I was thrilled. And just then – as mag, giveaway and freak were reunited – the NME closed.

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This wasn’t a shock. The decline was terminal. Rivals Melody Maker and Sounds had folded, the NME had desperately sucked up to the big-selling, bed-wetting mainstream of Coldplay and Mumford & Sons in a manner that would have made its gloriously pretentious golden-era star writers cringe – and latterly it was given away for nothing. Maybe if I’d got my mate Keith to play Sabbath’s Paranoid album backwards a cryptic message would have emotionally prepared us for our bible dying on 9 March, 2018. Still, this was a very sad day.

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I am writing these words because of CSM of the NME. I got into this profession because I wanted to be Charles Shaar Murray of the New Musical Express, hanging out with the rock gods by the pool of Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont Hotel, TV sets floating in the water. Two years after first poring over his purple prose I got into it. The Dalkeith Advertiser paid me £19 1s a week to be their cub reporter and after falling for the ritual first-day prank of phoning a number to speak to “Mr C. Lyon” only to have dialled the zoo, I reckoned I was the Stones’ 2,000 light years away from Murray’s access-all-areas bacchanal.

I wasn’t, not altogether. After an especially dreary ring-round of local ministers for news titbits, the colleague with the longest hair offered the encouraging words: “Write them up like you’re Nick Kent.” Imagine someone knowing the name of my second-favourite NME scribe! In Dalkeith! I thought the NME was my invite to a little private world, that I was the “Lone Groover” of the mag’s cartoon-strip. Of course I wasn’t. More than 300,000 copies were being shifted every Thursday.

I want to write in praise of the NME because some of the reporting of its demise has been quite sneering, summing up the glory years in a few curt lines and claiming, like the man from the Guardian, that the mag had “umpteen” golden eras which were less about the quality of the writing and more to do with the readers being the correct impressionable age. Rubbish! You were obviously too young for CSM! My golden era was more golden than yours! The regression back to being 16 is complete now. I’m tribal about music again.

I went from comics to the NME with a detour for Mad magazine but hardly a suitable interregnum for books. There are obvious gaps in my knowledge and worldview, like those gaps between poor old Charlie Shaar Murray’s teeth when he turns up on BBC4 rockumentaries, the result presumably of scoffing the brown M&Ms expressly excluded from backstage riders. But when he and Kent dropped literary references I picked them up. My heroes were inspired by the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese; I was inspired by their New New Journalism.

At least with the NME in my schoolbag I was reading something. Lauren Child, the Children’s Laureate, would not be so snobbish about it being a music weekly. And I was writing, too. First, sharply worded epistles to the letters page of a “my band’s best” variety (even finding it in my heart to defend bouffant blue-eyed soul buffoons Hall & Oates). Then unsolicited gig reviews. Then regular correspondence with a girl from Yorkshire who’d help me replace a lost issue which progressed to erotic poetry. Then a job application (“Wanted: Hip young gunslingers”). Then, when the positions went to Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill, the Dalkeith Advertiser’s pop column, called Sounds Around, where I enthused eclectically about the Damned and Janis Ian.

And by the end of every Thursday, because the NME’s ink came off on your hands, my fingers would be as black as those of most of Midlothian’s working men. They’d been down the pits, of course; I’d merely been catching up with CSM’s latest nickname for Bryan Ferry (Byron Ferrari! Brain Fury! Biryani Ferret!) while traipsing round registry offices to jot down the “To Weds”.

Of course I loved the New Musical Express the most when I was 16 and for the rest of my teens but you’ll just have to accept it was at its best then. Nick Kent composed his 3,000-word epics in longhand, on cereal packets and tissue paper, typist standing at the ready, and sometimes deadlines would be missed. I’ve never been as bold as him but in a sense I haven’t stopped writing to/for the NME, albeit in my own head – although the other day, in an interview with an old footballer, a propos of not very much, I managed to namecheck Van der Graaf Generator. And if I’m not mistaken, I’ve just done it again.

While the magazine is no longer printed, the NME is still available on its website