A History of NME

by Pete Carpenter, Mar 13, 2018

NME discontinued its magazine last week. Native takes a look back at the history of the iconic institution.

Last week saw another tragic musical loss. The New Musical Express, more commonly known as NME, announced its ceasing publication of its print magazine. Although the NME will continue online; the impact of such a decision could be much further reaching than first assumed.

One of the most sobering thoughts about the print magazine going out of print comes from the very inception of New Musical Express, when it was first launched as a Music Newspaper. In 1952, a music Promoter in London purchased a newspaper called ‘Accordion Times and Musical Express’ 15 minutes before it was due to be officially shut down, saving it and reincarnating it into the paper we know today.

Maurice Kinn paid £1000 for the paper (about £20,000 today) with the ambitious view of creating a UK version of the infamous American Billboard magazine. Later that year, Maurice saw one of those ambitions come to fruition when the New Musical Express launched the UK's very first singles chart. Such was his team's dedication that the statistics were collected from regional record shops all over the country.

During the first decade the paper flourished with Andy Gray as editor and the timing couldn’t have been better when the pop explosion of the 1960s hit. Regularly featuring the Beatles and Rolling Stones on its cover, it quickly became the music bible for Britain's youth.

This was doubly important as the 60s was a decade of massive economic growth, especially for the teenage population.Teenagers were, for the first time, earning their own money, and in the 1960s the primary markets for youth spending were fashion and music.

From 1964 onwards, the annual ‘Poll Winners Concert’ was filmed for TV. All the winners were voted for by the readers and as such were a true reflection of music popularity of the time. By the end of the 1970s, the live shows petered out but the poll continued to mark the readers’ winners.

Image by badgreeb RECORDS via Flickr

The paper was sold by Kinn at the height of its popularity in 1963 to publishers IPC. Having focused on the pop of the 60s, NME failed to keep up to date with the burgeoning rock scene and again saw the threat of closure in 1972.

New editors, Alan Smith and Nick Logan looked to the independents and sought to recruit the best writers therein. This included a young Nick Kent who went on to become one of the most influential and important music writers of the 1970s.

With new staff, NME switched from the pop scene to actively promoting and exposing new acts. With the high camp of glam rock and the visceral snarls of punk emblazoned across its pages, NME became the paper of the rebel. By the late 70s, the progenitors of the anger fueled punk scene, The Sex Pistols, were regularly on the cover; daring the youth of the decade to peek inside.

NME were the first publication to write about them in 1976, following their live show at the Marquee. Realising the need for writers who not only understood the movement but were part of it, Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons were brought on board to document the anarchy and unrest in their own unique way.

The editorial staff changed again with Neil Spencer taking over from Logan in 1978. It was then that the now ubiquitous logo was first employed and is still in use today.

As Britain moved into the 1980s, the outlook was bleak. The global recession and cold war brought an air of distrust and all-pervading gloom. NME tried to help the nation's youth retain their ability to escape into music. 1981 saw the launch of C81 in conjunction with Rough Trade.

Readers could save two tokens and send them, with £1.50, in return for a cassette compiled by journalist Roy Carr. Like the magazine it championed up and coming and established acts in the form of a mixtape. Cassette culture was massive at this time and it was lapped up by the readers, leading to the tape being commercially released.

During this period the staff included writers such as Danny Baker and David Quantick. Despite providing a quality offering, NME started to struggle and was once again faced with the threat of closure. Rather than find a niche and thrive, the magazine alternated between Hip Hop and Rock features, alienating sections of the readership at a time when people would choose a genre and stick to it.

This lack of direction, coupled with non-music articles discussing politics, sports and technology, saw many readers switch to The Face, created by former editor Nick Logan.

Following this crisis period, a chunk of senior staff was removed, and Alan Lewis was brought in to turn things around. This didn’t sit well with the staff and a vote of no confidence was placed shortly after he took over. Despite the mood in the trenches, NME was regaining popularity and recreating former successes. They would bring in new writers including Steve Lamacq, Stuart Maconie and Mary Anne Hobbs who all went on to become the voices of the 90s across print media, television and radio too.

Image by -EMR- via Flickr

As the 90s broke on NME, Danny Kelly became editor and the exciting Madchester scene gave way to the grunge invasion, giving the paper as strong a focus as they’d had with punk. With coverage of bands like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, British indie bands only got a small look in. This content provoked a feud between themselves and angry indie upstarts: Manic Street Preachers.

The band felt that the paper was overlooking ‘uncool’ smaller bands in favour of personal preference, opposed to what the public wanted. When Steve Lamacq met with the band in 1991, late lyricist and poet Richie Edwards gave up and carved ‘4 Real’ into his arm with a razor, unknowingly creating a slice of rock history and simultaneously connecting with disaffected youth the nation over.

In April 1994, the musical world was shook with the news of Kurt Cobain's suicide. The preceding years of teenage angst had come to a head and many wondered where music would go from here.

But that same month an album was released that was to change the atmosphere. Blur released ‘Parklife’ and NME delighted in its upbeat positivity. When NME coined the term ‘Britpop’, a disparate scene coalesced into a tangible and welcome force. By the year’s end, Blur and Oasis were at each other’s necks, vying for the Britpop crown.

Britpop dominated the 90s and NME used that to boost their sales. When Oasis and Blur released singles on the same day in 1995, NME emblazoned it across their cover.

It even led to a revival of its Poll Winners Concert which they named ‘The Brats’ in a sly dig at the record industry’s ‘The Brits’. But the meteoric rise of Britpop fell just as quickly. By the end of the decade, when the paper was promoting the growing DJ scene, many criticised it for not covering rock and indie.

Trying to change things up, 1998 saw the switch from newsprint to glossy magazine. With new editor Ben Knowles, there was yet another attempt to move back into covering pop and R&B with cover features on Hear’Say and Destiny's Child, as well as established Hip Hop acts like Jay Z. The readers once again spoke with their coin and sales dropped. NME soon went back to focusing on emerging rock acts like White Stripes and The Strokes, championing Arctic Monkeys and The Libertines.

But the taste of the public was changing, yet again, and where previously the lack of direction put readers off, readers now wanted diversity in their coverage. This was all to change, however, when Krissi Murison became editor in 2009. Murison led a redesign of the magazine and, when it launched in 2010, there were ten different covers, reflecting the wider variety of music they’d cover.

2012 saw Murison replaced by Mike Williams, who is still Editor-in-Chief today across all platforms. Aware that print magazines were under increasing pressure from online rivals, the decision was made in 2015 to distribute for free throughout the country’s universities, record shops and music venues. That first edition saw the title’s highest ever distribution and readership in it’s history.

Williams won editor of the year and critically the magazine was stronger than ever, praise being heaped on NME for returning to its roots and being about music, by music lovers, for music lovers.

Despite the trials and tribulations, NME stuck to its guns and provided the UK with a weekly update on the world of music for 66 years. In a world where you see commuters glued to their phones and information is instantly beamed to us, a lot can be said for a paper.

Schoolkids snatching a single copy from each other to read the latest review first and then discussing it, looking for the review of their own demo in Hollys Demo Hell, students tearing out pages and sticking them up in halls to show their own particular musical allegiances… these are the things that an online presence can’t do, the conversations it can’t start.

It does seem that the music fans of the future will be poorer for it. It’s a shame and it’s sad. RIP NME.

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