MANCHESTER, England — “Nirvana. You probably barely recognize the name, but by the time this page is ink on your fingertips, Nirvana will have sold 1,000,000 copies of their new LP.”
That’s how I opened the most significant cover story I wrote for the NME, on Nov. 23, 1991. But there will be no more inky fingers for NME’s readers. This week, what was once Britain’s most important music newspaper and a taste maker on both sides of the Atlantic will put out its last print edition after 66 years.
The NME opened the gateway to a musical universe far beyond my reach when I was growing up in rural northern England in the late 1970s. I remember the ritual of racing to the shop, sitting on the wall outside, wildly leafing though the ink-smudged pages searching for news of one of my favorite artists. Later, making a second immersive reading of the music papers, from cover to cover, with a flashlight, in bed.
I arrived at the NME in 1986, age 22, after a year spent living in a wooden shed in Hollywood, writing about artists such as Jane’s Addiction and Metallica for another British music newspaper, Sounds. Bands in California would rush to buy the few copies of the NME that were stocked at Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard, craving insight into what was happening in the British scene and a deeper understanding of how American artists’ music was going down in Britain.
Every shred of information about the global musical domain is now available digitally, but in the 1980s, the pages of the music press were it. Get your hands on a printed issue of NME, or lose out.
At Sounds, I had worked with the writer James Brown, and when I returned to Britain in 1985, he had moved to the NME as its features editor. He called me and said, “We know a lot about the Smiths and Marxist politics, but we don’t know enough about rock music. Can you come and write some stuff for us at the NME?”
A front cover at the NME was considered a serious prize, both for an artist and for a writer. I fought hard to get the cover of the NME for Nirvana. In 1991, the band were breaking big in America, but they had yet to have the same impact in Britain. Before the age of high-speed digital hype, a band could become a phenomenon in one part of the world, but remain underground and virtually unknown in other territories.
The NME’s editor, Danny Kelly, understood my belief in the band, and when two cover stories with Sonic Youth and The Cure fell through, he called me and said: “You have 48 hours to find Nirvana, get the interview and deliver 3,000 words to me. It better be the best thing you’ve ever written.”
Nirvana were touring in Britain, and I interviewed them in a shabby hotel in the Bayswater district of London. Dave Grohl was goofing around, tossing cigarettes in the air and trying to catch them between his lips. Kurt Cobain was in real pain with stomach ulcers, and only interested in talking about women’s rights. Krist Novoselic made some very astute political comments. None of them wanted to talk with me about their new album, “Nevermind.” At all.
I raced home afterward and transcribed the interview word for word from my cassette recorder. I spread the pages all over the floor of my bedroom, and sat before the flickering green screen of an Amstrad word processor for the next 30 hours with a stash of Marlboro reds, Jack Daniels and black coffee, trying to temper my emotions and write something Mr. Kelly would consider incisive enough to make a cover story.
The NME’s office was situated on the 26th floor of an ugly tower block on London’s South Bank. The place was loud, rowdy and full of joy. The wages were pitiful and the deadlines were brutal, but the NME was our whole world and we loved it. There was relentless sparring about headlines, about how much space on a page to give to photographs over written copy, and of course, about the artists we should be championing.
Central to the remit of the NME was the idea that we wanted to tell our readers something they didn’t already know. We had a rule about never putting the same band on the cover twice in a year. A furious row broke out about the suggestion that the Stone Roses, at their peak, may get a second cover within 12 months, which divided us completely. Should we make this exception? Or would it set a new precedent that nobody wanted. (The Stone Roses got a second cover; the band deserved it.)
What united us as a team, was a commitment to making what we believed was the greatest music paper on Earth. Our work was unapologetic, confrontational, progressive and poetic, and the unique identity of each writer gave NME it’s rich diversity of ideas and perspectives. I will still read everything on any topic that I see written by my teen-hero Paul Morley, and also by Stuart Maconie, David Quantick, James Brown, Barbara Ellen and Steve Lamacq, all of whom I worked alongside.
In 2018, it’s very simple to access music media online: There are blogs, streaming sites, and even algorithms to hold your hand if you feel faint at all the choices you could make. But there will be a melancholy feeling among all of us who read the paper in its glory days to see the printed NME retired, because those dirty pages remind us of the fury of youth and of the feeling of belonging that comes with being present and physically engaged.