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The Love and Poison of Nineties Music Weeklies

By Guy Mankowski.

When I started writing my latest novel, Dead Rock Stars I had no idea how influential the cheaply printed music weeklies from the nineties were on my writing style. In the novel, a teenage boy called Jeff, stealing glances at Melody Maker in his newsagent but unable to afford a copy, at one point cites a review of the Chemical Brothers at the Heavenly Social as he dreams of finding fame with his own band. In my fictional review he quotes writing about “Spasmodic ravers, gurning as their ears are drilled by sirens, beats and psychedelia until derangement sets in.” My excellent editor, Laurence, raised the eminently reasonable point —  “is this an actual quote?” I had a lot of fun writing in this style for fake reviews of Jeff’s sister’s band, a fictional Kinderwhore group called Cherub, in the novel. I also enjoyed creating as much material as I could to will this character, Emma, to life with excerpts from her diaries.

Those music weeklies had such a distinct idiolect to them, which influenced the whole book. One of the things I most enjoyed about the music writing from this era was how hysterical (almost to the point of being nonsensical) the writing was. As a kid on the Isle of Wight, far from the glamour and action of London (just like my characters) this kind of over-the-top hyperbole made the music scene all the more alluring. In many ways, Dead Rock Stars is glitter drenched fan mail to a lost era of fanzines, music weeklies and compilation cassettes stuck to magazine covers. The fact is, in a manner of which there is no contemporary comparison, cheap music papers could make or break a band with one feature. Suede went from being unknowns, drowners (no pun intended) in the loo bowl of the London toilet circuit until overnight becoming cover stars when they were yet to release a record. There were no diamonds worn on the indie circuit, and the only fur was fake or vintage leopard print. The glamour was low rent and everyone barely scraped a living. You could become overnight a ‘star’ with the benediction of one good review in NME (probably written by some spotty teenager who was a failed musician themselves) but you wouldn’t ever be rich. Ever. It was all that febrile.

Morrissey spent his “years of refusal” writing angst-filled letters to the NME, only for years later the NME‘s leaks about the Smiths splitting being a key factor in this fragile band actually breaking up. The music weeklies affected lives and were affected about lives to a huge extent. In Dead Rock Stars Jeff looks to these weeklies as if they are quasi-religious texts (just as I did) and it is his sister managing to command their attention which propels her out of obscurity and into the world of indie fame. I would fall in love with seemingly glamorous bands breathlessly reviewed in the pages of NME, onto to see them retreat into a mystical world of irrelevance (or, more likely, back to them doing shifts at the chip shop) as they would never be written about again. But Romo bands like Hollywood would in my mind always be dressed as silver latex wearing pop stars, slathered in sequin and I would never get to learn anything different.

I spent part of a recent Saturday night exchanging screenshots of the music weeklies with Kingsley Chapman, erstwhile singer of The Chapman Family, who sent me reviews of the BMX Bandits from back in the day. I noticed just how contradictory the hyperbole writing in the music weeklies really was (Emma Forrest’s description of Britpop also-rans Truman as “brilliantly rubbish’ setting a watermark). In a copy of Melody Maker that I perused a review of Kevin Sampson’s rock ‘n’ roll airport busting novel ‘Power’ describes it as “a salacious, and slightly appalling, soap opera”. The quality of what you did was nothing next to (again, no pun intended) its verve. What is surprising, in these current days of callow cynicism, black-hearted nihilism and craven politics, is just how toothless even the bitterest reviewer now sounds. The wonderfully vitriolic (see, even I’m doing it now) Steven Wells famously described indie bedwetters Los Campesinos! (that exclamation mark!) as “a 14-legged abortion” — which would be a career-ending description for him today. In the music weeklies there were features in which this spitefulness became a habit. Holly Hernandez’s weekly column in Melody Maker, “Holly’s Demo Hell” skewered the aspirations of rock star wannabes with its dismissiveness, (“lack of talent abounds” runs one review I found) in a magazine which pages earlier scrutinised with earnest sincerity the Planet Of The Apes based plotline of Gay Dad’s last single. Hernandez was not alone in this bitchy approach during this era. Karen Krizanovich, in the relatively unmourned Sky Magazine (lite porn masquerading as harmless TV listings) would also dispense black-hearted mockery in the guise of an agony aunt under a comparably foxy persona. Seemingly friendly characters, such as Mr Agreeable, pop up in corners of the pages of Melody Maker to rant with splenetic poison at Roger Daltrey’s new project (“I’d rather eat an infected pig’s bladder than listen to this shit”).

Elsewhere the wonderfully named Llama Farmers, find that their fate hangs in the balance in a live review of their recent London set where their “thrashing guitars and swaying features” are weakly praised, but their derivate love of Nirvana is a “concern”. As if the nonchalant choices of an aspiring band are a matter for po-faced scrutiny.

Pulp’s Russell Senior launches a new band, steeped in charity shop nylon and PVC, with a wonderfully named Debbie Lime as singer, and their few column inches in da Maker rapidly decide the trajectory of their career within a few lines. A band could be feted, dismissed, or treated with suspicion, and within these conceptualisations was their whole narrative, as is very evident in retrospect. For all my mocking of this Roman amphitheatre style reportage, as a teenager I would grip the pages of the weeklies and seriously ponder if a band was worthy of purchase with my pocket money. There were no downloads, no free plays on Spotify, and so precious few mistakes could be made with our taste, which required some sacrifices. Beloved friends or girlfriends were made mix cassettes, which required hours of rewinding and recording in real-time. Not to mention the annotation of cassette inlay cards.

I recall my former bandmate Hollie Martorella making me cassettes where she would decorate the inlays with ink drawings, and I would often do the same for people. There was something gloriously tactile about the multiple versions of CDs and cassettes you could buy during that time, in order to own every B-side from the band of that era. You and your friends would swap CDs and pore over B-sides (at least, me and my friends did) and so the castoffs and cobwebbed corners of your favourite artists imaginations would become deeply familiar to you. As would every allusion in their inlay card, every atmosphere hinted at in their gatefold artwork. Your bedroom would be adorned by free posters from music weeklies, themselves a kind of cultural hegemony. My copy of Melody Maker, with its free saucy Brian Molko postcards endures (even if sadly the postcards do not).

As a Manics fan what I find deeply curious is just how much certain bands, like them, retained the attention of the weeklies. One copy of Melody Maker reviews not just the Manics’ recent Reading set but compares them, with a savantish completism, to all their previous sets at that festival. The shocking possibility of the Manics taking a year off is debated with deep seriousness by Mary O’Meara, editor of the Manics fanzine Terrible Beauty, and “fan and iconoclastic Glitter fanzine editor Erika Sage”. Both discuss this possibility like pundits analysing their teams’ recent performance during a season.

In other pages, Manics fans would fret that bassist Nicky Wire’s skipping on stage schtick was “growing old” and that he clearly needed a rest. There was a cherished (if very one way) intimacy fostered between fan and star. Paula Hearsum writes of the “parasocial interaction” when a star’s performance can misleadingly invite the audience to really believe that they know him or her. A band releasing an album was an event, and an opportunity for their fans to meet at a convention was not an online phenomenon, but a real, tactile thing in which lifelong relationships were formed. In the famous “Diary Of A Manics Fan” a stereotype of the Manics fan would take hold, a rather unfair one, of the joyless pseudo-intellectual. As a Manics fan myself this felt pretty close to the bone, because the sincerity we poured into our devotion could, askance, be seen as a joke. We had set ourselves up with our own devotion. As Rhian Jones writes in Triptych, the Diary drew on one cliché, of the “spoilt, pretentious schoolgirl with no ‘real’ problems, no wounds to show, who wrongly thinks herself above her hormone-addled peers.” In retrospect, this reductive sketch said a lot about the sexism of the day. Was is also curious is, when revisiting these weeklies, is how enduring the now abandoned identity we cultivated in adolescence feels. Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie cleverly captured this sense in their series “Phonogram: Rue Britannia.’”Its protagonist, David Kohl, is a cynical former fan of Britpop, represented by goddess named Britannia. The series contains a character called Beth, who remains stuck outside of time in her adolescent persona as a Manics fan. She is eyeliner smeared, boa-wearing ghost. When we meet the present Beth we see how she has abandoned the stereotypical features of the Manics fan. Larissa Wodtke describes her as ‘a consignment of memories, an exterior archive.’ It is curious to think of our past teenage selves as this, ephemeral and enduring, utterly redundant in the present and yet potent enough to feel primed for re-activation.

What I find curiously moving about these old music weeklies is the windows that they offered into the lives of the readers, back in the nineties. In one copy I have a Rebecca Forsyth writes to Melody Maker to state how “Brian Molko Saved My Life.” I would often see in the back of these magazines the classified ads in which “Jarvis fan would seek Placebo fan for cuddles and more”, and other similar pleas for soulmates would be issued. Amongst all the hyperbole, saucy postcards, viciousness and earnest analysis these weeklies seemed written with the lifeblood of the era.


Guy Mankowski (born 1983) is a prolific English author. His latest (and fifth) novel is Dead Rock Stars. Albion’s Secret History was also published recently.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 18th, 2020.