Once upon a time, back in the dim recesses of the late 90’s, I came close to writing for the NME. It was a glorious time, full of dreams and free gigs and the possibility of all of my teenaged dreams coming true. Then I went and spoiled it all.
It started with me picking up the NME in our university shop, where it and the Guardian were probably the only two papers that did any trade. I was much more of a Kerrang! and Metal Hammer reader back then, and had a snobbish distaste of indie music that meant I rarely picked up anything with Morrisey’s face on, which is why I rarely got the nation’s flagship music weekly. I know I definitely got it when Kurt died, but then who didn’t?
Anyway, something about this issue persuaded me to pick it up — the cover story was on the true spirit of Independence or some such. It featured a load of mainly indie bands, and Mogwai, who were one of my favourite new bands of the time. So I went to the University library where there was functioning heating to keep away the perpetual cold that came from living in Sunderland, and read.
By the end, I was livid. Properly livid. How could you write about the state of independent, punk rock attitude, and not mention a single band from the rock scene? A rock scene that was at the time in full resurgence and had pulled in the spirit of punk to create some original, eclectic and wonderful sounds (or so it seemed — Fred Durst would come along shortly after and prove that to be a fallacy).
It was the absence of Tool that really annoyed me. Sure, they were on a major label, but they were so fiercely anti-commercial, so aesthetically unique, that their exclusion felt like a slight. From the animated horror films that replaced their pop promos to the sticker on the front of their CD that proclaimed ‘No #1 Fucking Hit Singles’, to the lead single about fisting, they burned with fierce integrity, far more so than whatever Suede knockoff the NME was touting in that feature.
So I went to the small bank of computers available to use, probably waited half an hour for one to become free, another hour to log in, and wrote an email to the editor. I know, how dreadfully middle class of me. I vented my spleen in a diatribe of invective aimed at everyone involved in the whole mess, apart from Mogwai, because I liked them.
I wish I still had that email because I bet it was DREADFUL. Even so, a few days later I got an email back, asking me if I’d be interested in writing for the NME.
Suddenly, my feelings about this great and august British institution changed. I was going to write for the NME! Finally, someone had seen my inevitable genius and was willing to pay me to share it with the world, or at least that subset of the world that extended to spotty young boys in parka jackets who lived in middle England.
My first assignment was to go and review the new pop-punk band A as they supported Reef. Cracking, since I’d wanted to go to that gig anyway. I went and turned in my 200 words of glowing praise for a cracking good gig.
The sub-editor assigned to look at it hated it. Properly hated it. It came back with notes not to make it better, but how to do better next time. They were not about to run with that pile of crap.
Next up, they sent me on a different mission. I was going to go and review up-and-coming band Janus Stark the night before Big Day Out in Milton Keynes, and I’d even get a free pass to the festival. They already had someone to cover the festival, but I could write some additional stuff to get some practice. Incredible. I really liked Stark’s first album, and Big Day Out had an amazing lineup.
I went, I partied, I met the bands, I was basically like the kid in Almost Famous. I came back and wrote yet more glowing praise for everyone and everything involved. Of course I did. I loved this stuff, and part of the point of my missive to the editor was that I wanted to see more positive coverage of the music I loved in their pages. That’s what I thought they wanted.
They really didn’t. When the notes came back, they boiled down to one major problem. There was no invective, no detachment. I had sent them fanmail to bands I loved.
Of course, being a spotty teenager who thought he knew everything, I took this as the final proof of what I’d been saying all along. They wanted a metal writer to slag off metal! They didn’t care about the music, they just wanted to slag off music they didn’t like! Pah, well they could get someone else to do that, thank you very much. I cut off contact and never heard from them again. For years I took it as proof of my own internal authenticity. I was right, goddamn it. They weren’t the NME, they were the enemy. God, it felt good to be right.
Now, I look back on that little idiot and want to smack him upside the head. Of course what I sent them was shit. It was the deluded ramblings of a child. And yet, there I had the experience of decades of music journalism willing to hold my hand, polish the turds into slightly shinier turds, and give me a leg up into the world of music journalism. Somewhere I wanted to be with all of my heart. I fucked it up through a confluence of arrogance and stupidity.
If there’s a lesson in all of this, it’s that if someone doing what you want to do is willing to help you, don’t be a cretin.
And now the NME is dead. I mean, it’s been dead for a while, as evidenced by the fact that it was being given away free in Tescos and the online version is more Buzzfeed listicles than Richey Edwards carving into his arm while being interviewed by Lamacq. But when I heard the news today that the print edition was finally (and some would say mercifully) dead, my first thought was that I’d never see my name in it, which was weird, because I didn’t really realise until today how much I’d still wanted it.
Blood on the Motorway: An apocalyptic trilogy of murder and stale sandwiches is out now in ebook and print from Amazon and all other good bookstores. You can get the first book free by joining my mailing list.