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Totally Wired - an Essential History of the Music Press

A glorious romp through rock's back pages
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Paul Gorman

Totally Wired: The Rise and Fall of the Music Press

Thames & Hudson

Once upon a time, before the internet, before cable TV, before pop music coverage started turning up in “real” newspapers and magazines, the music press was the only reliable source for news and information.

Once a week, once a fortnight, once a month… it depended upon where your reading choice took you… there it would be. The new Creem, the new Trouser Press, Record Mirror, Disc, Tiger Beat, Rolling Stone, Street Life, ZigZag - there were dozens of the things.

Some lasted forever. Melody Maker launched in 1925, the NME (as Accordion Times & Musical Express) in 1946, 16 in 1957. Others barely got off the ground before they were planted back into it - National Rock Star, New Music News. But all had their dedicated readers, and all had the same purpose in mind. To chronicle what was happening in the wonderful world of pop and, via the penmanship of some truly brilliant writers, help shape their readership’s choice in listening.

It’s a fascinating story, and it’s a vast one, too. Arguably, this book could have been twice the already impressive 362 (plus notes and index) pages that it weighs in at - first by devoting more than 25 pages to the pre-rock’n’roll era (a serious failing, but an understandable one); and then by broadening its coverage of American and international publications. There are chapters that handle the likes of Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, Tiger Beat and Spin, but Totally Wired’s subtitle is ever so slightly deceptive. It ’s the story of the British music press, plain and simple.

Not that that’s a bad thing. Imported copies of the “latest” British music papers were a must read throughout the American 70s and 80s, at least if you lived in the larger US cities, while the UK’s penchant for weekly publications also establish them as a far more comprehensive document than America’s preference for monthlies. A lot could change in a musical month back then, and historians today would be in a very position had there not been a weekly press to chronicle events.

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Author Gorman does a terrific job capturing the urgency that this routine demanded - writers returning to the office in the middle of the night to write a gig review for an issue that went to press the following morning. The constant battle to keep ahead of the opposition (at different points in time, there was anything up to half a dozen weeklies competing for the teenaged pennies) with better exclusives, juicier interviews, more outrageous gossip. And of course, a constant eye on the musical underground, in case the Next Big Thing should suddenly be stirring in a damp and smelly basement in Neasden.

An impressive coterie of witnesses help drive the story on, primarily journalists and editors recalling both their triumphs and their failings, while offering some often eye-opening remarks about the nature of the publications.

Readers’ voices, too, are heard, and letter-writers as well - the 70s-era NME, in particular, hosted a letters page, Gasbag, that was often as entertaining as any of the articles, and a cartoonist, Tony Benyon, whose opinions were often more biting than even the most savage critic. As editor Neil Spencer puts it, “[he] was always taking the piss out of the Chi-Lites and people like that because they wore the wrong clothes.” (Benyon also created by far the greatest fictional rock star of them all, the glam rocking Rocky Thighs, with his talking rat-shaped codpiece.)

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Totally Wired is at its most powerful when covering the 1970s, the apex of the music press’s influence and circulation. For reader and writer alike, it felt as though there were no rules - or, if there were, they were subsumed by the secret compact the best writers made with their readers. To write what we want about whom we want, and make it interesting to everybody. And for a decade or so, they succeeded.

But things change and compacts are broken. As the 1980s got underway, and competition from glossy color monthlies grew stronger, the once indomitable black and white giants of the British music press shed their hitherto inviolate individuality and began to focus on emulating the newcomers.

Record and live reviews, once a smorgasbord of opinion and info (and to hell with the word count), were suddenly restricted to little more than what we would now refer to as a tweet’s worth of commentary.

Interviews shifted from informative conversations to “just the facts” interrogations; photos grew larger, text became scantier, advertisements screamed louder, and any sense of personality was escorted off the premises by armed admen and accountants. And slowly, the music press slit its own throat and died… in some cases long before the Internet arrived to give the publishers something to blame.

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Yes, it really is that depressing, and it only got worse, as the color monthlies, too, began to stumble and fall. Totally Wired ends with the 2020 closure of the montly Q, just 34 years young, now reduced to a shadow of its once-boisterous self.

But David Hepworth, the magazine’s founder, had one killer epitaph up his sleeve… so killer that Gorman actually deploys it to close his book.

“You’re going to miss the music press….”

And he was correct.