Wednesday, September 17, 2003

WHAT THE POP PAPERS SAY: New-look edition

It's a week for re-invention - Andrew Billen, TV reviewer of the New Statesman, doesn't seem to be knee deep in irony when he applauds Billie Evans-Piper's 'new' career in acting, praising her for her depiction of a whiny, self-obsessed minor pop starlet in Canterbury Tales last week. Meanwhile, Billie is on the cover of New Woman, under a strapline which reads: "The Sex? Chris has shown me things I never knew existed." Yeah, ginger pubes can be a real puzzler the first time, can't they?

The main reinvention, though, is that of the NME, entering another relaunch which come along now about as often as a major religious festival. This time, though, it's different - there's a quite expensive TV campaign being lined up, and the whole thing gets a double page spread in the Media Guardian, with a large picture of Conor McNicholas, who is looking more and more like a lost member of the Frank and Walters these days - which we assume is the closest you can get to Justin Hawkins on an IPC paycheque. Comparisons are made to the time NME went punk overnight, and the suggestion is made that this time, the nme is finally ceasing to be a pop paper and becoming a proper magazine. We're told the photography is going to be the amazing extra factor. This, we're lead to believe, is Year Zero.

Not quite. There's a lot of tidying up been done, and the layout has been given a shake up - lots of extra design elements and that text is a lot smaller than it was before. But it's still basically the same product as it was before - the newsprint is much cripser, much whiter, but it's still newsprint. The photography doesn't grab any more than it used to - and slightly less when the title had tabloid pages to play with. In fact, the shaving off of a couple of extra centimetres and the addition of more visible design just makes the whole thing look incredibly cluttered. Oh, and the cost of the revamp is being passed on to you, the punter, as the whole thing's jacked up another twenty pence. This time round there's a CD - tracks supposedly chosen by the Strokes, although we guess they didn't do the clearance stuff themselves - to try and ease the pain.

So, what's new? Nothing earth-shatteringly original, but they've revived some ideas that should never have been thrown overboard in the first place - the contents page has been restored, also finding space for a letter from Conor McNicholas and a small picture of him, still looking like a happy busman; singles have gone back to being reviewed by a single writer and the format's been given more flexibility to escape from each title getting the same length of consideration (this week, the SOTW is Outkast's Ghetto Musick, by the way). Fred Fact is back in the guise of the 'All Knowing NME Brain' but the questions are a lot simpler ('Is Paul McCartney really dead?'; 'Was Damon Gough in Doves?') Other 'new' features smack of stuff they hope we've forgotten from other places - an artist directory, which is that thing Smash Hits does where they list a load of bands who haven't actually done anything newsworthy with a little gloss of their latest doings are so that they can say "Yes, we've got Justin inside this week" and it's only a little fib. Except its Travis and Radiohead rather than Justin and Nelly; a competition where you get to choose a member of a fantasy supergroup week-by-week (this week, you get the choice of singers) which is like every football magazine, ever, and something not entirely unlike the big 6Music competition from a couple of weeks ago; like the now defunct Select and the now defunct Melody Maker there's a pull-out poster section in the middle; the Classifieds have been renamed 'the message board' and like the Observer Magazine there's little articles inspired by the small ads. Oh, and there's 'Agenda', which is a listings service that we always wondered why the nme wasn't copying back when the Hit did its HitList back in... what, 1986? There's even a 'Me and My Spoons' style 'Why I Love...' (this week, Carl Libertine on The Velvet Underground).

Oh, and they've started to spell Carl Barat's name with the little hat over the second 'a'.

Also new is 'My new favourite band' (Karen O - The Darkness) and 'Peter Robinson versus', which shows some of the commitment the paper says it wants to show to building its writers, although the article (Bruce Dickinson) isn't so much 'versus' as 'loves' - Bruce suggests you can never have too much cowbell and admits he fell asleep during an S Club gig. Well, surreptituous masturbation can really take it out of you, can't it?

The fictional CD thing has survived (Girls Aloud choosing Blackstreet, 'Nsync and Destiny's Child); Holly Demo Hell hasn't (in fact, with this and the renaming of the Works, the last of the Melody Maker elements have gone for good). On, which had become Hot New Bands, becomes Radar (dj Mark Ronson this week); Angst, which had been NMEmail is retitled Go Postal and has moved to the middle of the paper - McNicholas told the Guardian this was because he wanted "the readers at the heart of the paper", which is clever, but we think so much flim-flam.

The Big Picture seems to be a regular - leading off the news with an, erm, Big Picture (this week Chris Martin staring at a cow's arse - no Gwyneth jokes please) before settling down into the news proper - Matt Bellamy inadventently twatting Dominic with his guitar smashing frenzy; Karen O and Har Mar going to record a song together - that's what they call it now, do they?; and, incredibly, Glastonbury are thinking about introducing an airline-style ticketing system.

There's Anti-News, where the stuff that frankly would never have made the grade to get into Thrills is dumped. Although we do wonder if the thing about Cadbury's Dreem Eggs is a sly glance at pat Kane's legendary piece on the sensual aspects of chocolate (No, we know it's not).

Surprisingly, there are some strong, long features in this weeks issue - we had suspected that this latest redesign would have seen the writers being told to turn in even fewer words, but that's not the case; and - seemingly aware that this is a big day - the quality of the writing generally, across the magazine, is better than its been for ages.

You can understand the paper needing to select a band for the first issue of this format who summed up exactly what the paper is, what it stands for, what 'an nme-type band' means in 2003; we're not sure if that band should have been the Strokes, who get several pages given to their interview, with another large chunk to be served up next week. It's not clear from the new album that the band have anything staggering left to play to us; it's not clear from the first piece of the feature that they have anything much to say, either. Asked why artists go off the boil, Julian muses that there comes a pont where you're established and can't "help but believe how good you are." Hmmm, presumably at that point you release a just-about b-side as the first track from your second album, do you?

Snow Patrol aren't given as much space, but have even less to share - frankly, the only time we want to hear drunken on the road tales about this band is when they don't pull their heads back into the coach just in time.

The real heart of the paper - and the brightest sign that just maybe the nme isn't about to go the way of Record Maker Sounds et al - comes in a four page detailing of the Libertines rise and sudden fall from grace. Of course, the writers can only write about bands like this when there are the bands to write about, and you're not going to get given a Libertine every week to fill the space, so we hope the passion and emotion and connection can continue to flow in this direction on slightly less stellar weeks.

At the other end of the feature desk is a piece on Suicide Girls - yes, the dot com that simply everyone was talking about months ago; even with the benefit of an awful lot of hindsight they piece does little more than regurgitate the site's own myth, claiming "these are the sort of girls you'd see in the moshpit" and failing to pick up on the truth - these are the sort of the girls you'd see on the Salon, only they've dyed their hair red and got a couple of piercings to appear edgy. It's slightly depressing that they've spent all this money on new printing stock but haven't bothered to get a new battery for the bullshit detector.

Never mind, Peaches is also interviewed, explaining that her song 'Back it up boys' "is about fucking guys in the ass, whether theywanna be gay or whether you use fingers or a dildo." "To her" writes a still-sore Dan Martin "it's a human rights violation that so many blokes are denying themselves the anal probe." He bravely tries to suggest that maybe some men just don't like it up 'em, and the shrift he is given is so short it would need stacks in its heels to see over the windowsill.

Reviews
Live - now with added marks out of 10...
Kings of Leon - Bowery Ballroom, New York, "up to the task", 9
Thursday, The Garage, "just stop", 2
Spirtiualized - Dublion - "it also looks dazzling", 8

Albums
Limp Bizkit - results may vary - "None of it (the trapping sof fame) was making him happy; now none of it can make us happy, either", 4
Big Star - big star story - "a ragbag", 5
Beth Orton - pass in time - "late treasure trove", 6
Thursday - War all the time - "a very serious man", 6
Dexys Midnight Runners - Lets make this precious - "all 18 unforgettable tunes", 9

So, that's it then. There's still a feeling that the latest shake-up is driven more by desperation than by desire, and frankly it looks a little over designed now. But there are signs of a paper that's attempting to find a role for itself again, and is starting to try and stand for something.

One concern, though: back in the Media Guardian, the editor suggests the paper in the past has felt too much like a clique, full of in-jokes that the occasional reader wouldn't pick up on that easily. Well, yes - from 'the three dots' to 'The Man' and Billy Anfield and Where is Beatles Band... there have been a lot of them, and they've mostly been weeded out over the last couple of years. But its noticeable that when the paper was at its most like a secret club, it was selling almost a third more than its managing in its more accessable phase. Other titles have attempted to shed the weight of personality - Smash Hits when it killed Bitz and the Black Type; Q, when the "if you will" circomlocutions were axed - and every time, the magazine does succeed in feeling less like something that readers collude in. It may make it easier for new readers to wade straight in, but equally, it makes it a hell of a lot easier for the old readers to wander off - it's like "one day she cut her hair and I stopped loving her." The thing that was attractive to me as a fourteen year old boy was precisely that reading the paper did feel like I was being led into a secret world, being taught handshakes and gestures with which I would recognise other fellow travellers. Because that's also what loving a band is like. An all-inclusive nme is no nme at all.

We hope they think of that when they do the Spring '04 redesign.


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