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The New Rock Journalism

Being sixty three years old, I well remember the supposed ‘golden age’ of rock journalism in the 1970s, in the three main ‘inkies’ of that time - the New Musical Express (NME), Melody Maker and Sounds, all three of which havenow bitten the dust. The NME was the last left standing, but even that collapsed under the weight of its own irrelevance a couple of years back, having experienced the ignominy of becoming a free paper which you couldn’t even give away towards the end of its long life. A sad moment indeed for those of us who remember the excitement of waiting each Wednesday for the latest NME to appear, particularly in the post-punk period, when it was at its most intense and po-faced, both rather hectoring in tone much of the time, but also able to laugh at its own pretentiousness (Ray Lowry’s cartoons in particular being a model of acerbic commentary on the ‘rockism’ of the day).

The internet helped to make these magazines dinosaurs, and music journalism (and journalism in general) yet another endangered species of the digital age. It is hard to imagine being able to survive as a full-time music journalist in today’s climate, as newspapers in general appear to be diminishing in size, scope and influence - Donald Trump represents only the most obvious ugly face of ‘fake news’, both his own tremendous contribution to this phenomenon (he claims to have invented the term, which is fake news in itself) and that which he accuses entirely serious publications like the New York Times of promulgating. If one of my kids expressed an interest in journalism, I’d have the same reaction as I’d have to them suggesting a career in roof thatching. I still subscribe to The Wire, but have long given up on the ‘dad mags’ such as Mojo and other retromanic anachronisms (they do, however, at least offer work to ‘veteran’ journos from previous periods). So it appears that the new Nick Kent’s and Charles Shaar Murray’s are coming through on individual internet podcasts, and these are a mushrooming, if fiercely disparate, entity.

I can hardly claim to be an expert on this subject, but have been following two pods in particular over the past few years, and these appear to me to be well-informed, critically astute and as entertaining as a thing of this nature can aspire to be, given the presentational limitations involved, i.e. one talking head, no music samples, over a period from ten minutes to an hour (the Deep Cuts sixty-minute session on Brian Eno was far too much of a challenge to this viewer). Oliver’s (surname?) Deep Cuts is the first example, and American ‘internet nerd’ Anthony Fantano’s site, Needle Drop, is the other. Both podcasts are now several years old, their presenters are well-informed and obviously prodigious listeners, and both are opinionated in a good way. Other podcasts, who shall remain nameless (I’m not here to troll anyone, all efforts are worth our support and encouragement) can rapidly become tediously ‘wacky’- it takes a lot of talent and/or self-awareness to make oneself interesting and likeable over even just a few minutes of this type of intimate exposure to the camera, which seems to be something that we have all forgotten (if we ever knew) in this age of relentless self-exposure to the camera lens. Try videoing yourself a five minute selfie to see what I mean. Oliver and Anthony manage to be largely and mostly charming, but even they can pall over a long period - presumably there are issues around copyrights that prevent them being able to broadcast samples of the music that they discuss, in order to make it more interesting and less monolithic? But, good on you guys, you are providing a great service!!

The potential of podcasts is, of course, in its infancy. On another level to the enthusiasts, is the work of Captain Beefheart obsessive (and himself a composer) Samuel Andreyov, who has produced a symposia of pieces around Don Van Vliet and The Magic Band that sets new standards for musical ‘journalism/academia, for which writers like Simon Reynolds, David Toop and David Stubbs have already established a beachhead.. Andreyev has produced very lengthy interviews with Bill Harkleroad (Zoot Horn Rollo), Jeff Cotton (Antennae Jimmy Semens) and John French (Drumbo), basically the Trout Mask Replica Magic Band (minus Mark Boston, aka Rockette Morton, whose interview is apparently in the pipeline), and a superlative 30-minute break-down of ‘Frownland’, the first track on Trout Mask Replica, which had me shaking my head in admiration. He even makes the latter achievement not sound pompous or superior, as he has an engaging enthusiasm that is in no way patronising or affected. Fantastic stuff -this must be one way forward for the new internet ‘journalism’; a necessary corollary to the essential ‘fanzine/enthusiastic amateur’ approach of Deep Cuts and Fantano (which is also my own approach to writing about music, by the way) and a kind of ‘popular academics’ approach, perhaps comparable to that of historians Dominic Sandbrook and Simon Scharma in their erudition and ‘common touch’ around their subject.

We are in a different age now - it will be interesting to see how the younger commentators balance the rather oppressive weight of the music’s past to the undoubted vitality of the current scene(s). Deep Cuts and Needle Drop seem to have achieved a 50/50 balance from what I can see. They seem to have learned from the past, so do not seem doomed to promoting its perpetual repetition, as so many media outlets seem to be.

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