On The NME

Getting bad reviews in the NME has become such a normal thing for me that I don't even flinch any more when, as happened last week, I am awarded 2 out of 10 for my latest album.

And yet the NME's problem with my records is really quite strange and interesting, and opens a pandora's box of cultural problems.

I've actually got to the stage now where I think such reviews do more damage to the NME than they do to my work. They actually show this once liberal paper in a posture of deeply unflattering and sadly unsexy cultural conservatism.

The NME believes in art, sex and freedom about as much as William Hague, bald in his calculatedly casual shirt, believes in Europe.

Art Wank

I'm with my french friend Gilles at a King's Cross rock venue, the Water Rats. I'm introduced to Steve Lamaq, an ex-NME journalist who, I tell Gilles, is now 'Peel Lite', an important and influential radio DJ.

Steve is gloomy. A survey has just revealed that two out of three of his Radio One listeners prefer dance music to rock. I can't help giving a spontaneous cheer.

We file through to the back room to see the band. They're playing a vaguely retro sub-Camden indie-rock. I find myself at a loss to explain to Gilles why bands this dull keep emerging in Britain, and why they get so much attention. Not only does this music sound much the same as the music being made in 1980 when I was 20 (even classical music moves faster than that, for heavens sake!), it also seems to go out of its way to avoid any sort of wit, originality or inventiveness.

Finally I tell my french (he might as well be Martian) friend that some of the blame must be laid at the feet of the weekly music press, who encourage this sort of thing.

We've arrived at the Water Rats straight from an opening at the nearby Cubitt Gallery, followed by a performance by an artists' band. There seems to be a trend amongst visual artists to have bands these days, and, since such people don't read the weekly music press and don't need to share its aspirations (they're mostly just out to impress their friends), it's an interesting control experiment: what would a music scene be like which did not share the conformist and philistine perspective of the weekly music press?

The answer, judging by groups like Owada (Martin Creed), Floppy (Georgina Starr), Big Bottom (Angela Bulloch, Cerith Wyn Evans) and Lowest Expectations (Angus Fairhurst), is that it would be a lot fresher and funnier.

One of the reasons John Lennon is more interesting than Noel Gallagher as a songwriter is that he wasn't ashamed of the fact that he'd been to art school and was dating a Japanese conceptual artist. John Lennon received and relayed in turn a stream of fresh ideas which, had he been an avid reader of today's NME, he would probably have learned to call 'art wank'.

Tam Gotchi, Press Officer

The New Musical Express is very important in the UK music industry. Come with me if you will to a pavement cafe in Soho, London. It's September 1997 and I'm sitting with a press officer (who wishes to remain anonymous in this article), showing him the press release I'm sending out with Ping Pong. Let's call my friend Tam Gotchi.

Tam scans through the biography and stops at a playful reference to a notoriously bad review the NME gave me in 1991 for my Hippopotamomus album.

'I'm not sure about this bit,' he says. I tell him I don't really care if mocking the NME damages my reputation: after all, I make a very healthy living selling sexually explicit songs to sexy Japanese singers like Kahimi Karie. A quarter pound bag of NME jibes at my immorality is not going to change the way I write.

But Tam says it's not my reputation he's worried about. It's his. At the bottom of the page is his name and his phone number. He represents a lot of artists besides me -- in particular an excellent wiggly Moog group we'll call 2 + 2 = 5.

Knocking the NME is not only bad for business, it's the kind of foolhardy act that turns hopeful contenders into outsiders. It's all very well for me to bathe, hippo-like, in muck. But there is such a thing as guilt by association, and innocent bsytanders might get some of my mud spattered on them.

I rewrote that press release. It didn't save my skin, but it saved Tam's. 2 + 2 = 5 scored an NME single of the week. Phew, another close shave.

Mad, Bad And Dangerous To Know

The same day the NME took a hatchet to Ping Pong, I got an IPC corporate Crackerjack pencil in the form of a good review in Melody Maker. Despite treating my record as a footnote to the Laila France record and bungling badly its account of the theories of Wilhelm Reich, NME's little sister paper was enthusiastic.

Unfortunately, Melody Maker doesn't matter. It sells one fifth of the copies the NME sells, and lacks the cultural authority of its less liberal sibling.

In fact, although they mostly agreed with Melody Maker that the Momus and Laila France records have the most interesting lyrics of the year and make most other pop seem positively dull by comparison, all the UK reviews, good and bad, agreed on one point.

'Momus is obviously quite mad'.

The NME spent the best part of a short account informing its readers that Momus, 'a low rent, garret-dwelling Robert De Niro', is not shocking. So, I'm not shocking. So, good. What did you make of the record?

Unfortunately the NME never got past the issue of the rude words to what the record is actually about: stuff like guilt, the role of women in the reproduction of social value, censorship, death, trends, fame, the role of the jews in the history of civilisation... You know, unimportant stuff like that.

NME journalism is a branch of cultural journalism (and, as we'll see later, a sort of gelding surgery for a large number of Britain's most prominent future arts journalists), yet there's a suspended ceiling of glass hung pretty low over its reviews, forbidding the discussion of anything more serious than football, drugs, masturbation and the humdrum stock exchange of rock reputations.

My 'madness' often resides in lazy journalistic misunderstandings. The NME informs its audience that 'His Majesty The Baby' is about tossing off babies, but has misunderstood the term 'tossing off', which in this case doesn't mean masturbation but creation. A misapprehension almost as telling as Q magazine's insistence that Lolitapop Dollhouse is about paedophilia. They obviously didn't look beyond the title, with its distant echo of Nabokov. In fact Lolitapop is a genre of Japanese pop.

Small details, but they add up to a big accusation: Momus is mad and dangerously immoral. How long can it be before the Gary Glitter thought police break into my apartment?

Momus In Shock Sane Claim

I am not mad, I am alarmingly sane. And I am not simply in this business to shock people. As the german reviews managed to point out, Ping Pong remains entertaining while grappling fairly lucidly with issues more relevant, topical, pertinent and profound than most pop ever dares to touch. I'm sorry if that sounds arrogant, but this is the bottom line. I design my work with a great deal of care, honesty and high moral seriousness, and if that constitutes madness, then call me mad but allow me to call you perverse in return.

My artistic strategy is to grant myself license to describe any situation I wish to, use any language I see fit, and play out scenarios in my songs which test the limits of society's tolerance of individual freedoms. And I make very clear in lyrics like 'Song In Contravention' and 'My Kindly Friend The Censor' that I see only one alternative to license: censorship.

Gagging For It

You may think that I am fighting a battle which was won at the Lady Chatterly trial in 1961. But censorship is still seen as a respectable and even desireable option by people you'd never expect to be so conserative.

I can think of four forms of censorship alive and well in Britain today:

1. Outright censorship, such as Westminster Council's decision not to issue a license to Cronenberg's film 'Crash'.

2. Commercial censorship, such as EMI's recent decision to drop Denim because the single 'Summer Smash' was suddenly rendered obscene by the Princess of Wales' fatal car crash.

3. Critical censorship, such as the punitive reviews I received for Hippopotamomus and Ping Pong. Critical censorship attempts to silence those who transgress by holding them up to public shame, hence the undue emphasis on what is shameful in the work ('Nick Currie is a man who likes to wash the dirty linen of his mind in public').

4. Self-censorship, when an artist's desire to succeed collides head on with his desire to express himself, and wins. This self-censorship is also the sound of a collision between two different media, Chartered Media and Packaged Media. Chartered Media like radio, TV and mass sale magazines often have public service commitments not to offend against public decency. Hence the NME cannot legally use words like 'fuck', even if all the writers and all the readers of the paper use the word constantly. Package Media like pop CDs are subject to no such constraints, but because they need promotion in the Chartered Media, Package Media artists often throw away their freedom in exchange for exposure.

Censorship is alive and well and living in 90s Britain.

When I Were A Lad

When I first started reading the NME, in about 1980, it was cooler (smarter, more liberal, more intellectual) than I was. Writers like Ian Penman, Paul Morley and Stuart Cosgrove attempted to widen the scope of pop writing by peppering their prose with ideas from writers like Paul Virilio, Roland Barthes, Georges Bataille and Theodor Adorno, even while they discussed groups as mainstream as The Human League and Haircut 100.

No doubt being intellectual is not the same thing as being intelligent, and there was certainly an earnestness and pretension in the paper in those days which has long since been purged. All I can say is that I am in some degree a product of that NME. It was a ladder that helped me on my way to the 'madness' I now stand accused of.

Somewhere between then and now the NME stopped being a ladder and became, simply, laddish. The old school journalists mostly ended up on earnest electronica magazine The Wire, while new school NME editor James Brown founded Loaded magazine, the loutish 'lad's bible'.

Is Sex Dirty?

There is a political element in all this, of course, however you like to define politics. Personally, I see it in the broadest possible terms. Are you tough and macho or tender and effeminate? Do you believe that human nature is essentially good or evil? Should we be communicative or secretive? How do we treat those who think differently from ourselves? Do we regard moral values as fixed or negotiable? Is art just cultural masturbation? And is sex always dirty, or only when you do it right?

Obviously in these terms, a right wing position would be:

I'm tough and macho.
Human nature is evil.
We should be secretive.
We should persecute those who think differently from ourselves.
Moral values are fixed.
Art is wank.
Sex is dirty.

And I'm afraid to say that, in its dealings with me at least, the NME falls quite heavily to the right on all these points.

Something it's interesting to note is that the NME has as one of its functions the training of a very broad spectrum of the UK's future cultural journalists. It's very often a first step in the careers of film critics and cultural commentators, and seems to have as one of its functions the exhaustion and eradication of any bohemian appetites they might have, or any overly intellectual postures they might strike. Hence the harshness of the editors aids the writers by teaching them the tough-minded conservatism which prevails in the media beyond the NME, and allows them to graduate to more serious, better paid and, crucially, more conservative organs.

Away To France

The present-day NME no doubt just subs all limp-wristed artsy-fartsy wet liberal attitudes off the face of the paper. In the past the technique was to allow the writers all the radical chic posturing they could possibly desire, until sheer boredom and exhaustion led them to adopt positions further and further to the right.

Take Julie Burchill, the high priestess of punk who, with her partner Tony Parsons (most recently spotted at the ultra-conservative Daily Telegraph), wrote a book in the 70s called 'The Boy Looked At Johnny' which decided that all punk groups save the Sex Pistols were 'pissing in the wind'.

The observant might have noticed that this stance - a Stalinist position with an obvious potential for purge, putsch and witch hunts - was in fact criticism aspiring to the status of censorship. So it should come as no surprise that this same Julie Burchill, now editor in chief of the right wing cultural magazine The Modern Review, recently wrote an article calling for the outright censorship of 'exploitative' images of children in contemporary art, citing 'the brainless babble of the Visual Person, who is by definition stupid' and quoting with approval the artist assassin Valerie Solanas.

For not only are NME writers, from time to time, pro-censorship, they are also, often, anti-art (which is really the same thing). A recent interview with the group Three Colours Red took place in the Royal Academy amidst the Sensation exhibition, and began with a tirade against the 'art wank' on display. My Ping Pong review contains a curious aside about 'the drool and jism which passes for art' in France.

Creativity = Masturbation

Speaking of drool and jism, it's clear that the greatest cultural problem for the NME is sex, and particularily masturbation. Terms like 'art wank', 'drool and jism', or the delightful phraseology of Betty Page a propos Hippopotamomus ('Momus tastes a bit like a mussel: a deformed, unidentifiable piece of sexual organ.... spit it out immediately') show again and again that one of the requirements of a job at the NME is a deep disgust with human sexuality, and a desire to keep the hatches well battened on its more troubling aspects.

Cooler than the NME

I believe everything reviewers say about a record is true, but only a partial truth. The truth contained in NME reviews of Momus records has now become so partial and one-sided that the karma has long since returned to my side.

Don't get me wrong. I delight in the battle of wit and words that happens when people spar for cultural and political reasons, and it's perfectly possible that, having thrown down a gauntlet, I expect some representative of the establishment to pick up the glove, sniff it, and accept my challenge. The fact that the NME challenges me so regularily shows that my challenge is still relevant, and that the NME feels itself to be a representative of the status quo rather than an agent of change.

Which is one of many reasons why Momus is now cooler than the NME.

I actually believe that, to the historians of cultural sensibility of 2097, my Ping Pong album will be a much more useful and elegant encapsulation of the fads, fears and hopes of 1997 (and by that I mean more than the whisperings of press officers) than the yellowing pages of last week's copy of the NME.

But don't listen to me. I'm quite obviously mad.

Momus, London, November 1997

Previous Columns:
On Columns
On Flatness
On The Couch
On The ROM
On Quality
On Image
On Oasism
On Scenes
On 1996
On Unsuccess
On Negritude
On The Job
On Hong Kong
On Ghosts