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As New Musical Express' print run ends, a look back at the golden age of music magazines

Editor's note: Beginning 23 February 2018, we're running a fortnightly column by noted music writer Amit Gurbaxani that dwells (sometimes whimsically) on all things musical. Presenting — Musicology.

This week brought news that long-running music magazine NME or the New Musical Express would stop publishing its print version. The announcement was met with an expected wave of nostalgia with bands sharing social media posts of covers on which they were featured. For fans like me, the news brought relief more than sadness. At least, the NME wasn’t being shut down. It would continue to be available online. Its fate had been in jeopardy after its parent company, the UK arm of Time, was bought over by British private equity firm Epiris.

Besides, I’ve been through this far too many times before. As a music fan and a life-long hoarder, I have stacks of magazines that are now defunct. In my boxes and cupboards, there are a few copies of NME, which were acquired when I was a teenager in Dubai and over the last 15 years when I’d visit my brother in London. The latest copy in my possession is a 132-page special collector’s edition from July 2015, which was the last issue sold on newsstands before NME became a free publication. A friend was travelling to the UK around the time and it was the only thing on my list.

 As New Musical Express print run ends, a look back at the golden age of music magazines

Covers for New Musical Express, Billboard and Rolling Stone magazines

For me, the NME represents a period of change in my life. It signified, in the early 1990s, a global and personal shift in music tastes, if not completely but at least partially, from the pop that dominated my tween-age years to the alternative rock and grunge that formed the soundtrack to my adolescence. Up until then, Smash Hits was my music magazine of choice.

I distinctly remember the feeling of joy I experienced seeing the faces of some of the musicians I’d only heard before, the first time I flipped through a copy of Smash Hits, which was sometime in 1987. At the time, music wasn’t as deeply segregated into genres as it now, which meant that though it called itself a Pop Bible, Smash Hits would regularly feature acts that would be considered rock today. Among the highlights of each issue were the lyrics section and the posters, the numbers of which were prominently advertised on the cover. Soon enough, my room was covered from wall to wall with images of artists and bands ranging from Bon Jovi to Madonna to U2. To my 10-year-old self, they were all equally cool.

Smash Hits wasn’t the only mag I collected. There was also the short-lived and similar Number One, and the more broad-based Record Mirror, both of which I confess, I only started buying because they would respectively publish the UK and US charts. But the series of 10 supplements cataloguing every No.1 song of the 1980s in the UK, which Number One published towards the end of 1989, count among the most prized issues in my collection. Sadly, Billboard magazine, the official home of the US charts, was not available in Dubai.

When the decade turned, Number One was discontinued and Smash Hits went from being a magazine that covered all the acts on the Top 40 to one that mainly focused on teen-pop. From 1991, its covers pretty much rotated between boy bands such as Take That, East 17, Boyzone, Westlife, 5ive and Blue, and briefly, with the arrival of the Spice Girls, a few girl groups as well. Fortunately, there was the NME, which put Nirvana and Morrissey on their tabloid-style front page, as well as countless other acts such as PJ Harvey who I’d only read about but not hear for many years to come, because this was the age before the internet and they weren’t played on the radio and their albums weren’t available in stores in Dubai. Top of the Pops, which was launched in 1995, covered a wider range of acts than Smash Hits but gradually became less a music magazine and more a title for young girls.

After I moved back to India, in the aughties, I started collecting music magazines here, including Rock Street Journal, The Record, Rave and the Indian edition of Blender, which had a rather brief run. Of these only RSJ is around, like NME, in an online avatar. Up to a couple of years ago, I collected Rolling Stone India, until I literally ran out of space. There are rumours that after the sale of the US flagship, the Indian edition will also become an online-only publication, which could leave the Chennai-based The Score as the last (Indian music) mag standing.

Perhaps I’ll write about Indian music magazines in another column. The list includes digital publications such as the much-missed Indiecision, which was subsequently rechristened NH7.in after entertainment production company Only Much Louder acquired it. Its competition included an ill-executed Indian version of NME, which not only sullied the magazine’s name but also repeatedly frustrated readers in this country who were automatically redirected to the local site when they tried to access the international one. Thankfully, NME India is long gone and the NME we know and love lives on, just not in the way some of us were introduced to it.

Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox

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Updated Date: Mar 15, 2018 16:11:29 IST

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