Hot Press: Keeping Ireland safe for PA Hire
The first flowering of pop music publications in this part of the world was in the early sixties, when the British beat boom began. Back then, record mags were fairly frothy affairs, with reviews tending towards the unquestioningly enthusiastic ("New Fabs single is Mega-tastic!", that kind of thing) and interviews rarely getting more profound than inquiries as to the pop star's favourite colour. As pop matured into rock and became increasingly literate, so too did the music press. And as rock became more ponderous and pretentious, from the early seventies onwards, the press followed. Earnest, chin-stroking critiques of Prog-rock LPs became the natural metier of the music writer, and it often took almost as long to read the review as it did to listen to the record (no mean achievement, given that the record in question was all too often an ELP triple concept album). The overdeveloped critical faculties of the writers sadly did not extend as far as the pronouncements of the musicians. John Lennon for example was undoubtedly a gentle soul and an intelligent man, but his grasp of the many problems of the real world, as inhabited by those of us who don't live in houses with big white rooms, was less than tenacious. Nonetheless, his every word was pounced upon and treasured as yet another pearl of Zen-like wisdom, for Lennon was a "Survivor" of the "Sixties". (The"sixties" were the only decade in history that were being mythologised before they had even ended, while a "survivor", as Greil Marcus wrote, was someone who became a hero for the mammoth and inspiring achievement of not being dead). But at least Lennon made decent music. The Prog-rockers on the other hand were deified for their pointless virtuosity. Songs weren't "good" or "bad", for that wasn't the point. They were "interesting", and "challenging". Never mind the quality, feel the five-hour noseflute solo.
This was the critical atmosphere in 1977, so it's not surprising that the music press didn't know what to make of punk, and were caught badly off guard by it. The punks couldn't play and didn't want to learn. Or else they could play, but made a point of unlearning. Their music was deliberately unsophisticated, and they displayed an admirable loathing for the established order in all it's forms. Among these forms, for the punks were all very young, was the musical consensus of the 60's. How could the NME possibly get a handle on Johnny Rotten? He couldn't sing at all, and heresy of heresies, he didn't even dig the Beatles, let alone James Taylor. (Even funnier was Steve Jones, the Sex Pistols guitarist who hated the guitar: "Hated it. It was just the fucking noise of the thing.")
Panicked, NME decided to overhaul itself, and placed an ad seeking new journalistic blood. "Hip Young Gunslingers Wanted" it read, which shows you just how out of touch they were. Of the many who replied, the two most important recruits were 17-year-olds Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill. They wrote (and today continue to write) articles which irritated as much as they enlightened, and which could regularly astound by their sheer arrogance, their disdain for all who might disagree, their seemingly deliberate ignorance of the most basic of facts and outright denial of any other perspective. It makes for highly entertaining journalism, of a form particularly suited to an audience of teens, who care about music to an extent that it's hard to appreciate once you yourself have left those years behind. It reinvigourated the NME, indeed reinvented it as provider of the best coverage of the fluid and fast moving musical scene of the punk/new wave years.
As New Wave led to Indie, the NME kept it's finger on the pulse, and today, after the death of its peers Record Mirror, Sounds, and more recently Melody Maker and Select, remains standing as the only reliable source of information on that most blessed of beings, the Next Big Thing. The writing retains that hyperactive, high-octane style pioneered by Burchill and Parsons, and as a whole magazine, it annoys, informs, amuses and excites. In short, the NME is doing it's job.
If only we in Ireland could say the same for our own organ of musical news and criticism, dear old Hot Press. Though it hasn't been around as long as NME - it didn't exist until several years after the "Hip Young Gunslingers" casting call - is has been sorely in need of a radical reinvention for several years now. A few years back it was redesigned, and now features much smarter production values, more colour and glossy paper. The original Hot Press design, printed on what appeared to be blotting paper with serrated edges, was (tellingly) based on the Rolling Stone of the early Seventies. But what's changed content-wise? Let's take a look at the current issue, and see what incendiary treats are in store to rouse the kids into a frenzy of mindless hedonism and open rebellion:
"Page 26: The Music Man. Ronan Hardiman is the banker-turned-composer behind such monster successes as Riverdance and Lord of the Dance......." A photo and full-page interview accompanies this thrilling opening gambit. Banker-turned-Composer. I'm not making this up, you know.
"Page 58: Anthony Bourdain is a celebrity chef with a difference........" Surely if he's a celebrity chef, I'd have heard of him at least once. But then that might be the difference. Obviously I didn't bother reading the interview to find out. Four pages of text and full-colour photos are devoted to this guy. This is the main interview in the issue, by the way.
"Page 35: Eamonn McCann: The Life of O'Reilly". Eamonn the schoolgirl's favorite, complains about newspaper and bean mogul Grand Duke Tony.
Asleep yet? I know I was. The kids, no doubt lured in by the front cover photo of well-known American shouty gentleman Mr. Fred Durst, have by now blue-tacced said photo to the wall, binned the rest of the mag and popped around to their mates' free gaff to sniff lighter fuel. Who exactly is Hot Press's target audience? And what age are they? The Limp Bizkit cover suggests an NME-style disaffected-youth readership, but the above quoted content could have come out of a weekend edition of one of the broadsheet papers. I am tempted to say that HP's target audience consists of one person, Niall Stokes. And since I don't like him, and am too lazy to research HP's actual marketing strategy, that's exactly what I will say. (Editor's note: Fergal has never met Mr. Stokes, but saw him on TV once or twice and didn't like the look of him)
Mr. Stokes is frankly too old to be editing a music paper. And by this I mean that he is old in attitude as well as age. John Peel of the BBC is over sixty, but has as voracious an appetite for new music as any of his old-enough-to-be-his-grandkids listeners. Stokes on the other hand, strikes one as the only man since 1975 to use the word "vibes" without a trace of irony. The relentless political editorialising; the sunglasses indoors; the magazine mission statement, only recently abandoned, "Making Ireland Safe For Rock'n'Roll", all these things are remnants of an agenda from the America of the sixties, as filtered through the Ireland of the eighties. How out of touch is Hot Press? Well, it doesn't have a web-site. Ireland is the second-biggest exporter of software in the world, and the internet boom has changed Ireland more profoundly than any economic development since the Lemass years (Mr. Stokes' glory days), and yet in 2001 www.hotpress.ie is "Coming Soon". Okay, maybe they didn't have the money until now, so we'll let that one go. Dance music and club culture is given only token coverage, a half a page of reviews compared to three-and-a-half pages for the rest. The article on the chef (he of the alleged celebrity) begins by describing him as "more Hammer of the Gods than Jamie Oliver". The Hammer of the Gods is a book written about the on-tour high-jinks of none other than Led Zeppelin. Nice pop culture reference boys.
Page 11 treats us to long, detailed (and it has to
be said, reasonably good) article about the Nice Treaty.
There's much, much more of this stuff, all over the mag (this is all taken from a single issue, by the way) but I think the crowning glory has to be the two page article on how PA Hire companies are enjoying a boom in business since the end of the Foot & Mouth crisis. Though I repeat myself, I feel bound to ask once again, who do they think is reading this?
It wouldn't be so bad if Hot Press didn't have such high ideas about itself. The laughable pomposity inherent in the idea of the Hot Press Irish Music Hall of Fame is so obvious that you can't believe that not a single soul in the organisation said "Wait a minute, isn't this a bit much?" But no, it seems that all at HQ are too dedicated to making Ireland safe for Picture House gigs for such treachery to be considered. The bar in said venue is named after one of Hot Press's late writers, Bill Graham. (While I'm on the subject, I'm sure he was a nice man and a good writer and all, but is it really necessary to put "Bill Graham 1951-1996" on the list of contributors to every issue?) Then there's the further hubris of being a music mag with an editorial column, and a political one at that. I don't go to politicians for advice on whether Radiohead are any good anymore, and I resent being lectured on political morality by a magazine that can't even do the music bit properly.
There's the wheeling out of Phil Lynott's Mum to give awards at every opportunity (I'm sure her answering machine must by now have a message along the lines of "If that's you Stokes, I'm going to the Bingo tonight, and I don't care how important your awards show is").
There's the pathetic provincialism of praising Irish acts for their success, simply because of their nationality. Maybe, just maybe when times were hard back in the Eighties it cheered some of us up to see Chris De Burgh reach number 1 in Britain, but I'd have hoped we were over that now. Mojo once had a special edition with a different member of the Beatles on each one of four different editions of that month's issue. Hot Press recently did this with the Corrs (I bet there was a run on the Jim edition). Apparently, rather than finding this laughable, our bosoms are supposed to swell with national pride. Do you know anyone who chooses what music to buy, not by listening to it, but by discerning whether or not it's Irish? No, me neither. Maybe Niall Stokes does.
I'm not a romantic, suggesting that pop music is inherently about rebellion, but I do believe that it should be forward-looking, about innovation, progress, development. It is closely tied up in fashion and in its time. The music press exists to be part of this movement , to point out where the new stuff is happening, to share the excitement of the fan in his discovery of the next big thing. It is unavoidable that it is a part of the music industry, but it should not allow itself to represent the agenda of anyone other than the music fan, the person who just loves music, and wants to feel the excitement of the newly heard again and again. By it's too-zealous defense of music-industry sacred cows, Hot Press has become a sacred cow itself, and as such does a disservice to Irish music fans, who deserve better. And any music mag that prints a photo of Jim McDaid is a sacred cow that badly needs to be culled. Irrespective of the effects on the PA hire industry.