Sunday, September 10, 2017

Magazines of my time Part 4: The 1980s … Trouser Press, Blues & Soul, and The Face

So far I’ve looked at a childhood obsession with football magazines, including a comic, a brief flirtation with a commercial pop music glossy, and an early love of newsprint-based music papers. But I’ve only got as far as the early to mid-1980s, and my desire to actually collect magazines, rather than to simply buy them for reading purposes only, is really just starting to take hold ...

And so to my discovery of The Face, Blues & Soul, and to a lesser extent, Trouser Press.

I’ll deal with the New York-based monthly, Trouser Press, first, because it was the most short-lived, and given that less than 100 issues were ever published (between 1974 and 1984), surely the most collectable in the sense that copies would now be relatively rare, and I presume, highly sought after. Regrettably, I have no idea where my own small Trouser Press collection may have ended up.
It’ll certainly be far more collectable than the monolith it was up against in its home market, Rolling Stone (yawn), which, despite being hugely popular, was never able to adequately represent the more alternative or post-punk genres I was most keen on. Which is something that Trouser Press specialised in – all of that left-of-centre stuff that existed outside the realm of FM radio and the Billboard charts. Not by any stretch was it exclusively American, but it was definitely far more sympathetic to home-based “alt-rock” and all things “new wave”, than any other US-based publication I ever came across.
In later years, across the last couple of dozen issues (roughly), Trouser Press offered a “free” flexi-disc to supplement issues of the magazine. Acts like Altered Images, Berlin, Buggles, Japan, Joan Jett, OMD, REM, and XTC, all had flexi-discs released via the magazine. And after it wound up its magazine format, the Trouser Press brand continued as a series of “record guide” books, five in total – three under the title of the ‘New Trouser Press Record Guide’ (1985, 1989, 1991), one as ‘The Trouser Press Guide to New Wave Records’ (1983), with its final publication being ‘The Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock’ (1997).
In early 1986, I decided it was time to move to Wellington. I’d been feeling trapped in Palmerston North for far too long … I was unhappy in my job, and I’d been on the painful end of two relationship break-ups. The capital city offered a number of new challenges and attractions, not the least of which was a comparatively vibrant nightlife. The fact is, nightclubbing had become, if not an obsession, then pretty much my main hobby in life. In so far as it was something I spent almost as much time doing as my fulltime job – which was soon to become, conveniently enough (from a “body clock” perspective), a night duty manager at a large Wellington hotel.
Naturally, with that kind of lifestyle choice, I was being exposed to (and loving) a whole raft of new and exciting music – electro, hi energy, rare groove, hip hop, and before too long, new genres like house and techno. And as anyone who knows anything at all about that scene at that time will tell you, there were two “bibles” for the discerning nightclub patron (or DJ) of the era – Blues & Soul magazine, and The Face. I started to collect both.
(As an aside, although Mixmag was established in 1983, it remained underground for much of the decade before emerging, and um, peaking, during the acid house years. The other more high profile dance music publication of recent times, DJ magazine, didn’t emerge until 1991).
Blues & Soul is basically an institution, established as far back as 1966, and still active today, 1000-plus issues later. A few years back it had a brief spell as an online-only publication before reverting back to its original print format.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Blues & Soul was compulsory reading – what key contributors John Abbey (founder), David Nathan, and Roger St. Pierre, didn’t know about disco, funk, and soul, really wasn’t worth knowing. The magazine’s list of features and interviews through the latter decade in particular reads like a Who’s Who of every genre ever heard inside a club.
Prominent contributors during 1980s included the likes of Pete Tong, Paul Oakenfold, and Tim Westwood, before each man would eventually go on to establish a successful career as a DJ in his own right. Tong wrote an industry gossip column under the guise of ‘The Mouth’ – a “fortnightly foray into fads, fax, fallacy, and fun”. Oakenfold contributed a regular column called ‘Wotupski’, and Westwood is credited with establishing the first ever hip hop-specific column at the magazine.
The nature of club music is that it can be very fickle, very scene-centric, and at that time there seemed to be an unwritten “freshest is best” rule. To that end, I can recall religiously trawling the magazine’s various charts on a regular basis, obsessing over what I’d heard and what I hadn’t, what I “owned”, what I could potentially get my hands on, and what I’d clearly have to wait for a long time for. For better or for worse, these things seemed important for a few years in the late 1980s. In fact, Blues & Soul had a chart for just about everything – singles and albums, for the UK and the US, the magazine’s own ‘City Slickers Hip List’, ‘Groove Control’ and other assorted club charts, and later in the decade, an RPM (raps per minute) chart.
The Face magazine was a slightly different beast in that it wasn’t really a music magazine. It was all about style – fashion, film, art, design, trends, identity, and politics. Naturally, a lot of music content aligned itself with that. From memory, its main rivals in that (relatively broad) market during the era were i-D, Blitz, and Arena magazines, but I think The Face was the quintessential 1980s style guide. Or at least it was for a certain demographic, one that I skirted around the periphery of due to my interest in clubbing, and the small fact that my partner between 1987 and 1990 was a committed fashionista studying textile design at Wellington Polytech.
Nick Logan, a former editor at the NME, who was also prominent in the establishment of Smash Hits, was the driving force behind setting up The Face in 1980. Logan was able to tap into the pool of outstanding journalists he’d worked alongside previously – most notably Tony Parsons, Julie Burchill (see part three), and the guru of them all, Jon Savage, who had worked for Sounds, Melody Maker, and the NME. Savage would later go on write ‘England’s Dreaming’ (1991), the seminal tome about the Sex Pistols and the punk era.
It wasn’t just about words though. As a glossy, published monthly, The Face was also renowned for its great photography and experimental/cutting edge design. Neville Brody was the magazine’s art director through the first half of the 1980s – he later moved to Arena – and much of the mag’s reputation was forged on the back of his ability to bring together all of the separate elements (fashion, film, music etc) into one cohesive whole. Brody is also noted for his album cover designs, and his CV includes work for Throbbing Gristle, Level 42, and Depeche Mode. In the case of the latter, the single sleeve for ‘I Just Can’t Enough’.
I think my own interest in The Face had started to fade by the start of the 1990s, but not until I had amassed a fairly decent collection (again, currently awol). I broke up with the aforementioned partner, who would go on to establish her own label and set up shop in Wellington’s bohemian Cuba Street before disappearing from my life completely.

Things were about to take another turn for me, and while music, nightlife, and er, magazines, remained right at the core of my being, I was about to indulge in that most Kiwi of 20-something pursuits, “the big OE”, and head back to the UK indefinitely. I didn’t really have any specific plans, but my passport was British, my ticket was one way, and my intent was to travel light …

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