Friday, February 3, 2023

Book Review: Paul Gorman's Totally Wired - The Rise and Fall of the Music Press (2022)

Paul Gorman's Totally Wired
The music media in the U.S. and the U.K. basically developed and evolved in parallel universes during the 20th century. The enduring American jazz magazine DownBeat published its first issue in 1934 (and they’re still going strong today) while Hit Parader – an offshoot of the 1930s-era ‘songster’ broadsides that reprinted song lyrics and sold for a nickel – first appeared in 1942 and published regularly until 2008. On the other side of the pond, Melody Maker launched in 1926 as a magazine for dance band musicians, gradually evolving as the market changed to cover jazz, folk, blues, and rock music over the decades. England’s New Musical Express (NME) was a relative latecomer, first publishing as a weekly newspaper in 1952 until finally pulling the plug as a freebie in 2018.

During the late 1960s and early ‘70s, as pop and rock music became a bona fide cultural phenomena (i.e. there was tons of moola to be made), music zines began sprouting up like mushrooms in a field of cow shit. Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, Zoo World, Circus, Trouser Press, Rock magazine, Phonograph Record, and Creem were among those publications that cropped up stateside, while in the U.K. the aforementioned NME and Melody Maker were besieged by competitors like Blues and Soul and Let It Rock as well as by underground newspapers like Oz and International Times. The 1980s brought new challenges for the old guard of the music press, with publications like Spin magazine (U.S.), and Sounds and Smash Hits (both U.K.) appealing to readers with fresh editorial perspectives and contemporary music coverage that helped them sell tons of copies and sneak away with market share.

Paul Gorman’s Totally Wired

With Totally Wired: The Rise and Fall of the Music Press, writer Paul Gorman has attempted the unenviable feat of outlining the history and evolution of the music press in both the U.S. and the U.K. from the 1920s through the present. Gorman does so with an eye for detail that would put Pete Frame to shame, documenting the music media’s trajectory from its roots in 1920s Tin Pan Alley to its evident self-destruction in the 21st century digital age. While a worthwhile endeavor, it’s a Herculean task without favor as, no matter what you’ve written, you’re going to slight somebody along the way. Gorman is no neophyte to the music world, previously writing tomes like The Life & Times of Malcolm McLaren and The Story of The Face: The Magazine That Changed Culture. Based in London, he’s obsessively-knowledgeable about the British music media, but it’s this Anglo-centric perspective that throws a spanner in what is an otherwise exhaustively-detailed and inclusive book.

First, the good news – if you’re a fan and collector of music magazines (like the ol’ Reverend), there’s a lot to like about Totally Wired as Gorman fills in any gaps in the reader’s knowledge with a well-researched tome that not only documents the music press in New York, London, and elsewhere, but also does a fair job in explaining these publications’ role in popular culture on both sides of the Atlantic, how they fit into the overall tumultuous synergistic evolution of pop and rock music, and the publications’ overall influence on generations of music fans. Where the book really shines is with Gorman’s efforts to include the stories of marginalized writers (and musicians), Totally Wired boldly addressing the sexism and racism faced by women, people of color, and immigrants trying to forge a career in music and journalism.

But now for the bad news – unless you’re a fan and collector of music magazines, or have an extensive history with the medium (like the ol’ Reverend), Totally Wired proves to be one hard slog of a reading experience. At 360+ pages (not counting notes and a woefully-incomplete index), Gorman may have written the definitive history of the music media, but he’s also created a thick hardback doorstop of an afternoon read that will take you a fortnight to trudge through. Gorman’s biggest crime is his entirely gratuitous name-checking of every writer of note for a couple dozen U.K. publications. There’s an incestuous nature to the field, as well, so the same names pop up at different publications but, honestly, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard…and there are a lot of ‘em!

The Rise and Fall of the Music Press

Although I would expect U.K. readers of Totally Wired to be somewhat more plugged-in to the extensive, Marvel movie film credits-length list of writers, editors, et al that slipped through the revolving doors of Smash Hits, Melody Maker, NME, and such, for us stateside readers, it’s really just so much random noise and anonymous names. For much of the publishing era that Gorman so keenly documents, distribution of British music magazines was ‘hit or miss’ in the United States, even for those of us who diligently attempted to track down copies. As such, only the cream (or most notorious) of British scribes are reasonably well-known stateside – Kris Needs, Chis Welch, Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons, Nick Kent, and Charles Shaar Murray are all familiar talents that come to mind. The Reverend has written for several British music magazines over the years and most of the names checked in Totally Wired were still new to me.

Too, as I mentioned above, the daunting task of writing such an all-encompassing documentary work, even one with the impressive page count of Totally Wired, means that there are important omissions. I don’t mind that Rolling Stone magazine isn’t documented in depth – Joe Hagan’s 2017 book Sticky Fingers disposed of that particular task – but Creem magazine is largely forgotten by the end of the 1970s, Gorman totally neglecting the zine’s thriving early ‘80s run. Spin magazine – arguably as important to late ‘80s and early ‘90s alt-rock culture and coverage as Rolling Stone and Creem were to their respective eras – is provided only a few pages in passing, and his otherwise entertaining chapter on 1990s-era publications like The Source or Rap Pages that covered hip-hop music and culture, moves on after only a few pages…just as it’s picking up steam. Gorman dedicates a few pages to the legendary British metal zine Kerrang!, but glosses over similarly-influential publications covering the genre like Metal Edge and Revolver (both U.S.), or my buddy Martin Popoff’s seminal Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles zine (Canada).                

To his credit, Gorman does touch upon such culturally-relevant publications as the ‘90s zines Ben Is Dead and Maximum RockNRoll; Ira Robbins’ influential late ‘70s magazine Trouser Press; the short-lived but impactful Beastie Boys-financed Grand Royale zine; and fleeting 1990s commercial music rags like Blender and Ray Gun which, my personal distaste for them aside, were cultural touchstones nevertheless. British music magazines like The Face and Q became more widely-distributed stateside during the late 1980s, and his coverage of both is interesting and informative, but his minimal commentary on Mojo – probably the best-known British import of the last 25 years – seems like a major oversight. Important American publications like JazzTimes (b. 1970), No Depression (b. 1995), and Paste magazine (b. 2002) are overlooked altogether.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Neither does Gorman delve too deeply into the digital publishing ‘revolution’ of the late 1990s and early 2000s that affected the traditional music press and ultimately shuttered a number of the publications that he writes about. The 21st century music press is given short-shrift altogether, with Pitchfork briefly mentioned, but popular music-oriented websites like Perfect Sound Forever and Rock and Roll Globe unfairly overlooked. Yes, the underlying documentary aim of Gorman’s efforts may have been too daunting a task for any writer to truly achieve and Totally Wired, while often informative, sometimes entertaining and, occasionally fascinating, is nevertheless a flawed and frequently-tedious work that you have to really invest time and effort into reading. As such, I can’t really recommended the book to anybody outside of the hardcore journo-groupie or curious academic. (Thames & Hudson, published November 22 , 2022)

Buy the book from Amazon (if it sounds like your 'cuppa'): Paul Gorman’s Totally Wired

Music Zines

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