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
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