Some bands go full circle, from hip to boring to achingly cool again. Why, asks Andrew Smith
For more than 50 years, the British weekly music press has been unique. At its peak in the late 1970s, up to 2m pairs of young eyes crossed its pages in any seven-day period, with roughly half of those scanning the NME alone. One of the few areas of the national media that could then properly be regarded as a meritocracy - an old school tie conferred no advantage - it offered starts to an astonishing number of the writers and broadcasters who now appear in our newspapers, magazines and on television.
A cursory glance at the newsstands reveals how things have changed. Of the four main inkies, NME, Melody Maker, Sounds and Record Mirror, only the first survives, clinging to a small fraction of the readers it once had. With the music business in turmoil, the NME's old leer is gone: these days, it looks like a website and reads more like a parish newsletter. An editor who wilfully put an obscure band on the cover, or staff who boasted about low sales of that issue as a consequence (as often happened at Melody Maker in the 1980s, with acts such as Thin White Rope and the Young Gods) wouldn't be expected to last long.
Commendably, some things haven't changed. Once a year, NME renews its place in the culture by staging the NME awards and, more important, a two-month festival of shows and tours that serves as a reminder that music and the music business are not the same thing: that while the latter staggers from crisis to crisis, the former is as healthy and vibrant as ever. This year, the paper has further recalled its glory days by conferring its centrepiece Godlike Genius award on Manic Street Preachers, who were once the quintessential NME band, but over the past five years had come to be seen as terminally unhip, strictly group non grata.
Artists have always complained of a "build 'em up just to knock 'em down" ethos of the music press - though privately, many admit that it has always helped to keep the scene fresh in this country, and that a show of fickleness has been known to follow a duff album. A few artists, however, do return from the wilderness of terminal unfashionability and begin the process again. Neil Young, Iggy Pop, Morrissey, Blur (twice) and Madonna (on a weekly basis) have all experienced the weird thrill of being built up, just to be knocked down, to be built up once more.
Simple longevity doesn't provide a satisfactory explanation, otherwise U2, Paul Weller and Duran Duran would all be as hip as they think they are.
The anatomy of cool has so little to do with music. Anyone who has reviewed records over time has etched on their heart a list of great albums that fell by the wayside because nobody could be mobilised into buying them. This is because pop music involves a complex exchange, tied to the search for identity most of us are engaged in when we first come to it. The joy of pop music is that it involves so much more than sound - that, on the deepest level, it is also about association, both with the artist and other fans. Up to the 1990s, this tended to involve tribes formed around particular genres, from rock'n'roll to psychedelia, punk, hip-hop and acid house; in the 1990s, it became a strangely chronological procession of revivals, since when things have grown progressively messier and more amorphous. Just ask the poor emo fans, who formed a tribe only to find themselves subject to everyone's contempt, and subsequently denied or disowned by their own bands.
So, why are Manic Street Preachers suddenly loved by the NME again? Not so much as a result of anything they've done recently, as for where they came from and what they represent. Similarly, Neil Young was rediscovered in the early 1990s not because of the music he was making then, but because the American musicians who created grunge (Nirvana's Kurt Cobain being but one) had grown up with and been influenced by him; having been considered a relic since the time of punk, he was suddenly lauded as "the godfather of grunge", a maverick who had ploughed his own furrow for years and amassed a timeless back catalogue in the process. In the current climate, it's also easy to see why Morrissey, with his bracing hostility to the mainstream and yearning for the certainties of a simpler England, is suddenly regarded as a national treasure, despite never having made a decent solo record.
As the writer Jon Savage observes: "It's a funny thing to say, but I think (British) music has become a victim of its own success. When I started writing about it, in 1977, music was not a respectable thing to be involved with: it was a funny industry that was outside the mainstream. Now look at it - it's become ubiquitous. I mean, punk rock is now celebrated, which was never the idea. The Manics hook back into a time when that wasn't the case, and in celebrating them, the NME is probably to some extent trying to reclaim its own past."
Savage recalls the first time he met the group, in 1990, when they were last on the bill to a group of "baggy" guitar bands in casual wear and out of step with everything around them. Asked whether they got beaten up back in south Wales for wearing make-up and their sisters' blouses, they replied: "Yes, but we don't care, because we're so beautiful."
"I thought they were so funny, and so... in a way, innocent," Savage concludes.
"What the Manics have done is not be afraid of being intelligent."
One might have expected the group's bassist, Nicky Wire, to be cynical about the NME award after years of being shunned, but he's not. On the contrary, he claims such recognition was one of the targets he set in the run-up to his band's latest album, Send Away the Tigers. "I didn't feel any resentment, I was really happy.
We're very self-critical and aware of our own history. We went through a period where we really didn't care what anyone thought, and I think we became a bit surly. All the best bands go through a Marlon Brando phase, but this time I said to the others, 'We're going to win an NME award and be in the cool list again.'
Obviously, they said, 'Shut up, Wire.' I told James he might make the top 50 guitarists, if he was lucky."
At the same time, Wire's explanation as to why he cares about the NME any more contains a bittersweet edge, romantic, but rooted in a bygone time. "The music press was so much a part of what we were about. If you grew up outside of London, it opened you up to another world, was part of your dreams. It brought the world to you, and also gave you something to rail against. It was incredibly important to us as a band and to our formation as people."
It's reasonable to think that NME still provides this service to some. Ask most 14- to 16-year-olds how they discover music, however, and they'll mention MySpace and the trails of bands and their "friends" to be followed around the web. For them, "cool" is about ungovernable networks, and there's something gloriously, unknowingly punky about that idea.
Asked why artists go out of fashion, though, one young fan answers: "I think that's easy. They go out of fashion when too many people like them." Not such a new world after all, then.