Despite later attempts to reposition itself, the NME was late in properly endorsing punk, leaving one of the smaller music inkies, Sounds, to clean up by being first to write about the Sex Pistols, Damned and the Clash.
The NME’s New York stringer Lisa Robinson was quick to pick up on the bands coming out of the CBGB’s scene and Nick Kent had even been in an early line-up of the Sex Pistols. But the NME’s star writers were, largely speaking, too burnt out, too jaded, too old or too out of touch to properly engage with punk: in June 1976, Mick Farren wrote a page-long piece railing wildly against the sorry state of mid-’70s rock music – entitled ‘The Titanic Sails At Dawn’ – which called for a back-to-basics rock movement that shunned prog and stadium rock, but the paper still struggled with the new youth movement. Editor Nick Logan’s response was to hire some young and thrusting new punk writers via a small ad that ran in the magazine for two weeks in the summer of 1976 offering a staff job to any punk-friendly “hip young gunslingers”.
The list of applicants for the role (future novelists Jonathan Coe and Sebastian Faulks, future Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant) is now legendary, but in the end two people got job and the passport to instant notoriety that came with it: Bristol school girl Julie Burchill and the 22-year old Tony Parsons.
Parsons had written a novel, The Kids, for the New English Library whilst working as a shipping clerk, but when he got the call from NME editor Nick Logan he was employed on the night shift at the Gordon’s Gin distillery on Goswell Road in Clerkenwell. Within weeks he was touring with Thin Lizzy and hanging out with The Clash. It was the latter band that Parsons became most closely associated with; in April ’77, NME readers were encouraged to collect tokens in the paper in exchange for a new Clash EP , Capital Radio, which also featured a recorded interview with the band by Parsons made on a Circle line tube train on the B-side.
They’ve both gone on to greater fame, but Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons will forever be associated with their times at the New Musical Express – not least because they’ve drawn on it in their later writing. Parsons’ Stories We Could Tell fictionalised his time on the paper in much the same way that Burchill’s memoir I Knew I Was Right did.
Were you a big fan of the NME before you started writing for the paper?
Tony Parsons: “Very much so. It had an edge that other music papers didn’t have. It had great writers and those writers had great access to the bands that I was interested in. I loved Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray. I used to travel to Central London because you could buy it a day early at Tottenham Court Road tube. I thought I was the only person who did that, but then it turns out later that Jonathan Ross did that, Neil Tennant did that: an entire generation that just couldn’t wait to read the NME every week. I didn’t read the underground papers – that passed me by because I wasn’t a hippy at all, I was a little suedehead – but I loved all kinds of music. When my feelings about music were changing in the ealy ’70s NME seemed to articulate that. I was a David Bowie fan and I took my first girlfriend to see him at Earl’s Court on the Aladdin Sane tour and it was a horrible experience. There were people everywhere being drunk and vomiting and the bouncers were very rough and Bowie was disengaged – probably coked out of his mind – and it was not that intimate inclusive experience that the music was to me. Nick Kent wrote a very vicious bitchy review in the NME and I just thought ‘that’s exactly how I feel’.”
In 1976 NME writers were stars and Nick Logan used your appointment as a way of showing the readers that NME could ‘do’ punk too. How did you adjust to joining the paper in such a high-profile manner?
“I was just a kid from Billericay: 22 years old, probably a young 22 years old, and there were people who spent the weekend not just taking heroin but taking heroin with Keith Richards. Not just smoking dope but smoking dope with Bob Marley. It was like joining bohemia. This was 76: post-pill, pre-AIDS. It was pretty wild. I probably got more attention than most people because Nick Logan would keep me back after editorial meetings and coach me a bit, give me tips on writing, which I was incredibly grateful for. Apart from that it was learning on the job. The first band that I went on the road with was Thin Lizzy. And he was incredibly good with me, Phil Lynott: ‘now we’re going to do the interview, now we’re going to do the gig and now we’re going to take some drugs’. He talked me through the whole process. ‘It’s breakfast now and we’ve got to have something healthy so we’ll have vodka and orange juice,’ that kind of thing. I don’t think that my writing was in the same league as someone like Nick Kent but one of the reasons that I got the job was it was very easy for me spend the night with The Clash or with Iggy Pop. I had amazing access.”
The myth now is that punk happened and suddenly this schism appeared between the old and new – the bands that wore flares and the ones that wore bondage trousers. How accurate is this?
“Not at all. When I met Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in early ’77, they were ten years older than me, they were millionaires and famous, but there were shared assumptions. Rock music was a tribal thing and I was part of that tribe in a way that a reporter from The Daily Mirror wouldn’t have been. I was taking drugs with Debbie Harry ninety seconds after meeting her because she recognised that we were part of the same tribe. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page came down the Roxy and John Lydon was sneering at them but I liked them. Ultimately Robert Plant’s just a bloke from Wolverhampton. That noise at the Roxy reminded them of when they were first in bands, of when people had more enthusiasm than technical ability. They were just interested. They wanted to know what was going on. Bowie was the same.”
It seems odd now to think that there was a huge gin factory in the middle of Clerkenwell. How else has London changed since the punk days?
“When I started going to punk gigs Covent Garden was just starting to change from the old kind of My Fair Lady Covent Garden to the kind of tourist palazzo place it is today. It was a bomb site. You stepped out of the Ritzy on Neal Street and it was just rubble everywhere. There was nothing there, nowhere to go. The only thing was this punk club and the opera. A lot of people on the NME were afraid of punk as a result. It was quite dangerous to wallk round dressed as a punk. A violent time. There was a l0t of violence at the gigs. But then I started bringing my mates from punk bands up to the office to see me and they loved all that. And I was mates with all these bands. I remember being down the Roxy one night and the only people watching The Jam were The Clash and me. I remember going down The Speakeasy with Mick Jones and Paul Simonon and we couldn’t get in because we weren’t cool enough. Those kind of experiences produced a bond between us. Everybody was young and out of their mind on drugs and very afraid that this was all going to suddenly disappear and you’d be sent back to wherever you came from.”
What kind of drugs were about? Speed?
“The whole scene was soaked in drugs. There was a lot of heroin around. A lot of New Yorkers realised that they could get gigs in London and be feted here in a way that they couldn’t at home. People like The Heartbreakers were like old bluesmen. People like Johnny Thunders knew they’d be able to get a gig somewhere every night. They didn’t have work permits but they could get money for drugs and get a girl and get a few beers and that was as long-term as they planned. Could they find a place to play, could they score, could they find somewhere to sleep and that was it. It was pre-Aids and the last great hurrah of chemical promiscuity. People would find that they no longer got the buzz from speed that they were used to so they’d shoot up heroin. There was no sense that it could be a death sentence.”
You famously punched Mick Farren in the NME office…
“I can remember going to the interview with Nick Logan for the job. People were impressed by the fact that I had a book out, even if it was just an act of will rather than literary ability. I said to Nick, ‘this is the one job in the country that I actually want’. I knew that I could write books for the rest of my life but still never get out of the gin distillery. So this was a big chance. And people were fantastically friendly to me. Nick, Charlie, they were all friendly to me. But they were rivals. They were the top dogs. My writing wasn’t as good as theirs but I had access. So there was genuine fiction there. Very few people in that office were not taking drugs. With a few exceptions everyone was either taking a lot of drugs or recovering from taking a lot of drugs. It was unbelievable. People were staying up all night. We’d stay up for three nights, crash for night and then stay up for another three nights. I came from Essex and it was natural to be around bands like The Jam where you’d go to some gig and Bruce Foxton would have a black eye because he’d had an argument with Paul Weller. They’d have a fight and it would be over but that was how they resolved their differences. The NME was a middle class environment and they weren’t used to that kind of thing. So the violence that there was got overstated because they were so shocked by it. It was working class rough and tumble.”
What did the other magazines at [publishers] IPC make of this kind of behaviour?
“There was friction with other magazines because of the noise and our physical appearance. People would regularly complain about Nick Kent’s bollocks hanging out of his torn leather trousers. But we made IPC a lot of money and we were left to our own devices. It was a hangover from the ’60s – a joint would be passed around at editorial meetings, yet we were a mainstream title. One time Julie was chucking roaches in the wastepaper bin and one of the cleaners emptied out the bin and found the remains of all of these joints. We were punished by being sent to review Queen at Earl’s Court.”
You ended up marrying and working together, but what were your first impressions of Julie?
“Well, we’d both go the job so there was a bond betweenus. It was an intimidating place to be, so we stuck together. We felt like we had to prove ourselves to these people who we admired. But the job interview was more like an audtion. They were picking people who looked the part more than anything. It was about the image, about the NME as a brand, about it being cutting edge and dangerous. And I was up for that. To me it working at the NME was like university or national service, one of those life-defining experiences.”
Tony Parsons interviews The Clash on the Circle line: