Nick Kent is the template for what people in the 1970s imagined a rock writer to be like. Lean and sallow, permanently clad in leather and make-up, Kent was one of the biggest stars of the NME before his career became derailed by heavy drug use in the second half of the 1970s.
It’s easy to get sidetracked by Kent’s misadventures – he played in an early version of the Sex Pistols, was attacked by Sid Vicious with a bike chain in the 100 Club, was sick on Keith Richards’ welcome mat, OD’d in Iggy Pop’s bathroom and became immortalised on the Adam and The Ants song Press Darlings – overlooking just what a prolific writer he was in his prime. Today he’s particularly proud of his detailed reappraisals of forgotten and overlooked artists, without which, arguably, the likes of Syd Barrett and The Stooges would be much less high-profile.
Kent left the NME in the mid-’80s to freelance for The Face and The Guardian, among many other magazines and broadsheets and he’s written about his time on the paper unflinchingly in his own book, but here’s part of a conversation that I had with him on the phone from his home in Paris. For more you can buy the book here.
How did you become interested in writing about rock’n’roll in the first place?
Nick Kent: “I was just drawn to certain people who were musicians. I met the Rolling Stones when I was twelve years old and they became my dark rebel princes. I always felt that when I became a young adult I’d somehow infiltrate them, not as a hanger-on or court jester but to write and get what was going on with them at the time. Unfortunately so much of it was sort of X-rated that they didn’t really like what I wrote sometimes. Most musicians liked the fact that I was promoting them, particularly Iggy Pop…”
Iggy was sort of your partner in crime…
NK: “Between the original Stooges breakup and him taking up with David Bowie Iggy could barely get arrested. He was pretty much living on the street. So for him to get publicity and supporters was gratifying for him and he liked me for that. But he didn’t have a press officer and he was living this wild life and you just sort of had to speed to keep up with him. That was the thing about a lot of those guys: a lot of people couldn’t take the pace. But oftentimes the musicians didn’t like what I wrote about them. You’re dealing with very very vain people. But the first law of writing abut rock musicians is don’t write about them in a way that you feel hey are going to like and if they don’t like it then fuck it.”
Peter York called you “the only man working for the music press who knows what it’s like to wear make-up”. Looking at photos of you from the 1970s, you dressed as outrageously as any of the bands that you were writing about…
NK: “One thing you’ve got to remember about the NME is that the fact is it wasn’t me that 280,000 weekly readers were buying the paper for, it wasn’t Charles Shaar Murray or Julie Burchill or Paul Morley or whoever else. The mass of people who were buying it wanted to find out what David Bowie’s haircut was that week or what Bryan Ferry was doing or whether Led Zeppelin might be touring. I quickly realised was I writing for an audience that probably had the shortest attention span known to man. So in order to be read I said ‘I will not be ignored’ and did what most rock musicians do in that situation and became way more flamboyant in the way that I dressed, wrote, behaved in public. People didn’t like it, but it worked. I did what Jerry Lee Lewis did when he smashed up his piano or whatever. To grab the attention of the 15-year olds who read the paper you had to go to extremes and say ‘look at me’ and that’s what I did. That’s my explanation for my career curve over the next few years. Fuck it. I didn’t have a family, didn’t have a wife or kids. I was only 20. I could go out and do what I wanted. I wasn’t on staff so I didn’t have to do a 9 to 5 routine. I had this extrovert thing. All of a sudden it was like ‘fuck everybody else, I’m going to behave like Oscar Wilde’.”
How did the experience of writing for the underground press prepare you for working for NME?
NK: “Listen, I’d written essays for school and a couple for university three, plus three or four articles for the underground press. Charlie Murray had actually been to journalism school, he’d learned to type and put a story together. The only way I learned to put a story together was by reading Rolling Stone and Melody Maker. No-one at NME ever gave me professional advice – and I liked that. They let me run wild. I was not easy to deal with. Murray wasn’t easy to deal with. Lester Bangs who they had to phone and talk to was hard to deal with. Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill were very hard to deal with.I had this problem that I wasn’t a truly professional writer. I was my own worst enemy when it came to deadlines and so forth. They’d offer me more money if I would just get my pieces in on time but I never did. I was my own worst enemy.”
How did you cope with making the transition from writing for the underground press to suddenly having this huge audience reading your work every week?
NK: “Six months after I joined the paper I was touring with Led fucking Zeppelin. The world’s biggest fucking rock band. I was there backstage with them, I was watching them from the side of the stage. I had access. Most rock journalists working at the time would be at the fucking bar for most of the gig. I’d be standing in the audience down the front. I was committed. I was on fire for something. It was the same thing that everybody that was seriously involved in music felt: that this music has real substance to it.”
What happened when you got seriously involved with heroin?
NK: “From 1972 on I lived a charmed life. I very strongly felt that nothing bad could happen to me. It was thing that the gambler does at the roulette table: you’re suddenly gripped by this sense of ‘I can do anything, I’ve got this lucky streak going’. Time and time again I found myself in these dangerous situations and walked out of them. So I start to think ‘I’m invulnerable, I’m like fucking Superman here’. And for a ling time that was the case: ’72, ’73, ’74, three years of good luck. It came to and end when I got involved in heroin. It really fell apart in mid ‘75. I knew my lucky streak was over and that a really bad streak was coming. By 1975 the actual skills that I had were being diminished, partly by the drug use and partly by the fact that I was just jaded. I had a lot of great times but at the same time it was a very cold world. The people that I really admired and looked up to were just going to hell. It was depressing. The ‘70s were hard if you were right in the eye of the storm. Listen to the great records – Low, Neil Young’s On The Beach, Iggy Pop’s The Idiot – and you get a sense that the person who’s singing on those records is in a really bad place.”
You formed The Subterraneans in early ’76. Did you find it hard balancing making music and writing about it?
NK: ” I started off wanting to be both a writer and a musician. But as I became more well-known as a rock journalist and writer I found that my role was set for me – it became increasingly awkward for me to straddle both roles. For better or for worse I was a celebrity rock journalist. Frankly I didn’t really have the temperament to become a professional touring musician. What little I did of it I didn’t enjoy. I was more suited to being a writer.”
You also played in an early, pre-Lydon version of the Sex Pistols…
NK: “I wasn’t in the Sex Pistols in the same way that Pete Best wasn’t in The Beatles. I was in a work in progress that was called the Sex Pistols. My big contribution was saying to them ‘forget all this Small Faces and Who stuff you’re doing’. They were a retro band, it was a tribute to that mid-’60s mod thing that had no currency in the ’70s . I got them to listen to The Stooges. I had a tape of The Modern Lovers which I played to Matlock and Jones over and over again, saying ‘use these things to write your own songs’. If it hadn’t been for me they’d have been like McLaren would’ve loved them to be which was a kind of rockabilly group.”
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