Features Nick Logan: ‘A New Crisis Never Seemed Far Away’ (Part One)

In the first of two interviews, Gareth Ware finds out all about Nick Logan’s editorial life at NME, Smash Hits, The Face and Arena.

Running a print magazine in 2013 is, to put it mildly, not the easiest of tasks. Just ask our editorial team on that one. With that in mind, there seemed no better person to speak to regarding the changing face of the magazine landscape and his thoughts on the industry today than Nick Logan.

As the figurehead of the NME throughout what many people consider its golden period in the 1970s, and who would later found Smash Hits, as well as The Face and Arena, no-one managed to consistently encapsulate contemporary youth culture better.

In the first of two interviews, we discuss his rise through the editorial ranks, his subsequent stint leading a new chapter in the life of the NME, and working with the likes of Nick Kent, Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill.

Let's start at the start: describe your route to editorship. Did you ever see yourself as an editor?
Yes, from a young age, more editor than writer. Interviews were OK but I never felt comfortable reviewing, and any kind of writing was a chore for me. I was that kind of writer who’d spend hours on the opening paragraphs then have to rush the rest to meet a deadline, so I was happy to gravitate towards editing. I loved working with good writers, much better writers than me, doing layouts and working with photographers, fine-tuning the flat-plan, all the unseen stuff that goes into creating the look and feel of a publication. I was even more obsessive with The Face and Arena, endlessly re-jigging/re-formatting the content, ads as well as editorial, from first page to last, right up to print.

What sort of situation did you inherit from (editorial predecessor) Alan Smith – from your perspective was the transition an easy one?
Alan was a senior staff writer, two or three years older than me, when I joined the NME and over time he and I became close, as colleagues and friends. Sales were huge then, on the back of the Monkees chart success. As the NME started its slow decline, Alan and I spent virtually every lunch-time dissecting its failings, willing the circulation downward as the only way to effect change at the top. On the editorial side we were the ones who cared most, a gang of two (with strong support, although I didn’t know it at the time, from Percy Dickens in the ad department), and believed there was a way to turn NME round and challenge Melody Maker, which had a more grown-up take on the rapidly changing cultural landscape and was simply miles ahead in writing and design. In comparison NME was run by self-serving amateurs in cahoots with the record industry, seemingly disinterested in the music itself.
When Alan got the editorship he made me assistant editor and told me he intended to do the job for only 18 months and then put me forward as his successor. Alan had replaced a man in his 50s, a generational shift; even so I didn’t think at that time the editorship would come to me. I was 26 and it was unheard of for an editor of a national publication that young. So I was surprised, despite Alan’s backing, when I got the job.
Alan played a pivotal role. I couldn’t have done what he did as editor in his 18 months. Obviously he had the backing of the publisher IPC, acting out of semi-desperation in the face of plummeting sales, but it was still bold of him to take on the people and the attitudes that were holding NME back. He cleared out the worst of the dead wood and we brought in new contributors. Charles Shaar Murray, Nick Kent, Tony Tyler, Ian MacDonald, Joe Stevens, Pennie Smith …

In his book Pat Long opined that there was a competitive culture in the early days of your tenure, with writers trying to curry favour with you. Elsewhere Chris Salewicz suggests you were from a different world, and staff were able to rampage around you. To what extent did you agree with these descriptions?
True I was from a different world. I had left school at 15, and been extremely fortunate with no qualifications to get on a local paper. I did a day-release course in journalism at Plaistow. I was 21 when I joined the NME as a junior staff writer. I was one of five staffers, all of whom zealously guarded their ‘own acts’ – Alan Smith ‘owned’ The Beatles and other Liverpool bands, Keith Altham the Stones, Who etc. One guy was happy with cheesy pop, another didn’t seem to care what he did if there was drink involved. I came in as this green kid from East London who wanted to proselytise the music I’d grown up with - soul, ska, R&B, black music - but the people creating that music were on the other side of the Atlantic, impossible to interview except by phone, and eventually my ‘acts’ became the new bands that came along - Cream, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Tyrannosaurus Rex etc. But I had to fight my corner to get them into the NME because it was firmly rooted in singles culture.
This is how the editor Andy Gray drew up a features list. Because I was good at proof-reading (everyone else got out of it by pretending to be crap), I used to go to the printers every Wednesday with the editors. At lunchtime, treated like a tablet from on high, the week’s NME-compiled singles top 30 would arrive in roneo form (I can still smell the ink!). One copy would go for typesetting, another would become Andy Gray’s features list. He’d run down it like this, scribbling in the margins, “No 1 The Hollies, we’ve got them in this week. No.2 Stones, did them last issue, so we’ll do a Lifelines feature with Charlie Watts. No.3 Herman’s Hermits, interview” and so on. Outside of the top 30, at that time, and you didn’t exist. So the features list was the singles chart, annotated with ‘Lifelines’, ‘Hollie A Week’, ‘Interview’, ‘Phoner’ etc. Nobody ever mentioned the merits of the music. If you were in the charts the readers were interested. If not, what’s the point? It was a formula that was hugely successful during the time of the Beatles and even more so with The Monkees and after that it was just a monstrous mistake.
I became editor in October 1973. A month later there was a printer’s strike that kept NME off the newsstands for eight weeks. Frustrating at the time, with hindsight it kick-started the 70s NME that people remember. We used the enforced silence to bond in adversity, and we came back with a rush of energy and purpose that was both scarily intense and incredibly exciting. I think everyone felt a surge of confidence. The cover of the first post-strike issue was a full page Pennie Smith shot of Bryan Ferry on a beach with the headline “Hello hello, we’re back again’. I’m a bit embarrassed now that my editor’s message ended with the words ‘The Teenage Apocalypse Starts Here’ but we felt, I think, that we were unstoppable. We’d been gradually working towards it it but that was the first time the NME or any music paper had used a full-page image, magazine style, on its cover. That itself was a statement of confidence.
I know I’ve ignored your original question but I haven’t read Pat Long’s book and I don’t know what Chris Salewicz is alluding to. Probably he’s talking about the time at Kings Reach which was a period of great stress for me.

Arguably the period from 1973/1974 to decade's end witnessed the greatest set of changes in the musical landscape in recent time. From an editorial perspective, how difficult was it to keep up?
No problem at the beginning. It felt like we were setting the agenda by pushing the acts we liked and ignoring what the readers told us via the NME readers poll. That’s what differentiated NME from the others. We didn’t pretend that we could be as passionate about Rory Gallagher and the Strawbs as, say, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Little Feat.

We can't talk about your days at the NME without discussing Nick Kent. To some there's an aura of curious romanticism about him, whereas to others he squandered a prodigious talent. Describe your own feelings on him.
I have huge respect for Nick and I don’t want to get into personal comment. He and Charles were the star writers in the early period that I was editor. Charles at a typewriter was relentless, the epitome of the writer with everything organised to perfection in his head (so unlike me!), a privilege to have his copy to work with. Nick, of course, wrote in spidery longhand on scraps of paper and was always late with his copy. Sometimes he’d hand in just two opening sheets. You’d wait overnight for the rest. In that form it never looked like it would amount to anything...

Would you say his behaviour and lifestyle were indicative both of the office culture at the time and/or the era (if perhaps not quite to the same extent)?
There was no one quite like Nick, and no I wouldn’t say that..

When you look at the likes of Nick Kent, Micky Farren and Charles Shaar Murray – who'd all burnt themselves out by the end of the decade – as well as the combative nature of the office on occasion (Burchill, Parsons etc), would you say the gunslinging culture that defined the paper at the time was also arguably its downfall?
It’s a reasonable hypothesis. The return from the printer’s strike was a rollercoaster, exhilarating but scary. You know when something like that happens it will end with a bump. On a personal level, after the move to corporate Kings Reach from our shabby little eyrie in Long Acre, a move I fought against, the whole mood of the paper changed and I couldn’t handle the pressure. That was my burn-out.

Nick Kent has said that you had a tendency to stick by writers who had 'problems' if you felt they could deliver. Looking back, do you regret doing that or from an editorial perspective did the benefits outweigh the stress and difficulties?
No regrets about sticking by talented writers. You’re nothing without them.

Did you ever feel like you were between a rock and a hard place as far as writers/staff and IPC were concerned, given their wildly different outlooks? You oversaw the move to King's Reach Tower. Describe the effect on morale. Was it the catalyst for your departure?
My big mistake was to act as if was my paper. It was owned by IPC of course and a big money-spinner for them but as far as what we put out editorially each week the paper belonged to the staff. And I tried to keep the staff separate from any issues I might have with management. No problem before Kings Reach with the circulation rising weekly but the move brought the staff into daily contact with the management, not to mention other magazines in the group like Titbits and Country Life who didn’t take kindly to co-existing in open-plan offices with the ‘drugged and unwashed’.
Still I tried to prevent the two cultures clashing but it was a losing battle. It caused me a breakdown, but when I recovered the management saw the light and I stayed on long enough to see the NME relocated in its own private space again (in Carnaby Street).
I quit because a new crisis never seemed far away. There were two more strikes, the second of which was another printer dispute. Only editors were allowed across the picket line so I proof-read and laid out whole issues on my own at the printers (with the staff convened in a local hotel room). It was at the time the establishment was coming down on punk so maybe it’s apt we had our own kind of siege. I couldn’t face the thought of what the next crisis would bring. Plus I was 31 and it felt time to move on.

Did you feel like you had unfinished business upon leaving the NME? What lessons did you take when starting Smash Hits/Face etc?
Yes I did. I left with the feeling that IPC undervalued the hours and effort I put in, and so did some of my colleagues though not the ones I worked closest with. I thought perhaps that some didn’t want to give me credit as part of the creative process so I did have a mission and a point to prove. Even when I started Arena after launching The Face and Smash Hits I felt to some extent that I had to prove myself. I also had two young kids to support and no idea of what would come next, except that it would never again involve working for a corporate publishing house.

Check back for part two tomorrow.

© Nick Logan/DIY

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