Features Nick Logan: ‘It Could Only End In Tears’ (Part Two)

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

Following on from yesterday's interview,, which discussed his tenure at the NME, we talk to Nick Logan about the move into mainstream pop via the founding of Smash Hits before leading a knowing and cultured audience through the 1980s and beyond through The Face and Arena, and the state and direction of print media today.

When you left IPC and the NME you went into partnership with EMAP. Did you find that working in partnership rather than for a publishing house gave you any added impetus and drive?
I would have tried to work on my own if I thought it possible but journalists don’t launch their own magazines, do they? So I looked for someone to partner with. EMAP (East Midlands Allied Press) was the company that printed the NME under contract, and they had a fledgling magazine division comprising Angling Times and Motorcycle Weekly. I heard they were looking to expand.

The story goes that when presenting EMAP with a list of prospective titles, you ranked Smash Hits quite low down on the list of suggestions. Why did you rank it so low – what did you feel the others offered that Smash Hits didn't?
The main idea I intended to pitch to them was a monthly Rolling Stone/Street Life title, but I was wary that they’d think I was trying to take on the NME so I looked to broaden the offer. It wasn’t that what became Smash Hits was low priority, rather than that I hadn’t really thought through the idea. It was a throwaway: I just thought, ok, photos and song lyrics, easy, a handful of short articles, I can do that standing on my head – and that reduces the need for writers because the only good ones I knew of were working for the music press and would probably look down at writing for younger kids..
Also I sensed it could be a fun thing to do, an opportunity to be little bit subversive in the unchallenging and patronised teen market, where I could try out my theory that there was this bunch of punk and new wave bands photogenic and musically sharp enough to reach a new and younger audience.
I should probably point out that I was never any good at pitching. Put me before a ‘committee’ and I become tongue-tied, over-awed, awkward (though paradoxically I could be passionate and articulate one-on-one defending the NME against advertisers bridling at our coverage of their acts). Pre-EMAP, I had a meeting with a publishing group when I and others involved pitched the Street Life idea to a group of suits. At an early stage in proceedings the utterly charmless chairman of this now-defunct company took a dry-cleaning ticket out of his pocket and evidently found it a whole lot more interesting than our pitch. (Same company later produced one over-hyped launch that swiftly died a death, and I’ve never heard of any of them ever since! Fuckers.)
My proposal for The Face, for instance, comprised a single A4 sheet and a brief gummed-together dummy using found images. It was sketchy because the idea of The Face was so fluid in my mind. In my time I’ve seen launch proposals 20/30 pages long, full of demographic arguments and advertising spiel … I was incapable of doing that even if I had wanted to. I never had even a shred of research, just the notion of creating a magazine I would like, and feeling that others would like it too. Give me the opportunity and I’ll find a decent-sized audience, just don’t ask me to go into detail about their social strata and leisure habits. You won’t be surprised that that’s not what committee-types respond to. It’s also one of the reasons that I left IPC – I can’t explain what ‘it’ is, I just know it works.
When I went to see EMAP my thought was that I would edit the Street Life title, and if they wanted to pursue any of the other ideas I would find them editors and watch over them as editorial director or something.
But of course what happened was that the song lyrics magazine was the one they wanted – only that! (I think one of the two MDs had run my ideas past his daughter!) That completely threw me.

From your perspective was it quite different going from a title that was perceived as relatively counter-culture in the NME to one that was overtly mainstream?
God yes, it was a major culture shock. EMAP was head-quartered in a Peterborough shopping mall. I know this is going to sound bad but here I was …fresh from Hip Central (irony font) where I had the Best Job On Earth (© Nick Hornby) … sat on a beige office chair in a provincial publishing house trying to explain myself to people with whom I shared barely one iota of cultural experience. Worse, in a way, to being back with the suits at IPC. What am I doing here? Well, this is how I got there …
While EMAP had been getting excited, conversely my interest was draining away. How could I work with these people? Nice as they were, it could only end in tears, with my reputation in tatters (reputation being all I had to feed my family on at the time). However, as I would be passing by Peterborough on the way to visit family in Lincoln, I thought it rude not to at least drop by and talk. Julie and the kids waited in the car while I went in.
It was not easy. Disco was big at the time and they wanted to call it Disco Fever. Jesus! Plus they wanted me to work from Peterborough. After an initial spell when I compiled the magazine at home in London E11, sending regular packages to Peterborough via the Red Star courier service at Kings Cross, they found me a cubby hole in the corner of an ad agency in Soho and later the long-term office of Smash Hits (and subsequent teen titles launched on the back of its success) in Carnaby Street immediately opposite the NME offices I’d left just months earlier. What irony, the NME looking down on me from across the road! They were on the 3rd, we on the 2nd floor.

The Face seemed quite different again – seemingly aimed at a discerning, knowledgeable audience. Is that something you'd agree with and would you say that you had an innate grasp of youth culture over this period?
Well yes it was, because it was me getting back on track after the ‘detour’ of Smash Hits. I had given over the editorship of Smash Hits at that stage to Ian Cranna, working with EMAP now as editorial director which gave me a lot of free time. I offered The Face to EMAP but they said they didn’t have the funds at that time. They planned to use profits from Smash Hits to launch a football title. How frustrating? So, out of annoyance at the knock-back, I started to toy with the idea of publishing it without them, as an independent. One day, taking a deep breath, I found myself picking up the phone to call a paper merchant and order what in today’s money would be thousands of pounds worth of paper stock.. It would be coming all the way from Finland. Trees would be felled. What a relief when I found out I didn’t have to pick it up from Felixstowe docks personally.
No going back now.
An innate grasp of youth culture? Not for me to say but, having trained as a journalist, maybe what I did was to bring a tabloid sensibility to counterculture.

Were you surprised by the growth and popularity of Smash Hits and The Face – the latter of which was holding highly popular parties in New York within a couple of years of its conception – or did you always have high expectations for them?
Smash Hits took off almost straight away, and surprised everybody. The Face made a good start with a lower print run, helped in launch month (May 1980) by the absence of the music press due to a print strike, but then endured a terrible struggle before finding its voice and its feet around 18 months in.

With each passing success during the period from the NME to The Face did you ever feel a sense of pressure to follow it up?
I think I said before that even with Arena I still felt I had something to prove.

There was always an irreverent brand of writing during your tenure at any publication be it NME, Smash Hits or The Face (i.e. Terry Hall once being called 'stupid and vain' during an interview). Was that something which occurred by design or was it more a case of a of a serendipitous trait that was encouraged?
I suppose most of that comes from that golden period at the NME working with two supremely gifted writers, Tony Tyler and Ian MacDonald , who worked with me on layouts and subbing as assistant editors …and the influence of Monty Python in its prime. The back-page Next Week Box was where it started, becoming more and more surreal with each passing week (Charlie Murray did a lot of those as well). Out of the humour came the irreverence … it’s hard graft the production of magazines so, at the same time, you need to make it a fun place to work.

With the changes in the marketplace since their creation, did you envisage Smash Hits and The Face lasting as long as they did?
I told EMAP that Smash Hits (not Disco Fever though!) could run forever, because I thought there would always be a singles chart. The Face’s longevity I never really thought about. Of course there was some sadness at seeing them go but possibly not as much as you (and I) might have thought. Probably more disappointed about Arena because it was a fantastic magazine when it started but it lost its way long before I sold it to EMAP, and it’s still a source of regret that I couldn’t halt that fatal drift. It’s a whole different conversation ‘Why magazines lose their way?’ and a can of worms that’s probably best left unopened.

As some who's said that they've an innate love for the print magazine do you feel any sadness with the closure of things such as Spin and The Word or do you view it as a by-product of change and development?
Shame about The Word, which was a bold initiative. Can’t be surprised that it closed because independent publishers aiming at the mainstream market have always had it tough – it’s an increasingly brutal world for the independent. I have barely any interest at all in magazines now, they’re almost all generic, no surprises. I’m referring to mainstream magazines now because that’s what used to get me excited - the idea of doing something alternative that gets shelf-space in a High Street WH Smith as opposed, say, to a publication that has as the height of its ambition a showcase at the ICA bookshop and a few glossy ads placed by fashion companies in Milan who have more money than sense. There are smaller magazines I see occasionally - Green Soccer Journal, The New British spring to mind - and I read a piece yesterday online about some new print-only literary magazines in the US that sounded interesting.

Where do you see the future of print media lying – do you think moving towards a free magazine (The Fly, DIY, Vice etc) or even crowd-sourced models are the way forward?
I don’t really have anything worthwhile to say about this. I’m instinctively against free magazines because having put in all those hours on weeklies, monthlies etc trying to produce an attractive product - something that people will exchange hard-earned money for - scrabbling around for a front cover when everything’s going wrong, it just seems like cheating to be able to give it away for free. How can it be a proper magazine if it matters barely a jot what’s on the cover as long as it doesn’t frighten the cat. There’s no business logic to any of what I’ve just said of course. It’s just ingrained in me that you have to work to make your magazine worth people’s attention, and the cash transaction is the acid test as whether or not you’ve succeeded

What are your views on blogging? Do you think they continue to offer an effective shopfront either for budding writers or for music to be heard?
I don’t spend a lot of time reading blogs. From my limited knowledge I imagine there are thousands of worthwhile and excellent blogs (not a blog but Sabotage Times comes to mind) but I don’t want to commit my limited free time to them. I already spend too much time on Twitter.

Looking at the journalism of the 1980s, and considering its demographic Smash Hits in particular, what stands out are the lengthy, ambitious yet consistently entertaining features. Do you agree with those who claim that readers are being patronised with lightweight pieces by some corners of the media?
Not long back I had an idea for a contrarian print magazine that would have ran several long and literary pieces. But I think I only got interested because of the challenge. Soon saw sense. Finished with magazines now.

Do you think that market conditions as they are that as far as print media is concerned multi-title successes such as you enjoyed is now a thing of the past?
My ‘successes’ came from trying to establish communities around magazine titles, reaching out to forge trusting relationships between editors, writers and readers. Facebook (yeuch), Twitter and blogs do that now so easily.

Looking back at your involvement in the industry as a whole, what are your memories and feelings? Do you ever wish you were still a part of it, or are you happy being a curious spectator?
Certainly never had any great love of publishing as an industry, too many grey men in suits. And the task of producing magazines, while immense fun, entails too much hard work. Plus, as I’ve said, the marketplace is brutal. No, done with it all now.

© Nick Logan/DIY

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