While some longstanding music periodicals have headed for the online-only hills or folded completely in recent years, mining content from the golden age of rock’s past remains a lucrative sideline for publishers. Rolling Stone, MOJO and Record Collector have all produced ‘definitive guides’ and ‘special editions’ focusing on individual acts or musical genres over the past decade, recycling and repackaging articles from old editions for new audiences (and collectors who have to have everything). Perhaps the most successful of these have been the ongoing ‘Ultimate Music Guides’ published since the 2000s by Uncut magazine, which not only reproduce content from the magazine’s own 25-year past (alongside brand new album reviews) but also from the rich and much more extensive archive of the New Musical Express (NME). These compendiums serve as a nice blend of old and new, mixing interviews from across an artist’s career with modern-day reappraisals of their work. Before that, however, publishers IPC took a more straightforward cut-and-paste approach to the really vintage material in the form of a series of NME Originals in the early 2000s – the first issue of which, naturally enough, featured The Beatles.
Before shifting entirely to digital in 2018, NME was the world’s longest-running music magazine, dating back to 1952 – when it also became the first publication to feature a singles chart, heralding the start of the pop/rock scene we (just about) still recognise today. Along with fellow weekly publication Melody Maker, it was effectively THE rock press in Britain until the 1980s, the go-to place for information about your chart favourites and up-and-coming bands. This was never more true than in the 1960s, when the country didn’t even have a dedicated pop music radio channel (officially, at least) until late in the decade. So when The Beatles exploded on the hitherto cosy and sedate British pop scene, and dialled record sales and public interest up to 11, it was inevitable that the NME would lap up their every move. And the glossy, 148-page NME Originals compiles all the key parts of the paper’s extensive Fab Four coverage, from a one-line mention about the release of ‘Love Me Do’ in September 1962 through to the rather disbelieving reports of the band’s split in the spring of 1970. And it’s a real goldmine, incorporating interviews, record reviews, exclusive photos, tour diaries, on-set film reports, front covers, fan letters, comments from their contemporaries and ads for all kinds of Beatle merchandise. All the key moments in the group’s history (if they happened in the public eye) are here, reported as they happened.
And that ‘as they happened’ aspect is the key selling point here. As I’ve written before, real time reportage of the Fabs’ progress gives us a precious insight into how events unfolded, how they were interpreted by an unsuspecting world and what the band members made of it all – all without the foggy filter of hindsight. It’s not necessarily more true, as you have to factor in the very different bounds of respectability and criticism people operated within back then, but it still offers a great deal to learn about their impact as a living, breathing group instead of a universally-lauded historical phenomenon and untouchable musical benchmark (though there was undoubtedly an awareness of their importance at the time). Likewise, the NME reflected the world the Beatles operated in, and the changes they wrought upon it. So a lot of early content (specifically the 1963/64 moptop period) here is devoted to relatively lightweight, fluffy fare – individual interviews to help map out their personalities, reports on what they did on holiday or at Christmas, and even accounts of their dreams. There was the obligatory ‘lifelines’ Q&A feature, asking them about their favourite drinks, hobbies, ambitions and so on (interestingly, in their ‘favourite actress’ choices, John was the only one not to pick Brigitte Bardot, despite him often citing her as his ideal woman; by contrast, all four selected the now barely-remembered French pin-up Juliette Gréco). That’s not to say this stuff doesn’t make absorbing reading, though. Because it’s The Beatles (often dubbed by the paper as ‘Liverpoplians’ during this early phase), the articles are anything but flimsy and forgettable. John even supplied a first-person report on Ringo’s wedding in early 1965.
By the decade’s later stages, however, when the Fabs had grown up and ‘Merseybeat’ had long since been supplanted by folk rock, psychedelia, progressive rock and the beginnings of heavy metal, the tone, style and content of the coverage was quite different. Instead of discussing their favourite toothpaste in interviews, by 1967 George was stating that “man killing man is terrible”, while Paul revealed: “…I envy George’s faith…he seems to have found what we’ve all been searching for.” The following year, Ringo announced that “I need a psychiatrist”, and in 1969 John talked about his plan to burn hundreds of plastic baby dolls in the streets of London in protest about the use of napalm in the Vietnam war (not sure that jolly jape ever came to pass). You can also detect a change in the public’s attitude towards the hairier, more iconoclastic version of The Beatles, with near-universal adoration replaced by scepticism and downright bafflement in some quarters, forcing the paper into defensive manoeuvres on occasion. For example, there’s a lengthy piece in support of the heavily-criticised Magical Mystery Tour film, and a 1969 article entitled ‘Save Our Beatles – NME editor Andy Gray says stop attacks!’ Some readers remained unconvinced, however. One describes the ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’/’Penny Lane’ single as “drivelling nonentities of meaningless lyrics and elementary harmonies”, while another opines that the songs are “pseudo-intellectual, electronic claptrap”.
It’s also amusing to see the paper’s reviewers – usually Derek Johnson or Allen Evans – try to keep pace with the band’s rapidly-evolving musical development, which almost from the off surged far beyond the chummy Cliff Richard/Tommy Steele toe-tapping records music journalists were used to. Some of the critiques are a hoot. For instance, Johnson says ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ “is repetitious almost to the point of hypnosis…and has some built-in hand clapping to help along the infectious broken beat.” He describes ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ as “a bouncy finger-snapper with an pounding beat”, ‘I Feel Fine’ as “a happy-go-lucky midtempo swinger” and ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’ as “an up-tempo shuffler”. And as the music gets more sophisticated from Rubber Soul on, they’re all at sea. The sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood’ is interpreted by Evans as “Arabic-sounding guitar”, ‘Love You To’ is “Oriental-sounding”, and when he gets to ‘Strawberry Fields’ Johnson has to admit: “I really don’t know what to make of it.” Their attempts to assess the lyrics leave something to be desired, too. ‘For No One’ is “about a girl who has given up a boy who won’t believe it”, while ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ is apparently “about a girl and a pier with electric lights”. Rock criticism has clearly come a long way since then, but they also make some inexplicable howlers about who sings what. Paul is credited with the lead vocal on both ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Music’ and ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, for example. Were they listening with ear muffs on?
The magazine generally repackages all the vintage content really well, but I do have some gripes. While everything is laid out chronologically, the use of some photos from the wrong era or setting is sloppy and becomes irritating after a while. There’s also a heavy weighting towards the first half of their recording career, with the pre-1967 period accounting for two-thirds of the content. And though the majority of the material is presented in a modern magazine format, some of it takes the form of reprinted cuttings from the original issues, in much smaller, more cramped lay-outs. I guess it was the only way they could cram everything in without adding a lot more pages, but the tiny print and smudged photos do make these pieces a more arduous read (especially for those of us whose eyesight isn’t quite what it was).
It’s a shame, really, as there are some really interesting articles in this. All their US tours are documented extensively, usually by Chris Hutchins, one of the accredited reporters who travelled with them (and who, in a piece from 1964, claimed to have arranged a phone call between the band and Elvis Presley, a year before their fabled meeting in Beverley Hills). There is the occasional report from a studio recording session, plus items about lesser-known byways in The Beatles story, such as John’s and Paul’s 1966 film work on How I Won The War and The Family Way, respectively, and a fascinating feature about Paul’s 1968 visit to Yorkshire to record the Black Dyke Mills Band for Apple (when he also stopped off in a pub to entertain regulars on the way home). And, of course, the interviews are always engrossing. In 1968, for example, a self-proclaimed “pleasantly insincere” Macca discusses a range of social issues as well as some of the songs he wrote for the ‘White Album’, while the following year Ringo drops some interesting insights into the state of The Beatles during a chat on the set of The Magic Christian film. With his Yoko-inspired peace campaign in full swing, John is also very talkative in 1969, whether promoting his avant garde art antics or revealing – in a curiously overlooked ‘exclusive’ at the end of the year – that “The Beatles are on the brink of splitting”. It’s also fun to read stuff about things which didn’t come to pass, such as the “virtually definite” 1968 live concert, the planned 1969 Get Back album and George’s hint that the band could reunite in to record a new LP in 1971.
All in all, NME Originals provides a captivating window on the past, when the Fab Four were top dogs and the media infrastructure needed to properly document them and the scene they spawned wasn’t yet in place. In fact, you get the feeling the paper was clinging onto The Beatles’ coattails for dear life as the band led the charge into a new world, hurriedly adapting and constantly recalibrating its perception of what pop stars were supposed to be. It probably wasn’t until the 1970s, as new writers started to come through and the full impact of the Fabs and their contemporaries began to be felt, that a more mature, more heavyweight (but less deferential) style of rock journalism emerged in the pages of the NME and elsewhere. This is reflected in a follow-up collection of Fabs coverage focusing on the 1970-80 solo years, issued in 2005, which I’ll look at another time. But if you fancy revisiting the band’s epic 1960s odyssey through a more innocent lens, and seeing it all reported as contemporary events in the lingo and style of the time, NME Originals is well worth seeking out.