NME: 60 years of rock history ... and four front covers that define their eras

A 70s punk shocker, messy Madchester in the 80s, a 90s Britpop feud, and the X Factor Grinch in the 00s: on the eve of its 60th birthday next month, four NME editors pick their favourite covers and recall what defined their times

The Slits: 8 September 1979

Chosen by Neil Spencer (1978-1985)

NME covers – The Slits
The Slits: 8 September 1979. Photograph: PR

When I edited NME one of the highlights of the week was when Pennie Smith and Anton Corbijn, our two principal photographers, came in with their prints, and you suddenly saw what the next cover was going to look like. Sometimes it wasn't quite how you expected. I certainly wasn't expecting what I got when Pennie went to photograph the Slits at Ridge Farm Studio.

One of the odd things about punk was the way that it emancipated female musicians. I don't think it was part of the original idea but it very quickly came about through people like Poly Styrene and the Slits. Girl bands prior to that had been marketed as sexy gimmicks, and suddenly the Slits turned all expectations on their head. There was so much hostility towards them because they didn't play the game. Guys would shout at them: "You look ugly", and they'd reply: "We're not here to look nice for you."

I remember having a discussion about these images in the office: were these crazy pictures of the band stripped off and covered in mud OK or not? Was this titillation, or was it something else? I think Pennie persuaded me that it was emancipation. The whole subject was very controversial. Putting the Slits on the cover was, in itself, slightly controversial because they didn't sell records. A lot of the readers would have thought, "Oh this is a London-centric thing", or, "This is the NME getting carried away putting obscure people on the cover". But I always thought the Slits were an important event. The point of punk was attitude, and the Slits had attitude to spare.

The NME was hard work, especially on the editorial side. The writers had more of a demented ride. They'd go off and take drugs with musicians in exotic locations and enjoy themselves, and then come back and write their pieces overnight and deliver them by hand. It was crazy, but ultimately you've got to have somebody signing off pages and writing headlines, and it was very tough at times, especially when writers flaked out as they did. What do you do on Tuesday afternoon at the printers with half a cover story on Boy George? It still annoys me.

The main office on Carnaby Street was a bear pit. It was forbidding to enter if you were an outsider, or even if you worked there, because there were a lot of giant egos and very sharp people. Everyone had very abrupt opinions on who should be on the cover and how many words everybody should have and who was going to write the lead review and so on. There was a lot of turf being fought over, so a big part of my job as editor was to balance the factions in the paper.

My attitude was always to keep a door open to new talent. A lot of really good people came into the NME at that time, including Anton Corbijn. It was an incredibly creative era. Punk was electrifying but there was more good music being made afterwards and a lot of diversity. It was a good time to be at the NME.

Blur v Oasis: 12 August 1995

Chosen by Steve Sutherland (1992-2000)

NME covers – Blur v Oasis: 12 August 1995
Blur v Oasis: 12 August 1995 Photograph: Camera Press/Steve Double Photograph: Camera Press/Steve Double

It was the cover that defined my editorship. It also defined my era and it put NME back on the map as central to what was going on in Britain culturally at the time. And it made us famous for a brief period, so it was all very good.

It began on 24 January 1995, when NME held their Brat awards [its alternative to the Brits] at the Cockney theatre, a little downstairs place on Tottenham Court Road. It was Blur versus Oasis in the room that year, thanks to our reader votes. Blur won four awards and Oasis won three. Liam Gallagher approached Damon Albarn and used some really choice language relating to the female anatomy. And it all kicked off.

From there on no love was lost between the two camps, and Noel Gallagher was saying things such as: "Blur are a bunch of middle-class wankers trying to play hardball with working-class heroes." It was brilliantly fuelled by both bands' cocaine input. They were both at the top of their game and both very competitive. That summer my news team discovered something nobody else had noticed: Blur and Oasis were releasing their forthcoming singles to advertise their forthcoming albums on exactly the same day.

We decided to have a bit of fun with this and make some mischief, so we created this front cover with Damon Albarn on the left looking very arrogant and Liam Gallagher on the right looking very combative, and we modelled it on an old Ali v Fraser boxing poster. We set it up as a proper sporting event.

Then we canvassed an awful lot of people about who should win: Justine Frischmann from Elastica, Gaz from Supergrass; the managers, producers and record label bosses in both camps; the media. Within 24 hours it was all over News at Ten and all the broadsheets and tabloids had picked up on it. Everyone, from people driving white vans to university professors to girls at school, could talk about it: were you in the Blur camp or the Oasis camp? It was the middle of the summer, silly season, there wasn't much going on, and we managed to create a phenomenon.

To follow up, we produced two front covers – one with Oasis victorious, one with Blur victorious – because we honestly didn't know who was going to win. We had to hold the presses that weekend. As it turned out, Blur won: "Country House" beat "Roll With It". It was a soap opera, and soap operas are great for people who work on newspapers and magazines because you can become part of the story and it never really ends. We sold a lot of copies off the back of it, and NME became famous again, and it became synonymous with the glory years of Britpop.

It was a fantastic time to be working for a music paper in London because you could go out any night of the week to any pub and bump into somebody who was going to be on Top of the Pops that week, and buy them a drink. It felt like Britain was the centre of the universe, which was tremendously exciting, and you felt that the readership was very engaged. This was pre-internet so they were hungry for information about what was going on, and waiting for your NME on a Wednesday morning was a big deal. Obviously that's been eroded by the internet to a certain extent but at the time we felt that the magazine was really at the top of its game.

The Stone Roses: 18 November 1989

Chosen by Alan Lewis (1987-1990)

NME covers – The Stone Roses: 18 November 1989
The Stone Roses: 18 November 1989 Photograph: PR

It was my great fortune that the Madchester thing came along during my time as editor and gave us a lot to write about. We took full advantage of it. This cover shot of the Stone Roses was taken by Kevin Cummins, who seemed to know everybody in Manchester and had a way of persuading people to go along with his plans. John Squire, the band's lead guitarist, was an artist, and painting featured quite a lot on their album sleeves, and I think it was around this time that they'd been involved in a paint-throwing incident. They had a falling out with their original manager and went to his office and threw a lot of paint around. So paint was in the air with the Roses, so to speak, and probably Kevin capitalised on that.

I heard later that the blue and white colour scheme was part of Kevin's plan: he'd always wanted to get the colours of his favourite football team, Manchester City, on to the cover. It was a great image that cried out to be used. A decade or so later, Liam Gallagher said it was his all-time favourite cover. The headline was "Never Mind the Pollocks". That was one of the cool things about NME: we took pride in the headlines and captions. NME in its heyday attracted talented writers and photographers. We had a great team, and I added a few new voices, people like Danny Kelly, James Brown, Stuart Maconie.

I took over in summer 1987. The first three months were difficult. I don't think I was a popular choice. Most of the people I was working with were in their early 20s. I was around 40, so I was like their dad. I suppose they saw me as a management stool-pigeon who'd been brought in to clean up the NME and get it back on track, which I suppose I was. I don't take drugs, but if ever there was a time when I would have taken drugs, it was going to the editorial meetings on a Wednesday morning. Initially it was like a bear garden. Everyone had their own agendas. Famously, after two or three months most of the writers signed a letter of no confidence to the management saying they didn't want to work with me.

But we got over that. After we got to know each other it relaxed and became a bit of fun. I didn't have any vested interest in any one form of music so I was able to strike a balance and give everybody a fair crack of the whip. And, older and more experienced, I was able to keep the management off the writers' backs. We tried to bring back a sense of humour to the paper and I think that came through to the readers. Circulation had been in decline before I arrived and it went up in the years that followed.

Simon Cowell: December 2009

Chosen by Krissi Muriso (2009 to present)

NME covers – Simon Cowell: December 2009
Simon Cowell: December 2009 Photograph: PR

Before I became editor of NME I'd been living in New York for a while. The X Factor was a bit of a phenomenon before I left the UK and everyone watched it for kitsch value, but when I came back I couldn't believe how much it had grown and how inescapable it was. It felt like any music that wasn't coming out of reality TV shows was struggling, and there were fewer and fewer places for live music on TV. Simon Cowell had become a very controversial figure among our readers and all the artists we spoke to.

It was coming up to our Christmas issue when we always try to do something fun and unexpected. It seemed to me that there wasn't anyone bigger to talk to than Cowell. When we first discussed it in the office, people said: "You can't do that, everybody will think it's a massive endorsement of The X Factor." But I thought that a great music magazine should be able to have a dialogue about a huge music phenomenon, even if we don't necessarily think it's brilliant. The solution we came up with was for me to take along readers' and artists' questions so that we could be the voice of the people going head-to-head with Simon.

The big issue, to start with, was photographs. You wouldn't imagine it, but he absolutely hates having his photo taken. I don't know what he thought we were going to do – maybe stick devil horns on in Photoshop! He was so uncomfortable that the photographer Dean Chalkley only had five or 10 minutes, but we knew once that shot came on to Dean's laptop that he'd got it.

The Rage Against the Machine chart battle hadn't yet kicked off but there was already a big deal about The X Factor stealing the Christmas No 1 again. This image was up on my wall for ages with different cover lines – "Ho fucking ho" was one for a while – but when the idea of the Grinch landed in our heads, we were like: yeah, that's exactly it.

I went into the interview imagining Simon would be prickly and defensive but I was shocked at how charming he was – annoyingly charming. He made us all feel really welcome in his palatial offices in Kensington and there was a lot of good banter. But if you go in saying "you're ruining music" and the person turns around and says "I'm not about music, I'm about entertainment", and doesn't pretend to know or care much about music, there's not much you can say to upset him. We came out agreeing to disagree rather than punching each other, which was a shame.

The interview got loads of reaction and was picked up everywhere. Any criticism was from people who'd seen Cowell on the cover and gone, "How can you be endorsing that?", but hadn't read the piece and seen what we'd done.

One of the main challenges I faced when I became editor was making a 60-year-old music magazine as relevant today as it always has been. Added to that, I'm not just editing the print version, it's the website as well, and now a lot of people get their daily NME fix via Twitter and Facebook, so managing all those strands is a big challenge.

Before I took over the magazine we'd had a number of years where guitar music was booming. I started just as dubstep had gone from underground to overground and artists in whatever genre were generally being more experimental. People always say to me that such-and-such is an NME band but that doesn't mean much to me. There are two types of music, good and bad, and genre doesn't come into that.

It's brilliant to be the first female editor of NME but it's not something I've ever had to think about. I'm keen not to dismiss any negative experiences women in music journalism have had because I know there have been issues, but it's brilliant that I don't have any sob stories to tell.

Rocking the ages: 60 years of NME

March 1952 The Musical Express and Accordion Weekly is relaunched by London music promoter Maurice Kinn as the New Musical Express.

November 1952 NME becomes the first British paper to include a singles chart. "Here in My Heart" by Al Martino is the first No 1.

April 1966 The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Who, the Small Faces and Roy Orbison perform at the NME poll winners concert, which launched in 1963. The magazine is at the height of its powers, selling up to 230,000 copies per week. (Print circulation is now down to 27,650.)

December 1974 NME's album of the year launches. Pretzel Logic by Steely Dan tops the first poll.

1976 As punk emerges, the paper advertises for a pair of "hip young gunslingers" to cover the movement and hires Julie Birchill and Tony Parsons, adding to a stable of talented writers including Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray.

1980s A debate about the paper's remit devolves into what becomes known as "the hip-hop wars", as staff are divided on whether the NME should cover hip-hop and other genres or stick to rock music.

January 1994 Picking up where the NME poll winners concert left off in 1972, the Brat awards, NME's alternative to the Brits, launches at London's New Empire, hosted by Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. Suede win best band.

1996 The paper goes online with the launch of NME.com.

2002 After a gradual change to magazine format beginning in 1980s, NME finally makes the switch from newsprint to glossy.

November 2007 NME TV goes on air and lasts just over four years. (It closed down last month.) The magazine also launches a digital radio station in June 2008.

September 2009 Krissi Murison begins her tenure as the first female editor of NME, aged 28.

Compiled by Henry Krempels


Interviews by Killian Fox

The GuardianTramp

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