'Pete Doherty tried to get out of the car at 80mph': the stories behind NME's greatest covers

From Stuart Maconie romping up the Eiger with Stone Roses to Vivien Goldman having her mind blown by reggae sound systems, writers and editors from four decades of NME delve behind the front pages

Nick Logan: Bryan Ferry, 19 January 1974

In November 1973 – shortly after I’d moved up from deputy to editor – there was a printing strike. In the previous couple of years, NME had been diligently reinventing itself from risible industry lapdog to credible maverick terrier; we were on a roll and it was intensely frustrating to be silenced by those for whose cause we had full sympathy. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that NME had faced the threat of being silenced for good because of tumbling sales.

So, when, finally, we returned after nine weeks out, our frustration was unleashed. Bold and a bit cocky, we were suddenly – dazzlingly – at the top of our game. It’s embodied in the cover. We had been edging towards a full-page image like Rolling Stone, but it was a first among the weeklies, and Pennie Smith’s image of Bryan Ferry picked itself. Naive, of course, but it felt like: this is our magazine now. It later caused me a breakdown trying to keep the train on the rails, but I’m privileged to have been a part of it.

Nick Kent: Syd Barrett, 13 April 1974

Syd Barrett
Syd Barrett. Photograph: Adrian Boot

Hearing the news that the NME is finally shutting up shop left me feeling melancholy but unsurprised – when the paper recently became a freebie, I sensed the end was near. Others can pass comment on the reasons for its demise. I’ll restrict myself to recalling a time when the paper existed in a more fertile rock-and-pop-fixated culture.

I was 20 in the summer of 1972 when I was first asked to write for the NME. Earlier that year, the paper had been given 12 issues to turn around its dwindling circulation or get thrown under the bus. The paper’s young scribes felt empowered to break out of the formularised “question and answer” interviews mould and inject certain aspects of the “new journalism” approach. Sales figures duly rocketed.

In the spring of 1974, I wrote an article on Syd Barrett – my favourite NME cover. It was long, and relied on quotes from those who had known Barrett, which made it a work of bona fide investigative journalism – it indicated to me for the first time that I might actually become a good writer. The cover photo had been taken back in late 1967 by Adrian Boot: a wind-swept Madcap with his faraway eyes and exploding hair. It fitted the mood of the text like a glove.

Neil Spencer: Joy Division, 14 June 1980

Ian Curtis and Joy Division
Ian Curtis and Joy Division. Photograph: Anton Corbijn

This was an important cover for us. The paper had been off the newsagents’ shelves for six weeks thanks to industrial dispute over pay. During that time Ian Curtis of Joy Division had taken his own life, meaning our tribute to him had been sitting on ice, along with Anton Corbijn’s striking and sadly appropriate cover shot, showing Curtis glaring back moodily, as if taking leave.

Corbijn’s shot of Joy Division (taken at a London underground station) perfectly captured the post-punk aesthetic of Orwellian austerity (youth unemployment was through the roof) and the tawdry state of the country’s infrastructure. It’s a revolutionary cover in that its selling point, the band, is confined “below the fold” of the paper – unseen by punters – and its star is further limited to the bottom right, yet the unfolded cover becomes a powerful portrait of a moment in time.

NME would lose ground to the sharp colour and frivolity of Smash Hits and the Face, to become belittled as a mere “inkie”, but I remain fond of its black/white/red rigour, which fitted the paper’s ambitions to be literate and arty, iconoclastic and funny: a new beast on the block. Even the small ads (“shiny black PVC with zips”) helped to make it an aspirational cultural crossroads.

Vivien Goldman: reggae sound systems, 21 February 1981

Reggae sound systems
Reggae sound systems. Photograph: Jean-Bernard Sohiez

This cover was achieved collectively with my editor, Neil Spencer, writer Penny Reel (AKA Paul Simon) and French photographer Jean-Bernard Sohiez. Like me, they were never happier than at the reggae sound systems we at last got to cover, submitting to the tsunamis of sound unleashed through megalithic hand-crafted speakers by the surprisingly diminutive figure of my story’s focus: Jah Shaka and his Warrior Sound.

Jah Shaka was often enjoyed in a Streatham dancehall, the Bali H’ai, its vast floor ringed protectively with towering faux-tiki figures. There was the ever-present threat of police raids in those days of the iniquitous “sus” law, (a Kafka-esque edict enabling police to arrest mainly black youths simply “on suspicion”) but sound systems still created a safe space. In the same issue, Tony Stewart wrote a public safety warning – “Glue! A message to you, stupid.” The sheer sadness of having such a low-rent stimulant as our readers’ drug of choice reflects just what a mess Britain was in as we headed into the divisive Thatcher years.

Sound system DJs, often compelled by institutional racism to play out under dangerous conditions in firetrap basements, were really griots, cultural guardians. Each “sound” was an independent community, a family, transmitting rhythmic smoke signals from not only Jamaica, but its yearned-for African roots, through the mystic power of dub. Live, surrounded by his “stepper” dancers in their red, green and gold and khaki fatigues, Shaka would remix a conventional vocal song and shatter our reality. He dropped instruments abruptly over a precipice and magically made them surge and rise again, powered by layers of reverb and echo. The effect was an energy transfusion, enhanced by the shards of revolutionary, spiritual lyrics that careened round the room. Dub’s message – everything changes, be ready for anything and don’t think you can anticipate the next chorus, let alone tomorrow – still guides me.

Lucy O’Brien: youth suicide, 8 November 1986

Youth suicide
Youth suicide. Photograph: MX @ AI/NME

There was a romanticism attached by musicians to figures such as Sylvia Plath, and a connection between literature and suicide and music – songs such as Joy Division’s 24 Hours, or Asleep by the Smiths, had this mythic status. The Samaritans had just done an advert featuring Pink Floyd’s Is There Anybody Out There, following a 39% increase in youth suicide in the previous decade. There was something going on that affected our core constituency that I wanted to investigate.

The first half of the article looked at this romanticism, but the second half looked at the reality: interviewing young people who had attempted suicide, and families who had lost people. One young woman who survived an attempt had made a soundtrack for it, music that was part of the whole dreadful experience: lots of mad Motown music; the Temptations’ Ball of Confusion played really loudly.

It was battling it out for the cover with a profile of Lawrence from Felt. The debate in our weekly meeting got really heated, epitomising the two factions of NME then: those into the indie rock canon and those of us in the other camp – the “hip-hop Hitlers”, as we were known, who were into emerging music such as hip-hop, soul and house. It symbolised the fight for the territory of NME – we felt it was really important not just to talk about music, but youth culture and politics. It was a highly charged time politically, a bit like now, in that you had an incredibly rightwing Tory government with a reactionary agenda.

We won in the end, although I think our mischievous art director used Lawrence from Felt’s silhouette as the cover image. I think it was one of the lowest selling issues that year – the distributors groaned about it – but in terms of cultural capital, it is now really sought-after on eBay. Gina Birch from the Raincoats told me Kurt Cobain called it one of his favourite issues, and Richey Edwards from the Manic Street Preachers talked about it, too. So, it really did have an impact.

In the UK the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org

Steve Lamacq: Acid Crackdown, 19 November 1988

‘We all thought we were right, all the time’... Steve Lamacq.
‘We all thought we were right, all the time’... Steve Lamacq. Photograph: BBC/Dean Chalkley/BBC

In the mid-1980s, the NME had slipped beneath 100,000 sales and there was a feeling it had lost touch with some of its audience. But a lot of new writers arrived, and a lot of what set the scene for the next two decades happened within five years: the evolution of hip-hop and sampling, proto-grunge, Madchester and rave culture.

This cover feature was partly a thinkpiece in response to the tabloid hysteria around ecstasy and acid house. But the NME hadn’t been to many raves, and certainly hadn’t sent a photographer. So how do we illustrate a story about police raids on acid house parties? We got Justin Langlands, the art editor, to put a policeman’s helmet on and rip a smiley T-shirt – just to let everyone know exactly what it was about.

I was part of this little group who were championing the bands coming through the rejuvenated live scene: Carter USM, Mega City Four, Ride and the shoegazers. The ravers were a couple of members of staff, Paolo Hewitt and Helen Mead, who immediately got into acid house and spent their weekends all over the country. We were reasonably understanding of them, while at the same time mercilessly taking the piss. I remember writing in an end-of-year piece: who wants to go and stand in a field miles from a bus to anywhere, with no cigarette machine? Everyone was expert in their field, and we all thought we were right, all the time. Later on in the life of the NME, you felt it had lost its confidence in being right.

Stuart Maconie: Stone Roses, 23 December 1989

‘I packed some Gore-Tex flaresStuart Maconie.
‘I packed some Gore-Tex flares’... Stuart Maconie. Photograph: Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images

As luck would have it, I sent NME some stuff at the very point when they were looking to leaven its situationist smarts with some street humour and edge – mix some scally in with the Sartre, if you will. Coming from the right kind of estates in the right part of Britain and, crucially, having the right haircut, I became the paper’s chief propagandist for the scene that became Madchester. The bands were cheeky, druggy, dissolute, proletarian autodidacts, defiantly northern and gleefully internationalist, looking to Detroit for their grooves, California for their guitars and Norway for their fell-walking jacket chic. The year 1989 belonged to a band called Stone Roses, and we decided for the famed Christmas double issue on a cover story with a shot of them in a snowy Scottish mountain setting, like gods, or at least like the Beatles on the cover of Help!. I packed some Gore-Tex flares.

I was met at Manchester airport by the band, all mooches, pimp walks, “nice ones” and fistbumps, all of us dressed as if for sea-fishing off Shetland, the de rigueur clubwear around Manchester at the time. They were as imperiously cool as it was possible to be; clever, wry, self-possessed and being herded towards departures with little success by the late, wonderful Philip Hall, the man who also nurtured Manic Street Preachers. “Have you got your passport with you?” he asked me. “Good. There’s no snow at Aviemore. We’re going to the Eiger.”

The next three days, naturally something of a blur now, passed in a delirious fug of brandy, snow, fondue, aromatic cigarettes, beer and wood fires soundtracked by tapes of northern soul, techno and the Byrds. We rode cable cars up glaciers, stayed up all night in twinkling chalets and talked politics, football and records. They rolled an enormous joint on the train from Zurich to Interlaken which they shared with suits and students alike as they passed around the Courvoisier. Charming, hip and invincible. The privilege of being young and working for NME were these moments, when the stars align for a band in their imperial pomp, you were along for the ride and there was a world out there who needed to read about it as if their lives depended on it.

John Harris: Paul Weller, 19 March 1994

John Harris.
‘You could meet your heroes’ ... John Harris. Photograph: Supplied for byline

Having been at the core of the NME’s universe for a decade after 1977, Paul Weller had not been on its cover for seven years. Then, after his second solo album, Wild Wood, the way suddenly opened. You can perhaps see its subject’s wariness about his return to the NME’s hyperactive, capricious, maddening world in his facial expression. Weller, I said, was “still an impeccably dressed bundle of insecurity, desperate ambition and exacting standards”.

I had an Almost famous-esque level of access on tour with him in Ireland. I got very stoned in his Cork hotel room, listening to Jimi Hendrix. At one point, he insisted that everyone in the bar try Cointreau and Lucozade. On some drizzly Irish trunk-road, when he asked me to name the first record I ever bought, I could not lie: it was the Jam’s Strange Town in 1979, something he greeted with a wry laugh. There were many amazing things about being an NME writer, but this one was by far the best: you could meet your heroes.

Sylvia Patterson: Thom Yorke, 19 May 2001

‘Thom Yorke was so edgy he was practically disappearing side-on’ ... Sylvia Patterson.
‘Thom Yorke was so edgy he was practically disappearing side-on’ ... Sylvia Patterson. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Talking to Thom Yorke in 2001, there were no high jinks – just one hour to the second (he was counting) in Oxford, which contained, nonetheless, spectacular rock’n’roll attitude.

Yorke was built from sarcasm, cynicism and curious mirth, with a demented nasal laugh: “Neheheheh!” He hadn’t talked to NME for five years, a Mexican standoff through OK Computer and Radiohead’s Most Important Band in the World era; withering NME wags routinely captioned their photos with “ugly, ugly, ugly”. By 2001, those people now gone, he had finally capitulated, a man so edgy he was practically disappearing side-on, soon decimating both NME and the prevailing culture, an eerily prescient summation of the paper’s already-approaching spiritual demise, full of advertising for VO5. “NME dot com,” he scoffed. “Fattening themselves up for floating themselves on the international money market. It’s like talking to CNN, innit? Neheheh!”

That year, both NME writers and Radiohead fans had expressed disapproving bewilderment at OK Computer’s two seemingly avant-garde followups, Kid A and Amnesiac, which made him furious. I told him about a reader’s letter accusing him of being reluctant to commit himself emotionally. Like a man being shot in the chest, Yorke threw his head back in a flip-top of genuine hysteria, clapping furiously. “Neheheh! Fuck you, whoever you are! Fuck you entirely! I’m not even gonna commit myself emotionally to a response! Next!”

Much of Amnesiac, he countered, concerned the death of everything, mostly through economic greed: the planet, culture, humankind, urgent predicaments that “the mainstream media” ignored. “Our culture is fucking desperate,” he carried on. “We’re listening to the most hokey shite on the radio and watching vacuous bullshit celebrities being vacuous bullshit celebrities and desperately trying to forget about everything. I can’t do that.” Contrary, belligerent, unfathomable and therefore a Proper Rock Star, Thom Yorke was a weirdo, all right, though very far from a creep.

Tim Jonze: Babyshambles, 11 June 2005

Pete Doherty
Pete Doherty. Photograph: Andy Willsher

There were moments during my encounter with Pete Doherty in 2005 when I genuinely thought that I might never get the chance to write about it. We had already spent a good 48 hours trying to pin him down to no avail before one last option was offered to me – would I mind getting in the car with him and his entourage as they attempted to catch a flight to Glasgow?

Actually, I did quite mind. Nobody in the car had slept for three days – including Doherty’s driver who, I hadn’t failed to notice, had spent the morning drinking cans of Stella while swigging from a bottle of vodka. Still, I minded not getting an interview more.

We were incredibly late, because Doherty was incredibly late for everything. Said driver had no choice other than to put his foot down, weaving in and out of traffic on the M25 in a desperate attempt to make time. Along the way there were missed turnings, raging arguments and occasional bursts of paranoia: Doherty was convinced we were being followed by a bunch of Manchester gangsters.

At some point during this journey, Doherty decided he wanted to smoke some crack and a furious row erupted over a pipe that had gone missing. There were tantrums and slanging matches and I heard Pete ask his manager if they could ditch me on the hard shoulder. Then, suddenly, he opened the door himself and attempted to get out of the car – we were travelling at 80mph – luckily, someone dragged him back in. We narrowly avoided a collision with a blue Vauxhall Astra, which wasn’t exactly the glamorous rock’n’roll death I’d imagined for us all. It was a wild time to catch Doherty. His turbulent romance with Kate Moss, who kept ringing him throughout this journey, and his rather more devoted relationship with crack and heroin, had pushed him to the peak of red-top notoriety. Dishevelled pictures of him stumbling around London appeared in the papers most mornings. There was, admittedly, something pretty depressing about it all – the “interview” itself was largely nonsense, with Pete drifting in and out of consciousness in between mumbled anecdotes about smoking tampons and blackmailing giraffes. But in a music scene packed with punctual, polite and professional outfits, there was also something undeniably thrilling about the way Doherty was going about his life. Like a true Libertine, he was attempting to live outside convention as far as possible.

The previous 48 hours I’d spent with the band had given me plenty of examples. When his band Babyshambles were due onstage in Southampton the previous night, he wasn’t just late, he was in a different city; when we arrived at Homeland festival the following day, Doherty was greeted by Dior designer Hedi Slimane who thrust thousands of pounds worth of fitted suits into his hand, many of which ended up tumbling out of his bag and on to the Hampshire grass moments later.

Amazingly, none of this seemed like a show put on for the NME. What felt like a life and death situation for me was clearly just another day in the office for Doherty and his entourage. As we pulled up outside Heathrow, my gums numb from the crack fumes, I watched as Doherty decided that now was the perfect moment to change his entire outfit. I left him stumbling around in his pants, struggling to find the leg holes in a Dior suit, while his manager’s immortal words rang out: “Oh shit, please tell me it’s not fucking Gatwick!”

Krissi Murison: Simon Cowell, 19 December 2009

Simon Cowell.
Simon Cowell. Photograph: Dean Chalkley

It was the Christmas issue – my first as editor – which was always a big event at NME. I’d lived in New York for a while and, when I came back to the UK, I was shocked at what a huge cultural event The X Factor was. Nobody could stop watching it, whether they loved it or hated it.

So we thought: why not interview Simon Cowell? Being on the cover wasn’t necessarily a seal of approval – it just meant that you were relevant. There was no resistance from the publishers: “You want to put the most famous man in the country on the cover?! Go for it!” I hadn’t realised how little press he actually did – it really proved NME’s pulling power to me, how much it punched above its weight. Trying to lure him in, I had said that, as editor, I would do this myself. We decided it would be fun to ask bands and fans for their questions for him, so I went along armed with those, too. His office was hilarious – full of huge, scented candles and white lilies, like a high-end hotel. He had his own personal en suite. I remember there was a big countdown by staff to his arrival – it was a big deal that he was coming in. They lit the candles before he arrived, it was all quite a performance.

Cowell was a bit of a bogeyman for our readers at the time. People felt that The X Factor was diminishing creative talent in the country and elevating a load of karaoke singers to the top of the charts – he didn’t go in there expecting an easy ride. The first thing he did was to say he wasn’t about music, he was about entertainment, and could never pretend to be musically relevant – so he had us at the off. He wasn’t exactly self-effacing, because he never is, but he knew what arrows we were going to throw at him. I asked him about Animal Collective and grime, and he said: “Are you trying to make me look stupid?” He was good fun, smart, cutting when he needed to be and very, very self-aware.

We were going around in circles about the cover line and settled on: “The Grinch speaks!” because The X Factor had become this thing that stole the Christmas No 1. It came at a time when we could still take on these really big topics and figures and have some fun with them, which was what we were meant to do. He sent me a text afterwards saying how much he liked it: “Hello, it’s the Grinch here …”

• This article was amended on 16 March 2018 because an earlier version referred to industrial dispute over pay as an NUJ strike.


Interviews by Ben Beaumont-Thomas and Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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