Paper Cuts review by Ted Kessler – ode to the glory days and slow demise of the music press | Autobiography and memory

JMany of us who have cut our teeth on the weekly music press are, by nature, nostalgic for the days when NME and melody maker sold hundreds of thousands of copies, reputations and passionate ad exchanges around their content. Music and its chronicle seemed to be the central spire around which the universe revolved. The tone alternated between pretentious certainty and shit-stirring malice, jokes and crusades.

Then two things happened. Around the time of Kurt Cobain’s death, the newspapers decided the music deserved more in-depth coverage. A few years later, the internet banned most things printed in ink, including Britain’s unofficial college of the arts: a feverish hotbed of loudmouths, obsessives and romantics who mythologized themselves while singing the deeds they liked. A predominantly male, predominantly white hangout full of people with furious postures, that particular era of the music press prized above all by spirit; he was often uncomfortably brutal in his pillorying. But he was also intellectually curious and big-eared; quite progressive in its politics. Its alumni still guard doors throughout the British cultural sphere.

The fate of all that subcultural energy and mauve prose might not strike a chord with you in the way the BBC’s downsizing did. But spare a thought for Ted Kessler, former editor of Q and before NME stalwart, who provides an in-depth analysis of how things could have gone so much better when decline bit into the titles he worked for; Q closed in 2020. I need to declare an interest. Kessler gave me my first job, left me under the copy of my heroes, and trained me as a writer. One of the most moving chapters here concerns his relationship with his own mentor at SelectDavid Cavanagh, who committed suicide in 2018.

Music journalists tend to be square pegs of one form or another, and Kessler is a heartbreaking tale of ill-spent youth; a setting full of secrets and lies, French skinheads and sticky fingers. You will feel for him. His American father ditched the family for a second generation, prompting the music-obsessed teenager to leave home (then outside of Paris) and return to London to dodge, dive and scour the cash register at record stores all the way to London. until he finds a way to turn an obsession into an income.

Finally installed at NME, he teeters on the poacher/gamekeeper tightrope, dating to a rock star. His American-raised younger brother, Daniel, later became a rock star too, as lead guitarist for Interpol; Kessler engineer “the other side of nepotism”. It occurs to him at some point that “pop” music was an obvious substitute for this absent father: shaping him, supporting him in myriad ways.

Although there are several episodes here in which lions-scribes are led by donkey-publishers, Paper cuts: How I Destroyed the British Music Press and Other Misadventures is rich in musical colors too. A long-time acolyte of Paul Weller, Kessler ends up being consulted by the man himself on the direction of an album. With typical charm, Mark E Smith of the fall, asks him if he is a Jew or a Nazi. Kessler has his hand on the helm during the heady years of Britpop and a big filmed falling out with Radiohead. He spends a lot of time in Cuba (with Black Grape and Manic Street Preachers). It’s all told with self-mockery and dry humor, listing the wrong turns and missteps while detailing the absurd and joyous surreality of being behind the curtain, seeing the pop levers move.

The author’s younger brother, Daniel Kessler of Interpol. Photography: Rick Kern/Getty Images

It’s worth gently pondering the death of the music journalism narrative for a moment, though. Old commands change, giving way to new ones, in all creative industries. There is still plenty of passionate and educated writing about music, as Kessler notes. Throughout the Anglosphere, the chronicle is done from digital platforms to the New Yorker. Kessler now edits the New Cue, efficiently Q in the form of an e-mail newsletter. Articulated romantics tend to loudly decry what has been lost, especially if there are editors and publishers willing to commission them to do so, which tends to amplify this fate. Other endangered species do not receive the same media megaphone.

It’s tiring, though, to keep that eyebrow raised. Creating deranged romance is the stuff that musicians and their symbiotes run on: there’s so much of it here. Who, for example, could have ever foreseen that Paul Heaton (the Housemartins, the Beautiful South) would personally give Kessler £35,000 of his own money, to be divided among all the Q employees and freelancers who were suddenly out of breath?

Paper Cuts: How I Destroyed Britain’s Music Press and Other Misadventures by Ted Kessler is published by White Rabbit (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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