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Morley and Penman. Penman and Morley. Paul Morley and Ian Penman. Ian Penman and Paul Morley. In the world of music journalism, these names have been inextricably linked as a shorthand for a type of writing that took hold in NME in the 1980s. “I got away with writing pretentious bilge of the highest order because it was the Morley/Penman era,” Barney Hoskyns once wrote. The essayist Brian Dillon was intoxicated by it: “I wouldn’t have written a word without the dream, ghost, echo of [Ian Penman’s] writing.” So, is the shorthand fair? Accurate? I’ve always been curious to find out, so I asked Dr. Colm McAuliffe to investigate. Colm is a film curator, producer, lecturer, and writer with a particular interest in how French post-structuralist theory made its way into British writing and thought. He was clearly the obvious person for this feature. I think he did an amazing job of breaking down just how much theory Morley and Penman brought into their work—and what it all meant. Enjoy!
The London summer of 1976 was hard on the nerves. The city was seething with a combination of crisis and rage. The English pound was feeble; inflation was crushing the working classes; the “social contract,” a deal struck by the government with the unions, was pithily re-branded as the “social con-trick”; and the entire country was in the midst of a debilitating heatwave. Everything felt terminal and in decline.
But the music press was a lifeline, a communique of hope. Punk made music writing essential; as bands were increasingly banned from venues and radio airplay, the NME, Melody Maker and Sounds simply had to open their doors to a new breed of music critic. And they did: Julie Burchill, Caroline Coon, Jonh Ingham, Gavin Martin, Tony Parsons—all got their first starts in the autumn of 1976 as London continued to boil.
But it is the writings of Paul Morley and Ian Penman for the NME which have become the most mythologised, to the point where the “Morley and Penman” era is a shorthand for a type of music journalism: frenzied, carnivalesque, an indiscriminate autodidactic bibliomania where Roland Barthes and Georges Bataille rub up against the Human League and the Buzzcocks.
The mythology of their writings borders on the apocryphal. No singular anthology of this era exists, bar Morley’s slightly underwhelming 1986 collection of interviews simply entitled Ask. Indeed, ask (m)any journalists from the contemporary scene as to their thoughts on Morley and Penman and the response is often pretty damning: “I got away with writing pretentious bilge of the highest order because it was the Morley/Penman era,” reflected Barney Hoskyns in In Their Own Write, Paul Gorman’s oral history of the music press. “Pretentious bullshit,” reflects their one-time NME editor Neil Spencer. And even Richard Williams, arguably the most sophisticated music writer of his era, felt that Morley in particular was “good fun but throwing shapes rather than writing anything of substance.”
Nevertheless, the concept of a “Morley and Penman” era relies on atmosphere rather than facts. Simon Reynolds has written movingly about the intoxicating effect of reading their writing as a teenager in suburban Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s; the essayist Brian Dillon confesses that he “wouldn’t have written a word without the dream, ghost, echo of [Ian Penman’s] writing” in his fan letter to Penman. Neither of these pieces were published in the music press; in fact, they appeared in frieze art magazine. Clearly, some of this “bilge” and “pretentious bullshit” was utterly life changing for many of their readers, transcending far beyond the scope of mere music journalism. So, let’s try to eschew the effects for the moment and concentrate on the facts of the Morley and Penman era at the NME.
Paul Morley and Ian Penman wrote about music, and occasionally film, for the NME from 1976-1986. This was a tumultuous ten-year period which included the rise of punk and post-punk, hip-hop and new pop, and the major years of the Margaret Thatcher decade. Morley was born in 1957 in Farnham, Surrey, in the south of England, before moving to the Manchester suburb of Stockport. He was one of the 40 or so who attended the infamous Sex Pistols show at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in the summer of 1976, another near-mythical event whereby every attendee ended up being in a band (Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, Ludus, The Buzzcocks, A Certain Ratio, The Fall, The Stone Roses); becoming a visual artist or photographer (Peter Saville, Malcolm Garrett, Kevin Cummins); or a writer (Morley).
This shock of the new catapulted Morley into creating the fanzine Out There, based upon the punk scene in the north-west of Britain. But it also made Morley realize that music could become about much more than music: this scene activated and ignited the city through culture, allowing it to become something else entirely. His first article for the NME was a tentatively positive review of the Buzzcocks published in the October 2, 1976, edition of the paper. In the same edition, the singles of the week were The Runaways and The Undisputed Truth, the cover stars were Dr. Feelgood and the Sex Pistols, and the big news story was Wings’ announcement of three gigs at Wembley Stadium later that year. In short, the NME was in transition between old and new.
Morley has written voluminously on his life. Nothing, his 2000 biographical reflection on his father’s suicide in 1977, is perhaps the most moving of his many memoirish publications. Information on the life of Ian Penman, on the other hand, is comparatively thin, almost gossamer-like in presence. We can, however, deduce the following: he was born in Wiltshire in 1957, was an army child, and spent much of the 1960s living a peripatetic existence across various RAF air bases: Scotland, Beirut, and Cyprus were among his homes until the family settled in Norfolk in the 1970s. His first music writing was a singles column for a supermarket free sheet. Like Morley, he applied to the NME‘s call for “hip young gunslingers” reporting from the frontline of the punk wars but was passed over—not surprisingly, as his submission was a gleefully positive review of Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece album from 1974, a typically contrary Penman shimmy and shuffle away from the criterion. He was eventually taken on by the NME, though, initially as a “stringer” for the Norfolk region. His first published article in the paper was a live review of a gig by The Only Ones/The Stranglers in late 1977.
Speaking to Pat Long for his oral history of the NME, Penman recalls the early days of his and Morley’s time at the NME: “Paul Morley and I started at about the same time and I remember going to the…offices for the first time,” he recounted, “expecting this glamorous Algonquin Round Table-type of environment and instead it was a fucking dump full of people who were past their best and in some cases in very deep personal trouble hacking away on these typewriters which weighed a tonne and had half the keys missing.”
Morley and Penman were the class of 1977 but earlier factions still existed within the paper’s staff. The demise of the counterculture in Britain in the early part of the decade had freed up the likes of Charles Shaar Murray, Nick Kent, and Ian MacDonald to be adopted by the NME as their contemporary writers du jour. Murray in particular wrote in a hip, hardboiled style which owed as much to Hemingway as it did to New Journalism—itself a vague, often catch-all term—of the early 1970s. “Are you alive to the Jive of ‘75?” ran a famous headline for Murray’s article on the burgeoning punk scene at CBGB in New York. While often lively and irreverent, this form of music journalism was itself often fact-based, earnest in expression, and arguably in thrall to work being done across the Atlantic by CREEM and Rolling Stone; Lester Bangs, for example, was both a contributor and a touchstone to the NME.
Yet by 1976, the dissolute lifestyles of many of these journalists ensured their own myth-making superseded their writing: the “deep personal trouble” alluded to by Penman almost certainly refers to Nick Kent’s torpid heroin addiction. But the style of writing inculcated by Murray and Kent laid the groundwork for Morley and Penman’s own work at the paper. Murray demonstrated a performative form of music journalism which allowed ample space for the first person singular and cultural references from literature and film. Interviews became happenings: in one interview with David Bowie from 1973, Murray confides in the reader how Angie, Bowie’s then-wife, tugs at Murray’s sleeve, imploring the beleaguered journalist to protect Bowie from his adoring fans; two paragraphs later, we’re back at Bowie’s flat in Beckenham, south London, with David, Angie, Zowie Bowie, Mick Ronson, and a host of glittering folk, “eating chicken and drinking wine.” Murray is at the center of it all and the bridge between writer and pop star was blown to pieces.
Yet by 1977, these writers were regarded as indelibly passé. In fact, Morley led a campaign to get rid of Nick Kent, according to then-editor Neil Spencer. The gap between 1975 and 1976 was immense.
Paul Morley’s early favorites for the NME were the Buzzcocks, Magazine, the Prefects, Subway Sect, and Joy Division. He was dismissive of any band that deployed direct political statements in their lyrics, especially The Jam. His first major interviewee was Marc Bolan, with whom he struck up a friendship just before the glam superstar’s ignominious death in west London in 1977. Morley also made early moves in music management, working with Manchester punk band The Drones. Penman was similarly active—albeit in Camden, London—as part of the squat collective from which Scritti Politti emerged in 1978. But Penman’s writing for the NME was far more esoteric in taste. He raved about Can, Aswad, and John Cale; he felt a kinship with the decadence (and political attitudes) of Robert Palmer over the course of a boozy lunch in New York; and was scathing about some of the punk acts. He dismissed X-Ray Spex, for example, as “tedious London’s Slumming self-obsession, too inward for its own good,” while outing the Clash as a “dying myth” as early as 1978.
But by the early part of the 1980s, Morley and Penman found their modes in the interview and the essay format, respectively. Morley, especially, changed after 1980. He became the NME‘s provocateur-in-chief, perfecting the narcissistic impulses hinted at by Murray and Kent. He was the primary advocate of New Pop, showcasing acts like ABC and The Associates, and a style of writing that greatly benefitted from the collision between identity, journalism, and genre. His interviews offered little in the way of critical analysis but plenty in the way of amusing reflection, mainly on himself. Questions were direct, positioned to annoy, and often quite random-seeming: in one interview alone with Adam Ant, the pop star is asked if his showmanship is merely an out-of-hand vanity; if his songs are written purely for the video; what his predictability achieves; why he seem so clenched; what is the point of living; and so on. Morley’s questionnaires became increasingly abrupt throughout the early part of the 1980s, yet he is consistent in searching for some form of authenticity behind the pop stars at the dawn of the decade of style.
The division between interviewer and pop star becomes so blurred that Morley eventually wrote an article for the NME entitled “Who Bridges the Gap Between the Record Executive and The Genius? Me.” Morley, by this point, had become publicity manager for Frankie Goes to Hollywood and the Art of Noise, allowing him to finally cross the media threshold between interviewer and pop star. Criticisms of Morley’s work during this period are vast. According to various detractors, he became narcissistic, impenetrable, unbearable. Neil Spencer is particularly blunt: he claims an interview by Morley with the Grateful Dead lost the paper 20,000 readers; all the while, he deeply regretted letting Morley write with such free reign, as by 1982, it had all become “pretentious bullshit.”
One assumes the alleged pretentiousness refers to Morley’s reputation for referencing obscure theorists in his writing. Yet, in reading the actual texts, this feels overblown. Morley makes sporadic references to the likes of R.D. Laing and David Cooper, but these references are casual, not instructive or didactic, and certainly not central to any of his arguments.
The same, however, cannot be said of Penman. From about 1981, Penman perfected the elusive/illusive prose he still writes today. Penman’s pieces showcase a remarkable clamor: a collision of luxurious sentences, off-beat references, and sophisticated rationale. The end products are essays that sting and seduce. Look, for example, at his 1981 article for the NME on “the song.” “Sheet Music” is a lengthy, schematic account of the “Song” in popular music, gleefully plundering the works of Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva—often without citing the original source. Penman questions how the Song “in the very hold it has upon us, betrays a loose vocabulary, the temptation of a cheap seduction, the passive yielding to fashion”—a direct quotation from Derrida’s Of Grammatology that goes unmentioned in the text.
A few paragraphs later, Penman repeats the trick, wondering whether the Song should be thought of as a “differential network, a fabric of traces referring endlessly to something other than itself” before teasing with “that song you love may emerge from the complement of melody, a moment, a lyrical turn or truancy, a voice delighted and elevated by its lyric (or vice versa), a lyric flattered by disregard, a voice flirting with the dangers of failure, dicing with all number of words that begin with ‘D’…” Penman’s code of appropriation is playful: it plagiarizes but almost reveals the source. It also highlights how the diligent reader can be rewarded: if they independently make the connection between Penman’s quote and the source, it has the effect of proselytizing through the form of a secret clique created between reader and writer with the French theoretical text as the prized contraband.
Penman does mention further sources in his writings: he quotes Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text—“[the] most erotic portion of a body [is] where the garment gapes”—to enhance his approval of the American singer Rickie Lee Jones, and elsewhere references Julia Kristeva’s essay “How Does One Speak To Literature” to support his recently acquired taste for Nick Cave and The Birthday Party. Penman further acknowledges Kristeva at that article’s conclusion, along with his NME colleague Fred Dellar and his own parents’ record collection. These articles provide the most solid foundation for the claims of Morley and Penman’s abstruse discourse in the national music press.
Morley officially ceased writing for the NME in 1983. “I had originally stopped writing about pop music when I was 25 or 26 for the NME because I thought I was too old. And then, much to my surprise, everyone [else] carried on,” he reflected in 2020. Penman was one of those who carried on, but not for too long: he finished up at the NME in 1986 after a final, disastrous interview with the filmmaker Nic Roeg.
Morley reflects on his time at the paper with a certain degree of positivity, arguing in a recent interview with the Irish Times that he “felt that the critic and the journalist in rock and pop was a key part of the thing in explaining and, if you like, inventing the story and the myths which in turn helped the musicians themselves work out what they were.” The rise of the pop journalist was concomitant with the rise of the pop star: neither liked how they were being portrayed and both decided to take control of their respective situations.
While Morley is now a staple of middle-brow British cultural criticism, Penman remains wedded to the margins. After leaving the NME, he largely vanished, only occasionally cropping up as a freelancer for many of the UK’s style magazines—The Face, Tatler, and Arena, for which he wrote a remarkable piece on his own heroin addiction in late 1997. Rumors abounded about a potential film collaboration with director Paul Schrader and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, but it never came to pass. An underwhelming compilation of his writings, Vital Signs, appeared in 1998; ; a far more satisfying collection is It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track, from 2019, which collects his writings on canonical, decadent figures, including Charlie Parker, Elvis Presley, and James Brown. The writing is elegant, measured, and deeply satisfying.
Cultural epithets are often deeply insufficient in describing what they are meant to describe. Morley and Penman are bywords for many things, but a fascination with their work remains constant. Reading over their many articles for the NME, I was struck by how little their writing dovetailed: Penman is much more of a stylist who favored rigor while Morley favored joy. And you know, sometimes they were wrong-headed. Blue Rondo-A-La-Turk, anyone? But who cares whether what they predicted came true or not? That’s not the point. In fact, it’s fun to disagree with these writers: their writings invite disputation.
Morley and Penman did share the ability to dazzle, however, and were equally susceptible to idiosyncracy and excess. And they may be the first music writers to translate all the chaotic, shadowy, fugitive elements of the music writer’s world to the pages of the mainstream music press. In doing so, they muscled up to the challenge of the progressive and the new—punk, post-punk, new pop—with a shimmering inventory of ideas and language. In their writings, high and low brow, popular and unpopular culture, are all parlayed into a pathway out of the terminal, outflanking decline, towards critical incandescence.
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