NME Created an Indie Scene Out of Thin Air in 2002 and Made It Stick

Former NME mag staff tell us how how they made so many people care about The Strokes, The Libertines and other "The bands".

by Alexandra Pollard; illustrated by Joel Benjamin
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Nov 27 2017, 1:18pm

Somehow 15 years have passed since VICE arrived in London and the editors would have to push piles of magazines around the city asking pubs to please take them. Since then we've grown, conceiving tiny content babies that have grown into leading industry voices (see us, here – Noisey – recklessly tooting our own horn). To mark this anniversary, this week VICE UK is throwing a bunch of events and we're running a series of content about a time in British music that most of us shouldn't, but weirdly do, struggle to remember.

The Osbournes were every week’s juiciest news story. A weekly ringtone chart was the best indicator of the hottest new music. The cover was basically a conveyer belt of dudes with big hair and pointy shoes (except for that time Kylie was on it) and a headline asked in earnest, “What is emo?” This was NME in 2002.

Fifteen years ago, NME found itself in something of a transitional period. Coming out of what Peter Robinson – Popjustice editor and an NME contributor at the time – calls “the arse-end of Britpop,” and as the turn of the millennium dampened the UK’s love of dance music, the magazine had to find something new to get excited about. Luckily they found The Strokes and The Libertines, and – according to then-editor Conor McNicholas – “created a scene out of thin air.” For anyone following music which actually felt exciting, NME stood at the centre of that scene and became a definitive voice for the culture they were reporting on. Since we’re looking back all week on 2002 as the year that birthed VICE UK, we asked some of NME’s key players what it was like working there at the time – from going to a chippy with Oasis to bumping into The Libertines in the pub – and why the magazine meant so much.

Conor McNicholas – Editor

In 2002, we owned the scene completely. If you look at the sales of NME, there’s a long slow curve of downward sales from 1964. But there are two blips where they increased – ‘77 to ’78, when NME had finally jumped on the punk bandwagon, and ‘02 to ’05. It happened for us in a way that it didn’t happen with indie in the 80s or Britpop in the 90s, and the difference was that we owned the scene. Britpop was owned as much by the tabloids as by NME – the whole Blur vs Oasis thing – whereas we owned a scene that nobody else could get inside. You suddenly had Kasabian, Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs, Kings Of Leon, The Killers, this explosion of really fucking great music, and nobody else could really understand what was going on, because it was based in the live experience. People say to me, ‘Oh you were so lucky, because you had such a great scene, great bands and stuff.’ We fucking built that scene. It doesn’t appear by itself.

I ran it as a very visual paper. I basically said, ‘I’m not interested in putting anybody into the magazine who doesn’t have good hair and good shoes’. It doesn’t matter how good the music is, I can’t get excited about a band that doesn’t look good. When Franz Ferdinand turned up at the end of 2002, they had fucking great hair and brilliant shoes. That conversation that we’d had with record industries, the signals that we’d put out, record labels knew if they wanted to get into NME they needed to look fucking great. Putting that filter in place suddenly got bands like Kasabian rocking up. Whether it meant anything didn’t matter, because you’ve suddenly got something to write about.

The idea of starting work at 10AM is just nuts now, but that’s what we had to do because most of them had been out the night before. You’d look at the gig listings, send out emails to PRs with minutes’ notice and they’d get you on the guest list. Then you’d get cabs bouncing from one gig to another, and then all pile into the Marathon Bar in Camden afterwards. It was like living in some kind of rock and roll theme park. But the office could be a really brutal environment. I brought in very brilliant journalists and editors who just crash and burned, because you can get rejected pretty fucking quickly. Some people are allowed into the clique, some people aren’t. It is incredibly intimidating to walk over to the office stereo and put something on that everybody is going to listen to. That’s the fucking job. If you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be on the paper to begin with.

Sylvia Patterson – Freelance writer

I was completely freelance in 2002 and precariously so, because I’d already “resigned” in a colossal huff in 2001 [over a mag cover with the word “Miami” spelled out over a disembodied woman’s tits]. My role was just to go ‘on assignment’ when asked. I was already someone from the olden days by then, so there was very much a new-generation feel to the NME at that time. The editorial staff had a foaming obsession, understandably enough, with The Strokes, the White Stripes and the Libertines, all of whom they were determined to turn into heartland NME bands. But it all seemed a bit desperate to me, this going on and on and on about the bands they now deemed ‘cool’. I was asked to interview John Lydon and was issued with a list of questions from the-powers-that-were, on specifically what he thought about The Strokes and the White Stripes, “because that would be very useful for us”. This was Johnny bleedin’ Rotten, who might have had something interesting to say about, I dunno, humanity itself! I was duly sick all down my cleavage and returned to the ongoing huff.

I do remember having a good laugh with Oasis that year. We were in Aberdeen with Liam ‘n Noel for a cover story, in the lounge of a tartan-wallpapered, comedy-Scottish hotel. Liam had eschewed posho hotel fayre for a bag of chips ‘n gravy he’d bought nearby, saying he’d been “mithered” by the local kids “who probably thought I was Gareth Gates”. Noel was on blistering form, decimating the culture of 2002, the newly dominant forces being reality TV, Heat magazine, celeb culture generally and TV talent shows especially, which had now redefined the mainstream that Oasis and the 90s rock ‘n’ roll nutters no longer occupied. “Ordinary, fookin’ talentless idiots from Tesco with a lisp or celebrity cunts in the jungle,” he harrumphed.

For me personally, 2002 was the end of an era. And possibly the end of the spirit of the NME as I’d known it, through the late 70s, 80s and 90s. It was time for a new era, for a new generation, a new voice. Let’s call it the VICE era.

Alex Needham – Associate editor

My start at NME more or less coincided with The Strokes putting out their first single, so we pounced on them. It seemed like something that was in NME’s wheelhouse, but also they were self-evidently fantastic straight from the get go. But it’s hard to base a magazine around just one band, so there was a lot of scratching around for other things we could cover as well. People were into all sorts of music in the office, and we were a bit more experimental in our range. Kylie was on the cover, because “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” had been a huge hit, and there are some records in every genre that are just so good everyone likes them. Not everyone made it though. Casey Spooner from Fischerspooner phoned me up and said, “Who do I have to blow to get on the cover?” They never did get on the cover, so draw your own conclusions.

I remember going for a drink with James Endeacott on the last day of work before Christmas 2002, and Pete Doherty and Carl Barat from The Libertines turned up having signed to Rough Trade that day, in quite a spangled state as you would expect. They would have been quite embryonic then, before the album, but they were exciting. It was a pub in Gray’s Inn Road. I can’t remember much about it to be honest, I was probably in nearly as bad a state as they were.

Peter Robinson – Contributing editor

Around 2002, Conor McNicholas was talking about a relaunch and mentioned an idea that would involve a weekly interview page – this became Peter Robinson VS, which ran for nearly a decade and generally involved me being rude to musicians, which seemed funnier at the time than it does today. I think the fact that every week they’d find someone willing to subject themselves to me being a fucking idiot says a lot about how important NME still felt in those days – it was worth the risk for a page in the mag.

It’s strange to think now that in 2002, you could still pick up a magazine and it would be the first place you’d read about a new band, or know if someone was releasing new music. In 2002, it was still possible to break news and surprise people in a weekly magazine; obviously in 2017 it’s barely even possible to do that in a daily newspaper.

Much as I couldn’t personally have really given two fucks about the White Stripes or The Libertines or whoever, that period of NME was a great example of a magazine feeling as if it was right at the very heart of a really exciting scene. I suppose there was more space and time to go out, get wankered and deal with the hangovers.

Anthony Thornton – NME.com editor

We were just making it up as we went along. It felt like we were trying to get the spirit of the 1970s, where there were no rules and we could do what we liked. We were out every night and pulling 15-hour days, but it was the right time to be there. We were absolutely rabid, so when something big was happening we would follow it completely.

I’d be out four or five nights a week, probably seeing about three or four bands a night, possibly at two or three venues. There were lots of secret gigs around then. We were still expected to be in the office the next day. I kind of had a rhythm, rolling in at 1, 2, 3AM and still having to be back at the desk. You just got on with it I guess.

In 2002, The Libertines were my big one. I saw them at Camden Barfly supporting The Vines as part of the NME 50th anniversary tour, and they were so great that I took the day off to go and see them again in Bristol a couple of days later. They came dancing through the audience, and you just knew they were gonna be special. And that kicked it off for me and The Libertines. I started hanging with them a lot more.

There was this idea that NME was a consensus and we were all agreed – it was very much the opposite. When The Streets came in, half the office went, “This is the greatest thing ever”, and half said, “I don’t get it, is this a joke?” Everybody cared an awful lot, and would fight for what they believed was right. There were office stereo wars where people would get up and, whatever was playing, they’d chuck it across the room. It was a great place to work – you had music all the time, you got free music and gig tickets and you went out most nights and got to spend the whole day talking about, and arguing about, music. It would be difficult for it not to be great, really.

You can find Alexandra thinking about her old copies of NME on Twitter, and see more of Joel's illustration work on Instagram.

This article is part of VICE UK’s 15th anniversary series, presented by VANS