Sitting around with your mates moaning about how magazines aren’t as good they used to be – it’s almost a national sport in this country for men of a certain age. It’s all about the supposed ‘heyday’ of the NME and how amazing it was back when there were four weekly music magazines in the UK; about how brilliant Select was back in the day and “didn’t the Observer magazine actually used to run things that you wanted to read of a Sunday”? What a perpetual disappointment it is, logging all the wrong turns that magazines make – your magazines, those ones that you’re stupidly loyal to. Several pints later the argument ends up about how much better you’d do it had you just got A) the time, B) the inclination and C) a huge conglomerate willing to put your crazed pub bore ramblings and deranged beer-mat doodlings out and onto the shelves of into WHSmiths in Swindon train station. Annoyingly, it’s just that last point that eludes me…
As a lifelong magazine junkie, I now find myself increasing drawn towards American magazines. For starters, there is a massive plus in that you are a lot less likely to be confronted by waffle about whoever you’re supposed to care about this week, be it Joe Lean & The Jing Jang Jong or the bloke from Bloc Party (that’s got to be a good thing). For seconds, music magazines over there are allowed to conduct themselves with a level of intelligence much closer to our broadsheet press. Rolling Stone, always a political animal, has just put Barack Obama on the cover (they did the same for John Kerry and Howard Dean in the last Presidential election, not that that really helped). Their main politics correspondent, Matt Taibbi, is a man so forthright and forceful in his opinions, he’d make the good Dr Thomson blush – someone well worth following if you’re vaguely interested in reading about the labyrinthine, murky world of American government alongside your above average Britney Spears off-the-rails cover story. Another favourite is LA based freebie, Arthur, which has long flown the freak flag for nu-folkers, doom metal heads and acid eaters the world over. The fact that Arthur is still here is a something of a miracle of bloody minded determination – when the magazine was folded a while back, head honcho Jay Babcock bought it from the publisher and forged on, creating the ultimate 21st century free press success story (the magazine and back issues are distributed online as a free PDFs).
Chicago based Stop Smiling is the best magazine out there that you’ve never heard of yet. For reasons I’ve yet to understand, you don’t see this magazine in British newsagents or even in Borders. Tagged as “the magazine for high mind lowlifes”, Stop Smiling has been a labour of love for its editors, JC Gabel and James Hughes, for over a decade now. Their editorial approach is best described as “if you don’t ask you don’t get”. Printed in colour with a textured matte finish, each issue of Stop Smiling is whip smart and uncynical, a lesson in how to keep your head when everything else around you is dumbing down. The last few years have seen them run exhaustive cover story interviews with the likes of Lee Hazlewood, Jay Z, William Eggleston, Cat Power, The RZA, Kurt Vonnegut, Ricky Gervais, Christopher Hitchens, Bruce Robinson & Lynne Ramsey (if that sounds like a lot of magazines, they print as many as 3 different covers for each issue, often covering a load of different audience bases). Their recent Stax Records 50th anniversary issue was labelled “An Ode To The South” and was just that – everyone from the Kings Of Leon to the Mayor of New Orleans came to the party. This is also a magazine that hasn’t forgotten the art of a great cover shot – it came wrapped in a picture of the Stax record store in Memphis, all fizzing neon, proudly displaying the slogan ‘Soulsville USA’. If that was the Guardian Weekend magazine you were picking up, you’d be convinced you’d died and gone to some kind of magazine heaven.
The latest issue of Stop Smiling, a Jazz special, just arrived in my letter box. The covers are alternate classic black and white photos of Ornette Coleman, Bobby Hutcherson & Eric Dolphy. It’s like being walked through the aisles of a great specialist record shop by people who know what they’re talking about. An article about Sun Ra and Moondog (“Costuming The Super Anti Hero”) brilliantly cuts to the chase by focusing mainly on their clothes. The cover strap line is a bold as brass commandment – “Start Appreciating America’s Greatest Art Form”. Can you imagine Uncut holding off from someone from the pantheon of acceptable old duffers that they rely on and doing that instead? Hopefully, one day someone will collect together back issues of this magazine and put them in a book. That day, people will look at it and wonder where it’s been all their lives. Get the jump on them early by seeking it out now, you won’t regret it.
Robin Turner, Socialism Magazine