"I've read better introductions..."
You'd think that as clearsighted a truthsheet as the NME would've had a very good reason for inflicting on itself and its readers the nervestretch trauma of compiling and publishing as huge and controversial a thing as an ALL Time Top 100, wouldn't you? An anniversary, a promotional campaign, or something? Well, think again...
No, this whole thing came about because this paper is edited, written, illustrated and produced by a bunch of what the hippest sociologists nowadays refer to as Opinionated Bastards.
Hence no record or tape can occupy the office's steam-driven stereo without someone floating "not as good as their last one" into the air. And two hours later, hunched over lunch, another voice will add "nor is it as good as Honkin' Dick Tinkleybonk's Live At The San Marco," and before you can say "never heard of it, cloth-ears" an escalating war of parrot cage babble, of none-too-humble opinion, accusations and recriminations is in runaway progress.
From these exhausting bouts of coffee-fuelled verbal karate, the idea for an NME Top 100 poll (with you, our equally vociferous parishioners, having your say in the New Year) was born.
Of course, a mere list cannot begin to capture the artistry, endeavour, humour, longing, anguish and anger (and, yes, the snake-eyed greed) that lethally combine to produce the irresistible fascinating I disgusting mindwarp we shorthand "pop." So NME's Top 100 isn't a tablet of stone to be pored over and committed to reverent memory. Rather it's a huge dollop of, first and foremost, great music, but also a morn for excitement, alarm, reminiscence, prediction, anger and Euromountains of arguments, which is where we came in...
Before looking at the drama that lies behind the bare cyphers that jostle for attention over the page, the guilty ones must be named! So if you're having to chain munch tranquilisers because The Armoured Organ's epochal HM blitzkrieg Naked Nubiles, Infinite Decibels And Backstreet Lobotomy (Shitshovel Records, 1983) is conspicuous by its absence, the following are the people to blame...
In all, 32 souls proved crazy enough to participate in the construction of this edifice. The numeral after their name is the chart position occupied by their top choice, their favourite record of all time. Step forward, thee with red faces (where appropriate)...
Len Brown (10), Bleddyn Butcher (8), Cath Carroll (whose ultimate choice, Aretha's The First Twelve Sides, didn't make the 100), Richard Cook (likewise Scott Walker's Climate Of Hunter), Stuart Cosgrove (1), Fred Dollar (11), Joe Ewart (81), Dessa Fox (10), Andy Gill (29), Paolo Hewitt (50), Barney Hoskyns (Various: 20 Deep Soul Ballads Vol I), Jo Isotta (The Best Of Ella Fitzgerald), Danny Kelly (1), Biba Kopf (101, see auxiliary chart), William Leith (Was Not Was), Gavin Martin (32), Graham Lock (2), Roy Carr (51), Charles Shaar Murray (50), Sean O'Hagan (1), Ian Pye (1), David Quantick (33), Penny Reel (2), Cynthia Rose (30), Mat Snow (11), Neil Spencer (77), David Swift (13), Adrian Thrills (23), Steven Wells (Help, by Bradford hardcore insurrectionists The Beatles), Karen Walter (94), Don Watson (18), and last, and a contender for least, Simon Witter, who sprung a major surprise with a previously unhinted-at predeliction for the Sex Pistols' ...Bollocks over a widely predicted championing of 20 Breakdance Brainstormers From Cameo Or At Worst Someone Who Sound Very Like Cameo (Sixquidasingle Records, 1984).
Each of those scanned the darkest recesses of their record collection and compiled a list of faves from 1 to 50. I, landed — through a selection process not dissimilar to Russian roulette — with the task of organising NME's collective passions into some kind of easily absorbable shape, sat back content. Dead easy this, I thought. I was wrong.
Several sleepless nights tater, nights spent in unarmed combat with an ever-growing A4 avalanche, I was left surveying first the blisters on my biro hand and the spidery scrawl, paper clips and filing wallets in which I found myself knee deep. An abacus-numbing one thousand and five different selected LPs (the work of 533 artists or groups, a swarm) takes a lot of tabulating!
The 100 Greatest Records Ever Made?
Question: What do soul giants Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and Michael Jackson, rock monsters The Who, Led Zeppelin, and U2, and perceived NME pets The Fall, Scott Walker and Wire have in common?
Answer: They've all failed to secure a niche in the Top 100 LPs. This is an indication they share with, among numerous other surprising boatmissers, Echo And The Bunnymen, Credence Clearwater Revival, Can, The Cramps, The Four Tops, New Order, Paul McCartney, Sam Cooke, The Byrds, Robert Wyatt, Prince, T Rex...
Conclusion: Once past the chart's immediately absorbable truths (that there's a good balance of black and white musics, that it reflects a commendable distaste for most manifestations of willie-waving old grunge rock, and that somebody quite likes Elvis Costello) the intriguing thing is not those who made the cut, but those who missed out. These poor creatures left confined to the outer darkness fall into one of two categories...
The first of these concerns those who failed for the very good reason that nobody wanted the bleeders. That the combined total points for people whose pasts have been strewn with great music (say, The Who, The Kinks, The Byrds, and Can) could be counted on the fingers of one foot is a source of some consternation. However, this mood can be somewhat lightened by reflecting that some individuals with egos the size of South American republics — y'know, Durans, Spandaus, Zeppelins, Copelands, people like that — did as well, but no better than, The Lambrettas, Judge Dread, Plastic Bertrand, Hazel O'Connor, Rolf Harris and The Roaring Boys!
At least Rolf Harris could argue that he was primarily a singles artist!
"What the hell happened to Sun Ra?"
The other kind of non-appearance in the final shakedown of the 100 is altogether different. Put simply, the problem is that certain very important acts, ones generally believed certainties to figure in any poll, have been denied that place by what the Panorama programme would talk about as Untactical Voting.
If someone has two or three or more excellent records to their credit, the votes may be spread over these competing discs, thus ensuring that none of them is eventually done justice. The trick, posterity seekers, is to make just one outstanding LP and then surf the resulting tidal wave of cred-boosting votes in polls like this. Bands who particularly benefitted from this include Television, The Clash, Sex Pistols, Dexys, and the Gang Of Four.
Obvious victims of this kink in an otherwise fairly satisfactory system included Steely Dan (whose available support was divided among 4 LPs), Howlin' Wolf (4) Duke Ellington (4), Randy Newman and Sun Ra (4 each), Billie Holiday (6), and the wonderful and frightening Fall (5). The injustice cuts deep with passionate supporters and it was Andy Gill who, after sighting of the list, spent two hours circling the office emitting a ghostly monotone drone that demanded "What the hell happened to Sun Ra?"
Bob Marley, in a set of circumstances about as likely as a fortnight passing without a full length TV documentary about Pete Townshend, had ten different LPs receive support, with the sadly inevitable consequences. Therefore, in a bid to rectify the Looking Glass distortion involved, a table is reproduced below showing the total points gathered by the front runners. Roxy Music, you will note for instance, managed to gamer the heavy-duty kudos of having a hat-trick of their LPs in the chart with only 75 per cent of the points gained by Bob Marley. Just shows the value of going to a decent university, eh?
This table will also, hopefully, reassure those who adamantly refuse to believe that famous Rayban model and Pogues courtesan Elvis Costello, could have got no less than five LPs (one more than nearest chart-swamping rivals Bob Dylan and David Bowie) into tho Ton without recourse to skullduggery. But corruption, or tampering with the sacred path of pop history are not EC's style, as Andy Gill discovered while attempting to buy one of Costello's slots for some old black guy in a tinfoil suit.
About time (One)
The bulk of the NME's chosen few are from the '70s. Obvious that realty, as it's the first decade completed that's been swamped in LPs. The most productive year is, by some considerable distance, 1977, which provided 14 records in the 100; The Clash (at number 14), Marquee Moon (5), Never Mind The Bollocks... (13), Low (15), Solid Gold (17), Trans-Europe Express (38), Rocket To Russia (49), Heroes (63), Lust For Life (71), Leave Home (76), Talking Heads '77 (82), Forward On To Zion (93), My Aim Is True (94) and Suicide (99).
1980 was the next busiest year on the classics production front (with a crop of post-punks bigwigs. including Dexys, the Banshees, Suicide, Joy Division, Magazine the Gang Of Four and, inevitably, Costello) but trails limping along with a mere eight. It should worry! 1981 apparently produced no records suitable for the NME's Top 100. Elvis must've been on his hols!
About time (Two)
This is not the first time that the NME has hung out its favourite shirts in public. The same exercise, 100 Best LPs, was published in June 1974 and comparisons between the two are fascinating.
Even allowing for the fact that the '74 Poll was conducted before both punk and the growing awareness of Third World music had stiffened the critical sinew towards rock music that bought its trousers by the acre, it's hard not to be just a little astonished at some of the drivel lurking in it.
Jethro Tull (the singing Growbag), Yes (pre-Trevor Horn), James Taylor's vinyl anaesthetic, the Pink Floyd LP that always sounded like they wore rubber gloves recording it, yes, they're all here. And lurking in the equal (?) number one spot, a full seven years after the joke wasn't funny anymore, is The Beatles' Exocet to the very heart of rock music, the stupendously over-rated and ultimately damaging Seargeant Pepper's... . Oh well, we all make mistakes.
There's a lot of great soul music missing from the 1974 poll, and the pill-deadened whine of American singer/songwriters is pretty persuasive, but about great rock records it's remarkably sussed and a very healthy 30 of them have survived into the new NME 100.
Indeed, eight records (The Velvets' White Light, Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home, the Robert Johnson compilation, Sly's Riot, Love's Forever Changes, Morrison's Astral Weeks, Aretha's Hits LP and Lennon's self-disgusted rail against everybody and everything bar Yoko Ono) have obviously improved with age, all going from lowly or middling positions in '74 to respectability or better today. 'The Plastic Ono Band' has improved its standing a small matter of 67 places!
The traffic goes both ways, though, and no less than half of '74's Top 20 LPs have fallen completely from grace. But special awards for consistency must go to Dylan's Highway '61, up one place in 12 years, and to The Impressions' Big 16, which seems quite content with its number 51 slot!
Perhaps the oddest thing about the two charts is that today's contains 14 records recorded before 1974 that didn't make the earlier poll. What's Going On is one of them, and as the majority of the rest are either jazz, soul or reggae, their reappropriation demonstrates a shift away from a purely rock priority. No bad thing; I'll swap Dark Side Of The Moon for The Cream Of Al Green without much argument.
But maybe, devoid of peculiar context and flavour of a given time, these comparisons are stupid. Music keeps changing, and the '85 Top 100 contains three LPs released in the last 12 months (it would probably have been four if Psychocandy had been a fortnight earlier). You can't help wondering whether, in ten or 12 years' time, the NME (by then a computerised video show, entirety financed by selling review copies of LPs) will look back at today's effort, all pink-faced and gleaming, and find it a strange an grubby little urchin indeed...
That's that for another ten years
Questions like that last one illustrate perfectly the beauty of a chart like this. It's at once intensely important and matter of the most profound irrelevance.
Much of how our selection will look in the future depends on music itself. If another frisson on the scale of punk were to erupt, then some of this stuff would be scattered, swept away in another traumatic wave of rigorous reappraisal. Any revolution is bound to leave behind casualties. But then, when the storm subsided, and storms always subside, the truly great music would still be recognised. And made, produced to invade the next NME 100.