The rock bible fought for the bands other music weeklies ignored, then outlasted – and outsold – them all. One writer recalls the glory days
In the first decade of the 21st century, the British rock magazine Kerrang! ran a small weekly item called Stimulants. Secreted away at the foot of a page, the piece contained snippets of interest from the previous seven days. Submissions ranged from “a phone call from Ozzy Osbourne” to “alcohol poisoning at the Iron Maiden aftershow party”. Rarely did its revelations trouble the Society editor of the New York Times.
But on the final week of winter in 2002, Stimulants made reference to “The St Valentine’s Day Massacre”. This cryptic allusion was the only public acknowledgement that, as measured by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, Kerrang! had overtaken the lauded and apparently much more respectable New Musical Express to become the highest-selling music weekly in the world. This opaque revelation remains the first and only time the magazine did anything with subtlety.
How long ago that now seems. With the publication furloughed since April but due to return today (July 8), last week came the announcement that, after 39 years and 1,818 issues, Kerrang! has suspended publication. A statement announced that it is the “aim” of the title to return in sunnier times – for now, however, the absence of concerts means greatly diminished advertising revenues, not to mention fewer stories – but for the music business, and its publishing offshoot, the outlook is bleak.
The Covid season has already claimed the scalp of Planet Rock magazine, while at the end of May, Bauer Media Group announced that it was seeking a buyer for Q, one its most prestigious brands. For its part, Kerrang! will continue running new features and reviews on its capable website, a format that may be suited to a young readership that never picked up the habit of picking up a periodical. But for a publication that once sold more than 100,000 copies a week, its absence from the shelves is stark.
Despite these days being internationally renowned as a Person of Influence in the Culture section of The Telegraph, for almost 20 years my byline has besmirched the pages of Kerrang! This didn’t happen by accident; at school, age 14, I took typing classes in the hope of one day contributing to its cause. Back then I recall an advert for an editorial position which stipulated that applicants should know how to spell the name Yngwie J Malmsteen and be aware of the correct placement of the apostrophe in Guns N’ Roses. I thought, “I can do that!”
Eventually, I did. By the time I arrived, in 2000, Kerrang! had become a magazine that wrote about more than metal, a development that suited me just fine. Alongside a litany of talented and tattooed long-hairs, I was given license to ask questions of such artists as Green Day, The Beastie Boys, The White Stripes, Foo Fighters, Kings of Leon, Manic Street Preachers, Primal Scream and more. The ruling on what constituted “a K! band” transcended genre: if you played loud and hard, you were in.
The identity of Kerrang! – then and now, that of the underdog – was forged in the 1980s. Despite granting front-page stories to both Phil Collins and Prince (true fact), it was a magazine for headbangers. It housed a two-page gossip column called View From The Bar that contained scurrilous vignettes about a scene in which I longed to play a part. Its features section was the only place a mullet-haired schoolboy like me could read about revolutionary forces such as Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer. (There was also a load of tousled-haired pop-metal rubbish, but you can’t have everything.)
Kerrang! wrote about the kind of blue-collar groups that others wouldn’t, at least until they became too popular to ignore. Many months before Appetite For Destruction became one of the biggest hits of the decade, in 1987 the magazine placed Guns N’ Roses on its front cover and labeled them “The Most Dangerous Band in the World”. In the video for Paradise City, the musicians can be seen backstage at the Monsters of Rock festival at Donington Park, reading about themselves in a different issue. The demand to see the Americans that afternoon resulted in a crush that left two people dead.
From 1991, Metallica sold 31 million copies of their eponymously titled fifth LP (known to all as “The Black Album”). But seven years earlier, Kerrang! featured the group on its front page, despite them having played only two UK concerts, both at the Marquee Club. The kindness wasn’t forgotten – K! was given world exclusives for the San Franciscans’ last three studio albums. Similarly, Green Day handed the British weekly the scoops on their two most recent records, in the face of entreaties from Rolling Stone.
But despite its influence, Kerrang! revelled in an outsider chic fostered in the days when being a metalhead was like being a leper. In the early 1980s, it was permissible for condescending journalists to dismiss an entire genre of music as being worthless, and to portray as stupid anyone who listened to it. Fans of heavy metal, wrote Mary Harron in a piece for The Guardian in 1980, “didn’t want to be challenged or disrupted. They longed for the days when you could sit in passive reverence in a concert hall and listen to a 20-minute guitar solo.”
In the face of such palpable nonsense, is it any wonder that an emerging generation of misrepresented and maligned metalheads viewed the advent of Kerrang! as something akin to an emergency service? Here was a magazine so certain of its own authority that its name came with a free exclamation mark. Its writers were many things – quarrelsome, drunk, occasionally brilliant, sometimes semi-literate – but they were never embarrassed by their beat. Even when they should have been, they weren’t.
I was working in a bookshop in the City of London when I got my first commission. The features editor asked me what kinds of bands I liked, to which I replied that I preferred newer groups rather than old-stagers such as Iron Maiden. “You’ve just ruled yourself out of a trip to interview Maiden in Seattle,” he said. I assumed this was a joke, but it wasn’t. He sent me to Los Angeles instead.
For my second gig, I was offered the chance to speak with Nine Inch Nails in New Orleans. I had 32 hours until the flight. I went to the bookshop and told the manager that I was leaving with immediate effect. Despite being hopeless at my job, he replied that he wasn’t sure whether this was permissible. I remember thinking, “Yeah, you’re not really getting this, are you. I’m going to the Big Easy. I’ve realised my life’s ambition. I now write for Kerrang!”
In ways that matter to me, this sense of wonder has never really abated. On an early-day job in Colchester, the magazine’s best photographer extended the greeting “welcome to the family”. And that’s what it was, a drunken and adorably dysfunctional family. The office was like a clubhouse at which people gathered to hang out. Noontime feature briefings took place in the pub. I just can’t tell you how much fun it was.
I guess it came down to what might very loosely be described as class. The K! crew tended to be the sons and daughters of miners, builders and lightermen; like me, most did not hold university degrees. Across the river in Waterloo, the staff at the NME – at which I spent a lonely and miserable 18 months – spoke with the softer accents of people who knew they were on a conveyer belt to the broadsheets. By comparison, Kerrang! was an insurgency. We were like the Bash Street Kids.
But as the new century blossomed, so too did the quality of the magazine. Emerging groups such as Tool and Rammstein provided superior music, while a second generation of journalists filed better copy. The pictures were sharp and the layout was clean. Speaking clearly, Kerrang! played a crucial role in breaking acts such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Offspring, Queens of the Stone Age, Gaslight Anthem and Muse.
We didn’t always play nice. Following an unflattering profile of Disturbed, the group’s front man, “Mad” Davey Draiman, told Metal Hammer magazine that he would “beat [me] within an inch of [my] life and gladly serve the prison sentence”. After writing up an altercation with Nickelback in Philadelphia, the group’s singer, Chad Kroeger, challenged me to a boxing match from the stage at every date of the group’s 2002 UK arena tour. I’m proud to say that my article set the tone for years of widespread press derision of the Canadian rockers.
Others were more direct still. Affronted by a news story, The Wildhearts arrived at the magazine’s office armed with baseball bats, with which they caused £2,000 worth of damage. Even the fun could get out of hand. At the annual Kerrang! Awards – face-down the music industry’s favourite night out – Slipknot upended their table before becoming the targets of a food fight that resulted in the actor Britt Ekland breaking her leg.
I realise now that we were catching the final rays of the record industry’s golden age. Over the course of a dozen years, I was dispatched to the United States on more than 130 occasions. I flew to Los Angeles three times in a single month. I saw Metallica play a song in the locker room of the Dallas Cowboys. Mouth agape, I watched Slayer rehearse in Anaheim. This was life on Planet Kerrang! – is it any wonder that we all lived in a state of perpetual adolescence?
In 2004, I went once more to California to listen to American Idiot, the then-forthcoming album from Green Day; with more than 15 million sales to its credit, this transcendent blockbuster would be the last mega-platinum smash of the rock age. Three years later, the squeeze on sales of music in physical form began in earnest. In the time it took to say “any chance of an upgrade?”, record-company-funded excursions to Tokyo had been usurped by 40-minute interviews from a mobile phone.
But – stop! – dry your eyes. Put away the violins made in Lilliput. Such an egregious assault on the human rights of music journalists was a matter of concern only to the most pampered members of my profession. Elsewhere, the problems facing Kerrang! were existential; the magazine needed to do battle with the challenges of the internet age. Instead it chose to embark on a remarkable six-year orgy of self-sabotage that metastasised into a reign of terror.
Under the editorship of James McMahon, from 2011 Kerrang! began the long process of burning through the vast reservoirs of good will felt toward it from the music industry at large. Dedicated workers left in waves. A publication that appointed its first female editor decades before the NME followed suit, K! became the subject of its own disturbing #MeToo moment after a member of staff publicly revealed evidence of coercion and abuse from a fellow employee. To put it at its most benign, eyebrows were raised regarding the culture of the place.
As well as this, the magazine turned into a mess. Once striking and bold, its look began to resemble an explosion in a vomit factory. Its tone became giddy and shrill; no longer irreverent and funny, the editorial line shrank to a hollow and needy subservience. At its best K! was the older brother or sister that carefully curated music for the delectation of its younger siblings, a job it undertook with authority and care. Now Kerrang! no longer believed in anything, so the readers no longer believed in Kerrang!
It’s a sad irony that under new ownership and a new editor (Sam Coare), the title overcame these profound deficiencies to once more become a world-class weekly. But in the age of the iPhone, periodicals face challenges for which few are equipped. Amid this turbulence, the arrival of a planetary pandemic that strikes at the nerve centre of the music industry itself has brought chaos to the terrain on which Kerrang! remains a dominant force.
I sincerely hope the magazine for which I dreamed of writing when I was a paperboy returns in its original form. But if it doesn’t, I’ll take this opportunity to say “goodbye, old friend” to the traditional iteration of a publication to which my heart will always belong.
Read the full article at The Telegraph here
We regularly find back issues of Kerrang, take a look at what’s in stock today at eil.com here
eil.com – the world’s best online store for rare, collectable & out of print Vinyl Records, CDs & Music memorabilia since 1987