Rags and Mags 

Why Britain's magazines kick the arse of America's

A recent letter to the editor in Venus, a feminist rawk fanzine, ran the touching letter of a budding Kathleen Hanna droid: I just want to say thank you for writing this 'zine. I am currently having major issues with Rolling Stone. The lack of respect and attention they give to women's music and independent music in general is now becoming clear to me. It's a hard thing to realize, considering I have been getting Rolling Stone for six or seven years now..."

Rolling Stone's sucky, you say? Well wake up and smell the Tommy Girl Mist, Ashley. The spawn of Wenner hasn't been vital since somewhere in the mid '80s, at which time Spin stepped in and tried to fill the void. Too bad it failed. Now, both are sadly nothing more than racing forms for the TRL derby.

It's no secret that American music mags bite. Many smaller publications have tried to pick up the slack, many with oversized egos that don't match their output (CMJ, Magnet, The Big Takeover) or bad writing (Zero takes the cake for this). Punk Planet is moving along quite admirably, although it still insists on filling a third of its pages with bore-o commentary from Maximum Rock 'n' Roll wannabes. There are a few great indies: the folkie No Depression and youth-oriented Vice. But true music aficionados know that if they really want a good magazine, they have to turn to the Brits. In England, music magazines seem to be written with the music lover in mind, not advertisers or record labels -- most notably Wire and Mojo.

Wire is great -- pretentious and masturbatory, but great. It focuses on the avant- garde and experimental, with underground hip-hop and cerebral electronica thrown in for good measure. No big American magazine would put "laptop revolutionary" Kid606 on the cover. It gives all fans of John Zorn a major chubbie, complete with pages and pages of reviews, several features, and something called "Invisible Jukebox." This is where someone from Wire sits down with someone like Mike Patton, Ritchie Hawtin, or Fred Frith and plays them assorted cuts which they must then try and identify -- sort of an "I'll show you my knowledge if you show me yours" for the arcane.

Mojo though -- damn. Mojo is so far in the howse it's in the basement. A recent issue had a cover feature on the rise and fall of Michael Jackson, an article about the making of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, plus features on Black Flag, Cream, and soundtrack guru John Barry. "All Back to My Place" asks musicians what their all-time favorite records are, as well as asking them the dorky British question, "What are you currently grooving to?" Virtually half of the issue is devoted to record reviews. The writing is fantastic, when it doesn't get too hung up on narrative detail. It does favor a certain crusty taste (the Band, Dylan, and the Stones), which means it loves what they've dubbed "Americana"-- Wilco, Ryan Adams, and Lucinda Williams.

Recently, though, Mojo has undergone some minor changes. The dimensions of the magazine have shrunk, for one thing. Kind of a bummer. They also seem to be cranking out more special issues, like Mojo Collector, which are oh so tempting and hook you every time, yet usually a waste of money. They released a special issue last month, a shiny new penny winking up from the gutter for us list-junkies: Mojo 1000, The Ultimate CD Buyers Guide. This appeals on two levels. First, losers who don't know shit about music can now amass a collection that Mojo deems worthy, thereby compelling all attractive, single women within Alameda County to suddenly grow a bit randy for their willy. Two, the wanky snoot-snoot can shuffle through Mojo's picks and remark on already owning that record, and that one, and that one ... and oh dear, they picked that one?

But really... they picked that one? Green by REM? Floodland by the Sisters of Mercy? 1984 by Van Halen? They have the perennial "must haves" in there, of course: Tapestry by Carole King, Horses by Patti Smith, Music from Big Pink by the Band -- and some interestingly agreeable surprises, like the Dictators' Go Girl Crazy!, the Pixies' Surfer Rosa, and the Cocteau Twins' Treasure. But why on earth pick Hysteria over Pyromania for Def Leppard, or Songs from the Big Chair over The Hurting from Tears for Fears? It's not until you see that they only picked Nirvana's In Utero that you really start to question the whole idea. The introduction says "This isn't designed to be a list of the greatest albums of all time, but it is guaranteed to vastly improve any record collection in the known universe." So Mojo has sunk to the level of printing up a list of any old stuff, a list that us suckers will shell out $12 American dollars for.

Of course, we'd gladly do it again and again, because their dreck is still better than our best.

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