If there's one thing writers about popular music have always been good at, it's creating myths. We know in our hearts that Woodstock (of whatever vintage) was, in fact, a muddy disaster zone best enjoyed on the telly, and that Jarvis Cocker's "Sorted for E's and Whizz" painted a truer picture of the supposed euphoria of 1988's Summer of Love than a thousand ecstatic memoirs. But it's more romantic to believe the versions passed down through time, where every thump of the bass drum and overwrought power-chord is invested with historical importance. Watch the Woodstock movie, and it's clear that thousands of filthy hippies are asleep, and not even Hendrix's dive-bomb version of "The Star Spangled Banner" can wake them. Yet just a mention that the Vietnam War was at its height at the time, and suddenly we all become characters in Platoon (or, more likely, Tour of Duty, its low-budget, late-night TV equivalent) each time we hear it.
But when rock critics conspire in creating myths about themselves, it's an entirely different matter. The recent film Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe's rose tinted recollections of his days as a junior rock hack on tour with a striving young band, was better received by the press than the public, who couldn't see what was so great about a lad taking notes on the tour bus when he should have been making trouble, not sorting it out. Last year's biography of Lester Bangs, gonzo guru of early rock criticism (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman as rock'n'roll's conscience in Crowe's movie, incidentally), couldn't escape the obvious problems raised when describing the life of a man who spent much of it hunched over a typewriter banging out prose rather than actually getting out of the office, even if he did have the stereo on. (To Bangs's eternal credit, he once "played" a battered Smith-Corona on stage with The J Geils Band.)
It was a music critic, David Quantick, who first turned the fine phrase, "Pop will eat itself," in an NME review. A hapless gang of West Midlands crusties pinched the name for their band, then later discovered samplers, attempting something along those lines with their music, with variable results. But today it seems that pop criticism is actually doing the same thing. Critics are eating, well, their own words at least.
At the end of next month, In Their Own Write - Adventures in the Music Press by Paul Gorman will come out. This tome is the first history of the opinionated juggernaut we've known and sometimes loved all these years. It starts with the Fifties when New Musical Express regurgitated already politely worded press releases while its rival, the long-running Melody Maker respectfully covered the jazz scene and filled its pages with "Musicians wanted" ads, and concludes with today, when pop's Balkanization and concomitant niche marketing mean that no single publication can speak to all tastes.
Along the way we're reminded of the intellectualisation of rock criticism in the Sixties, kicked off in America by a plethora of mim- eographed fanzines, the rise to crapness of Rolling Stone, the great years of press freebies in the early Seventies, Punk's Year Zero- star graduates Burchill, Parsons and Morley, the invention of Smash Hits, The Face and Q, and the eventual replacement of editorial instinct with demographic surveys.
It's undeniably entertaining, as a series of one-time faces reminisce about their time in the sun, but by the conclusion, it's become a book about magazine publishing, rather than music. Smash Hits was certainly amusing and beautifully presented at its Eighties peak, but its opinions were never built to last, while Q took its flippant tone and turned it into a strangely enervated form of criticism, in which nothing …