I was born too late for The Face, just as I was born too late to witness any of the UK’s subcultural heydays. But it was always there, lurking in the rear-view of my dull post-millennial adolescence as an emblem and artefact of headier tribal times.
Leafing through second-hand copies that girlfriends would buy from eBay, I tried to get to grips with its importance and appeal. The Face at any of its peaks was young, dynamic, nocturnal, fierce, immersive, brave, impatient and interested in the world, and the best thing about it was that it understood just how important it was to be all of those things. From its London cradle it seemed to operate both as fanatic and arbiter, as much a pedestal for new ideas as it was a firing range for them. Visually, it’s unsurpassed: taking its black and red livery as a starting palette, its art directors would turn each issue into what must have felt to the reader like a pool of dark water, an absorbing and mysterious new world.
The Face’s founding editor and guiding force was Nick Logan, a man who cleared his savings to launch the first issue in 1980, a couple of years after he quit an NME editorship that had delivered the mag to a historical apex of potency. To Paul Gorman – the author and cultural commentator whose history of The Face arrived as a big glossy book in November – Logan was continuing the work he’d started there, where he’d seen that pop music shouldn’t be divorced from the context it was created in and young people shouldn’t be patronised. As such, The Face covered more or less everything – from safe sex to acid house, Echo and the Bunnymen to football violence, zoot suits to the miners’ strikes, Kate Moss to boy racers – as long as it felt relevant. It did this with the help of a writers list that included Robert Elms, Jon Savage, Amy Raphael and the late and peerless Gavin Hills; the formative art directorship of Neville Brody and the photographic talents of Corinne Day, David Sims and Juergen Teller. If its 80s years were about aspirational metropolitan dandyism then the 90s were about wry and tenacious provincial pride – "the revenge of the suburbs", as former editor Sheryll Garrett put it. Along the way The Face helped turn New Romantic, rave, Britpop and Britart into epochs.
When The Face reached young kids, whether in the cities or the suburbs, it acted primarily as a window and then as a mirror, offering a glimpse of an unknown and often arcane world that quickly reflected back the question: Why shouldn’t you come live here, too? Rather than mourn its death at the hands of the internet, perhaps we should see it instead as an early vision of what the internet would become, a portal to other endlessly interconnected worlds, an internet that you had to wait a month for, which looked fucking great.
I called up Gorman to ask him about the magazine and his book, The Story of The Face.
What were your own experiences with The Face, growing up?
Paul Gorman: I vividly remember starting with the third issue. I was already a journalist at that point, working on trade papers, and I knew about Nick Logan 'cos I was obsessive about the NME much earlier, in the early-70s, when I was 12, 13. While editor there he set a bar of excellence that attracted people like Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray, Tony Parsons, Julie Burchill – all those provocateurs. I saw with The Face that he was expanding on what he’d done at NME with a level of design that just wasn’t feasible previously. The Face had a really nice format and took a kind of continental approach to youth culture reportage, addressing it with the same sophistication as Vogue addressed fashion, or Tatler addressed society. I thought that was very clever, and as a music and clothes fiend, 20 years old, in my first proper job, I was the exact type of person it was being targeted at. And I accepted it wholeheartedly.
What seems most key with it to me is that the ideas the writers and design team put forward were put on a pedestal – they weren’t shied away from or diluted.
Yes, Nick gave them a platform. There were these waves of writing, photographic and design talent, and he trusted their instincts, even if they weren’t tested. Neville Brody was obviously a very talented graphic designer, but had never designed a whole magazine before – after a few test pages, he was given the art directorship of The Face at the age of just 24. The writers, too – whether Lesley White or Ashley Heath, Gavin Hills or Sheryl Garrett, Nick trusted them to reach his standards and in turn the reader trusted The Face to bring them excellence on a monthly basis.
One of the key points you make in the book is that The Face is generally misunderstood today as a purely fashion-oriented magazine.
Yeah, I set out to debunk that myth. It was a general interest mag that included great music coverage, great fashion and photography. It wasn’t targeted at a purely male or female audience, and you had social awareness issues alongside stuff on what schoolboy football fans were wearing on the terraces; reports from the miners’ strike, then an interview with Prince; a review of the latest Scorsese film with an article on Jean Nouvel’s architecture.
The world that The Face portrayed – a kind of glamorous, exhilarating, clandestine world, with its own etiquette and codes – was a world that most readers probably weren’t part of. Would you agree that a lot of its allure was aspirational?
Yeah, and I think it was an aspirational quality in the best sense – not that power dressing thing you had elsewhere in the 80s. It just said, "If you’re living in Lincoln, or Norfolk, or Grimsby, this is a different way of living that is actually quite inspiring. These young people are doing it, so you can, too." It opened up a world of possibilities for people.
In the book you talk about a summer Nick Logan spent in Lincoln as a bored 16-year-old just as The Beatles and the Stones were kicking off in London. How important do you think that stage was in a formative sense for him and The Face ?
I think it’s absolutely key to his story; when I heard about it, a lightbulb went off in my head. It’s why I started the book with it: I was once that suburban kid of 14, reading about Kenneth Anger or interviews with Iggy Pop in the NME – Iggy being a complete loser who nobody had heard of at that point. They were being brought to me in suburban north London as these exotic modes of being and living.
When I was a kid, the NME was the only place you could read about them. With The Face, Nick did the same thing, by spotting something that interested him and presenting it in a way that would interest lots more people. Pretty quickly he was keyed into 200 art students, peacocks, layabouts, weirdos and freaks who became the basis for the biggest musical movement in Britain that decade: the New Romantics. After Adele, Sade – who was part of that scene in the early days – is still the biggest selling British female artist in America, and George O’Dowd became an international superstar as well [as Boy George]. I think Nick understood when there was a little movement that had the potential to be outernational – really, really big.
Do you think that today people simply aren’t bored enough for something like The Face to exist?
Maybe, in the way that we’re oversaturated. That was one of the impulses in putting the book together – I noticed, around 2010, that fragments of The Face were cropping up online and being misunderstood, because it was just another cute image appearing on tumblr or Pinterest or Instagram without any context. It felt like, in this age of information overload, The Face was going to be lost as just another pretty thing to be posted online. And I wanted to present it in a better light.
So you don’t think it would be possible for a magazine like The Face to find that same success in London today?
I’m not sure it would, and I think that’s down to the fragmented way in which we access information now. Getting back to your point about overload, there’s no time to be bored now, and so there’s no time to look forward to something every month either; it’s all there already. I think there’s a place for magazines that carry the DNA of The Face. VICE, in its own way, I don’t think would exist in the way it does now without The Face having been there at some point in the past. There are lots of other magazines around that address certain areas. That’s the nature of the media now, it's necessarily niche.
But what about subculture itself? The changing nature of publishing aside, is there enough going on to sustain a magazine such as The Face today? There doesn’t seem to be anything as strident as acid house or the Blitz Kids in the UK, for example.
Once pop music became a soundtrack to the process of selling things, popular culture stopped being about ideas that were organically grown and communicated between younger people or those at the margins. I think there are a lot of subcultures that still exist online – I think that environment is incredibly fertile and it’s all metastasising. It’s really slippery; it changes and mutates. The issues stemming from Brexit and how they affect younger people from 16 to 35, the repercussions of those are gonna be with us for the next 75 to 100 years. If I were launching a Face-like object now, that’s really what I would do – plug into The Face’s rich heritage of social commentary and awareness, and put Brexit and everything around it right at the centre.
It often seems like politics has replaced culture when it comes to providing the building blocks of people’s identities, particularly online.
I think we’re back to the days in which The Face was launched – the first election I voted in was 1979 and that bitch Thatcher got in. Then, for the next 17 years, we had successive Tory governments. My generation were defined by the politics of the era, and I think that’s definitely happening now. There was a period in the 90s when things maybe appeared like they’d go on forever, that house prices would keep rising, banks would keep doling out money – there was still a lot of poverty, don’t get me wrong, but it became a bland kind of time. There was a very self-satisfied air to Britpop, which even at the time I didn’t like.
There was that period after 2000, too, when you had this post-millennial complacency kind of infecting all culture. It felt like people had just agreed that history had stopped, that there was no worthwhile new culture being created because what was happening in the world didn’t warrant any kind of cultural response.
Yeah, and that’s one of the reasons The Face eventually folded, I think. I think Nick got out at the right time anyway – he could never exist in a corporate environment where The Face became just another magazine for which advertising had to be sold. There’s also the view that the potency of popular culture, particularly as an arena for the exchange of ideas – and usually vanguard ideas that were fast-tracked into the mainstream – decreased. In The Face’s time you had Boy George representing gender tension in a very obvious way on TOTP, you had Ian Dury, physically disabled, at number one with "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick". It was all played out by the end of the 90s because it was all co-opted and wasn’t raw enough. I’d say that 1999 was the last hurrah of that before you fast forward to the Olympics and that ghastly opening ceremony where they had Johnny Rotten-style punks pogoing.
The Face was a quintessentially London magazine – but in advertising the excitement of the city did it not also play a role in gentrifying it?
It certainly helped set up that whole process where Soho – which hadn’t been the centre of, say, the fashion world, to take one example, since Swinging London – suddenly had these boutiques popping up everywhere. Before that, it was just porn shops and pubs. So The Face was definitely part of that process. Of course, there’s a case for saying too that they opened the bottle and the genie popped out and it was gentrification. That it was design over substance. That it was celebrity, even if they never actually dealt in celebrity at the time; they just featured people they were interested in, but they did so in such an alluring way that those people then were defined as celebrities. In a way, they contributed to Soho becoming what it is today – a playground for the rich, or a Friday and Saturday bridge-and-tunnel place, like a lot of American cities where it’s all about the nighttime economy and paying vague regards to those losers, boozers and jacuzzi users who populated it previously. And so it’s a property developer’s dream. In a way, The Face set them up. They didn’t mean to, but you had Groucho opening, you had the whole 80s business of ponytails and Comme Des Garcons suits, which became archetypes. The people at The Face innocently thought, 'Hey, London’s great!' – and it was, and still is, in parts. But it opened up the door for big business in the form of property development to get stuck in there. Bit depressing, innit?
I don’t know, I think there’s a real gap in the cultural conversation right now for London to be described as an interesting place; somewhere someone could still lead a romantic life.
I think there’s a lot going on in the suburbs and the regions of this country, as the centres have been priced and hollowed out, [which] become these sort of ersatz places of creativity. Nick was a suburban kid. Even when he was running The Face he was living in Wanstead and quite proud of it, too. So there’s hope. Also, remember Sheryl Garrett’s thing about "the revenge of the suburbs", which I think was a genius summing up of that breaking down of hierarchies that you had in the 90s – ‘cos that’s really what happened: The Face broke down the hierarchies of media and allowed a bunch of working class kids to get in and access the various strands of the entertainment business. It then became a bit of a hierarchy itself, but I think what The Face and Garrett did under her stewardship, with Nick overseeing it, is break that down again, and suddenly pop and youth culture was all about provincial pride, places such as Bristol with the Wild Bunch, Madchester… all over the country she was saying, "This is the revenge of the suburbs," and I think we still live with that a bit. If there’s a legacy of The Face to be celebrated, I think it’s that, actually.
Paul Gorman’s The Story of the Face: The Magazine That Changed Culture is out now through Thames & Hudson.