“It was akin to Vogue being produced out of a room above a kebab shop in Manor Park,” is how Steve Taylor, the associate editor of The Face in the early 1980s, describes the makings of a magazine which shaped generations, and is the focus of Paul Gorman’s latest tome, The Story of The Face.
It is difficult to think of many magazines which could be described as life changing. Publications which introduced you to a whole new genre of music or film, just by featuring a certain person. Magazines that, maybe, in some suburban town somewhere, helped you dream of another life. This is the way people talk about Nick Logan’s The Face. People can even recall the first time they picked one up, as proven by Dylan Jones’ opening of The Story of The Face’s foreword: “I remember buying the first issue, from the corner shop opposite my flat above a greengrocer’s in Stamford Hill.”
However in the cultural history of magazines, a single title can often be generalised and undervalued, their influence forgotten. “I had this gut feeling about The Face in the early noughties,” author Paul Gorman tells It’s Nice That of the beginning of his book. “It was in danger of being lost, misunderstood and certainly under appreciated.” Where its shelf companions such as Dazed and i-D adapted to becoming an online platform, The Face stuck to print and in turn, “was just appearing on Tumblr in isolation to generations of people who didn’t really know it… let alone the times in which it was produced”.
The author was right, and was particularly made known of this in 2012 when visiting the V&A’s British Design from 1948: Innovation in the Modern Age exhibition, taking Nick Logan along as his guest. Looking through the museum gift shop, Paul and Nick spotted notebooks sporting covers from The Face, credited to art director of the publication from 1981-1986, Neville Brody. Nick’s name, despite conceiving the magazine and working on it for the majority of its 24-year print run, “did not appear anywhere in the exhibition or in the companion 400-page catalogue,” writes Paul in his introduction to the book. “On that night I resolved to produce this book”.
Talking about this event with Paul now, he further explains Nick’s calm demeanour in a circumstance where he had every right to be a little irked. “He didn’t get pissed off, I would have started smashing things up, but he was really good and kind of went, ‘actually, I did that’. So with the book it was like, fucking hell this book really needs to be written.” Zooming in on cultural landmarks such as The Face is a regular pattern in Paul Gorman’s work, writing books on figures such as Goldie, Boy George and Barney Bubbles. “A lot of my work is to consider things in popular visual culture which aren’t necessarily understood in the way I think they should be,” he explains. “Sometimes I’m wrong and I’m the only maniac who likes it, but a lot of times there are people who say, you know what, The Face really was quite a thing.”
Paul began compiling The Story of The Face five years ago, combing through the publication from 1980-1999, “but it wasn’t meant to be nostalgic,” he says, “it’s because it was a story that hadn’t been told”. The author never worked at The Face, despite writing for different publications since the age of 17, and has consequently created a very different tome to those previously written on publishing, or if a past editor or contributor had written it. “It was quite a serious proposition, I didn’t want my voice to get in the way of this messy, loud, vibrant, evocative sometimes, publication.”
Across the decades Paul has focused on, he estimates that there were around 230 issues that could have featured. A mammoth task, the author decided to split the tome into half eighties and half nineties, “it had be fair and quite mathematical,” he says. “I really had to get Nick down, he’s the key person. Then make sure all the editors are spoken to, all the art directors were approached, it’s a matter of mapping out.” This process informed a structure of seven chapters on each decade, spanning key landmarks of the magazine’s issues, while still being pickled with affirming anecdotes from past staff members.
Both the book and Paul’s starting point began with Nick Logan. The introduction to The Story of The Face pinpoints Nick’s childhood, giving the reader a fresh perspective on what made the founder who he was, and subsequently how he made The Face, Smash Hits and edited the NME. “It was so important,” explains Paul on having Nick as the starting point, “for a long time my job in these things is about finding the rosebud. To find out how this person, who is quite brilliant in his own way, came up with this proposition, because there are always various reasons why. Why did he produce what he did? It doesn’t come out of a vacuum. Nick’s quite enigmatic, but I kind of had to crack the code of Nick before I could start the book.”
The rosebud moment, and a defining part of Nick’s childhood, was moving from northeast London to Lincoln, where “the 15-year-old’s world had been sent into a spin by his family’s move from the capital,” explains the book. Nick spoke of his childhood shift to Paul years ago, “and it’s always stuck with me,” says the author. “His grandfather was saying get a job at the local foundry. I mean, if you’ve seen Nick you know that wasn’t for him so went ‘fuck that, I’ll apply to the local paper’. He was part of the 60s thing of a working class kid with huge ability.”
Nick Logan’s years feeling culturally stuck in the midlands have arguably formed his whole career since. The problem of being unable to access the influence so readily available in larger cities is one he solved with The Face, sending out a magazine to those who didn’t just want it, but needed it. “In Nick it was this thing about communication, wanting to communicate what’s good,” says Paul. In curating a taste, Nick “maintained a sort of benchmark, a quality threshold under which nothing could fall…that’s a really great editor. You don’t deliver a story if you know it’s going to be flung back at you,” he explains. “I think that in terms of photography, design, layout and journalism, he set this bar so everyone that gravitated to it achieved that.”
Nick’s aim, which he achieved through The Face’s history is even apparent in his pitch letter featured in the book: “The attraction of The Face is that it will be unique as a vehicle for the publication of outstanding photographs of popular rock and pop music articles. The Face will be glossy, attractive, a quality magazine carrying superb feature material of a kind not found in the weekly tabloids. It will have the services of a team of photographers, writers, designers and illustrators recognised as the best in their respective fields.”
The Story of The Face sees Paul speak with multiple contributors to the magazine, showing not only Nick’s quality threshold but an openness to ideas and ideals, alongside continuous hard work. The career of one staff member, Lesley White, showcases this more than most. A receptionist in 1982, she recalls the moment Nick asked her to start writing the intros section in each issue. “Nick was quite matter of fact, taking just a couple of minutes to say that they needed more help with writing when it needed to be done, and on production and at the printers every month,” she says. “I was in. That was always the way at The Face. Everybody pitched in: making the tea, cleaning the toilets, everything.”
These opportunities, and the joy they demonstrate, didn’t develop without ups and downs or endless graft. Steve Taylor, a previous associate editor of the magazine, explains that Nick “would rarely be gone by the time I went home and when I turned up in the morning, he’d be there — and lived on sausage sandwiches and tea and coffee from the local caffs”. Despite the long hours, production was continuously a race to the finish line, if there even was one. “You’d be writing to fill the gaps while the motorbike messenger was revving up outside to take everything to the printers, the pressure was that intense,” explains Steve. “And then it would be done, and everything would be out of our hands for that month. Instead of going to the pub and relaxing, Nick would start agonising about who was going to be on the cover of the next issue. The guy was relentless. It was obsessive, but obsessively good, because that’s what made the difference.” This process is one of the key elements Paul learned during the process of compiling The Story of The Face. “To find out how they put it together under the strains they did was really impressive. It’s not a wonder, because it’s pure heart and soul poured into it by everybody involved. That was kind of a revelation.”
Nick’s obsessiveness created a magazine which could continually shift. “It was quite an old fashioned proposition, it was a general interest magazine,” explains Paul. “It wasn’t a fashion magazine,” he says, though looking at it now, there are clear correlations between the magazine and today’s fashion collections. “It wasn’t a music magazine,” yet everyone from Prince to Sinead O’Connor and Damon Albarn graced its cover; and “it wasn’t a film magazine” either, but interviews with Robert DeNiro to Christopher Walken are all featured.
With The Face, it feels like it didn’t matter what industry someone was from, as long as they were interesting, or there was an interest in them. As Paul points out this is quite remarkable, produced at a time which was “pre PR really getting savvy and getting hold of celebrity,” he says. “It’s not pre-celebrity, but it’s getting there. Just about pre musicians being in the nationals, before Piers Moron worked out how to get pop stars and turn them into national celebrities.” This is only one example of how forward thinking the publication was. To counteract ex-Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman’s argument that black models on the covers of magazines don’t sell, Nick Logan was doing it 20-something years ago. “It was another world,” says Paul. “It was sexy at times without being sexist. I think one of the great things about it was that it was gender neutral, it had great values of acceptance and tolerance. The other thing is of course Europe, it embraced it. You look at it now from a Brexit perspective and think, what the fuck happened?”
Now feels like the perfect time for The Story of the Face to be published. The magazine industry is experiencing a shift, mainstream publications are flailing whereas the independent sector is rising. Paul’s unbiased analysis of The Face is not only apt therefore, but necessary to reflect on where the industry could go next.
A want for magazines with power and punch like The Face is evident in a story Paul recalls from catching the tube to the book’s publishers, Thames & Hudson: “It was really funny because when I was going to meetings I used to take copies with me to show and I’d read them on the tube,” he says. “This was about four years ago, around the time when the tablet thing really came in. There was all these grey tablets and me reading The Face. You’d get a really great reaction because when you open some of those spreads it’s really kaleidoscopic, it jumps out at you. A couple of people were like ‘wow, look at that’…It was just a general kind of surprise, it was a bit of a disruption into that world that felt very quiet and secured with people concentrating on their phones.”
Paul circles back to his motives for telling The Story of The Face – because, amazingly, nobody else had done so. “I am always up for doing something that nobody else has done,” he explains. “It’s very boring following in other people’s footsteps.” In a way, this statement relates to Nick Logan’s frame of mind too. He didn’t follow the framework of what makes a successful independent magazine, he built it — even if it meant living off sausage sandwiches. “As long as Nick stuck to his guns and retained his independence,” says Paul, “it lasted.”
The Story of The Face: The Magazine that Changed Culture is available via Thames & Hudson, here.