Muzik magazine was my first music press job. I joined as a rookie sub editor a few issues after its launch and worked there for a very happy three years, give or take the odd dust-up. Launched 20-odd years ago, we thought looking back at its origins would make a nice Time Machine piece for Electronic Sound. And well, no one else was going to blow our trumpet were they? This is my first draft of the published piece, which ended up considerably shorter.
There was time when the music press was as essential as the records it championed or chewed up. In 1995, a new title was launched that catapulted underground electronic/dance music into the mainstream. To mark 20 years since the first issue, we track down those behind MUZIK magazine to tell the full story. It wasn’t that hard to find them really.
Every now and again, an idea comes along that changes things. Twenty years ago, to the month, a new music magazine appeared on the news stands that did just that.
In 1995, Muzik was a breath of fresh air for those who’d grown up with electronic music humming in their ears. Until that point, an intelligent publication with well-informed, on-the-money writing about dance music simply didn’t exist. Muzik had a further trick up its sleeves in that it treated electronic music with the same irreverence employed by the rock press. Which isn’t surprising seeing as its Editor and Deputy, Push and Ben Turner, were plucked from IPC’s legendary music weekly. Melody Maker.
To tell the story of how the whole thing came about, we need to cast back to 1988.
“There were a few of us writing about acid house at the time,” says Push, who wasn’t hard to track down seeing as these days he sits in the Editor’s chair at Electronic Sound. “The Maker was pretty quick off the mark and they put their weight behind it, but the next week they’d be back to sticking The Cure on the cover again.”
Frustrated with an increasing struggle to get electronic music covered, a trio of writers – Push along with Andrew Smith and Bob Stanley – went to then-Editor Steve Sutherland and suggested a dance music section. To their surprise he agreed and the paper’s Stone Free pages were born.
“We’d do two or three pages a week,” says Push. “But every time they needed some space it would be the first section to get cut.”
The trio produced the section for a couple of years until IPC decided, on the back of a readers’ survey that offered Guns’N’Roses videos as a prize, that no one was interested in electronic music and the section was scrapped. So it was back to fighting for space in the main pages again. But they were about to be joined by a new ally.
“I did work experience for a week at Melody Maker when I was 16,” says Ben, joining the story down the line from Boston where he’s on an educational tour with Ritchie Hawtin who he manages. Ben followed up his placement with a summer job at the title after which he was offered a full-time gig on the picture desk. With it came the chance to cut his teeth as a writer.
“I got sucked into electronic music very quickly,” says Ben, “and I soon discovered only Push, Andy Smith and Bob Stanley had any idea what I was talking about. I started writing a column called Twilight Zone where I used to rant and rave about the DJs and all the amazing music they were playing. To us, that was as exciting as watching any band.”
There was a brief sea change in early 1994 when Underworld appeared on the cover with Push writing the feature and Ben penning the album review. The same issue, flagged as a dance music special, saw Aphex Twin, The Orb, Orbital and Drum Club all make an appearance. The issue did well, which prompted a revival of the dance music section, now called Orbit and edited by Push and Ben. The pages gained a reputation for having fingers on the pulse, which in turn saw R&S Records book a run of double-page centrespread adverts.
“They were an independent record label from Belgium that no one apart from us had heard of,” says Ben. “It was at that point IPC thought, ‘Hang on a minute, why are these people spending money in a rock music paper?’.”
All roads led to Orbit and it wasn’t long before the pair were asked to look at producing a stand-alone title.
“When it came to putting something together we had total freedom to do what we thought was right,” says Push. “We did two dummies, one with James Lavelle on the cover, which was very much about what sort of artists were going to be in it, and one that was quite clubby and went more out on a limb with Jon Pleased Wimmin on the cover.”
Coming up with a name was problematic though. Orbit was established as The Maker’s dance music pages, so they needed an alternative.
“We had endless meetings trying to come up with a name,” sighs Push. “Someone suggested ‘Dog’ at one point! We wanted to be an NME for the 21st century and we always said by calling it Muzik it opens up the opportunity for us to not be a dance music magazine down the line. It was always going to be about dealing with whatever was the big thing. It was only once we’d launched we realised we had a problem because when you spoke about the magazine, especially on the phone or on the radio, you always had to say ‘Muzik with a Z and a K’.”
Both dummy issues were well received and in May 1995 the first issue proper appeared with The Chemical Brothers on the cover. In the hands of photographer Vincent McDonald, two ordinary looking blokes who happened to make the most block rocking of beats were transformed into dynamic, vibrant, cartoon-like characters springing off the page. These days making a decent fist of Photoshop is par for the course, back then, when cameras still used film, what Vincent did each month on the front cover of Muzik was more than impressive. Alongside The Chems, early covers featured Daft Punk as frogs on lilly pads and a naked Carl Cox painted red brandishing a water pistol. It was groundbreaking stuff.
“The front covers were hugely important,” believes Ben. “We were treating underground artists such as Dave Clark like proper stars. We had a very reactive audience and it was amazing to see that we could help artists sell records. We were standing up for what was good and to me, the most rewarding thing was we were really helping build people’s careers.
“We knew we wanted to do something different,” explains Push. “Although we were dance music boys, we came at it from the rock angle, we had that attitude. It wasn’t just about patting everybody on the back, it was about having a proper critical approach.”
“I was spending £200, £300 a week on vinyl,” says Ben, “I was obsessed with making sure we were so on the money that you couldn’t not buy this magazine if you wanted to know what was going on. The reason it worked really well was I was this sort of roving reporter who brought all this stuff back to the office and Push would pieced it all together perfectly. I still get emails to this day saying ‘Muzik was my education’.”
It was an education for the staff too. The team, which I joined as a rooky sub editor a few issues in, was small. Alongside Push and Ben, there were two designers, a staff writer, production editor, two subs and an editorial assistant. Issues were often close on 200 pages and overflowing with content. The news section alone was thousands upon thousands of words in tiny print to try and pack in as much information as the pages could hold, often more. It wasn’t uncommon to pull all-nighters, not in a clubbing sense, but sat in the office trying desperately to finish the issue before the presses rolled.
“On about issue three or four, I was walking to work one morning thinking, ‘I don’t know how much longer I can do this’.” says Push of the frankly insane production schedule. “I remember saying to myself, ‘I’m going to see if I can last 40 issues’… and I left on Issue 41.”
“It was all a little bit unorthodox,” says Ben. “We had people above us trying to get us to do things in a more traditional magazine way, but we were supposed to be slightly counter culture. It’s mind blowing when you look at quite how much you could learn from one issue. We would be trying to cram 500 words into a space that would usually only have 250. There was just so much information in there.”
“The Trainspotting pages were terrifying,” says Push of the reviews section, page after page covering everything from soul to drum’n’bass and all points in between. “The level of knowledge those writers had was extraordinary.”
Muzik didn’t so much outgrow their first office, on the 25th Floor of King’s Reach Tower alongside Vox and NME, as get kicked out due to the constant dialled-up thud of dance music. The new home was over the road, in Hatfield House, in an office next door to Loaded.
“A lot of our madness was out and about,” says Ben. “We were actually quite studious in the office and got our heads down to get the magazine out, while at Loaded it was utter chaos, there was always a party going on next door. I think they all thought we were really boring.”
The Muzik staff were anything but. It was quite a collection. Rob Da Bank started out there. Arriving on a week’s work placement, he quickly made himself indispensable and carved out a job for himself running the bewildering club listings pages. Other notables to pass through include no-nonsense tabloid journalist Sonia Poulton, double Mercury Award winning Big Dada label boss Will Ashon and former Dazed & Confused editor Rachel Newsome, while among the writers were the likes of Terry Farley, Slipmatt, Bob Jones, Spoony and Kris Needs.
“Calvin Bush was the funniest one,” says Ben of the magazine’s unpredictable staff writer. “I had this obsession with Glasgow and Slam, and he used to promote their records. He was writing for us at Melody Maker and one night we were at Sabersonic, really drunk, and he whispered in my ear, ‘You do know I write for NME under another name’. I couldn’t fucking believe the front of this guy. I don’t think anyone else ever pulled that off. And then we found out his real name wasn’t Calvin Bush and that all became quite interesting. There were always moments with Calvin around, but he was a great writer.”
The title oozed attitude, with provocative features on everything from aliens in dance music to clubbing for Jesus, pirate radio, DJ groupies, The Black Panthers and city boy ravers. And of course, it treated the dance music cognoscenti with the same irreverence guitar bands were well used to in the pages of NME and The Maker.
“Ben and I were both schooled in the Melody Maker way and that was to take the piss,” says Push. “It was about having that attitude and being ballsy about it. It was difficult because a lot of people we covered struggled with that.”
Regular features such as Hang The DJ, where each month an artist would be strung up for crimes against music, caused much angst.
“I used to spend hours on the phone apologising, or pre-empting stuff that was coming out,” recalls Ben. “I remember being sat in a hotel in Liverpool one morning with Paul Oakenfold and he just let rip at me. It was really quite awkward. We’d put his picture next to a picture of Fred West as a double egg. We weren’t saying he looks like a serial killer, he just happened to look like a man who was. Paul just couldn’t understand it. There are so many things like that, we were continually poking fun at the people we kind of idolised, but it was all done in a very tongue-in-cheek way.”
“The Chemical Brothers got really upset about that first cover feature,” recalls Push. “Most of the things they said were off the record, but there were a whole bunch of other things that weren’t. They were very critical of the dance music scene, and they were bloody right, and I put it all in the feature. We launched the magazine at Tribal Gathering, which is where Tom and Ed saw the article for the first time. When they saw Ben they so furious about what I’d written they threw the issue on the floor and stamped all over it.”
IPC closed the title in August 2003, by which time Push and Ben had long moved on. Those early issues remain shining examples of what good music magazines should be and the same thinking continues to live on in Electronic Sound. So what do they consider to be Muzik’s legacy?
“There’s still people who say to me how influential Muzik was to their lives in terms of discovering good music,” says Ben. “I think we really shone a light on music that wasn’t being championed anywhere else. The conversation I have the most with people around me is the lack of one influential voice, you have to go to 15 different places to get any sense of anything. I think that’s a real problem for electronic music as a whole, it doesn’t have a focus anymore. There is so much music out there now that no one can keep up, so the route many take is to focus on the positive and as a result criticism is very rare.”
“I think Muzik helped people to realise that electronic music should be taken seriously,” says Push. “The message was that there could be a magazine that was for them. But perhaps the single most important thing we did was we took faceless dance music and gave it a face. We were just trying to do something different. Muzik talked seriously about the music, but it was also interesting and provocative and funny. And you know what? I think we nailed it.”