Books: Face of a cultural revolution

Written By: Cary Gee
Published: March 9, 2018 Last modified: March 13, 2018

The Story Of The Face: The Magazine That Changed Culture
by Paul Gorman
Thames and Hudson. £34.95

My adolescence, like everyone else’s, was punctuated by a series of discoveries, an accumulation of cultural ‘firsts’ that would alter the course of my life in ways I could not have imagined at the time. The first time I read Wilde, heard Bowie, saw Boy George, met Grace Jones. And stumbled across The Face.

For a schoolboy growing up in a Cotswolds vicarage The Face might as well have been a missive from Mars, or God. Of course, if a kid wants to knows what’s ‘out there’ nowadays they simply have to press a button. As a teenager stirring to the long awaited death rattle of Thatcherite Britain you lived in limbo and hoped for a prophet. It came in the form of Nick Logan, who combined the cheeky irreverance of his hugely successful creation Smash Hits, and his fondness for esoteric music and agitprop politics that reformed the NME, with aching, cutting-edge metropolitan cool to publish the first ever lifestyle magazine for the youth market. Even the fonts, designed by art director Neville Brody, were challenging, appearing above cover stars who included Jerry Dammers (on the very first issue, May 1980), Siouxsie Sioux, The New Romantics, Madonna, Alexander McQueen, a 16-year-old Kate Moss and Robbie Williams, who, somewhat surprisingly helped The Face achieve its biggest ever sales figure (of 128,000) in 1995.

More memorable even than the cover stars was the way in which they were photographed. Surely no magazine has ever boosted the careers of as many photographers as it did their models. Robert Maplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, Bruce Weber, and inside, fashion photographers Corrine Day and the brilliant Nick Knight, all owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Logan’s single-minded determination to reveal the art behind the artifice. In short, The Face was a magazine that anyone who ever dreamed of making it Down That London, be they a singer, actor, designer, photographer, model, writer or hustler, couldn’t help but aspire to appear in one day. An ambition attributable as much as anything else to the sheer bloody mindedness of Logan (and his wife Julie), who launched The Face with just £3,500 of their own money and ‘a head full of ideas’ after being turned down by his former employers at Emap.

What follows is a picaresque tale of meetings in the pub, missed deadlines (not least due to industrial action by the print unions), volumes of waste paper, groundbreaking agreements that allowed contributors including Julie Burchill, Katherine Flett, and Tony Parsons to retain their rights (to words and images), a nervous breakdown and, rather remarkably, 56,000 newstand sales of the very first issue, which far exceeded expectations. Having achieved lift off The Face, together with i-D ‘captured a new socialized pop attitude. Central to this was the idea of club culture, of collective social activity and of black music used as a metaphor for cool community and indefinable soul’.

However it wasn’t all plain sailing for the politically left-leaning Face. ‘While this music received sympathetic framing within the pages of [The Face] its shininess masked the serious social concerns being raised by the depradations of Margaret Thatcher’s hardline Tory government.’ In 1982 Logan tasked journalist Robert Elms with navigating The Face through ‘the impact of the early 80s rightwing backlash and the apparently ceaseless recession – with the attendant mass unemployment figures – on youth culture’. Rarely for The Face, Elm’s piece, published under the full caps headline ‘Hard Times’ and subsequently derided by naysayers as portentous, featured no celebrities. Of course, those most affected by Thatcher’s scorched earth policies probably didn’t read the magazine – couldn’t afford to – but if there’s one thing I learned from reading articles in The Face about rights, riots and rebellion it was that your chances of success improved in direct correlation to the perfection of your hair-do. That and nailing down the right soundtrack.

‘In retrospect,’ says Elms of ‘Hard Times’, ‘I can see that this was the end of the first period of The Face … from hereon in music was just part of a much broader spectrum.’ And what a spectrum.

In his foreword, former editor Dylan Jones explains that ‘The Face’s raison d’etre was simple –”‘What was the right thing to do?”‘ For The Face this was always more than just a moral question. It was a question of style. From David Johnson on Boy George to Julie Burchill on Margaret Thatcher, examinations of 80s and 90s icons are reprinted with deliciously gossipy add-ons. Revealing the chaos, the near misses and never agains that went into producing over 200 unforgettable issues.

Some of course were unforgettable for the wrong reasons, and Gorman does not shy away from extracting mea culpas from those responsible. Sadly, as The Face moved from becoming merely financial viable to a verifiable success story the magazine seemed to suffer a loss of nerve, jettisoning its chrystal ball and editorial clairvoyance for an obeisance to an ever dwindling pool of celebrities on which to hang a story. Not so much a victim of its own success, as of the market from which it had so far remained aloof.

That The Face survived Thatcherism, only to succumb to over- ambition (The Face’s parent company Wagadon paid heavily for the failure of stablemate Frank) under cooler-than-thou new Labour is an irony not fully examined in Gorman’s text, but while this meticulously researched reflection on much more than a magazine fully justifies the boast made in the book’s subtitle, Gorman’s book never matches the heights of his subject matter.

From the breathtaking risks, financial and artistic, that paid off in the early days through the degradations of The Face‘s run-in with Jason Donovan (which some might say it had it coming for aiming so low in the first place), from the New Romantics to Britpop, and from London to the north, The Face set a new benchmark in cultural reportage. The Story of the Face only ocassionally manages to tell that tale with the necessary sturm und drang, and will, I suspect, leave those too young to remember the magazine’s singularity perplexed and wondering how it ever became a lodestar for an entire generation of wannabes in the first place. There’s no doubt however that this beautifully produced book will find its way onto the coffee tables of people still too cool for school, who can always just look at the gorgeous pictures and say ‘I was there’, (although sadly none of the pictures of that schoolboy from the Cotswolds vicarage made the book’s final cut)!

About Cary Gee

Cary Gee is a freelance journalist and Tribune columnist