Once upon a time, the most onomatopoeically named magazine in the world (imagine if Top Gear were called Vroom! and Nuts were called Squelch!) lost its faith. In the ’90s, it was rebranded as though the release of Nirvana’s album Nevermind was “Year Zero” for rock fans, sweeping aside the whole canon of big-haired rock behemoths that came before as though they were an embarrassment.
Luckily for air guitar fans everywhere, however, “rawk” would not be denied.
And with the demise of sullen grungerocker Kurt Cobain, whose refusal to flip devil horns or enjoy sex with groupies was in some minds a sin against the whole nature of rock ’n’ roll, a new breed of saviour emerged.
From Marilyn Manson’s church-baiting to Slipknot’s fright masks to everything about The Darkness, this rock resurrection, which hit its stride at the end of Britpop, saw Kerrang! sales hit an alltime high of more than 84,000 copies a week in 2002, and rock fans raise their heads in pride again.
It was a lesson that has stayed with editor Paul Brannigan, who at the time was a freelance reviewer for the magazine.
“There’s a certain amount of irony [in the rock clichés],” he says, “But there’s also a certain amount of… you know, fun.
“If you look at someone like Cream or AC/DC, they’re not stupid, it’s not like they don’t know what they’re doing when they sing songs about… big balls or whatever. We sort of celebrate it.
“At university one of my favourite bands was AC/DC, and all my friends who went on to be things like teachers were listening to them, and we didn’t think there was some dumb stigma like there was in the NME at the time: that if you liked AC/DC your knuckles were on the floor and you were some sort of retard.
“You don’t take the piss out of your own readership,” he adds. “Your readers might have shit going on in their families, they might have shit going on at school, they might have shit from their friends for liking rock music, so the worst thing would be for the one place they thought was their natural home to be taking the piss as well.” That philosophy — which won Brannigan the editorship a year ago — shows in this week’s 25th anniversary issue, which is dated, gloriously, 06.06.06 (“It was too good an opportunity to pass up,” he smirks).
With AC/DC’s Angus Young on the cover, as he was on the magazine’s first ever issue, a list of the “25 Most Important Rock Bands In The World” puts Nirvana (number 10) side-by-side with Bon Jovi (number 11), and places Iron Maiden at number one. It also takes in punks Green Day (5), nasty numetallers Korn (12) and rap-rockers Rage Against The Machine (24).
This broad-church approach is seeing sales again hit high levels — more than 76,000 in February’s ABCs, reportedly beating NME in UK-only sales. This compares with 61,844 a year earlier and 40,000-odd in the magazine’s late-’90s doldrums.
At the PPA Awards last month, the Kerrang! team took the specialist magazine of the year prize, prompting much “rawk” posing on the podium from staff.
“That wasn’t me, though” insists Brannigan, looking slightly embarrassed.
“I was the one who wasn’t doing that [devil horns signal], to the point where the photographer came back over again and said: ‘Can you be a bit more rock for the photo?’ And I was like [deadpan] ‘No’. Ian Hislop [who presented the awards] was being more rock than I was.” We are sitting in the Intrepid Fox in Soho, a pub devoted to all that is loud and angry in music. There is a small but authentic-looking cemetery on the ceiling and a blue-haired, pierced young lady at the bar, and it has to be said that Ian Hislop might (just possibly) seem more at home here than Brannigan, who has short brown hair and glasses, is wearing a blue checked shirt and jeans, and has no tattoos.
He is eager to point out that the rest of the Kerrang! crew more than make up for his own failure to conform (“the girls in our office have more tattoos than Motorhead!” he claims), but admits: “I used to go to [rock/goth club] the Electric Ballroom in Camden, but to be honest every time I went there they’d say: ‘Sorry, it’s not your kind of night…’ “I’ve always said that everything I believe in is already tattooed within anyway,” he adds, deadpan again.
“My thing is that if anyone asks how ‘metal’ or anything else I am they can start asking me questions and I’ll start asking them questions and we’ll see who comes out best. I don’t really feel that I’ve got anything to prove to anybody about how ‘rock’ I am. It’s more fun to confuse people as well.” To further complicate the rock-fan stereotype, research has revealed that more than half of Kerrang!’s readers are female — as are more than half its staff.
“We only discovered that [about the readership] from a survey commissioned at the end of last year,” he says, “it was the first research we’d done in a long time.
“Metal has always had a degree of sexism and laddism, and that still exists to some extent, but it’s a much more open and welcoming community than it used to be. And there are no sexist overtones to the magazine. You’re as likely to have a [male] member of
Panic! At The Disco described as ‘hot’ as the [female] singer of Lacuna Coil.” And, he insists, the shift in readership has not led to pressure from above at publisher Emap to refocus direction or content.
“For a long time Kerrang! was just a weird little magazine that sat on its own and did its own thing,” he says. “And when the mag really took off it just surprised everybody, they didn’t know how it got there, so it was: ‘Well, they know what they’re doing, so leave it.’ “A lot of people at Kerrang! have been there a long time. It’s about being a Kerrang! journalist, not a journalist in the wider sense. Once they stop working at Kerrang! they stop. They’re Kerrang! journalists and if it’s over, it’s over, do something else.” So with sales soaring and “horror metal” band Lordi winning the Eurovision song contest, will the mainstream ever truly accept rock in all its theatrical glory?
“What it means to the world at large is irrelevant to me,” he shrugs. “We like Lordi and always have. They’re coming to our 25th birthday party and we’ll be greeting them with open arms.” Just no hand signals.