Interview by Klas Senatus Sjögren, conducted on May 21, 2015.
Starting in September the New Musical Express (NME) will be a free weekly magazine in line with modern ways of distribution and financing. I doubt anyone truly interested in music as a progressive force will react to this fact since the NME lost its relevance as the flagship of music critique and gatekeeping a long time ago when it became a glossy teen paper. The legacy of the magazine has been carefully documented at this point, not least in Pat Long’s book The history of the NME, and its most famous writers are still considered authorities. Some of them typically get called in to comment when a music legend has passed away or to give opinions about a particular era in some music documentary. This is all part of a nostalgia that we probably spend far too much time indulging in relative to exploring brand new sounds and directions.
With that said, I still have a fascination with aspects of the bygone NME era, particularly those which were never properly documented. My focus of interest for this interview is a female, former NME writer called Leyla Sanai. It was her NME review of a gig by the French Impressionists, as documented in James Nice’s book Shadowplayers, that drew my attention to her writing. Her style was one of a “continental” lightness of touch, intelligence and a curiosity beyond the fact seeking, list compiling style of some of her male peers at the time. It might not be of primary importance to get a description of what the music sounds like, what genre it belongs to or who plays what particular instrument. The pen could rather serve as a vehicle of association, moods, recollection of life changing events and of private and collective experiences. Beyond music.
From another perspective, through the interview, I was introduced to a life story that I wasn’t prepared to handle at first. When two strangers interact over a medium like Facebook where the general way of presenting yourself is one of self-affirmation and -promotion I was confronted with an honest story of life’s trials and tribulations. I appreciate this.
How did you end up writing for NME?
Leyla Sanai: I was an avid reader of the NME from the age of fifteen, and very into ‘new wave’ music. I had been too young when punk originally happened, but from ’79, I started to go to gigs most weekends. When I was 17, the NME ran a competition to review one of the compilation tapes it produced, the C81. I missed out on the first prize of a ghetto blaster, but was a runner up. My runner up prize of four blank cassettes never arrived – possibly they did and my dad, who was anti pop music and quite protective, confiscated them. Anyhow, I never received them, so on the spur of the moment, I decided to send in a review of a gig at a venue called Heaven, in London’s Charing Cross. To my amazement and euphoria, my review was published. I was so pleased that I sent in another, and was then invited to go in and meet some of the editors there. It was a great experience. I met the deputy editor Phil McNeill, Neil Spencer, Andy Gill, who was then either the albums or gigs ed, Tony Stewart, the features editor, and a few of the writers. I started popping in after school every week and being assigned gigs and albums to review.
The whole experience was thrilling to me, from going into the office and meeting these writers I had admired for two years, to going to gigs and seeing wonderful bands, to reviewing albums at home. After a year or so I graduated to also reviewing films, which was great fun – drinking free wine and eating crisps in Wardour street screening venues, watching movies (usually good but occasionally dire), and then writing about them. It was an incredible escape for me because my home life was very unhappy. My parents fought violently most nights, my mother had always hated me, and my elder sister was going off the rails in a big way, getting into drugs, staying out all night, and finally being expelled from school for playing truant the whole time.
My writing career at NME petered out when I went to Edinburgh medical school in autumn 1983. It was a shame, because I was told I was being considered for a staff job just before I had to leave London. I did a little bit of work for NME after that, like covering the Bunnymen’s Crystal Day in Liverpool, and doing a few gigs, but by and large I was too tied to the study at medical school – of which I hated the first two years – to do much writing. It was such a wrench: I felt like I’d left behind the dream job for the drudgery of studying dead bodies in anatomy. Luckily, I grew to love medicine once I became involved in caring for patients, but those first two years away were very dark, despite wonderful new friends at Edinburgh.
After my first two years of med school, my sister jumped in front of the tube train in 1985 and my dad had a cardiac arrest. This happened on my summer holiday. I took a year off from med school which I spent living in a room in London – my mother lived in a huge house but would make comments about me looking like a prostitute every time I went out, or would chain the door to lock me out if I stayed out late, and wouldn’t let me use the phone or oven or have friends over. So I had to get a room on housing benefit in Kentish Town. I had planned to try and write for the NME again that year, but I was too traumatised by my sister and dad being in comas in the Royal Free. I visited them sometimes.
I had a brief relationship with Don Watson from the NME, but I viewed him more as a friend than a boyfriend and was in no fit state to have a relationship anyway, because of my sister and my dad. Don and I had been friends, and soon after my sister jumped, he said he could no longer have me as just a friend as he felt more for me. We had a relationship from July until about September. My sister jumped in early July. By the next afternoon my dad was also in the Royal Free. He drifted in and out of coma until September, when he had a massive stroke and died. My sister was in a decerebrate coma until Dec 23rd 1985, when she died too.
So my head was not in the right place to be writing. I was quite happy to get back to medical school at the end of the year. It seemed that, as well as having lost my dad and sister, the chapter of my life writing for the NME had finally closed. I was way out of touch with the alternative music scene and the film world by then. I felt extremely sad about everything. But I had wonderful friends in Edinburgh, notably, my best friend at med school Heather McNamee, so I returned to nurturing love and warmth – something that was distinctly absent in London for me.
Then – Leyla, aged 17, (center) with her brother and sister
Was there a healthy climate of discussion at the NME?
Leyla: The atmosphere in the offices was very relaxed. People were constantly bantering, joking, chatting. Anyone was free to express anything. I didn’t spend much time in the office – I would just pop in, pick up some albums and gigs or films to review, then leave again. But I was always made to feel welcome. I was too shy to discuss anything then. Although my school was a state school, it was girls only, and the only men I had really had relaxed conversations with were my younger brother and my dad. The staff were mostly male. I could chat freely to a lovely female staffer there called Lynn Hanna, but was a bit tongue tied with the blokes. That was one reason I found writing so exciting – you could say things that you were too shy to say in speech.
What amount of “freedom of speech” did you enjoy at NME?
Leyla: Complete freedom. There was never any suggestion that one’s opinions should be a certain way. In fact, both previously and at the time, several writers enjoyed being outrageous. The great Julie Burchill was a heroine of mine. By then, she had left NME and was writing for The Face, but she had made her name at NME, and had been fearless. She was unafraid of iconoclasm: in one of her NME reviews, she had poured excoriating disgust on the very hip Siouxsie from Siouxsie and the Banshees for an anti-Semitic lyric. And other writers were pushing boundaries when I was there, most notably Paul Morley and Ian Penman, with their distinctive, experimental writing styles, and the brilliant Chris Bohn with his intellectual take on music. All the writers were free to say what they wanted to say; that individual self expression was a tacit part of the job.
Did you meet the likes of Penman and Morley, and how did you cope with them given that you were sort of covering similar artists?
Leyla: Paul Morley was very approachable and friendly from the first time I went in. He was like an enthusiastic puppy once he knew and trusted people, though shy initially. I didn’t speak to Ian Penman until I had been writing for the NME for quite a few months. I was a bit intimidated by him because he was always joking and giggling with his pal Monty, who eventually left to join TV Times. But Penman and I ended up at a Grace Jones gig at the Camden Palais applaud together, and he turned out to be very friendly too. He introduced me to Roland Barthes, the philosopher. I think I still have that copy of A Lover’s Discourse.
Was there a feminist agenda at the NME? If so, how was this manifested and was there an openness to this?
Leyla: There was no feminist agenda per se, and most of the staff were male. But there was an unspoken assumption that women could do anything men could do in terms of journalism. And there were several female contributors – Cynthia Rose and Lynn Hanna who was a very good writer as well as being genial and affable. There were some great music journalists around at other publications – the aforementioned Julie Burchill and Lesley White at The Face, and so on. My sister wrote for Sounds for a while under the name Terri Sanai. I remember one time she insisted on coming to the NME offices with me, and she was the kind of person you couldn’t really say no to. I don’t think the NME staff were too chuffed at having a Sounds insider there, however fleeting the visit was.
But back to the question, I think all the women around on the music scene then, both journalists and musicians, had a feminist agenda in that they knew women could succeed at any career and the world was their oyster. Punk had brought in that sense of musicians being able to start bands even when they were barely proficient at their instruments or singing, and that same defiance and confidence was in the air around writing. Fanzines had enabled anyone to express their views on music in the same way that blogs did on the Internet. And so confident, capable women knew they could just get out there and do what they wanted to do. Of course, there was the paradox that Britain had elected the first female Prime Minister ever, but that she was promoting only men. But then, there was an anti Thatcher /Tory attitude around in most of the music biz anyhow, as there still is in the arts.
Spare Rib magazine had come into being a few years before. But at that time I think many women believed it was a little too strident for them. The women in the music biz and in journalism believed they could work *with* men, not against them. Of course there were still many areas of life in which sexism was rife – you only have to look at the number of ’70s and ’80s celebrities arrested for sexual assault in the past few years, or see the sexist (and racist) stuff on TV at the time. Women still had many battles to win, but the post punk music scene was largely a world of co-operation between men and women colleagues.
Who did you hang out with or share interests with?
Leyla: I went to a lot of gigs with my older sister, although often, she didn’t want her ‘little sister’ cramping her style! None of my friends at school were into the same bands as me, but my sister’s onetime (before expulsion) classmate Esther used to go to the same gigs, as did her brother and a couple of boys from his year who wrote a fanzine. But most of the gigs I attended were with my sister, and she would shake me off halfway, often nicking my taxi money home and buying drugs for herself with it. But I’m grateful to her for sharing her excellent musical taste with me. So I spent a lot of gigs on my own. One summer I met a smart, funny girl called Chinyelu Onwurah. Her sister was friends with my sister, and they stayed a summer at our family home. Going to gigs with them was fun, and Chinyelu and I became good friends, though we lost touch for many years while I was doing medicine in Edinburgh and she was doing engineering in London. She’s now a Labour MP for Newcastle. I’m proud of her.
Did you favour Les Disques du Crépuscule?
Leyla: I adored the artists on Les Disques du Crépuscule. They were all high quality acts, and their music was incredibly intelligent as well as aurally pleasurable. Their lyrics were often a bit deeper than some of the other post punk bands. It was often rhythmic, marrying new wave to disco, soul and funk, as in the work of Paul Haig, Josef K, Cabaret Voltaire, Repetition, and so on. And there were artists who straddled the divide between classical and pop, like Michael Nyman, Durutti Column, Brian Eno and Aztec Camera.
Which brings me to the connection between Crépuscule and the best of the British indie labels – Factory, Postcard and so on. The whole history of the label having been partially founded by Annik Honoré, who had links with Ian Curtis of Joy Division, who was one of the most moving and soul-wrenching post punk bands of all, imbued Crépuscule with an other worldly appeal. With Crépuscule, Factory, Postcard and a few other labels, you just * knew* that the bands you would hear would be innovative, melodic, funky, smart, or all of the above.
Did you ever see Joy Division live?
Leyla: Although I saw most of the other Factory bands scores of times, I only saw Joy Division live once. It was at the Lyceum in February 1980. I had just turned sixteen a month earlier and so, was still quite young and unformed. I knew I was in the presence of a band with real power. I wish I had caught them at the Moonlight or another small venue where their intensity would have been more easily transferred to their audience. I loved Unknown Pleasures and, released after Curtis’s death, Closer. I can’t actually listen to those two albums anymore because my sister was fanatical about Joy Division and listened to them non-stop. Her mood really plummeted after Curtis’s suicide, and she listened to those two albums non-stop. I always associate them with her. After she killed herself in 1985, and my dad had a heart attack on hearing the news, I found it difficult to listen to those two albums ever again.
It was like a bad soap opera, this father and child who had been so close when she was a little girl, had grown estranged and hadn’t had a civil conversation for years before her suicide. Not for lack of my dad trying, I should add. But her brain was so addled with all the drugs by then that she refused to ever speak to him, and in fact once turned up on the door of the familial home with a knife, trying to kill him. She had all sorts of bizarre delusions by the end, some true, fixed, psychotic delusions (like the time she sent me a death threat when I was in Edinburgh, many hundreds of miles away, swotting twelve hours a day for medical exams, accusing me of having a ‘psychic affair’ with some bloke in London I had never met). And other things she said weren’t delusions per se but strange attention-seeking lies that she knew were untrue.
Anyhow, it was very weird her being in a coma on one floor of the Royal Free Hospital in London while my dad, estranged but once so close, was drifting in and out of coma on another floor, after having a heart attack, a cardiac arrest, and suffering anoxic brain damage. Both died after a few months. So you can see why it’s difficult for me to listen to Joy Division. My brother feels the same – though he was five years younger than her compared to my one year younger, so his sibling relationship with her was far less intense.
Now – Leyla with husband at Julie Burchill’s last book launch party
Did you ever edit Gasbag, the NME letters page?
Leyla: Yes, I did that a few times. It was brilliant fun. You got to open all the letters and respond to the ones you chose. You could be as irreverent as you chose, just as you could in reviews. So, where once I had reviewed an album entitled ‘Do You Know Who I Am?’ with a single word – ‘No’ – one could be just as rude, silly or serious in Gasbag. I published a letter by someone saying the only reason he was writing was to see his name in print. And I missed out his name. I would not be as unkind or cheeky now – I was a teenager then, whereas now I am much older and wiser and kinder, and aware of the emotions that people have. I think in my book reviews now (for The Independent on Sunday and The Independent, mainly), I am far more considerate of the feelings of the authors than I was then.
Age brings advantages as well as disadvantages. And in that time, I’ve become a doctor, passed medical exams and two sets of postgrad exams (as a physician -MRCP (UK) – and an anaesthetist – FRCA (Lond)). I have worked as a hospital physician in many specialties and as a consultant anaesthetist. I have learnt what it is to treat the ill and also to develop an incurable illness. I have very severe scleroderma and have lost a leg, most of my large bowel, a thumb, several fingertips and a toe tip, and I have disease involvement of my skin, muscles, gut, lungs, blood, kidney, and heart. So I have learnt humility. And I hope I am a better person for it.
Leyla’s account of her life changing disease can be found here.