"Ever felt a magazine is written just for you?" That was what one reader of the Word, Nick Horton, said on Twitter on Friday – just one of many outpourings of grief from likeminded music lovers mourning the loss of a dear friend.
I can't think of another magazine – or website – that had the same relationship with its readers. This was no accident. The Word put its readers – "The Massive", as we were referred to – at the centre of its content. Readers' reviews appeared in the magazine, their questions were answered on the podcast – there were even Word gigs and events at which readers could meet Word editors and contributors. It was run by humans, for humans. Us readers were credited with intelligence. As one reader, ShaunA, commented on the Word's website on Friday, it "assumed you knew the difference between Rimbaud and Rambo, that you knew who Robert Johnson was, and could distinguish between Pet Sounds and Pet Shop Boys".
Making users central is a modern concept – most successful websites are environments in which users can interact with each other, and share and create content. The Word did this on its website, but also in the magazine. It attempted to defy conventional wisdom that print was a dying medium, by offering long reads by great writers, inspired in part by the New Yorker (hence the illustrations on the cover), but also by the NME of the late 70s and early 80s. And it inherited the irreverence of the great pop magazine Smash Hits, of course, created, like the Word, by Mark Ellen and David Hepworth.
I first got into the Word after discovering the podcast. It affected to be shambolic – just people "talking bollocks" – but presenter (and Word publisher) Hepworth negotiated his way around a range of subjects with the skill of the broadcasting pro he was. (Hepworth's blog is brilliant, by the way: his observations are finely articulated with an Orwellian eye for detail.) I quickly downloaded all the podcasts I missed, and listened to them all. Hoary old rock anecdotes (I'll never hear a harmonica on a Van Morrison record in quite the same way), celebrity guests (Neil Tennant, Danny Baker, Nick Lowe, Van Dyke Parks) – and yes, plenty of talking bollocks. Hepworth was a cynical Eeyore, while Ellen was positive and Tigger-ish. Yin and yan. The other contributors were great too – Andrew Harrison, Rob Fitzpatrick, Jude Rogers – and bizarrely, for me, Matt Hall, who now sits at the desk next to me at the Guardian.
The Word was largely created around the personality of the charismatic Ellen. Subscribers received a letter from Ellen each month, and each issue opened with Ellen's diary, a glittering (for us fortysomethings who don't go out much any more) round of gigs, backstage parties, book launches and award ceremonies (at which he picked up more than a few gongs). From the tributes on Friday, contributors clearly love working for him. (I wrote a couple of album reviews several years ago, but my relationship with the Word was more as a fan.)
The Word always felt as though it was run on a shoestring budget, but what it lacked in investment it more than made up for in enthusiasm, wit, charm, intelligence … and good writing. Mojo and Uncut are fine as sources of information about what Guardian rock critic Alexis Petridis calls "heritage rock". But the Word was a magazine you'd actually want to read.
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