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Trouser Press, One of the All-Time Great Music Magazines, Finally Gets an Anthology: Book Review

Despite and also because of its puzzling inside-joke name, Trouser Press was one of the greatest music magazines in history.

It existed for just a decade — from 1974 through 1984 — but in the process, it nurtured the careers of thousands of musicians and exponentially more fans, future musicians, writers, music executives and others. But unlike nearly every major music publication, it had no anthology or collection of its greatest work — until the release last Friday of “Zip It Up! The Best of Trouser Press Magazine 1974-1984,” a sprawling 440-page 50th anniversary collection of its greatest articles that is practically a real-time history of some of the best rock music of that era, from the Who, the Rolling Stones and David Bowie to the Sex Pistols and the Clash to U2 and the Cure, and dozens more.

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Launched in early 1974 by a group of Who fanatics/British-rock obsessives — and edited for its entire existence by Ira A. Robbins — the magazine was initially written on typewriters and mimeographed; the first copy cost a quarter. That first issue, which naturally featured the Who’s Pete Townshend on its cover, garnered its creators a humorous letter from Townshend himself (recapped in full in this book’s introduction). Trouser Press — the name comes from a song of the same title by the ‘60s British pop-comedy group the Bonzo Dog Band — was off and running.

Over the next decade, the magazine, which arose in a year when rock was dominated by the Eagles, progressive rock and arena rockers like the Who, Stones and Led Zeppelin, spoke to fans of the British rock that its creators were raised on, but also introduced them to virtually every important new act that arose in those years — and when punk and new wave burst out of the same New York City music scene that also spawned the magazine, Trouser Press was right there with it.

Yet unlike the British weeklies NME, Melody Maker and Sounds; “new wave”-specific publications like New York Rocker, Slash and Zig Zag; and the much-loathed establishment rag, Rolling Stone, Trouser Press covered both worlds: The Stones and Bruce Springsteen were as likely to be on the cover as the Clash, Elvis Costello and the Pretenders, but the articles on classic rockers were more likely to be filled with little-known historical anecdotes and details about rare B-sides and bootlegs that would send readers scampering on treasure hunts to find them. (While the influential Detroit-based Creem magazine predated TP and covered much of the same terrain, it had a tendency to insult both its readers and the artists it covered.)

Many of the people who wrote those articles went on to become major music writers or already were (Lester Bangs, Kurt Loder, Nick Kent, David Fricke, Gloria Stavers, John Leland, Bill Flanagan, Holly Gleason) but were just as likely to become prominent musicians, managers, DJs or executives themselves (Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, the Dictators’ Scott Kempner, Tim Sommer, Danny Heaps, Carter Alan) — in other words, die-hard music geeks who just had to find ways to be involved with the music they loved. However, much of the magazine’s greatest work came from a core team that included OGs Dave Schulps, Scott Isler, Jim Green, Jon Young, Robbins and cofounder Karen Rose. In 10 years, the magazine produced 5,508 pages with 859 feature articles and 3,320 album reviews.

In those features are such timeless quotes as “I’ve always been optimistic about life — I’ve not always been optimistic about my role in it” (Townshend); “I don’t like walking the streets and seeing 30,000 imitations of me (John Lydon/Rotten); “I wasn’t an outcast, I cast myself out” (Ian Dury); and “It’s hard to sing a song that makes you puke — you can’t do both at the same time” (Grace Slick).

As a music fan who essentially grew up on Trouser Press, it’s hard to overstate what a welcome presence it was. Its writers asked intelligent and informed music questions at a time when that was not the norm, and wrote with attitude and humor but not condescension — where some of the above publications might have made you feel embarrassed for still being a Led Zeppelin fan, Trouser Press featured an expansive three-part 1977 interview with Jimmy Page that covered his entire career (and featured the guitarist raving enthusiastically about then-new punk rock). The fact that one of the world’s biggest rock stars devoted so much time to it shows not only the respect the magazine commanded but also how engaged he was with the conversation.

Today, when an artist’s entire recorded output can be accessed in seconds, it’s hard to convey just how difficult it was to find out about new music in that pre-MTV era. The only options were cool record stores and nightclubs, college radio and magazines like these, which could be as challenging to find as some of the records they wrote about. TP was not only a cool friend who was “into” the same music you were, it knew a lot more about that music than you did. (Disclosure: This writer did not contribute to the magazine but did write entries for the later “Trouser Press Record Guide” books.)

While “Zip It Up” is missing the album reviews — too many, too dated to include — and stellar photography — too expensive, too legally complicated — that were such a major part of the magazines, it has presented, with light editing, some of the greatest of its nearly 900 features. The initial chapters cover classic rock — the Who, Stones, Zeppelin and the Kinks as well as Small Faces and Syd Barrett — before it moves into the magazine’s own era: Bowie, T. Rex, Lou Reed, the New York Dolls, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Blondie, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Devo, Black Flag, the Pretenders, X, Gang of Four, U2, Joan Jett, the Cure and so many more. While there isn’t much Black music covered outside of reggae, music scenes were much more siloed in those days and TP focused on what its audience wanted. There’s also a handful of the mag’s excellent regular columns and some afterwords, along with a lengthy history of the magazine itself (Robbins has never been a man of few words).

While many felt that the magazine’s moment had truly arrived with the early ’80s advent of the MTV juggernaut and the preponderance of new wave acts featured on it, instead Robbins felt the channel had rendered Trouser Press redundant — why would people read about these artists when they could see them on TV 24-7? — and shut it down. Arguably, he was ahead of his time on that take as well — music journalism has been confronting that existential question on a much larger scale since the advent of the internet.

But although the places to write about music are becoming fewer and farther between, there’s more music being created and released today than ever before — and arguably more need for curators, for people who love the music so much that they just have to find ways to get involved with it. A half century later, that love still jumps off the pages of Trouser Press.

“Zip It Up” is available from Trouser Press Books and other outlets.

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