Ian Penman

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For the TV producer, radio broadcaster and journalist who writes as Ian Ravendale, see Ian Penman (producer).
Ian Penman's Vital Signs

Ian Penman (born in 1959) is a British writer and, latterly, blogger. He began writing for the NME in the autumn of 1977, later contributing to various publications including Uncut, Arena, The Wire, The Face, The Guardian, The Times, The Sunday Times, The Independent, Screen and German Vogue.

Many of Penman's essays and reviews were collected in his book Vital Signs: Music, Movies and Other Manias (Serpent's Tail, 1998), praised by critic Bhob Stewart in Publishers Weekly:

After a peripatetic childhood in the Middle East and the UK, Penman was set to start art school in 1977. But during a year off, he began reviewing for the UK's leading music paper, New Musical Express, and became one of its star writers. In his first collection, Penman pulls together pieces from the back files of NME, as well as The Face, The Sunday Times, Ikon, The Wire and Sight and Sound. With more than 45 essays spanning from 1979 to 1995, Penman coasts over the full pop panoply from Amis to Warhol and Zappa, leaving quotable passages in his wake: Jackson Pollock "painted like he drank: messily, but with a secret logic in pursuit of the ultimate liquid line, the Big Slur." Norman Mailer "stood for that raw roller coaster feeling, the pure starburst energy of post-war American birth and becoming." Hunter S. Thompson: "The only person he caricatured convincingly now was himself." An interview with Harry Dean Stanton ("last of the great white Dharma bums") becomes a prismatic prose poem. A few pages on Quentin Tarantino turn into an all-out attack: "Despite their spitty hissy tom-cat woozy-Uzi male-violence malevolence these are real 'feel-good' movies... The only film he could convincingly make would be about the Film Festival circuit." These commentaries, profiles, reviews and interviews are packaged neither chronologically nor thematically; however, the closing taglines sometimes make a free-associational link to the opening paragraph of the next entertaining essay. Penman's pages have few wasted words, and amid his clever barbs are genuine insights.

Gordon Flagg, writing about Vital Signs in Booklist, noted, "He is a dextrous and invariably entertaining writer, but too many of the subjects herein are now either irrelevant (e.g., a dozen-year-old interview with rock duo Was (Not Was) or overfamiliar (profiles of overexposed celebs like Oliver Stone and Steve Martin)... The two pieces that bracket the collection, a firsthand essay on the drug scene and ruminations on underappreciated '70s U.S. singer-songwriter Tim Buckley, indicate, however, that the volume disserves Penman by not including more of this sort of offbeat commentary."

Julia Kenna reviewed the book for Rolling Stone, commenting, "Full of contradictions and witty one-liners, Penman uses language as an art form, playing with puns, synonyms, repetition, and punctuation for added effect... Two decades of politics, music and pop culture with a whip-smart wit and wisdom that draws you in and doesn’t let go."

Penman contributed the text to the catalogue of photographer Robert Frank's exhibition Storylines, Tate Modern 2004/2005.

In recent times Penman's contributions to the NME have come to be judged in an increasingly negative light, most tellingly by his former colleagues. Long-time NME writer Roy Carr, quoted in Pat Long's "The History Of The NME" book (Portico 2012) when talking about Penman and his fellow scribe Paul Morley says that; "Their writing was just impenetrable. Overnight there was a revolt amongst the readers. They just left in their droves and never came back. And NME never recovered".

In the same book, NME editor during the Morley and Penman period Neil Spencer comments; "Morley always delivered great interviews and Ian was very bright. But their egos went absolutely out of control. They were writing pretentious bullshit."

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