SMASH HITS: MUSIC PRESS GOES POP
It can hardly have escaped your notice that the music press is in trouble. Circulation figures of rock and pop magazines are tumbling, especially the NME. One theory is they’ve lost readers to blogs and websites. Another, slightly more alarming theory is that music journalism is, essentially, finished – nobody wants to hear a writer’s thoughts on a new album because they’re too busy hearing the new album itself.
The internet has sped up consumption. James Dean Bradfield of Manic Street Preachers once told me that, when he was a kid, he would read a review of an album in the NME and it would be weeks, sometimes months, before his local record shop actually got that album in. The review was all he had to go on, so it became vitally important to him. That would never happen today – you’re a couple of clicks and a visit to a shonky website away from hearing anything you want to hear.
That certainly seems to be the thinking over in America, where Spin magazine has called time on album reviews. It tweets them instead. Its argument was that “the value of the average rock critic’s opinion has plummeted now that a working knowledge of Google can get you high-quality audio of practically any record, so you can listen and decide for yourself whether it’s worth a damn”.
I’m bound to say, I hope it isn’t true. Partly that’s out of self-interest – I’m a music journalist. I have been all my adult life. I’ve never had another job, I suspect because I’m uniquely ill suited to doing anything else, and as my friend Cate, who works for Rupert Murdoch, always says when asked how she can bear to work for Rupert Murdoch, bitch gotta make rent. But it’s mostly down to the fact that I’m a music journalist because the music press illuminated my teenage years like nothing else. I loved the NME and Melody Maker, because it was the only place you could read about the music that you heard John Peel play, and because it appeared to be packed with personalities who I got to know like friends. I knew their tastes, I knew the kind of jokes they made, I knew if I agreed with them or not. I loved Select magazine, which turned out to be a magazine almost comically overstuffed with talent. Jon Ronson, the author of The Men Who Stare at Goats, among other things, was the film critic. Graham Linehan, who went on to write Father Ted and The IT Crowd, worked for them. So did Stuart Maconie. And Caitlin Moran. And so did I, eventually. Years after all the stars had moved on, I ended up editing Select, demonstrating my keen commercial sense and editorial nous by running the magazine into the ground in the space of nine months.
But my favourite of all was Smash Hits, which closed in 2006. It is viewed now, as it was viewed in its heyday, a little sniffily, as an ephemeral magazine that asked ephemeral pop stars ephemeral questions about what colour their socks were, while the NME and Melody Maker were doing the serious business of quizzing important rock stars about politics and philosophy. There’s a grain of truth in that. During the1980s glory days of Smash Hits, the NME was verbose and sullen and rarefied – it couldn’t review a Shakin’ Stevens single without mentioning Roland Barthes and Ingmar Bergman – while Smash Hits was wont to put Glasgow faux soulsters Wet Wet Wet on the cover with the headline OCH AYE THE NOO! IT’S THE WETS!
But Smash Hits truly understood pop music. Its tone was never fawning or respectful, but impudent and wry and merciless. It was abundantly aware of the sheer, unending ridiculousness of pop stars, and of the fact that finding the people who made pop music ridiculous wasn’t antithetical to finding the music they made the most transcendent and moving and wonderful art form of all. It had a bizarre sense of humour. As one former employee pointed out, their standard question was never “What’s your favourite colour?” but “What colour is a Thursday?” It held up any kind of pomposity to ridicule. When Paul Weller surveyed the glitz and glamour of early 1980s pop with the withering phrase “it’s like punk never ’appened”, Smash Hits seized on it and gleefully used it at every opportunity. Every fortnight, a picture of some rouged-up hopefuls – Classix Nouveaux maybe, or Blue Zoo or Fashion – would appear captioned “it’s like punk never ’appened”.
It virtually invented its own language, affectionately mocking the hyperbole of pop. Any pop star whose career was failing was “down the dumper”; any pop star who returned was “back, back, BACK!!!!” A female singer who overdid the sexiness was “a foxtress”, while a rock star who overplayed the social conscience bit was held to be addressing “ver kidz”. Any ageing rocker who surrounded himself with nubile females was referred to as “Uncle Disgusting”. Alcohol was “rock’n’roll mouthwash”.
It was the magazine that invariably referred to Paul McCartney as Fab Macca Whacky Thumbs Aloft, a brilliant nickname in that (a) it’s funny, and (b) it seemed to get to something a little nagging about him: that faux The-Beatles-Were-a-Great-Little-Band-Y’know humility, the everyday-guy act that he has constructed to help deal with the fact that he’s not an everyday guy, he’s Paul Bloody McCartney. Having noted Freddie Mercury’s regal-bearing, flexible attitude to sexuality and resemblance to a famous missing peer, it always referred to the Queen front man as Dame Frederick of Lucan. For reasons I’m not entirely sure, Stephen Tin Tin Duffy was always Stephen Tea Towel Duffy.
And Smash Hits taught you things. Not just about music, although it was the first place that I ever heard Nick Drake’s name mentioned – in an interview with our old friend Stephen Tea Towel Duffy, as it happens. It was, bizarrely, where I learnt about politics, from interviews with the Redskins and The Style Council and even Margaret Thatcher. The latter deigned to be interviewed, which gives you some idea of what a big deal Smash Hits was at its peak. It was a decision that proved disastrous – she announced her favourite record was not by Duran Duran or Madonna, but something hopelessly square: Lita Roza’s 1953 novelty hit How Much Is That Doggie (“obsessed with free-market economics even as a child”, the interviewer, the late Tom Hibbert, subsequently noted). It was where I learnt about literature, from interviews with Morrissey and – of all people – Adam Ant, who when not unplugging the jukebox and doing us all a favour, was often to be found extolling the oeuvre of the gay 1960s playwright Joe Orton.
I suppose that tells you something about the era Smash Hits thrived in. I’m not saying pop music was better in the 1980s – there was exactly as much dreck around then as there is now – but I’ve got a feeling that the pop stars might have been. This was that weird post-punk period when the kind of artists who teenage girls screamed at tended not to be manufactured by shadowy Simon Cowell-like figures, but graduates from art schools who had come to Top of the Pops by way of the indie charts or London’s transgressive club scene. You ended up with Boy George, or Frankie Goes to Hollywood, or The Teardrop Explodes’ Julian Cope, who was much given to expounding on the benefits of taking LSD during interviews, often because he had actually taken LSD before *giving* the interview. They were interesting, flawed, rounded human beings. If you asked them what colour a Thursday was, you’d probably get an interesting answer. There are clearly pop stars for whom that is still the case – I feel very wistful indeed when I imagine the kind of fun Smash Hits might have had with Lady Gaga, and vice versa – but it feels like they’re in the minority. These days, pop stars undergo media training precisely to stop them saying anything interesting, lest it cause offence and cause them to sell fewer albums in a volatile, contracting market.
So, perhaps Smash Hits couldn’t exist today; the raw material just isn’t there.
Or perhaps 1980s pop seems like a brighter, more exciting world precisely because Smash Hits existed, and pop today would seem just as bright and exciting if it still did exist. Certainly, its writing made pop seem better, funnier, smarter than it was. You could argue that the headline OCH AYE THE NOO, IT’S THE WETS!!! is intrinsically more entertaining than anything Wet Wet Wet actually recorded. It potentiated pop music. That’s what good music journalism does. It’s not a substitute for listening to music – that has lost its value now that anyone can listen to any music they want whenever they want. It’s something that makes the act of listening to music richer, more enjoyable. I’d miss it if it went. Of course I would: it pays my mortgage. But I don’t think I’d be the only one.
by Alexis Petridis