Farewell to Smash Hits

The death of Smash Hits, writes Alexis Petridis, speaks volumes about how boring our pop stars have become. He pays tribute to the magazine that lit up his teenage years – and came to define the poptastic 80s

And so, it has come to this. Britain’s brightest pop magazine has gone, as it once would have put it, down the dumper. Smash Hits is to close on February 13, after almost three decades. Circulation and advertising revenue has, apparently, been haemorrhaging since its late-80s peak.

Once it was a magazine so important that even Mrs Thatcher deigned to be interviewed for its pages, albeit disastrously: she announced her favourite record was not by Duran Duran or Madonna but Lita Roza’s 1953 novelty How Much is that Doggie in the Window? (“obsessed with free-market economics even as a child,” the interviewer, Tom Hibbert, later wryly noted).

Today, Smash Hits is a lost cause that has somehow contrived to shed 840,000 readers in the past 17 years. Eulogies have a tendency to be lachrymose and overblown but I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that a part of British pop music has died with it. Smash Hits exists in the popular imagination as an ephemeral magazine that asked pop stars what colour socks they wore. As anyone who actually read it will tell you, that’s desperately wide of the mark. At its best, British pop music has always been about irreverence and irony, individuality and wit. Americans like their pop stars to be just so; the British like theirs to be a bit wonky. It’s the difference between David Cassidy and Dave Hill of Slade, between Justin Timberlake and Robbie Williams and between blonde, bland, perma-grinning Jessica Simpson and Nicola Roberts, the ginger Girl Aloud who permanently wears an expression that suggests she’d be happier working on the tills in Woolworths.

Smash Hits, with its impertinent tone and peculiar sense of humour (as one former writer pointed out, the magazine’s standard line of questioning was never, “What’s your favourite colour?” but “What colour is a Thursday?”) seemed to understand that perfectly. Its death knell may not have been sounded by the rise of the internet or the popularity of mobile phones but by the fact that the music industry has spent the past few years trying to rid British pop stars of precisely the factors that make them interesting.

I devoured Smash Hits fortnightly from the age of eight. In its early days, it was a very different magazine. It had interviews with the Sex Pistols and Ian Dury and the Clash. It carried a specialist disco page, Steppin’ Out With Bev Hiller (well into adulthood, I laboured under the misapprehension that Bev Hiller was the same person as the academic and author Bevis Hillier, perhaps relaxing after a hard day researching the decorative arts of the 1930s by reviewing Zapp’s More Bounce to the Ounce).

Even more esoterically, it ran a specialist indie page: this when “indie” didn’t mean Oasis filling stadiums and the Arctic Monkeys breaking sales records, but music of an unbelievably arcane stripe. I can still remember reading the chart every fortnight, bewildered and thrilled at the names it contained: Poor Old Soul by Orange Juice, Let’s Build a Car by Swell Maps, There Goes Concorde Again by And The Native Hipsters, even I’m in Love with Margaret Thatcher by The Notsensibles (released, unbelievably, by a record label called Snotty Snail). Here was a world fascinatingly beyond my ken. It’s one of the weirder side-effects of Smash Hits’ existence that it got me hooked on indie music without ever actually hearing a note.

But Smash Hits was about to change: out went the marginal stuff and in came blanket coverage of teen pop, then undergoing a massive revival in fortunes, thanks to Adam and the Ants and the Human League. Bev Hiller was released from the Steppin’ Out column, presumably to devote more time to that three-volume biography of John Betjeman. The indie page also went: The Notsensibles would never grace Smash Hits’ pages again, despite having followed up I’m in Love with Margaret Thatcher with the equally winningly titled I Thought You were Dead.

The period between the rise of Adam and the Ants and the collapse of Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s “Hit Factory” empire may prove to be the last truly great pop era, in that it produced not just great pop music, but great pop stars. While the traditional music press, most notably the NME, became ever more verbose and sullen and rarefied in response - this was a time when it couldn’t review the new Shakin’ Stevens single without mentioning Roland Barthes, Wyndham Lewis and Ingmar Bergman’s Sommaren med Monika - Smash Hits truly understood what pop music was about. Its tone was never fawning or respectful, but impudent, wry and occasionally merciless. Any kind of pomposity was held up to endless ridicule.

Most of the pomposity seemed to come from the mouth of Paul Weller, barely out of his teens and already giving a convincing impression of being the most humourless man ever to pick up a guitar. When Weller surveyed the glitz and glamour of early 80s pop with the withering phrase “it’s like punk never ‘appened”, Smash Hits seized on it, and used it at any opportunity. Every fortnight, it seemed, a picture of rouged-up young hopefuls - Blue Zoo, perhaps, or Cava Cava or Classix Nouveau - would appear with the caption: “It’s like punk never ‘appened.”

Memory fails as to which unfortunate first uttered the phrase “success is, like, a double-edged sword” to a Smash Hits journalist, but that too became a catchphrase, rigorously applied any time a pop star began protesting about the pressures of work, as in: “Boy George stormed out of a TV show complaining of being exhausted and that success is, like, a double-edged sword” etc.

Further hilarity was caused by Weller setting up his own publishing house, Riot Stories, to put out something he dispiritingly dubbed Youth Poetry. Smash Hits’ response was a cartoon, featuring Weller receiving the Nobel prize for literature with the words, “Fangyew, fangyew, I’d like to read my latest poem, Teen Angst Part 4968.”

Its reviews were equally biting. I can’t remember which ill-fated combo decided to do a synth-pop cover of Hoagy Carmichael’s I Get Along Without You Very Well, but I can remember Smash Hits’ one-word response: “Ditto.” In their review of David Bowie’s 1983 album Let’s Dance, there was no sense that the journalist was trying to be reasonable, or to justify his views intellectually. It was something rather more potent and familiar, the genuine disappointment of a let-down fan: “Well ... dull. DULL DULL DULL DULL DULL. But so what? Everyone makes a dull record occasionally.”

As the 80s went on, so Smash Hits became bolder, eventually inventing its own argot, affectionately mocking the hyperbolic language of pop. Any pop star whose career was failing was held to be “down the dumper”: by contrast, any pop star who returned after a period in the wilderness was invariably “back, back, BACK!!!!!” A female singer who overdid the sexiness was automatically a “foxtress”, and a rock star who overplayed the social conscience bit – usually the luckless Weller again – was addressing “ver kidz”. It may have been like punk never ‘appened, but you caught a whiff of the movement’s scorched earth puritanism in the mocking disdain with which Smash Hits addressed rock-star hedonism. Any ageing rocker who surrounded himself with nubile females was referred to as “Uncle Disgusting”. Any remarks Uncle Disgusting made about the comeliness of said nubile females were countered in print either with an onomatopoeic representation of someone vomiting (which, if memory serves, went “SPEEEEEEEOOOOOW!”) or with the phrase “pass the sickbag, Alice”.

Alcohol was “rock’n’roll mouthwash” - Smash Hits themselves alleged toasted success with “a cup of milky tea and a cream horn”. Pop stars had their names mangled beyond repair. Having noted both his resemblance to Britain’s most famous missing aristocrat and his flexible attitude to sexuality, Freddie Mercury’s name was altered by degrees to Dame Frederick Of Lucan. For reasons never fully explained, Stephen “Tin Tin” Duffy was always Stephen “Tea Towel” Duffy. The latter was responsible for a genuinely telling Smash Hits moment that revealed both something about the brilliance of the magazine and the cultural richness not of 80s teen pop, but of 80s teen pop stars. In an interview, Duffy, possibly tired of being referred to as Tea Towel, announced his intention to form a folk-rock band. “But isn’t that incredibly boring?” asked the interviewer. “That depends on whether you think Nick Drake is incredibly boring,” countered Duffy.

The exchange sticks in my mind for two reasons. One is the cheeringly snotty cheek of the journalist. Then, the standard response of an NME journalist would have been to launch into a lengthy intellectual harangue in which Jean Baudrillard, Filippo Marinetti and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Die Bitteren Tränen der Petra Von Kant figured heavily. These days, any such irreverence is unimaginable: you can’t picture anyone interrupting, say, Noel Gallagher’s announcement of yet another Oasis album as crushingly lifeless as the last with the words: “But isn’t that incredibly boring?” The other reason is that it was the first time I ever heard the name Nick Drake mentioned: not in the NME or Melody Maker or an esoteric fanzine, but in the pages of a magazine supposedly concerned only with what colour pop stars’ socks were.

I stopped reading Smash Hits a long time ago, on the grounds that continuing to do so in my 20s and 30s would make me look like our old friend Uncle Disgusting. Occasionally, however, our paths crossed, and when they did, it appeared to be doing much the same job as ever: pricking pop stars’ pomposity, dealing in irreverence, making people laugh. A couple of years ago, I found myself watching, awe-struck, while a Smash Hits journalist grilled McFly by bellowing entirely unconnected questions at them. “IS THERE AN AFTERLIFE?” he thundered. Just as McFly would get going on the possibility or otherwise of God’s existence, he would interrupt them. “HAVE YOU EVER MET THE CHEEKY GIRLS?”

Smash Hits may not have changed, but pop stars did. Stephen “Tea Towel” Duffy mentioned Nick Drake. When not unplugging the jukebox and doing us all a favour, Adam Ant was wont to talk about Joe Orton. The Teardrop Explodes’ Julian Cope spent a lot of time happily expounding the benefits of LSD, while the very existence of Boy George clearly raised a number of interesting issues. These were pop stars – teenage girls put their pictures on their walls, they went on Top of the Pops and Saturday Swapshop, their singles made the top 10 – but they were also rounded, interesting, flawed human beings: the sort of people you could ask what colour Thursday was and get a genuinely illuminating or funny response, the sort of people who could take an irreverent joke against themselves.

But in the past decade, rounded, interesting, flawed human beings have vanished entirely from teen pop. Record companies, cleaving to the American model of perfection, began media-training their stars – “media-training” being a technical term for surgically depriving someone of their personality. Pop music in 2006 is no better or worse than it was 25 years ago – the tracks on Girls Aloud’s recent Chemistry album are every bit as thrilling as Adam And The Ants’ Stand and Deliver – but the people who make it have been focus-grouped out of existence. They are witless automatons, smiley conduits for the groundbreaking work of pop production teams. The spirit of golden-era Smash Hits may live on in the flippant, surreal questions asked by the brilliant Simon Amstell on Channel 4’s Popworld (“Would you like some cheese?” “Would you like to get off with me?” etc), but stars who appear on the show have displayed a marked tendency to take offence and storm out in a huff. It’s no surprise that Smash Hits couldn’t survive any longer. So let’s raise a cup of milky tea and a cream horn to its memory.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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