The Best of Smash Hits ed Mark Frith

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The Independent Culture

Earlier this year, when publishers Emap finally pulled the plug on Smash Hits, many saw it as a mercy killing. Like that other great British pop institution, Top of the Pops, the magazine had seen better days. Successive editors seemed to get younger and dumber as the readership dwindled, squandering its pocket money on Cheese String and Crazy Frog ringtones.

But if you were a teenager in the 1980s, and you had even a passing interest in pop, Smash Hits was your bible. Unlike its inky predecessors, the NME and Sounds, Smash Hits was in colour, which made it the perfect medium for the riot of post-punk posturing known as the New Romantics (soon to become the New Pop). First came Adam Ant, followed by Steve Strange and Soft Cell. Once boys in make-up were an accepted part of the pop mainstream, it wasn't long before Boy George came skipping into view in his ribbons and bows.

Smash Hits documented all this and more. Who could disagree with their verdict on the last great Bowie album, Scary Monsters: "complex, disturbing and streets ahead of the imitators"? Or how about the time Marc Almond responded to the reader's question "Are you gay?" by saying he didn't believe anybody was anything (that'll be a "yes", then). And who could possibly forget Pete Burns and Morrissey gracing the cover as "The Odd Couple", or the upsetting lime green jumper worn by Madonna for her first Smash Hits interview in 1984?

Not me, obviously. But if your capacity for retaining pop trivia isn't as highly developed, rest assured there's The Best of Smash Hits to help jog your memory. And what a handsome volume it is, too: 200 pages of classic features, lovingly recreated with some sample song lyrics and pullout posters thrown in for good measure. Edited by Mark Frith, with a foreword by one-time assistant editor Neil Tennant, it's a reminder of how great the magazine was in its day, and how far its influence stretched (all the way to Heat, which Frith now edits).

As the book also reminds us, Smash Hits didn't always get it right. In 1978, when the British punk scene was producing iconic figures like Siouxsie Sioux, the magazine launched with Belgian one-hit wonder Plastic Bertrand on the cover. In 1984, when Bob Geldof called on pop's royalty to record a little song called "Do They Know It's Christmas?", the cover was devoted to the forgotten pop duo Strawberry Switchblade. Other 1980s cover stars included Jimmy the Hoover and Department S, but not Michael Jackson.

The secret of Smash Hits's success was that it never talked down its readers, even if they were 14 and thought Kajagoogoo were worth getting het up about. As demonstrated by the readers' letters (addressed to the infamous "Black Type"), it always treated them as equals, fellow conspirators in a plot to deflate pop stars' egos with silly names ("Dame David Bowie", "Lord Clifford of Richard") and even sillier questions (to Wayne Hussey of The Mission: "What colour is January?"). Irreverence came as standard. Where else would a pop star be asked why they'd got so fat (Jim Kerr) or whether they were any good at making potato sculptures (Nick Kamen, who answered no but claimed he was a dab hand with butter).

Journalists at Smash Hits didn't quote Derrida like the NME's Paul Morley, but that didn't mean they were any less intelligent. It's no accident that that most literate of pop stars, Neil Tennant, worked here before becoming a Pet Shop Boy. Though few Smash Hits hacks achieved the dizzy heights of pop stardom, many went on to greater things. The magazine produced some first-rate journalists, among them Mark Ellen, Chris Heath, Miranda Sawyer and Kate Thornton (well, maybe not Kate Thornton). Reproduced here you have lengthy interviews with Adam Ant, Culture Club, Duran Duran, Madonna, Morrissey and Margaret Thatcher (still crazy after all these years).

Finally we have the covers, all 262 of them, dating from January 1980 to December 1989. The first thing that strikes you is how varied they are - everyone from Debbie Harry to Neneh Cherry, John Lydon to Jason Donovan. Then you see a pattern emerging. At the start of the decade, pre-Aids, there's an abundance of men in make-up, all looking rather queer. From 1986 onwards, post-Aids, the cover stars are either children's television presenters, singing soap stars or antiseptic boybands. There, in a nutshell, you have the story of pop in the 1980s, and how an industry fuelled by teenage bedroom fantasies was forced to clean up its act.

Just one thing to ponder. The full title of this book is The Best of Smash Hits - The '80s. Please don't say they're planning another volume. The best of Smash Hits was the '80s. End of.

Paul Burston's novel 'Star People' is published by Time Warner at £10.99. His next novel, 'Lovers and Losers', about an Eighties synth pop duo, is published in April 2007

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