Pages of innocence: Devotees are creating an online archive of the magazines that chronicled their youth
All over Britain, there are attics cluttered with them: crateloads of studiously compiled pop-culture magazines from yesteryear, now yellowing and dusty, that mums and dads are under strict instructions never to throw out. Men and women (though it's almost always men) of a certain generation can have a strange relationship with the magazines of their youth. Whether it's a stack of Smash Hits from the Eighties or every copy of The Face from the early Nineties, we may rarely go back to read them but we just need to know they are there should we ever need an emergency portal back to the good times they helped to narrate.
Now, some of these diligently preserved collections have been liberated from their darkened lofts, painstakingly scanned into computers and posted online for other mag-fanatics to enjoy. Last month, Richard Beckett, a 33-year-old web developer, became the latest amateur archivist to do just this. With a large pile of Select magazines cluttering up his home, he decided to share them with the world to see if there was anyone else out there who might want to relive the Nineties via the pages of one of the most popular music magazines of the time.
"I've always enjoyed flicking through old magazines for the memories they bring back," Beckett says. "I thought it might be something other people might enjoy looking at too." It was. After being tweeted by a couple of fellow Select enthusiasts, the link to Beckett's site spread quickly as people found a whole new exhilarating day of wasting hours of the working day on the internet. It is truly amazing (or possibly depressing) how much time it's possible to spend reading an article from February 1994 about how much the lead singer of Lush enjoys a pint of cider.
Beckett's scanning endeavours (which can be found at selectmagazinescans.netii.net) followed similarly successful efforts by collectors of The Face, Melody Maker and Smash Hits. Whole communities of mag-nostalgists are being formed around these brilliantly immersive archives.
"I went home for Christmas a couple of years ago and saw that my mum was clearing out all my old Melody Makers," says Charles Batho, a 39-year-old digital creative director from London. "I saw the boxes by the back door and said, 'Noooooo!' These were an important part of my youth! So I took them home and, one bank holiday Monday, decided to start scanning them all in." The resultant blog (archivedmusicpress.wordpress.com) has thrived since 2009, with fans poring over the articles Batho has meticulously archived from the late Eighties and early Nineties. "I did it mostly to give something back to all the other people who had selflessly posted content on the web that I had enjoyed over the years." The posts on his site reflect a sometimes euphoric level of appreciation from fellow Melody Maker fans. "Reading this blog is like seeing my psychological DNA unfold," reads one. "It's no over-claim to say that Melody Maker was both an education and a kind of imaginary best mate."
And that's the essence of the appeal. These were magazines from a pre-internet age when they were many people's only guidance through a less accessible pop-cultural landscape. While they all represented different strands of youth culture, what Melody Maker shared with Select, The Face and Smash Hits was an all-important ability to involve intimately their readers in what felt like a club. "It was the little touches that got me into Smash Hits," says Brian McCloskey, 41, who has been scanning an early-Eighties issue of the seminal pop magazine on to Flickr every fortnight for the past two years. "Putting the mags online made me realise that when I was a 10-year-old in my bedroom in Derry obsessing over the lyrics of "Up the Junction" in Smash Hits, I wasn't alone. There were thousands of others like me – it just took me 30 years to find them." Certainly, excitable discussion of McCloskey's archive thrives on the accompanying blog (likepunkneverhappened.blogspot.com) and Facebook page.
For Mark Ellen, who edited Smash Hits in the Eighties (and was later editor of Select), the magazine was always about cultivating this sense of community. "It was like the Facebook of its day," he says. "We had readers from completely different parts of the country who were all somehow bonded by all the little made-up phrases and in-jokes we'd put in the mag. It's thrilling to think that these kindred spirits who were all obsessing over the same stuff in their youths are now discovering each other and forming a sort of group around it."
Nostalgia, it seems, doesn't come in a more neatly packaged form than a digital rendition of a magazine page. "Nothing skews a moment in time, a youth movement, like a magazine," Batho says. "You can probably find some of the same info elsewhere on the web but it's about more than just the words. It's about seeing the pages as a whole – the pictures, the layouts, even the ads." Beckett concurs: "Magazines are great for [nostalgia] since they cover the peripheral stuff that time has forgotten about and which will never get mentioned in documentaries."
Ellen compares it to tearing up carpet and discovering an old scrap of newspaper underneath. "It's like a time capsule. Every last detail is riveting because it nails the day on which it was printed so perfectly. And once you pick it up, you just can't stop reading."
Given their popularity, it's somewhat surprising that the publishers of these defunct titles haven't ever digitally archived them themselves. "There probably isn't much profit in doing that," Ellen points out. "Plus, Bauer Media [owners of the rights to Smash Hits] published a Smash Hits Christmas annual a few years back, which did quite well. If they published the same material online they'd ruin its exclusivity."
In any case, it would surely be a more sterile experience to read these magazine pages on a corporately endorsed website. Google Books has archived numerous American titles, from Ebony to Men's Health and, as of this week, Graydon Carter's cultish Spy, but there's something less satisfying about the experience of reading them via the world's most popular search engine. Unearthing the hard work of fellow fans is part of the fun. But be warned, if you grew up in the Eighties or Nineties, these archives may prove almost too hypnotic.
"People keep writing to me via the blog to tell me they've wasted days on a 1981 copy of Smash Hits," McCloskey says. "That's fine by me. I mean, what a great way to waste a day!"
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