For many of my generation the 80s wasn’t all hairspray, Wag Club and pencil tached men in macs and shiny red boots. It was dreary. The rain seemed to constantly pat away on the double glazing (if you were lucky enough to have double glazing), the radio was full of bearded pipe smokers who talked over the songs with stories about pipes and beards. ‘Music TV’ was rationed to a couple of selected TV shows per week. It was East Germany out there, brother. You had to fight for your kicks. Or, go to the newsagents.
Three rough paper broadsheet weeklies (Sounds, NME and Melody Maker), plus Record Mirror, Number One, The Face, Blitz and of course the thinking teen’s pop pantheon Smash Hits were all worthy organs. Indie was ‘indie’ and had its own chart thank you very much. The Maker, Sounds and NME invited the curious in by trying their level best to put them off. Pages upon pages of black, smudgy attitude and debates concerning ‘selling out’ (remember Mark E Smith being pilloried for possibly wearing an Armani jumper) gave the titles the outsider appeal and credibility the reader lusted for. These people were on the whole too damn angry to grow pipes or smoke beards.
The fortnightly Smash Hits on the other hand was equally infectious in a joyful way. A rare bird, just looking at Ver Hits made you want to get right in there, plop onto the page and its bright headlines, screamers (exclamation marks), song lyrics (couldn’t Google ’em then, son) and ‘Adam Ant leather trouser advertisements’. Supremely smart, funny and irreverent Smash Hits was perfectly aligned with what now seems by comparison, a vibrant, arty, witty time in pop. Pop in the late 70s/early 80s could be equally pretentious as it was ambitious but it was never dull. The fact that a band like Duran Duran could prise the money out of luminous fingerless gloves with a song about a Union Of The Snake was wonderful. It wasn’t until Stock Aitken & Waterman, together with faceless rave, that pop magazines started to whither on the vine with no bugger to talk to.
Supremely smart, funny and irreverent Smash Hits was perfectly aligned with what now seems by comparison, a vibrant, arty, witty time in pop.
At its peak, the loveable ‘swingorilliant’, blee-inducing Smash Hits was a must. Many devoted readers bought the me-too weekly Number One – when you still had another week to go until the new Hits – just to get a fix. Although pop was always celebrated, it was also inflated and duly deflated. Morrissey, Prince, Ben Vol-Au-Vent Pierrot were all fair game and all equally at home in a truly eclectic title that never patronised its audience. We were always in on the joke even if we adored the victim. The world Smash Hits help up was rich and diverse, covering pop, rock, dance, rap in its own inimitable way. Smash Hits loved Prince and Morrissey but it also brought the dames down to street level. Smash Hits asked stars about their socks, dreams and cheese (maybe even dreams about cheesy socks?) which somehow never seemed stupid at the time. If Paul King had a penchant for Black Cherry Ski yoghurt then we needed to be told.
It’s hard to imagine it now, but the power of balance between journalist and the musician was so much more finely balanced. Press officers, desperate for any attention, just mailed out the promo cassettes and vinyl. A Melody Maker luminary once said that if you wanted to go on tour with The Clash ‘You just rang Joe.’ As a result, journalists were much more daring and occupied a potentially dangerous seat sat opposite a face. There was no fragile PR house of cards about to come tumbling down. OK, so Morrissey won’t ‘do us again’. Boo hoo!
Smash Hits loved Prince and Morrissey but it also brought the dames down to street level. Smash Hits asked stars about their socks, dreams and cheese
Interviews were, by proxy, much more confrontationally heightened. Sometimes you would read a question and immediately place your hand over the answer, readying yourself for the often, snarling response. If the ‘star’ didn’t play ball, then the piece didn’t run. If the piece didn’t run then the star only had the beard smokers left to court. Simple as. There were no 24-hr music shows and digital radio. It was East Germany out there.
This tensile relationship between journalist and ‘star’ often – in my mind anyway – shifted the spotlight. The celebrities in my mind across the numerous titles included the likes of Paul Morley, Ian Penman, Mark Ellen and Neil Tennant (when he was Ver Hits Assistant Editor – natch). And of course Tom Hibbert.
I didn’t know Tom as a person so I can’t comment on his preferences for cheese or socks. But I was a fan and an admirer of Hibbert’s cultish Black Type responses in Your Letters (Ben from Curiosity had a Black Type patch on his denim jacket) and his trademark louche interview technique that coaxed out the honey without upsetting the bees (well, most of the time). Poking Morrissey about his vegetarianism Hibbert asks: “What about your heroes? I’m sure Oscar Wilde enjoyed a nice leg of mutton…” Hibbert sometimes occupied an almost parental stance, treating these luminaries like a father would question strange-haired boyfriends sitting on the couch, waiting for his daughter to come downstairs.
The pinnacle of Hibbert’s pop work – in terms of press coverage anyway – was sharing a cuppa with Margaret Thatcher in 1987 when the Iron Lady queered her own pitch to a switched-on Network 7 generation by admitting that her favourite song was ‘How Much) Is That Doggie In The Window?’ Hibbert was a name.
Hibbert sometimes occupied an almost parental stance, treating these luminaries like a father would question strange-haired boyfriends sitting on the couch, waiting for his daughter to come downstairs.
I followed Tom Hibbert from Smash Hits to Q when I was 16 as one strand of my interests – at least for a brief while – included ‘quality’ rock. Hibbert’s Who The Hell interviews were worth the price of admission alone. Desperate to appear in a magazine like Q it was amazing how many top draw celebrities would line-up to appear in a franchise that often may well have been called: ‘Hey! We all think you’re an arsehole!’ Jeremy Clarkson, Jimmy Saville and Tom Jones were all playfully toyed around with by Hibbert. The Cali-tanned Jones compared to a ‘burly greengrocer’ rather than a ‘sex god’. There’s a Who The Hell collection out there that could well do with a reprint.
It is with a teary eye that one flicks through the bound ‘Best Of Smash Hits’ and the archived ‘Who The Hells’ to recall a time when journalists properly sparred with the stars. A time when the magazine seemed bigger than the people on the cover. When the byline was just as important as the headline. When writers dangled the reputations of the rich and famous, directly into the face of their public to see if it would bite. When a rock star’s credibility was, for a brief moment, held firmly within an inky, nicoteened claw. Hands that belonged to men like Tom.
Tom Hibbert died on September 1, 2011, aged 59.
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