Why I love the modern age
Because I never thought I'd ever see this again:
There are two reasons I'm incredibly happy about suddenly and unexpectedly rediscovering it – as I just have – of which the first is the less important.
My fondest memories of childhood are of family holidays at English seaside resorts – Morecambe, Bridlington and, most especially, Southport.
Sad and run down now (I went back a few years ago on semi-business and it was barely a resort town at all any more – the amusement parks have been replaced with grey-shed retail zones full of Matalan and McDonalds), it was once Blackpool's refined, posher sister. (I suppose it still is – these things are relative, and Blackpool hasn't escaped the march of time either.) It was like the Bath to Blackpool's Bristol, if you will.
Until today I couldn't even have told you what age I was when I first went to Southport, but now I can – 11. I know this because my clearest specific memory of the holiday is of reading the issue of Smash Hits from which the above image is constructed, and especially the startling interview with Gary Numan, who was just about to shed the name Tubeway Army and go solo.
(The opening three paragraphs of it have stayed fixed in my brain from that day to this – I haven't seen the feature in 21 years, but I could have recited you those paragraphs verbatim, in much the same way that I could have hummed you the music from New Rally-X note perfect from 1980 until it finally came back with Namco Museum in the early 90s, without ever having heard it in the intervening decade.)
We used to go on holiday with my aunt, uncle and cousin, but being Scottish people abroad – England was "abroad" in those pre-Easyjet days – the grownups couldn't live without the Scottish Daily Record in the mornings. I'd always volunteer to get up early and go to a newsagent a few hundred yards away that stocked it, because I did and still do love being up and about while everyone else is in their beds. (As long as the sun's out, which it always seemed to be in Southport.)
I'd be out of the door of the (now sadly long-gone) Fernley Hotel at about 7am, strolling up some of the town's wide, leafy side streets without a care in the world, and more often than not I'd buy myself a comic or magazine as well as the newspaper, flush as I was with disposable income. (Having spent all year saving up for the holidays so that I could go crazy in the arcades.)
And so it was that one day in (I now know) June-July 1979 I came to buy my first ever copy of Smash Hits. The now-defunct publication is often lionised in retrospect, but the mag that Stuart Maconie et al revere for money on nostalgia shows isn't the one I fell in love with that day. They all recall a breezy pop mag about Stock Aitken Waterman drivel like Five Star and Mel & Kim, but the halcyon days of Smash Hits were a lot more interesting than that.
Because – and it's hard to imagine if you've ever read any of the retro compilations, which completely airbrush out the first half-dozen years of the mag's life – Smash Hits used to be basically an extremely eclectic punk-rock and New Wave magazine. The one I bought was issue 12, and previous cover stars had included Blondie, The Jam, The Boomtown Rats, Lene Lovich, Sham 69, X-Ray Spex and Blondie again.
But there was also room for Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy, disco diva Donna Summer and (I think) Rod Stewart, because Smash Hits covered whatever it felt like covering. So a single issue could, and did, feature interviews with Siouxsie And The Banshees and Rose Royce, song lyrics by the Rezillos and Leo Sayer, and gossip about Roxy Music and Jilted John, without there ever being any suggestion that there was anything unusual in the fact.
(My own first issue, as alert viewers will have already noticed, saw Gary Numan's chilling future visions rub shoulders with an at-home piece round Chas'n'Dave's place, and reviews of new releases by Chic and Devo.)
I'd been a little baby punk-rock kid a couple of years earlier (I've still got my extremely tattered old God Save The Queen 7" that I bought when I was 9), and I couldn't believe that I'd stumbled across a glossy magazine happy to cover my favourite bands (like the Skids, who were probably the main reason I'd picked up that original issue, or more embarrassingly my punk faves Sham 69) alongside all the artists I was used to seeing on Top Of The Pops.
It sent the message that music was just music, that the weirdo outsider stuff I liked was just as valid and worthwhile as what was at No.1 (and vice versa), and it's an ethos that's stayed with me ever since in every walk of life.
(I've never been able to understand why certain people sneer at games just because they're budget titles, or PD games, or retro or on handhelds or Xbox Indie or whatever. It still amazes me how little respect the DS, for example, got for being the biggest-selling format of the last decade.)
I bought Smash Hits religiously for years after that, until most of the good writers moved on and it abandoned covering interesting stuff in favour of turning into basically Heat for 13-year-olds, sometime around 1987 or thereabouts. Reading about Rick Astley and Jason Donovan and Bros and the Reynolds Girls alongside The Fall and Frankie Goes To Hollywood was peachy. The first four on their own, not so much.
In return for those seven years of devotion it brought me all kinds of rewards, both directly and indirectly. It introduced me to bands who would literally change my entire life, and it had a huge and lasting influence on me as a writer too. And not just me – read early Smash Hits and you'll realise just how big the debt is that it's owed by Your Sinclair, in design terms as well as editorial ones.
But enough of my wistful ramblings. I mention all this for a reason, and the reason is that you don't have to take my word for it. Some impossibly kind and wonderful soul has taken upon himself to start scanning the entire history of Smash Hits and posting it online. You can find it here:
The fact that he's chosen to do it in just about the most user-unfriendly way imaginable – Flickr, for heaven's sake – rather than the more conventional method of uploading entire issues in CBR or CBZ or even RAR format is the tiniest price to pay for an archive of sheer gold like this.
(EDIT 2 July 2011: Superbly, you now can download the issues for offline browsing, not as CBRs or CBZs but in a wide variety of other formats from PDFs to the raw JPG image files. The archive is located here.)
Never mind whether you were around in 1979 or not. Despite my personal trip down Memory Lane, this isn't about nostalgia. This is about sheer magazine craft (Smash Hits was created by many people who would subsequently go on to great things, including one of my all-time journalistic heroes Miranda Sawyer), and about the upholding of a glorious principle that sadly no longer seems to exist on the shelves of WH Smiths.
I'm glad I'm not the only one who held its presence dear.