Friday, May 22, 2015

more from the unpublished 'first version' of Pop Life

What surprised me when I delved a little further into this stuff was that there was actually a chapter in this 'book' called 'Pop Life'. I remember how we laboured over what to call the book which became Pop Life (though I don't remember what the other options considered were...!). But in fact I had actually used this phrase already... bizarre. 

I have cut out the libellous bits. Just as I would have if the book had actually been published in this form.

In life, some things just don’t fit into a coherent narrative. I know the only reason you started reading this memoir was for dirt on the stars. I have bugger all dirt on the stars, but I do have some neatish anecdotes that might impress the other people at the nursing home when I’m a hundred. I’ll jot them down here so I won’t forget them.

1. The Singing Budgie

Kylie Minogue’s success as a singer in mid-1987 onwards took us by surprise at Smash Hits as much as it did anyone (including herself I bet). She had not really impacted on us until she started making records; then came the press backlash against her everywhere except in the pop papers. I interviewed her once – a boring affair – she got grumpy with me when I suggested she hadn’t made it big in the US (she thought she had, with ‘Locomotion’.) I do remember her budgie-like enthusiasm, though, about the spectacular view from her Sydney hotel suite.

2. Michael and Kylie

Everyone said Michael and Kylie were an item. I thought this was the most risible thing I’d ever heard. I had to interview Michael about the Max Q album and I had a whole swag of questions to ask him about how such an absurd rumour had come about. When I showed up at the recording studio, there were Michael and Kylie, together, kissing in front of me… she said ‘hi’ to me… he gave her the keys to his car, made some joke about giving her some pocket money, like he was her dad or something, and she left.

[...]

4. Red Hot Chili Peppers

I interviewed Anthony Kiedis in April, 1990. He was very funny – only thinking with the outside of his brain. From my transcript I see I asked him if he had an indian penis. He replied that ‘primarily I’m Lithuanian’. If memory serves me correctly he also told me that Stevie Nicks had a coke roadie to blow cocaine up her arse with a straw, a rumour that later got a lot of currency. From my point of view it wouldn’t have made it to print in anything except Extra, if Lesley mistook it for a sexual act.

5. Ross Wilson

‘The thing that annoys me the most, I get this thing about “You’re the big survivor” and “You’re the godfather of Australian rock ‘n’ roll” which annoys me because all I’m interested in doing is continuing… fuck the industry, I’m not really interested in the industry.’ At this time –1987 – Mondo Rock were still amongst us, but had long ceased to produce big hits. It must have given Ross the complete shits that, where his version of an obscure Stones cover – ‘I’m Free’ – failed to chart, the Soup Dragons’ inferior version was a big hit three years later.

6. Glenn Shorrock

I had the pleasure of meeting Glenn Shorrock at the time he rejoined LRB for two thoroughly turgid albums in 1988. ‘People, especially young people, put too much emphasis on success and failure, or they see things on a success or failure level,’ was his message to the 10 year olds who read Smash Hits. He did, however, see youth rebellion as valid, particularly when he applied it to himself: ‘Anyone over twenty was old hat [in the 60s]. They didn’t listen to rock ‘n’ roll music, of course that has changed.’ Ho hum, it sure has, Glenn.

7. Wendy James

I could spin this story out to a thousand words but why bother. I interviewed Wendy James at the offices of WEA records. She was lying on a couch, her wrists were all bandaged up, she didn’t get up. I asked her what had happened and she told me she had got a wrist infection from a microphone stand, and mimed how she rubbed the mike stand with her wrists. Too weird. Transvision Vamp were a terrible group but I loved Wendy James’ solo album; every time I see Matthew Hall I ask him if he’s heard it.

8. James Reyne

I truly have great admiration for James Reyne. He was always getting bagged for his acting performance in Return to Eden, so I asked him once if he was going to do more acting. He said he would like to appear in the first five minutes of a movie as someone who lights a stick of dynamite and kills some people and himself. This sounds like the response of someone who knew what the Smash Hits readers wanted to hear, and it had everything: sex, death, movies, instant gratification. ‘Hammerhead’ and ‘Fall of Rome’ were great singles, too.

9. Simon Day

Simon Day of Ratcat worked as a graphic designer on Playboy, part time. We used to chew the fat. I asked him if he had an ambition to work on Playboy full time. He said ‘I think I’ll see if this rock ‘n’ roll thing works out first’. I liked Ratcat but I thought, jesus christ, mate, you’d be fucken lucky. In six months Ratcat were number one. We were doing articles on Ratcat while Day was still working down the corridor. He used to come in and read over our shoulders what we were writing about him. 

10. Marcus

Everyone must remember Marcus. Billboards all around Sydney for a long time said ‘Marcus is Coming’ and a picture of a handsome Johnny Diesel, Johnny Depp type boy. Finally Marcus did come and it was amongst the biggest letdowns of the decade. His independent single was one of those generic Memphis studio’s country and western songs with Marcus karaokeing over the top. The rumour I heard was that Marcus was the son of a Canberra grocer family who not unreasonably thought image was everything in the pop business. This is why everyone remembers Marcus but no-one remembers his record.

11. Bros and Gayness

Readers were always perturbed, distressed and perhaps excited by the idea that such-and-such a star might be gay. ‘Tell me it’s not true!’ they would write to us. One reader wrote in with a new twist on the old sperm ingestion-stage collapse story a la Marc Almond, Rod Stewart, etc, that ‘the singing Bros’ had collapsed on stage from an overdose of the ‘drumming Bros’s sperms’. The reader was flabbergasted, though not from the overdose story exactly. Her question was: ‘can a brother gay a brother?’ She may still be wondering, because we didn’t publish the letter.

12. Slash

Marc Andrews had to go out to lunch with Collette. He said to me, ‘I’ve set up this phone interview with this stupid rock band, Guns en Roses. They won’t call but if they do, here’s some questions.’ Slash called. Marc had written all these questions about whether G’n’R hated Poison, and so on. Slash stopped me after about question ten and said ‘These are questions people were asking us a year ago.’ He kept putting the phone down to answer his door, he was having a party. Two months later they were the hottest band on earth.

13. Dannii at Wonderland

I thought Dannii Minogue was adorable. Her lack of artifice concealed what I suppose was really a hideous, Young Talent Time-inspired professionalism. Once I went to Wonderland with her (to do a story) and kids everywhere were coming up and saying ‘Hi, Dannii!’ to her. She would stop, seemingly surprised, and study their faces then, realising that she actually didn’t know them, said ‘hi’. If only the world was made up entirely of people so lacking in pretension. I’m serious, she was genuinely checking each kid to make sure she didn’t actually know them. So perfect!

14. Wa Wa Nee

I thought Wa Wa Nee’s second album So Good was a complete ripper, and I still play it a lot. They were utterly the victims of the boring old fart FM revolution of the late 80s. Word had it that So Good sold less than 1000 copies. If this is true, then the Cannanes sold more records… than that album. Wa Wa Nee played the first and last Smash Hits Dance Party at Sydney Town Hall, filmed by the ABC. Almost no-one came. The ABC said, ‘don’t worry, we’ll make it look like there’s an audience.’

[...]

16. James Freud’s Step into the Heat

Mushroom spent a fortune on this 1989 James Freud album. I asked him why anyone would want to step into the heat. ‘I don’t know,’ he said, then proved it: ‘I never really analysed it that much, y’know. My stuff, even though I write it, and so obviously there’s a reason for everything I do, at the same time I prefer not to analyse anything I do… and just take it on face value, you know, here’s the song, here’s the title, if you don’t like it, fuck off, who cares.’ The album stiffed.

17. Giving away The Tribe

An early lesson in rock journalism. I was on the train one day, having come from the Smash Hits office where James had given me an album by a band called The Tribe to review. Some schoolboys were sitting opposite me, and one of them was engrossed in writing ‘The Tribe’ on his schoolbag in biro. His friend said, ‘Have you got their album?’, and he said nah. I couldn’t resist: ‘Do you want it?’ My review was extremely positive; nothing I’d heard of The Tribe’s album made me dislike them or their music.

18. Madonna’s virginity


You knew Madonna was onto something with that ‘Like a Virgin’ record because everyone in the industry went on about it. It got so depressing when the umpteenth photographer or manager or whatever would say ‘Madonna? She’s no virgin!’ (the kids would write in with this kind of comment too, but they were kids). The word ‘virgin’ must have stood out in 100-foot high letters in those days because no-one seemed to realise that the song was not called ‘I’m a virgin’ but ‘Like a Virgin’. Maybe everyone around me was just confirming they understood. ‘She’s no virgin!’

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Pop is shit 2

PRODUCTION

The way the magazine was put together was, presumably, established from some kind of precedent, though you wouldn’t think so to see it in practice.
As with, say Australian Rolling Stone, the practice was essentially to use each issue of the British magazine as a template for the Australian one. A ‘flatplan’ (i.e. the outline of what went on each page) would be faxed through as each British issue was being designed. Before the fax existed I think James just had someone in the English office who he spoke to on the phone every fortnight. The Australian office would then order which of the ‘films’ (i.e. the four plastic ‘colour separation’ sheets from which each page was derived) was wanted for the local product. The colour separations were useful because some bits, most of the time, would have to be changed – we’d have to insert text explaining ‘chip buttie’ or Ken Dodd or other British institutions that would invariably get thrown up as Smash Hits UK went haywire on its own funny pomminess. Since there was often not much room to make the change (you wouldn’t want to disturb the remaining text, and in these pre-computerised design days, things certainly didn’t get pushed down the line or anything – it was all cut and paste) we would often just take out the foreign reference and slip in the real word. At very least, we’d have to change the page numbers. I really enjoyed doing this stuff. It was quite reminiscent of what I had to do on my fanzine, since I was such a bad typist and I’d always end up having to cut and paste lines of type there, too.
            One of the biggest rip-offs of Smash Hits was the feature that I do believe many kids actually bought the magazine for, and which was the original raison d’etre for the magazine: the songwords. In a sense, we were only passing the rip-off on to the customer – it wasn’t a rip-off of our own devising. But we certainly weren’t making a big deal of the rip.
The problem was this: all the songs that were hits had a publisher – publishers being organisations which would once have been the absolute central and important element of the proliferation of a popular song because they would, quite literally, publish it as sheet music and people would go out to buy it and then the songwriter would get a royalty for sales. Well, publishers still collected royalties from sales and passed them on to the songwriters, but funnily enough when the sales were of records, the publisher didn’t have to do a damn thing to promote a song; they could just sit back and slurp up the cheques. Until we came along.
Smash Hits published the words to six or seven hit songs each fortnight. But the publishers weren’t used to being asked what the songwords were. They were used to being paid for the rights to use the songs. And often they didn’t have a copy of the song lyrics themselves. And they hated being asked, because it showed up their uselessness, as well as breaking their train of thought while they were counting their money. Actually it wasn’t unusual for us to be the ones who broke the news to the publishers that they had the rights to particular songs. They were so fuckin’ useless. Very, very frequently we’d have to listen to the songs, transcribe the words, then publish them in the magazine. Readers would then fork out their hard-earned dollar fifty for some idiot’s idea of what the songwords were, and we very often got them very wrong. It was a crazy system.
Smash Hits was full of regular features. It was always being brought home to us that many of our readers really couldn’t tell the difference between us and any other colour magazine around. Our regular features were an attempt to hook into their consciousness and make some kind of goddamn impression on them, so they’d buy our magazine over any other. Who knows if it worked.
There was a section called Bitz, which was up one end of the magazine or the other, and was full of all the crap we couldn’t or didn’t want to spin into longer articles, as well as birthdays and competitions and so on. I wrote some wonderful Bitz stuff, but I doubt you’d like it. The flatplan would usually feature the major Bitz pieces – there might even have been a formula, you know, one big Bitz bit to three small ones, or something. Now I’ve written it down it looks far too sensible for us.
There was a section called Get Smart, which was where readers would write in with various questions, eg ‘Is it true Paul Young’s ex-girlfriend, Stacy Smith, is pregnant?’ (from ‘Paul’s Lover in WA’) and ‘Prior to a month or so ago when Pseudo Echo, John Farnham and INXS/Jimmy Barnes were No.s 1, 2 and 3 on the charts, when was the last time that Australian acts held the top three positions? It must have been a while ago.’ (from Terri-Anne of Goulburn). Darren Christison made this section his own and eventually it was even rechristened Dazz in his honour, though I bet he also went by the name of ‘Terri-Anne from Goulburn’, if you get my drift.[13] There was the crossword, which Fred Dellar – who was and is actually a very honoured and well-known British ‘pop mastermind’ – used to do specifically for us. He would not be told that Anne Haddy from Neighbours was called Anne and not Anna, and he seemed to like using the name ‘Anna’ in his crosswords a hell of a lot. The letters page I’ve already covered, above.
There was the singles review page, which was either done by a celebrity or by a staff member. There were a few assumptions behind this. One was that the readers quite possibly couldn’t tell a celebrity from a staff member anyway. Another was that it made us, or at least the magazine, look good – like we were as interesting as celebrities. We almost wondered whether we were celebrities one time when we had to go out to Australia’s Wonderland to hand out rubbishy Smash Hits showbags and the kids were practically mobbing us all to sign magazines. Another assumption was that perhaps readers would assume that popstars were just hanging around with nothing to do in our office so we’d say, ‘look John Farnham, if you’re going to hang round here distracting us, why don’t you make yourself useful and review those singles.’ After all, everyone seemed to assume that Playboy magazine staff had nude women sitting in their laps and so on…
We’d never really trust a celebrity to write a singles review. We’d have to go somewhere and play them the singles, preferably on a record player or if that wasn’t an option then all recorded on a tape. And they’d go, as Guy Pearce did in the 1 June 1988 issue, ‘This is a band I have grown to like’ (it was Midnight Oil) or ‘I’m not to keen on this guy’s voice. It’s good but there’s something about it I just don’t like.’ (Rick Swinn from the Venetians). And we’d come back and type it up like it was spun gold, which frankly it really wasn’t.
The design staff even just ten years ago had many skills that no designer now would ever need to know or even know about. They had to trace trannies (i.e. size and place pictures from transparencies onto boards alongside printed type) and mark up copy (guessing how long an article would be when it was typeset and nominating bold, plain, etc and a font and possibly even a font size). At Fairfax, there was a typesetting department, somewhere in the bowels of the building: one time I had the hilarious idea of making a Bitz piece descend into smaller and smaller type size – an idea I think I pinched from a 1950s Mad Magazine. Christ, the trouble we went through to get that effect! The whole item was requested in seven different point sizes, and we had to cut lines to fit. It still looked terrible.
At Mason Stewart we were dealing with an output place, run by a woman who was perennially outraged by our behaviour. In both cases the typeset text came back on nice glossy photographic paper suitable for magazine layout. We were at the very beginning of the computer design age, though we didn’t have a clue about that. There were a lot of arguments and last-minute repairs. Dealing with a magazine like Smash Hits which, for whatever reason, was full of silly jokes and puns, the average typesetter would just do whatever he or she normally did with typically inaccurate copy – fix what looked like errors.  We had to re-read everything very carefully when it came back. Often, too, we'd find ourselves compelled to trim paragraphs or sentences or sometimes just single words out of completed sentences, so the text would fit on the page.
For quite a while we had the interesting experience of a paste-up artist who genuinely could not read. He would cut up text and place it on the page upside down, or just in the wrong sequence. He would then argue vociferously that that was the way it was on the original: ‘that’s how it was on the proof, mate!’ interesting outlook. The rest of the time he’d be talking to his brother on the phone about the cars in a sell-your-car magazine that they both bought every week.
The magazine was fortnightly, and while it was printed in Australia, the film work – the colour separations, etc – were done in Singapore. We were sometimes working on three issues at once – putting together the copy on an issue that wouldn’t make the streets for a month, while we were finishing the design on one that was all written and laid out, while we were checking the proofs of one that was just about to be printed. It’s actually not a very difficult mindset to get into. In fact if you settled into a good magazine you could quite happily spend your entire life hypnotised by the process…

FINALLY I QUIT

I left Smash Hits in 1990, out of boredom and (as I will explain more later) because my attempt to lead an insurrection pushing the magazine into soap territory failed. My last interview as a staff member was with Tina Arena, who was I think having a hit with the appalling ‘I Need Your Body’, her first so-called adult hit. We were doing a photo session in Redfern and an interview with Tina, who was unbelievably charming and almost appallingly down to earth.
            She looked glamorous and talked like an old tin miner. I’m surprised she wasn’t chewing tobacco. I was coming down with a terrible cold – the strain of quitting my job having created a psychosomatic reaction – and Tina was full of advice for home remedies. Delivered in the voice of Bluto. I couldn’t understand how she could sing like a girl, when she spoke like that. A big fat cigarette habit must have been involved in some way or another.

            Later Diane told me that James had told her that it was lucky I’d quit because of the magazine going back to doing just pop music. I went freelance for a while, working largely out of the Hitpic office – Hitpic being a photo agency James had set up with one eye on ‘getting the fuck out’ of the magazine industry. I did some routine admin at Hitpic, very badly, because I am no businessman, no salesman, and probably not a lot of other things that would have made me an asset to that fledgeling organisation. I travelled to England and tried to set up some freelance work for myself with British magazines – TV mags and women’s mags – satellite tv had just started up there, and there was tons of Australian filler on Sky. If I played my cards right, I could make a killing. Except, damn it, I didn’t have any cards, and the game had these stupid rules, and I kept getting distracted, and it all went pear-shaped.


[13] Don’t be stupid, I’m not saying he was a cross-dresser. I’m saying I bet he made that letter up.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

'POP IS SHIT'

When I submitted my PhD for examination in 2001, I was all nervous energy and action, and I didn't know what to do with myself. So I started writing a memoir of my time in pop magazines.

I got a lot of stuff down, maybe twenty thousand words. I didn't know what to do with it then and I guess I lost it. Until I found it today. On a disc labelled nothing more than '2002'.

The whole idea for this memoir was revived when I published Pop Life with Marc Andrews and Claire Isaac in 2011. But I didn't know where this stuff was, so I couldn't rehash it into the book... though knowing me a lot of the anecdotes are probably the same. Just a decade less fresh and a decade more overworked. I don't know.  This is the first chapter, which I conditionally titled 'Pop is Shit' (this may or may not have been a commentary on the Custard song 'Music is Crap'). The book itself didn't have a name. 

This chapter explains the first five years of Smash Hits, its ups and downs, its eccentric staff, and recounts some incidents that throw light on the way the magazine worked.

1982: TRIPLE R AND GAUMONT

I recently met a woman I’d gone to high school with in my (and her) final year, 1982. I only went there a couple of hours each week, to do French. It was Camberwell High, actually, the same school Kylie and Dannii (and for all I know Brendan) Minogue went to. But that’s not important right now. I met her and she told me that the last time we’d spoken – the last day of school probably – she’d asked me what I was going to do next. She said I’d said ‘I’m going to eat baked beans in bed.’ She also said she found this an impressive statement, and I suppose this is true, because she’d never forgotten it. Christ.
I probably did eat baked beans in bed, it was probably as decadent as I could imagine someone being, and I was into the idea of being as decadent as possible. I certainly had no intention of embarking on a career, let alone a career as a pop music journalist. Because who ever liked pop music? Certainly not me, in 1983, fresh out of school and my head buzzing with the exciting and angular sounds of the underground. I liked music a lot but the music I liked was – well, not exactly opposed to the charts – I saw no reason why the Moodists couldn’t go to number one in the charts, or why everyone couldn’t enjoy the Red Crayola. For some reason, though, nobody else agreed with me (I still can’t figure it out).
            Even the things at the very commercial end of my taste spectrum didn’t really hit it with the masses. Orange Juice had a hit overseas, but it wasn’t happening here. The Undertones, The Go-Betweens – I even had a soft spot for things like Haircut 100 – weren’t really scoring chart action.
            I was largely unemployed in ’83. These were the days when not only was it easy to make that lifestyle decision but also it was more or less condoned by the peer group, because it was taking money back from ‘the man’, though we didn’t use terms like that then (but one of my teachers, for instance, who was a bikie as well as a teacher, told our class that he was going to quit being a teacher at the end of the year and ride round Australia on his motorbike and ‘get some money back from the government’ which he’d been forced against his will to pay up in his teaching years – i.e. he was going to go on the dole. We didn’t even think this was cool – it was just sensible.) My school years had been horrendous, a sort of endless torture of being beaten up and spat on, by fellow students and teachers alike. Once that was over, you’d think I’d take advantage of the situation and go and do all those things I knew I had the potential for, or at least climb Mount Everest for christ’s sake. But sadly I had discovered some ultimately damaging gems of information: things like the fact that some girls actually liked me, and that the dole when you lived at home and didn’t have to pay for anything except your own records and magazines really went quite a long way, and that to get a stunning degree of celebrity in Melbourne in 1983 all you had to do was put out a stupid fanzine and do a radio show on 3RRR and that didn’t take up much time at all. So you (I) could spend the rest of your (my) time sitting round the house watching TV and playing records and writing letters to the girls who wrote me fan mail at RRR, and occasionally doing some work on the fanzine, and every Sunday doing the radio show. What a year.
            Of course I still watched Countdown and still kept my eye on the charts, as I had done for almost ten years – since I think the beginning of ’74, when people like Gary Glitter and Hush were big. I was in hospital in ’74 and an older boy with a broken leg used to hobble around singing Gary Glitter songs at the top of his voice. It was the same formative period at which I realised that Gilligan and his friends were seriously never going to get off that fucking island. In the late seventies at school my friend Guy Morton and I used to get the 3XY Top 40, which was printed on different coloured paper and distributed to record shops every week, and go through putting little symbols next to the names of records, for ‘got it’ and ‘want it’. But even the $2 which singles cost then was prohibitively expensive to us, so our high aspirations were not often actionable…
I had stopped wanting to own records from the top 40 by the time I was 17 or 18, but I still knew what was ‘going on’, who was selling records and I knew all the hits, somehow. I didn’t listen to pop radio and I didn’t read pop magazines – I suppose it was just something in my teenage blood which received the information and stored it away in my poor, already overstimulated brain. I knew ‘Bette Davis Eyes’, even though I didn’t want to know it. At all. But I knew that pop music was there in the marketplace and that all kinds of people bought and liked it, whereas only a few people liked the things I liked. Only a few years later, a little more world weary and au fait with the industry, working in the Sydney GPO sorting city mail, I could laugh when one of my co-workers, a slightly aryan fellow in grey fatigues, threw a tanty over the commercial radio we had playing in the workspace – ‘why don’t they play some Residents? Or Dead Kennedys?!’ he yelled – but in truth that is kind of what I wondered, too, although the Dead Kennedys I could pretty much do without.
             Somehow during the year I accidentally got a bit of a job. I started working at Gaumont Books. It wasn’t meant to be, but it happened. James Manning was the presenter of the show after mine on RRR. I thought even then he had terrible taste in music – I’ll never forget him starting his show with that laid-back Icelandic lounge jazz prog rock record, and I’m not kidding. Later on many occasions when I heard him sing I was to form the opinion that he was actually tone deaf. Of course his estimation of my taste was even more savage and funnily these days I might go a long way to agreeing with him. James was tallish and probably only about five years older than me though he seemed ancient, of course. He was gruff and strange, and I was a bit scared of him. Same as now.
            James had a friend called Eddy Sarafian who did a show one night during the week, called – this still sounds cool to me, but that’s me – Ready Eddy Go. I knew we had something in common because once he played Anton Karas’s ‘Harry Lime Theme’ on his show, and I’d always loved that tune. Eddy, who was still at high school somewhere near his home in the wilds of Glen Waverley, worked in James’ bookshop, Gaumont, which was hidden away in Little Collins Street kind of behind the Southern Cross. I think the Gaumont name came from James’ interest in film (it’s the title of a French production company). He’d started a journalistic career writing about film for the Tribune, the communist newspaper. I don’t know when he abandoned communism (or if he has) or whether Gaumont started out as just a film bookshop but by the time I’d heard of it, there was at least as much music-related material. With the rise in new romantic, so-called ‘pretty-boy’ pop, James was in the perfect position to make a mint from the importation of overseas music magazines. In my memory the Japanese Duran Duran magazines leap out: horrendously expensive, beautifully printed, all in Japanese, they were much sought after by the Durannie girls of Melbourne. But Gaumont had other attractions. They received one big shipment – and one only, I later discovered, because the distributor Rough Trade couldn’t get it together to respond to their requests for more – of British fanzines, which I bought by the bagful and devoured with keen interest. They had film and music books, videos, posters, cards, and so on. It was a fan’s paradise.
            Eddy and James knew me from my RRR show and thought I was a fucken wanker particularly because I got more fan mail than anyone else at the station, letters that were often glittery or huge or illustrated or calligraphically outstanding. Eddy told me later that they revised their decision one time when one of them heard me say on air that I actually only wanted letters to gauge my listeners’ interest in my show, which was nice of him, though of course their initial estimate was closer to the truth. After so long being the marginalised long-haired nerd at school I was suddenly breaking out in technicolour with the glory of being a young white short-haired male who all these Catholic teenage girls wanted to write letters to and call up and hang out with (the Catholic thing was probably mainly because my show was on early on Sunday; only Catholics got up that early on a Sunday morning, and only girls wrote letters).
            Having perhaps identified some of the cynicism in me that would later flower like a cabbage in my writing career, James took a shine to me and threw a bit of late-on-a-Thursday-night work-at-Gaumont my way. Just as I have never, for whatever crazy reason, been sacked from a job, I have made it a matter of principle to never pass one up, even in cases like this, when I really never wanted a job at all. It meant having to be somewhere at a certain time and do things, and that gave me the shits; it was a straightjacket on my free and easy neurotic life. But it did also mean I could sit behind a counter and read the Gaumont stock for free, in the name of research. Once on my RRR show I raved to my audience about You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, the autobiography of 60s pop manager Simon Napier-Bell, and James made a caustic remark about how I didn’t mention it was available from Gaumont. I got on my high horse about advertising on public radio; his response – ‘well, I fucking paid you to read it!’ was really pretty correct.
            At some point – it must have been late in ’83 – James came back from an overseas trip with news. He’d bought or been given or somehow gained the rights to publish the British magazine Smash Hits, and he was going to be the editor. I had never really taken an interest in Smash Hits, but what excited me was that James was going to produce the magazine here in Australia and he asked me if I’d write for it. He said ‘Those things you write in your fanzine are quite funny…’ (he might even have said ‘quite good’). There was the promise of money, too, which was doubly exciting, as it meant I could perhaps buy more records or buy some books about records or something similar.
            I had already had a flirtation with the mainstream press, or the mainstream end of the alternative press, anyway. I’d written a review of a Models album for a new wavey tabloid monthly called Vox Muzpaper which was run by a man called Neil Bradbury, who I am grateful to for being my first real editor, though he never published anything else I did after that. He did come to my family’s house in Hawthorn one night to drop off some albums for me to review but as he was leaving my brother yelled out ‘Neil’s a blockhead!’ so maybe that put him off. Vox went under (Bradbury went on to (1) found the White Label record label so that Hunters and Collectors could get a higher royalty rate from Mushroom Records, (2) marry someone from Euphoria, and (3) kill himself – yes, in that order) and I wrote at least one review (of an Elvis Costello album) for the Virgin Press, an arty version of a tabloid music mag. However most of my writing was for my own fanzine, Distant Violins, and I enjoyed being my own editor, though I wasn’t very good at it. I just liked magazines, really, or fucking around with them, or, let’s be truthful, playing at running a magazine. Fanzines were and are fun, particularly when you do them more or less all by yourself, because you can bung in anything you want and say what you want and work out any particular weird kinks/interests/ideas you have going on, on as many pages divisible by two as you like.
            I must have had some template for a fanzine, but I can’t remember it. Maybe I had just read about fanzines, and figured I had some idea what they were like. I had experience on the school magazine which was a black-and-white photocopied stapled production not unlike a fanzine (except much, much more boring). I did know that I wasn’t going to limit myself to anything that ordinary magazines limited themselves to – or even anything that ordinary fanzines limited themselves to. I wasn’t going to be always up to date, or cool (that’s why it was called Distant Violins – every other fanzine was called Attack or Communication Breakdown or Death Throes, and I wanted to be obtuse rather than take a confrontational attitude that smelt fake to me). The first issue featured the Moodists, who’d just got a great review in the NME which suddenly made them massive in the minds of the 300 people who went to the Seaview Ballroom; Bryce Perrin, who played double bass in a cool instrumental group called Equal Local; and another band who didn’t really exist, as far as I know, but was just one of the girls who wrote to me at RRR, pretending she was in a band. Well, it worked.
            So when James mentioned he could throw me some Smash Hits work, I knew that I could write for any pop publication, because I wasn’t a bad writer and even at that early stage I enjoyed fabricating enthusiasm for all kinds of crap – pretending to be professional, or a journalist.
            Though James owned the rights to Smash Hits he wasn’t going to set up all by himself; he went into some kind of partnership with Fairfax Magazines, who also ran Dolly and Cosmopolitan and a few other big popular magazines. They operated out of a narrow building on the west side of Elizabeth street in which all kind of crazy archaic publishing practices went on (by the way that word was ‘archaic’ not ‘anarchic’ just in case you read it wrong).
            Smash Hits had started a few years earlier in Britain and taken the country by storm simply by dint of its ridiculous simplicity. It started out as a fortnightly magazine of pictures and lyrics to popular songs. There was no ‘editorial’ – i.e. there were no articles or puzzles or newsy bits or any of those things that people later came to expect. But then things got complicated. For whatever reason, articles and factoids and puzzles and all the other bits and pieces of ephemera that go with pop magazines started creeping in. It soon became a very with-it, though still utterly straight-down-the-line-chart-pop-oriented, magazine, and somehow developed its own special sense of humour alongside its dedication to all the glitz of pop music. The magazine was already successful in Australia as an import, despite (or perhaps, just perhaps, because of) the fact that it featured a lot of British music and acts and ideas that didn’t get much attention in Australia. It seemed to make sense to tailor it to Australian readers and publish locally.
The bulk of the magazine was, of course, generated from the Australian office. In the early 80s Australia not only had a thriving pop scene of its own, it also picked and chose from British and American cultures, so that there had to be recognition in the Australian Smash Hits not only of Australian things, but also of the American stars and songs that Australians liked and Britons didn’t.
I was a freelancer, and not a very frequent contributor either, in the first year or so of the magazine, so it was a long time before I really understood what everyone did. James was the editor, though there were sometimes attempts to install under-editors beneath him – whether by James himself or by Fairfax, I don’t know. Eddy Sarafian was the ‘office boy’, so-called. He rarely wrote for the magazine – in fact, he wrote less than James did, and that’s saying something – preferring to take a co-ordinating role. He did get his picture in Smash Hits early on, some feet protruding from under a big pile of mail, to show the amazing response to some competition or another. He took his position far, far too seriously and – once again, outdoing James – got up everyone’s nose something shocking very fast, with his rapid-fire sarcasm. There was a ‘production manager’ whose name was Mick and who played in a band called Use No Hooks. There was a secretary called Lesley, who later went on to work for TV Week where she had the unenviable job of deciphering Molly Meldrum’s babble for his column. When Lesley left a girl called Ria took her place; I remember Eddy once telling me he was doing a story at the ABC when Geisha or someone similar were appearing on Countdown and he saw Ria sitting outside with her friends, just a fan hanging round with some other teenage girls outside Countdown. He was surprised by her secret life but he was also a bit contemptous that she hadn’t given that stuff up now she worked ‘in the industry’ as it were.
However, although I was only an occasional, I did get in the first issue: a live review of The Cure. I had lunch with The Cure – I remember dropping my fork – and Robert Smith told me that mustard was really good in toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches. He also gave me an accolade I’ve never forgotten. I gave him a copy of a one-off fanzine called Everything’s Roses which I’d co-produced with my friend Megan Edwards. In it there was a comic strip in which different characters’ demises turn out to be the dream of a new character, who then is also burnt alive, or drowned, or something. ‘Did you do this?’ said Robert Smith. I said yes. He laughed and said, ‘That’s exactly how I think!’ The girls who ‘always’ met him when he came to Melbourne skulked and scowled in the background.
I also, in the lead-up to the launch of Smash Hits, did an interview with Beargarden. Now, that was strange. I got to Virgin records’ office in South Melbourne and Sam Sejavka – he who was later canonised via Michael Hutchence’s version of him in Dogs in Space – was reading a letter. ‘Hmm,’ he said to no-one, ‘this girl’s just asked me to her school formal.’ He didn’t say if he was going to go, and I later discovered that he didn’t, and that the letter was from Claire Isaac, who about ten years later became the editor of Hit Songwords. Beargarden never had a hit, and indeed for all I know they were the first ever example of scratch-my-back-ing from Australian Smash Hits editorial; whereas British Smash Hits eschewed any responsibility for breaking groups or records, preferring instead to concentrate solely on what was already in the charts, the Australian market was too small. Australian Smash Hits was always having to do favours for Australian record companies, covering groups no-one liked, in exchange for a chance to do a personal file on Phil Collins when he toured. Although, in Beargarden’s case, they did look the part of a Smash Hits band, Sejavka’s incessant heroin use being at this point either in remission or just not showing yet (five years later when I met Michael Hutchence he started talking to me about Sejavka, apropos of nothing. He said ‘Sam Sejavka came up to me at a party and he looked terrible, all his teeth have come out and he looks like an ancient junkie, and he said “You’re ashamed you know me, aren’t you?”). I suppose Beargarden did say the following, but I was plainly just using them as puppets in my story, to figure out what I was doing writing for the mainstream press:

Sam Sejavka and Carl Manuell of Beargarden have a right to be quietly confident [I wrote]. Everything’s going rather well. They were the first group to sign to the Virgin Australia label and their record company positively dotes on them… “We did spend a lot of time in wishy-washy no-account groups,” admits Sam, “but as we grew older we decided we’d make something of it… We’re not an art band, we’re a pop band… I can understand an art band releasing a record and not giving a tinker’s cuss what people think of it because they’re under the delusion that it’s art.’… “For years my parents thought I was wasting my time totally,” says Carl, “Lately they’re pretty excited about it because it looks like it might be happening.”
   “Oh, that’s because you’re fitting in,” snorts Sam in disgust. “It looks like you’ll make some money – a career.”

The most interesting part of my review of the Cure show was the description of Cure fans hanging around outside the stage door receiving kisses and pulling Robert Smith’s hair and asking him if it hurt. Other acts covered in this issue included Icehouse, Stephen Cummings (a friend of James’, who occasionally worked in Gaumont), Alison Moyet and Paul Young.
A peculiar thing about the early days of Smash Hits – and surely something that James instituted, because it couldn’t have been natural – was the evil attitude the staff had towards all the other magazines on the floor. I can’t remember who they were – probably New Idea or something – but Smash Hits made it clear that they didn’t have any time for any of the other magazines. They were better than that. There’d be no small talk or interfrolicking. Fuck Cosmo and Dolly – ‘tossers’.
Not everyone was crazy about the new Australian Smash Hits. A girl I knew who was totally into all English music of the time (she once said to me, and not because I asked, ‘You’re quite good looking – but you’re no Simon Le Bon’) was furious about the change. That was the only one I knew of at the time but apparently many people – by and large the ones who’d been buying UK Smash Hits before ’84, Claire Isaac for instance – were unhappy about the new version. It’s easy to see why. Primarily, they were anti-Australian snobs – back then the Australian pop scene was scared to death of new post-punk pop bands, and groups like Haircut 100 or the Beat were just too radical for Australian record companies, let alone Australian pop radio. Secondarily (though this might not have become clear for a while) anytime Australian Smash Hits tried to be like the British version the results were always awful. Australian writers didn’t understand the British humour very well, and fair enough, why should they? But on top of that, Australians weren’t ready (yet) to take a wry view of pop stars. Probably a lot of British Smash Hits readers found the humour hard to take, too – a lot of it was pretty dense. That thing about asking Joey Tempest from Europe if he’d ever grown cress in a gumboot, for instance, which was mainly anyway poking fun at how poor Tempest’s English was, always sticks in my mind (if not my craw). Ha, ha.
But the Australian version of this queer magazine was a big success, I think, almost instantly. This might be gauged by the fact that an imitator sprung up immediately – Murdoch brought out an Australian version of Smash Hits UK’s competitor, No. 1. It died soon after, whether because it seemed to consistently, week after week, feature Mental as Anything on its covers (why? why? we never figured it out) or because it was just a bad version of Smash Hits based on a bad imitation, is hard to say. A friend of mine had a younger sister who had embraced No. 1 with gusto and told her family ‘this is going to be my magazine’. A harsh education in publishing pragmatics for her, when it went belly-up. Another pop magazine – Countdown, linked to the TV show – had a bit more oomph and, apart from anything else, it was at least not based on a successful international product. It was, however, full of dreadful Dollyisms which read like they were written by a distillation of social workers and elder sisters. It was a pretty embarrassing production. When we moved to Sydney Fairfax already owned Countdown and we were placed in the office behind them. If you think Smash Hits staff were going to treat Cosmo’s staff with contempt, imagine the kind of treatment Countdown got. When Barry Divola started work at Countdown and came down to the Smash Hits office to say his name was Baz and hi, the office didn’t get over it for six months. ‘Baz’? Wanker.
The Smash Hits office was almost instantly a boy’s club, and if women were working there, they had to act like boys too. The irritating thing was that this was so seductive. I really enjoyed it. Having always shied away from sports or in fact anywhere I’d have to deal with men at all, really, the fact that this was the most politically incorrect workplace on earth was a thrill. Details would do the situation a disservice, as well as offending too many people in the name of putting in words situations that don’t even deserve being remembered. The racist, homophobic and sexist comments that were made every day in the office environment – a combination of a desire to shock and horrify fellow workers with the ordinary everyday fears and anxieties of the average white Australian male. I know how much I sound like a dobber but frankly sexist and racist comments don’t come naturally to me, and I tended not to join in – I can’t think fast enough anyway, and it took years to get the hang of the assumptions behind it – but I did laugh and engage with the whole atmosphere. James could be hilarious, and the way in-jokes developed was just a pleasure to observe. I only remember segments. I don’t know why ‘noof’ became a stand-in word for ‘poof’ or how different ways of saying ‘bloke’ or calling each other ‘bloke’ (‘be-loke!’) became hilariously funny, but they did. Similarly hilarious – I’m sure it’s already clear that this isn’t an atmosphere you can describe – was the use of the exclamation ‘nothing!’ to indicate disappointment. I was in a privileged position to enjoy the shock humour of it, of course, because I was a straight white male, so none of it was directed at me. How the gays, or the women, or the non-anglo staff members felt about it I don’t know, because I don’t remember discussing it with them.
I did get my share of ragging, because I was supposed to be Mr. Indie, or Mr. Rough Trade i.e. I was, in the Smash Hits office stereotype, the one who liked records released on the British record label Rough Trade. It was true, I did like some records released on Rough Trade, but if you think that’s a pretty slender premise to base teasing on I would have to agree with you – but then, I would, wouldn’t I. I tried not to give the office too much to tease me about, for reasons that I hope by now are obvious, so I tended not to talk much, which was easy enough in that kind of environment, particularly before I worked there on a regular basis. When you’re a freelancer you’re just part of the passing show for the regulars, any time you show up in the office you’re just a new input to factor in to a running gag amongst a group of drudges united in boredom.
James was also hilariously na├»ve, and held a lot of the same attitudes he presumably formed when he was a kid growing up in Gippsland in the 70s, when he’d travel into Melbourne on a Saturday to attend concerts at Billboard that later became legendary… except he’d have to leave after the first support band to go home.
His naivete always took me off guard. He once came and visited me, after I’d moved to Sydney, in a terrace house in Cleveland Street Chippendale, and expressed distaste for my living conditions. He asked me if I smoked a lot of bongos, and became annoyed at my intransigent inability to understand what he meant. You may now have guessed what he was referring to. I didn’t even want the word ‘bong’ to pass my lips, so ascetic was I (it was a hippy word), so we never resolved that one.
The bizarre aspect of all this was that it was behind a very cheery, hearty, pop magazine; a magazine which hoped to appeal to an age group somewhere between 9 and 15. It was all about big, bright pictures and fun and dancing. Smash Hits in the UK – the Australian version tried to do the same – had this amused, slightly wry aspect to it; pop stars were a funny old lot, and they said funny old things, and George Michael and Andrew Ridgely were a couple of mates touring the world on a lark. You’d think the attitudes espoused in Smash Hits said a lot more about the comics its staff read at boarding school than it did about the go-ahead world of pop music in the 80s. But it was staggeringly popular, and the Australian version proved to be as well.
I think I had moved to Sydney even by the time the first issue of Smash Hits came out. I was a reasonably regular contributor, and established myself as a bit of a Sydney correspondent – interviewing left-of-centre people like Samurai Trash, Johanna Pigott, Kam Sha… Kam Sha were a funny bunch, a group of New Zealanders who steadfastly refused to tell me what their band had been called back in New Zealand. Even when I turned off the tape player, and promised not to publish it, and insisted I was just interested… if only they’d had a hit with their single ‘Work Until You Drop’, someone would have cared enough to do some in-depth research and find out. I interviewed the Models after eating more of a housemate’s hash coookies than I should have (for some reason I got very hungry once I started) and spent the whole interview extremely distressed because I believed that when I thought I was speaking I actually wasn’t saying anything at all. But then I’d think… but they’re answering my questions, so I must be speaking… then I’d start being scared again. The strangest thing was listening back to the tape afterwards and finding it all sounded incredibly normal and boring, the most interesting thing being listening in to Sean Kelly on the telephone to his mother, and Sean saying ‘Mum, I’m a bloody pop musician!’ She was probably trying to discuss the merits of the latest Red Crayola release. By the way if you think that it was hypocritical of me to eat a massive swag of hash cookies but not to want to say the word ‘bong’, well, I guess you weren’t around in the mid-80s.
            My work for Smash Hits diminished in ’85, and I got a job in health food, where I continued to mingle with the stars; whereas Peter Garrett, for instance, was surely too serious a musician for Smash Hits, my new role enabled me to sell him a piece of banana cake. In April, I went to Britain and on returning later in the year I found myself at the crossroads. Well, perhaps not a crossroads… maybe at the junction of a lane and a street.
I had always felt uneasy about the fact that I was in a band and writing about music at the same time. I knew a lot of groovy musicians, people I appreciated, started out writing about music and then gave that up and started making music instead. That was the point, to me – they gave up writing about it to do it. I felt that if I really wanted to be pure in my music, I should give away the easy life of a music writer.
So I got a job in the post office.
The post office is another story, and even more horrible than this one. Even though I was only there a couple of months, I could write a tortuous epic about the torture I endured at the Sydney GPO, as a mail sorter. Just the sketchy recollections of the agony involved in staying up all night listening to light AM radio, sitting in long rows at ‘frames’ of pigeon holes, sorting the mail for the CBD, make me feel weird even now. The one excitement we had while sorting was when a postcard came through; it was passed down the line so everyone could look at the picture. The excitement for some of my workplace comrades extended to busting open any parcel that looked interesting (like, if it was addressed to Playboy), taking what they wanted and throwing the rest in the ‘to be repaired’ bin. But I don’t want to give away too much of mail sorter life, in case it spoils my chance of selling a filmscript on it sometime later.
(Proof that at least part of this story is true)

The point was, the post office was a great illustration to me of how wretched suffering for your art could be. And anyway, I convinced myself, it wasn’t as though the music I was involved in was the same as the kinds of things Smash Hits featured – it was music, and it had drums and bass and guitar, same as some of the people you saw in Smash Hits; but that was about the limit of the connection. Smash Hits had moved up to Sydney, and I started topping up my Australia Post salary with little bits of freelance work; before long, I had a day job there.
            Smash Hits in Melbourne had been located in a great old narrow building in Little Burke St. Smash Hits in Sydney was in the Fairfax Magazines building in Waterloo – a massive 60s orange brick horror which stretched out for a mile on an industrial estate. Smash Hits was right up the back where it could bother no-one and, hopefully, no-one could bother it. James and Eddy were there, as were Neal Moyse, an English designer prone to burst into snatches of popular song which I can still hear in my head: ‘Baby, now that I’ve found you I won’t let you go’, or ‘when the war is over, gonna start again’. He also liked to sing ‘I’ve got aids babe’ to the tune of ‘I’ve Got You Babe’, and ‘I’ll never forget the smell of the sweat from under your armpits’ to ‘Magic Moments’. Yeah, we heard all those and more… a lot. Back in England, Neal had been drummer in a Beach Boys cover band called Breaker, and we heard a lot about them, too. Darren, a super-efficient, soft-spoken secretary with sculpted hair, was on his way out as a staff member when I showed up again, and Diane took his place, seconded in some way from another magazine. Andy was the Features Editor, a New Zealander who was related to Janet Frame and couldn’t believe anyone had ever read any of her books, as she was ‘mad’ (he found this very aggravating and would rant about it). Andy was a lot like me inasmuch as he couldn’t stand pop music; he seemed to see Smash Hits as his step up the ladder, though where that ladder was going to lead was anyone’s guess.
            In the wider Fairfax world, there was Steve Bush. Bushy (as he was known) had an office much closer to the front of the building where someone had done an immaculate poster for his wall in gothic script proclaiming him to be Lord Stephen of Bush. Theoretically, Bushy was a designer – he’d done the cover for the first Orange Juice album, to his credit – and had ‘started’ (who knows if this is true?) Smash Hits in England and then gone on to become a big shot at EMAP, then for some reason come out to Australia to give Australian magazines a shot in the arm with his Bushy magic. He’d also once managed a band called The Cigarettes who had once supported the Buzzcocks.
            Bushy was and probably still is very charismatic, quick-witted and amusing. James couldn’t stand him, and both men later made veiled references in my presence to a time when the two of them had gone to New Zealand on a Smash Hits-related trip, which was apparently when they completed the process of falling out with each other utterly. I don’t know any more details.
            Eddy would demand that I rewrite even the smallest articles a number of times, and present my copy back to me covered in comments and arrows showing where particular paragraphs should go for maximum impact and reader interest. This is exactly the sort of thing I later came to enjoy doing to other people, but I didn’t care to be on the receiving end of it, especially since I couldn’t see where the science was in Eddy’s reasoning. When he left, whatever his position was, Andy Fyfe moved into it, and I moved up a notch somehow – to features editor or staff writer or something.
            Smash Hits was going through a rough patch at this stage – we have leapt ahead to somewhere like 1988, incidentally. Although the fate of the magazine was linked directly to how excited the kids of Australia were about pop music generally, as well as particular pop stars, the staff couldn’t help beating themselves up over sales slumps. The lowest selling issue, in my time at the magazine, was one with a picture of Pete Burns on the front – the cross-dressing, bisexual lead singer of Dead Or Alive. The second worst selling was a Pet Shop Boys cover, upon which James had run the cover line ‘It’s got brown carpet’, an inspired, almost dadaist concept which had the extra excitement of sounding like the punchline to a dirty joke – it was, in fact, a quote from the Pet Shop Boys story.
            One of the things I enjoyed the most about Smash Hits was the post-mortems. Every time a printed issue came in – our lead time was something like a month, so we were two issues ahead by the time the ‘new’ issue showed up – we would sit round in a group, going from page to page, criticising it and blaming each other for the errors, the poor judgement, the ‘whose shitty idea was that?’ and so on. Design faults, spelling errors, ‘dodgy trannies’ (i.e. poor-quality photographs), all leapt from the page. James would always come out with ‘don’t you worry about that’, and other jokes about how ‘naff’ we were. It was a moment of real cameraderie, Smash Hits against the world, and against itself at the same time. This was when James’ catchphrase of the time – ‘near enough is good enough’ – really came into its own.
            A lot of the fortnight-to-fortnight running of the magazine was just housekeeping. Writing the ‘flannel’ (for some reason the introduction to the magazine – outlining all the great stuff the reader was about to encounter – was called the ‘flannel panel’). The flannel was something we always took great care with though we all assumed that nobody ever read it.

Yoiks! Tally ho! And other stirring noises which indicate how excited we arll are, getting ready to gallop into this extramarvelliscent issue of the notoriously cuddly Smash Hits! (11 Jan 1988)

Last night (well, just  before lunch, actually) The Smash Hits Office Staff had the most gruesome dream. We got the new issue back from the printers, you see, and we leapt up with excitement to see what it looked like. Well, it was like a smack in the face. It was APALLING! Lubricated Goat[1] leered at us from the cover, most of them partially or completely unclad, and Brett had… well, anyway… the top left-hand corner panel announced “Pseudo Echo in tour bus horror exclusive pix” and a small picture of James Leigh in a coffin. Then, as we turned the pages, we saw the Bitz “Match the popstar with his/her armpit” competition, the Kings of the Sun[2] Replay[3], the Incredible String Band[4] mini-mag[5] and the pin-up of King Snake Roost[6] and we WAILED in despair! “Oh no! It’s all wrong![7] We’ve been sabotaged! The readers will kill us!” Then, suddenly, we were aware of a pounding in our heads – it got louder and fiercer and we realised! It was the Ed.[8] stamping on our head[9] with his big desert boots. “Wake up, you morons! Snap out of that dream!” he gibbered.[10] “The new issue’s come back from the printers!” Could it be – could it possibly be a reprieve? We grabbed the new issues and – yes! There was the Iva Davies cover we’d so lovingly prepared, the huge, pervy,[11] poster with “beaut” bodies on it, the Skate Mini-mag! The Jason Bateman feature! Get Smart, RSVP, Bitz, Film, TV, Video… the Charts, Snoop! And even the singles reviewed by Guy Pearce! When we told the Ed. about our awful dream he laughed merrily. “Ho! Ho!” be bubbled. “What a very funny dream!” and with a merry twinkle in his eye he made huge deductions from our pay for sleeping on the job. What a scallywag! Well, enjoy the issue, readers![12]

            Reviews were important. We generally tried to be uncontroversial, which was hard at times when the things we were reviewing touched on our own
Typing up the ‘RSVP’ section (the penpal section of the magazine), doing ‘Bitz’ (newsy pieces, short interviews), or running the letters page.
            The Letters page was amazing fun. James had tested me for this job in the magazine’s early days, when I petulantly eliminated a huge sack of mail probably heavier than myself down to about three letters. One of these was a reader’s anxious enquiry about whether David Bowie was gay, and my response was ‘If he is, so what?’, a reply which James thought was unacceptable, and certainly it wasn’t very entertaining. However a few years later, either having forgotten my previous mishandling of the position or just not caring, he handed me the letters page again.
            The letters were answered by a character called Black Type, whose origins went back to the dark ages of Smash Hits UK; obviously, it was simply a personification of the bold type that the answers to letters were set in. I set about crafting a Black Type persona who, utterly unlike myself, was awkward, sad and studious. I also began to realise the power at my fingertips, when it became clear that essentially readers did not send in letters because they had something to say, but because the idea of seeing their letter/name in print was exciting to them. Therefore, they wrote the kind of letters they thought would get printed; it was as easy as that. A gentle guiding hand was all that was required, an indication that here was a chance either to respond to something provocative, or to imitate. To boost the amount of letters sent in to the magazine, you only had to publish – that is, fabricate – a risible letter about how the members of Bon Jovi had such long hair they looked like girls, or that George Michael was talentless. Suddenly you’d be inundated, and a lot of the letters – being written by children who were angry, or excited about being in a debate – were eminently publishable.
            Other letters took on lives of their own; like the letter from a reader in New Guinea complaining that the only band he/she could go and see were a local group called the Bluff Inn Soles was allowed to develop into a running joke about how magnificent the Bluff Inn Soles were, the future of modern music. This in turn prompted more letters from New Guinea wondering what the hell we were going on about (though none from the Soles themselves, unfortunately). Letters occasionally trickled in from agitated music fans who thought that Smash Hits was a lackey of teenybop capitalism (which of course it unashamedly was) and that what we should really do is run a big story on the Cocteau Twins or Nick Cave or something similar. I always took much pleasure in compiling a parcel for these letter writers – if they condescended to include their address – of the lamest pop singles and promos in the office, and send it to them with a bald ‘thanks’ note.
            For some reason I was asked to draw a picture of Black Type, which I did – he was, apparently, a black glove puppet. The sketch was produced on badges, given out to hapless letter writers over the years, replacing the old badge that proclaimed ‘I’m a black type type’.
I continued running Letters for years, until I got bored, and then at least another six months more, after which it was handed over to Di and, fuming over her terrible writing skills, I had to subedit it anyway. Ostensibly the reason James relieved me of this duty was that I had been trying to move it away from pop and into some kind of sociological survey about teenage life. One girl wrote in asking how she could arrange to get tooth decay (she said ‘in case you don’t know what tooth decay is, I do, it’s holes in the teeth’). Another wrote in explaining the intricacies of playground arguments.
We’d always got bizarre letters, of course. Very early on in the magazine’s history we got a bizarre letter from ‘two twins, Bib and Bub’ who detailed their incestuous relationship with their father. Eddy and I joked about that one a lot, I think because we thought it was so ridiculous that it started off with the idea of two twins called Bib and Bub. There were, of course, also cruel letters written by schoolchildren about – often ostensibly by – a classmate they’d rejected. I tended not to publish these, if I could actually read between the lines and conclude that’s what the letter really was. This was also an ongoing problem in RSVP, along with the perves, of course. Kids would pick on some kid in their class by writing a letter from him or her saying ‘I am very sexy and popular, please write to me…’. James was right in this case – you can spend too long in one position and you get sick of reading the letters about ‘Band Z are poofs’ after you’ve read the ones claiming the same for Band Y the previous year and Band X the year before that.
            Diane was a remarkable person. She was a westie of some sort, and, when she came to work with us, she was recently divorced. My nerve-wracking introduction to her world was the first and last time I, being young and pretty drunk myself, accepted a lift from her after a Smash Hits Friday evening celebration because I thought it was better that I did so rather than let her drive alone in case she had an accident. Well, who hasn’t done that? On the way (we were going to Bondi, I have no idea why) she started telling me about her former husband and what an arsehole he was. She got quite animated. It affected her driving. We lived.
            Diane had a punk rock past (I remember her being very excited when the seminal Sydney punk group Rocks reformed, as it was obviously a little piece of her youth) and a hard rock future. She was basically a secretary with typing skills and so on but as time went on James started to encourage her to write for the magazine. This she did with gusto and she even ultimately got good at it. Not because of my frustrated whining about her punctuation, though (which incidentally had no significant effect).
            This was one of James’ strengths as an editor, though superficially it might not have seemed like a strength; he preferred to work with people he knew, rather than people who could write. In his experience, I think, writers were ratbags. I remember his irritation when Frank Kogan, an American writer who I’d engaged as our US correspondent, reviewed the first Batman movie for us, an exclusive in which Frank described the film as sucking a big turd in the mud. Professional writers so often had a point to make, and didn’t understand the rationale of the magazine – that every issue had to take the world with – sorry to sound so soppy, but this is the way it was – a sense of wonder. We had to explain everything to our readers, as though they’d just been born. We had to explain George Harrison when George had a hit, and we had to explain John Farnham when John Farnham came back on the scene.
            The other big name at Smash Hits in the late 80s was Marc. Marc was an enigma to us all. He was a little younger than me, and probably taller. He was incredibly reticent about his background, or even where he lived. He had obviously had a bad experience once, perhaps he was kidnapped, on a bus because he never took public transport to anywhere he could walk, and like me, he couldn’t drive.
            Marc was an ardent lover of pop music, and I imagine that working at Smash Hits was a bit of a dream to him. He was also a real professional, in that he was learning the ropes and doing things right, and though very conservative in his approach to his work, he worked hard and had no shame about asking the hard, nosey questions. He was personally fairly rigid but he was also a socialist, which was good.  
            In 1988, Fairfax Magazines got sold off by young Warwick, the bulk of it to Packer. Packer’s people had visited us in our little room out the back, but Packer himself never liked pop magazines and didn’t want us – or Portfolio, which wasn’t a pop magazine but was a magazine for working women, so about as bad – or Countdown. So we hung around in limbo for a while, until Countdown went off on its own, soon to disintegrate (the TV show had already gone off the air, so it was only a matter of time) and Portfolio and us were bought by Mason-Stewart Publishing. Neale was upset because he’d heard that the staff at Mason-Stewart had to go down every Friday to the loading bay and unload the magazines when they came back from the printers, an admittedly unpleasant and demeaning prospect, though it proved to be untrue.
            Mason Stewart was an odd business though. It was presided over by Philip Mason, a man who looked and spoke (and for all I know sang) like Bryan Ferry. He was English middle-class, and married to Alexandra Joel, whose father Asher was rich. Philip (Mr. Stewart had disappeared in the company’s early days) had created a stable of specialist sporting/recreation magazines, like Skating Life and Tracks; he’d also started up, then sold, RAM. The company’s offices were in Crown Street, Darlinghurst.
            We retained the usual aggressive outlook to the staff of other magazines, though in this case in our first weeks at Mason-Stewart this was reciprocated in an unusual way, when someone stole into our office and defaced a cache of John Farnham CD singles.
After Fairfax, it has to be said, Mason Stewart looked like an amateur outfit. Both companies had employees who’d been there so long no-one could remember what they did, but Mason-Stewart was so small people seemed able to use this fact as a leverage position in itself; so that, for instance, one admin staff member who threatened to leave unless given a magazine to run, got exactly that, at massive cost to the company (particularly when – after at least one false start and a staff overhaul even before it went into production – it went belly up after a long, drawn-out demise).
            We were effectively Mason Stewart’s flagship, inasmuch as we were far and away the biggest selling magazine there, though irritatingly to us all the publication Philip thought of as his flagship – his ‘labour of love’ was, of all things, Australian Playboy. Playboy was, for obvious reasons, continuing in a downward spiral that nothing short of killing it off was going to prevent. I have never liked porn and had no particular interest in Playboy, but in the odd times when torn up issues surfaced in the men’s toilets at Mason Stewart (I wonder why) a quick leaf through would reveal that it was straddling a much more bizarre demographic than we were – the bulk of its readers were young boys under 15, and the cream on the top which the advertising was pitched at was a sad little bunch of moustachioed men over 50 who still equated Playboy magazine with sophistication in wanking. The staff of Playboy tried to hold their heads up basking in the glow of Philip’s approval but it was a case of the Emperor’s old clothes, or lack of.
            One of the problems that came to the fore at Mason Stewart was Philip’s concern and interest in our ability to attract advertising money. We had no qualms about any old con we could pull, as far as cross-promotion or attracting sponsorship was concerned; there was, however, a massive battle over tampons. Smash Hits had something like a 40-60 ratio of male-female readers. The boys who read Smash Hits were younger – probably up to 14 or so – than the girls, who stayed with us until 16 or 17. James was certain (this was not based on research any more than anything else we did was) that young boys would be disgusted if we ran ads for tampons, and they’d stop reading the magazine. Up to a point, I agreed with this – inasmuch as boys would be unlikely to read a magazine if there were any suggestion that it was a girl’s magazine. We all thought this was where Countdown screwed up, being too girly. As to whether young boys were, literally, appalled by the idea of girls menstruating, I wasn’t going to try and imagine what young boys thought about anything, let alone that. In any case it wasn’t my call. Philip and James battled it out over the years, and Philip eventually won – perhaps in part because the rest of the world got over its unease, and tampon ads started running on TV.
            More annoying than the tampon debate was the attitude of the record industry. The late 80s was a frustrating time for those who worked in pop music; it was the early 70s all over again, except the early seventies combined a healthy teen market with a healthy (using the term advisedly) ‘worthy’ rock market. In the late 80s, the media were absolutely scathing about pop music – StockAitkenWaterman, soap stars making records, ‘manufactured’ pop, all those things that were our bread and butter – and only people who went to dance clubs or who bought records knew if they were right to be scathing, because there was no such thing as pop radio in Australia at this time, only horrible old FM with its endless Cold Chisel back-to-backs. What this meant in practical terms for our advertising budget was, strangely enough, that even the record industry didn’t want to advertise with us. When they did put some money into promoting a pop record – say, when Madonna had a newie – they’d advertise with Rolling Stone.
            Rolling Stone was a chronic anomaly at this time – possibly even more than it is now. It retained its vintage US 60s look, like each page had been handcrafted on a slice of log by a benevolent hippie craftsman. Having been dragged kicking and screaming into the 70s by the advent of the late 80s, it was now featuring ‘new wave’ acts who’d been around about ten years as ‘new faces’ on the scene. What it had – then as now, and christ knows why – was street credibility. Well, no, that’s not strictly true. What it had was what the music industry thought of as street credibility, which is of course the reverse of street credibility. But what counted was the record industry knew that other members of the music industry read Rolling Stone so, when they wanted to advertise within the industry how serious they were about a particular act, they would advertise it in Rolling Stone, regardless of the demographic the record was actually to be pitched at.
            We suffered a lot from this elitist attitude at this time. Johnny Diesel was the worst offender. Johnny Diesel burst onto the rock scene in 1988 and was an instant hit with our audience; in fact, people were talking about his good looks before he’d even had a record out. Andy interviewed him for the 11 January 1988 issue and, finding he had nothing interesting to say about someone who had nothing interesting to say himself (except ‘I went through all that bonking stuff at an early age… I just can’t stay with anyone for more than a couple of days or I start feeling caged in’), ended the article with an ironic ‘yum!’ (was it ironic? It was like most of the things we put in Smash Hits – we just didn’t give a shit. He could have ended it with ‘bum!’ or ‘hum!’ or  ‘bonzai!’ or ‘Glurk!’ Unfortunately or fortunately he ended it with ‘yum!’). Johnny Diesel’s management, and JD himself, instantly announced an embargo on all pop magazines. This was one artist whose work was not going to be reduced to a mere yum. Johnny was not going to talk to us again.
            This is where the fun began. As our readership, for whatever reason and certainly not for the reason that he made good records because he really didn’t, was hankering for material about Johnny Diesel, we went to all kinds of lengths to circumvent the embargo. We bought pictures of Johnny when he was plain old Mark Lizotte and playing in some tinpot group in Perth a few years before. When the Sydney Morning Herald did a story on Johnny we bought its story and its pictures and ran them in our magazine. When Johnny went to the UK to try and kickstart a career there – apparently in the UK he was dying for the press to say anything about him, and ‘yum’ would have been fine – we bought stories and photos from UK magazines about him. All the time we were cackling fiendishly about how aggrieved Johnny and his management were going to be that he kept popping up in Smash Hits.
            There is still to this day a perception in the industry that a ‘serious’ band will get hurt by contact with the teen market; that if you want your career to have legs, you aim not for Smash Hits-style success but for Rolling Stone-style success. On one level, you can see how this might be the case; mainly because of the snobbery inherent amongst those who’ve only just, in the last few years, grown out of being teens themselves, and don’t want to be reminded. But Smash Hits, for all its willingness to embrace pop music, was certainly in those days far more iconoclastic than old warhorses of sycophancy like Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone’s unwillingness to criticise its core advertising market is apparent in every issue and, no matter how good its editorial staff – and I have liked all the Rolling Stone editorial people I’ve known – their wish to be cutting edge or even witty, let alone to cover good music in any kind of spirited way, seems to have constantly been frustrated by commercial reality. God knows, Smash Hits was never a beacon of independence or taste; we covered only the things that were already guaranteed popular with our readership. But then, Rolling Stone did exactly the same for their readership. They just had a sense of humour about it all that was pretty much a million times smaller. I did drop in there once when John O’Donnell was the editor. The only thing I recall about the offices was that they had a cardboard model of Jason Donovan which appeared to have been shot at, had fangs drawn on, kicked, etc. Maybe the person who destroyed our Farnham CDs worked there.
            An event at Smash Hits that I can’t treasure is the time I accompanied a competition-winner reader to the USA to meet New Kids on the Block. This competition was hammered out with big fat record company hammers between CBS (I don’t think they’d quite become Sony yet) and James some time around ’89 or ’90. The original competition idea was that the reader would go to New York with a Smash Hits writer to meet the New Kids, and they’d play a show, and the reader would get his or her picture taken with the New Kids, and they’d have dinner together. Fuckin’ ridiculous.
            Marc had previously taken a reader to the UK to meet someone or other (you know I do believe it was Brother Beyond, a British group who CBS in Australia had been attempting to interest the Australian public in), so it was my turn to do this one. I was happy to go somewhere for a week for free – it seemed like a perk – although there was going to be a lot of organising to do, and CBS for some reason were insisting that part of the trip was to be devoted to interviewing Jeff Beck. It would’ve made more sense to interview Leonid Brezhnev for Smash Hits – at least some of the readers might have seen Letter to Brezhnev – but he was dead by that stage so, Jeff Beck it was, guitar hero from the 60s. If Beck – you know, ‘Loser’, Odelay Beck – had been famous at that time we could have done the story and made it amusing, pretending we thought Jeff Beck was Beck or something. Yeah, that’d be a hoot. About as funny as Bushy’s joke where we wrote an article about Mick Jagger referring to him throughout as ‘Mike’. A-a-nyway…
            There were thousands of entries – everyone wanted to go to the US and meet New Kids on the Block for god’s sake – and we selected one more or less at random (OK, in truth we eliminated a lot of the really young ones – I was not even sure how legal it was to take any minor out of the country for a week, even with parental approval, and what my responsibilities were. Imagine explaining to a US policeman why you were travelling from hotel to hotel with a 12 year old child… ‘well, the kid won a competition’. Why didn’t Humbert Humbert think of that?)
            By the time a winner was announced, the circumstances had changed. No-one was going to New York after all. New Kids were going to be appearing live at – what a crazy coincidence – the Pyalup Fair, near Tacoma, a few hours’ drive from Olympia where a whole lot of my American rock ‘n’ roll friends lived. So, I figured I’d get to see them, and that’d be fun.
            The winner was a 15-year-old girl with a haircut like Marie from Roxette’s, and she was from Shepparton. Her ambition in the long term was to be a policewoman. She had entered the competition in the hope that, hanging out on the streets of New York, she might run into Madonna. She accepted with equanimity the fact that the prize had changed. Her short term ambitions now were to get the New Kids' autographs – because a girl in Shepparton had said that it would be exchangeable for a life membership of a club in Shepparton – and to buy some shoes. She obviously imparted this information to me verbally, but for the life of me I only remember her speaking once, and it wasn’t to talk about Shepparton clubs or the police force or shoes. It was towards the end of our trip, when we went to Century City and wandered around aimlessly as she searched for something to eat – ‘something normal, some Australian food’. Here we spent some time in a toy shop, and somehow I ended up telling her – a ridiculous lie created to get a reaction – that I’d never seen a cow in real life. This made her very lively and excited and wide-eyed. Wow.
            We, and New Kids, were staying in a huge hotel in Tacoma. Why Tacoma needed a huge hotel wasn’t clear at all. The city was a dump, and probably still is. We were accompanied by a very attractive young PR person from CBS in LA, who was the first person I ever heard refer to blood sugar. Candace, Lois, and Al, friends from my other life in independent pop music, came up from Olympia to see me and we had dinner or something. The girl of course said nothing.
            New Kids were as bored as we were. I ran into them hanging out in the street outside the hotel (as was their hard gritty wont). I gave them copies of Australian Smash Hits. They had a joke amongst themselves about the idea of being ‘large’. ‘Are we big in Australia? Are we large?’ Whatever. They all looked much scarier in real life, and drained and haggard. Particularly Joey MacIntyre, who had rings under his eyes that looked like mascara. We had a desultory lunch with them. I had nachos. The girl had nominated Donnie as her favourite, so she got to sit next to Donnie, but said nothing to him. The group asked the pretty PR woman up to their hotel room. We never saw her again.
            The show at the Pyalup fair was extraordinary. Not because it was very good. Candice and Lois came to see NKOTB do it for the kids. While the group went through their choreographed paces, they had big bouncers who wandered through the crowds pointing to the pretty girls and gesturing for them to come backstage. The whole huge audience were screaming their hearts out. Afterwards there were fireworks and people parachuting out of aeroplanes. Candice said to me ‘I always heard there were fireworks the first time you have sex’.
The girl and I travelled to LA and spent a day there, some of which had to be taken up with interviewing Jeff Beck. He had a new record out, called Jeff Beck’s Guitar Workshop. Yeah, Jeff Beck. The woman we liaised with at CBS wasn’t the pretty woman, who had apparently been eaten alive by New Kids. It was a grody rock chick in leather. She couldn’t have been less interested in this Australian Smash Hits writer and his silent companion. I started making small talk about Jeff Beck. She said, ‘what the hell are you talking about? Jeff Beck never leaves England. You’re interviewing Terry Bozzio.’ It wouldn’t have mattered, of course, if I was interviewing Maisie the Mouse – except that story would have had a chance of running. The week after, back in the office, I was looking for a blank tape and found only the one labelled ‘Terry Bozzio’. That was a hard choice to make.

TBC...


[1] Lubricated Goat were a reasonably famous ‘underground’ band at the time, and I liked them. I didn’t expect the readers to recognise their name or know who ‘Brett’ was – I was just adhering to the credo that if you don’t know who they are, they can’t be any good. Geddit?
[2] Kings of the Sun had one hit and then more or less disappeared from the charts but kept making records. I have a vague memory that the readers would sometimes bring them up as an example of a band they didn’t like.
[3] Replay was a short-lived feature where we’d look at the careers of people in the charts.
[4] Once again, used only as a band with a silly name.
[5] Mini-mags were a device concocted to make the kids rip their copies of Smash Hits up and reduce their recyclability from reader to reader. They were usually about big-name bands e.g. INXS, though we once tried to go ‘lifestyle’ with them and do one on skating.
[6] I really liked the band King Snake Roost at this time. Once again I did not expect the readers to know who they were, just find their name unpleasant and scary. In retrospect it was stupid to use two band names including the word ‘King’ in one sentence, but one probably reminded me of the other.
[7] My friend Saul and I once drew a comic strip where he created a god figure who looked down from the clouds at the earth and said ‘It’s all wrong, I’ll have to kill them.’ I still find this funny.
[8] The character of ‘the Ed.’ was inherited from British Smash Hits, and was just a sort of boss/teacher figure who was eternally interjecting into the stories (‘Get on with it’ – Ed.) like in Private Eye. Of course any reader who perused our staff box up until ’88 was going to assume that Eddy Sarafian was ‘the Ed.’ although he wasn’t.
[9] Why not ‘heads’? Who knows. Could be a typesetting error.
[10] I’m not sure but I think the idea of ‘gibbering’ was from the UK Smash Hits and originally comes from comics where the exclamation ‘gibber!’ is a cross between a whimper and a gasp.
[11] Our editorial policy, and our readers’ attitudes, was to never be sure whether perviness was a good or a bad thing. In this case obviously it was good.
[12] Someone else added this last line.