Tuesday, June 30, 2015


This is Ferdie escaping - in this case, from a wire fence surrounding an earth-moving vehicle that he just wanted to get to, for no good reason. (That's Kenzie watching him). I was reminded of Charlie's behaviour in the last year or so of her life when she was very keen on getting under a fence that was running on the west side of the creek - she was desperate to get under the fence, then she had no idea what to do or how to get back.
Ferdie always likes to escape. It's a real worry, actually.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

exams at exhibitchin' buildings

I have this horrible patronising line to my Urban  History students about how lucky they are to get to do their exams at the Exhibition Buildings which, well, they kind of strangely sort of are really, in a sense, except in the sense they'd probably consider themselves luckier if they didn't have to do any exams at all.
The 2015 exam was yesterday and I came in a little early and photographed the scene of the future trauma and tragedy. Lol.

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more from the unpublished 'first version' of Pop Life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


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…


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.