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.

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