Plastic fantastic

<strong>The Best of Smash Hits</strong>

Edited by Mark Frith <em>Little, Brown, 193pp, £14.99</em>

The funny thing about reading this anthology of 1980s features and interviews from the recently deceased pop magazine Smash Hits is that it makes you nostalgic for a decade that was really quite horrible. But then, there's a reason for that. Smash Hits wasn't so much a blissfully ignorant refuge from the cold war, Thatcher or the miners' strike; it was a knowing celebration of the fun bits we could salvage from a world that had gone completely bonkers.

What made "Ver Hits", as it referred to itself, worth sprinting to the newsagent for every other Wednesday was its conspiratorial, erudite tone, developed by its founding editors Mark Ellen and David Hepworth and tweaked to perfection by a succession of writers who, in the common parlance, went on to great things. I'd guess, however, that they regard their early years at Hits Towers as career highlights of a kind: Chris Heath (now Robbie Williams's biographer), Miranda Sawyer (of this parish) and Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, who writes the foreword to this book.

It refused to allow pop stars to take themselves seriously while holding the music they made, and the colourful, exciting world they created, in almost religious regard. As Tennant notes, pop was the antidote to rock - which had plenty of representation in the 1970s and 1980s through the often dull-as-ditchwater weekly papers NME, Melody Maker and Sounds - and as pop's fortnightly bible, Smash Hits had a responsibility to its fans to be as thrilling and as sharp-witted as possible.

To that end, David Bowie was no longer merely "Bromley Dave", but "Dame David of Bowie". The announcement that Wham! had a new single out was preceded by the phrase "Back! Back!! BACK!!!". Good things, such as new Wham! singles and the news that Kylie enjoyed Cadbury's Flake sandwiches, were no longer "fab", or even "cool", but "utterly swingorilliant!!!". If you were over 16 and cynical, it would have been easy to mistake all those exclamation points for the sarcasm of 30-year-old hacks who'd read too many press releases, but those of prime Smash Hits-reading age knew that they were born of pure enthusiasm.

Most acts of the time seemed to rejoice in the magazine's mixture of schoolboy silliness and lightly worn intelligence. In an otherwise serious poll of pop stars' attitudes to the prospect of unilateral nuclear disarmament, Mark King of Level 42 opined: "With Reagan you're talking about all the mad advice he's been given by all these Weinbergers and Weingums and Beefbergers" (Caspar Beefberger, sorry, Weinberger, being the Rumsfeld of his day). They knew not to "snirfle" in a "snoot fashion" when asked to name their favourite sandwich, as a curt refusal would mean a lifetime ban from a magazine that, at its 1988 peak, sold nearly a million copies per issue.

Like the best of the acts it featured - New Romantics Duran Duran, Culture Club and Adam and the Ants come to mind - Smash Hits came as a fully realised package, with its own neologisms, daft in-jokes and high standards of presentation. Its badges were something to behold (I treasure my "Blimey! It's Gordon Bennett" pin from 1988) and came with the instruction: "Pin it on! Take it off! Hours of fun guaranteed!" Writers to Black Type, the anonymous letters editor, were rewarded with a special tea towel and a case of Um Bongo, "allegedly" drunk in the Congo.

Margaret Thatcher, interviewed by the Smash Hits staff writer Tom Hibbert shortly before the 1987 election, was revealed, unsurprisingly, to have a one-track mind. "Good luck to your pop groups," she told him. "They do a very good job for us in exports." She also gave her opinion of Elton John - "highly professional" - but not, alas, of mutually assured destruction or her favourite bap filling.

The 1980s may have been a frightening and uncertain time in which to grow up - what changes? - but, loyal and consistent to the end, Smash Hits was there to speak to you on a level that was neither patronising nor disconcertingly solemn, and to offer the chance to dream of marrying men who wore more make-up than most ladies did. Pass the pervtrousers, "matey"!

12 issues for £12

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