DANCING ON THE VALENTINE: Smash Hits, April 26, 1984

Thirty years ago this week, when I was 12, I bought my first ever issue of Smash Hits. This is it.

1I found it baffling – full of in-jokes I didn’t understand and references to people I’d never heard of. But something about it drew me in. I immediately ditched my regular order for Roy of The Rovers and every second Thursday for the next four years had Smash Hits delivered instead.

This was a golden era for pop music – and crucially as far as Smash Hits was concerned – for pop stars. Of course every generation has its own great pop and everyone thinks the music they listened to growing up is the best, but it’s not always been the case that the artists behind the hits have been worth reading about.

In the mid-to-late-eighties, though, the pop world was overflowing with funny, interesting, controversial and outspoken people. Boy George, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Morrissey and Frankie Goes To Hollywood all had plenty to say for themselves, and Smash Hits was more than happy to provide them with a fortnightly platform to impart their “wisdom”. The writers clearly loved and understood pop, but the tone of their coverage was far from reverential or obsequious. The magazine enjoyed nothing more than poking fun at the pretentions of pop stars and ridiculing their pomposity but did it with a sense of humour and style – and, perhaps even more significantly, without any of the sort of cynicism that you’d expect today.

As the eighties progressed, Smash Hits developed its own parlance that started in the letters page (overseen by the mysterious Black Type) and soon seeped into the rest of the magazine. Much of the credit for this goes to the late Tom Hibbert, the brains behind the letters page.

Among the many Smash Hits inventions and obsessions of the mid-eighties were Sir Billiam of Idol, Lord Frederick Of Lucan, Uncle Disgusting, Um Bongo, foxtresses, various spellings of actually, the overuse of exclamation marks (!!!!!!!!!) and “inverted” “commas”, Mark Unpronounceablename of Big Country, Frightwigs (as sported by Tina Turner, Sigue “Sigue” Sputnik and Spagna), Fab Macca Wacky Thumbs Aloft and the phrase that somehow answered everything… Roland Orzabal and a kangaroo.

In 1984, under the editorship of professional Paul McCartney lookalike Mark Ellen, Smash Hits was just setting off down this road. Here’s a look back at some of the highlights of that first issue I bought exactly 30 years ago. For context, Hello by Lionel Ritchie was at number one in the UK charts, and the Top 10 also included Phil Collins, Queen, Thompson Twins, Duran Duran, Shakin’ Stevens, Kool & The Gang, Captain Sensible, Depeche Mode and OMD.

You can see the full issue (minus a couple of pages that turned out to be missing from my copy) here.

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When Nena, the German foxtress with the hairy armpits, scored a number one single around the world with 99 Red Balloons, her record company bosses must have assumed that a glittering global career lay ahead of her. They were wrong. The follow-up  Just A Dream reached number 70 in the UK and the dumper was soon beckoning.

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Song lyrics were one of the big selling points of Smash Hits, especially in the early days. Phil Collins sitting side-by-side with Sandie Shaw and The Smiths, summed up the eclectic nature of the magazine.

 

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Sandie Shaw recorded Hand In Glove with The Smiths. So here she is on the news pages posing with her hand in a glove. Clever, eh? Meanwhile, Andy McCluskey of OMD claims Liverpool FC is one of his obsessions, then adds “Funny, because I never go to the games or anything”.

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Fifteen posters for £3? Worra snip! Meanwhile, future Big Brother contestant Pete Burns coins the phrase “Gender Bender” to describe people who “look like him” ie Boy George and Marilyn.

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Toni Basil, The Fraggles and Spear of Destiny, rub shoulders with The Cure, OMD and Echo And The Bunnymen on the album review (half) page. But who on earth remembers Bauhaus spin-off Tones On Tail?

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David “call me Dave” Gahan of Depeche Mode reviews the singles. He likes the Cocteau Twins, Gene Loves Jezebel, Echo & The Bunnymen and, er, Marilyn. He doesn’t like King, the Flying Pickets or Alvin Stardust much. Or, surprisingly, Roland Rat. And Morrissey is “obnoxious and narrow minded” towards other songwriters…

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Not sure that “young, free and single” teenagers having their names and home addresses published in a national magazine was a particularly clever move, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. The 80s was such an innocent era. Wonder how many responses the call for “actors, poets and Steve Wright fans” got. A pretty niche group, you’d imagine.

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This was C&A fashion, 1984 style.

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A brief history of the Eurovision Song Contest by Tom Hibbert. In the days before post-modern, irony it was simply mocked for being dreadful. The UK’s 1984 entry by Belle And The Devotions came seventh, although Belle would go on to have much greater success as one half of a fey, indie pop duo with the historical novelist Sebastian Faulks (Are you quite sure about this? – Ed)

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By 1984, picture discs were soooo old hat. Shaped picture discs were, like, where it was at.

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Want to know Green Gartside’s home address? Or where Jim Kerr does his shopping? Linda Duff (no relation) has all the answers for creepy stalkers.

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Tape the Bluebells off the charts and sing along with this handy lyric sheet.

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George Michael denies rumours of a “romantic link” with Hazell O’Connor, two members of Fiction Factory get on a tube train and a selection of football folk go to a George Benson concert. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan also gets an unlikely mention among the “hot” gossip.

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Frankie says… 1984 was the year of Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Three consecutive number ones singles (in the days when that actually meant something) and a million-selling double album, more controversy than you could shake a stick at and those swanky t-shirts. Oh, and the interview was by soon-to-be Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant, fact fans.

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Nile Rogers did some fiddly bits in the studio and transformed a mundane Duran Duran album track into this stomping pop masterpiece. The single is also notable for some of the most impenetrable, meaningless, bonkers lyrics ever committed to vinyl.

You’ve gone too far this time
But I’m dancing on the valentine
I tell you somebody’s fooling around
With my chances on the dangerline
I’ll cross that bridge when I find it
Another day to make my stand
High time is no time for deciding
If I should find a helping hand

[CHORUS]
So why don’t you use it?
Try not to bruise it
Buy time don’t lose it
The reflex is an only child he’s waiting in the park
The reflex is in charge of finding treasure in the dark
And watching over lucky clover isn’t that bizarre
Every little thing the reflex does
Leaves you answered with a question mark

I’m on a ride and I want to get off
But they won’t slow down the roundabout
I sold the Renoir and the TV set
Don’t want to be around when this gets out

[CHORUS]

Oh the reflex what a game he’s hiding all the cards
The reflex is in charge of finding treasure in the dark
And watching over lucky clover isn’t that bizarre
Evey little thing the reflex does
Leaves you answered with a question mark

A few foaming beakers of Um Bongo were quaffed before that was written, you’d wager.
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The letters page with Black Type. Soon, it would all get very strange.

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If such a thing existed, would the Smash Hits of today carry a live review of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 (or their modern day equivalent)? I think it’s doubtful, Nice frightwig though.

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Nick Heyward was slightly bonkers, what with all his talk of “giant onenesses” (whatever they are) and the like. He should have been a superstar.

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A full page ad, but you do wonder how many Smash Hits readers bought this single by post-punk psychobilly rockers King Kurt, even with its free flexi-disc

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And speaking of Mack The Knife…

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Lastly, a life size poster of be-snooded pop pixie Nik Kershaw. Pin it up!!! Take it down!!!! Hours of fun guaranteed!!!!!

Byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

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SNOOKER LOOPY NUTS ARE WE

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It was one of the most memorable – if unlikely – sporting images of the last 30 years. A slightly portly middle-aged man in a bow tie and comedy glasses, wagging his finger in an “I-told-you-so” fashion, with an enormous grin on his face.

Dennis Taylor was said finger-wagger. He had just beaten Steve Davis on the last ball, of the last frame of the 1985 snooker World Championship final and more than 18 million of us had stayed up after midnight to watch it on TV. Yes, that’s right. 18 million. Watching snooker. On a Sunday night. On BBC2.

This was arguably snooker’s finest hour, and certainly the peak of its mass-market appeal. In the mid-eighties, with football in the doldrums, Britain had gone snooker loopy. If you are over the age of 40 and remotely interested in sport then there’s a good chance you watched the 1985 final. Not only that, you probably also watched most of the other big tournaments that filled hours of television schedules at the time.

You will also have known the names of all the leading players on the snooker circuit. Davis and Taylor obviously were superstars of the green baize but by far the most popular players were the mavericks, Jimmy White and Alex Higgins. But there was strength in depth and the likes of Cliff Thorburn, Tony Knowles, John Virgo, Kirk Stevens and Terry Griffiths all had their devoted fans. And with the arrival in 1991 of the BBC1 quiz show Big Break (with its theme tune that was originally written by chief Womble Mike Batt and performed by Captain Sensible for an ill-fated musical based on Lewis Carroll’s poem The Hunting of The Snark. It’s like punk never happened…) these guys and those that followed in their footsteps, all became prime-time celebrities.

2014-04-21 14.03.45Just as famous as the players, was the venue. The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield started hosting the World Championship in 1977 and by the mid-eighties it had become synonymous with the sport. Three decades later it remains the spiritual home of snooker. As a British sporting venue, it is up there with St Andrews, Lords, Wimbledon and Wembley in terms of prestige and history. But compared to those grand old locations, it’s an unlikely icon. There are no ivy-clad walls, no 700-year old stone bridge, no giant arch. In fact there’s nothing in the way of grandeur or tradition in its four concrete walls. It looks exactly like what it is: a provincial theatre tucked away in a quiet corner of Sheffield city centre.

For 50 weeks of the year, the Crucible happily fulfils that worthy, if rather unglamorous role, providing a stage for the same sort of hotchpotch of plays, shows and lectures that you’ll find in any similar-sized venue throughout the country.

But for the other two weeks of the year the place is transformed from regional playhouse to international sporting arena. And not just any international sporting arena. For the duration of the World Championship, the Crucible becomes a battleground with a cauldron-like atmosphere that is hard to beat anywhere in sport. Think Centre Court at Wimbledon, but more oppressive. The 18th hole on the Old Course? A mere bagatelle in comparison.

Snooker may have lost a lot of its popularity in recent years, but for its devoted fans the Crucible has lost none of its magnetism. Thousands are drawn to Sheffield every year for the tournament and it remains a major event on the British sporting calendar. I’ve stopped following the sport closely but I’ve certainly not forgotten how much of an impression it made on me in my formative years, which is why a visit to the Crucible has long been on my “must-do” list. This year I finally got to tick it off.

POT THE REDS…

I’ve seen the annual trip to Sheffield described as a pilgrimage and a near-religious experience for the sport’s devoted followers. If so, it must be the only spiritual journey where the pilgrims are mainly middle-aged men dressed in polo shirts and Jeremy Clarkson jeans and surrounded by the faint (and frankly, sometimes more than faint) whiff of fart.

My Sheffield experience began at the Landmark Chinese restaurant across the road from the Crucible, where the excellent and extensive all-you-can-eat buffet is an obvious attraction for the snooker fans. Indeed, judging by the staggering amount of food being shovelled away by some diners (and that’s coming from someone who’s no shrinking violet when it comes to repeat plate fills) I rather suspect this may be the source of much of the aforementioned wind problem.

Inside the Crucible we queued and were subjected to a bag search. I’m not sure what we were banned from bringing in – perhaps a doggy bag from the Landmark Buffet – but I was allowed entry, despite my “joke” about having a vuvuzela with me. However, as we shall see, perhaps security needs to be a little more thorough in their bag checks.

Behind the scenes. The message on the TV screens seems a bit harsh though

Behind the scenes. The message on the TV screens seems a bit harsh though

In the arena, there was an overwhelming sense of being behind the scenes at the recording of one of your favourite TV shows. Everything was familiar, but with the very obvious presence of the cameras and production crew, it all seemed slightly strange, almost surreal. It quickly becomes clear that everything is driven by the demands of television, which is hardly surprising given the vital role TV played in the development of the sport. The cameras are huge and conspicuous, but they silently glide around the table like giant robots, somehow managing to keep out of the players’ way. Watching the cameramen choose their positions and their shots, you realise how knowledgeable they must be about the game.

The man in charge – in public at least – is the MC, Rob Walker, a lanky, sharp-suited sports reporter with spiky hair, a catchphrase (“let’s get the boys on the baize”) and a penchant for inventing nicknames for the players. He uses these when he announces their arrival, boxing-style, in the arena, accompanied by an appropriate blast of music (veteran Alan “Angles” McManus walked on to Return of The Mack, for example). Walker’s brand of fast-talking patter is about as far removed from the hushed tones of whispering Ted Lowe as it’s possible to get and you’d imagine that snooker’s old guard probably don’t approve. But whatever they think, it’s all good fun and the Crucible crowd certainly seem to enjoy his attempts to inject a little showbiz into proceedings, although I would question the wisdom of whipping a snooker audience into a state of mild hysteria.

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No sooner are the aisles rocking than we have to shut up and let the players concentrate. As a hush descended over the arena I became vaguely aware of the white noise of a radio trying to tune into a station. At first I thought it was something to do with the headsets that allow you to listen in to the TV commentary but it quickly became apparent the sound was coming from my rucksack. As fellow spectators started to glare in my direction, I realised it was the radio I’d taken with us on our camping trip the night before. Not only had it switched itself on, but somehow the volume had been turned up to full. It was surely only a matter of time before Hallam FM was blasting through the silence and I would be hauled out of the theatre in front of a national TV audience and banned from ever attending another snooker match. Then, inexplicably and without warning, the radio switched itself off and the drama was averted.

…THEN SCREW BACK

In the opening stages of the tournament, there are two tables playing at a time. On the far side, it was McManus against the “Wizard of Wishaw” John Higgins. On table one, where i was sitting, we had Chinese world number two Ding Junhui against debutant Michael Wasley. Ding was leading 6-3 after the opening session and with five ranking tournaments to his name this season already, he was expected to cruise through to the second round against his inexperienced opponent.

DSC_0007The opening frame of the afternoon was not memorable. It took 13 minutes for the first red to be potted, then another five for the next as both players focused on making sure they didn’t give their opponent a chance. The guy immediately behind me was unimpressed – greeting each safety shot with increasingly audible groans and the occasional “SHITE!” In those opening stages, the biggest excitement was when the ref in the other game knocked over a bottle of water. Judging by the regular bursts of laughter from the other side of the theatre, the veteran Scots didn’t seem to be taking things quite as seriously as they were on our table.

Wasley eventually won the frame but it was scrappy and to be honest I was beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about. Then it got interesting. In the next frame Wasley put together a break of 135 and then won his third consecutive frame to draw level. Ding took the fourth and fifth frames of the afternoon to go two ahead again, only for the Englishman to win the following two. Without realising it, I had got caught up in the drama. Just as Wasley seemed to have seized the initiative, Ding fought back again to take a 9-8 lead.

DSC_0014He needed just one more frame to progress to the next round but much to everyone’s disappointment time had run out. The players were told they had to return to finish their match at the end of the scheduled evening session. We were turfed out and would have to watch the rest of the game on the BBC’s Red Button that night. Just like that classic match between Taylor and Davis 29 years ago, it would be after midnight before the game came to a conclusion. And just like in 1985 it was the underdog who won it, Wasley taking the deciding frame on the pink.

…FOR THE YELLOW, GREEN, BROWN, BLUE, PINK AND BLACK

I don’t pretend to know that much about modern-day snooker, but those who do have some insight put Ding’s defeat down to the fact that he does not cope well with the unique pressures and mental demands of the Crucible’s claustrophobic atmosphere. And that’s what makes the place so special.  There is speculation that the tournament could be moved away from Yorkshire when the current contract ends in 2015, possibly to the Far East. But you wonder if any new venue would be able to recreate the sort of atmosphere that the Crucible can generate.

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Robocam

It seems unlikely, but the reality is that it will be market forces that will determine whether or not change happens. And with snooker’s growing popularity in China, who would bet against it? It would, though, be a sad day for snooker, and in fact British sport in general, if the Crucible, with all its memories, was abandoned. Whatever happens, I’m just glad to have been able to enjoy it, even if it was just for a few hours. 2014-04-21 17.40.53