Eighteen months ago, while I was clearing out old boxes at my parents’ house, I came across a relic from my childhood: two Smash Hits sticker sheets, intact, covered with my favourite pop artists and TV stars. Mariah Carey, the Backstreet Boys, Hanson, Jonathan Taylor Thomas and the cast of Party of Five all stared up at me from within the pink fluorescent grid. My twelve-year-old self had intentionally preserved these treasures, not wanting to waste them on a schoolbook or diary in case they became dirty or creased (or – worse yet – a Hanson-hating friend scrawled devil’s horns over Taylor’s hair).
How pleased I was, then, to read Pop Life: Inside Smash Hits Australia 1984–2007, and to find that I was not alone in my young reverence for pop stars (nor for paraphernalia with their faces on it).
Pop Life is the ‘definitely not official’ guide to the rise and decline of Smash Hits Australia, the ‘biggest selling pop magazine in Australia’, which ran for 23 years from 1984. Through alternating, individually written chapters, authors Marc Andrews, Claire Isaac and David Nichols, who all worked as writers and/or editors for the magazine, detail their own interests in music, involvement in the magazine, office antics, personal and celebrity scandals, and encounters with everyone from Peter Andre to Melissa George to Robbie Williams.
As such, PopLife is part autobiography. Particularly memorable is Andrews’ description of being a gay teenager in Queensland who hid ‘70s Cleo male centerfolds in his ABBA scrapbooks so his family wouldn’t know he was gay – scrapbooks he later hid when ABBA became ‘uncool’, for fear of being beaten up at school. Or Isaac’s transformation from Duran Duran-stalking teenager to Smash Hits Australia features editor – not to mention Nichols’ humorous recollection of a former editor calling Johnny Diesel ‘yum’ in an article, which resulted in Diesel’s management refusing ‘point blank to deal with pop magazines any longer’.
The writers’ love for the magazine they shaped – and which in turn shaped the lives of hundreds of teenagers – is clear, and I was initially worried that what began as fond nostalgia would morph into outright sentimentality. And to an extent, it did (the book’s penultimate sentence is ‘Over three glorious decades, it was the pop-lover’s bible in any way they wanted to use it’), which could become tiresome for those who are not familiar with the magazine and cannot relate to the anecdotes.
Nevertheless, such reminiscences are balanced by the careful research and detail that sit behind them. Interviews from other former editors, writers, producers, graphic designers, record company representatives (and of course, bands and pop artists – even Kylie) form a narrative about Smash Hits Australia’s humble beginnings, through what Andrews calls its ‘golden years’ to its 2007 demise. One quote from a 2000s editor neatly sums up the magazine’s trajectory:
In the 80s Smash Hits used to have competitions to meet New Kids on the Block and they would take a competition winner to Paris or LA to meet them … whereas we would take someone to meet Millsy [2003 Australian Idol finalist Rob Mills] at the record company boardroom for pizza.
The writers do not attribute the wrap of Smash Hits Australia to any one cause. The general consensus is that the record industry as a whole was losing money due to increasing illegal (and legal) internet downloads, and that the internet provided to pop fans what they had never before been able to access: photos, song lyrics and gossip at the
click of a mouse. Fans no longer needed to wait two months for a print magazine, or pay for the information they’d be receiving. Some of the most interesting snippets in Pop Life relate to the pre-internet machinations of the publishing industry – the difficulties in sourcing colour transparencies for photo reproductions, and receiving song samples by cassette tape.
I imagine that it will be Smash Hits fans (both from Australia and the UK) who will enjoy this witty, anecdotal history the most. True fans will also appreciate the glossary of Smash Hits lingo, which may illuminate the meaning of words that never quite made sense (‘Fab Macca Wacky’ is the Smash Hits translation for ‘Paul McCartney’, in case you were wondering).
More importantly for me, Pop Life contains a 16-page full colour photo insert: in other
words, 16 pages of pop star faces protected from creases, dirt and devil’s horns.
Julia Tulloh is a Killings columnist and splits her time between writing about pop culture and writing policy for the Victorian state government. Her blog is pixielit.blogspot.com.