Thursday, August 17, 2017

Magazines of my time Part 3: The 1980s … NME, Smash Hits, & Rip It Up

By 1979, my life as a high school student was all but over. I was sitting School Certificate and putting in just enough effort to scrape a “pass” in all five of my subjects except History, which I passed with some aplomb, simply because I loved that subject way more than any of the others. The plan was that I’d do 6th form, my University Entrance year, in 1980, but there were a couple of stumbling blocks in my path that I’d eventually fail to overcome.

The first was that, at 15, all of the things that had shaped my world up until that point, suddenly started to seem less important. I’d more or less lost interest in playing football, and while I was still involved with the school team, I was no longer being looked at for representative team selection. I was off the radar, and in truth, I lacked the physicality to play at any higher level. Shoot! magazine (see Part 2) had started to lose its appeal, and things like Paul McCartney’s Wings, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and this crazy thing called punk rock – an unfathomable mix, I’ll grant you – became far more important distractions to fill my head with.

It was probably around 1979 when I first bought my first music and pop culture magazine. I’m fairly certain it was an Australian publication called Popscore, which enjoyed a brief foray into the New Zealand market around that time. It was a glossy, and I can recall cutting out pictures – one of McCartney stands out – and plastering them all over my school books. I’m still doing something similar on Facebook, and on this blog, today.

I’d started doing after school jobs, and started buying music with my hard earned dosh. I had also started saving money for what would prove to be the second major stumbling block in a forlorn attempt to complete my education (by passing University Entrance) – a family trip to the UK and the USA for several months smack bang in the middle of 1980. The plan had changed, and I was supposed to study from a distance, but it never quite happened.

What that trip did however, was cement my burgeoning relationship with popular culture. Lifestyles, tribes, music, and fashion in London, Brighton, and Glasgow – the places we stayed or visited most while in the UK – were a huge eye-opener for the recently turned 16-year-old me. Punks, Mods, Skinheads, Rude Boys, tartan bondage pants, DMs, the music of The Specials, The Clash, The Jam, and The Police, blaring out from shop doorways and pub jukeboxes … this was all very different to the world I’d known in Palmerston North. And it was at this time I discovered a music newspaper called the New Musical Express, which I started buying as often as I could.
 The late '70s, through the 1980s, was a special time for the NME, which found itself at the vanguard of music criticism during the rise of punk and post-punk. Exceptional writers like Paul Morley, Tony Parsons, and Julie Burchill, were all plying their trade at the paper during this period, and the NME was streets ahead of Melody Maker and Sounds, which were its two main rivals in the market – at least in terms of non-glossy UK-based weekly newsprint publications. In the second half of the decade key writers included the equally entertaining likes of Adrian Thrills, Stuart Cosgrove, and Paolo Hewitt.

The quality of the writing – insightful analysis of ever-changing and quickly evolving scenes, and all of the context around that, plus witty album and gig reviews, etc – from staffers was one thing, but the letters-to-the-editor page (or ‘The Big Bad Read’) was something else entirely, and probably where I spent most of my time. It was clear NME readers also held firm opinions and weren't afraid to share them. Often at the cost of a scathing reply from said editor. I also loved browsing the classifieds, and the charts page, with a special shout out to the history-nut-centric ‘Lest We Forget’ charts of years/decades past. And of course there was always Fred Dollar’s ‘Fred Fact’, a tiny morsel of weekly musical eccentricity to ponder and/or marvel at.

For whatever reason, or reasons, the NME has fallen away badly over the past couple of decades and it no longer commands the same level of reach or influence. If anything, for readers of my generation say, the (now) magazine is something of a joke and a sad pale shadow of what it once represented.

While the NME was the champion of all things indie, political, and cutting edge, fans of straight up unadulterated pop music could get their fix from Smash Hits, a magazine that catered for the pop charts. And that meant for much of the first half of the 1980s, it was very much a synthpop-centric type of publication, which is where I came in.
Published fortnightly, Smash Hits was a colourful glossy crammed full of posters, lyric sheets, and digestible tidbits. It was almost tabloid-esque at times. Something to be consumed and tossed away, rather than studiously pored over and/or collected. It had its own little niche corner of the market. For a while it did have a specialist indie page, and one dedicated to disco, but mostly it was a rock snob’s nightmare and it concerned itself only with whatever was happening on top 40 radio at any given time. To its credit, the magazine survived for nearly three decades before market forces and falling advertising revenues saw it close in 2006.

My relationship with Smash Hits was only ever intermittent, that whole early 80s synthpop thing being its main draw, but I was still buying it as late as 1983, because I recall having a Tears For Fears poster/lyric page for ‘Pale Shelter’ (removed from the mag) pinned to a bedroom wall in one of my first flats. I can laugh about now, but at the time it all seemed so deadly serious.

Trivia Fact: Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant was once an assistant editor at Smash Hits. Then he released ‘West End Girls’ and the rest is history …

By the time I’d left school, found a job, left home, and established a set of like-minded gig-going companions (let’s say by 1983, for argument’s sake), I had become aware of Rip It Up, a local music paper, a monthly, that was free to pick up at “record shops” (quaint term) across the country.

Rip It Up started life in 1977, the brainchild of local music identity Murray Cammick, and while it wasn’t New Zealand’s first rock/pop culture periodical, it was the first of any real significance for my generation. It wasn’t exclusively about local music – interviews, album reviews, gig reviews – but it was the only place, beyond token coverage in mainstream newspapers, we could read about local bands, local gigs, and everything else to do with “us”. That said, it had a balanced mix of the local and the international, and was fairly widescreen in scope and genre.
Initially, it was quite rudimentary in its design and layout – it was advert-dependent and free, after all – with one-word section headers – “records” (reviews), “live” (gig reviews), “briefs” (short news snippets), and “letters” (self-explanatory, and only occasionally NME-standard for hilarity). It had a genuine fanzine quality about it.

I’d usually start at the “rumours” section, which took the reader on a tour around the country, covering odds and ends, news and gossip, with focus placed on each the four main centres. It offered a summary of what had been happening in each location, and what we could expect in the way of releases, tours, and events during the month ahead.

From 1977, through the decade that followed, Rip It Up was a newsprint publication, mostly black and white, with a splash of colour reserved for the front cover and the occasional advert. But in 1991, the title underwent a facelift and a change in format, morphing into a glossy magazine, with a sale price attached. And while that’s all fair enough, and perfectly logical, something that ensured its longer term survival, it’s fair to say my own interest in the paper/magazine had fallen away by this time. Not because there was a cost associated with it, but because it had become less concerned with the grassroots, and far more mainstream in its approach.

You can find a fascinating archive of classic early Rip It Up content online here 

So far, all of the titles I’ve covered off in this series – with the exception of Rip It Up – have been UK-based publications, but in the next post I’ll expand those horizons just a little. Still looking at the 1980s, but taking a short detour into rather more exotic climes …

Read Part 1 here

Read Part 2 here


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