The former Smash Hits editor looks back on the iconic magazine’s heyday as it makes a once-in-a-lifetime return

‘Smash Hits’ was never ‘smooth’, but it was read by millions of British teenagers every two weeks and definitely made an impression, says former editor David Hepworth

David Hepworth looks back on the golden years of smash hits
David Hepworth looks back on the golden years of smash hits

Smash Hits is back! The mega-seller pop magazine is out – for just one week – to promote the new series channel 4 Comedy Derry Girls.

The reappearance of a publication that appeared from 1978 to 2006 and that has graced teenagers’ bedrooms with so many posters for decades has triggered a wave of nostalgia.

Here, legendary editor David Hepworth looks back on his golden years.

I’ve done a few things in my time – launched magazines, presented Live Aid, written bestsellers – but my best line is still, “I used to be the editor of a magazine called Smash Hits – has anyone read it?”

Smash Hits features Derry Girls

And of course they did in the 80’s and 90’s. Every two weeks millions of British teenagers pored over it at bus stops, wallpapered their bedrooms with its pull-out posters, used it to decipher the words of Althea and Donna’s “Uptown Top Ranking”, voted them “Most Fanciable Male” (often John Taylor of duran). Duran) or Most Very Horrible Thing (generally spiders) in its annual reader poll and generally looked to ward off the boredom of the school week in the days before multi-channel television.

Back then, they were all young teenagers living in a world made unimaginable by the mobile phone. Many of them are now parents. Some are captains of industry or MPs or even doctors who ask you to undress. Once they find out that you were once the publisher of Smash Hits, all they want to do is talk about it. You read it at an impressionable age and boy does it seem to have made an impression.

It was created in 1978 by Nick Logan, the editor of NME. Nick thought there might be a market for a magazine that simply puts the latest chart hits into words, but in colour. He was right. When I joined in 1979 it had just switched from monthly to fortnightly and was selling every copy that could be printed. At its peak in 1988, there was an issue with Yazz on the cover that sold up to a million copies.

David Hepworth, right, with designer Steve Bush


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Madonna in 1985


Mondadori via Getty Images)

Until then, it was a national treasure with a language all its own. On its pages Ben Volpeliere Pierrot from Curiosity Killed The Cat was known as “Ben Vol-au-vent Parrot of Curiosity KTC”.

Madonna was recast as “Madge”, any mention of David Bowie had to be preceded by his unofficial title “Dame” and even U2 were known as “Bobo, the Hedge, Larry Mullen Jr and, uh, the Other One”.

While all other teen media was doing what they thought was cool, Smash Hits was doing what it thought was fun. It has always believed that pop can be great and absurd at the same time.

“Smash Hits” was never smooth. When we invented a format that required Jarvis Cocker to honestly answer random reader questions, it said, “No! Not the cookie jar!”

Whoever wrote the best letter of the week will receive a Smash Hits tea towel. Once we gave away half a million badges that said “Pin it on! take it off Hours of fun guaranteed!”

Clare Grogan on the cover of Smash Hits

Ben Volpeliere Pierrot on the cover of the magazine

There was a quiz with no questions. “The answer is Marc Almond. Everyone else is a singer.”

Among all the stickers with images of Five Star, Kylie and Bros was one that said, “Put the kettle on mom. I’m parched.”

As the ’80s got underway, everyone who counted seemed to get a part in this fortnightly pantomime starring Boy George, who we first spotted working in a clothing store across Carnaby Street, Always Widow Twankey was, Clare Grogan was the eternal leading man and Jason Donovan climbed the beanstalk forever.

Those acts that didn’t qualify because it was too early or too late in their careers were labeled “at the front desk” or “in the dump.” The employee who monitored their entrances and exits was Neil Tennant, who went off to form a band called the Pet Shop Boys that were never heard from again.

David Bowie in 1987


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By 1987, even Margaret Thatcher’s people had heard of “smash hits.”

Consequently [writer] Tom Hibbert was called to Downing Street where he wormed out of her the information that her favorite record was Telstar but she had always liked How Much Is That Doggie In The Window,” she replies, trite enough to be sincere be.

Smash Hits was put together in a noisy office where a constant argument about the nature of pop greatness was barely audible over the sound of Stars On 45 from the boutique below, the sound of Bev Hillier checking lyrics on the office turntable, the clatter of typewriters and the sound of Mark Ellen calling for more proofing fluid.

That was definitely old technology. When the messenger with an exclusive Wham! After the cover story for the printer fell off his bike, Chris Heath had to sit down and rewrite it all from his notes.

Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant of The Pet Shop Boys pose for a photograph circa 1983


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When the members of The Human League wanted to make sure you picked the image they prefer, they went to the office and argued about it.

When ’90s pop was once again in the hands of pro talent. Well-dressed Stage School graduates were brought into the office to perform their party plays in front of the staff. When the Spice Girls showed up this way, they were told the team didn’t have time to listen to them.

Of course, they returned to headline the Smash Hits Poll Winners Party, an annual TV show that has done the broadcasters more favors than it has ever done for the magazine. When it was all about screaming girls and the Backstreet Boys and Take That, the magazine could no longer maintain its secretive world.

The magazine cover in October 1995

It’s like they say about kings. You should never let daylight into magic.

In the end, what “Smash Hits” was enough for was the mobile phone. In the 21st century, the kids at the bus stop were now looking at each other on their phones.

Just yesterday I saw teenagers taking on a tube platform Instagram Pictures of each other, pictures that will be just as exciting for them as the pictures of Duran Duran that their mothers once watched in “Smash Hits”.

But not the same, right?

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