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David Hepworth is a British writer, broadcaster and editor. He worked at the NME under Nick Logan before joining Smash Hits in 1979. He became editor of the magazine in 1981, presiding over the magazine during its most successful period. In 1986 he was editorial director of Q alongside Mark Ellen. In addition to this he has been the launch editor on numerous titles including Just Seventeen, Q, Empire, Mojo, More and Heat. At the same time he was one of the presenters of BBC TV's Whistle Test, in which capacity he faced the world's biggest TV audience as one of the anchors of the TV coverage of Live Aid. Hepworth's legecy at Smash Hits was the consisteny of the written style, the magazines innovative use of language, as well as its colourful take on pop culture and celebrity. Q built upon this, offering a consitent corporate tone, taking music more seriously, but remaining flippant about celebrity culture and rock stardom. Both titles shifted the way in which people thought about popular music in the UK. Smash Hits emphasised the televisual, carnivalesque sensibility that has characterised pop in Britain since the 1950s, while Q habilitated music history, constructucting a rock canon and a consumer vocabulary of valuing music qualitatively.

The launch of Smash Hits at the end of 1978 coincided with the highest sales figures for singles in the UK in 1979, what was it that made the mainstream of pop so vital in that period?

I don’t know really, just lots of lots of competition and lots and lots of activity. I supposed everybody was focused on having chart hits. And I supposed you’ve also got the beginning of the advent of pop video, which meant that people had ways of reaching people with those records. That’s I suppose what it would come down to.

Garry Mulholland loves 1979, he claims it was ‘gloriously nuts’: how important was the post-punk mainstream?

I have great problem with ‘post punk’. The fact that there is the expression ‘post-punk’ indicates punk’s major problem, which is that it had a massively over-inflated sense of its own importance. Punk rock was just one of the things that was going on at the time. You might as well say the post-disco mainstream, because actually if you’re looking for a real commercial phenomenon in the mid-1970s, it was disco music.

Looking at early Smash Hits!, thirty years on, the choice of cover stars is very diverse in terms of genre – rock, pop, disco, reggae, funk, punk, singer-songwriter – was that something you were conscious of at the time?

There were odd ones. I wouldn’t say it was choice particularly. It was what you could get, what was tried. There were people on the cover early on like Elton John that wouldn’t have got on the cover subsequently. It’s like anything it starts with a very broad church and that’s what it was at the time

Was there a point, later on in the 1980s perhaps, where Smash Hits!’ freedom in terms of genre became more restricted?

Well I wouldn’t agree that it became more restricted because anyone restricted it. I think what happens with magazines or any form of media is they find some kind of formula that works for them and then, after a while, they pursue the formula and at first they pursue it successfully and then the formula ceases to work for them, but that’s a separate dissertation.

What happened with Smash Hits! is that it was aimed at people who just like pop music and then it was found after a period of time that the people who mainly liked pop music were girls, and that the people they liked most were pretty boy groups, and then you end up focusing more and more on that area. But that wasn’t because of any restriction placed upon it from above

Prior to the launch of MTV in 81, how aware do you think audiences were of pop music video? Production values seemed to rise a notch by the end of ’78 but, apart from Top of the Pops, where could people watch these?

I suppose they were. I always think of the first video star as being Adam Ant you know with the Dandy Highwayman and guest appearances from, I think I’m right in saying, Diana Dorrs and so forth. Those early videos shot by Mike Mansfield and interestingly shot on video not on film. And that’s the irony: the video revolution was actually on film, where as the very early ones were shot on video and really look like it if you see them today they get quite garish and cheap. But, they were exciting, they were new medium to people. Everybody took an interest in what was going on with them. So people were very aware of them and I think that TV programs that had never run any content like that would regularly do it – kids TV programs, local magazine programs. Everybody reached for that kind of thing. Three minutes of colour and relief from whatever it was that they did normally.

Today, the stars of new wave, The Jam, The Clash and Blondie and The Police, to a certain extent, have so much more credibility than New Pop (Spandau, Duran Duran, Wham etc). Do you think that’s fair, or are we at a point where New Pop might be rehabilitated?

I think there is a certain production finger print in the 1980s that didn’t do music any great favours, that it tends to sound thin and synthetic and the classic music of any ere – music lasts in inverse proportion to the amount of production lavished on the music I think. The simpler the music is – whether it’s Hank Williams or something made last week - the simpler it is the more it will last. And, you could say that pop in the early 1980s was engineered for the time rather than for posterity.

There is a tendency to belittle the written style of Smash Hits but looking back it would seem that it assumed high levels of literacy and cultural awareness on the part of the readers. How did you imagine the readers in the early days?

Anyone who belittles the written style of Smash Hits! knows nothing about writing because it was very well written and very carefully written and written by people who really could write. But it was also edited very tightly so there would be an awful lot of discussion about how it said what it said

The visual grammar of Smash Hits! was incredibly sophisticated. For example, there’s a piece of editorial by you, accompanying a photomontage of Blondie on the set of Roadie that was a cover story. What seems remarkable is that there was no interview with the band, the ‘exclusive’ is the photos. How did you conceptualise the visual style of the magazine?

Well we knew they were young but I think we always imagined they were curious and that they were engaged and that they wanted to know things that they didn’t already know. And, in that sense I think this was before a big sea change in attitudes to media. Where as nowadays, most people doing media assume that people don’t want to know anything that they don’t already know; they simply want to know what they know. They simply want to have it reinforced regularly. Whereas the idea with Smash Hits! was that you could expand people’s worlds.

For instance I can remember that round about that time John Lennon died, so there was huge amounts of looking back on The Beatles and the Sixties and so forth. And Smash Hits! did a huge amount of that because it was assumed that people wanted to know. People wanted to know about things that took place before they were born. I think that’s an idea that has gone.

Well we couldn’t get Blondie so we got the pictures and um you could say that people liked the pictures as much as anything else. A picture’s worth 1000 words and all that. You wanted it to look beautiful in the same way that it read beautiful. You know what you have to understand is that it was a magazine as opposed to a newspaper and so as much effort would go into putting the material on the page as would go into the generation of the material in the first place, which wouldn’t apply to newspapers.

Continuing with the visual style of the magazine, there were some unlikely cover stars. Ian Dury is not the most probable pin-up, but it’s made to work - he becomes a cartoon figure. The use of Warhol style colours and silk-screening was very evident too. Was there such a thing as a Smash Hits! aesthetic?

Ian Dury - people loved Ian Dury. They liked him enormously. Is there a Smash Hits! aesthetic? It took stuff from absolutely all over the place but it was kind of light and elegant, not dark and gloomy or anything like that. It wasn’t over garish either. It changed over a period of time.

Clearly the audience for early Smash Hits was not exclusively female, at what point did that change?

The big change would be Bros or something like that. The only people who liked Bros were girls. And so it became entirely about pop stars you could fancy. You know my pet theory is that the Smash Hits decline can be traced back exactly to when we did the first Smash Hits Poll Winners Party, which was regarded as a huge break through for the magazine, to take it over ground and put it in people’s living rooms with a big TV show. But, the danger with that is that you let daylight in on magic and you show the audience as being exclusively female and I don’t think that’s a good thing.

Describe the role of Nick Logan, once the magazine was up and running. Was he still hands-on in ’79?

No probably not, I mean Nick, when I first got there it had just gone from monthly to fortnightly and he had Ian Cranna lined up for the editor but Ian was still in Edinburgh or whatever and Nick was starting to extricate himself from it already. I think Nick’s attitude to it was you might say faintly embarrassed, that is why he wrote for it and edited under the name of Chris Hall rather than his own, whereas the people who came along afterwards were not embarrassed at all.

Much is made of the supposed war of ideology between Smash Hits! and the inkies, but given Logan’s history at NME that always seem improbable. Who was it that first conceptualised the relationship as adversarial?

I don’t think Nick thought about it very much at all. I think Nick was very resentful of NME’s owners IPC and I don’t think was ever very instrumental in the political side of the NME. I think what happened at the time was that Smash Hits started to compete with the NME and that the NME felt it ought to shift its ground away from pop music and cover stories on teenage suicide and the Red Skins. So Smash Hits! was seen as the garish, easily persuaded younger brother and the NME was ‘put away foolish things’.

What were you ambitions for the magazine when you took over as editor? What changes did you make? Looking back, what do you think is your legacy?

I think I made it more colourful. I think I probably made it less worthy. I think Ian Cranna has always had a thing about indie; Ian was always behind indie bits and all that. And what Ian mainly wanted to do was promote the career of Orange Juice. I didn’t want to do anything like that at all. You know I wanted a really successful magazine of any kind. Don’t forget, you can’t separate people’s personal ambitions from the trajectory of these things. You know what Mark Ellen, Steve Bush and I most wanted was a shot and we’d never had a shot before. And we got a shot and we were determined to make the most of it. And we did. We were ambitious bleeders.

Did authenticity matter at Smash Hits!? Was it deliberately subverting the pre-occupation with authenticity that characterised the music press that preceded it?

No. That doesn’t mean honesty doesn’t. We knew it was a process. We didn’t take people at face value.

Q is often criticised for its corporate register (the shunning of the perpendicular pronoun etc). How important was that in differentiating the title from the music press that went before it?

Yes, it was. I mean all its about is stressing to people, journalists, that you’re doing this for the readers, you’re not doing it for yourself, you’re not. Here’s a big difference with Q and Smash Hits actually from most of these things. You meet lots and lots of people working in music and media and the majority of those people have one huge problem: they think they’re in the music business. Smash Hits! and Q and the people that worked on them never suffered from that delusion. They believed they worked in the media: in the magazine business and it happened to be pointing at the music business. So, that change of emphasis from you to the magazine was important in that sense.

And yet many of the writers on early issues were refugees from the Seventies music press. Was there a tension with the old guard, Charles Shaar Murray et al?

Oh yes. Somewhat.

Looking at early issues of Smash Hits to me there seems to be a definite lineage, in terms of the sophisticated discursive style of Q. Yet few people have picked up on this. How did Smash Hits!contribute to the development of Q?

Oh Q and Smash Hits were hugely related to each other definitely. Massively. And had a lot of the same readers as they got older. A lot of the same people came out of it.

Clearly the success of Q can be read off against the proliferation of the CD, how important do you think this was? Many of the records reviewed were not actually released on CD.

Very important, because it provided a huge advertising budget, which filled the magazine with ads. You know the argument at the time of the launch of Q; the advertising department were against it because it said that you would never sell adverts to the music business on a monthly basis. Well how wrong they were.

1987, Q’s first full year in circulation, coincided with the 40th birthdays of the post-war Baby Boom of ’47. How important do you think this demographic was as an audience for the magazine? Or is it more complex than that - i.e. the performers were middle-aged but the audience was younger?

Don’t know. It’s more complicated than that actually. I think probably a lot of the readers were younger. The performers were middle-aged. I suppose there was a kind of shift I suppose at the time of Q launched. Yes there would be Eric Clapton, you know, or whatever, would be forty. And I supposed you could say it’s always been about the forty year old rock star. Ten years after that U2 were forty and ten years after that Oasis were forty. So it all moved forward. This is what I do know: the consumers of pop music, the readers about it, are far less concerned with the age of performers than the media is. They absolutely don’t give a hoot. But in the media and the music business, they’ve got a complete complex about it.

Again, Q seems to embody this moment of retrospection cohered around classic albums released on CD but did it seem like that at the time? Looking back to adverts in the music press in the ’70s, it would seem that record companies had been anthologising with vinyl box sets for a good ten years before Q. Likewise, the 70s album chart featured lots of ‘Golden Greats’ compilations…

Well I suppose what happened was that people went and bought things again, which is a sort of unusual thing to do, because people rather self-consciously have collections and they think I ought to have a but of that. I ought to have a bit of country or a bit of jazz. And magazines are very good at that. Tell me the old old story. Lets run round this once more.

Accidental though it may be, the first forty issues or so of Q really did capture the ‘rock canon’. How conscious were you have that? Did you reflect it or did you shape it?

Do you know what the most dangerous question is in interviews is – and I do it millions of times myself - were you conscious of? Were you aware of? Because the answer is no. Did we reflect it or do we shape it? Yeah we probably shaped it. It was the kind of thing that magazines are good at. Magazines are good at putting a foot on the ball and saying this is how the world is this is how the world looks right now.

Cross referencing the front cover of Q with other research on ‘rock lists’ it would seem that the initial Q canon denoted by the first forty covers has proved to be incredibly stable. Are you surprised that the legacy of Q has proved so durable?

About the people on the first forty covers. Mick Hucknall, The Christians, INXS, were they on the first 40 covers? I don’t know. I supposed it is fascinating that that bunch of people, I don’t know, that Mick Jagger at the time appeared to be eeking out the end of his career with the Rolling Stones. What do you know? Twenty-five years later they are still at it. Nobody would have predicted that rock stars would have better career prospects than the guys who went to work in banks.

The canon that we’re left with is very white male and middle aged. The work of important female artists tends to be marginalised compared to their male contemporaries. It would seem that Q in the 1980s was actually more forward thinking. How do you feel about that? Are you surprised things haven’t moved on?

I agree. The respectable rock critical view, which dominates, still dominates, the media wildly over estimates white rock groups and hugely underestimates black performers, female performers, dance artists, one off hits, all those things. That’s mainly because it’s written by white males who’ve been to university. Are you surprised things haven’t moved on? Not really! You look at the NME and it’s more vanilla now than it has been at any point in its history. What it won’t face is the fact that while it claims to be rational and cool in assessing the quality of things, what it’s largely about is musicians that its white male readers can identify with rather things of any kind of value.

Though Q is very ironic – all raised eyebrows and knowing winks – beneath that arch posturing was there really a yearning for the kind of ‘authenticity’ offered by certain kinds of artists? Joni Mitchell and Tim Buckley spring to mind…

I think what Q always had and always wanted and valued was just a damn good story. And you can get that as much from the Pet Shop Boys as you can from Joni Mitchell. You know it was people with something to say that’s always what the magazine was most bothered about.

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Page 1 - Smash Hits - 10th to 24th December 1981 - Human League, Japan, Simon Labon, Duran Duran, David Bowie, altered Images, Bucks Fizz, Madness, Police, Gary Newman, Godley and Cream
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