1970s book

This collection of essays highlights the variety of 1970s culture, and shows how it responded to the transformations that were taking place in that most elusive of decades. The 1970s was a period of extraordinary change on the social, sexual and political fronts. Moreover, the culture of the period was revolutionary in a number of ways; it was sometimes florid, innovatory, risk-taking and occasionally awkward and inconsistent. The essays collected here reflect this diversity and analyze many cultural forms of the 1970s. The book includes articles on literature, politics, drama, architecture, film, television, youth cultures, interior design, journalism, and contercultural 'happenings'. Its coverage ranges from phenomena as diverse as the Wombles and Woman's Own. The volume offers an interdisciplinary account of a fascinating period in British cultural history. This book makes an important intervention in the field of 1970s history. It is edited and introduced by Laurel Forster and Sue Harper, both experienced writers, and the book comprises work by both established and emerging scholars. Overall it makes an exciting interpretation of a momentous and colorful period in recent culture.

Featured Chapter in British Culture and Society in the 1970s - The Lost Decade

Smash Hits, the British music magazine launched by EMAP in 1978, is synonymous with the 1980s. And it is easy to see why. Though the magazine continued until 2006, the apex of its success coincides with Margaret Thatcher’s second term in office and the rise of what is often labelled New Pop in the 1980s (Rimmer, 1985). Less widely considered, however, is the period in which Smash Hits was edited by Nick Logan and Ian Cranna (1978 to 1981) and the magazine’s footprint in the 1970s. That this period has been passed over is remarkable given the longevity of music from that era and the widespread recognition of Nick Logan’s work on both NME and The Face. The space Smash Hits occupies then, is the no mans lands between punk and the new romantic era: what is often defined as post-punk. However, as Dave Hepworth has suggested, that term is problematic:

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. (Dave Hepworth, 27/1/09)

That said, disco itself is a contested term: embodying a complex history in terms of both racial and gender politics (Dyer, 1979) (Braunstein, 1999). However, as Barker and Taylor (2007) suggest, the invocation of disco is useful because of the way in which it embraced commercial culture and challenged traditional modes of authenticity. That is not to say Smash Hits was a disco magazine (though it did feature the disco charts). Rather it embodied a disco sensibility and positioned disco stars on the same footing as their rock-orientated contemporaries. In this sense the success of the Smash Hits reflected the diversity of the mainstream at the end of the 1970s. And, indeed, the speed with which it overtook its competitors suggests the magazine was perhaps more in tune audience taste than NME, Melody Maker or Sounds. However, Smash Hits shaped, as well as reflected the popular music scene at the time.

When it was launched in 1978 Smash Hits, framed popular music in a way that was very different to the music press that preceded it. Firstly, it disrupted what Keir Keightley defines as ‘romantic’ and ‘modernist’ notions of musical legitimacy in its preference for pop product (Keightley, 2001, 136). The rejection of commoditised cultural forms had been central to rock ideology since the 1960s: a Baudrillardian ‘deterrence’ mechanism used to distract us from popular music’s intrinsically capitalist sensibility (Baudrillard, 1981 (2001) 428). Secondly, Smash Hits challenged what Eamon Forde defines as the polyglottic style of the music press in the 1970s (Forde, 2001, 23 -43). Typified by the NME, the polemic style of Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill drew upon New Journalism modes of reporting popularised by US essayists like Tom Wolfe (Gorman, 2002, 201 - 260). Thirdly, Smash Hits paved the way for a more fluid conception of musical authenticity: sensitive to British pop’s more ‘carnivalesque’ sensibility (Bakhtin, 1998, 250). In this sense Smash Hits embodied a reflexive celebration of artifice that underpins much of British pop culture from the Cliff Richard through to Lilly Allen.

That elsewhere this strand has been recouped within narratives of Britain’s art-school aesthetic (Frith and Horne, 1987) (John A Walker, 1987) and the politics of camp (Sontag, 1964, 53-65) is well documented. For example, Jon Savage looks at the stylised parodic quality endemic to British pop (Savage, 1988, 151) and what he calls ‘the sign of gayness’ (Savage, 1990. 169). However, it is the role played by the music press as both ‘gatekeepers’ (Shukar, 1994, 96) and ‘cultural intermediaries’ (Laing, 2007, 335-336) that is central to this chapter and the re-evaluation of the written and visual culture of Smash Hits. In this direction I will conclude by suggesting that Smash Hits reacquainted the music press in the UK with what Simon Frith has defined as pop’s ‘televisual aesthetic’ (Frith, 2002, 277 - 290). In this sense the 1970s can be viewed as period in which popular culture embraced (as opposed to simply embodied) post-modern cultural forms and thereby anticipated the more explicit commoditisation of lifestyle in the 1980s. In particular, Smash Hits sewed the seeds for Logan’s next venture, The Face, which, as both Frank Mort (1996) and Sean Nixon (1997) have observed, pre-empted a revolution in men’s lifestyle publishing.

The Mainstream Pop Scene in the late 1970s: 7-inch Singles and Music Videos
The trajectory of mainstream pop scene in the UK during the 1970s is dominated by two major epochs: the glam rock and punk era. Though musically adventurous, within the Academy these moments are typically recouped within narratives of sub cultural identity and style. Less widely considered is the period at the end of the 1970s. And yet, this represents a period of unprecedented diversity and sales For example, 86 million singles sales were sold in 1979: the highest yearly sales figures for singles in the UK to date. Genres enjoying success during the period 78,79 and 80 included rock ‘n’ roll, easy listening, euro-pop, punk/new wave, electronica, singer-songwriter, reggae and country and western. For Gary Mulholland this diversity within the mainstream of pop is something unique to the end of the 1970s.

1979 was in pop music terms at least, gloriously nuts. Punk and disco had taken the music industry by surprise and, as they struggled to understand what kind of strange noise and voices pop fans wanted, they allowed artists a degree of freedom and adventure that echoed the joy and tumult of the mid-60s. 1979 saw the peak and end of that process. (Mulholland, 2002,76).

Of particular significance was the influence of European disco on some very mainstream rock acts (Rod Stewart, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd etc). In many ways the collision of rock and disco set the template for the modern pop song: most significantly in their use of synthesisers and their appropriation of reggae rhythms. For example, the hits of post-punk stars borrowed heavily from Caribbean music: most notably Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ (a reggae song set to a Moroder beat) and The Police’s ‘Message in a Bottle’ (reggae meets new wave). It was, in short, a period in which every flavour was on the menu and no style seemed to clash. And yet, within the Academy the period has almost been written out of pop history.

Another aspect of 1970s popular music culture, that is often forgotten and yet is highly significant to the success of Smash Hits, is the proliferation of music video. There is a common perception that music video was not a significant medium until the 1980s, subsequent to the launch of MTV in America in 1981. This is, however, inexact: music television shows like Top of the Pops in the UK and American Bandstand in the US defined the conventions of the ‘pop promo’ from the 1960s onwards. Likewise, British bands had been experimenting with music video since the 1960s. The centrality of this visual culture is well documented in Popular Music Studies. As Lawrence Grossberg points out: ‘when you heard rock, you saw it as well, whether live or in films or on television or on the record sleeves’ (Grossberg, 1993, 188). And, it is this sensibility in Smash Hits, what Simon Frith defines as pop’s very ‘televisual aesthetic’ (Frith, 2002, 277 - 290), to which I will turn in my conclusion.

However, what perhaps marked out the latter half of the 1970s from the glam era or indeed punk was the proliferation of satellite television in America that was so pivotal in shifting audience tastes in the UK. The American communications company Time Warner had been experimenting with playing music videos on their cable network in the US as far back as 1975. However, the launch of Pop Clips a show that ran from early 1979 up until the launch of MTV two years later enforced the importance of the new medium. Major budget productions by British artists during the period include Rod Stewart’s ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ (1978), Roxy Music’s ‘Angel Eyes’ (1979), The Rolling Stones ‘Miss You’ (1978) and Paul McCartney’s ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ (1979). That these songs were also hits in the UK meant that audiences were exposed to more sophisticated forms of music video, not only on shows like Top of the Pops but also on regional magazine shows and those aimed at children like Tiswas and Swap Shop. In short then, long before new pop the forms and conventions of music television and film, were determining the way in which audiences thought about popular music.

The Language and Visual Style of Smash Hits
In the various populist accounts of the magazine’s history, like the Chris Fouracre’s documentary 25 Years of Smash Hits (Channel 4, 12/4/2003) and the posthumous book The Best of Smash Hits (Frith 2006), much is made of the magazines visual style. The general consensus seems to be that the magazine changed the way music magazines looked: its visual style, A4 format and use of colour were very different to the magazines that preceded it. Moreover, Smash Hits presented pop culture in a way that was very different: the design and layout was influenced by fashion photography and the copy deployed stylistic conventions of consumer journalism: evaluating pop music as a product. In short the magazine embodied a whole new sensibility for thinking about pop music: a more post-modern aesthetic in which the consumption of pop music was viewed as a part of the reflexive construction of self. Yet, when Smash Hits is considered by academic writers there is a tendency to neglect this innovation. Illustrative of those approaches to Smash Hits that overlook the importance of the magazine is Gustur Gudmundsson et la who mention the title only briefly in their history of the British music press, suggesting that the title re-invoked ‘the teen mag idea of ‘pop as magic’ (Gudmundsson et al 2002, 56). Likewise, Eamon Forde focuses on the ‘monoglottic’ corporate register of the magazine:

The Smash Hits aesthetic and explicit mainstream orientations were forged within the central notion that the era of the personality writer had run its natural course and readers were no longer interested in convoluted and protracted theorization or partially autobiographical NJ (Forde, 2001, 28).

What these accounts, and those of Shukar (2001) and Gorman (2002) ignore is the ground-breaking way in which the magazine combined text and image in ways that both reflected and shaped the way audiences thought about pop at the end of the 1970s. In part this can be attributed to methodological issues: Forde is interested in the media economy, Gudmundsson et al the history. Likewise, Gorman’s account is essentially oral history, while Shukar’s commentary is restricted to a chapter on the music press as whole. For my own research, however, I align myself with Frith (1984) in that it is the ideological structure underpinning the consumption of pop product that I wish to extrapolate. And, in this respect Kembrew McLeod’s (2002) analysis of the semantic dimensions of the music press in which he identifies ideological discourse markers is most useful.

Taking the form of a detailed examination of the way in which ten lead articles communicate in words and pictures, focusing on the cover shot as well as the layout and positioning of the article, a number of key findings emerge. Firstly, there is no genre bias: disco, punk, ska and reggae are all covered. Though the artists featured are predominantly white, this reflects the demographic of the singles chart rather than a separate ideological agenda. For the purposes of the investigation, issues featuring both Bob Marley and Donna Summer were selected. Though race is not foregrounded in interviews with either star, the feature article on Bob Marley is elaborate in its exposition of the cultural context of Rastafarian religion, denoted by the singer’s crocheted hat and dreadlocks on the front cover. And, indeed, the solemnity of shot selected of Marley for the cover betrays an overt reverence for the reggae star, which counterpoises the more objectifying gaze characteristic of other cover shots.

The second remarkable feature of early Smash Hits is the sophistication of the art direction and photography. It is without question that the house style as much more seductive than NME or Melody Maker. In part this can be attributed to the luscious colour and quality of the paper. And, indeed the addition of poster supplements and pictures to stick on bedroom walls was key to the magazines teen appeal. The magazine reflects the rise of music videos production during the 1970s and an increasingly visual portmanteau of stars from the glam rock era onwards. This increased reliance upon the visual is also reflected in the occlusion of straplines to identify the cover star: recognition of a band or performer is based upon their appearance rather than name. This very visual sensibility is reflected also in the colour pallet used for fonts and text boxes: the use of garish pinks and yellows alludes to the visual codes of punk and the Pop Art sensibility of Warhol. Indeed, it is this presentation of stars as consumer objects that is perhaps the key to the magazines appeal.

The third key trend emerging from analysis of Smash Hits is that typically musicians are not depicted in naturalistic poses. Instead, the visual style favours hyper-real Technicolor, foregrounding either a pin-up status or cartoon like quality. In the case of a band like The Police this works very well: the rugged good looks, tanned complexion, and tousled blond hair lend the mid shot of this robust threesome from the cover of Smash Hits in August 1979 a naturally iconic quality. While Smash Hits addressed a less singular demographic in the 1970s than its core readership of teenage girls in the 1980s, early editions are remarkable for the way in which some quite improbable male subjects are reconstructed as pin-ups: an unlikely ‘boy band’, the homo-social bonding depicted on The Clash’s front cover from December 1979 renders the quintet impassive and objectified. Likewise, the stylised studio shot of The Jam positions Paul Weller in the role of teen idol.

By contrast the portrait of Ian Dury from the same month plays up the eccentric qualities of the Blockhead’s front man: the singers optician-style glasses serving as a visual motif for Dury’s musical idiosyncrasy. The shot purposefully eschews depiction of Dury’s impaired gait (incurred through a bout of polio in childhood) and focuses instead upon his glasses which serve to reconstruct Dury as a more cartoon-like figure: a less defective caricature, more easily assimilated into the mainstream. And, indeed, Smash Hits does not subvert the hegemony: solo female stars like Donna Summer and Kate Bush are presented in ways that festishize their sexuality. An anomaly in this sense is the image of Deborah Harry on the cover of Smash Hits from December 1979, in which the singer appears androgynous, positioned amongst her male band mates, dressed down in casual jeans and a jacket. As in its depiction of genre, it would seem that Smash Hits is remarkable for the parity in its depiction of gender: a level playing field in which the subject may be sexualised and objectified regardless of sex, race or musical style. However, perhaps where the magazine challenges received thinking the most is in the sophistication of its written style.

In part, the preoccupation with the visual culture of Smash Hits can be attributed to a higher ratio of image to text than the music press that preceded it. Yet, the articles themselves are in-depth: assuming high levels of discursive ability on the part of the reader, in terms of both vocabulary and grammatical construction:

MADNESS’ ALBUM presents a fifty/fifty split between ska-inspired dance numbers and their own earthy tales of London low life. Lee Thompson’s coarse sax is well to the fore as is Mike Barton’s pumping keyboard technique. The band have chosen to label it the ‘nutty’ sound, a term thought up by Thompson to describe the noise of fairground organs. It’s a rough lively sound, jaunty and old fashioned. On stage Chas Smash does his strange ratchet dance to the real delight of packed houses. A few shortcomings in the vocal department and an over reliance on the same tempo apart, they’re enormously enjoyable. Family fun. (Hepworth, Smash Hits, December 1979, 27))

Here the mixture of assonance (ska-inspired, dance, numbers) and alliteration (London low life) creates a haughty timbre. Likewise the ambiguity of the adverbial phrase ‘well to the fore’ leaves it up to the reader to decide whether that is a good or bad thing. As the section proceeds Hepworth’s affectation of conservative befuddlement is reinforced by the selection of certain outmoded words and phrases; ‘lively sound’, ‘jaunty’, ‘delight’, ‘enormously enjoyable’ and ‘family fun’ all sound like manners of speech from a previous era: to be enunciated in the clipped tones of Received Pronunciation. In Smash Hits the subtle combination of words and phrases assumes high levels of both literacy and ‘cultural capital’ on the part of the reader (Bourdieu, 1979, 3). For example, the verb ‘don’ is polysemantic, meaning in this sense to put on a garment but also signalling to the noun that signifies a person of great importance. Likewise, ‘white coat’ is a play upon ‘madness’ as a clinical diagnosis and the garb common to medical practitioners in a sanatorium. Elsewhere metaphorical reference to the ‘sweetness‘ of chart success, idiomatic expressions such as ‘the ska ‘gravy train’ and a theatrical allusion to ‘the boards’ keeps things varied and makes the adolescent audience work hard. In this way the magazine is embedded with a subtle and secret code, which includes the reader and purposefully subverts the more pompous impulses of the music press that preceded it.

It is perhaps the use of irony that marks out the written style of Smash Hits from the inkies the most. For example in the short editorial by Dave Hepworth to accompany a photomontage of Blondie on the set of the Alan Rudolph film Roadie (1980) the satire is affectionate rather than biting:

EVERYBODY GOT popcorn? OK, it’s Film Fun Time! So settle down in your seats and quit eyeing the person next to you for a minute while we fill you in on progress made so far on Blondie’s World Domination-By-The-Eighties Plan (Silver Screen Division). The pix (below and over the page) were all snapped in Austin Texas, deep in the heart of cowboy country where men are men and mules are mules and never is heard a discouraging word. This is where the band have been filming ‘Roadie’ with weightwatchers favourite rock and roll star, Meatloaf. (Hepworth, Smash Hits Dec 27 1979, 15)

Hepworth injects new life into worn-out stock phrases: intensifying tired idioms with an ironic tone and self-effacing mockery. While the use of rhetorical devices, punctuation for effect, hedges and causal connectives are all fairly standard, it is the invitation to inhabit a parallel fantasy world that is most compulsive: a landscape demarked by the hyper-real iconography of the populist imagination. From the cinematic optimism of the ‘Silver Screen’ to the cold-war anxiety of ‘World Domination’ Hepworth’s imagery is painted in the heightened colours of a Warhol silk screen. In this sense the magazine paves the way for the polished journalism of Q. This is evidenced also by the retrospective sensibility when dealing with older recording artists. In a feature article on Roxy Music, for example, Deanne Pearson’s prose assumes high levels of cultural capital on the part of the reader in her consideration of the ‘glitter era’ and the band ‘post-re-union’ (Pearson, Smash Hits June 12th 1980, 6). While defending Smash Hits against the accusation that it was mercantile flies in the face of its own Pop Art project, as Mark Ellen suggests, the assumption that the magazine was lowbrow and charm-less is historically inaccurate:

Conventional wisdom decrees that Smash Hits’ success was down to the ‘speaking to the kids in a vernacular they understood’. This wasn’t strictly true: the magazine and its readers had jointly cooked up a language of their own. It pitched way beyond their world and watched them rise delightedly to the challenge. (Ellen, 2006, 85)

Conclusion – The Carnivalesque and the Televisual Aesthetic of Smash Hits
Clearly the visual culture of Smash Hits challenged the production of meaning in the music press that preceded it. It opposed the polemics of the personality writers and the primacy of the written word. However, from my own perspective the real significance of Smash Hits at the end of the Seventies is the ideological shift it marked in the way in which audiences thought about popular music: challenging the primacy of authenticity as a barometer of culture taste. In part this can be attributed to the playful and ironic tone of the editorial. And, indeed, in this sense the magazine opened up a space of the more sophisticated consumer journalism of Q. However, it is without doubt that the visual culture of Smash Hits is potentially most interesting: reacquainting popular music with its more performative dimension. In this sense Smash Hits side-steps the tension between Musicological approaches to popular music and those emanating from the Social Sciences, by celebrating the synthetic qualities of the surface culture. It also challenges received thinking about romantic and modernist conceptions of authenticity, which as Keightley delineates so clearly, are inextricable from Afro-American rock ideology. Instead, Smash Hits re-inscribes an inherently ‘parodic’ (Jameson, 1991, 17) sensibility that is central to British pop mythology. In part, this mimetic quality can be attributed to both the subaltern position of British bands in relation to the American rock hegemony: success being contingent upon the representation of what Keightley as a lost musical heritage. Likewise, it can be viewed as an extension of the European tradition of the carnival in which ‘the world is turned upside down’ (Bakhtin, 1998, 254): the world in this sense being the hegemony of Afro-American rock authenticity. And, indeed, this is something Diane Railton considers in her analysis of Smash Hits in the 1990s. However, in the case of Smash Hits in the 1970s it would seem that its what Simon Frith (2002) has described pop music’s ‘televisual sensibility’ that is central to understanding the magazine.

Focusing on popular music since the 1950s Frith argues that rock stars not only have to be telegenic in order to succeed but that the conventions of a good television performance have come to define what is understood by a good rock performance. In this sense the visual artifice of Smash Hits is perhaps closer to the core aesthetic of rock and roll than the superannuated postulations of the inkies. As Frith suggests: ‘for all the ideological importance of its live performance, rock is the first popular musical form to be constructed in the studio’ (Frith, 2002, 286). Deposing of genre distinction is key to this sensibility as is the levelling of cultural order imposed by the primacy of the visual in Smash Hits. The legacy of the magazine is that it exposes the ideological parameters within which popular music texts are deconstructed as contingent mythologies: mythologies to which the audience subscribes (or does not) in their reading(s) of the text. In this sense pop, rock punk and reggae are not discrete genres in Smash Hits but shifting strategies; strategies used by the audience to understand not only the popular music to which they listen but also their own identity as audience members. The significance of the televisual aesthetic of Smash Hits then stretches beyond the moment of its inception at the end of the Seventies and the begetting of video pop in the 1980s, and offers instead a viable mode of deconstruction for all popular music culture formed in the image of the cathode ray.


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David Hepworth 27th January 2009

Television Programs

Chris Fouracre’s 25 Years of Smash Hits (Channel 4, 12/42003)

Specific issues of Smash Hits

Smash Hits June 14th 1979 – Donna Summer

Smash Hits August 8th 1979– Ian Dury

Smash Hits August 23rd 1979– The Police

Smash Hits November 29th 1979 – Madness

Smash Hits December 13th 1979 – The Clash

Smash Hits December 27th 1979 – Blondie

Smash Hits March 6th 1980– The Jam

Smash Hits May 15th 1980– Kate Bush

Smash Hits June 13th 1980– Bryan Ferry

Smash Hits August 7th 1980– Bob Marley

police message
blondie - heart of glass
25 years of smash hits
1.14 Donna Summer June 1979.jpeg
2.16 Bob Marley August 1980
1.19 The Police September 1979
1.28 Blondie Dec 1979
1.18 Ian Dury August 1979
1.26 Madness December 1979
2.12 Roxy Music June 1980

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