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When the Hits just kept on coming

It was the magazine that became a bible for young music fans in the 1980s and 90s and would have turned 40 this month, had it survived ... and Belfast-born journalist Barry McIlheney was the inspiration for its golden years. Damian Corless reports

Had it survived, Smash Hits would be hitting the Big 4-0 this month, which puts most of its early readers in their mid-50s. Either age would have seemed barely imaginable - and scarcely permissible - to a mag that gently mocked The Bangles for being "ancient" in their late-20s.

It arrived in November 1978, with Debbie Harry radiating from a glossy cover that pledged teenage kicks and a fun alternative to the inkies of the day ("inkies" because of their finger-staining newsprint).

The NME was for album-buying older brothers and sisters; Smash Hits chased their younger, single-buying siblings.

Staffer Sylvia Patterson remarked: "Everyone, no matter their cultural importance, was treated identically, whether Bruce Springsteen, or Big Fun.

"We'd do things to make each other laugh. We'd ask Jason Donovan questions in German."

Early on, though, as pop re-emerged from punk, the Ramsay Street boy-next-door wouldn't have cut it.

The top pin-ups included Bob Geldof, Sting, Donna Summer and Poly Styrene. John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John had the matinee idol franchise covered. Songwords filled the early issues.

With The Jam on the front, Issue 2 published the lyrics for Teenage Kicks by Londonderry's Undertones. Strong sales speeded the newcomer towards full-colour with perfect timing. After the monotone austerity of punk, everything suddenly went Day-Glo.

Smash Hits found itself in the right place at the right time for a post-punk Cambrian explosion of wild new technical possibilities, both in and out of the recording studio, including picture discs, colour vinyl and the dressing up games that arrived with video.

With its house policy that looks really do matter, Smash Hits was key to making stars of Adam Ant, Culture Club, Duran Duran, Wham!, Spandau Ballet, The Human League and the rest of that photogenic broad church labelled New Romantic.

The magazine hit its peak in 1989, with sales topping one million per issue, having been steered through the mid-1980s by Belfast-born Barry McIlheney, who moved on to launch the movie bible Empire.

McIlheney, a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and City University London, spent a brief spell in local newspapers before joining Melody Maker. From there, he was appointed editor of Smash Hits in 1986.

After Empire, in 1994, McIlheney became MD of EMAP Metro, publishers of Q, FHM and Mojo. In 1999, he went on to launch Heat.

Another fixture at Smash Hits in the early-1980s was Pet Shop Boys co-founder Neil Tennant, who was appointed news editor in 1982, becoming assistant editor the following year.

By the 1990s, Smash Hits' Jam fans and even its Wham! fans had grown up and moved on, to be replaced by their younger brothers and sisters, who now swooned to Kylie, Jason, Bros, Then Jerico and Brother Beyond.

The mag had quadrupled in size, the songwords had virtually disappeared and, instead of adverts for ELO belt-buckles and Stranglers wristbands, there were phone numbers for everything - and they cost an arm and a leg.

Long columns of adverts invited young readers to phone hotlines that charged a big chunk of pocket money per minute for a range of services. Callers could answer quiz questions to "Win A Dress Like Kylie's", or seek expert advice on "How To Get Rid Of That Creep".

Or you could "Leave Your Message For The Stars", which promised, for a hefty levy, to "pass messages on to the star of your choice". One "horror line" even advertised "terrifying telephone tales", the most terrifying of which undoubtedly would have been your parents' phone bill.

No youngster and almost no adult had a brick mobile phone. The smart technology of the day was the Sony Walkman and sales of music cassettes were neck-and-neck with vinyl, while CDs were coming up fast.

No longer cover-star material, Bob Geldof gave his blessing to a new version of Do They Know It's Christmas from the hit factory of Stock, Aitken & Waterman (SAW), or "Lock, Stock & Barrel" as he called them.

The cast of Band Aid II included Sonia, Cathy Denis, Lisa Stansfield, most of SAW's usual suspects and just about every act on that remake owed Smash Hits big for putting them there.

Such was SAW's dominance that they did a Pygmalion job on a pair of unknowns, turning them into the most unlikely pop stars just to show they could.

They plucked two sisters, Dublin-born, Liverpool-bred Aisling and Linda Reynolds, and fired them into the Top 10 with I'd Rather Jack (Than Fleetwood Mac). Having made their point, SAW left the Reynolds Girls to their own devices.

In case anyone cares, jacking was a dance form resembling the funky chicken; just as daft, but more introverted.

A million-seller at the close of the 1980s, Smash Hits spent the 1990s on the downslope before closing in 2006.

TV gossip mags stole its soap coverage, while the red-tops became celebrity comics.

The final nail was the internet, which made disposable pop culture far more instantaneous than the mag that had been both the byword and bible for disposable pop.

Barry McIlheney was brought back in 2009 to revive Smash Hits for a one-off special edition to celebrate the life of Michael Jackson, who had died in June that year.

It featured a 1982 interview with Jackson, which was conducted by then-editor Mark Ellen, and featured reviews from Jackson's live shows, along with posters and songwords.

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