Released today in 1987: Wanted Dead Or Alive

Mercury JOV1

Mercury JOV1

When former Smash Hits editor Mark Ellen was looking to leave to found Q magazine in the mid-80s, he needed to find someone to take over the voice of Black Type, the supposed compiler of the letters page – and he couldn’t have picked anyone better than Tom Hibbert. Black Type’s benevolent neutrality towards his correspondents and the pop stars and minor celebrities they wrote to him about was an exaggerated (but not much) version of Hibbert’s general style of journalism: joining the regular writing team for Smash Hits in the mid-80s, he was perfectly suited to the irreverence found in its pages. It was all with the benefit, though, of a solid knowledge of popular music. Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne, an aspiring journalist in the 1980s, describes Hibbert’s writing as “offhand, intensely knowledgeable, iconoclastic, conversational and very funny.” 1 Ellen remembers his “cavalier humour and softly ruthless interview technique” and his “fond, waspish and lightly mocking deconstructions” 2 of the stars of the day. Such was the strength of his prose, it didn’t matter if you were interested in the artiste he was writing about: some witty or perceptive (or both) observations would be made, making the article worth reading.

Here’s an example of his wit. In March 1987, as Bon Jovi’s single Wanted Dead Or Alive was released in the UK, Hibbert was in the US interviewing lead singer Jon Bon Jovi 3. He introduces JBJ to readers thusly: “Jon takes a delicate sip from his teacup. The sunshine wafts in through the window, trickling through his hair and it becomes disgustingly evident that this man has not been beaten with the ugliness stick. He is simply ravissant, my dears…” The mock reverence was a hallmark of Smash Hits writing and Hibbert was the master. Apparently flippant, he could lure the subject into a false sense of security, having them reveal things that in more guarded moments they might have kept to themselves. In the same interview, Hibbert tells us that “the American cover of Slippery When Wet shows a foxette in a wet t-shirt; the British version, thankfully, is more refined”, and here’s what he reports JBJ saying about that album art: “Well, I’ve heard that we’re sexist – probably because of the album cover, but that wasn’t sexist at all. It was much better to put a picture of her on the cover than a picture of a guy on the cover, know what I mean? You’ll never find that problem in this camp, you know?” Charming.

Perhaps Hibbert’s most famous piece for Smash Hits – and arguably the publication’s finest moment – was when he interviewed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the run-up to the General Election of 1987. (Why? “Simple, really,” he wrote in the article, “you see, pop goats, she wants you, the youth of the nation, batting on her team. Fancy that.”) It was vintage Hibbert: he pressed her on issues she clearly didn’t want to discuss and secured a few awkward confessions and admissions, but also acknowledged her ability to charm. He summarized this as “she displays an eagerness to please combined with a skill in evasion – riding roughshod over interjections – that marks her out as the ‘professional’ she is.” (The much-repeated story of her alleged selection of Lita Roza’s 1953 #1 (How Much Is) That Doggie In The Window? as her favourite song, which later led to Hibbert’s observation that she was “obsessed with free-market economics even as a child”, was not recounted in the published article.)

Despite his successes, he wasn’t always happy writing for the magazine. “Strangely enough, working on Smash Hits could be difficult,” he said in a 2001 interview. “You spent all your time flattering people and putting in little jokes to cheer yourself up and then these people you never hear of any more – Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw – were always threatening to sue. It usually turned out to be about getting the names of their wives wrong. We’d have to explain that it wasn’t actually libellous.” 4 Nevertheless, in the days before PRs being in attendance at interviews, Hibbert was one of those journalists who took full advantage of his interviewees. Ellen invited him to contribute to Q when that was launched in 1986 and his “Who The Hell…” columns were legendary. It was only when ‘celebrities’ got wise to his style and how their words could be presented in the magazine that the supply of potential subjects began to dry up, and nearly 100 pieces the feature came to an end. Hibbert went on to write for other magazines and national newspapers including a regular column in The Observer.

Throughout this period he wrote or edited numerous books on music, including rock ‘year books’ and books on record collecting; a collection of his “Who The Hell…” features was also published. His career was brought to a premature end by ill-health. In the late 90s he was hospitalized after succumbing to pneumonia; he was unable to work thereafter. He died in 2011 following complications from diabetes. You’ll find his name mentioned frequently throughout this blog.

1 Stanley, Bob. “Caught by the Reaper: Tom Hibbert”, caughtbytheriver.net, 2 September 2011.
2 Ellen, Mark. “Tom Hibbert obituary”, The Guardian, Guardian News Group, 2 September 2011.
3 Hibbert, Tom. “I’m Superman!”, Smash Hits, EMAP, 8-21 April 1987.
4 Gorman, Paul. “In Their Own Write: Adventures In The Music Press”, Sanctuary Press, Sanctuary Publishing Ltd, 9 November 2001.

NEW SINGLES on sale from Mar. 30
1984
The CURE (Robert Smith) The Caterpillar (Fiction FICS20)
1987
BON JOVI (Jon Bon Jovi) Wanted Dead Or Alive (Vertigo JOV1)
Julian COPE Eve’s Volcano (Island IS318)
Owen PAUL Bring Me Back That Spark (Epic OWEN6)
THEN JERICO (Mark Shaw) Prairie Rose (London LON131)

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