Welcome to If You Were There, an annotated discography of pop music in 1980s Britain. From the charming amateurism of early Bananarama to the sophisti-pop of Sade: the much-maligned eighties were in fact an exciting and stimulating era in UK popular music. The acts in the charts might well have often prompted the lament “it’s like punk never happened”, but today’s crop of media-trained singers seem bland when compared with bright, articulate and witty artists such as, for example, Morrissey or Tracie Young. They often came from quite ordinary backgrounds and found fame, if not by chance, then via very limited design – usually just sheer determination. It was a period when “anyone with a natural flair for waspish humour – Boy George or Clare Grogan or Holly Johnson – shone very brightly indeed” 1; cf. today, where “the music industry has spent the last few years trying to rid British pop stars of precisely the factors that make them interesting” 2.
Stars are created in front of us now, on live weekend television: the excitement of tuning in to Radio 1 to find out if your favourite single has gone up or down the chart has been replaced with the heavily stage-managed tension of learning if your preferred wannabe is to be voted off a show or not. It’s the same sort of thrill, but the careers created on today’s talent shows don’t have a history behind them to discover after a first hit. In the past, they’d have “been out in the real world. They’d lived colourful lives they could talk and write about. They’d had a gap year or busked in a Paris subway or done time in an office, at the very least worked as a waitress in a cocktail bar” 1 – the pleasure of tracking down that obscure early EP on an independent label is to be had no more.
Of course, we were complaining about ‘manufactured’ bands thirty years ago too, criticizing record companies for over-commercializing the product, despairing about the loss of ‘real’ instruments to synthesizers and sneering that it was all very well Kim Wilde recording a top ten single but she cut hardly ‘cut it live’ (as if that mattered). We know the singers of The X Factor can do so live, but the format’s title refers to that very thing so many of the current hopefuls lack – or, if they do have it, it is rapidly masked. We can blame this absence of personality as much on the hapless PR officers with their ‘damage-limiting’ sit-ins at interviews as we can on a shouty, aggressive post-Paxman interviewing style, journalists thinking that there is no story unless they can expose hypocrisy, arrogance or naivety in the subject. This is perhaps a similar attitude to that of the music press of the 1970s, but in the following decade “a stylish, thoughtful, hedonistic pop era flourished, and Smash Hits was its house magazine” 3.
Smash Hits was more akin to another British fortnightly periodical, Private Eye, than it was to the like of Record Mirror. It was “a magazine that treated pop music as, simultaneously, the most important and ridiculous thing ever invented” 1, much like Private Eye’s attitude towards politics. Smash Hits certainly challenged the musicians it featured, exposing pretentiousness where deserved and poking gentle fun where necessary, but it did so while celebrating the industry it was part of. Just as the die-cut company sleeves singles came in in the 70s yielded to the full-colour picture bags of the 80s, the black-and-white newsprint of Melody Maker, NME and Sounds gave way to this glossy magazine and its imitators. They had readers, Smash Hits had ‘viewers’ (this was, after all, the age of the music video and spectacular arena shows); rather than publishing, it saw itself as broadcasting to its audience in much the same way as MTV did. Admittedly, the term ‘viewers’ was probably also tacit acknowledgement that a proportion of its purchasers would be doing so merely to look at the pictures, but nevertheless while the circulation of the ‘serious rock papers’ shrank, that of Smash Hits expanded (to just over a million copies for one issue in 1988), and for that reason, the terms of reference for this blog are governed in part by ‘Britain’s Brightest Pop Magazine’.
The daily entries that make up this blog compile the singles discographies of the 71 groups and 120 (named) individuals who appeared on the cover of Smash Hits during the 1980s. Of the latter, 91 were soloists (this figure including 20 members of bands who would go on to make solo recording after the 80s), 26 were performers who (to date) have never released solo records in their careers, and three (Michael Keaton, Margaret Thatcher and Yasmin Le Bon) made no recording at all. Note that where an individual appears on the cover, singles released by all the projects they contributed to are included, but where all or some of an act appear on the cover together, only singles by that group are listed. (E.g. although Yazoo appeared on the cover, neither Alison Moyet nor Vince Clarke appeared alone, so their other projects are mentioned only in passing. When Bauhaus made the cover, they were represented by Peter Murphy alone – so his solo records and Dali’s Car project are included, while the post-Bauhaus projects of the other members are not. In the case of Eurythmics, as both were members of The Tourists the releases of that band are included. Annie Lennox later appeared on the cover on her own, so her solo work is covered. But Dave Stewart never appeared on the cover alone, so his other projects aren’t in scope. Names or people or acts in scope appear in bold the first time they are mentioned in an article.)
The records appearing in the discographies are the 7″ singles, by anniversary of original release date. This was the dominant format in pop music throughout the decade; 12” singles and EPs (even if the latter appeared on 7”, 45 rpm discs) might be discussed in the articles but those formats are not listed. Re-issues of the same title are listed only if made available under a new catalogue number. (E.g. Madonna‘s Borderline is listed once, in 1984; the second issue on 13 January 1986 appeared as W9260 again so qualifies as a re-promotion of the original release for the purposes of this blog.)
Accompanying each day’s entry is an article inspired by one of the titles listed, focusing on an aspect of the music industry in the UK at the time, be it notes on a song, a person, a record label, an industry trend, awards made and other topics.
References in this article
1 Ellen, Mark. “Amateur hour”, The Word, Development Hell Ltd, April 2006.
2 Petridis, Alexis. “Down the dumper!”, The Guardian, Guardian Media Group, 3 February 2006.
3 Tennant, Neil. “Foreword”, The Best of Smash Hits, Sphere, 2006.