In search of Smash Hits

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Carnaby Street, home to Smash Hits

Like many youngsters who grew up in the 1980s, the fortnightly pop magazine Smash Hits was a must-read. It was irreverent, funny, and colourful and supplied its young readers with an endless supply of posters for their bedroom walls. It was also a great way to keep tabs on who was currently poptastic and who was hurtling down the dumper to hang out with Belouis Some and Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Famously, Neil Tennant from the Pet Shop Boys worked for the magazine from 1982-1985, alongside Word in Your Ear stalwarts David Hepworth and Mark Ellen. The magazine folded in 2006 but it is still well remembered and loved amongst people of a certain age.

Neil Tennant on the front cover of his old employer’s fanzine

The Smash Hits office was at 52-55 Carnaby Street, in the Soho area of London. The New Musical Express (NME) offices were right across the street from them and apparently, these rivals weren’t having half as much fun as the Smash Hits journos. What never occurred to youthful me was that these offices were to be found upstairs over swankier shops and that they didn’t have shiny pop stars sashaying in and out through their doors all day.

Smash Hits HQ editorial meeting

There is a plaque on the wall of the building where Smash Hits used to be but there’s no mention of the iconic magazine. Instead, it commemorates the offices as being used by notorious rock manager Don Arden (father of Sharon Osbourne). Hopefully some day “they” will erect plaques for Smash Hits and the NME because for generations of music fans these magazines really were a big deal.

Smash Hits HQ (or was it Towers?), not that you’d know it

Carnaby Street in the 1960s was synonymous with swinging London but these days it’s about as cleaned up and nondescript as you can get. Even a nod to its past with a Rolling Stones pop-up shop doesn’t do much. Oh well, at least me and my frightwig were there. It’s just a shame it was 35 years too late.

If you’re of a certain age, you might enjoy looking back at old issues of Smash Hits. There are oodles of them online

Cartoon Museum

During my trip to London in 2022, I visited the Cartoon Museum. I grew up reading DC Thomson comics and have a lot of nostalgia for the characters from The Beano, The Dandy, The Bunty, the Judy and The Mandy in particular. I grew out of reading comics when I was 10 or 11 but I still have a soft spot for clever current affairs cartoons. I also greatly admire the skill of the artists who draw these comic strips. And so, a visit to the Cartoon Museum in the centre of London was always going to be an easy sell.

Dennis the Menace. The infinitely superior one (sorry yanks)

I was really impressed by the friendly people behind the reception desk. One of them took the time to give me a good overview of what was on display and told a funny story about how the Beano means something different in the USA. Think wind, and not the weather sort. It also turned out that I knew one of his Irish relatives, which isn’t as weird as it sounds if you come from Ireland…

In museums and exhibitions like these, it never ceases to surprise me how far back some of the exhibits go. Cartoons were no exception, with some surprisingly old drawings. Thankfully these were a higher calibre than the offensive anti-Irish etchings which seemed to be a staple of Punch magazine back in the day. I think we tend to forget that people from the past were just as funny and acerbic and clued-in as we are now. Or at least, how we like to see ourselves.

Roy Hattersley (Spitting Image)
Roy Hattersley

Needless to say, the many cartoons on the walls were really interesting. Some were funny, many were thought-provoking and some brought back memories of current affairs issues I’d mostly forgotten.

I was pleasantly surprised to see an actual old-school Spitting Image puppet on display. Back in the day, Spitting Image was must-see TV and some of their latex puppets become iconic in their own right. As I later learned, being made of latex means some of these old puppets have had to be restored. If you’re interested, the lady who restored the Roy Hattersley puppet has some interesting information here.

At the time of my visit, there was a Judge Dredd 45th anniversary exhibition on the go. The charms of Mr Dredd and his judgements passed me by but all the same, there was a lot to like in that section. You don’t have to be a fan of all of these genres to admire the work that the cartoonists put into their comic strips.

There is a room in the museum which brings those of us of a certain age straight back to primary school again. They encourage people of all ages to have fun drawing cartoons. What isn’t there to love about being able to sit in a brightly coloured room and play with crayons, pencil sharpeners and colouring pencils. The 5-year-old in us never dies! I might have baulked at trying to draw a caricature of the then UK prime minister Boris Johnson. Or should that be, Booo-ris Johnson.

In short, if you’re in any way interested in cartoons, satire, staring into Roy Hattersley’s false eyes or drawing superheroes in a playroom, the Cartoon Museum is worth a visit. It certainly woke the child in me. Oh, and the gift shop is pretty cool too.

Cabmen’s Shelters

Cabmen’s Shelter at Hyde Park Gate

While I was in London back in April, I spotted a large wooden hut that looked like Dr Who’s TARDIS if it had been a Siamese twin and had turned green around the gills from all the crazy adventures. Alas, the truth was a bit more grounded but at least there were no Daleks to deal with.

This hut (@Hyde Park Gate) is one of a number of Cabmen’s Shelters which can still be found around London. They were built by the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund which was founded in 1875. The idea for the shelter came about after journalist/gentleman with deep pockets George Armstrong tried to hail a cab during a blizzard but found that the taxi drivers were sheltering in a nearby pub and weren’t sipping orange juice and sparkling water. The idea behind these shelters was to give the cab drivers somewhere else to go and to stop them from getting drunk on the job. The cabs were built to be no bigger than a horse and cart and served food and hot drinks to the cabbies seeking some shelter. Needless to say, no alcohol was served at these huts.

The first hut was built at St. John’s Wood and it still stands to this day. In total, just over 60 huts were built in London over the coming years but only 13 survive now. The existing ones are run by the wonderfully titled Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers and 10 of them are still in operation. Many of them now serve drinks and snacks to the public. The one I found is near Hyde Park Gate and wasn’t serving a morsel of anything 😦

The huts are now Grade II listed so all going well, they’ll be around for a while yet.

The chances of anything coming from Mars…

On a recent trip to London, a friend and I went along to Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds: The Immersive Experience. Billed as “the only place in London where you can experience a real Martian invasion” how could we not go?

The show, for want of a better word, is being staged in the historic Hallmark Building on Leadenhall Street. For years, it was home to the London Metal Exchange and was the perfect setting for this. Even the windows look right for what’s going on inside.

Once you check-in at the venue, you’re assigned a “team” with whom you’ll experience the Martian invasion. You’re issued with a wrist band which makes it easier to know where to go. Amusingly, the young man who checked us in got mixed up so we were double-tagged 🙂

Deathly pale Irish skin alert!

And so, on to the experience itself. It’s described as being a mixture of live-action, multi-sensory effects and virtual reality. It follows the plotline of the 1978 Jeff Wayne album and either uses music and songs straight off that album or a score adapted from there. Really nice. At the beginning of the tour, we were greeted by a lady in Victorian dress who explained the ground rules and how to adjust the magical headwear we’d be popping on later on. By now everyone had put their phones away (no harm in that!) and were doing their best to pretend they were back in the early 1900s. And so, on to the show. Over the next hour and three quarters, we made our way through the set. Sometimes the settings were indoors, such as in people’s houses or outdoors (Horsell Common, most notably). Without spoiling too much, the first part largely involved live actors and sets, holograms and a surprise special effect or two. All of it was enjoyable but things really stepped up a gear once we got to wear the Virtual Reality headsets. I had never worn any sort of VR equipment before so it was great to experience it in such a spectacular way.

My first introduction to Virtual Reality here was a boat trip down the Thames and out to sea, soundtracked by Justin Hayward’s “Forever Autumn”. At the start of the boat trip (in which we were sitting in an actual wooden boat), it’s nice and pleasant and autumnal. By the end of it, London’s not looking too good after being trashed by those pesky Martians and we’re out at sea. Rough seas at that! It certainly felt real and that’s the praise the creators are after. Some of the footage can be seen in this short trailer by Layered Reality, the company staging this.

Half way through, there’s a chance to stop and have a drink at the Red Weed bar. This was a welcome break because experiencing a Martian invasion first-hand is thirsty work. A toilet is never unwelcome either, it has to be said.

It was all good fun, with the good-humoured actors adept at thinking on their feet when interacting with dumb members of the public. Special praise should go out to the lady who has undoubtedly heard those jokes about telephones never catching on about 5 squillion times. After surviving (spoiler alert!) the Martian invasion, we returned to real life and the bar outside.

Martian fighting machine in the bar

Overall, it comes highly recommended. One minor quibble, which has nothing to do with show itself, is about the VR headsets. I wear glasses most of the time and would have found life a little bit easier if I’d popped in a pair of contact lenses before going to this. My specs didn’t spoil the experience by any means but they sometimes made taking the headsets on and off a bit of a faff. Anyway, enough of that. If you are thinking of going, keep an eye out for special promotions or vouchers to reduce the entry cost.

On a final note, when my friend and I walked outside afterwards and looked up along the street, we noted that The Gherkin seemed to be looming over us ominously…

To the Tower (or how I visited the Tower of London and got to leave again)

tower_of_london_ticketThis month, I finally got around to visiting London again. It being October and heading into the off-season, it was a fine time to visit the Tower of London. A place that I’ve been told is worth a visit but…the crowds.

The Tower of London (a.k.a. Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London) is a somewhat inaccurate description. It isn’t really one tower. In fact, there are 21 of them (some survive only as ruined foundations). Some of them don’t particularly look like towers but that was scant consolation to the poor sods who were imprisoned within their thick walls. It is also a place that has served as a fortress, a prison, a mint, a zoo, home to the crown jewels and the site of quite a few executions. Oh, and the moat where the guided tours start used to be an open sewer. Nice.

Turning up to the Tower early meant that there were no queues or crowds to battle. The first part of the visit was an excellent tour given by a Yeoman Warder (in this case, the wonderful Scott Kelly aka #beefy409). The introduction to the tower and its history was informative, macabre, funny and entertaining all at the same time. Definitely don’t skip this if you visit the Tower.

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The White Tower

After that, you’re free to roam around the grounds and visit quite a few of the buildings. They’re all interesting but my favourite was The White Tower. This is the original tower that gave the entire complex its name. It was was built by William the Conqueror in 1078-79 and is four floors of interestingness. It houses “The Line of Kings” which is a 400 year old tourist attraction. It displays armour belonging to English monarchs, sitting on wooden horses. How genuine some of the armour is is open to question but it’s pretty impressive stuff all the same. As is all the weaponry on display. If all those cannons in the basement were armed and went boom, there’d be no more tower! There’s also room in there for some ye olde toilets (garderobes) and even a working chapel.

Across the yard are the Royal Crown Jewels. Personally, I didn’t find these as interesting but that’s probably more down to my personality than anything else. Save to say, I’ve never seen as much gold in my life! Some other people in the queue loved it though – there were certainly some royal family enthusiasts there. The various exhibitions in the towers were also a reminder that bad and all as things seem to be these days, they were no bed of roses years ago. While it is true that some people lost their heads in the grounds of the Tower, many more met their end on nearby Tower Hill. It tended to be nobility who got the chop in the Tower.

There is so much to read and see about the Tower of London, I’m not going to go into it here. There are lots of websites online where you can find out all you want to know about its history.  It was a very enjoyable few hours and although the entrance fee is pretty steep, it’s worth it if you allow yourself the time to savour it all. Just try to go when there won’t be so many tourists around if you can.

 

 

 

 

Robots at the London Science Museum

While in London for the Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, I spotted a sign for a Robots exhibition in the nearby Science Museum. I knew nothing about the exhibition but, to paraphrase the line from Jerry Maguire, they had me at “Robots”.

Admission into the Science Museum in London is free and indeed, there’s loads to see for the price of zero pence. Some exhibitions have an entry fee and this one was one of those. Still, it was about robots, the poster was pretty cool and my head was well turned.

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Maillardet’s automaton, taking a break from writing

As the exhibition poster says, Robots is the 500-year quest to make machines human. The first part of the exhibition had quite a few historical automatons, including a praying 16th-century monk and a draftsman from the beginning of the 19th century. There were also artificial limbs, tiny automatons which resembled insects, and even one that was part of a drinking game. I later learned that another historical automaton I’d love to have seen – the Silver Swan – had been in the exhibition until early April. Once it went back “oop north”, it was replaced by the little draftsman/writer created around 1800. When it was unearthed in 1928, nobody knew for sure who had created it and where it had been. That is, until they got the automaton working again and it started to write some pre-programmed poetry. Right at the end of its last poem, it scribbled ‘Ecrit par L’Automate de Maillardet’ (written by Maillardet’s automaton)

The next part of the exhibition brought us on to more recent times. It was hard not to miss the replica of “Maria”, the iconic robot from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film “Metropolis”. The original costume (which had been worn by an actress) had long since disappeared. It was also nice to get up close and personal with a T-800 from Terminator Salvation and not die horribly. There were some interesting stories attached to other robots on display in this section. Perhaps the most endearing was George the Robot, created by a young RAF officer from discarded aeroplane parts. Another British robot was beside George, this one called Eric. The original Eric the robot was created in 1928 for the Exhibition of the Society of Model Engineers, after the Duke of York cancelled his agreement to open the show. The story goes that Eric rose to his feet, bowed and gave a short speech. The robot was brought to the USA the year afterwards for a tour and vanished at some stage. The Eric on display here was a recreation of the original, funded by a Kickstarter campaign. Standing beside this pair was the Italian built Cygan. An 8 ft tall robot built in 1957 and which sold at auction for £17,500 in 2013.

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Cygan, George and Eric

Onwards then to even more robots. It soon became clear that there have been people working in robotics for a long time, for all sorts of reasons. Some for very serious purposes such as surgery and prosthetics. Others so they knock out a few tunes on a trumpet. One interesting robot on display was an “open source” model which people can contribute to. While many of the robots were turned off and not doing anything (probably not practical to have them all operating at the time time, lest a robot apocalypse happened), seeing some in action was fascinating. The one I was particular taken with was Pepper the French robot who shakes people’s hands. Honda’s Asimo was there too, though on this occasion it wasn’t playing football, conducting an orchestra or dancing. Just think – if it had, they could’ve sold lots in the gift shop 😉 Then there was the robot which was designed to look like a real Japanese woman, a blobby one that looks like an escapee from a David Lynch film, one that acts and more than a few which track your eyes…

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R.O.S.A. – Rob’s Open Source Android

Anyway, thumbs up from me for this one. It was great to see robots and automatons of all ages and to marvel at how these machines have evolved. I even brought home a cute little wooden robot of my own, which is standing on my desk as I type. I might just stop short of welcoming our robot overlords though…

To have a look at some of the photos I took, click on one of the thumbnails in the gallery below.

Pink Floyd – Their Mortal Remains

I recently made a trip to London to have a look at The Pink Floyd Exhibition – Their Mortal Remains in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Being a bit of a Pink Floyd nut, I wasn’t disappointed.

The V&A Museum (as it is better known) is an enormous sprawling museum in the Brompton district of London. There are so many galleries in the place, you could easily get lost and/or overwhelmed. Luckily the Pink Floyd exhibition is on the ground floor not too far from the entrance. After my ticket was scanned, I was handed a portable music player (probably NOT playing .mp3s 😀 ) and a pair of Sennheiser headphones. The purpose of these being that as you make your way through the exhibition, you’ll hear music, interviews etc.

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Telephone box – the first of several to feature in the exhibition. They do look nice in black, don’t they?

For this visit, I was joined by a fellow Floyd nut who had been to the exhibition before and who turned out to be a most excellent tour guide. Once we got to the corridor outside the exhibition, things turned wonderfully Floydian. Not only was there some music playing through my headphones but there was a fancy Dark Side of the Moon mural on the wall. There was also what turned out to be the first of several rather fetching black telephone boxes. The traditional red British telephone boxes are iconic but I’ve got to say those black ones look really great. This one had lyrics inside it but the later ones mostly had old magazines, newspaper snippets and photos from the era.

One of the amusing things early on in the exhibition was the “shouty people”. The ones who were still adjusting to wearing their headphones and spoke REALLY LOUDLY to their companions. There was plenty to shout about because once into the exhibition there was lots to see. The walls were decorated with oodles of old posters, photographs and magazine articles. What most people were clamouring to see, however, were the displays in the glass cases. In other words….guitars, basses, keyboards, costumes, projectors, the legendary Azimuth Co-Ordinator and letters. It was somewhat poignant to see some handwritten letters and notes by Syd Barrett. A reminder of the person he once was.

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Some early memorabilia

After the deluge of paraphernalia relating to the earliest days of Pink Floyd, it then hit a barren spell. There was nothing for the film soundtracks apart from the posters. And while I’m giving out, I might as well mention my two other main annoyances related to the exhibition. The layout was somewhat idiosyncratic. If I hadn’t had someone with me, I’d have seen the exhibition in the wrong order and ended up doubling back to see the Meddle and Atom Heart Mother displays. Some sort of direction arrows on the floor would’ve helped. The other annoyance – one which irked minds greater than mine – was the crowds. Getting near the glass cases the have a look at what was in them was quite a task at times.

One of the most fun parts of the exhibition was getting to play with a mixing desk which was playing Money. By adjusting the audio on the sliders, I was able to hear isolated tracks on Money and hear it in a different way to how it is on the completed record.

Surprisingly, there was very little on display relating to the Wish You Were Here album. Seeing as it came out after Dark Side of the Moon, I thought they would have had more than some photos and blown up artwork from the album. In comparison, there is a lot relating to the next two albums which came out after that. Animals is the album which brought us an inflatable pig and one of rock music’s more amusing stories. The tale of how Algie the inflatable pig suspended over Battersea power station broke free of its moorings and flew to Kent. It was only when I got home and took a look at my photos that I noticed there was a little inflatable Algie suspended over the replica of Battersea power station. Truly, there was so much to see at the exhibition, it was easy to miss little details like this.

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The Wall/Animals

Fans of The Wall would have been pleased to see plenty of models and inflatables. The puppet of the schoolmaster wasn’t as large as the one used in the concerts but he was still pretty intimidating. One amusing exhibit in this section was the book from Roger Waters’ old school which recorded the canings of its students. Roger was the recipient of more than one caning but it was intriguing to see what merited this punishment back in the day. From what we could make out (the head teacher could’ve done with 6 of the best because of his near-illegible handwriting), not wearing a cap to school was considered to be equally bad as attempted arson. No wonder Roger had plenty to write about.

As Pink Floyd fans will know, things went horribly wrong around the time of The Wall. That album was the last time Pink Floyd existed as a four-piece band. 1983’s The Final Cut was the last album recorded before Roger Waters left. Given the band’s politics (waaaay too long to go into here), it wasn’t that surprising that there was precious little to be seen from that album here. In comparison, there was a lot more related to the band’s two last albums. This was when Pink Floyd went back touring again so there was some interesting material related to that. According to one document on display, the pig which floated over the audience on the 1987 tour was not to be inflated or deflated where the audience could see it happening.

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The Division Bell heads

The Division Bell isn’t my favourite Pink Floyd album but I’ve always liked the album cover with its two “heads”. I loved getting to finally see the heads in real life. The exhibition closes with the wonderful 20 minute set the reunited Pink Floyd played at Live 8 back in 2005. Even now it’s wonderful and was a fitting swansong for the “classic” Pink Floyd line-up.

Click on an image to open the gallery