As a teenager growing up in a conservative, segregated South African town, my lifeline to my true passion, pop music, arrived weekly and fortnightly on my news agent’s shelf: the hallowed pages of No 1 and Smash Hits magazines.
While struggling with all the usual teen crap of identity, fashion, music and sexuality, Britain’s brightest pop mags kept me alive, from the neck up and the waist down, with their inspired, incisive commentary and inviting posters of contemporary hot totty.
The first edition of No 1 magazine I bought – while being stalked by a middle-aged gentleman with grope in his eyes – was the 5 May 1984 issue. Four days before my 14th birthday, and incidentally No 1’s first birthday issue, its pages contained the blueprint of who I would find desirable for the remainder of my high school years (in no particular order): Paul Young, Nik Kershaw, Steve Norman, Simon le Bon, George Michael, Nick Heyward. What I didn’t realise at the time was that I would remain attached to these luminaries for life.
The more I read the features, interviews, and singles and album reviews, the more familiar I became with the names of the writers: Paul Simper, Karen Swayne, Debbi(e) Voller and Paul Bursche. Being an aspiring writer, reading their witty (and sometimes rather scathing) copy in No 1’s larkabout style allowed me to dream about living in London one day and maybe doing a smidge of writing myself.
That hardly seemed likely. Fast-forward 30-odd years: I’m a journalist living in London, had the opportunity to help sponsor Simper’s outrageously entertaining book detailing his ’80s popscapades, Pop Stars in my Pantry, and danced and celebrated with most of the No 1 staff at the book’s launch party last week. Quite unthinkable for 14-year-old me. And quite bloody fantastic for 47-year-old me.
The thread linking all of this is, of course, Simper’s written persona: that chatty, descriptive, intimate style acquired and honed through the No 1 years, and reaching its hitherto zenith in his ’80s pop memoir – like your best mate is connecting you directly with the stars in a series of outlandish tales too scary or improbable for regular folk to have been involved in. That most of the stories detailed in his book revolve around many of my favourite pop stars (Spandau Ballet, Bananarama, Sade, Wham!), is what makes it that much more engrossing.
Pop Stars in my Pantry is Simper on speed (well, quite literally): all the juicy goss from his days as No 1’s Spandau correspondent, the badgering of beleaguered Keren Bananarama, the benefactor of Patsy Kensit’s (ill-fated) matchmaking skills, social whirling with George Michael, crashing on Auntie Sade’s couch, and of course navigating it all with partner-in-crime and future musical collaborator Jacquie Bananarama.
Whether you were an outsider looking in, or whether you clubbed and frugged with the Soho image makers, Scoop Simper is your incomparable guide: from inauspicious beginnings in Wiltshire farming country, to substances in the back of New York cabs, to imaginary erections with Prince. If ’80s pop is your (hand)bag, you cannot afford to (rara) skirt this tome.
No 1 magazine aimed to bridge the divide between its audience and global superstars. With this book, Simper continues that magic trick. As some of the biggest ’80s stars burgeon and explode, he is easily able to make you feel that you are there as it is happening, and his personality as all-round genuinely good guy persistently shines through.
To this day, he is not cynical, world-weary Paul, but exuberant pop fan Simper, seemingly making time for everyone, going that extra mile to score a Spandau Ballet autograph for you, inviting you to a George Michael celebration, or sharing his world with you. You just had to soak up the warmth at the book launch, and see how many people turned up to wish him well, to know that Scoop is the real deal: and the real deal in abundance is what you’ll find in Pop Stars in my Pantry.
* If you’re fortunate enough to be able to track down a copy, Graham Smith & Chris Sullivan’s We Can Be Heroes (Unbound, 2012) is the perfect visual companion to Pop Stars in my Pantry. It features the pics, playlists and photographic record of most of what Simper describes in his book.