Smash Hits journo Sylvia Patterson brings musical memoir to Women's Work Festival
Sylvia Patterson wrote for bi-weekly pop bible Smash Hits in the 1980s, covered Britpop for NME in the 1990s and has interviewed stars like U2, Prince, Madonna, Beyonce and Eminem. The Perth-born music scribe speaks to David Roy about bringing her acclaimed memoir I'm Not With The Band to Women's Work Festival in Belfast
VETERAN music journalist Sylvia Patterson's memoir I'm Not With The Band: A Writer's Life Lost In Music covers the Scot's 30 year-long and frequently turbulent journalistic career, which took off in style at mighty bi-weekly pop bible Smash Hits.
In I'm Not With The Band – its title a pointed reference to super groupie Pamela Des Barnes's best-selling tome I'm With The Band – Patterson writes lovingly about 'ver Hits', as the defiantly irreverent tome was known to its hundreds of thousands of readers, who in turn were always referred to as 'viewers'.
'Sylv', as she is known, employs this peculiar Smash Hits lexicon throughout the whole book which crackles with palpable excitement in the pages covering her stint on the iconic title during its 1980s boom years.
This period found the then 20-year-old Perth woman working in an open plan office on London's Carnaby Street, where she and her fellow 'lunatics taking over the asylum' styled squad of writers were basically left to their own increasingly idiosyncratic devices.
They revelled in inventing new ways to take the George Michael out of just about every pop star going (in a nice way, mostly) while sneaking their indie faves into the hallowed pages of their beloved mega-selling mag and flogging unwanted promo records to 'Uncle Disgusting' from the local music shop for bulging envelopes of cash.
The book also covers Smash Hits' sad, dwindling circulation-greased decade and a half-long slide towards 'the dumper' during a period when pop became increasingly inhospitable for pomposity-busting publications eager to anoint performers with silly nicknames like Paul 'Fab Macca Wacky Thumbs Aloft' McCartney or Morten 'Snorten Forten Horten' Harket while demanding revealing answers to deceptively silly questions like 'have you ever grown parsnips in a gumboot?'
Patterson later worked as a freelance writer for the likes of NME and The Face and got to interview some seriously Big Names.
While her later tales of a memorable one-on-one audience with purple-clad pop royalty Prince (he loved her shoes) and an amusing few hours spent ribbing U2 about being 'rock royalty' (Bono, whom Patterson had once deliciously labelled 'a goon', proved frustratingly game for a laugh) are certainly entertaining, it's definitely the vividly evocative descriptions of her heady days on Smash Hits which will turn viewers – and especially modern day journos – green with envy.
Such japes contrast with rather less joyous accounts of family dysfunction, illness and bereavement which formed an emotionally traumatic backdrop to her writing career.
At one point, Patterson describes how she miscarried while interviewing Mariah Carey on a massage chair.
"Writing about myself is not something that I never intended to do," explains Patterson, who writes for Q magazine these days and will be discussing her book at Women's Work in Belfast on May 28.
"But I was very much persuaded by my publisher that there was no way I was just going to hide away behind these enormously famous people!"
She adds: "I'd never actually done any writing about myself like this before, certainly not about my family or any of the personal stuff.
"So that was incredibly, weirdly difficult. It was a completely different form of writing, where you're not resorting to the jokes or peppering everything with a thousand inverted commas as I was taught to do [on Smash Hits].
"It gave the book some kind of a foundation, without which it really would have had no context. The response from people has actually been extraordinary. I've had these quiet little emails to say 'oh this happened to me too'.
"Honesty will always connect with people, so I'm glad that I did it – but I definitely had a radioactive face from the howling and the bawling I did while writing!"
Viewers also get frank details of the hedonism that went with those fast times, wince/chuckle-inducing accounts of disastrous relationships with men reduced to mirthsome Smash Hits-esque monickers like 'Rock 'N' Roll Babylon' and 'The Dancer' and – lest anyone get the idea that music journalism was all glamour – frankly horrifying accounts of squalid London housing barely/not actually affordable on her freelance 'salary'.
"I remember in about 2001, I was living in a derelict building that was a bit like a prison," chuckles Patterson, who now resides in more civilised London digs.
"My sister came down to visit me and her eyeballs, which are gigantic anyway, were popping out of her head. She just said 'you have to come home!' – but I think I was institutionalised by then.
"Hopefully, there's a balance between the silliness and the irreverance and all the things I intended to very much celebrate and the underlying scenario of what it's like to be a freelance person trying to live some sort of a creative life in London.
"People think that's some sort of a dream scenario, but it's a struggle that won't bring you great riches!"
The steady decline of music journalism into a characterless morass of sensationalism, titillation (in 2001, Patterson resigned from NME in disgust over a 'boobs 'n' drugs' cover trumpeting the hedonism of the Miami music scene) and soul crushingly stage-managed PR manoeuvres throughout the early 21st century is also covered in dispiriting manner – a phenomenon made all the more painful by its contrast with her Smash Hits experience.
"Smash Hits was my first so-called 'proper' job at the age of 20," Sylv recalls.
"The ed, Barry McIlhenny from Belfast, was only 26. We were just a bunch of indie kids trying to make each other laugh all day long and trying to encourage pop stars to be as silly and idiotic as possible.
"It really was as creatively free an environment as I have ever been in – nothing else has ever been quite like it.
"Eventually, 'The Baron' (publishers EMAP) ruined the spirit of the whole thing by dumbing it down as much as possible."
However, the spirit of the Smash Hits glory years lives on in the hearts of grown-up 'viewers', many of whom have been attending Patterson's recent book events.
"It's been really gratifying to have them there, because some of them went on to be writers themselves or do something else creative – all very much inspired by everything Smash Hits was about," she enthuses.
:: Sylvia Patterson will be in conversation at Women's Work Festival on Sunday May 28 at Oh Yeah, Belfast, 4pm. Tickets £6 via Ohyeahbelfast.com. I'm Not With The Band is out now, published by Little Brown.