Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper: Tom Hibbert

2nd September 2011

Remembered by Bob Stanley

When I moved to London in 1986 I thought I’d get in touch with my favourite music writer, Tom Hibbert. He was responsible for a book I loved called Rare Records: Wax Trash and Vinyl Treasures, and had edited another called The Perfect Collection. His writing was offhand, intensely knowledgable, iconoclastic, conversational and very funny. He had no time for “the canon”, but plenty for the Monkees’ Porpoise Song. I liked the Porpoise Song too; I thought he might want to be my mate. So I wrote to him at Smash Hits (or “ver Hits” as he had re-styled it pretty much single-handedly) and asked if he wanted to go out for a pint. He wrote back, said yes, and very soon we found ourselves in a pub in Hammersmith on a Friday night.

What the hell was I thinking? Bare faced cheek! I was 21, looked about 12, and had the arrogance to think my hero would go out for a drink with a total stranger just because we had a shared “affection” for Annette Funicello? More to the point, what was HE thinking?

Rare Records had a major impact on my taste in music (and on my writing style when I eventually had the confidence to start a fanzine). I’d never read anything quite like it. In the introduction Tom seemed intent on alienating potential purchasers by saying “The Beatles, Elvis and Rolling Stones are largely ignored in favour of a lot of terrible old singing buffoons and groups in which no-one with any sense has the slightest interest.” Sharon Tandy’s Hold On – with which 99% of readers must have been unfamiliar in 1982 – was described as “a work of unparalleled genius.” I found a copy; it really was. But I searched in vain for the Virgin Sleep’s Halliford House on Deram, which Tom described as “eerie to the point of nightmarishness.” He gave equal praise to Mae West, Dick Dale and Adam Faith, and nailed his aesthetic when describing Bubblegum as being “based on the correct assumption that all pop music is stupid.”

Here was a writer who could use the expression “Phew, eh readers?” and get away with it! (Even Smash Hits, at this point, was bone dry). Here was a writer with a sense of humour, someone who wasn’t afraid to laugh at his own tastes and laugh harder at other people’s. Apparently, when he was commissioned to write a book on Billy Joel, he wrote most of it about his psych band, The Hassles, and dismissed the rest of his career in the final chapter.*

Tom was never afraid to carry a torch for distaff pop, which was barely taken seriously by the press back then unless it had ‘agit’ tendencies. He devoted a whole chapter of Rare Records to girls, singling out the then thoroughly undocumented Billie Davis: “I fell in love with her beautifully controlled, shivery voice before I even noticed Annette”. At Smash Hits he went “a bit squibbly” for Sheila E, and once described Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s dj Spinderella as “rather handsome”.

If this was all gently subversive, Tom went out on a political limb with a shortlived Smash Hits column on “fascinating facts about McDonalds” – “facts” such as they played the sound of a human heartbeat, slightly sped up, behind the muzak so that customers ate their fast food faster. Or that they once offered to buy an elephant for a zoo as long as they called the elephant “Ronald McDonald”. It ran for about three issues – presumably the lawyers “nipped” it in the “bud”.

After our evening in the Hammersmith pub, me and Tom went back to his place to watch Cheers, a Friday night ritual for him and his wife Allyce. Looking back, this was extraordinarily generous of them. With Tom’s helping hand I soon “sashayed” through the doors of Smash Hits, and I was on my way to journalistic “fame” and, err, fortune. As I arrived, though, he was off – to Q, which was too serious and canonical for me, and I lost touch with his writing and with him.

A while later I heard he had chronic writer’s block, which was incredibly sad news. His impact on the pop lexicon remains underrated. While Paul Morley’s iconoclastic interviews (compiled in Ask, soon to be re-printed) are justly famous, Tom’s nicknames for uppity rock stars – Dame David Bowie, Fab Macca Wacky Thumbs Aloft, Lord Frederick Lucan of Mercury – were just as bubble-bursting, and a lot funnier to boot.

Goodbye, dear “cove”.

* I’m surprised to see that Billy Joel: An Illustrated Biography did get published, but I’d rather not read it in case this story isn’t true.