A history of fanzines, and a pretty good one too, from Marxism Today, June 1984.
Remember that old chestnut The Day Punk Rock Arrived? In a hail of gob and a parade of One Chord Wonders, the message was sent that ANYONE can be a star, and without selling one’s soul to the big companies. The Independent Ethic, hitherto only widespread among the 60s US garage bands, was reborn and flourished, most successfully in the form of Zoo Records from Liverpool, Factory from Manchester and Rough Trade in London. Rough Trade even took things a step further, and set up a nationwide distribution network, centred around teir shop in W11. Seven years later, and the company and shop remain. Go in there now, and you’ll find amongst the inevitably massive collection of independent records, an equally inevitable piece of post-punk product, The Fanzine.
The titles will scream out at you from the roughly stapled, cheaply printed (or photocopied) magazines — Kill Your Pet Puppy, Search And Destroy, Love And A Molotov Cocktail. Dig deep and you might even find a copy of No More Masterpieces, my own two year contribution to the fanzine scene, from 1979/80.
The ‘zines vary in content (ranging from anarcho-political tirades, to pages and pages of live reviews); in articulation (from powerfully convincing arguments about the musical scheme of things to monosyllabic grunts about what Crass did for an encore); and in form (handwritten scrawl to neatly typed pseudo-New Musical Express regularity. It is not easy to classify fanzines in terms of appearance, and it is even harder to do so in terms of history, for although fanzines are central to an understanding and an historical account of pop music since 1976, it’s very difficult to attribute any date to the birth of the music media’s bastard child.
There probably isn’t such a thing as the first fanzine (literally ‘fan magazine’) in the strictest sense of the word, although the likes of Oz and more specifically Rolling Stone, were instrumental in both presenting a radical message about the role of pop in youth culture and also publicising and organising the Underground Press Syndicate, a similar system to which is vital to the publicity and distribution structure of post-76 fanzines in Britain.
Rolling Stone, taking the lead from yet earlier Underground pop papers such as Copenhagen’s Superlove, was launched towards the end of 1967 by Jan Wenner, a 22 year old who at the time took much from Superlove’s ideas and forms. It is easy to see now where his heart really lay. Rolling Stone is perhaps the least contentious, most boring music paper in the Western world, as much a part of the capitalist music machine as CBS or EMI. The turnabout from radical champion of a burgeoning youth culture, to reactionary upholder of desperately conservativ values, is one that almost every fanzine is in danger of going through, but which the pre-punk ‘zines were most obviously susceptible to.
From reading a fairly large sample of these 60s and early 70s fanzines, particularly those primarily concerned with music, the most striking aspect is their deeply ingrained, and often barely concealed RESPECT for the music business. Hot Wacks, Fat Angel, Who Put The Bomp, Zig Zag, they all appear to want to play at being a sort of Melody Maker Meets Zen And The Art Of The Guitar Solo. Fat Angel for example, opens up with a bit of vaguely mystical hokum, then launches into a series of LP reviews, going so far as to give the serial number of each record. There’s no swearing, no feeling of any attempt to really communicate to the reader, no notion of the role of the fanzine as being anything more than an inferior version of its mainstream peers.
These ‘zines do succeed when they openly acknowledge their attitudes to the role of the alternative press, and where rather than churning out sub-standard music press copy, they attempt to cater for people who want something different from the music press. The form remains boring but the content changes, and the magazines start to run features on, for example, collectors’ records.
Who Put The Bomp and early Zig Zag both made their names and reputations as collectors’ magazines rather than as fanzines, and it is in magazines such as those that the power of the 60s/early 70s alternative press lies. In 1976, along came punk with its attendant ethics, and suddenly the fanzine became a whole new form. The first (and most notorious) of the ‘zines to reject most of the old traditions, preferring a passionate, emotive, wholly personal slapdash POW! to a merely shoddy attempt to be like the big boys, was Sniffin’ Glue, started by Mark P, and it remains the most perceptive contemporary account of the early days of punk yet seen. In a typical issue Lou Reed is written off in four lines, interviews are printed verbatim, captions handwritten, the whole lot photocopied and stapled together, then ‘sold’ outside gigs in a tone you wouldn’t want to refuse if you valued your teeth.
1977 and the walls were falling down everywhere. Thousands took Mark P’s advice and started their own fanzines, at last having to face up to the logistics of the affair. I was lucky, my Dad got mine printed for me at work, but for many others it was a case of trying to get them done on the sly in the school printroom, or failing that, looking for the cheapest printer in the yellow pages. Community printers are a great help, as they tend to be fairly cheap, and since the people doing the printing are fairly supportive of your cause, it’s easy to discuss with them exactly what you want done. Whichever way you do it, on each issue with a cover price of 25p, at least l0p of that will go on printing. Running a fanzine is a difficult business, and a combination of high costs, distribution problems and a fiercely protective set of writers, brings up the real failings of the ‘zine.
Being so closely connected to the scene they are writing about, groups are hugged to the breast of the editors, lauded as the Best Thing Since Breakfast, and then expected to fit into the role that the fanzine sees for them. Any progression is declaimed as a sell-out and the group are cast away or smothered with contempt. The groups move but the fanzines stand still. It’s all too easy for the most potent and revolutionary of forms to become as reactionary as the 60s NME that shrieked with horror when Cliff wiggled his torso. Kill Your Pet Puppy says don’t twitch your hips Clashboys! Such an attitude has meant that the majority of fanzines have given rise to a self-consuming culture. ‘Anarchist’ groups such as Crass, products of fanzines, find themselves pandering to them and slowly being hemmed in, not wanting to disappoint the concrete foot (and brain) fans, and so not being able to break away from an increasingly narrow direction. Their inability and unwillingness to break away is interpreted as a condoning of the fanzine system.
Fanzines must not slip into this reactionary stance if they are to use their potentially explosive existence. The youth culture of the past 25 years has liked to think of itself as self-contained, whereas in reality the power lies with the multinational record companies and mainstream music press. Selling this culture back to the masses is the major consideration, and the mainstream press are able to act as a filter between company and consumer, distancing and containing any unwanted ideologies, couching them in the cotton wool of musicbiz rhetoric.
The fanzines have the power to change this. They are literally by, and for, the fans, and are providing the impetus for representation of the culture from within the culture itself. This is dangerous to the dominant ideology, challenging it directly and powerfully. Fanzines must be aware of this if they are to use their power to change the structure of the music business and in turn that of society itself.