Drawing from the tradition of independent rock ‘n’ roll publications, punk fanzines attempted to reveal hidden facets of life.
In the 1971 issue of Creem magazine, the exponent of American fanzine culture Greg Shaw listed features that distinguished amateur publications from other periodicals: “It is usually the product of one person, published at his own expense and in his own house, for little or no reward above the pleasure of self-expression and writing about something he loves that is ignored in the larger press”.
In the same article, Shaw compares sci-fi fandom to the emerging rock ‘n’ roll community. The concept of fanzine and even the term itself was derived from the former. Although the connection might have seemed opaque to an outsider, the independent music periodicals of the punk era filled the media space with a similar extraterrestrial presence. Relying on the principle of production and content opposing those of the acknowledged media channels, fanzines pursued creative freedom, inspired by the relentless energy of punk. They were duplicated or xeroxed. Some enthusiasts were using the premises of charity organizations, others took advantage of printing facilities at work. While at the beginning of the punk era in Britain the fanzine production seemed to be an unbeaten path, by 1978 detailed manuals were written. In issue 3, the column of City Fun provides the readership with relevant guidance on “HOW TO PRODUCE A FANZINE”.
Similarly to the first rock ‘n’ roll pamphlets in the 60s, punk fanzines became propagators of ideas and bands that were initially obscured by the press. While the early career of the Rolling Stones was influenced by, then mimeographed, Blues Unlimited, the first British punk bands such as the Clash, the Damned and the Sex Pistols were championed by writers of Sniffin’ Glue, Ripped & Torn, London’s Outrage, London’s Burning. Looking at the variety of 70s punk fanzines from today’s viewpoint, it feels relevant to categorize them as at least three distinct groups: ideological, educational and critical.
Ideological: Sniffin’ Glue and Ripped & Torn
With a fine line in between, fandom and ideology have common qualities such as idée fixe. Encyclopaedia Britannica defines this term as “a recurring theme or character trait that serves as the structural foundation of a work”. Avoiding the medical interpretation, idée fixe simply refers to a state mind, whether collective or personal, that is preoccupied with a particular subject.
Launched as early as July 1976, Sniffin’ Glue became a stronghold of punk ethos and fanzine culture in Britain. The first issue transpired excitement and inspiration following the gig of the Ramones, who made their UK live debut at the Roundhouse two weeks earlier. Interestingly, the fanzine primed by punk referred in its tone and format to an independent publication that specialised in rare 60s psychedelia – Bam Balam.
In a conversation with The Guardian, Perry admitted that the whole fanzine affair was exceptional. “Looking back it looks like some kind of DIY statement but the aesthetic template for punk didn’t exist at that point”. Throughout the brief lifespan of Sniffin’ Glue, Mark Perry regularly attempted to instigate public initiative. In his response to the growing attention to punk from the press, he wrote a column that sounded like a manifesto of punk independence: “All you kids out there who read “SG”, don’t be satisfied with what we write. Go out and start your own fanzines or send reviews to the established papers. Let’s really get on their nerves, flood the market with punk-writing!”.
After the template was out into the world, the hungry punk enthusiasts from all around Britain directed their energies in creating similar media outlets. In Scotland, Tony Drayton shook up drowsy Glasgow with his fanzine Ripped & Torn, inspired by the experience of seeing The Damned and meeting Mark Perry. “That was a gig in London in November 1976. Like many other people Mark was surprised that I came all the way from Glasgow. They hadn’t realized there was an interest for punk outside London”. When Tony asked if he could cover the gig for Sniffin’ Glue, Perry articulated the SG message, instructing him to start his own thing.
Ironically, there is more than one parallel in the stories of Sniffin’ Glue and Ripped & Torn. Both fanzines were sparked off by gigs and their founders were office workers, thus having access to printing services free of charge. A double life was not an option for each of the writers. Once converted into punk, Perry gave up his position as a bank clerk. Tony Drayton, who realized that his hand-written publication was on-demand far beyond Scotland, quit his office job and moved to London. “There was more tension between me and my work cause I was doing a fanzine whilst working and that [Ripped & Torn] became very popular”, says Tony. “I started by printing 10 copies but then I got orders for 500 and had to do that properly. There was getting a conflict”.
Lack of loyalty to a particular place was another unifying feature. While based in London, a central force of the punk scene in 1976, Perry attempted to bridge the distance dividing punk cultures in Britain and America. With a similar cosmopolitan mindset, Drayton didn’t seek a connection to the local scene and readership. In issue 4 of the Ripped & Torn, the writer informed the readers about his move to London. “One last thing the Ripped & Torn was a punk fanzine that happened to be in Glasgow, not a Glasgow fanzine that happened to be about punk”.
There was another kind of loyalty. The geographic disentanglement was compensated by fervent hope in punk as a fulcrum. Following the Bill Grundy incident, Mark Perry denied failures of the Sex Pistols and expressed confidence that “they’re still gonna make it”. However, the hopes Mark fixed on punk to take over the music industry started to wane after some of the pivotal bands were signed to major labels. Talking to the Guardian, he said: “For me, punk died the day the Clash signed to CBS in 1977. I wrote that at the time”.
After Sniffin’ Glue ceased to exist, Ripped & Torn took up the torch of the most read fanzine professing punk values. “There was a massive amount of punk bands coming up in 1977. Punk wasn’t dead. There were loads of bands in London. Lurkers, The Boys, 999, Adam and the Ants just started up. There was an incredible scene in London. It was the music press that decided to close the doors – “we are done with punk now, punk was that first wave”. But in fact, there was a lot of things happening”.
Educational: The Secret Public
Unlike Sniffin’ Glue and Ripped & Torn, fanzines dedicated to a single artist or a band didn’t intend to fight in the war on punk. Many of them attempted to educate their readership and form a community.
The story of The Secret Public has two chapters. Manchester 1978. Jon Savage and Linder Sterling joined forces to produce an art fanzine. Compiled by two visionary designers, the first issue boldly addressed issues of sexual politics. Cut-out shapes from pornography magazines were combined with pictures of domestic appliances taken out from Family Circle. Sterling, who also contributed artworks to the Buzzcocks’ records, was friends with the band and their manager, Richard Boon. Recalling the origin of the title, Boon names The Bureau of Public Secret, an influential pamphlet published by a West Coast situationist Ken Knapp.
The cover of The Secret Public #2, 1978.
With the second issue, the format of the fanzine changed, being adjusted for the needs of the Buzzcocks fan club. “People started to write in, wanting information and some kind of intimate access, the name seemed to fit”, recalls Richard Boon. A pocket-sized A3 booklet, the publication didn’t hesitate to share all kinds of information – from the statistics on the band’s expenses and earnings to lyrics and reviews from fans.
Being subscription-based and accessible only to fans, the publication helped to build up a community. Richard Boon admits that the fanzine served as an open “address book”: “One thing we did if people didn’t object, we’d share addresses within an area. So if someone wrote from Leamington Spa and someone else wrote from Leamington Spa we put them together. That was the way to build a community. Some people even got married!”.
As the fan club went along, the amount of input grew proportionally to the demand for information. People ended up providing, what Richard Boon calls, “music-generated content”. “People would send bits of drawings and writing. The idea was that it was like an invisible community”. Fans would send their live reviews and show up to interview the band.
One of contributing fans was 18-year old Martin Hickey. Both he and his school friend Robert McKay travelled from Bradford to Manchester’s office of New Hormones to interview Pete Shelley. A longtime follower now, Hickey admits that the Buzzcocks became the band through which the rays of punk energy were reaching out to him. “I first heard about the group about a year before the interview took place”, he recalls. “I heard the second single on the radio – it was a show by Annie Nightingale”. The enthusiastic and curious teenager dialled the phone number of New Hormones. To his surprise, Richard Boon immediately addressed this request to Pete, who was sitting beside him.
Initially pitched for a school publication, the interview eventually appeared on pages of The Secret Public #2. It starts with a concise lead sentence that reads almost like travel notes. The concept of secrecy is in place: the number 428 hints at hundreds of young people who were receiving and contributing to this fanzine at the time.
“Robert McKay and I (Secret Person No 0428) finally manage to arrange an interview with Pete Shelley for our school magazine. It is Friday lunchtime, and after arriving in Manchester on the train from Bradford, we quickly scurry across the city to New Hormones office, just off Piccadilly” (The Secret Public, 1978)
For Martin Hickey, the acquaintance with the Buzzcocks and The Secret Public resulted in his further deep connection to music: “The Buzzcocks and Pete Shelley in particular really turned me on to music. So for me personally that led to the involvement with the music. Later that year I played my first gig. I was in a few bands. I had vicarious thrills through other people around music”.
Critical: London’s Outrage and London’s Burning
Keeping aloof from the emotionally charged nature of fandom, some writers analyzed the events in the context of politics and social milieu. The founder of London’s Outrage Jon Savage took a stance of an observer who could sense volatile undercurrents of the punk movement.
“So the punters are being primed for peak punk popularity….. to date, there have been more articles than records, gigs almost. The media gush has been a vital part to what punk’s been all about so far – often the reports are, from Ist hand experience, different, or shall we say larger than life than the action. In a spiral, outrage & violence are encouraged & amplified.” (London’s Outrage, December 1976)
The cover of London’s Outrage, December 1976.
London’s Outrage was partly inspired by publications that emerged earlier in the year – Bam Balam and Sniffin’ Glue. Yet, unlike the latter, Savage’s fanzine expressed some ideas indirectly, mostly relying on visual elements. The December issue features collages with ransom-note-style titles, punk-related imagery and quotes from the relevant sources. The one on the cover was taken from Greil Marcus’s article, published in Rolling Stone. The author analysed historical events through the lens of cultural criticism. An approach that would later be developed in Jon Savage’s books.
For some music press contributors, fanzines were a handy channel to express opinions that would yet be difficult to pitch to professional periodicals. A full-time Sounds journalist, John Ingham created London’s Burning as both an outlet of social criticism and offering to the Clash.
In autumn 1976, John Ingham was among the few who saw the Clash playing at their rehearsal studio in Camden. “After the Rehearsal studio gig, I saw 8 or 9 Clash shows in a row. It was during this time that I wondered why the band wasn’t becoming popular. Don’t know why but you’d go to gigs and there would be around 20 people. I thought this was no good because they were amazing, just phenomenal”.
A few months later, while admitted to hospital with a collapsed lung, Ingham pondered over the idea of creating a fanzine. “I had recently bought a book on photo-montage and in it was the work of John Heartfield, who I really reacted to”, says John.
Born Helmut Herzfeld, Heartfield changed his name to the anglicized version to manifest his protest against the anti-British mood in Germany during the First World War. Being anti-Nazi, the artist had to flee to Czechoslovakia, by walking over the Sudeten Mountains in 1933. Shortly before he had been hiding in a trash bin from the SS. Nevertheless, these obstacles did not prevent him from creating works with a strong political message. To Ingham, this resilient stance was more than impressive. “He was just out there printing life-threatening stuff. Apart from being political it displayed the creative power of photo collage”.
Using the technique of photo collage, John Ingham finished London’s Burning in early December 1976. The issue is organized in the order of the Clash’s live setlist – each page has a title of a song. The cover displays the lyrics of London’s Burning: “London’s burning with boredom, London’s burning, dial 999”. The following page is called White Riot, which was the first song in the band’s set. Some criticism is addressed towards the dreary mainstream music scene. On page 4, the caption “Illustrious corpses” accompanies pictures of the venerable musicians, associated with the ‘60s. The picture of a gang in the opposite corner comes along with a grim quote: “As someone said about the Titanic 106 hours out of Southampton, it was a night to remember”.
Coming from a seemingly faraway place timewise, these fanzines might seem as mysterious as time capsules. A vial with cache, usually hidden in a historically memorable place, serves as a means of communication across time and space between different generations. Serving as a messenger from the past, time capsules bridge gaps over decades that divide kindred spirits or people with an affinity to the same place and culture.
All words by Irina Shtreis. More writing by Irina can be found in her author’s archive.