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Punk Zines
by Stephen Perkins

Punk zines were the indigenous and insurrectionary voice of a whole generation of English working class youth alienated and marginalized within England's class ridden culture. The initial vacuum caused by punk's lack of empathetic coverage in the established music press, combined with its antipathy to the whole industry, opened up a new and exciting space for a homegrown or 'insider' coverage of this rebel music. And like the alternative record and distribution companies that were formed out of this '3 chord garage band DIY aesthetic,' so did the punk zines rise to meet the challenge through a fusion of accessible and cheap technology (xerography), coupled with the excitement and enthusiasm that this new musical expression generated in its fans.
Mark Perry the editor of Sniffin' Glue, one of the first punk fanzines in England explains how he started it:

    ...All that stuff about Glue being the first fanzine is crap. Brian Hogg's Bam Balam, which was all about sixties music, was in its fourth issue by then: it showed that you could do a magazine and you didn't have to be glossy... It was the first time I'd ever done anything like that: I approached it like a project in school. (1,2)

Lacking any pretensions of professionalism, written, pasted-up and welded together through the energy of his newfound conversion to punk, Perry's punk zine was the first in what would become a deluge of similar zines in the following years.
Written entirely from the point of the view of someone involved within the punk scene, the zines chronicled the rise of a punk subculture that would spread throughout England during the early years between 1975-76, and later internationally. The most basic ingredients of punk zines were the ubiquitous gig reviews, interviews with bands, record & tape reviews, personal rants, letters from readers and a healthy dose of undigested leftist/libertarian/anarchist tracts, manifestoes and pronouncements, all strewn together within a potpourri of collages, montages, ransom note lettering, and banal mass media images juxtaposed against assorted taboo imagery.
The speed with which the zines were pasted-up and Xeroxed, combined with the appearance of new zines as if overnight, helped define this movement from within its own unique perspective, defiantly creating its own history without the help of outside intermediaries. It was at this level that the visual assault that was such an integral part of punk, crossed over into a visual assault on the page. No image, text nor taboo were too extreme for inclusion—it all got cutup, re-combined and re-imagined. Malcolm McLaren, chief architect of the Sex Pistols echoes these anarchic sensibilities when he described the Sex Pistols in a handbill from 1978:

    They are Dickensian-like urchins who with ragged clothes and pock marked faces roam the streets of foggy gaslit London pillaging. Setting fire to buildings. Beating up old people with gold chains. Fucking the rich up the arse. Causing havoc wherever they go. Some of these ragamuffin gangs jump on tables amidst the charred debris and with burning debris play rock 'n' roll to the screaming delight of the frenzied pissing pogoing mob. Shouting and spitting "anarchy" one of these gangs call themselves the SEX PISTOLS. This true and dirty tale has been continuing throughout 200 years of teenage anarchy and so in 1978 there still remains the SEX PISTOLS. Their active extremism is all they care about because that's WHAT COUNTS TO JUMP RIGHT OUT OF THE 20TH CENTURY AS FAST AS YOU possibly can in order to create an environment that you can TRUTHFULLY RUN WILD IN. (3)

And it is perhaps only in the pages of the punk zines that this utopian vision was ever close to being realized. The raw and uncompromising aesthetic that emerged from the Sex Pistols through their Situationist inspired graphics and publicity, found a fertile environment in punk zines. Jon Savage describes the frenetic activity involved in putting together a zine:

    In the lunch hour, I sit on the bog attacking bits of paper with Pritt glue in a very real fever—got to do it now, now. 'It' is a fanzine. I need to give voice to those explosions in my head. Cut-up bits of the NME, 60s pop annuals, Wilhelm Reich and 'Prostitution' handbills, are slashed together around a long improvised piece about violence, fascism, Thatcher and the impending apocalypse. (4)

This proliferation of punk zines did not guarantee a consistent quality, however these were seen as minor impediments to the would-be publisher empowered by the efforts of others working out an accessible and affordable aesthetic. Publishing a punk zine gave the editor an identity within this subculture, it allowed him or her a voice within the community, and more importantly access to the bands themselves.
In relation to zines in the '80s, punk zines played a pivotal role in establishing an aesthetic territory which was to be the inspiration and starting point for many underground zines during this decade. One representative example of the visual aesthetic fostered by punk was the zine Search and Destroy, edited by Vale in San Francisco from 1977-78. This magazine, and the one that would follow it, REsearch, served an important function in facilitating the crossover of punk attitudes & sensibilities into broader areas of cultural investigation. Vale says of Search and Destroy:

    I started working on Search and Destroy in January '77. Our approach was really minimalist, we felt that that was the new philosophy. It wasn't just going to be a documentation, it was going to be a catalyst. We felt that the music was the fun part but that it was an entire lifestyle, you don't spend your entire life playing music on a stage, so we gave book lists, we tried to encourage people to read, we listed films... I soon realized that Punk was total cultural revolt. It was a hardcore confrontation with the black side of history and culture, right-wing imagery, sexual taboos, a delving into it that had never been done before by any generation in such a thorough way. The Punks were the first to examine the Vietnam war after the 1960s, reading Soldier of Fortune magazine: there was a lot of Burroughs in Punk... (5)

In conclusion, and leaving aside discussion surrounding punk's eventual success of failure, or its final assimilation into the mainstream as rebel fashion accessories, I want to list here some of the important functions that punk zines played within the movement, with particular emphasis on their legacy for 80's underground zines:

  • They provided support and a sense of identity across geographically diverse punk communities.
  • They were important vehicles for dissemination of information, and provided a mouthpiece for their own particular communities.
  • They were a vital form of participant observer chronicles of an unique mid-70s subculture.
  • They established new and influential aesthetic paradigms for underground zines into the next decade.
  • By their example they empowered fans and others to self-publish their own zines. This ethic of accessibility would contribute to the accelerated zine activity of the early 80s.

1. Savage, Jon. England's Dreaming. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.
2. Mark Perry is correct in asserting that Sniffin' Glue was not the first fanzine, but it was the first punk zine. Michael Golberg in an article, 'Rock & roll fanzines: a new underground press flourishes,' Rolling Stone, March, 1984, claims that the first rock & roll fanzines were published in 1966 and called Crawdaddy and Mojo-Navigator Rock 'n' Roll News, by Greg Shaw and Paul Williams respectively. At the time these were the only non-commercial magazines dealing with rock and pop. It's interesting to note that Paul Williams had previously published a science fiction fanzine prior to his conversion to rock & roll.
3. See ref. 1, p. 279
4. Savage, Jon. "The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle." Impresario: Malcolm McLaren and the British New Wave: The New Museum of New York & The MIT Press, New York & Columbia, Sept. 16 - Nov. 20, 1988.
5. See ref. 1.

Burchill, Julie and Parsons, Tony. The Boy Looked at Johnny: The Obituary of Rock and Roll. Boston: Faber & Faber, 1987.
The book contains a couple of brief and critical passages about punk zines. "Started by working-class kids at the end of 1976, fanzining soon became a fashionable public-school sport. My mid '77 the fanzines were wallowing in the mire of a golden age long gone; duplicated, sated drivel written by obnoxious whiners for over-grown wimps. Half-full of tin-pot tirades against the thriving orthodox rock papers, half-full of the golden calves of punk—collages of the Queen, the Pistols and second-hand newspaper headlines blaring unemployment and anarchy but meant to imply Armageddon—they were nothing for something at an average price of 25p. You would have done better putting your pennies towards a picture-sleeved single."

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London & New York: Methuen, 1979.
Hebdige sees punk zines as one arena in which punk and what it stood for could be communicated directly without the intervention or mediation of the mainstream press or the established music press, and that it was the first attempt, " a predominantly working-class youth culture, to provide an alternative critical space within the subculture itself to counteract the hostile or at least ideologically inflected coverage which punk was receiving in the media. The existence of an alternative punk press demonstrated that it was not only clothes or music that could be immediately and cheaply produced from the limited resources at hand."

Savage, Jon. England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.
In relating the history of the Sex Pistols and punk culture in general, Savage emphasises the importance of punk zines in providing an insiders' account of the development of the punk subculture. "At the end of 1976, the mainstream media were closed to Punk. Fanzines used the freedom they gained from this exclusion: the people who put them together could say whatever was on their mind, without worrying about censorship, editorial lines, subbing, deadlines—except the deadline of pushing your product into an arena that was still being defined. The result was a new language."

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