A celebration of Britain’s underground music press of the ’60’s & ’70’s by Mick Houghton.
In tune with the spirit of the times, in April 1969, Pete Frame quit his job as a surveyor at the Pru to ‘do his own thing’ and launch Zigzag, Britain’s first rock magazine. There was no precedent for a dedicated UK rock magazine outside of underground publications like IT or Oz which covered underground music but never exclusively. By Zigzag’s second issue, John Tobler had come on board and the two of them nursed Zigzag though it’s first five years with a simple policy of writing about the music they liked for people who liked the same sort of music. From day one, Frame and Tobler also set out to try and make Zigzag a viable enterprise, the magazine appearing ’as monthly as possible’ as its masthead jested. Zigzag’s strength was a combination of knowledge and enthusiasm, increasingly taking the form of lengthy interviews with artists you didn’t read about anywhere else, certainly not in any depth – Beefheart, Love, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Moby Grape, The Charlatans, Fairport, Soft Machine, and plenty more besides. Occasionally Frame would write a piece like The Year of Love, including the birth of Pink Floyd – to this day one of the best pieces I’ve ever read about the birth of the British underground.
If there was a precedent for Zigzag, it came from hard-to-get imported American magazines which were springing up by the mid-60s: Greg Shaw’s Mojo Navigator (he went on to found Who Put The Bomp in 1970) , Paul Williams Crawdaddy, Dave Marsh’s Creem or Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone, the only one readily available outside the States. Zigzag’s only UK competition was the more considered Let It Rock which first appeared in October 1972 and took its inspiration from Charlie Gillet’s Sound Of The City, the first issue featuring Elvis on the cover. Let It Rock was much closer in format to present day monthlies and both magazines co-existed amicably with minimal crossover in content. It wouldn‘t be until 1986 before another successful monthly music magazine was launched in the UK, the corporately funded Q. Much had changed by the time Q first hit the streets. Rock music was now being taken seriously and the weekly music press had become far more discerning, opinionated and authoritative in its approach. Even the broadsheets which once dismissed rock as an inferior branch of the arts, well below classical music and jazz in the pecking order, were giving over more and more space to popular music.
Sometime in 1969, I bought my first copy of Zigzag, issue three with Frank Zappa on its cover. I was at Leicester University, bluffing my way towards a degree in politics and grateful for a non-returnable grant which helped feed my appetite for buying albums. Zigzag was a lifeline to a generation of music fans for whom coverage in the weekly music papers was informative enough but lacking exposition. Zigzag had an easy style that made you think ’I can do that’, inspiring many would-be music writers with no journalistic training who had that same desire to write about the music they loved. At Leicester, a bunch of us started our own short lived magazine. We called it Fast & Bulbous, its name (like Zigzag’s) courtesy of Captain Beefheart.
Zigzag motivated a number of other rather more single minded individuals who diligently put their own magazines together in their spare time: Pete O’Brien’s Omaha Rainbow, Bert Muirhead’s Hot Wacks, Andy Child’s Fat Angel, John Platt’s Comstock Lode, Mick Ralphs and Steve Burgess’ Dark Star and a late 70’s entry, Nigel Cross’s Bucketful Of Brains, each one exploring its own niche whether it was the beat poets, Greenwich Village singer songwriters, Bay Area bands, psychedelia, power pop or, in the case of Pete O’Brien, a fixation with John Stewart.
It’s worth remembering that, in July 1976, Mark Perry followed the same principles when he launched punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue, championing a very different brand of music. Sniffin’ Glue was more brash and confrontational in tone and appearance and would itself spawn a host of imitators. Overnight, the term fanzine came into common usage and its golden age – roughly from 1977 to the early 90s – spanned genres from punk rock to post rock, industrial, eclectro and riot grrl. This, too, is now a bygone age for a generation who have never known a world without email and the web.
Copies of Zigzag, especially the early ones, are now virtually impossible to find but the recent 5-disc mini-boxed set, The Amazing Zigzag Concert, brilliantly captures the essence of the magazine. Recorded at The Roundhouse on the 28th April, 1974, it celebrated Zigzag’s fifth anniversary and marked two significant changes in its history. Having toiled to keep his brainchild afloat for so long, Pete Frame relinquished both the administrative burden and editorship in the knowledge that Charisma Records’ boss Tony Stratton Smith was now bankrolling his magazine. Having learned the ropes producing Fat Angel, Andy Childs took over as editor and it was Childs who recently rediscovered the tapes for the Roundhouse show. Childs, Frame, Tobler and Nigel Cross then pooled their resources to restore and release the recordings on Tobler’s Road Goes On Forever label.
The concert was headlined by Mike Nesmith who, like John Stewart, was making his first solo UK appearance. The remaining acts are a reminder that Zigzag was always committed to supporting up and coming British acts. Starry Eyed & Laughing were so much more than Byrds’ copycats, writing some terrific songs of their own, though it’s the chiming guitar sound on their version of ‘Chimes of Freedom’ that stands out. Help Yourself was a seriously underrated band, though never built to last. At the Roundhouse they deliver a set which epitomises vintage Zigzag, transforming the Chalk Farm venue into a San Francisco ballroom with their spiralling, Quicksilver inspired jams. Chilli Will & The Red Hot Peppers almost steal the show delivering a live set that surpasses their sole studio album, Bongos Over Balham. Their song selection speaks for itself, a bunch of their own songs interspersed with songs by Jesse Winchester, Doug Kershaw, the Burritos and Dave Dudley. Mixing everything from bluegrass and western swing to blues and rock, Chilli Willi didn’t survive into the pub rock/new wave era that was soon ushered in and where they would surely have thrived. Drummer Pete Thomas did go on to find his place, as a member The Attractions.
The British contingent was probably less surprised by the crowd’s enthusiasm but, even on disc, you can feel that both John Stewart and Mike Nesmith are taken aback by the warmth of the crowd. Stewart was relatively unknown in the UK, even to Zigzaggers, but won everyone over while Nesmith (accompanied by consummate steel guitarist Red Rhodes) had clearly never experienced such a close rapport with an audience. The Roundhouse concert was a wonderful occasion, perfectly captured here and the end of an era in many respects, not just for Zigzag. It also signals the dying embers of an underground scene that was at its peak when Zigzag was founded in 1969. As Pete Frame concludes in his introductory notes, it’s ‘like discovering one of those culture capsules they used to send to the moon.’
Dedicated to Pete and John. Without Zigzag, I would probably have had to find a proper job forty years ago.
The Amazing Zigzag concert is out now as a five CD box set. Buy your copy from the source. Go to www.rgfrecords.co.uk
Copies of Mick’s book, ‘Becoming Elektra’ are now on sale in the Caught by the River Shop, priced £16.00