Caught by the River

'Tales From the Typographic Ocean' at Port Eliot Festival

18th July 2011

A discussion on rock’n’roll, the printed word and the counter culture with Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis, legendary PR man Mick Houghton and Andy Childs, former editor of Zigzag magazine. Three influential figures from pre-punk onwards talk to journalist and broadcaster Emma Warren about the birth of Xerox publishing and fanzine culture’s effect on all aspects of music from Sniffin’ Glue through to Jockey Slut.
Saturday 23 July, 2pm.
on the Caught by the River stage at Port Eliot festival.

When Mark Perry first heard the Ramones it was something of an epiphany. He wanted to know more about them so, finding nothing out there, he started his own magazine to fill the void. Others formed DIY punk bands, Perry started up one of the most significant music fanzines of all time, Sniffin’ Glue. Named after the Ramones’ song from their debut album, it was bashed out on a typewriter, with graphics etched by a felt tip pen. Perry co-opted his girlfriend’s work Xerox machine and, in 1976, the first, crude 10 sheet issue of Sniffin‘ Glue, stapled in one corner, was born. Sniffin’ Glue was by no means the first music fanzine but, coming from the same culture of boredom, unemployment and alienation, it ignited an explosion of similar tracts in what is now seen as a golden era of the British fanzine with titles that left nothing to the imagination: Ripped & Torn, 48 Thrills, In The City, Chainsaw, London’s Burning and Teenage Depression.

Historically, the first fanzine dates back to 1940, created by science fiction enthusiasts in America. The concept caught on, particularly among science fiction and comics’ buffs and, by 1949, the word fanzine officially entered the language, sanctioned by Oxford English Dictionary. The first music fanzines to make an impact were the offspring of a very different counter culture, the antithesis of 70s punk, during the halcyon summer of love in America. There, in 1966, Paul Williams founded Crawdaddy and Greg Shaw started up Mojo Navigator. A few years later, Shaw went on to produce one of the great fanzines, Who Put The Bomp. It was in these seminal American ‘zines that many prominent writers cut their teeth, among them that first generation of great music journalists – Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Ed Ward, Dave March and Richard Meltzer.

The same underground culture in the UK also gave rise to a number of magazines – Oz, International Times, Friends, Black Ink – but the first one exclusively dedicated to music was Zigzag, founded by Pete Frame in 1969. Frame’s inspiration came from American folk magazines like Sing Out and Little Sandy Review as well as Bomp, Crawdaddy and the more widely imported Rolling Stone. Frame’s intent was to write about the music he loved, which (as Mark Perry discovered a few years later) wasn’t being covered in any meaningful way, if at all, in the weekly music press. Melody Maker, New Musical Express, Disc & Music Echo and Record Mirror were the key titles in 1969, Sounds launching a year later. Named after a Captain Beefheart song and with Sandy Denny/Fairport Convention on the cover of its first issue, Zigzag was never, strictly speaking, a fanzine. From the outset, Frame sought proper National magazine distribution and advertising whereas fanzines were by nature more haphazardly circulated – in record stores, sold at (or outside) gigs and at festivals.

By definition, Zigzag may not have been a fanzine, but it inspired plenty of other single minded music obsessives to follow suit: Brian Hogg’s Bam Alam, Pete O’Brien’s Omaha Rainbow, Bert Muirhead’s Hot Wacks, John Platt’s Comstock Lode, Nick Ralphs and Steve Burgess’ Dark Star, Nigel Cross’ Bucketful of Brains – each one exploring its own niche whether it was the beat poets, Greenwich Village folk, Bay Area bands, psychedelia, power pop or, in the case of Pete O’Brien, a fixation with singer songwriter John Stewart.

Andy Childs produced a dozen or so issues of Fat Angel in the very early 70s and eventually became editor of Zigzag. In keeping with the archetypal UK fanzine model, Fat Angel was at first produced with the aid of stencil sheets and an ever-changing number of roneo machines, a crude mangle like one man printing press.

It’s often overlooked that these broader based magazines co-existed with the more hard core punk fanzines later in the 70s. Where Andy Childs once took Fat Angel, to the fledgling Virgin Record store, then above a shoe shop in Tottenham Court Road (he was amazed when they took 200 copies), a few years later Geoff Travis was selling punk fanzines in the Rough Trade shop in Portobello Road which had opened in 1976. Not only that, Travis had a roneo machine where DIY magazine entrepreneurs could come in and run off their fanzines. Travis not only sold them out front, but also paid for them up front to help their cash flow.

Music fanzines didn’t end with punk. Riot girl, grunge, Krautrock, post punk, Americana, psycho-billy – every genre and subculture spawned its own fanzine. In the 80s, the rave and dance culture gave rise to two particularly influential fanzines: Boys Own, 1987 and Jockey Slut, a typical self-published fanzine founded by John Burgess and Paul Benney in 1993, then at Manchester Polytechnic. One of its founding writers, Emma Warren, went on to write for The Face but continues to keep the spirit of fanzines alive writing for Dummy, sound system culture fanzine Woofah and running youth magazine Live.

Ultimately, where there’s subculture, where there’s a genre of music that’s ignored by the mainstream music press -whether it’s hip and cutting edge or retro and unfashionable – fanzines will continue to spring up. They do to this day, however much the technology has changed, and in the face of ubiquitous blogs, tweets and social networking. It takes a lot more application to write a fanzine article, let alone produce your own fanzine and, as with the vinyl revival, there is a no way to replace the tactile thrill of fanzines, magazines and books.

For my part, Zigzag inspired a bunch of us at University to produce a short lived magazine called Fast & Bulbous, also named after a Beefheart song. What Zigzag showed me was that anyone could have a stab at writing about the music they loved. It didn’t matter that you weren’t a trained journalist or had never even harboured a desire to write before. For better or worse, you just followed your passion although it soon went from a labour of love to my writing for money. After I was paid £25 for a Tim Buckley feature in Let It Rock (founded in 1972 and a precursor to rock monthlies like Q and Mojo), there was no turning back. If a passion for pop music is akin to a misspent youth, it has carried me into my dotage.

Mick Houghton
Sippin’ Tea