I was looking through some old documents recently and found my old hard drive in among a box of stuff. Said hard drive contained the full transcript of my dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of my Masters Degree in 2008. While some people opt to go down the professional publishing route for their academic papers, I figured I’d stick with cowpunk tradition and stick it up here.
The work presented here is unmodified from that submitted to the University of Stirling in May 2008. All notes have been added at the end.
UNDERGROUND NETWORK, ALTERNATIVE COMMUNICATIONS; A Study of the Underground Punk Fanzine – Past, Present and Future.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Jim McCall and Andrew Wheatcroft for their support and encouragement both before and during the writing of this dissertation. Thank you also to Jane Hamilton and Pamela McLaughlin for their editorial guidance throughout this process. Any remaining mistakes or errors within the text are solely my own responsibility.
Thank you also to those who have assisted my in my investigations, specifically Todd Taylor of Razorcake fanzine, the gentlemen of Aberdeen’s Good For Nothing? Collective and http://www.undergroundscene.co.uk founder Kuljit Athwal. Thanks also to Barry Kidd for allowing me access to his unparalleled fanzine archive. Without their co-operation, this dissertation would have been a none-starter.
I have decided to use the Palatino typeface throughout this dissertation. I feel it is the most legible and easy on the eye. Chapter titles and sub-headings have been placed in bold.
I have elected to use the footnote referencing system, as I feel it is the most suitable for this particular endeavour.
Punk means different things to different people. The scene has grown from humble beginnings in the back-alleys of London and New York into a worldwide community of bands, fanzines, activists, thinkers, freaks, misfits and outcasts. In this dissertation, I aim to focus on the worldwide network of fanzines and independent record labels that have helped shape the worldwide punk community throughout the past thirty years. I shall look at how fanzines came to play such a prominent role in the punk scene and see how they have evolved as technological advances have changed our everyday lives.
My intention in this dissertation is not to open Pandora’s Box by fruitlessly pursuing philosophical arguments about the nature and definition of punk rock. I do not wish to give a full historical account of what is and what is not punk rock by any means. Instead I shall be focussing on underground punk rock as a subculture and its relationships with independent publishing, most specifically the concept of the ‘fanzine’ and its relevance in the hi-speed media age of the 21st Century. For this purpose, I shall use the idea that punk rock is about putting your own ideas into action, about creating a culture for yourself beyond the control of corporate media and mainstream acceptability. Punk rock is about challenging the status quo, that punk rock is about autonomy, about taking control of your own life. Ultimately, I feel that punk rock is about getting up doing something to affect positive change.
Punk, like creating a zine, is about doing it yourself.
Chapter One – What are Zines?
In order to define zines, we would be well served to begin with thinking about the etymology of the word itself. In English, the word is obviously a derivative of ’magazine’. It comes from the Arabic word ’makhazin’ – the plural of ’makhzan’ – meaning ‘storehouses’. Magazines are ‘storehouses of information’ and, as we understand them, are periodical publications containing information and/or entertainment about any range of subjects. Magazines are big business worldwide with thousands of weekly and monthly titles competing for space on the shelves of your local newsagent or WH Smith. There are just as many advertisers fighting for coverage in these magazines in order to sell their various products, as can be seen by the massive amounts of space dedicated to advertising. Just pick up a copy of any monthly magazine and you will be bombarded with paid advertisement features from Orange Mobile, Ford, Virgin Media or any number of variants. As such, the magazine business is an overtly commercial venture. Publishers need to sell the advertising space in order to pay for the publication of the magazine, whatever the subject matter may be. Magazines are a business and have to make money in order to survive. If a magazine fails to make money, chances are it will just cease to be. Zines, however, are not magazines. Beyond different motivations, a distinction is seen in the word itself;
“There is not apostrophe in zine. Zine is not short for magazine.
A magazine is a product, a commercial commodity. A zine is a
labour of love, producing no profit.”1
‘Zine’ is diametrically opposed to ‘magazine’. Here the signifiers clearly indicate opposition, differing in motivation as well as content. By identifying positively with ‘zine’ and negatively with ‘magazine’, it is clear that zine publishers see their works as existing for a purpose higher than that of profit. Magazines occupy a significant portion of the marketplace and are motivated by financial gain, as opposed to the zine that exists altruistically for the express purpose of disseminating information. Zines therefore represent the antithesis of magazines, a moral crusade of purpose over capitalism. Zines are editorially uncorrupted, not motivated by money or the demands of advertisers. Money is not the motivating factor; the only demands placed on the zine are those of the creators’ imagination.
A zine is a self-published publication, often the work of one individual. Zines, in the loosest possible form, have existed since people began to write, copy and self-publish. Zines are part of a long tradition of self-publishing that began when Gutenberg invented the printing press. Self-publishing has often been seen as a political medium and is often used to express resistance, as was the case during the propaganda war of the French Revolution.
The earliest zines were what are known as ‘fanzines’, publications produced for personal, not financial reasons. They were ‘fan magazines’ produced by aficionados of a certain subject, mostly fantasy and science fiction literature. The first fanzine is generally credited with being The Comet which popped up among science fiction fans in 19302. The Comet was produced by the Science Correspondence Club, widely credited as being the first sci-fi fan organisation to be founded. Sci-Fi magazines such as Amazing Stories published in San Francisco were already popular within fans of the genre. The creation of a self-produced fanzine was a natural evolutionary step for sci-fi fans to indulge their passions, creating a country-wide network of fans sharing their thoughts, stories and writing. With fans writing letters to each other and exchanging stories and cartoons, it marked a significant change in the relationship between consumer and creator. By creating their own rudimentary publications, sci-fi fans became both creator and consumer, a massive shift in the traditional relationship of writer and reader.
Today’s zines take massive influence from the sci-fi fanzines of the mid-20th Century, insofar as the share many of the same characteristics;
- Fanzines are non-commercial, non-professional and irregular small-run publications
- Fanzines are published by and for special interest groups and provide a physical link between those communities
- The distribution of fanzines takes place principally within the community that generated it.3
As Stephen Perkins (noted punk historian) states, today’s zines still share many of the same qualities as their philosophical ancestors. Following the explosion of sci-fi fanzines, people began producing fanzines across many different genres. Indeed, the only limits imposed on fanzines are those imposed by the limits of the creators’ imagination. This same spirit was shared with other independent publishing ventures such as the Amateur Press Association, mail art magazines and the underground press of the 1960s.
Spiritually, today’s fanzines are most closely connected with the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance of the 1940/50s where Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg mimeographed their material into little chapbooks. These would be given away at performances and sold in legendary independent bookshop City Lights. As the initial audience for their material was small, they had to find their own way of connecting with their followers. As much out of financial necessity as art for art’s sake, created small yet perfectly crafted and bound publications. These individually-crafted collections took great care and attention to detail to construct, as opposed to the huge printing presses afforded to mainstream magazines and newspapers, but they were cheap and relatively quick to produce. Zines, particularly those dedicated to artistry and literacy, continue the Beat tradition of fine quality and innovative design.
The zine phenomenon is about doing it yourself. With the advent of punk rock, it was obvious that the two cultures were ideologically aligned. If punk rock was an expression of anger and frustration with mainstream culture and the boring commercial rock scene, then it logically follows that zines are an expression of dissatisfaction and frustration with commercial magazine and publishing culture. Zines, like punk, are about the rejection of prescribed mainstream culture and about breaking the barriers between producer and consumer, performer and audience. These acts of self-publishing are subversive and political in themselves, insofar as it represents a challenge to the accepted way of doing things. Zines, like punk, are about asking questions and demanding change. Zines, like punk, represent resistance to the mainstream.
DIY – The Hardcore Punk Zine
Over the past thirty years, underground hardcore punk and DIY zines have been inextricably linked. Both are DIY countercultural forms systematically opposed to conventional norms and values associated with the music and publishing industries. If the primary motivations of both the mainstream commercial music industry and the mainstream commercial magazine industry is to sell ‘products’ and make money, then it necessarily follows that the underground punk and zine scenes exist in order to satisfy a demand that is not catered for by the mainstream. Zines have played an important role in the punk rock scene since the very beginning. As there was no place for punk in the mainstream, they became the only way to find out what was going on in the nascent scene.
Punk zines since their inception have often been rudimentary publications far below the accepted standards of the publishing industry. The United Kingdom in the mid-1970s was a boiling pot of dissatisfaction and disillusion amongst the restless youth of the country. With massive levels of unemployment, the establishment of the three-day week, violence in the inner-cities, mounting racial tensions and the rise of the far-right National Front, Britain was a country in turmoil. The violence and intensity of punk rock was a direct result of boredom with the mainstream music industry characterised by the likes of Deep Purple, YES and Pink Floyd. The excesses of mainstream rock were subverted by the unabashed simplicity and nihilism inherent in punk rock. Street-level London was spewing out bands like The Clash, The Damned and The Sex Pistols while stadiums worldwide were being bored to tears by pompous, overblown posturing from men in and spandex singing about dungeons and dragons. The politics of punk rock was designed to shock, a direct reaction to the cultural boredom and apathy that had characterised youth culture since the collapse of the hippie dream some five years earlier. It dealt in reality, not fantasy.
The first British punk fanzine, ‘Sniffin’ Glue…and other rock’n’roll habits for pinheads and surfers’ was published by Mark Perry, later of the band Alternative TV, on July 13, 1976. It was a simple publication using only a typewriter, felt-tip pens and a Xerox photocopier, then simply stapled together. It was the ultimate act of do-it-yourself publishing. With nobody in the mainstream musical press interested in this ugly cultural phenomenon known as punk, there simply weren’t any music magazines covering punk rock bands. As such, Perry decided that he would write about his favourite bands. It was obvious that punk rock had an audience, as the shows and the fans proved; there was just no coverage in the press.
“The whole of that first issue was what I could do at that time with
what I had in my bedroom. I had a children’s typewriter plus a felt-tip
pen, so that’s why the first issue is how it is. I just thought it would be
a one-off. I knew when I took it to the shop there was a good chance
they’d laugh at me, but instead they said, how many have you got? My
girlfriend had done 20 on the photocopier at her work and they bought
the lot off me. Then they advanced me some money to get more printed.”4
Publishing a fanzine was an easy way of getting involved in the growing subculture, a way of distributing information about upcoming punk rock shows and showcasing upcoming punk rock bands. The fanzine painted Perry in the role of ‘Punk Everykid’, a punk writing about punk, and started as a joke. There was no unifying ideology at this stage and the scene received scant attention from the national music press, save for a few articles concerning the Sex Pistols and their vaudevillian manager Malcolm McLaren. After attending a Ramones concert, Perry became an active part of the scene and was inadvertently cast into the role of punk ‘spokesman’. Initially, he printed up fifty copies of the fanzine and took them to the independent record store Rock-On Records. They sold out immediately and the store requested, and paid for, two hundred more. This sort of economy and honesty was important to the DIY scene. The crude appearance and lack of professionalism certainly added to the appeal of the zine, whilst simultaneously inspiring punks in the regions of the United Kingdom to get involved in their own scenes and produce their own zines. If the New Music Express or Melody Maker, the biggest selling commercial music magazines of the time, were not going to take the rise of punk rock seriously and devote space to the growing phenomenon, then it intrinsically follows that the punks themselves would have to create their own networks and fanzines. The only way to get involved and make things happen was to do it themselves. This was an open act of defiance, again emphasising the ‘otherness’ of punk as a cultural entity outwith the understanding and, more importantly, the control of the mainstream rock scene.
This sort of DIY publishing inspired thousands of disillusioned teens to get actively involved in their own punk scenes, from starting fanzines to putting out their own records. Punk was about being personally active, not accepting what the mainstream, corporate-owned media pushed as ‘edgy’ or ‘alternative’.
10.9.77: Fanzines are the perfect expression – cheaper, more instant
than records. Maybe THE medium. A democratization too – if the most
committed ‘new wave’ is about social change then the best fanzines
reflect this. Perhaps most importantly outside saturated London, they
provide a vital function as a base/coordination point of the local scene.
and that means Ilford as much as Glasgow. Eventually new impetus,
reinterpretation will come from here.5
Although punk rock reinvigorated the bloated commercial rock scene, the scene itself was initially limited to London. Punk had been kick-started and brought to mainstream attention by the carefully orchestrated press manipulation of McLaren and the Pistols, with The Clash following closely behind. If the Pistols nihilistically articulated dissatisfaction with the accepted way of thinking, and The Clash provided a semi-intellectual dissection of inner-city frustration in their three-chord rabble, then it was the eruption of the punk scene around the country that expressed a deeper and growing cultural restlessness. The ‘Anarchy In The UK’ tour in 1977, which featured the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned and Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, was the catalyst that brought punk rock to the provinces of the United Kingdom, inspiring hundreds of disillusioned youngsters and older rockers alike to rethink their understandings of rock’n’roll. It inspired people to get involved and start bands. Punk’s subsequent diaspora was captured in fanzines produced all over the country in hurriedly compiled, badly scrawled photocopied pages. These fanzines tended to cover the happenings of the local punk community, as opposed to continually rehashing the tried and tested formulae of NME or Sounds magazines. By 1977, the mainstream press had already co-opted the ‘cut and paste’ visuals of Sniffin Glue, plagiarising the aesthetic but understanding nothing of the art or ideology. As punk and image were already irrevocably intertwined, whether it is orange spiky hair or the ‘ransom note’ aesthetic of the Sex Pistols records, the visual aspect of the zine became as intrinsic to ‘punker mentality’ as the music itself. As Al McDowell, later manager of Sex Pistols’ original bassist Glen Matlock’s new band The Rich Kids, states
“It was important to make an impression with what we were doing. There
was a lot to do with the poster mentality, grabbing you from a distance,
and screen prints – the simplicity that came from that medium.”6
Producing a fanzine was the ultimate DIY act and a way of getting involved with a booming cultural renaissance without the need for musical ability. All one needed was the inclination to get involved. As such, fanzines began to appear all over the country. Independent records stores all over the country were expressing their support for punk rock as they fought for survival against huge corporate record stores. The relationship was mutually beneficial. The more punk grew, the more punk bands began to form and, as such, the more independent record labels sprung up to put out the records. It logically follows, then, that more zines began to appear as more people fought to get their music and their messages heard. Independent record shops would stock records from independent labels, supporting their independent bands by selling merchandise – badges, patches, stickers – and zines. These independent record stores became clearing houses of information about the local punk scene. The only way to find out what was going on in your locality was to get down to the record store and speak to people. You literally had to do it yourself, as there was no support network for punk in the newspapers or music publications of the time. It is from this genesis that we reach today’s often wrongly-applied understanding of the term ‘indie’.
As punk moved into the regions of the country, so the support network for punk grew. The Buzzcocks, arguably the first punk band to form outside of London, started their record label New Hormones out of pure necessity. There were no record labels sending A&R7 scouts to poorly-attended punk shows in Manchester, so the only path was DIY. Completely divorced from the metropolitan music industry, they simply created their own scene. The local press was also more supportive of the scene, with gig listings appearing in the New Manchester Review and Granada’s What’s On, although it was the rudimentary DIY publishing of Paul Morley’s Girl Trouble and Pete Shelley’s Plaything that served as the true voice of the underground punk scene. This staunch regionalism was reflected all across the country, specifically here in Scotland. Both Edinburgh and Glasgow had strong scenes, supported by fanzines like Ripped and Torn and Chicken Shit. It was in the pages of these one-page, A4 format montage publications that the likes of Johnny and the Self Abusers, later to achieve fame and fortune as Simple Minds, first received any kind of attention. Glasgow itself had peculiar licensing laws at the time, meaning that punk shows could not be held in the city centre. As such, fans would simply take the train to outlying suburban areas like Paisley to attend concerts by the few nationally touring punk bands of the day.
With the growth of UK punk rock came the inevitable deluge of bands, labels and fanzines. While enthusiasm and a desire to get involved were central tenets of the punk scene, it is also equally apparent that for every socially aware and articulate punk band such as X-Ray Spex or The Addicts, there was an equal number of scatterbrained, anti-authoritarian, yet culturally impotent punk bands such as Sham 69 or Chelsea. As with every scene, punk threw up a veritable banquet of colours and characters. The same can be said of the fanzines that were spawned to provide coverage of this cultural phenomenon. Sniffin Glue was seen as the authoritative punk voice, something which can be seen as anathema within a scene so obsessed with being anti-authority and subversive.
Originally, the punk scene adopted its DIY nature out of pure necessity. However, as the scene grew, especially after the release of Never Mind the Bollocks…Here’s The Sex Pistols in 1977 and the subsequent tabloid furore, it was obvious that scene was moving overground and, arguably, into a position of mainstream acceptance. Major labels and mainstream commercial music magazines swarmed around barely-competent punk bands, attracted by the money-making possibilities of this bizarre youth trend, as is always and inevitably the case. Remaining DIY and independent, however, soon became an ideological choice. The record sleeve of Streets (the seminal punk compilation record put out by the independent label Beggar’s Banquet) states;
“1977 was the year that music came out of the concert halls and onto
the streets; when independent labels sprang out of the woodwork to
feed new tastes; when rock music once again became about energy
and fun; when the majors’ boardrooms lost control. Suddenly we
could do anything.”8
As a means of connecting people, the fanzines in the UK were essential. Punk received no mainstream press coverage until it was in full flight. At best, the biggest bands received a passing mention here and there. The fanzine writers essentially became the first punk journalists and, as such, the primary historians and custodians of the punk rock story. Without having the fanzines as a point of reference, the mainstream music press would not have been able to comprehend punk in any realistic fashion, having only tabloid rhetoric on which to base their opinions. That the fanzines were written for punks by punks themselves gave the scene a depth that was previously unseen by the mainstream press.
While punk rock had exploded in the United Kingdom, indeed, many of the original protagonists like Mark Perry had already declared that it was over as a cultural movement, it was just beginning to pick up a head of steam in the USA. It is somewhat fitting that the Sex Pistols rollercoaster ride finally came grinding to a halt in one of the cities that would become synonymous with a new radical and violently independent variation of punk rock that would become known as hardcore; San Francisco.
Chapter Two – American Hardcore
It is fitting that the final concert of the debacle that was the Sex Pistols’ US tour of 1978 was in San Francisco. The Bay Area has long been synonymous with the voice of dissent and protest in the United States, from the aforementioned Beat Poets of the Renaissance to the well-documented hippie ‘love-ins’ of the 1960s. San Francisco has always sympathetically harboured voices of political and social dissent, therefore it is no surprise that punk rock found a welcoming home in the Bay Area. Video footage from that evening at the Winterland Gardens shows a distinctly unimpressed (and amphetamine-fuelled) Johnny Rotten snarling contemptuously at the American audience, inspiring the infamous career-defining farewell of ‘Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’9 after the plug was pulled on what was a disastrous and sonically awful gig. That the Pistols showed such disdain for their hosts is unsurprising, yet ironic, considering that the band were on the cusp of ‘breaking’ the tough American market. However, the gig itself is remarkable not only insofar as it marked the last concert of the inadvertent flag-bearers of punk rock (not including their numerous cynical ‘reunion’ tours), but also in that it effectively marked the birth of American hardcore punk. Many of the biggest players in US punk rock were present that night, including Jello Biafra, front man of wildly popular San Francisco insurrectionists The Dead Kennedys, and Darby Crash, the infamously deranged, and now deceased, front man for LA punks The Germs. Biafra would later claim that he formed the Dead Kennedys straight after the concert. Thus began the long and arduous road for independent underground punk rock in the USA.
While punk rock had spread throughout the United Kingdom like wildfire, thanks in no small part to the tabloid hysteria in the wake of the Pistols’ appearance on ‘The Bill Grundy Show’ and the subsequent furore over their album Never Mind The Bollocks and, more specifically, the God Save The Queen single reaching number one in the charts on the week of the Queen’s silver jubilee in May 1977, the seeds of punk took a little longer to germinate across the Atlantic. In terms of pure size and geography, the UK is a much easier market to break. Metropolitan London gave birth to the first wave of UK punk, which quickly spread to the provinces of the United Kingdom. With such a centralised scene, and subsequent press coverage, it is comparatively easy for a young band of upstarts to create a buzz within the music scene; such is its relatively small scale. While punk in the UK was still seen as a form of rebellion, it had largely faded from mainstream consciousness by 1979, by virtue of the Sex Pistols’ split and The Clash largely relocating to the USA. The major labels were quick to sign even the most rudimentary of bands in an effort to cash-in on the popularity of the scene. Inevitably, most subsequent releases, while providing the occasional sonic thrill, failed to re-ignite the original excitement. With the demise of the Pistols, the mainstream media became increasingly apathetic. With the leading lights of the scene having either broken up or virtually invisible within the UK, and with no focal point or farce to document, the press quickly moved onto ‘the next big thing’. With the tabloid excitement came great exposure, but with punk now back on the margins of the mainstream, there were many more punks to get actively involved in the punk scene.
The underground network of active punk scenes in the UK, with their own local zines, record stores and venues, meant that it was relatively easy to book a tour, get in the van and take the music to disparate parts of the UK. Tours were largely booked by telephone after gleaning contact information from a fanzine or record sleeve. Indeed, a full UK tour may consist of perhaps no more than 16 shows, covering all four countries in the union (although Northern Ireland was notoriously intolerant of punk shows)10. In terms of size, touring the UK is easier than touring the USA, and this is also true of the network of punks and record labels throughout the country, in that the UK had already (somewhat) established an underground network. Comparatively speaking, the UK punks had it a lot easier then their American counterparts, at least after the underground movement moved into the tabloid world. Punk bands were being played on Top of the Pops and what had begun as a revolutionary movement was beginning to be swallowed whole by the mainstream, eventually becoming adopted as little more than a fashion accessory. This alienated many of the original voices within the scene. In the United States, however, there was no support network for discordant, noisy, revolutionary punk rock bands, no national newspaper coverage and no centralised metropolitan music scene to inspire the youth to pick up guitars and scream their lungs out. With such a massive geographic scale, the first US punk bands had a massive struggle on their hands. However, the US punk bands took inspiration from their UK counterparts and began to forge a scene of their own, removed from the acceptability of the mainstream American music scene.
The Black Flag Effect
Initially, there were very few outlets for punk music in the USA. All the main characters in the scene had been brought up on the same dinosaur rock so loathed by the Sex Pistols and company. It is no surprise that the American indie movement was kick-started in California. Both San Francisco and Los Angeles became central hubs for US punk rock, with the clubs of Santa Monica Boulevard such as the Whisky-A-Go-Go and the Stardust Ballroom hosting punk rock shows, although these concerts often ended with an eruption of violence and the inevitable clashes between the Anglophile LA punks and the notoriously intolerant LAPD. The genesis of the US punk scene was directly influenced by UK punk, with The Clash becoming icons of the movement, although there was still a scarcity of punk publications in the US and outwith San Francisco and LA, it was virtually impossible to hear about punk, let alone hear punk rock records. However, some of the dominant music magazines of the day had begun to cover UK punk, including such titles as Creem and Crawdaddy. In the case Mike Watt of the Minutemen, a three-piece band from the poor Los Angeles suburb of Pedro, California, the coverage in these magazines of bands like The Clash and The Ramones (who had been spiritually adopted by the UK) was nothing short of a revelatory;
“The journalists had a big effect on us…it was a world of ideas…There
were pictures of these guys for a few months before we heard the records
and they had these modern haircuts and everything. And it blew our minds when we first heard the actual music. We thought it was going to be synthesizers and modern shit. But it wasn’t modern. It turned out to be guitar music like The Who! That’s what blew our minds. When we heard that, we said, ‘We can do this!’”11
It was this DIY approach that influenced them to start their band and get out on the road, despite being completely ignorant of the world outside the suburbs. By playing punk rock, completely out of step with the fashions of the day, the Minutemen and countless other bands began to carve a niche within the bloated American rock music market. This growth, however, would have been impossible without the pioneering vision of Greg Ginn, guitarist and head honcho of notorious LA hardcore punks Black Flag. Ginn, with his band and his record label, SST, would become the initial torchbearers of US punk, and any analysis of the movement would be impossible without making reference to the pioneering practices of Black Flag and SST.
Ginn had little interest in rock music as a child, but he already had an active interest in self-publishing and mail order business, having started The Novice, a fanzine concerned with the development and growth of local radio stations. He also founded Solid State Tuners (SST would be the name of his future record label), a mail order business concerning the sale and trade of modified World War Two army surplus radio equipment. This small but thriving business would be run by Ginn well into his twenties. While this would initially appear to have very little to do with the development of punk rock, indeed, Ginn himself had yet to hear of this exciting new phenomenon, it did ignite the DIY desire in the youngster, a sense of self-sufficiency that would serve him well in later years. He was turned onto punk rock after reading an issue of New York magazine The Village Voice, a left-wing avant-garde publication produced by a variety of hipsters and writers, profiling the rise of a new musical phenomenon coming out of clubs like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. He ordered “Little Johnny Jewel” by Television from tiny independent label Ork Records and, like many first wave punks, it was seeing The Ramones perform that served as his revelation. The rush of speed experienced at the concert inspired Ginn to ditch his attempts at playing folk rock and hook up with some friends to make noisy, discordant punk music. This marked the birth of Black Flag, the expansion of SST into music and, by proxy, the birth of American Hardcore. SST became a record label out of necessity, as opposed to an ideological choice, and Black Flag became a hardcore punk band by virtue of their limited musicianship, not some stylistic decision.
While independent record labels in the USA are nothing new; legendary record labels such as Motown, Stax, Sun and Atlantic were all once independent before being swallowed up by corporate behemoths, the majority of US indie labels were concerned with one-off releases by obscure artists. However, it was SST that first pioneered the idea of an independent label as an end in itself, whose sole purpose was to release challenging music from a host of disassociated artists from across the country. Taking its cue from the pioneering English record labels like Stiff and Chiswick, Greg Ginn (and others) realised that producing a record was as easy as saving enough money to call the record pressing plant and getting the records manufactured. This broke barriers, meaning that people of independent spirit could avoid commercial compromise by putting out records themselves. Indeed, if it were not for SST and the other emergent independent record labels, there is every chance that this remarkable music would never have been heard except in the seedy clubs of LA and San Francisco, as no major record label would think of touching a record as visceral as Black Flag’s seminal Nervous Breakdown EP.
Around the same time that SST began to produce and promote records, the infrastructure of underground punk rock in the US began to germinate. Three of the most important fanzines, “house organs of the indie scene”12, Slash, Flipside and Maximumrocknroll, all appeared in California at around the same time. Radio DJ Rodney Bingenheimer of KROQ, the biggest rock music radio station in California, began to play records from California punk bands as soon as he could get the records, which were still in very short supply. This growing appetite for punk rock was satiated with the emergence of a sprawling collective of fanzines, underground and college radio stations, ‘mom-and-pop’ record stores and independent distributors and record labels. These networks, however, were not forged overnight and it took the entrepreneurial and Herculean effort of the likes of Greg Ginn to create a kind of underground cultural railroad;
“In an age of big entertainment conglomerates/big management/big media,touring the lowest-rent rock clubs of America in an Econoline is the equivalent of fighting a ground war strategy in an age of strategic nuclear forces.”13
Black Flag would tour relentlessly around the States in support of the Nervous Breakdown EP. Through coverage in the various fanzines and college radio’s syndication of the Rodney on the ROQ radio show, Black Flag had struck up relationships with the Dead Kennedys in San Francisco and D.O.A, a hardcore punk band from Vancouver, British Columbia. Together the three bands would tour the west coast. The influence of the radio show and the early LA fanzines cannot be understated. This kind of networking and exposure was crucial in developing a community and an audience for abrasive hardcore punk with progressive politics. This, combined with their relentless touring schedule, helped Black Flag develop a small following throughout the country. Those involved in the punk scene in the various regions of the west coast were eager to help, as it was mutually beneficial to do so. The bands would share contacts and what they learned out on the road, arranging gig swaps and sharing war stories (and inevitably consuming vast amounts of beer).
By finding new places to play and sharing the information, it opened up more avenues for punk shows. All the bands were interested in finding more places to play and, in return, they would help out the out-of-town bands when they rolled into their hometown. The bands would also inevitably sell each other’s records while out on the road. This practice would later become most common; indeed, it would be most unusual to attend a hardcore show without seeing a distribution table. Selling records, fanzines and T-Shirts was how bands made their money on the road. This was a safer option than relying on cowboy promoters or disgruntled bar owners to pay the bands (which was not uncommon – some bands booked their shows under false pretences while other times the venues were destroyed). The audience for hardcore punk was generally younger and, therefore, it wasn’t commercially enticing for bar owners to let punk bands use their venues as they wouldn’t make profits on selling alcohol. This would prompt bands to play all-ages shows at every available opportunity, even if this meant performing two sets; one for the youngsters and one for the drinkers. These younger fans, however, were generally more motivated than their elders, most of whom had grown up at the tail end of the hippie dream and were jaded by the excess of 70s stadium rock. These same young fans would form their own bands and create their own zines. Zines would spring up all over the country, covering not only Black Flag but the bands that they inspired, helping to create a network of punk bands and fans throughout the nation, meaning that other bands could follow the trail that Black Flag blazed.
While the Dead Kennedys and D.O.A were cut from the same sonic and philosophical cloth (fast, loud, aggressive punk with progressive left-wing political views – “Holidays In Cambodia“, “California Uber Alles“), Black Flag were by far the most adventurous and aggressive when it came to touring. They were the first to tour all the way out to the east coast and in December 1980, they arrived in Washington D.C. At the time, Ian MacKaye (front man of DC straight-edge punk heroes Minor Threat and owner of Dischord Records), having read an review of Nervous Breakdown in Slash, acquired himself a copy from the SST mail order catalogue and went to see the band at the legendary 9.30 Club. Mail order was a particularly effective means of distributing records, as it required no payments for space in a record store, cut out the ’middle man’ in terms of paying a third-party company to distribute the records, and they could also heavily promote new and up-coming SST releases by including new and updated catalogues for the readers’ delectation. Their in-house fanzine was also distributed this way, including news on all upcoming releases and scheduled tour dates. The mail order method also allowed people from all over the world to access the records and contributed significantly to the network of contacts throughout the country. Indeed, it was after selling records through mail order that Black Flag were invited to England for their first tour in January 1981, which turned into an utter disaster. Back in Washington D.C, after meeting the band and watching their performance at the 9.30 Club, Ian MacKaye formed Minor Threat and started Dischord Records, a label that has been putting out records of an exceptionally high standard for over 20 years.
In January 1982, Black Flag would issue what would later be seen as the seminal hardcore punk record, Damaged. Merging the sonic blitzkrieg of their earlier material and the animalistic horror-filled vocal styling of front man Henry Rollins, Black Flag created one of the most violent and exhilarating records ever released, hardcore or otherwise. The subject area was familiar; police harassment (which was common at punk shows), materialism, alcohol abuse, the stultifying effects of consumer culture and, on just about every track, a particularly violent strain of lacerating self-hatred. It was at this point that the band began to make further inroads into the world of relative acceptability. The record was picked up by Rolling Stone magazine, a publication more au fait with the likes of Deep Purple and their stadium rock ilk. The L.A Times also picked up on the disturbing violence of the record, which was explained in the characteristic matter-of-fact tones of Greg Ginn: “People work all day and they want a release. They want a way to deal with all the frustrations that build up. We try to provide that in our music.”14
Black Flag and SST were the pioneers of underground hardcore punk in the USA. Their influence is visible throughout the worldwide punk scene today and they have sold more records since their dissolution in 1986. They inspired people across the country to start their own bands, fanzines and record labels. Jello Biafra was moved to start Alternative Tentacles, his own fanzine and record label used as a vehicle to promote his band The Dead Kennedys. The band and the label would later gain a degree of mainstream notoriety after the release of the Dead Kennedys’ Frankenchrist album in 1985, which included a gatefold poster of the Penis Landscape, a controversial painting by progressive visual artist H.R Geiger. The controversy and subsequent court cases, brought on by the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Centre), the right-wing conservative think-tank headed by Tipper Gore, almost crippled the label and led to the break-up of the band, who were one of the most powerful and influential voices within the punk scene. However, the irony of an anti-capitalist band breaking up over financial irregularities cannot be ignored. Alternative Tentacles, while no longer existent in traditional fanzine form, is still releasing challenging records by challenging bands, most notably 2004’s release of Fuck World Trade by New York’s Leftover Crack. By engineering relationships with fanzine writers and DIY promoters throughout the country, Black Flag created a support network for underground punk bands that is still in evidence today.
California’s Burning – Key Zines
As we have seen, California was a key territory in the evolution of underground hardcore punk. With its history of activism and huge population, California would seem to be a natural home for the malcontents and agitators so active within the scene. As such, it logically follows that some of the most popular and influential of all US fanzines were started in California.
The influence of the early UK fanzines such as Sniffin Glue was massive. Producing a zine was so simple, all one needed was an idea and a photocopier, that people began publishing zines all over the country. The cut and paste technique gave people all over the country the opportunity to have their voices and play an active role within the punk scene. With a population as large as the United States, zines became an essential means of communication between the various pockets of punks and groups throughout the provinces of the US.
Flipside fanzine played an integral part in the evolution of LA hardcore punk and alternative music. It was one of the biggest zines and also one of the first zines to gain nationwide distribution. Bands from California would take copies of the zine to sell on the road. It was also one of the first to feature bands from across the States, especially those that were affiliated with SST, particularly New York’s Sonic Youth, as opposed to concentrating solely on the happenings in its own locality. It was published in LA from 1977-2001 and featured all of the important and influential punk bands to come out of LA and the surrounding areas. They were one of the main supporters of Black Flag in the early days and provided them with all-important press coverage, as they were virtually ignored by the mainstream music press. Indeed, as one of the longest running and most influential of all US punk fanzines, Flipside would extensively chronicle the world of independent and underground music throughout its lifespan. The inspiration for the zine came, like many others, as direct result of dissatisfaction with the commercial rock world.
“We were bored with corporate rock and looking for something new, so
when Lester Bangs started ranting and raving about The Ramones, we sat
up and took notice. At the same time, Rodney On The ROQ offered us a
glimpse of an exciting alternative music springing up outside of our safe
little suburban existence.”15
As is the case of most fanzines, the writers of Flipside were often as passionate and opinionated as the bands and the punks that they catered for, and were not afraid of causing controversy with their coverage of the issues that affected the punk scene, be it the continually violent clashes with the LAPD, the rise of the Neo-Nazi or ‘White Power’ skinhead punk scene or the castigation of bands that strayed from the independent music scene into the murky world of the major labels (although this really wasn’t an issue until the early 1990s). The fanzine not only gave coverage to obscure and small bands, but acted as a forum for discussion for participants in the scene, dedicating vast sections of the publication to readers’ letters and the inevitable replies that would follow in subsequent issues. The issues covered were not limited to punk rock, extending to a wide and diverse subject matter such as the UFO phenomenon, the prevalence of drug use/abuse within the scene, literature and independent film.
During its lifespan, Flipside would frequently produce their own records and issued releases from a number of bands including Doggy Style, Sluts For Hire and Popdefect. While these bands are undoubtedly obscure to even those deeply involved with the scene, their existence would have slipped by unnoticed save for those who saw them perform live had Flipside not immortalised them in print and on vinyl. Both the fanzine and the records are a fascinating snapshot of the time. Such is the immediacy of response of the zine, and its quick publication turn-around, the commentary contained within was relevant immediately to what was happening in the scene at the time. This process of documentation not only captures some fantastic music, but also shows the changing values and ideas. As the scene grew, with more bands forming and more people getting involved, the zine not only played a crucial role by distributing important information about the scene; from record reviews, interviews with the bands and gig dates, but also provided a forum for the discussion of punk ideology. While to state that there is one unifying punk ideology would be folly, the pages of the zine were filled with theoretical and philosophical debates, often inflammatory, about what does or does not constitute ‘punk’. These arguments were often without foundation and more resembled transcripts of a naïve hypothetical argument, but that was beside the point. The point was that the dialogue was there and the zine provided the forum for these discussions long before the dawn of the internet chat room. Crucially, Flipside also contained reviews and contact information of other fanzines from around the country, encouraging its readers to seek out these zines in order to generate a greater understanding of the intricacies and nuances of the nationwide scene. These connections would prove invaluable when it came to organising tours and promoting records, as most zines would happily offer cheap advertising space to independent labels. Coverage for bands in these zines was also essential, as a good review in Flipside would virtually guarantee a receptive audience in whichever town they happened to roll into.
Flipside was not only active in providing a forum, promoting new music and releasing records. They also organised shows and were active in supporting, and encouraging others to participate in, such charitable causes as Food Not Bombs.16 During the mid 1990s, they also organised and hosted a series of festivals in the depths of the Mojave Desert, featuring bands that they themselves released as well as a number of leading lights from the burgeoning underground scene.
Perhaps most famously (and most sought after by collectors and aficionados), they also release the Flipside Video Fanzine series which featured rare and unseen live footage of such hardcore luminaries as Black Flag, X, Social Distortion, TSOL (True Sounds of Liberty) and Agent Orange. The label would later fund and release Stereopathetic Soulmanure, the first full-length album from Beck, who would later go on and sell millions of records for major label Geffen Records. Interestingly, Flipside were never paid for their efforts in producing the album and resulted in a big loss for the label, putting further strain on the already over-worked and understaffed fanzine. The rights to the back catalogue recordings were eventually bought by Geffen.
The zine itself ceased publishing in 2001 due to financial problems and a protracted legal battle with their distributor, Rotz Records. It had grown from a small DIY photocopied fanzine into something more resembling the commercial music magazines they so decried in the first instance. This is unsurprising, as changes in the cultural climate and the expectant standards of the consumer are inevitable. It also reflected the changing state of the punk scene. In the late 1970s and 1980s, making a career out of something as anti-establishment and commercially unviable as punk rock was nothing more unimaginable. In 2008, punk bands are used to sell video games and participate in tours sponsored by beer companies and car manufacturers. In the end, the zine struggled to cope with the financial pressures of being a widely-read DIY publication in an evolving cultural landscape. However, what started as a photocopied zine and evolved into a half-glossy, semi-professional publication had faithfully served the punk and alternative music scene in LA for 24 years. For its rabid and faithful readership, it was a disappointment, the end of an era and a footnote in punk rock history.
Following the demise of Flipside, staff writer Todd Taylor went onto start Razorcake zine, first published in 2001. At this point, with the growth of the internet and the increasing availability of digital media, the DIY scene was increasingly being viewed as too ideological and too much hard work. With this notion in mind, Taylor went about creating an ideologically and economically sound publication covering the DIY punk scene throughout the world. Razorcake, along with its parent company Gorsky Press, pride themselves on their hard work and high quality products. Gorsky Press has published twenty books since 2001, covering a wide genre range from short stories and novels to science fiction and poetry, and the fanzine has published forty-two issues since it first went to press. To quote Todd Taylor;
“It’s all about self-sustainability. Being DIY is a political act in itself.
Independent distributors are being swallowed up by the corporations,
Like how (Razorcake distributor) Lumberjack was swallowed up by Warners. Publishing the zine is an end in itself; it’s about reactingto the wider cultural blindness and creating a positive perception.We have become a nationwide punk rock family. We are real people involved in a real culture.”17
Maximunrocknroll started life as a punk rock radio show hosted by Tim Yohannon in the politically active college town of Berkeley, California and has now grown into the biggest punk rock fanzine in the world. Indeed, if such an idea wasn’t considered anathema in the punk scene, it could be interpreted as being the voice of punk authority (this view is not without controversy, as I shall explore further). The show was one of the first punk radio shows to be broadcast, along with Rodney on the ROQ, is a widely considered to be the best of all time. “Tim (Yo!) and the Gang” played all the latest punk and hardcore records they could get their hands on from all across the world and the United States, as well as records from the plethora of new punk bands from the bustling East Bay scene. Tim would be regularly joined in the studio by a variety of colourful East Bay punk personalities such as Jello Biafra and would feature whatever touring bands happened to be passing through the area, the list of whom reads like a ‘who’s who’ of US punk bands. The show was most notable for its coverage of the international scene, which was rare at a time when most zines and radio shows were concerned with what was happening locally. The show became hugely successful in California and was eventually syndicated across the vast American college radio network, which was essential in order to break new territories across the country. Pioneering Radio One DJ John Peel would introduce many of the bands featured on the show such as The Circle Jerks, Millions of Dead Cops and The Dead Kennedys to a UK audience that would never had heard them otherwise, except for reading about them in the zines.
Maximumrocknroll is best known in its fanzine form, first published by Tim Yohannon. It first appeared in print as the newsprint booklet contained in Not So Quiet on the Western Front, a 47-song compilation album of Nevada and California punk bands released by Alternative Tentacles in 1982. While this album is long out of print, it created a massive buzz within the US punk scene and turned thousands of youths onto the virtues of hardcore punk. These same listeners became the first readers of the zine, opening up a dialogue that continues apace today. The zine is distributed monthly and is operated on a non-for-profit basis and all money goes straight back into the production of the zine or to charitable causes that the zine supports. Maximumrocknroll has a large and dedicated staff of writers, reviewers and editors that work on a volunteer basis, and this reinforces the values of the punk underground by remaining staunchly independent in a time where many underground music magazines are being swallowed up by major media conglomerates. Many of the articles are submitted by readers themselves, such as interviews with touring bands from around the world and their acclaimed series of ‘Scene Reports’. These are features written by readers from around the world detailing the happenings in their local punk scene, regardless of geography. The submissions are accepted from all over the world, bringing together news from scenes as distant as Malaysia, Eastern Europe, Japan, South Africa and, indeed, anywhere where there is an active punk scene. In this sense, Maximumrocknroll is truly revolutionary and a worldwide phenomenon, opening doors for bands and fans from all over the globe to make connections and share discussions. These scene reports keep the worldwide punk scene connected. Crucially for many smaller zines, Maximumrocknroll also carries reviews of zines from around the world. While the reviews are far from universally complimentary, the mere fact that the zine is mentioned is guaranteed to attract interest from other readers. This would become a trend; a good review of a band was guaranteed to prompt more people to check the band out, thus generating interest and helping the cause of the band. As such, the cycle continued and the scene would continue to grow.
The zine is notoriously independent-minded and operates a policy of not giving coverage to, nor accepting submissions or advertising, from any bands associated with or recording for major record labels. This policy was soon extended to bands that were signed to an independent label that had any kind of distribution deal with a major label, or bands that were signed to an independent subsidiary of a major label. This has caused much controversy throughout the years, most notably in the case of Green Day, who went from independent punk heroes to social pariahs after signing to major label imprint Reprise Records to release their third (and hugely successful) album Dookie in 1994. Green Day’s meteoric rise to mainstream chart success brought the inevitable independent backlash, but it also attracted thousands of youngsters to the day-glo delights of the buzzing Bay Area punk scene. This was of little consequence to Maximumrocknroll, however, as while Green Day had strayed little from the sonic blueprints of buzz saw guitars and poppy melodies, they had forsaken their independent roots and were now considered the enemy. This had led to accusations of elitism in the punk scene, a charge that Maximumrocknroll accepts and appears to wear as a badge of pride.
The case of Green Day acted as a catalyst for the massive explosion of interest in the punk scene. Like the phenomenal success of Nirvana’s major label debut Nevermind, the quality of the music came secondary to the arguments and accusations of ’selling out’. This explosion in punk’s popularity in the early 1990s is a direct echo of what happened in the late 1970s in the UK, with major labels descending upon Berkeley in search of the ‘new Green Day’. While there were some fine punk bands signed to major labels as a direct consequence of this new interest, such as The Mr. T Experience (who would play arenas supporting Green Day in 1995) and Jawbreaker, very few found themselves experiencing the same kind of commercial success as Green Day and were hurriedly dropped by their record labels once the executives realised they couldn’t make millions out of DIY punk bands.
Regardless of the ideological debate, the fact remains that Green Day’s success led to the punk scene exploding and becoming a mainstream concern. The underground zines, Maximumrocknroll and Flipside included, set about turning this now-found interest into something positive for the scene. For many years, Maximumrocknroll turned a healthy profit, although most of this money was invested in community projects, most famously the ‘Gilman Street Project’, which founded 924 Gilman Street, one of the most important and longest-running punk rock clubs in the world.. The club operates a strict all-ages policy and serves only soft drinks, not allowing for the sale or consumption of alcohol. The Gilman Street staff are all volunteers and are paid with a percentage of door takings. Also, tickets for the shows are never more than $5, regardless of whether there are touring bands or a host of local bands on the bill. The zine also poured thousands of dollars into ‘The Epicenter Zone’, an independent record stores and gig space for punk bands in San Francisco, and hundreds of other community projects and activist groups around the world. Following the death of Tim Yohannon in 1998, the zine has continued to operate with essentially the same manifesto and economic principles. While there have been umpteen different content coordinators and editors, Maximumrocknroll continues to provide in-depth and up-to-date analysis of the worldwide punk scene in its 164 page monthly publications.
While being a bastion of the DIY punk ethic, Maximumrocknroll has not escaped without criticism for those involved in the scene. The zine distributes more than 60,000 copies every month and the growth in size and readership has often caused controversy. The zine has been accused to narrow-mindedness and elitism in respect to its editorial policy, causing some record labels to boycott taking out advertising with the publication and refusing to send new releases for review. These criticisms, however, would seem to be somewhat inefficient, as for every label that feels at odds with MMR ideologically, there are a number of other tiny record labels vying for the advertising space and exposure that this affords their bands.
Also, the spectre of ‘punk authority’ hangs over Maximumrocknroll. In a scene that is supposedly so anti-authoritarian and anti-institutional, it has been criticised for being the authoritarian voice of punk rock. However, this proved to be another evolution in the dialogue of punk ideology, for the criticism of Maximumrocknroll spawned the creation of Punk Planet and HeartattaCk fanzines. Both of these publications stand in direct contrast to the idea of authority within the punk scene and have provided useful and candid commentary on the evolution of the scene and the ideas contained within it. They argue that the narrow definition of what constitutes punk and DIY by Maximumrocknroll is tantamount to a new form of political correctness. Musicians have also found themselves fighting back against the moral proclamations of the fanzine. Jello Biafra, previously a darling of the zine, was attacked at 924 Gilman Street during a performance in 1994 and claims that those involved were influenced by the defamatory comments made about him in a previous issue. Green Day maintained a dignified silence after the toilets were spray-painted with the words “Billie Joe Must Die”. However, they have since reconciled with the venue and the Gilman Street Project and recently bought them a new PA system before a gig by frontman Billie Joe Armstrong’s side project, Pinhead Gunpowder.18
Sub Pop and the Seattle Grunge Explosion
Subterranean Pop was the fanzine started by a student named Bruce Pavitt from Park Forest, Illinois. In 1980, after moving to the college town of Olympia, Washington, and working as intern at college radio station KAOS and it’s sister newsletter publication OP, Pavitt decided to launch his own fanzine in collaboration with new friend Calvin Johnson. The fanzine was originally designed to fulfill an outstanding college credit, but would go on to have a massive cultural impact worldwide. Like many fanzines, the life of Sub Pop was short. While there were only ever nine issues, three of these came in the form of compilation cassette tapes, featuring bands from the local scene with the printed zine folded up as the cassette inlay card. This was a practice pioneered by Alternative Tentacles and would remain popular throughout the 1980-90s. Sub Pop (the title was shortened after the first issue) would play a pivotal role in bringing underground punk into the consciousness of the mainstream by being the first fanzine and record label to bring attention to a band from the Pacific Northwest called Nirvana. In 1983, Pavitt moved to Seattle, Washington and Sub Pop continued as a column in city newspaper The Rocket and branched out as a speciality music show on the KCMU college radio network in Seattle.
Sub Pop would focus exclusively on independent underground rock from throughout the USA and was one of the first to view the growing underground network of bands, fanzines, college radio stations and clubs as a burgeoning underground phenomenon. While the scenes in LA, New York and San Francisco, all sprawling urban landscapes and hives of cultural activity, were well-documented by innumerable fanzine and writers, Pavitt was determined to create a “decentralised cultural network” of like-minded people in the provinces of the States outside of what he called “the corporate manipulation of our culture”.19 The Pacific Northwest has always held a strong tradition of independent rock, from 1960s garage rockers like The Sonics and The Kingsmen, but also had a strong relationship with hardcore punk. Perhaps due to geographic and cultural isolation, Seattle harboured a sense of artistic freedom, with the local press and radio stations happy to get involved and support the local scene. Local radio station KJET-AM would regularly play demos from local bands alongside the usual raft of mainstream commercial rock music. Several key punk record stores were happy to take 7-inch singles and demo tapes from bands on consignment. Pavitt himself would play a key role as a clerk at Bomb Shelter Records as well as overseeing the release of an EP from local visionaries The U-Men. The record swiftly sold out of its 1000-copy press run, setting the tone for Pavitt and his hyperbolic involvement in raising awareness of the scene. Local fanzine Backlash, printed in newsprint style by Dawn Anderson, provided comprehensive coverage of the area’s live scene and upcoming record releases. Outside of the metropolitan urban centres, Seattle boasted one of the closest-knit and productive underground scenes in the country. With this in mind, the next obvious step in the evolution of Pavitt’s Sub Pop was to release records from local bands.
Pavitt was keenly aware of the importance of regional identity. LA was synonymous with the hardcore blitzkrieg of Black Flag, the East Bay with buzz saw pop-punk and thrash metal, New York with art-rock and hipster bands, and Texas with the acid-fried desert rock from the likes of the Butthole Surfers. These scenes were represented by their own localised network of fanzines, venues and labels, creating a sense of identity and unity. As such, Pavitt was determined to carve a local identity for the Seattle scene. This definition of the ’Seattle sound’ or ’mountain-man rock’ would eventually explode into mainstream consciousness as the world’s music media descended upon Seattle in the early 1990s as part of the ’grunge explosion’, following Nirvana’s major label sales success. Pavitt was methodical when considering the aesthetics of the zine and the label. Everything from cover artwork to promotional materials and band photography was manipulated in the same monochrome cut and paste visual style, with the label’s logo featuring prominently. This gave the zine and the label its unique identity. In much the same way as a good review from Maximumrocknroll will guarantee interest or a record released on the universally-respected Dischord label (home of Minor Threat, Fugazi and more) will find an audience, this identity served as indicator of independent authenticity and quality. This was branding; Pavitt was effectively using major label marketing skills and applying them to the world of underground punk.
Sub Pop’s first release was a compilation 12-ich LP called Sub Pop 100 and featured local luminaries such as Green River (members of whom would later form the multi-million selling behemoth Pearl Jam). It was released in 1986 and is now considered an essential document in underground history. The fanzine then turned into a fully-fledged record label with the release of Soundgarden’s Screaming Life EP in 1987. However, what marked Sub Pop out as being unique in the independent landscape was not only their adherence to a strict aesthetic identity, but their pioneering Sub Pop Singles Club mail order service. Fans could subscribe to the club and receive monthly 7-inch singles from the newest Sub Pop bands. This would prove remarkably efficient as subscription fees were paid upfront on an annual basis, giving the label the capital necessary to record and press the singles before sending them out. This also guaranteed a captive audience for new bands and developed a market for Sub Pop products, as well as going further in establishing the ‘Seattle sound’. Seattle would go on to become synonymous with Sub Pop, much as the sound of Motown Records had come to define the sound of Detroit in the 1960s. The first single to be released by the Singles Club was “Love Buzz/Big Cheese”, the debut single from Nirvana20. The series continued in its original incarnation until 1993, when financial pressures on the label necessitated its demise. The club was reintroduced as Singles Club V.2 in 1998, but was discontinued in 2002.
Nirvana was the most successful of the Sub Pop bands. After releasing their debut album Bleach, which cost only $600 to record, they were signed to a major label record deal by Geffen Records. Bruce Pavitt was largely responsible for the subsequent boom of interest in the Seattle music scene as he had spent a considerable amount of time, resources and money in romancing the British music press, which he saw as infinitely more influential than the underground network in the US. As such, Sub Pop flew Melody Maker journalist Everret True to Seattle so he could see the burgeoning Seattle scene for himself. Consequently, the ‘Seattle sound’ found fame worldwide with the birth of ‘grunge’, a term employed to describe not only the dirty, fuzz box-driven noise of the music but also the attendant lifestyle. By courting the major labels and corporate music press, Pavitt was not only raising awareness of the underground scene in Seattle, but bringing attention to the underground network nationwide. This would cause a great deal of controversy, especially within the more militant publications such as Maximumrocknroll.
Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, was released by Geffen on September 24, 1991. This day can be seen as the beginning of the end of the underground scene as it existed throughout the 1970s, 80s and early 1990s. Nirvana’s sound, a blend of raging hardcore punk and Beatles-esque pop sensibilities, was the perfect antidote to the bland commercial hair metal so popular in the early 1990s. The album topped the Billboard 100 music charts within weeks of its release, spurned by the continual airplay of lead single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on both commercial and college radio stations and the continuous rotation of the music video on MTV. Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson off the top of the charts, a sea-change for the underground scene. Echoing the major label scrambling of late-1970s London, the major labels descended upon Seattle like cultural vultures searching for the ‘next Nirvana’. Suddenly, after years of struggling to develop an underground network underneath the mainstream radar, ‘alternative’ rock was everywhere. Rolling Stone magazine was paying attention, thus bringing the underground to mainstream attention all over the country. Independent rock suddenly became a profitable proposition, in direct juxtaposition to the previously held ideals of independent rock; that it was economically and commercially hopeless, but was a necessity fuelled by passion and an impeccable DIY ethic, that it was about art for art’s sake. To quote Steve Albini, sought-after producer of Nirvana’s last album In Utero, as well as countless others, from an interview in Punk Planet zine;
“I saw a lot of friends and acquaintances turn their bands which were
previously something that they did out of passion into a shot at small
business…In the course of doing it, they ended up hating their bands
in the way hate I used to hate my job, because it became something
that they had to do: it was an obligation.”21
Since the explosion of grunge and Nirvana becoming household names, there underground rock scene has changed considerably. Sub Pop signed a distribution agreement with the Warner Music Group Corporation in 1993 and has made millions of dollars from their agreement with Geffen Records for the rights to Nirvana’s debut album. Warner also owns a 49% share in Sub Pop, so it is a matter of some debate whether it can be strictly considered an independent label or not. The label continues to put out records to this day, having success with indie bands such as The Postal Service and The Shins in the new millennium. None of these bands, however, have scaled the dizzy commercial heights attained by Nirvana throughout the 1990s.
After Nirvana burst the indie glass ceiling and became the poster boys for the newly-christened genre of ‘alternative rock’, the world of underground punk was forever changed. Previously, nobody in the scene had considered underground punk as a viable career path. Instead it was a labour of love, a necessity to fulfill a deep personal desire for self-expression. Indeed, sometimes it was just for the love of chaos and the lack of anything better to do. Fanzines supported local independent bands and national touring bands. Bands like Black Flag were idolised within the scene, not because of status but because of desire and sheer determination. What bonded the scene together was its sense of community. Within a particular locality, everybody knew who published the fanzines, who put on the shows, who ran the local DIY label, who the bands were. Once the mainstream began to take notice, however, this sense of community began to fade. The desire to affect personal change and create a sense of unity was replaced by the desire to make money and gratify egos. Glossy music magazines, such as Rolling Stone and the New York hipster publication Spin in the US and NME, Sounds and Melody Maker in the UK, all corporate-owned publications, began to feature ‘underground’ rock. The bands that singed to major labels quickly became over-exposed, thanks to blanket coverage on MTV, previously unimaginable marketing budgets and slick radio-friendly production. This led to cries of ‘sell-out’ from the fanzines and fans that had been part of the underground infrastructure. The ‘major versus indie’ debate is one that has raged for years, ever since the first wave of UK punk rock exploded in the late 1970s. Many fanzines, Maximumrocknroll in particular, would dedicate much of their editorial space to reader’s letters concerning authenticity and credibility. These two qualities would become the yardstick by which all bands and records would be judged in the post-explosion cultural climate; whatever the consequences of the explosion, underground punk would never be quite the same again.
Chapter Three – Evolution: From Zine To E-Zine
By the mid-1990s, underground ‘alternative’ rock was everywhere, from heavy rotation on MTV to the airwaves of commercial radio in both the US and the UK. Punk had officially come over ground and was enjoying commercial success. While punk had experienced a degree of commercial success in the UK during its first wave in the late 1970s, this was the first time that punk had pierced mainstream consciousness in the US (perhaps due to their lack of red-topped sensationalist tabloid newspapers) and was enjoying a cultural renaissance in the UK. The suicide of Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain on April 5th, 1994, undoubtedly cast a long in the scene. Underground rock had been ignored by the mainstream for over a decade before Nirvana broke the metaphorical glass ceiling, but by 1994 it was inescapable. Green Day’s Dookie went onto sell millions of records and Los Angeles-based independent punk label Epitaph went on to platinum success with a number of bands, including such indie punk stalwarts as Rancid, NOFX and Bad Religion. Smash, the third album from Orange County punks The Offspring went onto sell in excess of 14 million copies (and is still selling to this day) and is still recognised as the biggest-selling independent album of all time.
Other independent labels have continued to thrive throughout the last decade, including Household Name Records in the UK and No Idea Records in the USA, a label based in Gainsville, Florida. The label, like many, started as a zine in 1986 and started as a label by putting out a complication cassette of local bands. No Idea has been home to some of the most successful punk bands of the last ten years, including Hot Water Music and Against Me!, and hosts The Fest, an annual three-day festival in celebration of all aspects of underground punk rock culture. As well as a multitude of concerts, there are also numerous workshops with activities such as screen-printing, ‘How To..’ seminars, zine symposiums, question-and-answer sessions, tenpin bowling and more, as well as much partying. These activities encourage active participation in the scene and serves to bring the community closer together.
As the 1990s wore on, punk became so ingrained within the mainstream that it became easy to see it as just another sub-genre of commercial rock. However, with the dawn of the internet came a renaissance in underground music. As a means of expression and a communications tool, the zine scene can be seen a precursor to internet, insofar as it concerns the communication and transmission of information. Before there was a network of computers, there was a network of individuals communicating their voices, ideas and opinions through their publications. In essence, the internet is merely an extension of this network. In this respect, it has been said that “zine communities were in some respects mini-webs without an internet; a preview of the web’s informal do-it-yourself paradigm”.22 As the technology for the transmission of information has progressed and become more widely (and cheaply) available, it has made it easier for people to express their own views and opinions. With more people having access to computers and desktop publishing technology, it has never been easier to communicate. Whereas people had previously produced their zines with whatever tools came to hand, namely typewriters, felt-tip pens, glue and photocopiers, individuals can now communicate their ideas immediately by any number of means. It is simple enough if one has the means; all that is needed is a computer and an internet connection. What distinguished zine publishers, however, was the extent of their endeavour in producing, promoting and selling their fanzines; it was a labour of love. The immediacy of the internet is undoubted, in that the information can be edited, uploaded and available for public consumption in a matter of seconds, although one cannot help but feel it lacks a human touch.
As with all other areas of publishing, the internet has revolutionised the ways in which zines operate. Previously, the audience for paper zines was limited by availability. While there was a fervent zine scene, it was a somewhat insular community, meaning that only those with prior knowledge and/or an active interest in self-publishing or the underground punk scene had access to the material. Indeed, of the thousands of zines produced, it would be considered a great success if a zine had a readership in the hundreds. Besides the massively popular international fanzines such as Maximumrocknroll, Flipside and Profane Existence (an anarchist punk zine based in Minneapolis), there were many more specialist and local zines, covering any number of topics, that would only be read by a small interactive audience. The internet, however, contains such a massive expanse of information and ideas that the audience in limitless. Personal websites are essentially an extension of the DIY zine ideal and are, in effect, the 21st Century equivalent of personal zines. Personal zines would contain much the same information that can be found on the typical personal web page; hobbies, interests, favourite bands/authors, and general information about the happenings in one’s life. Just as fanzines and websites are produced individually, they can be recognised as a network by virtue of their connections with each other. Where fanzines would trade reviews and contact information, websites exchange hyperlinks, meaning that they are instantly connected, not only with each other but with all the information contained within. This sort of interactivity is impossible with printed publications; insofar that it may involve considerable effort to trace a copy of an obscure or out-of-print fanzine. On the internet, this information is available at the click of a mouse.
The internet and zines are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they have much for in common than one would originally think. While websites would seem to lack a sense of personal connection and tangibility (in that you can’t hold it in your hands), many cover the same subject areas as physical zines. Indeed, the establishment of the webzine, or e-zine, can be seen as the natural evolutionary step for zines. Both share the same do-it-yourself ideal, and punks have been quick to establish their presence on the internet. The immediacy of the internet is the most prominent benefit. It is easy to simple put a band name into a search engine. Moments later you will undoubtedly receive so many links that it would be impossible to look at them all. This would have been unimaginable in the 1980s, where zines were traded by post and bands booked tours by searching for numbers and using the telephone. The internet has helped the world, the underground punk scene in particular, to overcome the traditional geographic boundaries experienced in the pre-internet days. With instant communications, it is relatively easy for a band from anywhere in the world to arrange gigs and tours anywhere else in the world. Whereas communities were once defined by geographic location (the LA scene, Berkeley, etc), they are now defined by areas of interest. This is true of any niche-market community. The potential for a worldwide punk community united through the internet is limitless, ultimately bringing the punk scene closer and making it easier for bands, fans and labels to stay connected and exchange ideas and information. Indeed, zines which were once limited in terms of availability can now be read by massive numbers of people from all across the world, not merely by a handful of people in a particular locality.
It is fairly safe to say that while fanzines still exist in their traditional form, the internet has had a massive impact on the number and frequency of zines produced. However, zines still do exist and many have taken to using the internet to their advantage. A quick visit to http://www.maxumimrocknroll.com will take you to the homepage of the biggest zine in the world. The website acts as a promotional tool for the physical zine and contains supplementary information that would be impossible to replicate in print. As well as forums for discussion about any variety of subjects, the webpage also contains important up-to-date information concerning upcoming events, video footage from concerts, details about commercial advertising rates, as well as links to all financial statements from the company. The webpage also contains important information for potential advertisers, leaving no room for ambiguity as the advertising policy is stated explicitly. There is also a portal for subscription to the zine. This makes distribution of the zine so much easier, as all a reader needs to do is fill out a basic subscription form with their bank account details and the zine will be delivered monthly to their door. This would have been impossible in the early days of the zine, as the only way to get a subscription was to write to the zine itself. While Maximumrocknroll was available in some mainstream book stores, such as Barnes and Noble in the US and WH Smith in the UK (WH Smith no longer carries the title), subscriptions were its main form of distribution. Still though, it was somewhat a closed niche market.
With its online presence, anybody the world over can order a subscription to the zine, opening it up to a limitless market. Maximumrocknroll is also somewhat unique in that it contains nothing from the printed publication on its website, instead providing previews and ancillary information such as links to MP3 music files and live performances. In this sense, the emphasis is placed on the printed zine as opposed to the webpage; the webpage exists to support the physical zine and is no way a replacement for it. The webpage becomes a ‘shop window’ for the zine. While the online presence can be seen as merely cursory, a token online presence presents an awareness of the importance of the internet in terms of potential growth in readership. Indeed, there seems to be little to lose and much to gain by exerting this small effort.
There are, however, differences in the scene. Much like the ideological differences discussed earlier in terms of Maximumrocknroll and the major record labels, there are those that refuse to make their presence known on the internet. While resisting the natural evolutionary growth of the internet would seem somewhat foolhardy, those who maintain no web presence can be seen as defending their territory and sense of authenticity. To this end, it is no surprise that Maximumrocknroll places emphasis on the importance of the printed zine. It would seem contradictory and hypocritical if it were to move its entire operations into an online forum. This use of the web as a promotional tool allows the traditional format of the zine to continue whilst opening it up to a massive potential market without compromising editorial or ideological integrity.
Maximumrocknroll have not completely dismissed the internet, however. While their own website may merely act as an advertising feature and one-stop shop designed to promote the printed zine, they have spawned Book Your Own Fucking Life23, an all-encompassing resource for touring bands. BYOFL started life as a printed pamphlet from Maximumrocknroll and has now evolved into a massive online resource that is used by bands all over the world. Punks from all over the world have contributed to the online database that features everything from the most obscure venues to the best places to eat in any particular town. This resource is massively helpful for bands when planning and booking tours, and features invaluable need-to-know information for touring bands. It has contact information for friendly punk collectives all over the world as well as crucial information concerning the cheapest places to sleep, the best venues and bands to play with, as well as more specialist information relevant to the scene, such as where to find vegan food shops and cheap travel. The site is maintained on a monthly basis by the San Francisco-based Amoeba Collective and has developed into a massively important online resource with an exhaustive database of bands, labels, venues, zines, crash pads, printers, publishers and punk-friendly hangouts all over the world. The database has become hugely important and is a proud reflection of the sense of community in the punk scene, consulted by bands and artists the world over before embarking on a DIY tour.
As a tool for organising tours, BYOFL is essential, and would not exist without the internet. A resource of this magnitude in printed form would more resemble an encyclopedia or a dictionary, and would need to be re-issued on a monthly basis, thus rendering it antiquated and uneconomically viable. However, by making all of this information available and accessible to anyone free of charge, it serves as an extension of the DIY ideals of underground punk and a credit to the mutual benefits of shared information within the community.
As mentioned previously, however, zines and e-zines need not be mutually exclusive. The internet is available for the process of archiving, meaning that previous issues of a zine can be uploaded to the internet and preserved in digital form indefinitely. While physical archives of zines exist (indeed, I have examined many), they are subject to the same kind of physical decay and depreciation as any printed text. Therefore, by the process of scanning physical zines, archiving back issues digitally and making them available online, the vaults of punk history can be opened for all to see. There are sites on the internet dedicated solely to the digitisation and archiving of old zines24, opening them up to a brand new audience and serving as historical documents for newcomers to the scene, specifically those that were either too young or geographically removed to have experienced and consumed the zines firsthand. Where a zine may have had an audience of only 100 readers previously, the process of archiving the material on the internet means that the content is available to readers all over the world at any time, increasing knowledge and information about the scene to those seeking it. As such, this raises awareness about zines within the wider scene and this exchange of information can only be beneficial.
Digital archiving need not be restricted to the zines of the past. Many zine publishers offer their zine in both formats, such Aberdeen’s Good For Nothing? Collective. As a not-for-profit DIY organisation, they put on shows in and around the Aberdeen area, promote touring and local bands, put out their own records and publish their zine quarterly. While the physical printed zine is sold at gigs and on tour, they also publish an online version on the zine that is available free of charge. Also, the zine can be bought via their website, along with other merchandise such as shirts, stickers and records from their back catalogue. By making the zine available in both formats, they are opening the zine up to the widest possible audience. The punk scene in Aberdeen is one of the most organised and active in the UK, with a number of initiatives operating under the banner of GFN?, including Ethical Aberdeen, an organisation concerned with Fair Trade and environmental issues. As such, the zine already has a captive audience for its physical publication, while the e-zine version makes the information available to the worldwide community out with the city and the scene itself. This appears to be the best of both worlds and the different forms of the zine compliment each other, as opposed to being in competition with each other.
While some zines use their websites as a ‘shop window’, there are other zines that exist in purely online form. This may bring into question the definition of ‘zine’, but these are generally regarded as ‘e-zines’, zines that are available exclusively online. E-zines can accommodate information and features that would be impossible in printed format, from the aforementioned MP3s and video clips to fully interactive online discussion forums. These forums act in much the same way as the reader’s letters pages of traditional zines, although now the interaction is instantaneous, as opposed to correspondence coming in monthly intervals. These e-zines themselves, however, are as different and wide-ranging as their philosophical ancestors.
Punknews25 is a US-based online punk resource for bands, fans, labels and anybody with a passing interest in the world of underground music. It allows users to register and upload their own news and content, although it is first verified by a team of all-volunteer moderators. Along with an encyclopedic database of bands and labels all across the world, both independent and corporate, it features a wide range of streamed music (music that can be listened to online), record and live concert reviews, featured bands and online discussion forums. Readers can also make comments about any of the content, be it reviews, news or the music they’ve just listened to. The site has over ten thousand registered users and is updated at least twice a day. The site is so popular with people within the underground punk scene that it has jokingly inspired its own sub-genre, ‘orgcore’, in reference to its love of all things gruff and melodic (specifically the bands on No Idea Records). Such is the respect afforded Punknews, that bands often offer the website exclusive streams of their new albums and labels are always quick and forthcoming when it comes to providing news and information. The site is also free from corporate advertisers, with all advertising revenue being generated from banners paid for by independent record labels and other associated companies (alternative clothing companies, for example).
There are a number of online resources dedicated to the underground music scene in the UK. Finding out about the happenings in the scene in the UK couldn’t be simpler; it’s just a matter of ‘googling’ a particular city and you will be bombarded with online links to whatever websites feature information relating to the topic. One of the most popular UK-based sites is http://www.undergroundscene.co.uk (UGS), an online resource for fans and bands around the UK, based in Dundee, Scotland. UGS is unique insofar as it provides news and listings, but all of its content is user-generated. Since its beginnings as a university project to promote underground urban music in 2002, it has signed up over 9000 registered members and has internet traffic in excess of one hundred thousand hits per month.26 The site contains not only news, reviews, online listening posts (for streaming new music from featured bands) but also a massive range of discussion forums, covering everything from local, national and international band news, gig announcements, feedback forums, contacts and goods trading, as well as a plethora of other topics. Uniquely, UGS also hosts forums for individual bands, allowing fans of the bands to discuss not only what is happening with their favourite local bands, but also allows for dialogue between fans and bands of widely disparate genres. It also allows bands and artists to communicate directly with their fans on the board, as well as making any announcements regarding upcoming gigs, new releases, etc. This helps to break down the traditional relationships between fans and bands, completely in line with DIY ideology. In the words of founder Kuljit Athwal;
“I wanted the site to be a focal point for local music and to provide a
place where people could come and arrange gigs, meet other people and
even form new bands and initiatives through; a sort of portal so to speak.
The main goal was to make it easier to promote local music in the city and
a way for those in the community to network and communicate with each
Undergroundscene.co.uk has undoubtedly achieved its aims. As a networking tool, it has not only brought the local scene together, but serves as a focal point for the Dundee scene within the wider British music scene. It is a forum where touring bands can find essential information about shows and venues, bands to play with and how best to raise awareness of upcoming shows in the area. The site has outgrown its initial scope, now being concerned with music from across the UK. The site has been active for almost 6 years and shows no signs of slowing down. New members are registering every week and are getting involved, whether it is promoting their own bands or reviewing music from the local scene. UGS has also successfully promoted a number of fundraising charity gigs and compilation records. As such, it serves as a kind of hybrid-zine, being an interactive online user-generated forum concerned with networking and the promotion of underground music. The website and its forums encourage active participation in scene from its users, who in turn support the website by means of voluntary subscriptions, advertising fees (if the user is a band, label or artist) and fundraising concerts (I myself have played at a number of these gigs). It is difficult to imagine how UGS would function and what use it would be if published in traditional zine form.
While traditional zines would feature ongoing debates through reader’s letters, the immediacy of the online forums allows for instant communication and more thorough debate (although this doesn’t necessarily mean more calculated debate!). As well as promoting bands and providing a forum for discussion, the site has also helped influence opinion in relation to such issues as venue closure, business advice and various council initiatives. The Dundee scene has seen a rise in profile over recent years, specifically with the success of local band The View and their rise to national attention, and the arrival of GoNorth, a major national showcase of new and unsigned talent from across the country.28 With this rise in national exposure comes greater scrutiny of the local scene and UGS has provided the perfect forum for up-to-date information, news and debate both about and within the city. This instantaneousness would be impossible in traditional zine form, and serves as a prime example of how the internet can be used effectively to increase the visibility of the local scene without compromising artistically or editorially. The user-based forum technology also allows for immediate intertextuality, as links to specific articles of interest can be exchanged instantly. This, along with new video, music and file-sharing technologies, allow bands and fans to remain in a constant dialogue.
Undergroundscene.co.uk is just one of many online forums available for unsigned and underground bands and their followers. Others, such as Alternative Nation, take a more detached approach, operating their forums on a commercial basis by charging bands and fans to use their web space. This would appear to go against traditional DIY ideology and can be seen as exploitative of young and independent bands with few financial resources. Bands can, however, always opt not to use these services and instead use any of the multitudinous free services available on the internet, such as UGS, The ‘C Board’ (a forum provided by The Collective Zine – a nationwide underground network of punk bands, promoters, writers and reviewers) or the message boards of Plan-It-X Records (a DIY collective based in Minnesota). Ultimately, it is down to the bands and the individuals involved in the scene to make decisions, both practical and ideological, about how they wish to operate within the scene. In the 21st Century cultural environment, where we are constantly bombarded with advertising, marketing and more entertainment choices than ever before, it is important for the underground scene to remain united and to share its vast wealth of information by any means necessary.
The internet has helped revolutionise the punk scene in much the same ways that it has influenced all the creative and media industries. Social networking websites such as MySpace (recently bought by Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire) and Bebo have given bands a new means by which to connect with their audience. Whereas before, bands would have to spend much time and financial resources by sending demo recordings to promoters throughout the country, the process has now been utterly simplified, in that songs can now be uploaded onto the website in a matter of minutes. By having a presence on the internet, even on a site operated and funded by a worldwide media conglomerate, bands are putting themselves into the global marketplace where they can be heard by anybody with an internet connection and the desire to listen to them. New bands are springing up every day and a quick search through MySpace will yield innumerable results for bands within a certain genre or geographical location. This process can be used as a marketing tool, insofar as touring bands can locate fans of their particular genre within an area and add them as ‘friends’ through their MySpace homepage. This allows the bands and fans to create a network based on mutual appreciation and individual musical taste, creating great connections that can be used for promotional purposes. This process serves to overcome traditional geographic and logistic boundaries and also serves to blur the line between the amateur and the professional. By the means available on the internet, a young, unsigned band from the northeast of Scotland is just as capable of building an attractive and interesting website as an internationally-known act funded by a major record label. This applies not only to bands, but to the zines and e-zines that support the underground scene. Like bands, zines are now available to audience far beyond what would have been thought throughout the 1980s, when bands like Black Flag and zines like Maximumrocknroll were pioneering the DIY ideology.
Technological advances have changed the way that we perceive the world. This is as true in our everyday lives as it is within the circles of underground punk rock. All areas of publishing have been affected by the rise to prominence of the internet and the new methods of transmitting information and communication available to us in the 21st Century. The way that we glean information has changed so dramatically that the old methods of communication seem quaint and antiquated when compared to what we now find at our disposal; the internet, mobile phones, satellite technology, email. This evolution in communications and publishing technology would seem to necessitate a redefinition of what we traditionally understand as communications and publishing. To resist these advances in technology would be folly; it would simply see the rest of the world progressing onwards while we remained static. The internet and instant communication tools are a new feature of reality. To deny their existence would be an exercise in self-deception.
The internet has undeniably brought the world into our living rooms. The underground punk scene now exists in a world where it is accessible to anybody who cares enough to search hard enough for it can find it. This, to my mind, is undoubtedly a positive step; the more people taking an active interest in the scene and its ethics can only be a good thing. No longer are hard copy fanzines the only source of information about punk rock, there is a galaxy of information available at our fingertips. However, the rise of the e-zine does not necessarily necessitate the death of the paper zine. There are activists producing zines all over the world. The Good For Nothing? Collective from Aberdeen continue to publish their zine as a means of bringing all the information concerning their various activities together in one place where it can be consumed by a captive audience (at their shows). The zine is also available on the internet, allowing wider audience consumption and acting as an online digital archive. Maximumrocknroll sells more copies every month than it has at any point in its history, with a large proportion of these sales coming from subscriptions paid through their website. That Maximumrocknroll has continued to be published every month for the past twenty-five years whilst still maintaining its lofty (some may argue elitist) ideals is testament to the strength of belief in the underground scene. If the zine had no role to play in the digital age, it would simply cease to exist.
There are undeniable comparisons between the publishing industry and the music industry, in terms of output and consumption. It has been said that the internet would be the death of the physically published book. This, thus far, has failed to come to fruition. While there have been undoubted business successes in the publishing world when it comes to the internet (Amazon, the online bookseller, for example), computer technology has not killed the book. The means of consumption may have evolved, but the end result remains the same; people want access to information regardless of the medium. Books have yet to become a quaint relic of the past; they remain an important staple of our cultural diet. Many of the same arguments in the publishing industry also ring true in the music industry. Many predicted that MP3 technology would signal the death of the CD and vinyl. While it is true that music is being consumed in greater amount via the MP3 medium, thanks to iTunes and other online MP3 providers, people still buy physical albums on their favourite format. Just like there is a feeling of satisfaction and reward that one experiences when picking up a copy of a new book by a favourite author (or indeed when one picks up one’s own publication for the first time), such is the case when it comes to holding the physical object of a CD or record. With the record, you get the full artwork, lyric sheet, ’thank you’ lists and the like. These are things that a downloaded MP3 of an album cannot provide, instead being a digitised representation of the physical artwork, the tangible product. While the market for records may be considered niche, it is still a sizeable and lucrative one. No Idea Records, which began life as a zine in 1986, continues to issue limited edition coloured vinyl to this day. Many of the bands previously associated with the label have gone on to sign with major record labels, like Against Me!, who signed to Warner’s imprint Sire Records. However, No Idea Records retain the rights to issue the vinyl copies of the album, thus satisfying consumer demand and continuing to nourish the underground scene. By making money from the niche market, they are able to support the scene and advance its growth.
Punk rock at its core is an ideology, not a style of music. Zines were the organs through which the blood of the underground was pumped for decades before the emergence of the internet. The core ideas of zine culture remain, albeit in varying formats. Now we have e-zines and printed zines. This equates to a greater number of zines and a greater volume of information being transmitted. The internet has brought the worldwide underground scene together, but this doesn’t necessarily herald the death of the zine. Zines may be a niche market, but niche markets must be catered for. While they may indeed appear as a quaint relic for a bygone age, zines, like vinyl, will always have an audience.
- Fred Wright, The History and Characteristics of Zines. <www.zinebook.com/resource/wright1.html> [accessed 18.12.07]
- Stephen Perkins, Approaching the 80s Zine Scene. <www.zinebook.com/resource/perkins.html> [accessed 12.12.07]
- John Robb, Punk Rock: An Oral History (Ebury Press, 2006), p.204
- Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming, (Faber and Faber, 1991). p.401
- ‘Artist and Repertoire’; essentially talent scouts employed by record labels to look for new bands to sign
- John Savage, England’s Dreaming, (Faber and Faber, 1991). p.594
- Taken from The Sex Pistols, Live at The Winterland VHS video, Fremantle Home Entertainment, 1996
- John Robb, Punk Rock: An Oral History (Ebury Press, 2006). p.305
- Michael Azzerad, This Band Could Be Your Life (Little, Brown and Company, 2001), p.65
- Joe Carducci, Rock and the Pop Narcotic (2.13.61, 1999), p.12
- Michael Azzerad, This Band Could Be Your Life (Little, Brown and Company, 2001), p.33
- Mr. Bali Hai, “Caught on the Flipside”. <www.mrbalihai.com/goof/Flipside/Flipside_story.html> [accessed 01.03.08]
- See <www.foodnotbombs.net> for further information about the charity
- Quote from telephone interview with Todd Taylor, editor of Razorcake fanzine. [04.02.08]
- Punknews article “Green Day buys a new PA” <www.punknews.org/article/28003/>
- Michael Azzerad, This Band Could Be Your Life (Little, Brown and Company, 2001), p.412
- These singles are like gold-dust. Only 1000 copies were ever pressed.
- Michael Azzerad, This Band Could Be Your Life (Little, Brown and Company, 2001), p. 494
- M.P. McHugh, From E-zines to Mega-zines, <http://www.usc.edu/isd/publications/networker/96-97/Nov_Dec_96/zines.html> [accessed 12.02.2008]
- Visit http://www.operationphoenixrecords.com for one of the biggest online zine archives
- Statistics from UGS founder, KJ, in response to email questionnaire [22.03.08] See appendix two.
- The View’s debut album, Hats Off To The Buskers, went straight to number one in the UK charts
Questionnaire posted online at http://www.undergroundscene.co.uk
1. What role did fanzines play in the early days of punk? Do they still play a role today?
2. When punk went ‘mainstream’, how did the fanzine evolve?
3. Do you think fanzines remain an important part of the underground scene today?
4. Does the fanzine have a future?
5. Are fanzines still relevant?
6. Is the internet the ultimate DIY forum?
Questionnaire sent by email to Kuljit Athwal, founder of Underground Scene website (www.undergroundscene.co.uk)
1. When did UGS come online?
2. What were your goals when setting up the site?
3. Do you feel these goals have been achieved?
4. How many people are registered with the site?
5. Do you think the site maintains its popularity?
6. Do you think UGS has played a role in bringing the scene together?
7. Do you think the internet is now the ultimate DIY forum?
Azzerad, Michael. This Band Could Be Your Life (Little, Brown and Company, 2001)
Carducci, Joe. Rock and the Pop Narcotic (2.13.61, 1999)
Colgrave, Steve. Punk: The Definitive Record of a Revolution (Thunder’s Mouth, 2001)
Gilbert, Pat. Passion is a Fashion: The Story of The Clash (Da Capo Press, 2005)
O’Hara, Craig, The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise (AK Press, 1999)
Robb, John. Punk Rock: An Oral History (Ebury Press, 2006)
Rollins, Henry. Get In The Van: On The Road with Black Flag (2.13.61, 1999)
Savage, John. England’s Dreaming (Faber and Faber, 1991)
Hai, Mr. Bali. Caught on the Flipside. <www.mrbalihai.com/goof/flipside/flipside_story.html> [accessed 01.03.08]
McHugh, M.P. From E-zines to Mega-Zines. <www.usc.edu.ids/publications/netwoker/96-97/Nov_Dec_96/zines.html>
Perkins, Stephen. Approaching the 80s Zine Scene. <www.zinebook.com/resource/perkins.html> [accessed 12.12.07]
Punknews article, Green Days buys a new PA. <www.punknews.org/article/28003> [accessed 04.03.08]
Stoneman, Phil. Fanzines: Their Production, Culture and Future. <www.lundwood.u-net.com/fandissy/fdtitle.hmtl>
Wright, Fred. The History and Characteristics of Zines. <www.zinebook.com/resource/wright1.html> [accessed 18.12.07]
Good For Nothing? Zine
Ripped and Torn
Sex Pistols Live At The Winterland. VHS Video (Fremantle Home Enterainment, 1996)
Another State of Mind. DVD (Timebomb Recordings, 1995)
<www.alternativenation.com> Fee-based online forums for unsigned bands
<www.byofl.org> Essential online database for touring punk bands
<www.foodnotbombs.net> Homepage of Food Not Bombs charity
<www.maximumrocknroll.com> Website of the world’s biggest fanzine
<www.myspace.com/gfnrecords> Homepage of Aberdeen’s Good For Nothing? Records collective
<www.operationphoenixrecords.com> Massive fanzine archive
<www.punkandoiuk.co.uk> UK-based old school punk resource
<www.punkinscotland.co.uk> Scottish punk collective based in Fife
<www.punknews.org> Online database of punk bands, labels, venues, etc.
<www.punktastic.com> UK-based punk news site
<www.undergroundscene.co.uk> Online forums serving the underground music scene across the UK.
Telephone interview with Todd Taylor, editor of Razorcake fanzine – 04.02.08
Telephone interview with http://www.undergroundscene.co.uk founder Kuljit Athwal – 07.03.08
Sit-down interview with the Good For Nothing? Collective – 28.02.08