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Fanzines in the Punk Era

The production and self-distribution of fanzines gave them a samizdat quality that appealed to those who saw in punk a seditious spirit. They were ‘underground’ and reported from beneath the media radar. On occasion, fanzines ran into trouble. Use of pornographic imagery could lead to ostensibly sympathetic bookshops refusing to stock titles, as with Linder Sterling and Jon Savage’s ‘The Secret Public’.
© University of Reading

The brilliance of fanzines was that they could be anything. They came in different sizes (depending on the paper); they might be Xeroxed or offset-printed or Gestetnered. In the 1970s, pens, typewriters and stencils provided the text. Images were culled from newspapers, music papers, magazines, photos, books. Sometimes they were just sketchily drawn – traced or copied from pictures elsewhere. Glue or a Pritt stick then enabled the ‘paste-up’ ready for reproduction. Collages became popular, a creative way to represent opinions and extend punk’s bricolage approach. Record and gig reviews imitated diary entries made semi-public. Opinion pieces and reflections on punk’s meaning kindled conversations. There were no deadlines or editorial style to conform to. No censorship. The only limits were contained in the imagination and, more practically, the means of dissemination.

Fanzines Self-Made and Self-Distributed

Fanzines were not just self-made. Initially, and for many fanzine-makers thereafter, they were self-distributed. Often collated at home, fanzines were sold mainly at gigs and at school/college. Record shops became a principal means of disseminating Sniffin’ Glue among others. Rough Trade in London soon took up the task of both selling and distributing fanzines, combining it with their record distribution service that later crystallised into The Cartel. Fanzines began to circulate to independent records shops across the UK and further afield via mail order. Located close to Rough Trade, Joly MacFie’s Better Badges would, from 1979, become the go-to printer for fanzines, doing deals with young punks to help finance production and facilitate wider dissemination.

This applied to fanzine-makers from out of London as well, who often made the journey to Ladbroke Grove to work out sale-or-return deals. But local record shops also became important stockists.

Reader Contributors

As important as the self-generated content, fanzines typically encouraged their readers to write in and contribute ideas, reviews or artworks. Addresses supplied led to correspondence and exchange. Stamps could be soaked off envelopes for re-use; friendships forged networks that expanded over the 1970s and into the 1980s.

Fanzines Shared Punk Ethos

The production and self-distribution of fanzines gave them a samizdat quality that appealed to those who saw in punk a seditious spirit. They were ‘underground’ and reported from beneath the media radar. On occasion, fanzines ran into trouble. Use of pornographic imagery could lead to ostensibly sympathetic bookshops refusing to stock titles, as with Linder Sterling and Jon Savage’s ‘The Secret Public’.

Despite offering a feminist critique of the media, the material was deemed unsuitable by at least one Manchester left-wing book shop. An eager local journalist might also sniff a story, informing local councillors of obscene material that would, in turn, be denounced in the local press (as with Telford’s Guttersnipe). The Free Wheel book shop in Norwich was even raided by police, with copies of The Final Straw seized because it included instructions on making a Molotov Cocktail. Generally, however, fanzines were shared with like-minded punks and helped augment local scenes – you could be a cover star having only played one gig.

Fanzines Constantly Reimagined

Today, in the twenty-first century, technology has changed so much that fanzines might seem a relic of the past. With desk-top publishing and the internet, new mediums are easily accessible and are more far-reaching than those available to young punks in 1977. And yet, fanzines – or zines – remain common, their remit ever-expanding and their designs constantly reimagining the format. Through Riot Grrrl, in particular, zines helped entwine punk practice with a feminist lineage to spectacular effect. Zines are collaborative and tangible, qualities people continue to value. In a way, their limited distribution provides for safe spaces to formulate ideas and discuss opinions. They remain an immediate form of creative practice, perfect for capturing a moment or enabling a voice. As a legacy of punk – even if not a product of punk – fanzines embody the DIY ethos that helped stimulate so much activity in the Sex Pistols’ wake.

Do you think there is still a place for fanzines today?

© University of Reading
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