Why Zines Matter to Me

It was 1976 in London. Punk rock was a bubbling undercurrent and bored, disaffected youth were waking up to the fact that they could create their own culture. It was an intoxicating wind of change blasting through a world which had Don’t Go Breaking My Heart by Elton John and Kiki Dee as its soundtrack. The venues hosting punk bands were crappy disused basements or pub back rooms. People made their own music, their own clothes, their own attitudes. They also made their own magazines.

Sideburns was one such zine and included the infamous (and often wrongly attributed) ‘This is a chord, this is another, this is a third, now form a band’ graphic. It was simple enough, so we did.

Our band was shit; not ‘so shit we were good’ shit, but ‘so shit we were properly shit’ shit, but we didn’t care. We came up with a dozen two minute thrash songs and put our name about. Luckily, many other shit punk bands were emerging, and as we all had sets that lasted about 20 minutes, there was always demand for some lower order support acts. We gigged a lot, and probably did get a bit better, but we didn’t take it too seriously. Well, I didn’t.

We recorded a demo, only because we got some free studio time for painting a friend of a friend’s house. One member decided to punt it around a few record companies. At that time, the really good punk bands were being signed up by the majors, and the decent punk bands were being signed up by independents. Being neither good nor decent, we plodded on doing gigs in pub back rooms.

All of a sudden, every half-arsed record label wanted a punk band, and with our demo in circulation we got a call from a label; not a big hitter but a subsidiary of RCA, so it wasn’t too shoddy. Everyone was excited, but I had a decision to make. The band had been a laugh, but I was a crap bassist and a worse vocalist, so I decided to leave them to it and do what I really wanted to do: write.

Writing bizarre and absurd stories in the late 1970s didn’t pay well. Markets were non-existent and popular culture was focused on Jilly Cooper and Jeffrey Archer. With no interweb or thriving alternative culture outlets, myself and a few friends did the only thing we’d learned from punk, and created our own literary zine. We begged favours, borrowed equipment and took liberties to make it happen.

A girlfriend of one of the team worked as a part-time cleaner at a law firm. She would let us into the offices on a Saturday morning so we could use the photocopier. A friend who worked at a school liberated a long-arm stapler and a few boxes of A4 envelopes for us. We’d spend evenings drinking homemade cider and stapling issues together, trimming them by hand with a scalpel.

We sold them at markets, at punk gigs, in pubs, anywhere we could. I always had a fistful of issues with me. If I saw a likely suspect on the street or on the underground, I’d try to sell them a copy. If they had no money, I’d give them a copy. We’d get writers to do readings at punk gigs if they didn’t have enough shit support acts.

We made no money, we gained no fame, we did it because we wanted to, because it felt right. It was hard work but ultimately satisfying.

Today’s world is hugely different. Making ebooks or blogs or websites is relatively simple and cost-effective. There are multiple markets for writing of any genre. We’d have given anything to have the communications and marketing options of today.

Despite this, somewhere deep in my being, I still love a good old fashioned paper zine, put together more with passion and spit and sweat than skill and artistry. Crooked pages not quite aligned, a bit of cut-and-paste, some moments of brilliance combined with a little dribble of inanity. I love zines and will do anything I can to support them. I’ll buy them, talk about them, submit work to them, promote them; I do like a zine.

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