Zine and done it

The 'fanzine' still has a place in modern culture argues April Welsh, who traces the history of a self-publishing phenomenon

You could say fanzines came from outer space. In the 1920s fans produced amateur magazines like The Comet, in homage to the burgeoning sci-fi phenomenon and their efforts were tagged 'fanzines' by figurehead Louis Russell Chauvenet. A few decades later, Beat writers chose the chapbook as a way of distributing experimental poetry (Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and "Mind Breaths" were among these) and then in the late 60s, a clutch of proto-'musiczines'  (like Paul Williams' Crawdaddy and Greg Shaw's Mojo Navigator) – reared their head.

The rise of the underground press in the Sixties aided the arrival of ‘zine’ culture in the Seventies. Just as the democratic nature of punk taught that anyone could pick up a guitar and start a band – regardless of musical ability –DIY zine communities championed immediacy and positive action, encouraging productive acts of self-expression and self-publication. Anyone could make a zine.

Requiring little more than paper, scissors, glue, a photocopier and an idea, it wasn't long before people began committing their personal, political or cultural ideologies to paper-led testimonies, cutting and pasting nonconformist voices and circulating them where and how they saw fit.

It was, for many, like putting two fingers up to the establishment and an iron clad challenge to society. Regardless of the existence of the internet, printed zines are still a powerful and invaluable form of socially conscious cultural currency. Hardly comparable to the computerised equivalent - the blog! - which, although still a powerful platform for self-expression, is not without its limitations.

The late Seventies spawned a steady succession of incendiary, thought provoking and painstakingly delivered punk zines, all created with the blood sweat and tears of disenfranchised music fans tired of (and excluded from) the mainstream press. Short-lived UK punkzine Sniffin' Glue was instrumental in its chronicling of the era and punk sage Jon Savage produced his zine London Outrage in December 1976. In the US, Punk documented the New York scene with passion and exuberance, and over in San Francisco, V Vale's Search and Destroy was doing the rounds.

Karren Ablaze was a young, eagle-eyed music aficionado living in Manchester in the late 80s. Voracious and ambitious, she carefully documented the defining sounds of the post-punk era in her seminal zine, Ablaze!, between 1984-1994. She recalls her first brush with fanzines: “As a kid I hung out in record shops and discovered zines on the counters there. I had little money but they were cheap enough for me to buy and their editors were happy to engage in intense correspondences with me. It didn’t naturally occur to me that I was entitled to join their ranks; I needed to hear the mantra of DIY, it’s easy, it’s cheap, go and do it, before I could start publishing myself.”

She began publishing tentatively - two folded A4 pages photocopied 5 times – then took on a bigger project that involved interviewing all the Manchester bands she could get hold of, just two years prior to the ‘Madchester’ explosion. During its existence she interviewed UK acts like My Bloody Valentine, The Pastels, The Membranes, The Stone Roses, and then as the US grunge and early post-grunge scene began to take shape, she turned her attention to The Pixies, Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Pavement.

“Our first Pavement interview was especially precious. We couldn’t interview them face to face so too make it personal we recorded our questions on tape so they could hear our voices and we theirs. The tape they returned included a song, a poem, a story of bassist Mark Ibold’s favourite train journey, being taken aside by Steven Malkmus as he went to get a beer, and a trip to a hospital that may or may not have taken place (it sounded realistic, but seemed somewhat unlikely).”

Ablaze took a feminist stance, fighting the riot grrrl corner in the early Nineties and helping to bring it to a UK audience. Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill kicked of the riot grrrl stance which had fuelled a lot of zine culture when they first collaborated on a zine called Revolution Girl Style Now. It was a reaction to the blatant sexism rife within the male-dominated punk scene and they went on to form one of the most pioneering bands of the genre. Feminist pop culture zine Bust, which started in 1993, was also rooted in the movement, and is now a respected bi-monthly magazine.

By 1995 meta-zine Factsheet Five – the most comprehensive pre-web zine database - estimated that there were between 20,000 and 50,000 zine titles in the US. By the Nineties zines were certainly prolific, with American zines like Flipside, Punk Planet, Your Flesh, Bust, Chemical Imbalance and, the longest-running music zine ever created, Maximum Rock 'n' Roll (which is still going strong to this day) propping up record stores.

Zines still play an integral role in the grassroots movements of riot grrrl and punk feminism; London based feminist collective Girls Get Busy offer support for female writers, musicians and artists with a monthly zine and there hundreds of thousands of zinesters across the UK addressing issues, laying down values and inciting social change through zine publication. There's London's queer zine and distro Ricochet, Ricochet and UK hardcore zine Modern Hate Vibe well as events like the London Zine Composium, Leeds Zine Fair, South East London Zine Fest, online resource Zineswap, a number of libraries including the Salford Zine Library - which opened its doors in 2010.

Queer Zine Fest London, the first of its kind, will take place on 8 December t Space Station 65 in Kennington, South London. Organiser Charlotte Richardson Andrews says she was inspired to start QZFL while writing an article on queer women in zine culture for DIVA magazine. “During my research, I found that although queer folk are active in zine culture, we’re something of a minority in the wider UK zine scene (probably because we’re a minority in wider society). I was personally tired of trawling through stacks of hetero-normative literature at London zine fairs in search of zines that reflected my experiences. I thought that if I felt like that, it was possible other queer zinesters felt like that too. A festival organized by queers, for queers, in a queer-friendly space seemed like the most obvious, productive and exciting response to this.”

Charlotte says: “For me personally, as a writer and journalist, zines are where I channel all the stuff that’s too personal, ‘unsellable’ or weird to publish professionally. Freelancing can be a very solitary thing; writing, collaborating and contributing to zines is my favourite incentive out of the hermit work bubble. I love the life-affirming community that zine scenes affords, the cultural validation and the friends I’ve forged through it.”

The current social, political and cultural climate has seen a number of grassroots movements come to the fore. UK Uncut, anti-Olympics groups resisting the appropriation of local community space, even JK Rowling champions local community politics in her first adult book, The Casual Vacancy. The Occupy Movement even sprung from a type of zine; the Vancouver-based Adbusters, an anti-consumerist print-based medium which had its origins in the Situationist International Movement of the 60s.

With the continued success of Bust and Venus, you could say zine culture has crept into the mainstream. UK feminist zinesters have even turned a Pussy Riot zine into a Rough Trade art book. But, as Charlotte notes, most DIY zinesters care little about mainstream validation.

“People are drawn to zine communities because they’re seeking answers and voices that they’re not seeing and hearing in mainstream media. Zines can shape social change in much the same way pop narratives shape mass culture. They can open dialogues and fuel movements in the same way that political pamphlets and queercore zines did; writing and reading zines can liberate people in very real, meaningful ways.”

 

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