Zerox Machine: Punk, Post-punk, and Fanzines in Britain 1976-88 (Reaktion Books).

There was a time when fanzines represented the purest form of youthful self expression, as Matthew Worley’s book ‘Zerox Machine’ reveals

Charting the history of British punk and post-punk fanzines is, it has to be said, a gargantuan task, and one that it is actually impossible to fully achieve, something which I’m sure Matthew Worley, author of ‘Zerox Machine’, would be the first to admit.  Such was the variety and number, the myriad of cultural, musical, and visual influences, along with the open-ended existential question of whether fanzines were journalism, design, or possibly even fiction?  The refusal to follow rules was what defined the fanzine, achieved with varying levels of success, with failure even being a victory of sorts too.  Fanzines of the time period covered in Worley’s detailed and hugely impressive exploration didn’t aspire to becoming the established press.  They were the alternative, the underground, a snotty two fingers up to the weekly music press, though some of those involved did cross over to the dark side and join Sounds, Melody Maker and NME as ‘proper’ journalists.  They were never as free again.  I can talk with some authority here, having produced one of the early ‘80’s fanzines featured in this book, Adventures in Reality, which is held up by Worley as an example of “youthful ingenuity”.

Flattered though I am by that description, there is far, far more to explore in Worley’s masterful book, ‘Zerox Machine’ (or ’Xerox’ as I would spell it!). In fact, there is a world to explore here which feels alien and anachronistic when viewed through modern eyes. Typewriters? Letraset? Physical cut and paste? What are these things?  Yet fanzines inspired, and continue to inspire, so much in terms of journalistic style and a punk driven design aesthetic. Witness the football fanzine phenomena as just one example.  Diving into ‘Zerox Machine’, which I did randomly at first, so keen was I to see what it covered, is to enter into a long-gone era of rebellious inventiveness, fierce pride and devotion, angry words and sedition, and a true DIY ethos that is simply not possible today.  Fanzines at that time represented the purest form of expression.  Written, produced, edited, printed and sold without seeking permission or bowing to censorship or having to rely on distributors, publishers, or social media conglomerates to get the message across.  The message was delivered physically, often by hand.  Are modern ‘zines continuing that tradition?  Only partially.  The landscape has changed now, so they can only emulate and imitate, no more.

The story starts at the beginning with Sniffin’ Glue, the first true punk fanzine (although fanzines themselves had existed since at least the 1930s),sold at 15p, and credited with starting the whole punk fanzine shebang off, it is often incorrectly attributed with the iconic and much quoted instruction ‘This is a chord . . . This is another . . . This is a third . . . Now form a band.’, which was actually printed in Sideburns. No matter, the touch paper had been lit and there was no going back now. ‘Zerox Machine’ charts the chaotic path of the fanzines’ development from that opinionated beginning, a blast every bit as fierce as the music it covered, through the myriad of ’77 punk zines that followed, through the less London-centric post-punk (’79 on) explosion of fanzines nation-wide, via the increasingly radical political polemic of the Anarcho-punk zines, through to the fading of the ‘golden era’ for fanzines in the mid ‘80’s when, as Worley puts it “punk’s moment receded further into the past” and “the club based rave cultures resonant of the later 1980s generally moved free from punk’s shadow”.  At that point xerox’d fanzines became old hat, part of the past that a new generation of teenagers was keen to rebel against.  Some fanzines continued regardless, or morphed into counter culture bibles like Vague, but most called it a day and evaporated almost as quickly as they had formed.

However, there is a huge and important legacy to capture and a captivating story to be told here, which Worley does better than anyone I know, infusing the text with passion and a genuine love and excitement for the subject. .  There have been previous attempts to catalogue the British fanzine scene, but they have largely limited their scope to the usual suspects; Sniffin’ Glue, Ripped and Torn, Sideburns, Chainsaw, In The City, City Fun, Jamming, and others that are the equivalent of household names in the metaphorical scruffy squat that is the fanzine world.  What Worley has done here is to burrow under the skin of the scene and feature those publications, many of them short-lived, that made up the grass roots level, including my own, unearthing in the process a surprising variety, diversity and quality that simply sticking to the bigger name punk fanzines would have missed.  So we have names like Raising Hell, New Crimes, Autopsy, Trees and Flowers, Alphabet Soup, Kill Your Pet Puppy, Bits, Cabarte, Guilty of What?, Reaction, Toxic Graffiti, Ded Yampy, Fack, Enigma, and countless others.  I’m picking names at random here, as Worley has diligently researched and explored like a latter-day Livingstone, leaving few stones unturned in his analysis. Hundreds are name checked.  As Worley says “fanzines often came alive when they deviated beyond the music coverage to recount journeys into town or thoughts on fashion, films, books and television” and this truly impressive work accurately captures the evolution and devolution of the fanzine from a more rules based ‘punk’ look, into a truly creative and uniquely alternative form of free expression.

To say this book is an essential read for anyone wanting to understand how creativity can spring untrained and unsupported from any street corner goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway!  Your bookshelf has a space just waiting for this, and you won’t regret it filling it.

Zerox Machine: punk, post-punk, and fanzines in Britain 1976-88 is out 1 April on Reaktion Books



Alan Rider

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