The Evolution of Fanzines

A look at the history of fanzines reveals more about their writers than the music

The first time I encountered a real fanzine was at a festival. I hadn’t slept for 24 hours, was covered head to toe in what I hoped was mud and feeling the satisfying effects of a large amount of gin. Called Applecore, the small, photocopied ‘zine was thrust into my hands by an ordinary looking guy called Henry, cost me £1 and could easily have been mistaken for a school project. I shoved it in my bag, forgot it existed and three months passed before I finally took a closer look at a form of publishing that has become an obsession.

Within its rough A5 pages I found a new form of writing that I had never considered, which paired music opinion and travel in intelligent diary entries, written with a delicate touch. As I read from cover to cover, questions began to reverberate around my mind; what motivated Henry to write about music? At what point between pressing play and the end of a song did he become compelled to commit his thoughts to the page? The subject spiralled out of control and began to broaden. After all, Henry isn’t the only ordinary listener writing about music, heck, all critics start off their career as amateurs.  So I decided to take a look at the history of fanzines and their offspring – blogs and webzines – to figure out what inspires ordinary listeners like Henry to pick up a pen in the first place.
Fanzines like Applecore first appeared in the 1930s as a product of science fiction aficionados, whose interests were ignored by the magazines of the time. It was a small scene that expanded over the next three decades to include titles dedicated to Blues and Jazz music, before in 1969, a US college student called Paul Williams started Crawdaddy! Named after the club in which the Rolling Stones played their first gig, Crawdaddy! was the first publication, either produced by fans or professionals, to write solely about rock music and paved the way magazines like Rolling Stone and Creem. However, it was the combination of Punks DIY aesthetic and affordable photocopying technology, that lit the fuse under the ‘Golden Age’ of fanzines in 1976. Resulting in an explosion of publications that varied in quality and ranged from anarchic handmade ‘zines like Sniffin’ Glue, to the professional looking Monitor. Who were tied together by the enthusiasm of the articles put together by spiky haired, fetish clad amateur writers who wanted to have their say on Punk and pour petrol on the scenes fire.

This passion attracted Chris Atton – an excitable professor of media and culture from Edinburgh’s Napier University – to the study of fanzines. For over 30 years he has been fascinated by their unique cultural value, “Researching audiences for popular music has still never really been done thoroughly. In fanzines you have a ready-made archive of how people respond to the music.” These responses, as Atton sees them, come in three varieties.
Prof. Chris Atton
The first is “writing about something that isn’t being written about elsewhere,” which isn’t your cue to start writing about why William Shatner is the spoken word poet of his generation, please god no. It’s an approach typified by Cardiff based webzine, God is in the TV, which is run by energetic founder Bill Cummings, who works in PR and puts in an additional four hours a day on editing its output, “We have 100 writers with passionate slant on alternative culture, that look outside the claustrophobic mainstream strand of music and write about the independent scenes where real talent is still being produced.”
The next type Prof Atton describes is “the fanzine used as a form of archive.” Where fans don the hat of Indiana Jones (in their dreams) and pick up the trowel of Time Team’s Tony Robinson (closer to reality) to preserve or rescue musical movements. A perfect example is issue 18 of Applecore, which features a story titled “My Growing Penchant for American Country,” that covers the Carter Family’s 1927 recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee. Hardly mainstream material. Henry, whose earns a living as a supply teacher in Rugby, explains his preference for old fashioned methods, “My dad was a printer and avid collector of music ephemera, so to produce a ‘zine in my bedroom was the way to go. I’d flick through his old copies of punk zines like Search & Destroy, Zig Zag, Sniffin‘ Glue and think how easy it would be to make my own.”
Karren Ablaze
The last of the trio is the “examination of particular artists in forensic detail.” If you do a quick Google search for ‘fuck yeah’ and add a suffix of your favourite band, the chances are their will be an amateur blog dedicated to it. It’s an addiction that Karren Ablaze – the rainbow haired editor of Leeds and Manchester based 80s fanzine Ablaze! – understands all too well, “If I was a kid today with the internet. I’d be sending musician’s obsessive messages for my own personal satisfaction and pester my favourite pop stars daily…twice daily, maybe more. I’d stalk them.”
Luckily for music fans (and perhaps herself), the World Wide Web was still on Tim Berners-Lee’s drawing board when Karren – at the time an awkward school girl – finally plucked up the nerve to get Ablaze! off the ground, “I was a reader of fanzines but it was a while before I got a sense that I could do one. I finally heeded the DIY call when these kids did a radio show, they explained it’s easy, it’s cheap, do it.” Despite having “two centimetres of journalistic skill,” Karren wrote articles which offered readers a fresh approach, “I had a lot of willingness to barge backstage and ask the lead singer ‘Err it’s been a good gig hasn’t it?’ It doesn’t matter; you do things in your own style. People like to read conversations; they don’t have to be clever.”
Karren sold her ‘zine everywhere; at gigs, festivals, in record shops, via mail order, even whilst hitchhiking and managed to sell 4,000 copies of one issue of Ablaze! Her popularity was built on a bratty passion to champion the music she loved; including influential bands like My Blood Valentine Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Pavement. With each issue, Karren’s confidence grew eventually reshaping her into a radical dressing, hair dying member of the Riot Grrl movement, “You’re creating your own world and you get to reinvent yourself as a personality, it’s very playful. Starting out with that blank paper and you’re in absolute control. Everything about it is empowering.”
Despite success, Karren’s ill health in the mid-90s forced her to stop making Ablaze! and fanzines entered a new phase of evolution. The next wave of home writers had come along and chose home computers and the pages of the web to publish their material. Prof Atton explained the reasons for their migration, “The beauty of the web is that its expenses have become part of daily  life. Having a laptop and internet connection is like having a kettle and water. Websites can be updated regularly and writers are not tied to the ‘issue’, so whilst publicity remains a problem distribution isn’t.”
By the turn of the century thousands of untrained writers had flooded cyberspace to have their say. Amongst their number was Bill Cummings, a geeky teen studying at University with a penchant for lo-fi rock, “I started writing for my student newspaper and I needed a put them out for myself. At the time music blogs didn’t really exist, so I set up a very primitive Yahoo site.” Although a fan of blogging, Cummings decided to go a different way, “I made a webzine, because I was influenced by the irreverent and passionate air of old style paper ‘zines like Repeat. It gives us a passionate less serious edge to our content which has more individuality than the mainstream press.”
The sheer volume of amateurs began to impact the value that professional publications had to readers, as Karren explains, “In the 80s I was reading stuff like the NME and Melody Maker, and I just adored them. Back then you starved of info, so those newspapers and John Peel’s show were incredibly precious.” This influx of free information and opinion fundamentally changed this, causing a decline in sales and forced the downsizing of long standing magazines. Prof Atton feels that these professional publications must do more to stand out, “The amount of home music journalism is bound to cause some stocktaking in professional world. Perhaps these individuals have forced the industry to say, ‘what do we have to do to compete?’ The relationship between the two is changing.”
Sales of Applecore are not something Henry worries about, “I feel my job is done as soon as I’ve got that one copy into someone else’s hands. It’s an internal satisfaction I seek.” Despite starting in 2001, the ‘zine only has 21 issues to date and is very much a labour of love, “It tends to take 9 or 10 months for me to publish an issue. I am obsessive journal-keeper and though I work on my writing every day, the hardest part is making it feel like it has some sort of meaning.” His dedication shows. Applecore replaces traditional content, like album reviews, interviews and columns with articles that are littered with idiosyncrasies, humour and charm, “As time passed I begun to include stories and diaries, that sort of content as it interested me more than yet another shitty interview made up of the same questions; How’s the tour? When does the new album come out?”
Henry’s attributes his break with conventions as a reaction against the overwhelming amount of material on the internet, “I’m not a complete luddite. I chose to primarily put my work to paper, in print, as oppose to a digital format because I believe it to be more permanent. Blog posts often get lost in a sea of noise and ultimately forgotten.” Prof Atton agrees with Henry’s assessment, “As listeners move away from print and are enveloped in digitised culture. It’s more likely that the print fanzine, instead of remaining an ordinary way of reading will become highly unusual and special.”
Whilst it’s unlikely that Applecore could gain the same cultural status that Sniffin’ Glue was afforded in the 70s, it seems that printed ‘zines are ready to undergo a small resurgence, similar to that of the vinyl LP. Offering committed amateurs a way to make their writing stand out and more importantly, passionate music readers a romantic experience that sticks around longer than another click of the mouse.