A month or so ago I was asked a few questions for a university/college essay about the 1980’s fanzine and independent music scene in the UK. In some ways it’s quite scary that people are asking me questions about such things. I mean, it makes me feel old as hell, but on the other it is also rather gratifying. It’s good too that some sort of historical contextualising is going on. Like the interviews that Kevin was doing for the Hungry Beat film (what news on that I wonder?). I would love to see more of those.
Anyway, my responses to the questions are below.
Have you got your own definition for ‘New Pop’?
My own definition of ‘New Pop’ is based on what people like Paul Morley were talking about in the early 1980’s; that kind of music which grew out of Punk but which embraced melody, art and rebellion in more or less equal measure. In many respects it was a redefinition of what had become the New Wave, or at least the extension of that. Andy Partridge of XTC talked about how he thought all the New Wave and Punk thing was rubbish, and how he always thought of XTC as New Pop. Which they were. The New Pop groups plundered from black and white music, made sometimes strange connections whilst all the time wanting to remain commercial and fun. New Pop did not want to sit around sulking in the Underground, it wanted to be in the charts and on the radio.
Can you tell me more about the fanzines you made? Do you remember how and why you started your first fanzine? Where and how was it made, printed, distributed?
The first fanzine I made was in my bedroom, cutting pictures out of magazines, pasting them onto sheets of A4 and hand writing a load of nonsense words alongside them. It was called ‘Been Teen’ after the Dolly Mixture song, and there were, I think, three issues. The ‘print run’ would have been ten copies or so of each, distributed amongst my friends at the parties we used to hold regularly. I would have been fifteen, sixteen at the time I guess. I don’t have any of the evidence for those ‘zines – they were thrown in the trash many years ago, along with the ‘books’ I also wrote to entertain people at those parties. After that I did a series of other ‘zines, in print runs of between 50 and 500. All of them were written out of some desperate need to communicate and make connections. Before the Internet, this was the way that networks were built up. People would write letters and send fanzines, mix tapes, bootlegs, etc. For people like me, living outside of the big cities, it was the only way to make those kinds of links. It was a way of feeling less alone.
Most of my fanzines were photocopied on the local library copier or, when I was in Art School, on the department copiers. Only when I started teaching did I start getting them printed up properly. I remember pretty much everyone used the JUMA printing company – they must have printed up so many music fanzines and other small press publications. I think they were originally in London, then moved to Sheffield. I could be wrong on that though.
Distribution was through the network of friends I mentioned earlier. If you knew someone in a certain town or a city you would ask them to take some copies into their local record store. It was all done on a ‘cash or return’ basis. We trusted each other to collect the cash and send it back. It was small sums, but that trust was important. Some very small labels used the same approach, as an alternative to the Rough Trade organized Cartel or other Independent distributors.
D-I-Y: what does the expression mean to you? Do you do it yourself because no one will do it for you? And do you feel that you actually create(d) yourself through the artefacts you create(d)?
I don’t really like the D-I-Y tag, because it has, in my opinion, come to have a quite specific aesthetic attached to it. A bit like how ‘indie’ came to mean a style, or ‘C86’ became a catchall phrase for a specific kind of guitar indiepop. The big problem with the fallout of Punk and the DIY ethic was that whole ‘anyone can do it’ idea. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. So much of what has been made in the ‘spirit of DIY’ has been appalling.
I prefer the idea of things being hand crafted. There is something more artful about that. DIY suggests hitting nails with big hammers, whereas hand crafted suggests care and attention to detail.
That idea that we create ourselves through the objects we make is very interesting though. And yes, I think that the process of creating those artifacts played a large part in my own personal development. It still does. I tend to define myself by what I create – it’s the mark one leaves behind that matters, I think. It’s that desperate need to prove that you really existed (to paraphrase Ray Davies). To know that someone felt the same and that you connected. Lou Reed said that one of the reasons why he made music was to make people feel less alone, and I think that’s true in what a lot of artists do. Those connections that make someone else feel less alone in turn help the artist. And recognition from those whose opinions you value is a very special feeling.
Can pop ever be anything else than a ‘personal odyssey’? (Why?) Is indie pop bound to be something solitary and intimate, like a secret you can never fully share?
The great thing about Pop, for me, is that tension between wanting to belong and wanting to remain outside of everything. It seems to me that a lot of those songs which people call ‘indiepop’ deal with those kinds of tensions, or at least that the tension is inherent in the way it gets mediated. It’s that collision point between being mass produced and remaining exclusive. Pop is all about mass production, but when you take that aesthetic and you place it within a hipster culture which is all about exclusivity and outsider idealism, then you start to get interesting things happening.
And yes, for me Pop is always going to be about the personal. I struggle to see how it can be otherwise. Even in mass-mediated moments like stadium rock shows which are predicated on the audience sharing a basic common idea or emotion, there must be a multitude of subtly different personal interpretations. Context IS everything, and we all of us bring our own context to our experience of any art form. That’s the point at which all art becomes under the ownership of the consumer. It’s a deliciously unavoidable and inevitable moment. And recorded music, because of the important part the tangible, mass-produced artifact has to play in the process of consumption, is perhaps the best example of that.
How is it that songs can create a new space and a new time? (shaping your (the) world?)
I think this also is all about context and ownership. Again, recorded music does this so well because it is mass produced and easily replicated. Taking recordings into a new context gives them a new narrative, and those narratives are the ones which are made up of a range of elements: the ‘original’ theme of the song is one of these, but just as important are those threads that the consumer brings to the party. This is what gives the song (or more accurately the recording) the ability to inhabit an infinite number of spaces and times. It’s all in the relationship between the recording and the consumer.
What do you write about when you write about music?
I have always written about myself and my life, because that’s what the music has always been about for me. It’s a soundtrack that both reflects and informs my life. I have never pretended to understand music. When musicians talk about notes and chords, I glaze over and start watching the clouds in the sky. I once said that I wrote about music in order to make sense of how I fitted into the world in which I found myself. That’s still the case.
In the late eighties, what were exactly the feelings of indie fans towards ‘older’ indie labels such as Rough Trade or Factory? Was there any sense of indebtedness at all?
I remember in the Sarapoly game (Sarah 50) you could play as a number of ‘indie label moguls’ including Anthony Wilson and Ivo. It was all rather playfully antagonistic. I don’t think any sense of indebtedness crept into it at all. I don’t think anyone felt any individual was owed a debt because they ‘broke down the barriers’ or whatever. Labels were appreciated for the products they had put out, for their attitude etc, but there was not a cult of personality around any individuals. More than anything there was a sense of having a dynamic forward motion; labels like Factory and Rough Trade were a part of the story but people were interested in making their own stories, or in contributing their part of the picture. It was all very recent history then of course too, so no, I don’t think anyone really thought about it. It’s only in recent years with people casting their historical eyes back and re-evaluating things that the ‘importance’ of certain labels or individuals has become a topic for debate. But that’s inevitable. It’s what the passage of time does.
How do you explain the disintegration of the indie scene as it were? (I’m thinking of Creation Records’ slow decay). Do you feel it died the very moment it went public (britpop boom…)?
That’s a difficult one. It is predicated on the notion that there ever was a unified ‘indie’ scene in the first place. Which, as far as I’m concerned, there wasn’t. People hated each other. There were rifts and factions and schisms from the word go. Whenever that word was… Again, it comes back to that collision between mass production / mass mediation and outsider exclusivity. The fracturing of Popular culture has been going on for decades. It reached a point of fluidity many years ago, and the ‘disintegration of the indie scene’ could be seen as being part of that degeneration. The sad thing is that as things became more fractured, people became (have become) more insular and blinkered in their choices. The definition of genre has now become so defined that many people seem to make a conscious decision to limit themselves to one style.
So no, I don’t think Britpop was any more (or less) important a moment in that degeneration than the Stone Roses at Spike Island or The Jesus And Mary Chain signing to a major label or whatever.
The Creation Records story is interesting too. When I read the doorstop book about the label I stopped as soon as it got to Oasis because I was not in the slightest bit interested, but I’m sure there are others who would have thought the opposite, and that is to be expected. Oddly enough I was just perusing the whole Creation singles catalogue at the weekend, and it struck me that you could argue that whichever phase of the Creation history you choose, there were good and bad records in almost equal measure. Deciding which is which is up to each individual, of course. Personally, I loved the early phase with the Jasmine Minks, Loft etc and the later one where they were putting out those great records by Sheer Taft, Love Corporation etc. Interestingly the Creation discography on Tweenet, for example, chooses to erase those records from the list. It’s not entirely clear why, but I’m sure there was a reason.
Was there ever such a thing as an indie pop community / network in the eighties? In other words, is it possible to talk about one united ‘indie scene’ or was it rather a matter of isolated acts and specific town / people / places? WHO did it?
See my point above. But yes, the network was real. Or rather there were numerous networks built upon various strands of taste and culture. Each group of people would have their own network and those networks crossed and merged at various points. It was all built on the mail service of course. And yes, the sense of isolation was perhaps greater, but then again, people were hitching around the country and groups knew whose floor to sleep on if they were doing a gig in a particular town. In that respect I don’t think it’s changed significantly, it’s just that new modes of communication have made it easier. I think that sense of joined up isolation is still there though. I think it always will be.
What role do you think the British music magazines played if any?
There was a feeling of the music press catching up all the time, of them missing the point or what have you. That’s the exclusivity thing kicking in again. There was often a feeling that as soon as a group made their way out of the fanzines and into the music press, then it was time to move onto something else. I am sure this frustrated a large number of groups. The music press certainly helped popularize certain groups and labels, and probably helped them sell more records, which on the whole can’t be a bad thing. Of course this is me talking from the perspective of someone who was to some extent involved in the fanzine culture. The vast majority of people buying the music press and the records didn’t know or care about any of that ‘underground’, which was fair enough.
What were your favourite places to go to gigs and buy records back then?
I was then, and still am, more a fan of listening to records in my own space than of going to gigs. I did like Glasgow Rooftops though, and the club space underneath. Fury Murray’s was okay. Closer to home, the Darlington Hotel in Ayr used to put on the occasional show, and there was a dodgy pub on the road between Ayr and Prestwick where the Jasmine Minks and The Claim played. There was a small record store in Ayr, whose name I now forget. I would buy things from there sometimes, though most of the time I would buy records in Glasgow. There was a small store called A1 I think, which much later became the first FOPP store. It was a really tiny shop just down the hill from the Art school and I spent so much time (and money there). Also some second hand stores near Glasgow Central whose names now elude me.