fanzine archive interview
The Librarian is a curious chap. He could talk for Scotland unless lucidity was a requirement, in which case any Scottish team he was a part of would be doomed never to qualify for the World Cup and he prefers to hide behind a nom de plume, although he doesn't actually write any of the words over which he presides, being the keeper of The Fanzine Archive based in Edinburgh.
In its introductory letter, The Fanzine Archive claims to have been in existence since 1984 and to contain nearly 3000 publications. I'd never heard of it until the letter arrived, and I've been reading and writing zines on and off for some considerable time. The manifesto sounded interesting:
The purpose of the Archive is to preserve examples of written, independent, popular culture. We believe that they should be preserved for future reference due to the ephemeral nature of a lot of the material.
I'm not a vain bloke, but the thought of Robots.. being preserved for posterity, the subject of some future dry, academic debate was very appealing. ("But Professor, Jimmy Possession's Robots and Electronic Brains was the catalyst for the New Wave Of British Music Journalism. His strict ethic of writing only about the music was revolutionary!") I called the Edinburgh phone number at the top of the letter. Big mistake. I should've written. I barely got a word in edgeways as The Librarian free-formed for 50 minutes, reeling off huge, meandering sentences that often as not took him by surprise, ambushing him mid-flow and diverting him onto some other tack. I'd only wanted to ask about the possibility of an interview. He agreed ("Well I'm always wondering what questions do I have to find answers for in order to write up the information sheets that I've done in the past. 'Cos I do get asked lots of things that I haven't thought about beforehand. As I say to people in letters, if you've got any questions, do let me answer them and I'll attempt to answer them to the best of my knowledge.") and I called him back with a tape recorder running a couple of weeks later. Here's the result.
How did it all begin?
Right. The Fanzine Archive began with myself around 1983. That was when I first discovered fanzines and acquired them whenever possible. Usually local ones and then from that I got the addresses for the rest of the UK. Edinburgh had a small fanzine scene, mostly punk-centred, which seemed to be thriving at the time when I first discovered them which I found in record shops. I didn't get many sold to me at gigs. That came later on. It more or less expanded from my local fanzines to buying whatever fanzines I could lay my hands on from the UK and Ireland.
Did you find the fanzines more interesting than the music they were covering?
Erm. It's difficult to say due to I was buying the fanzines irrelevant of the content. I was buying them as a fanzine not so much buying them because they had a favourite band in. I was buying recordings at the same time but I didn't tend to link them together. I would only buy certain recordings but with the fanzines I would buy all.
What was the first zine you bought?
I'm afraid I'm not able to remember. In the early days I didn't keep a record of what I bought when I bought it. Later on I did. But it certainly would have been, I would imagine, certainly something in Edinburgh rather than something bought around Scotland. The name I would need to check and make up a record at a later date.
Any best guess?
There was a fanzine called Harangue, there was also another fanzine called Head Slamming. They were both your A5 anarcho-punk thing. I'm suspecting it could well have been something of that ilk. It could well have been one of those because they were the two most commonly found. One of them was even distributed in the HMV record shops. It was available on the counter, you merely bought it while you were buying records.
Is that why you bought it, do you suppose?
I was in HMV for another reason altogether and I just came across it by accident. Generally I never knew where the fanzines were to begin with. I wasn't writing to people outside of Scotland.
I was attracted not by the content so much as the style and also the independent nature of it because I know I'm getting something different from the norm and I think that's probably the reason what attracted me more than if it had been mainstream music magazines which were at that time available in the record shops. HMV did their own music magazine, I think it was something like Offbeat or The Beat, and I think Virgin had something similar as well. In Edinburgh there was only the one independent record shop, the others were just mainstream stores and they tended not to have much other than the odd magazine. It was the independent record shops I would've probably got more fanzines from.
What is it about the style that you like?
Erm, I think it's just the difference in the variety of the content and the difference in the variety of the format. Each fanzine tends to be in the eye of the beholder or the maker of the fanzine. They don't seem to follow.. at that time they didn't tend to follow any rules.."
A telling slip there?
Certainly in the early days a lot of fanzine writers were, to my observation, breaking down the boundaries of format and each issue of some fanzines did tend to be completely different to the previous and some editors did get grief because of that. I've certainly knew of one fanzine whom I had heard, not from the editor himself, that the editor got a lot of grief because he made the format a lot different from what the audience, I presume punks, wanted to buy it for. The content was the same but the covering was completely different.
I think that was the attraction because back then computer usage to make fanzines was non-existent. It generally was, I think it is referred to as, glue and paste and that's what tended to stand out with people rather than your mainstream magazines which did tend to follow the pre-organised format having, of course, better money and technology than the fanzine editors had.
Do you think it's still the case that fanzines are interesting stylistically?
I would say some are not because new technology does tend to drain the imaginative way in which fanzines would be produced. Back before computing technology which meant desktop publishing was non-existent for fanzines, people tended to find different ways to lay out and to cobble together the text and pictures in a way that I don't think computer technology can replicate. Computer technology can make things more cleaner and more professional but I do tend to find with publications that when they get better laid out they do tend to be lesser in interest and in originality than when not.
Do you think it's a sign that the content has changed when the layout changes?
Well, you'd still get an interview but I don't think it would be the same as what you would've got before. It depends how people take down the interview. Some people take down all the indiscretions that some editors of fanzines may well remove and I've observed in a lot of the earlier fanzines there'd be a lot of articles about bands or they would be following a band on tour and it wouldn't so much be an interview as a sort of diary and that was sort of haphazard manner. I think now with technology and a different audience writing fanzines with different technology and different surroundings mean fanzines have changed. I think certainly technology has played a large part in it purely down to making it a lot more easier and with the advent of the internet now with internet fanzines it does means it's a lot more quicker and easier. I think in the past when fanzine editors laboured with their non-technological equipment and skills they put more effort into it and more love purely because it took them so long to get something going. There was many a case I read of fanzines being one year in the preparation before they were even printed purely because of the lack of money and the technology.
I suspect with a computer and people producing them it does mean more can be brought out and that might exhaust people than if they didn't have the technology and thus would be bringing them out lesser in number.
Most fanzines that I see these days are still cut-n-paste, I think.
I think it's down to myself observing so many that say they've been done by computer, and you can tell. And also back in the days before desktop publishing you either photocopied it or you printed it. Photocopying tended to be.. many a person relied on their parents at work to photocopy. In fact I'm still getting fanzines which they've been produced by their parents at work. With the printing, it tends to be people with hot metal technology. I find so few printers of that ilk still around today that it did tend to be a more time-consuming job. Also with hot metal you couldn't really get reprints because the plates were so expensive to buy afterwards.
When did you begin to think of the collection as an archive?
It would be probably the end of the 80s. I had been buying virtually any, I hadn't really thought about creating an archive to begin with. It was purely because I enjoyed buying fanzines to begin with for the fanzine style rather than for specific bands and then it grew into a collection which hadn't really been organised. The only organisation is between the ones I've read and the ones I haven't read. I presume at the end of the 80s when I got more secure rented accommodation I reorganised them and then offered the information in the fanzines to the people and the idea of the archive sprang from that. The idea was to offer information or reprints of features in the fanzines to whoever wished it. And that has been done for some people to large and smaller degrees.
So you've been running the archive since the start of the 90s?
I would say it came into what I wanted it to be certainly around then, yes. Because I came into contact with people who wished the information so when people asked for information the archive came from that.
When did you start calling it an archive and sending out the intro letters?
Early to mid-90's. I had a colleague who keeps a cutting archive on 500+ bands. He was happy to help out designing the letters. The letters solely, and still are, to cut down on my handwriting due to the amount of letters that I've written and also due to the time that I have to write them. They're meant as a shortcut to get in response in which normal letter-writing will be resumed. But I am still developing the styled letters. I hope there will be at some point a pamphlet which will be more or less a description of the archive and hopefully all questions answered that might be thought about.
When you decided it was going to be an archive, did you start publicising it?
I did publicise it to the editors that I wrote to. I had been informing people that I bought fanzines of any nature before then but I think officially, by print, the word went out in the 90s. A lot of people do not hear about it because I've only targeted the one source of people whom I know would be able to spread the word and that's fanzine editors. I tended to buy a lot of fanzines in the past through distributors so even though I bought fanzines they didn't always get a information letter or a direct letter from me to them because with distributors it would save myself answering 20 or 30 letters.
Why haven't I heard of you before?
I think it's purely down to myself not making many interviews or not sending out vast mailouts because I've never did that and I have had people ask me for interviews and features and I've tended to send them what material I had at the time. Some people have apparently but I've not seen all the examples.
That's a bit rude.
Well, it's because they said they would use the information and maybe it's the case that they've moved or they assumed they'd sent me the fanzine with my feature in it and they had not. I certainly know of one from Aberdeen and from it bizarrely enough somebody wrote to me who saw the feature and put me in touch with somebody who was doing a fanzine in the early 80s whose collection I bought which was most bizarre because it had been somebody I'd known about and had been trying to track down because he'd moved. Apparently he'd only moved round the corner. It was somebody who I was able to get information about his own one and buy about 100 to 200 of his own collection so that does show that I do get responses in the most bizarre ways.
How many requests do you get each week?
I get so few because most people are not writing to me. It's more word of mouth. At this time I've been assisting, I'd say in the last couple of years about 5-10 people. It comes down to if I've got the information available for them to get reprints. Some people will ask about a certain band and I know where all the information is to get reprints. I am compiling for somebody when I have the opportunity reprints of five to six bands that he wishes all the interviews of and it's more or less because I've not got an index yet for the fanzines I have to consult the most likely fanzines that've got interviews in and there may be some I would miss and because I've got a music press cuttings archive it tends to be reprinting more from that than I would from the fanzines. Some people just want reprints of the entire fanzine and that makes it a lot easier because I can just lay my hands on the fanzine. Until I've got proper indexes, I wouldn't want to advertise too widely because I may not be able to help all enquiries.
What kind of index have you got?
At this time not much at all. I've been trying to convince a colleague to start work on and index but when we're talking of 3-5000 different issues which every one will have to be indexed it's going to be a big job and I know my colleague will be compiling an index for his own bands so at the end of the day there will an index for at least 500 of the bands in the fanzines but at this time it's pretty much myself going through the fanzines and hopefully finding.. I was able to go through a fair chunk of the fanzines and find all the interviews on a band called Rudimentary Peni for a colleague who merely asked.
Whoops! hold on a minute I've got something to do! [muffled voices and clattering in the background] Right sorry, I had to tape something on the radio.
How many fanzines do you add a week?
Err, it tends to be odd figures. Some weeks it will be a hundred or two and some weeks it will tend to be five or six. I think per month, it will be easier to say per month, I probably get 10 to 20 fanzines and this is because my ordering or buying of fanzines tends to be so variable. For instance just yesterday out of the blue I picked up two that I wasn't expecting to get from a shop and today I've had nothing at all. It tends to be whenever I've written off to get some I know about in advance and I've been informed and it's a straightforward ordering and some it's not.
Do you read them all?
They will get all read eventually. Some, I do read immediately I think for some reason or another I do read some immediately. Every one is certainly checked for other fanzine articles so every one is, I would presume, speed-read and then later on I read it more in full but every one is certainly read and then catalogued in a different format to the ones that are not read.
When you say catalogued..
Yes, after I've read it it's put alphabetical but before I've read it it's put in order of when I've bought it. It's purely so I can find things for my stock card system because when it's alphabetical I need to go though a lot but with them being easier to find when you can stock card of when they've come in you can just go through a relevant box and find a relevant one.
Do you collect fanzine directories like Factsheet Five?
Ah, well that's one I encountered when I was staying in London with colleagues and it was something I don't think I ever wrote off to get a copy. I saw them and because it was something that had run into double figures I was of the opinion that I couldn't get back issues. And there was such a volume of information that it wasn't going to be worthwhile to get because a lot of the content may not be UK or Ireland based. I got a complete more or less set by accident from somebody else. I had a phone call from an individual that had got my name from a place that compiled me as a fanzine archive and he was writing a book on bizarre pastimes and presumably the word might obsessional lifestyles or so. At that time I was able to send him a lot of names and addresses of societies of one ilk or another that would be of interest to him. Because he was writing this book he wrote off to all sorts of people and got all sorts of freebies and in the end when he wrote the book he offered me the archive of what he had acquired to write the book and I got it and it's on a shelf in my room and among them was a near-complete set of Factsheet Five so I am going though these checking to see if there are any music magazines or fanzines that I've not got. The other thing that I should be checking is Maximum Rock'n'Roll because in the early 80s they were reviewing a whole lot more than punk fanzines, they were reviewing anything they got sent. It was only later they got into the more punk/hardcore format and stayed with it.
I'm impressed that you do actually read all the fanzines.
Well, every one is gone through and I check for fanzines to buy more fanzines.
So reading the fanzines themselves isn't that important? You mentioned obsessional behaviour earlier and that sounds
Yeeassss. Well, I would say that the reading of the fanzine is not as important as the acquiring of the fanzine because I'm running an archive it's not just myself buying something to read. Originally I read all and then I bought more than I could physically read and now I've got to the point where I am, now let me see, thirteen years behind.
Youve got thirteen years' worth of fanzines to read?
Bloody Hell. [I'm laughing long and hard. The Librarian shouts through his own laughter and mine.]
I've got thirteen years and I know that because they're on my shelf and everything that's on my shelf I've got to read. Don't worry I will read them!!!
So you might read those Robots.. I sent you some time in the next 15 years?
Rest assured they will get read before you die. Of course it's because I'm reading other things. I do buy a lot of other material which I read. I tend to on a daily basis buy one book. I tend to read some quickly and some get put aside to be read later. Some days I'll buy five. I tend to go out and look for a particular subject bookwise and if I'm lucky I can.. and I don't pay more than a pound! This year alone, I've bought at least 140 books and some have been read and some have not been. If it wasn't for my books and also buying a daily newspaper and also non-musical publications then the fanzines would be read a lot more quicker, it's only because I'm reading this stuff.. but thankfully my backlog of non-musical periodicals there's more getting read than acquired so once that's out of the way fanzines WILL BE READ. Some will be a lot easier to read than others because some don't have a lot of content.
I wanted to ask you about the standards of writing in fanzines but I see it's not going to be an up-to-date answer..
Well there are some people who can write that it never ceases to amaze me the entertainment they can offer from the style. There was one I got of which the guy did two issues, and the title might be Rollerball but I can't be sure about that til I find it, and it was about growing up as a unloved adolescent malcontent at school and he wrote in such a bizarre manner that I did wonder why he bothered doing a music fanzine when he could have done a personal fanzine which are more commonplace.
Some do tend to follow a very common format of interview. I actually have read interviews where they moan about people following the same old question-and-answer format. Generally they'll ask them who's in the band, how long they've been going, what records have come out. Ideally it's good if you want to get an idea of what the bands did but I think a lot of editors when they started didn't have a lot of experience of what is decent or proper to ask. I think it's purely down to they've never had the opportunity to do such things. I have actually interviewed bands for fanzines so I have observed from reading similar interviews I have made sure that I have asked questions that would get a more interesting answer and a wider answer than what you would get if you were asking the standard questions. Of course, it does help that I knew the bands anyway so I was able to interview them in a more conversational manner. I have actually seen fanzines where the editor's asked questions that have more words than the answers from the band. I've seen some examples of that. I have seen some bands who do give such a volumous answers that their interviews are a delight to read. There's one band in particular by the name of the Apostles who are now known as Academy 23 and because the individuals are self-taught musicians and writers and they've released at least 12 singles and six LPs out of their own pocket they are firmly and fearlessly independent. And also they've now branched out into the world of magazines. They do a magazine called Smile which is now into its 30th issue and it seems these people are now able to more-or-less able to do the editor's work for him. You can now just fill a fanzine by asking them a simple question and their magazine tends to be 30-40 pages of close text type. It's amazing they have the time to do anything else which shows that some people are making use of their time a lot more productively than some people would be.
Have you got a favourite fanzine?
I can't say I've got any favourites because there are some that I enjoy for different reasons more than some I don't enjoy. I think a lot of them I enjoy them as a favourite in different ways, i.e. the style of the writing, the format, the size, the amusing content. One that springs to mind would be Softwatch, a fazine from Warwickshire where the person set out to give a sort of internet database of what's going on bandwise for the industrial music scene and he bought out a fanzine that would be the size of your Yellow Pages and then he thought right I'd better do updates so he brought out updates that were around the size of Thomson Local. He has actually bought out issues that are enormous. I don't know if he's doing it now I think he's stopped. I think he realised it would be easier to put it on the web. This was in '93 he was doing this. He may well be doing a web site.
Is there literature about fanzines?
There have been books prior to the punk period but nobody has done any great in depth book or any research since the punk period. That's what's surprising and that's what made me think at one point I could have got some book together because I've got the raw data. There have been a couple of books in the early 70s but I think it was more to do with the 60s counter-culture and purely because there was so many things, and of course small in comparison to what's available now, the likes of International Times, Black Star and Oz and of course Friends were more financially stable and they did have a ready-made audience, you didn't need to hawk them around disinterested punks or at gigs. I think these books were merely responding to it. There's one on Pelican Books which is the predecessor to Penguin Books, which is called Outlaws of America which gives a index of titles and contact details at the back. It's a sociological analysis.
Do you see yourself as a social archivist?
I do refer to myself as an archivist and as a researcher and I presume some people refer to me as a curator and a librarian but I don't tend to lend out stuff so I don't look upon myself as a librarian. I take the view that I'm more of an archivist purely because I've bought material and turned it into an archive. It's not a difficult job to accumulate a subject material and turn it into an archive because I keep other archives as well as the fanzine archive and one does tend to lead to another until you run out of space.
Describe the archive to us.
The archive is kept in my bedroom and I'm in a room to which one side of the room has got shelfing up to the ceiling and the majority of my fanzines are in magazine boxes, the ones that you see in libraries that you self-assemble. And I've got shelfing from generally, let me see, generally from 3 feet from the floor up to the ceiling and I've got shelfing either side of the fireplace and the shelfing on one side holds, let me see, it would hold six shelf and to each shelf there's six boxes. On the other side I've had new shelfing put up higher so at this time I've got I would say seven shelfs and they would be holding, they are longer than the other side, they would be holding 15 boxes to a shelf. Now, that entails from 1988 up to 1997. Prior to 1988, that's what I've read, that's in three stackable plastic boxes and I'm cataloguing and checking what I've got after 1997 up to the present day. For some years I'll buy, for example, a lot and other years a little. For example, for January-December 1990 I bought 10 boxes worth. For 1991 I bought 20. Correction. For 1991 I bought four and for 1992 I bought 15. Basically the fanzine archive is all on the shelfs and I'm hoping to have tables underneath where people can come and consult them. At the moment the shelfs have got other things on them but that will be moved off.
What's the earliest fanzine you've got?
The earliest I would have is one from 1968 and it's a, I presume the word would be, hippy-rock magazine. I thing it's quite possible one of the issue of Dark Star which was a rising publication of the time along with Long Stock, Friends and Oz. I do actually buy prior to punk fanzines it's just that that stuff's a lot more difficult and a lot more expensive to buy.
What's the strangest zine?
Umm. Which would be? Strange, em? Ha ha! I have had some with gifts on the cover and I did have one that had a condom given away. It wasn't used thankfully. For others you tend to find some, I presume one of the most entertaining was, what was it called.. it came with a free ice lolly in a plastic container. It was one of those jub-jub lollies and I haven't opened the ice lolly and I have tried to freeze it. It's whether I'm going to keep it in that format for ever. Some have lollies and sweets attached and they tend to stay put. I don't tend to remove the items on the front of the fanzine even if it's a toy car which is one I actually have had.
If someone wants to get in touch, what should they do?
If they want to get in touch or to ask information or if they want to use the archive then to the best of their knowledge they can get in touch by letter. If they want to visit, they're certainly welcome to do so but it would be useful to let me know in advance so I will be around because the fanzine archive even though it is in my bedroom is still an accessible archive so if people know what they want to see or if they just want to see what the archive looks like they're welcome to visit or if they want to have the communication by post they can do so c/o The Fanzine Archive, T/L, 10 Elm Row, Leith, Edinburgh, EH7 4AA.
Phew. The Librarian is, in his own words, "obsessional." In my opinion he is an heroic, eccentric, social historian, a modern-day Noah trawling the country for transient, poorly-photocopied publications from early "hippy-rock" right up to the most recent of today's efforts to put in his bedroom ark. We should cherish him.
(An edited version of this interview was written for Careless Talk Costs Lives, www.carelesstalkcostslives.com)
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