Saturday 19 February 2011

Interview 22 (part 1)

In Part 1 of a two part feature, Alan Rider, creator of the musiczine Adventures in Reality and an agitzine called Not The Jobhunter, talks about his lifetime obsession with zines and what the music scene was like in Coventry, UK.

Please say a little something about yourself and how Adventures in Reality came about.

“I guess I owe it all to a school friend of mine called Nigel. He was one of the early punks and used to get all the singles as soon as they came out then we’d play them round his house after school. He showed me a copy of Coventry fanzine Alternative Sounds, which I read and thought “this is great”. I’d never seen a fanzine before so it was a real Eureka moment. I went into town the next day and bought every fanzine I could get my hands on from the local record shops, read all about the local music scene, then started going to lots of gigs, meeting the editor of Alternative Sounds backstage at a Stranglers gig and volunteering to write for him.

Before long I thought I should have a go myself and started Adventures in Reality. The name of the fanzine just came to me, but also happens to be the initials of my name, so it seemed to fit. It was also how I felt about life at the time too.

The first issue was an A5 photocopied and handwritten affair. It was just a collection of reviews really and not particularly impressive. It was a start though and I put more issues out thick & fast. I liked to experiment with different formats and always included one or more free gifts in every issue. One came with a teabag so you could have a cuppa whilst you read it. Another had a Woolworths staff discount voucher. Toffees, badges, stickers, pull out posters, just about anything went really. They came in polythene bag sand folders. One issue had a nude body painting on the cover which the local community printers refused to print and the shops wouldn’t stock. So I got another printer to print up just the cover and let the community printers do the rest, bought a big box of brown paper bags from a packaging wholesaler, hand screen printed a design on them, then put it all together and sold that issue as a “Plain Brown Wrapper” edition.

I also started doing an Art degree at around the same time and for my end of term show decided (in true fanzine fashion) to ignore the convention that said you had to exhibit your paintings to other students and teachers in a room in the college, instead printing them up as posters and fly posting them in subways throughout the city. My end of term show then required everyone to traipse through these subways looking for whatever posters survived, many of which were defaced with graffiti (which I actually thought improved them!)

That spirit of experimentation and ‘anything goes’ pretty much summed up the appeal of doing a fanzine to me. I had no publishers to answer to, nor anyone to ask approval of. It was up to me. Although it is hard to imagine these days, fanzines were sold in pretty large numbers and distributed worldwide. I sold through records shops such as Virgin, HMV, Tower Records and Rough Trade, plus local record shops across the Midlands. Rough Trade distributed it to its American shops, as did Tower Records and I used a number of small European record distributors to get it into Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Norway, Finland, Italy, France. Some went to Japan and Australia. If there was a record shop on the moon I’m sure I would have got some there too!

I was hearing so much good music that I felt should be released that Adventures in Reality quickly branched out to begin releasing cassettes of local and international acts, then became a fully fledged indie record label. I promoted gigs, did visuals (slides, films projections, etc) for a couple of bands and formed bands myself, touring across Europe. I did a couple of smaller spoof fanzines anonymously (Sticky Fingers, Certain Substances and Negative Reaction), produced a free newsletter, helped run a record and tape mail order distributor in London, and wrote reviews and interviewed bands for other fanzines and glossy magazines.

I also produced an agit zine called Not The Jobhunter, which was given away free to the local unemployed layabouts, druggies and drunks. That was pretty controversial at the time as we’d got some funding to do it from the Queens Silver Jubilee Trust Fund and local politicians were suitably outraged that we had a drugs page in it and were generally rude about the local establishment. The local paper picked up on the story, then national radio and TV. But we didn’t really care what politicians or journalists thought and were even ruder about them in future issues. When the money ran out and we couldn’t give it away free any more we just stopped doing it, so I suppose the system won out in the end.

So you could say that doing a fanzine pretty much took over my whole life for a period!”

For those readers who may not know anything about Coventry, UK, could you please tell us the importance of punk in the provinces? And, the role that zines played?

“Really, really important – though I wouldn’t really categorise the music just as punk. There was a punk ethos certainly, but musical styles varied enormously. Virtually all of the most popular bands came through Coventry, so you could easily see bands like the Dead Kennedy's, Stranglers, Echo and the Bunnymen, Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, Elvis Costello, often on consecutive nights.

There was of course a big Ska thing going on with Two Tone at the time, and it was strange to see members of the Specials at the bar at a local gig one night and on national TV the next night. The big thing for me though was that there was also a really vibrant local music scene in Coventry, Birmingham, Northampton, Leicester and all over the midlands. That existed separately from the Two Tone scene, though there were a lot of links between them.

Musical styles covered everything from Power Pop, electronic and avant garde to anarchist punk, skinhead, metal and reggae. I went to everything, almost every night some weeks. It felt like a real ground swell of activity. Something was happening and it all felt connected, with a lot of links forged between the local scenes in different towns and cities. Fanzines were pivotal in this. They were the glue that connected everything up, offering contacts, information, and a feeling that it all made sense. Lots of new fanzines sprang up at the time. Coventry alone had well over 20 separate fanzines in the period 1979 -1983, with around 17 going at the same time. People didn’t choose between them, they just bought them all. Some fanzines spawned bands that later became well known. Napalm Death was formed by the 12 and 13 year old editors of a Coventry fanzine called Antisocial. They used to hide at the back of gigs and I’d buy them cider.

I guess what I am trying to say is that a symbiotic relationship existed between the fanzines and the bands. Without fanzines, it didn’t feel like anything was connected, but without the bands and venues there would have been nowhere to come together. You could attach all sorts of social significance to that, but at the time it just seemed like a lot of people getting together and having some fun.”

Mrs Thatcher was obviously a ‘hate figure’, but how might you characterize your zines’ political stance?

She certainly was, and it looks like the current Government is going much the same way. In some ways, having such a socially divisive figure heading the Government helped to stimulate our creativity. The ‘Us versus Them’ feeling that existed at the time created a ripe environment for doing something different. Fanzines have a long association with protest as you know, so it seemed absolutely right that they came together with rebellious music against a background of strikes, dissent and (with the Miners’ strike) virtual civil war across the country.

It was a potent mix and being unemployed myself at the time, I had lots of time on my hands to get creating! Having said that, I wouldn’t say that Adventures in Reality was particularly political. I left that side of things for the other fanzine I edited called Not the Jobhunter (see my earlier answer above for details).

The name came from a Government newsletter produced for the young unemployed in Coventry called The Job Hunter. That was intended to promote Government schemes, so what we wanted to do was something that was the exact opposite and celebrate the counter culture that existed in the city. There was a big recruitment drive for the army at the time, so we had a strapline “sign up or sign on” and also a call to arms to “be more than a witness”. In the event I think most of those we gave the fanzine way to were too broke, stoned or drunk to start a revolution, but it’s the thought that counts, right?

Do you have a view on zines today, especially in light of the move into the digital era?

For quite a while I thought that print fanzines were a thing of the past and everything would become online. I’m pleased to see that I am wrong and print fanzines are still out there. In many ways the e-zine solves a lot of the problems that I experienced when doing a fanzine. Despite it being the heyday of music fanzines when we could all get distribution and sell lots of copies, it was still impossible to make any money back from it. It was hard enough getting the money off distributors for the copies you had sold and what with free flexidisc giveaways and printing costs I lost money on every issue and had to organise benefit gigs just to keep it going.

With e-zines there are no printing or distribution costs and you can be as creative as you like. What’s missing though is the tactile nature of a fanzine as an object. There are some crazy things you can do that only work in the physical world. For example, I always wanted to do an issue bolted to a block of wood. The high cost sadly prevented me from doing it (one day maybe), but that’s the sort of idea that can obviously only ever work in a physical medium.

There are some important changes in the nature of fanzines now though. They are more self conscious in a way, very aware of their place as an art form, with far more of them about art itself, craft, film, etc. Perzines didn’t really exist either in the days of Adventures in Reality, though fanzines were very individual and reflected the personality of whoever produced them. They were more radical I think, for the reasons already explained, though I get the feeling there will be more radical fanzines produced as a result of the current political situation. I was encouraged by the recent student protests and the accompanying over reaction by the Police and media. The fact that a lot of people refused to condemn the protests, despite the hysterical media coverage gives me hope that an energetic counter culture will re-emerge.”

What recommendations might you have of zines which you feel are important to include in any history of the genre?

“It’s important not to categorise fanzines as historical artefacts. They are part of a history for sure, but then everything is, but to preserve them in aspic would go against the nature of a fanzine, which is temporary, irreverent, and existing outside of the establishment. Having said that, I am currently writing a book on my experiences and the Coventry fanzine scene, so pass the formaldehyde!

I think you have already captured a lot of the essential fanzines of the late 1970,s and 80’s in your book. I would have included Kill Your Pet Puppy (which also has an excellent web version)(ed. note: included!), Grim Humour and Cloth Ears from Herne Bay, Tongue in Cheek from Leeds, 0533 from Leicester, Damn Latin from Nuneaton, Smart Verbal from Birmingham, Artitude from New York and Music from the Empty Quarter from Ilford.

Although you have mentioned in your book those fanzines that later became glossy mags such as ID and Zig Zag, you might not have realised that Viz Comic actually started out as a fanzine too. I used to re-print cartoons from Viz in Adventures in Reality and I recall Viz editor Chris Donald lamenting the fact that he hadn’t done a music fanzine (though I don’t think he will be too upset about that by now). There were (and still are) lots of Goth fanzines such as Darklife too that shouldn’t be overlooked. That is a really big scene that is international, quite underground, and has spawned a lot of fanzines over the years. Basically Teal, there are tons out there! We could be here all day. None of them should really be left out, but then it’s probably not vital that you include them either.

That’s the nature of the medium. Essential but disposable.

I think that’s a good note to end on.

[See Part 2 for a visual treat of Alan's cover images]