On Saturday March 3rd, as part of the Manchester Histories Festival, Dave Haslam gave a talk, A Brief Introduction to Manchester’s Alternative Music Magazines, at the Quaker Meeting House, and then chaired a Fanzine Discussion at Manchester Town Hall, with guests Mike Don, Liz Naylor, Bob Dickinson and Dan Russell, in association with Manchester District Music Archive.

The two events focussed on the era 1970-1984, which was punctuated by the emergence of British punk in 1976.

In the era before punk, alternative magazines such as Grass Eye (1960s) and Mole Express (1970s) covered local politics as well as music and drug-related issues. In fact, drugs seemed to be the binding force within the underground scene, with some factions considering music to be a distraction from the revolution.

Mole Express was never-the-less sold to music fans at the Magic Village club, demolished to make way for the Arndale Centre; Martin X, founder of City Fun in 1978, wrote music reviews for Mole Express in the early 1970s, and Liz Naylor was a big fan of the magazine.

Dave Haslam talked to Mike Don, co-founder of Mole Express in 1970:

Dave: Could you paint for us a picture of the world that Mole Express inhabited in the early part of the seventies.

Mike: The early issues of Mole Express were done in a haze of dope… as to why we were doing it, well, it seemed like fun at the time.

We all got a taste for it working at Grass Eye, the predecessor paper. When Grass Eye folded, through the usual lack of money at the end of 1969, various people who had been writing for it split off in about three different directions, each of them lurking in a bedsit somewhere in Greater Manchester, plotting to bring out a magazine. In the end three different magazines came out at the same time, all unknown to each other, until they hit the streets…

…We were modelling ourselves on things like IT and Friends in London which were not strictly music magazines. Music was important… partly because I was peripherally connected with the Manchester music scene in that I was part of Roger Eagle’s usual back-up team. When he was doing gigs in various places, I would run the magazine stall.

Dave: Tell me a bit more about Roger Eagle… was Roger a contributor to Mole Express?

Mike: Yes… He used a pseudonym – Robert Ching – who was a character in a certain science fiction novel… He was actually editing a fanzine in Manchester before any of us were around called R’n’B Scene… which was how I came to know him. Because when I moved into a bedsit in Fallowfield as a student in about 1965, one day I heard ’50s rock’n’roll blasting out from a flat downstairs… Goes down, there’s Roger Eagle. And I’d actually been a subscriber to R’n’B Scene even when I was still living in Edinburgh. So in a sense I already knew him – by sight. He more or less kicked off the alternative scene in Manchester…

Dave: When Roger was involved at The Magic Village, which was a club around 1969-70 – it was the club where the freaks and the heads… tended to populate – I believe you actually had a stall selling Friends and IT and Grass Eye…

Mike: Yes the alternative press had a certain symbiotic relationship with the music scene then.

Dave: We know that Oz had alot of problems with the police, etc. And looking through Mole Express you can see that the police were very antagonistic towards what was going on in the underground – how did that affect you?

Mike: It didn’t really. I never had my collar felt, which is amazing in retrospect, particularly the time of The Angry Brigade. One issue of Mole Express was laid out in a rather run-down house in Moss Side – belonged to some nice people I knew – I was glad of the help – somebody else to help paste up the magazine… The magazine was out on the street. Two weeks later there was a big story in the papers: eight members of the Angry Brigade arrested in Stoke Newington. I looked at the names and I thought ‘My God, that’s the people that I was staying with’…

Dave: Did you feel there was a network or did you feel like a one-man operation?

Mike: Looking back it seems to have been a bit of a network but it didn’t feel like that at the time. Roger Eagle in music, On The Eighth Day, the University Social Society, all the assorted trots and anarchists that hung about there… Various groups all started at about the same time, and we all more or less knew each other, even if we were going in different directions.

Dave: Why did Mole Express finish in ’77?

Mike: …one of the editorial crew… a community activist… was actually a member of the Liberal Party and was starting to build up a Liberal Party power-base in Moss Side and Hulme… We ran a story exposing him… and he said he was suing the printer…

We changed the name… The City Enquirer – (it was) duplicated – no more than a couple of hundred copies, concentrating on all the gossip and scandal around the Town Hall. And that lasted for three years… more or less on subscription. My inspiration was… Claude Cockburn and The Week which was not a mass circulation thing it was an insider political gossip and scandal column – from the 1930s.

Dave: Could I ask Bob to talk about… the link between Mole Express and City Fun… And could you talk a bit about New Manchester Review…?

Bob: I encountered New Manchester Review in 1977 when I came back to Manchester to live. The review was a fortnightly events magazine based on Time Out… but it had radical news coverage… It had a real interest in music because it would have music listings,… it would interview musicians and that would attract advertising. And also the Review promoted music events at Band On The Wall and Rafters.

Mole Express had an office at 182 Oxford Road where the Review was – 178 next door. Mole Express and the Review knew each other very well… There was another alternative magazine Free Press going at the same time. So there was a whole alternative press scene going in Manchester in the mid-70s.

There were a number of other community magazines – a very vibrant scene in Tameside, Ashton, Rochdale, Bury – the important thing about those community magazines, which were aimed at local working class communities, was that RAP – Rochdale Alternative Paper – owned their own printing press.

If you wrote something offensive, the risk was that the printer could be sued and the wholesaler could also be sued – the way to get round that was to own your own means of production. Lots of other alternative papers took their papers to be printed by RAP and City Fun was one of them.

The Review went through several different printers but we did have our own typesetting operation in the office. The distributors… Surridge Dawson, said ‘If you’re going to have your own type-setters, they’re going to have to be unionised and they’re going to have to be paid the union rate’…. which was more than the £50 that the editors got paid and we the contributors got paid nothing. So there were internal resentments automatically happening because of the ambition of the New Manchester Review to be a commercial success.

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During his introductory lecture, Dave discussed a new wave of alternative magazines, associated with the emergence of punk, such as Shy Talk (run by Steve Shy), Ghast Up (Mick Middles) and Girl Trouble (Paul Morley).

Issue 2 of Shy Talk consisted of: “single sheets, stapled together, printed on a Roneo stencil machine. That’s a review of Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers at The Oaks in Chorlton, March 1977… Morrissey was there of course,… Johnny Thunders being an ex-member of Morrissey’s favourite ever band The New York Dolls.”

By 1978, a new wave of more sophisticated and experimental fanzines were being produced; Linder Stirling and John Savage’s Secret Public, released by New Hormones (record label), demonstrated “a re-affirmation of art-school aesthetics and an introduction of disruptive sexual intrigue.”

City Fun was founded in the same year by Andy Zero and Martin X.

“City Fun was looking to break boundaries just as post-punk music itself sought to break beyond punk formulas and everything was up for discussion. In interviews bands like Magazine and The Passage would talk about books and sexism and architecture and they would debate how society could be organised.”

Dave observed:

“Morley, Middles and Jon Savage; these names… will probably be familiar to you. The alternative press has always been a talent pool; NME recruited from the underground in the early 1970s… and there was always that slippage and linkage… the co-opting of the renegades… and all sorts of ironies abound. But writers moving from local to national have a value in Manchester. Paul Morley’s championing Joy Division in NME was in many ways game-changing.”

I was simultaneously interested by this observation and irritated by the phrase ‘game-changing’. ‘Early adopters’ also made me cringe… I think because it sounds like marketing-speak. So often, academic descriptions of spontaneous human behaviour do seem to have a butterfly-pinning effect on the subject matter. He explained:

“Fanzines tend to be written and read by early adopters; created by malcontents looking to create or define a sense of the alternative – a scene independent of, and often antagonistic to, the mainstream.”

Liz Naylor and Cath Carroll took over City Fun in 1980; the fanzine was sold in Grass Roots Books, The Eighth Day cafe and also at gigs. “Like many fanzines it documents a small world – but ‘small’ doesn’t mean insignificant.”

During the fanzine discussion, Dave talked to Liz Naylor and Bob Dickenson about City Fun:

Dave: Did the magazines actually create the scene as well as reflect what was going on in Manchester? City Fun in particular…

Liz: I don’t think it created it. I think that City Fun at that point was the beginning of a discourse about how to recreate the city. The city at that point, it was like Manchester almost didn’t exist… it was a post-industrial ruin, so we weren’t writing from a position of… being proud of the Manchester scene, because it was growing at that point. City Fun… was very in the camp of The Fall. We were very close to Kay Carroll and The Fall, so I don’t think we ever felt as a collective at that point, at the epi-centre of some vital music scene because at that point the music scene felt like it was just emerging and bumbling along a bit…

Dave: Did it feel like a small world?

Liz: Yes, it was full of petty insults and grudges… yes, it felt very very small.

Dave: What were you in opposition to?

Liz: Tony Wilson.

Dave: …James Anderton – he was obviously and remains a major hate figure. Were you trying to define some sense of an alternative to that…? Was there a battle for the soul of Manchester?

Liz: Well that sounds very dramatic but I think my memory of it is quite dramatic. It felt very frightening actually; well I felt frightened. It did feel like a bit of a battle. Anderton represented The State. It was a funny period because it was just post-punk and that first fire of white heat of punk didn’t feel particularly relevent to what we were doing.

Bob: …The early punk fanzines had – and City Fun had it – this voice – this alienated voice – that goes back to the middle of the nineteenth century – Dostoevsky and people like that – I’m absolutely convinced that this voice is something you get in genuine alternative publishing… City Fun was filled with this fragmented cacophony of different voices – often people who disagreed with each other, didn’t like each other, had rivalries with each other…bickering… it was all there on the page.

Liz: The writing was very instinctive and it wasn’t very thought out – very emotive writing. … For me, fanzines at their best are exploratory writing.

…City Fun had 3 distinct periods. The first one – it’s Roneo, that horrible cheap paper – it’s a collective and it’s run from The Grants Arms in Hulme and a flat on Bonsall Street in Hulme that nobody lived in. Were you involved in that Bob?

Bob: I think that’s when I met you. You recruited me for the beginning of the second version…

Liz: The second bit was where we do a big benefit, The Fall get loads of money for us, and we get an office on Lower Broughton Road… That was where we start to get a visual aesthetic going. And it’s a collective and there’s lots of arguments and Andy Zero, who was the founder, wanted to publish lots of poems, and he did this cover that said “No Hip Groups – No Fashion Guide – No Trendy Posers.” Then myself and Cath Carroll actually hijacked the copy one day and did this kind of Stalinist take-over of the magazine without telling anybody and ran off with it and then me and Cath ran it for 2 years. It was just a split between myself and Cath and Andy Zero and Bob was caught in the middle of it. We ran it until about ’84. Dave had come up with Debris in the meantime – ripped us off – and I went down to London and worked as a press officer for many years…

Dave: In terms of networking, although I was a little bit scared of the City Fun contingent, the fact that Liz went down to London and started working with bands like Sonic Youth, enabled me to start writing about them in Debris…

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Dave began his talk at the Quaker Meeting House by championing the value of fanzines as raw material for social and cultural historians.

He finished by stating that, these days, “cultural production is often highly capitalized and technologically advanced; what could be a more appropriate response than to produce something tangible, bespoke and independent… a lo-fi revolution? A return to vinyl and customising clothes.”

I only partially agree with this: new technology is not expensive to access or use, which is why the fanzine has had its day, in my opinion, as a first choice for communicating information in real time.

However, I’m sure fanzines will continue to be produced as labours of love by enthusiasts, writers and artists… and will retain their value as badges of tribal membership, ideas forums, cultural snapshots and fascinating objects.

Dan Russell explained that, if members of your intended readership visit a particular place on a regular basis, then using that place to distribute a fanzine can work very well:

“There’s so much crap and landfill on the internet that you just would never find stuff… so you can pick up a magazine… the first few issues we did, we just left lying around…”

So in the future, fanzines’ intrinsic value may be that they are NOT available to everyone, but only to certain people who occupy a certain space at a certain time… the complete opposite of their ‘democratic’ roots, in a funny way.

Mike Don, Bob Dickenson, Dave Haslam, Liz Naylor and Dan Russell

See Good Grief! for fanzines and comics, based at The Soup Kitchen, Spear Street.