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13 May 2016

Fans before bands: exploring the roots of punk at the British Library

Of course, an exhibition of peripheral paraphernalia inevitably shifts the focus away from the artists themselves and onto the fans.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

What are the most iconic moments of punk? Punk 1976-78 at the British Library sets them out before you on a neat timeline. 23 April, 1976: The Ramones release their debut album. 20 September, 1976: 100 Punk Club festival. 6 January, 1977: Sex Pistols’s contract is terminated after they swore on TV. 14 January, 1978: Sex Pistols’s last gig.

The exhibition aims to give an insight into all these moments and more via various items from the British Library’s extensive archive: flyers, audio recordings, record sleeves, posters, ephemera and clothing. Loosely organised chronologically, these objects hope to give us a sense of the story of punk. We see the movement’s roots in Situationism in the first anthology of Situationist writings published in the UK – with graphics by Jamie Reid, the man who shaped the punk aesthetic alongside Malcom McLaren.  We see its legacy in magazines covering Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Slits.

It’s a narrow exploration of a movement that extended far beyond these mostly white, male bands. But an exhibition of peripheral paraphernalia inevitably shifts the focus away from the artists themselves and onto the fans: the individuals who collected album sleeves and gig tickets with secretive fervour, who compiled fanzines from scratch, who perceived the cultural moment as one worth preserving. This is Punk 1976-78’s main strength: documenting fandom is as key to the history of a subculture as profiling the movement’s figureheads, and the content of the British Library’s archive collection leads with the former. It builds a picture of punk led from the bottom up.

We begin with Anarchy in the UK: the Sex Pistols’s “official fanzine”. This seems something of an oxymoron, made and designed by the band’s team, but fans are in pride of place. Pistols fan Soo Catwoman stares us down from the cover, and the centre spread features the gaggle of core Pistols followers the Bromley Contingent (members included Siouxsie Sioux and Bertie “Berlin” Marshall), demonstrating just how much fans and musicians overlapped in this period.

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The first true fanzine emerged on 13 July 1976. Sniffin’ Glue was produced by Mark Perry using a child’s typewriter and a felt-tip pen, after he sat the Ramones play at the Roundhouse. Taking its title from their song ‘Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue’, the magazine was a haphazard collection of images and swearwords, bustling with immediate responses to the latest punk gigs and releases, produced under the do-it-yourself ethos of the subculture. The NME labelled it “the nastiest, healthiest and funniest piece of press in the history of rock’n’roll habits”, and the magazine quickly grew from an intial print run of 50 to 15,000. Sniffin’ Glue told its readers, “Don’t be satisfied with what we write. Go out and start your own fanzine.” And they did.

Inspired by Perry, Jon Savage published London’s Outrage at the end of November 1976. Like Perry, he put the magazine together in a few days, immediately after seeing iconic punk musicians playing live: this time, the Clash and the Sex Pistols. He took the name from an existing Sex Pistols’s flyer, which he converted for the front cover. He described his process as follows:

In the lunch hour, I sit on the bog attacking bits of paper with Pritt glue in a very real fever – got to do it now, now. “It” is a fanzine. I need to give voice to those explosions in my head. Cut-up bits of the NME, 60s pop annuals, Wilhelm Reich and “Prostitution” handbills, are slashed together around a long improvised piece about violence, fascism, Thatcher and the impending apocalypse.

In fact, Sniffin’ Glue was followed by an outpouring of zines on display here: Ripped and Torn, Bondage, Sideburns, 48 Thrills, England’s Dreaming, Bored Stuff Till ’77, Strangled, Hanging Around, Gabba Gabba Hey, London’s Burning, Move On, White Stuff, Ghast Up, and Alternative Ulster. As well as immediate reviews and responses, they contained interviews with prominent band memebrs and original photography, plus more niche features. Gabba Gabba Hey, produced in Middlesbrough in 1977, contains an edition with an A-Z of North-East punk bands.

Although initially ignored by mainstream music press, soon the line between underground and overground became increasingly blurred, as it did elsewhere in the subculture. Many of the makers of these zines eventually stopped production to concentrate on their own bands, or became prominent music journalists in their own right. Indie record label New Hormones’s first release was Buzzcocks’s self-funded Spiral Scratch EP; their second wasn’t a record, but a kind of fanzine: a booklet of collages by Linder Sterling and Jon Savage titled The Secret Public that explored gender politics. The second issue changed direction completely, and was a more of a traditional top-down fan newsletter for the Buzzcocks.

Zigzag, a more mainstream monthly music magazine founded in 1969, became increasingly interested in the underground music scene by August 1977, under the direction of a new editor, Kris Needs. The cover on display here features a close-up on the faces of The Slits, who would go on to define the post-punk era.

Some aspects of the original punk artists themselves feel faintly embarrassing in the cold light of day. Sex Pistols’s infamous television appearance, that led to the cancellation of several dates on their Anarchy of the UK tour, sees Johnny Rotten utter the word “shit” with all the sheepish glee of a schoolboy, and feels posed and distinctly unrebellious (even if Bill Grundy still comes off the worst). The glare of television studio lights dims the fire of the movement. But this collection of fan works produced in bedrooms, or after hours at the office photocopier, reminds us that the most iconic punk moments were happening just out of sight.

Punk 1976-78 is a free exhibition on at the British Library until Sunday 2nd October. Images courtesy of the British Library.

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