SMALL PRESS - a subculture of publishers tell it how it is!
by Simon Mitchell (18.09.99) © The Big Issue 1999
About four years ago, standing in the basement of Brixton's 121 Centre watching some ten pence punk band, a hand from the crowd, thrust a newspaper into my own. The cover consisted of New Labour hopeful Tony Blair's face, his mouth and nose transformed into a shaven vagina sucking on his index finger.
In case you missed the point, across the bottom in three inch high letters, was written the legend "CUNT". This was the sixth and final issue of 'Underground', eight pages of off the wall anti-state rant. Depite the mass of political debate that had dominated the mainstream press over Blair's potential, nothing had summed up the feelings of disenfranchised Britons, as accurately as this one word and one picture.
The printing of alternative viewpoints in the form of an underground press can be traced back to when words met paper. Manifestos accompanied popular movements, from the diggers to the peasant's revolt. Dissident publications have provided an alternative to the bland, business backed, sameness of the mainstream press, breaching issues often missed or deliberately ignored by the regular media outlets.
During the Spanish Civil War, anarchist newspapers were printed in converted trucks, at the front, to keep those fighting informed of events and maintain the spirit of revolution.
Nigel Fountain, author of Underground, a book tracking Britain's alternative press from 1966 to '74, sees today's underground press rooted in the rising tide of affluence and dissent of the 1960s. Jim Haines' International Times was one of the first alternative publications, itself borrowing heavily from New York's Village Voice, set up in 1955 by Norman Mailer and an Englishman, John Wilcock, amongst others.
Richard Neville's Oz magazine, soon followed, rapidly catching the wayward psychedelic spirit of the times. Added inspiration sprung from massive anti Vietnam war demonstrations and, crucially, the May 1968 street battles in France. "Nowadays they are described as student uprisings, but it was something approaching a revolutionary situation. The workers got involved and it rapidly became a major revolt which shook the state," says Fountain. That year Black Dwarf hit Britain's streets, its first front page screamed, "London, Paris and Berlin We shall fight them, We shall win!".
The seventies saw an explosion of dissident publications, fuelled by the events of '68 and the realisation of how easy it was to get into print. Jamie Reid, later famed for the Sex Pistols artwork, produced the 'Suburban Press'. Heavily influenced by the French Situationists the magazine's social commentary took the form of pranks.
One memorable example being the fly posting of shopfronts with posters proclaiming: "Special Offer. This week Only. This store welcomes shoplifters." Fifteen years later, John CS Quel from Brecon, would dedicate his fanzine, Hoax, to all forms of pranking phenomena, a veritable tricksters cookbook, despite the obligatory disclaimer saying otherwise.
As the eighties dawned regiments of management photocopiers were put to better use reproducing the hundreds of punk rock, football and seditionary fanzines and pamphlets that sprang from every corner of the islands.
Sunday mornings consisted of wading through pages of unreadable type and indistinguishable pictures in the pocketful of zines acquired at the gig the night before.
The dedication of self publishers was immense and the research painstaking and more often than not unrewarded. Underground publications would cover topics shied away from by the mainstream; class struggle, animal rights, squatting, sexual freedom, anti fascism, conspiracy theories, alternative lifestyles.
They would question the role of the police, the schools, the church, big business and the media. Some, it must be said, were complete nonsense (though took no less effort to produce), others have gained near legendary status. Tom Vague's, Vague magazine (later cited by Loaded creator James Brown as a defining influence on his choice of publishing career) reported on the threat of global manipulation in 1986, a subject that the mainstream is only, just now, daring to touch on.
Parallel to the subversive publications, football fanzines were representing the concerns of fans at individual clubs, tackling terrace racism, boardroom shenanigans and rising ticket prices while the mainstream press did little more than whine about inadequate sentencing for those who trashed the football trains. Likewise dedicated music zines, such as the much imitated US based 'Maximum Rock n Roll' and Britain's 'Problem Child,' offered reportage of the underground music scene, missed by the music press of the day.
Similarly today's underground are consistently broaching subjects avoided by the mainstream press. SchNews is a double sided A4 free sheet covering social justice and environmental issues emanating weekly from Brighton. Opposition to GM foods, road building and the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, could be read about here long before they reached the racks in Smiths.
SchNews' foundations in the direct action network provides the paper with a steady flow of first hand information. Warren, one of a forever changing team of over twenty contributors acknowledges the publications that came before. "Its good to remember you're not the first, there's no point reinventing the wheel." A mind set that seems to have paid off. "We keep SchNews simple, so we can keep it going, keep it free and reach as many people as possible," says Warren. Including hits on the web site, the current readership is estimated at around 25,000.
To get away from the boring, polemical, image that many of the old political underground papers, often deservedly, had , SchNews take a tongue in cheek approach, though the reporting is still more professionally conducted than many mainstream publications. "The idea is to kick people up the arse, so they go out and do something for themselves," says Warren.
Noam Chomsky talks about the 'Western' illusion of a 'free press' being a much more powerful tool of information control than direct state censorship. "Propaganda is to democracy, what a bludgeon is to a totalitarian state," is the way he describes it.
True enough, readers of Soviet Pravda or the Indonesian state press would know to disbelieve the printed word, and try instead to seek out their information by other means. How many in the West question their daily read? "The mainstream press will always service the interests of power," says Chris Grimshaw, editor of Corporate Watch, an underground quarterly from Oxford that spotlights the tightening grip big business has on world events. He reminds us that "the mainstream media are almost exclusively large companies."
Chomsky outlines the desire, of those who own society, to maintain control by depriving the rest of the population of any form of organisation. "They ought to be sitting alone... having drilled into their heads the message, the only value in life is to have more commodities or live like that rich middle class family you're watching [on TV] and to have nice values like harmony and Americanism (wholesome patriotism). You may think in your head there's got to be something more to life than this, but since you're watching the tube alone you assume, I must be crazy."
Unity and empowerment through organisation has been a constant undercurrent in the alternative press. "The great tradition of radical papers throughout history," says Nigel Fountain, "is that they speak to a particular community and make people realise that they are not alone." Peter Pavement runs, underground publishers, Slab-O-Concrete. "The important thing about small scale publishing," he says "is that it may not have an appeal to a hundred thousand people, but it has a much stronger appeal to maybe 1,000 people, to them it's very important information."
He has a point. Readers of Erica Smith's GirlFrenzy, a collection of big attitude comic strips and articles aimed at women 'and the odd bloke' (but unlike any of the patronising 'how to keep ya man happy' lip stick ad drenched women's mags that the National Magazine Company churn out each week) will find a lot more stuff relevant to them inside every issue, than any Cosmopolitan reader will ever find in their magazine of choice.
In a bid to keep everyone happy all of the time, and offend nobody at any time, the mainstream press stays well within safe boundaries. Most people would view The Guardian as radical and The Sun as reactionary. But take a closer look and there is not much between them. Both pursue a corporate controlled, 'free market', law and order backed agenda. Like carrion they feed off each other, recycling the same stories (How many Tim Roth War Zone interviews did you read last month?).
As Pavement says: "To make things appeal to a zillion people they get 'blandified' along the way." He makes the point that, nearly every article you read hinges on the promotion of one product or another, even seditionary activity, when reported, gets compromised to the point that "you can flog jeans with it." "The whole idea of rebellion to the mainstream is as a marketing device," says Pavement. And of course they always have the underground press to get their stories from when they need some anti-state action. Most mainstream papers subscribe to SchNews.
Underground publishing is not restricted to the topic of dismantling society, though the topics covered are often a little too disturbing for the coffee sellers who pay the mainstream's printing costs. Manchester's Homocult published 'Queer with Class' in 1992 their first step in the 'destruction of the moral state'. "Give us your children," it taunted. "What we can't fuck we eat." Investigations included: "I'm a bent bitch: Rent boy takes judge for walkies." Something you'd be unlikely to find in the pages of The Face magazine.
The same could be said for any of the contents of Jim Goad's 'Answer Me'. A US publication liberally illustrated with photos of stabbing victims, containing interviews with Satanist Anton Lavey, KKK grand wizard David Duke and gun toting dwarf rap star, Bushwick Bill, from The Geto Boys. Not forgetting Goad's A-Z of murderers.
Equally personal, though possibly less contentious, are the host of self published zines that can range from diatribes about hitch hiking and Sunday stripping, (Shag Stamp zine) to the ravings of zealous loons (Bugs and Drugs comic). Though often entertaining loons. The last issue of Bristol's B&D brought us the "Fucking Amazing - A Cornucopia of Facts" section, with revelations such as: "Puppeteer Harry Corbett, creator of Sooty, lost both arms in a freak climbing accident at the age of 12. On TV he would wear a prosthetic limb, and the puppets were operated by witchcraft." Mmmm.
Self publishing allows writers to experiment with different formats. 'Dreaming Spires and Flaming Tyres' took self determination one step further with the, four inch square, comic adventure of 'Cop Killer' Jones. Readers made a decision at the end of each panel and were directed to a particular page. Depending on their choices, they led Jones a merry dance of drug taking and insurrection that invariably ended in sudden death or incarceration.
Whether producing serious social commentary or seriously deranged ranting, the two major headaches facing any underground publisher are costs and distribution.
Keen to remain unfettered, editorially, by corporate advertisers most survive on the goodwill of volunteers, benefit gigs, donations and the editor's JSA. Cover prices are often low (many are free) and distribution is done through underground distributors, other zines, stalls and alternative book shops.
Many fold, due to exhaustion on the part of the producers, or are swallowed up (and given a corporate makeover) by the mainstream. Though new zines and papers will quickly fill their shoes. Squall magazine, subtitled 'necessity breeds ingenuity', seen by many as the frontline of direct action and environmental reporting, stopped publishing after the summer of 1997 due to a lack of money. However Squall is back, this time online.
The internet is providing an affordable outlet to the underground press, whilst simultaneously enabling small publishers to reach many more people. Mike Slocombe, puts together Urban75, a web based zine with a huge range of news, features and images on direct activism, drugs, rave, Cardiff City FC and a bunch of connected stuff.
Highlights include the punch page, where you can sit and electronically belt the crap out of a host of, reader nominated, parasites from Ronald MacDonald to Rupert Murdoch. "I used to do a football comic," says Slocombe. "I had to raise about a grand to print them up, then go hawking them round. It was expensive and time consuming." Urban75 takes between 7-10,000 hits a day. Since going online three years ago, it's had five million visitors. "I couldn't have dreamt of reaching that amount of people with a fanzine," says Slocombe. "The site also has more credibility. I can make it every bit as swanky as those whose views I'm opposing. With a zine, no matter how well written it was, the limitations of the print budget means it would always look a bit tatty compared to mainstream publications. This way people are far more likely to read the message."
Slocombe is excited about the web's potential for the underground press. He points out that a search for Nestle could turn up an anti Nestle site. Alerting someone, who may have been unaware that anything was wrong with the company, to their activities. (Though Nestle have set up a response to the boycott site of their own. Better to go straight to: www.gn.apc/babymilk/pages/contact.html)
The added speed of online reportage allows webzines to compete with the mainstream. Within hours of the June 18 Carnival Against Capital, Urban75 had reports and pictures online. Printed underground reports of the Trafalgar Square Poll Tax riots and the Brixton riots of 1981 did appear, but not until months after the events and long after the national press had had their say.
Slocombe disputes the internet's inherent exclusivity. "It's an argument that's getting progressively weaker. There's hundredss of Cyber cafes, students have free access and you can buy an old machine for £200 that will get you on the web. Its not that hard to get basic web skills, or find someone to do it for you. If you're smart you could build the whole site on someone else's computer, go to a cyber cafe and upload it in twenty minutes."
Despite cash and distribution problems, the Underground press in Britain has struck enough of a chord with enough people to be viewed as a threat by the authorities and business interests alike. 'Britain's most Unruly Tabloid', Class War, was quickly fingered as orchestrator of the Trafalgar square insurgence of 1991.
Employer's blacklist organisation, The Economic League, saw fit to publish an (ill informed) analysis of anarchist publications in 1991 fingering Freedom and Black Flag magazines as well as one man Leeds punk rock fanzine, Raising Hell, as a danger to corporate interests. In 1997 editors of Green Anarchist were convicted for 'conspiracy to incite criminal damage'. The same year police seized and pulped 20,000 copies of 'Evading Standards', which suggested the general election had been cancelled. Numerous other campaigning journalists have been arrested, had film destroyed and equipment taken.
At the end of the day, the mainstream just don't get it. They have neither the sincerity or the imagination of the legions of underground publishers. Where the underground is angry, the mainstream is aloof. Where the underground is sincere the mainstream is cynical. Where the undergound seek to inform, the mainstream merely conform.
Hoax magazine's disclaimer used to say: "Any similarity between people and places in fiction and semi-fiction and any real people and places which may exist is purely coincidence, Jungian synchronicity or paranoia. We make no pretence in knowing what we're talking about, therefore many of the facts presented here may be unfounded or mispelled." A sentiment that should be attatched by law to every masthead in the country.
This is by no means intended to be a comprehensive list, just some examples of what is available at the minute. You can subscribe to most of the publications listed and all will lead you on to other interseting stuff. All survive on fresh air and dedication so donations are always appreciated. The underlying message in most though is read - think - act. Have a look and get involved.
ON THE LINE
Webzine covering all sorts of underground connected stuff including activism, drugs, raves, links to other cool sites etc Current highlights: top 10: How to win a Usenet argument and 35 page J18 special, Punch Chris Evans feature that shouts "Ginger tosser!" when you hit him. www.urban75.com
Legendary 'magazine for sorted itinerants' back in web based format. Best of soon to be appearing monthly in print. Current highlights: Squall photo vault, investigation into CIA shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher outside Libyan embassy www.squall.co.uk
Keeping tabs on big business, and the global manipulators. Issue 8 out now (available in print format from: Current Highlights: Return of the MIA and DIY guide to researching big companies www.corporatewatch.org
A mass of information, links and discussion about the kings of culture homogonisation. Current highlights: Tour of McDonalds own website, dismantling the myths on route. www.mcspotlight.org
Bristol based free party scene mag Current highlights: Report from End of the World free party in the Pyranees, good West Country updates and links wwww.cobaltmagazine.demon.co.uk (Print copies available)
Multilingual mailout info service by, for and about anarchists Current highlights: Regular updates on international anarchist activity, available in a host of languages including esperanto www.ainfos.ca/org.html
ON THE BALL
Weekly free sheet bristling with news, events, actions and contacts. Covering social justice, environmental and civil liberties stuff. Heavily plagerised by the mainstream. Subscription: 10 x stamps for ten issues. Readers are encouraged to copy and disribute. Current Highlights: changes weekly but crap arrest of the week is usually good for a laugh Schnews c/o On the Fiddle, PO Box 2600, Brighton, East Sussex, BN2 2DX also available online: www.SchNews.org.uk
Do or Die
'Voices of the ecological resistance'. Annual book size update from the Earth First network and like minded activists. Current highlights: Issue 8 out now inc organised resistance to South African rugby tour of New Zealand Mau Maus and the Gordon Riots Cheque/PO £4 to DoD c/o Tilbury place, Brighton, E Sussex BN2 2GY www.eco-action.org/dod/
West Country Activist
A4 free sheet, similar to SchNews but all about activity in the South West. Current Highlights: Issue 15 just out with stuff about the EF gathering, fur farm demos in Bude and a pantomime cow nicked for mooing in McDonalds. Lots of local contacts / events. subscription: 10 x 2nd class stamps for ten issues. No copyright etc WCA c/o Box 2 , 82 Colston St, Bristol BS1 5BB email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Issue 3 of Bristol's alternative source of news and info just out in new glossy A4 format. Bristle is non affiliated and open as a platform for a range of campaigns and groups. Current highlights: A first hand account on NATO's 'murder of Iraq', Mapu Link on the Mapuche land rights struggle in Chile and nuclear waste trains in Temple Meads . 50p from Box 25, 82 Colston St, Bristol BS1 5BB
OFF THE WALL
Underground publishers featuring some of the best/freakiest alternative books in comic strip and print format. Current Highlights: Bulletins from Serbia - Aleksandar Zograf (compilation of war time email diary), The GirlFrenzy Millenial - Erica Smith (Big Girls annual gone BAD), Arnie Comix - Simon Gane (Drunken anti state comic mayhem) Spy TV - David Burke (hear the Orwellian plans to keep a file on every viewer), Hairy Mary - Craig Conlan (non sensical adventures of big haired HM) email/write for catalogue: PO Box 148, Hove, BN3 3DQ email@example.com www.slab-o-concrete.demon.co.uk
The fanzine of hitch hiker, artists model and club stripper Jane Graham. Current Highlights: Tales of all of the above and punk rock band interviews to boot. Recently relocated from Sheffield to Scandinavia. Contact through S-O-C who have recently published her first book, Floozy.
Bugs and Drugs
Total nonsense liberally spattered with Discharge references and gutter humour. Published in Bristol every seventeen and three quarter months months. Current Highlights: We Hate Mick Hucknall Club, "He's simply a breast." B&D, PO Box 960, Bristol BS99 5QU