MICHAEL THOMSON recalls an evening with the creators of Vague, an iconic punk fanzine.
Fans of Housmans Bookshop on Caledonian Road will already know that this compact space houses Leftist literature in abundance. Amongst such ardently commie literature is a facsimile edition of the first 15 issues of Vague, an inventive and influential Fanzine from the 80s heyday of Punk and New-Wave. In honour of its release, the original creator, Tom Vague, as well as associated zine creator Tony D, met for a Q&A session hosted by archivists, MayDay Rooms.
I arrived a little early to soak up some of the artistic atmosphere. It is a welcome sight to see the ageing anarcho-punks and eavesdrop on them expressing their dismay at the gentrification of their favourite boozers. Several of them swapped stories from the old days. One wore an aqua blue leather dog collar, matching his spiked bracelets. Whilst this might evoke an often stereotyped scene, far from the bonfire-lighting anti-capitalist figures regurgitated in mainstream media, the wide variety of people here were a welcoming bunch, even offering beers, and moving the Q&A to a pub across the street.
Cue an hour and a half of fascinating anecdotes about the creation of Vague and its sister zines, Kill Your Pet Puppy and Ripped and Torn, the stories circulated on the creator’s crazy experiences following Adam and the Ants in their late 70s/early 80s punk phase, like the one about the time when, following a gig by the band, he witnessed a fight at nearby Stonehenge between punks and a local biker gang. As one of the most widely-read fanzines (the mag found its way to Edinburgh and even New York originating from squats in London’s dingier boroughs), Tom and Tony were some of the only journalists with their ear to the ground, depicting the finer details of punk in all its gory glory. It was an alternative magazine that originated from alternative living. By residing in squats in Covent Garden and King’s Cross, the innovation of the fanzine was a fluid process where each creator worked collaboratively and individually to express and analyse the avant-garde punk scene.
It is undoubtedly some of the most creative journalistic work on that period’s cultural zeitgeist. Tom andTony innovated new ways of using sparse materials. As solo journos, they used only coloured paper and a manual typewriter to create originals that would then be printed or later photocopied. Tony discussed how he used a photocopier to manipulate images when creating Kill Your Pet Puppy’s ‘logo’: a woman wielding a pair of scissors, dripping with blood. Amongst a stiff Thatcherite 80s culture, images in publications such as this stood distinct, using subversive signifiers to entice Alt. readers. The title Kill Your Pet Puppy is risqué, but only substituted for the ‘full title’: Fuck Your Mother. Readers can decide for themselves which is the more inflammatory one, but of course, inflammation was the point. Holding a metaphorical torch to their culture through the magazine both exposed the repressed 80s culture to analysis and burned it to a crisp.
The creators stressed how vital it was to remain true to what could be termed punk values. Contemporary punk bands like Crass kept them honest, berating them publicly so that Vague and others remained a source of counter-cultural material, promoting ‘true’ anarcho-punk bands rather than pandering to Adam and The Ants, who had certainly become more commercial by the mid-80s. It was fascinating to discover that from such small, independent beginnings Vague had circled the globe by way of the independent record label Rough Trade. The solidarity of the label with individual creatives meant that the debate between commercial success and anarchism, and subsequent clashes of style and opinion, could be debated transnationally. It was eye-opening to see an anti-mainstream success story continue to operate in a culturally insurgent way. After all, when your work makes it to the US, one would expect some amount of capitalist infiltration to make the publication financially viable. However, this was not the case. Vague and Kill Your Pet Puppy remained independent.
In an era where many feel a general loss of community, and society is in the midst of a Cost of Living Crisis, this event at Housmans Bookshop provided a welcome escape, for a discussion on bohemian punk lifestyles and literature, which was intent on fighting capitalist interests in thought, word, and deed. A society based on anarcho-communism looks, writes, and reads differently. In their way, the zines answered the question: ‘what happens when capitalism is dissociated from art?’. A wider array of creative possibilities than Tony and Tom’s contemporary capitalist society would allow would seem to be the answer.
Features image courtesy of Housmans.