With zines, the ’90s punk scene had a living history

With zines, the ’90s punk scene had a living history

So far in Fear Of A Punk Decade, I’ve been going year-by-year through the ’90s, tackling the progression of punk and hardcore in tidy, 12-month chunks. In September I covered 1992, which means this installment ought to cover 1993. It doesn’t. Instead, I’m taking October off from our regularly scheduled FOAPD program to wander down a tangent—or create a sidebar—to the rest of the series. This month, let’s talk zines.

“Zine”—as everyone got sick of either explaining or having explained to them in the ’90s—is short for “magazine.” But the two terms aren’t interchangeable. Zines are proudly amateur, usually handmade, and always independent. In the ’90s, zines were the primary way to stay up on punk and hardcore. But they were more than that. Before the Internet began to supersede them in the late ’90s, zines were the blogs, comment sections, and social networks of their day. They had interviews with bands. They had reviews of records. They had ads for bands and records. They had letters pages, opinion columns, news briefs, scene reports, best-of lists, classifieds, and sometimes even flexi discs: floppy little records with exclusive songs from one or more of the bands covered therein, bound right into the middle of the zine. Everything available on music websites today—from listicles to think pieces to flame wars to music streams—could be seen in zines. Only by different names. And a bit slower.

The snail-mail pace of zines—as well as the requirement to own or borrow a physical copy—necessitated the creation of a meta-zine: Factsheet Five. Launched in the early ’80s by editor-publisher Mike Gunderloy to be primarily a science-fiction zine, Factsheet Five grew to become the nerve center of the zine network: a place where zinemakers sent their wares, got them reviewed, and in turn read reviews of others’ zines, which allowed them to trade output and connect via the United States Postal Service. Compared to what the Internet does now, it was almost criminally inefficient—and sure enough, Factsheet Five folded in 1998 after being rendered obsolete by the Internet. But there were merits to that inefficiency. Finding an envelope full of zines in the mailbox was an event. The appearance of a link in the inbox doesn’t quite compare. And the strengthening of that network was fundamental to punk; bands would often acquire contacts for DIY shows through the medium, and it was their main (if meager) method of promotion. Plus, we had way too many trees back then.

To avoid any risk of over-romanticizing zines, let’s be clear: Punks found a way to make them as shitty and stupid as 4chan. All manner of half-assed music criticism, half-baked opinion, questionable appropriateness, and snide immaturity could be found in punk zines in the ’90s. Even the big ones. Maximum Rocknroll had been around for a long time before punk accelerated then exploded in the ’90s—but by 1990, it had become the de facto bible of the scene. A thick, monthly, cheaply printed wad of newsprint crammed with tiny print that came off on your hands, MRR is (and was) notorious for its passionate yet dogmatic view of what punk was supposed to be. Like factions of the Communist Party fighting among themselves, many inquisitions were led—and pogroms enacted. When the emotive post-hardcore band Still Life released its 1993 masterpiece From Angry Heads With Skyward Eyes, it was banned from being reviewed in MRR, simply because it was too progressive, sensitive, and ambitious. It was one of the first shots fired by punks against emo—a new subgenre that had already been in existence for years, but was finally starting to coalesce into something distinct by the early ’90s.

As punk grew more polished and popular throughout the decade, MRR took a harder stance, veering more toward lo-fi and garage-punk sounds. At the time, it seemed silly. But in retrospect, it needed to happen. When Steve Albini—whose fledgling group at the time, Shellac, didn’t even fit into MRR’s new punk order—had an article reprinted in MRR that spelled out the evils of underground bands signing to a major label, a line was drawn. The article went viral, as much as something distributed via paper and mail can. The fact that Albini had just produced Nirvana’s In Utero (and would go on to produce many other albums for underground bands who jumped to major labels) only added to the weight of his semi-insider exposé. Just as MRR’s biggest competitor, the long-running Flipside, had ditched all pretense at underground cred and embracing its glossy-covered popularity, MRR circled the wagons—and in doing so, it left a vivid, vital record of what punks in the ’90s cared (or didn’t care) most deeply about.

MRR’s hard stance left a void. It was filled by many other publications on both sides of the spectrum: Zines like HeartattaCk (the capitalized “H” and “C” stood for “hardcore”) and Profane Existence went one further than MRR, being even more religious about its DIY ethos. But where MRR wouldn’t touch bands like Still Life, HeartattaCk focused exclusively on the burgeoning sounds of emo and post-hardcore. There was a bit of a conflict of interest in this arrangement; HeartattaCk publisher Kent McClard also ran Ebullition Records, the label Still Life was on. But that was always fully disclosed and understood—as was the fact crust-punk-oriented Profane Existence also released and distributed crust-punk records, making the zine as much of a catalog as it was an organ of music criticism.

Punk-centric zine-writing took a big leap forward with Punk Planet. From its inception in 1994, the publication straddled the divide between zine and magazine, upping the production values and professionalism of its design and content while doing its damnedest to embrace a broader definition of punk. In that sense, Punk Planet is the quintessential ’90s punk zine—for better and worse. It was more inclusive, but by being so, it watered down the focus (and blunted the fangs) of the grimy zine tradition. But that’s exactly what was happening to punk as a whole throughout the ’90s—and Punk Planet maintained its own integrity in the face of a fractious scene.

“Integrity” was a buzzword of ’90s punk, and that goes just as much for zines. Some zinesters chose to forego the upper crust of MRR and Punk Planet altogether, opting instead for more personal, idiosyncratic, and at times quixotic zines. Aaron Cometbus, a staple of the Bay Area punk scene whose scrappy pop-punk band Crimpshrine came up alongside Green Day, turned his established, erratic zine Cometbus into the best zine of the ’90s: a painstakingly handwritten collection of clear-eyed observations and sly, slice-of-life vignettes that bordered on literary greatness. He turned down publishing deals and continued to release his own Xeroxed issues throughout the decade (and beyond), all the while train-hopping and squatting in warehouses and touring with tiny bands in broken-down vans. Cometbus captured an entire dimension of ’90s punk culture that provided necessary roughage compared to the empty calories of mainstream punk’s MTV/Warped Tour narrative. 

By the same token, ’90s zines like Gearhead, Slug And Lettuce, and Riot Grrrl served as flashpoints for entire subcultures-within-subcultures, from rowdy garage-punks to vegan anarchists to, well, riot grrrls. But they also served as a great training ground for young, enthusiastic writers and artists—much in the same way that punk itself did for young, enthusiastic musicians. Blogs took over that role by the turn of the millennium, although zines haven’t gone away. They never did. If anything, there’s been a resurgence in recent years—fueled partly by ’90s nostalgia, for sure, but also by creative types who feel the need to craft something tangible amid all the ephemera of the Internet.

My own first publication credits were in zines—but not as a writer. Before realizing how quick and efficient writing was compared to drawing, I devoted my late teens and early 20s to becoming a cartoonist. I sucked at art—but I also sucked at guitar, and that didn’t stop me from playing in a band. At its most primal and idealistic, punk was about saying “fuck it” and doing shit anyway. So I did. In 1995, after self-publishing some pathetically crude comic books, I submitted a couple strips to a Chicago-based zine called Roctober

Miraculously, Roctober ran them. One of the strips was about great female punk bands, from The Slits to Slant 6. Another was about a masked, mysterious, Dwarves-esque group called The Fuckers, who were often rumored to be the Sub Pop band Seaweed in disguise. Roctober wasn’t just a punk zine; it ran a wide variety of articles and comics about all kinds of music. Today, in its 21st year of existence, it still does. But its gleeful embrace of trash and irreverence was punk in the most fundamental way. As are zines themselves.

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Fear Of 1993: By the start of ’93, the punk invasion force was marshaling its muscle and taking dead aim at the mainstream. Before that could happen, though, a glaring issue within the scene needed to be addressed: If punk rock considered itself such an egalitarian alternative to alternative rock, why was the vast majority of punk groups made up exclusively of dudes? Where in the punk scene were the Kim Gordons, the Kim Deals, the Courtney Loves? Riot grrrl was, in part, an answer to this glaring imbalance—even if some punks weren’t ready to hear it.

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