In the late ’70s, a strange breed of fast, loud and snotty punk bands from the United Kingdommade waves strong enough to traverse the entire Atlantic Ocean. Satellite scenes formed in New Yorkand Los Angeles, but the effects were felt in places as far-reaching and landlocked as suburban Michigan. For Lansingresidents TESCO VEE and DAVE STIMSON, punk spurred an epiphany. "When punk hit, it was out with the old and in with the new," says Vee. "We got rid of all our progressive-rock records and heavy-rock records and bought every punk and indie record we could find."
In 1979, the pair funneled their passion into the influential fanzine Touch And Go—which is the subject of the new book Touch And Go: The Complete Hardcore Punk Zine ’79-’83. "Dave and I have different takes on why we started the zine,” says Vee. “I like to think of it in a self-righteous way, like we were anointed by the gods of independent music to cover this new scene. But Dave would say he was just bored and needed something to do, so it's probably something in the middle."
Touch And Go was inspired by pre-existing independent music publications of the late 1970s such as Slash from Los Angelesand San Francisco's Search And Destroy, but the “zine” concept—DIY publications created by and for participants in a scene—can be traced back to the fan-fiction literature of the sci-fi community in the 1950s. Search And Destroy publisher V VALE also sees traces of the zine mentality in the late-’50s beatnik movement. "I worked at City Lights, a counterculture bookstore in San Francisco, and there were all these little magazines and poetry books that were done in pressings of 100 or 500," Vale recalls. "Punk picked up on the beatnik mentality that anyone could make art, publish it themselves and have complete control over their own content."
Vale, a self-described "amateur historian," began Search And Destroy in the ’70s to document punk's uprising from within. "I watched the hippie movement get very watered down and turned into Levi’s ads. I knew it was dying, but that there would be another counterculture happening within 10 years," Vale says. "Sure enough, it was punk."
The raw format of zines—often printed cheaply on flimsy newsprint—lent themselves perfectly to the burgeoning punk aesthetic. Issues were handmade in low quantities; at its peak, Touch And Go published only 1,000 copies. Album reviews and cultural editorials were accented with scraps of photos often chopped from other publications. "I've ruined many fanzines from the late ’70s by cutting images from them," says Tesco Vee. "It was shotgun journalism. If you needed a picture of [the Sex Pistols’] Johnny Rotten, you took it from NME or Rolling Stone."
Vale says that two technological advances made the entire process a little more streamlined. "First was the rise of the cheap Xerox machine, where you could go to a little store and make copies for five or 10 cents per sheet,” he says. “Second was the rise of the cheap tape recorder, so it was possible for the first time to make an accurate transcription of a conversation." The Xerox innovation made the independent zine format practical, but the tape recorder assisted in making the thoughts captured within the zines revolutionary.
Bostonsuburbanite JIMMY JOHNSON published Forced Exposure with a heavy influence from Touch And Go's content. "Tesco and Dave approached underground music writing in a way that had never been done before," Johnson says. "The words in Touch And Go can't be reproduced anywhere in the human language. It's the product of a time and a vantage point that can't be re-created. Mainstream outlets have aligned themselves with history and people regurgitate information. But there are things in Touch And Go that nobody else has spoken since."
Johnson is not surprised by Vee and Stimson's lasting legacy. "If you find people who were influenced by Touch And Go, even casual readers at the time, most of them feel like their lives were changed," Johnson says. "That's an incredible value."
Yet Vee and Stimson had no idea what impact they were making in others' lives when stapling pages together in their garages. “At the time, we didn't know who was reading it and didn't know what effect we were having for our first few issues or so," says Vee. Official validation came in the form of a thumbs up from one of Vee's heroes. "We sent a copy of our first issue to Slash, which was our favorite fanzine," Vee recalls. "[Slash editor] Kickboy Face [aka Claude Bessy] sent us a letter back a few months later saying, 'Keep up the good work.' We thought if he says it, we had to keep doing it."
Vee then spread the love along to other obscure zines, including Forced Exposure. "We were mentioned positively in Touch And Go and it was confirmation we were doing something credible," Johnson says. "There was a network of people spread across the country and we would trade fanzines around. That was sort of the concept of reviewing other zines. You'd be the only person who knew about all these other zines even existing. It was almost a secret club, having this private information that you wanted to share with other readers."
Vee says the entire movement was based in honesty. "It was all about mutual admiration," he says. "We tried not to slag each other's zines, but if something was bad, we'd say it. If we liked something, we'd say it. We weren't silent if we didn't like something. There was no gray area."
That doesn’t mean that they were infallible. Vee now cringes at some of the positive reviews in early issues. "We gave [new wave band] Simple Minds a good review. Hey, it was the ’80s!" he says with a laugh. "We also hopped on the ska bandwagon when it was the flavor of the month in the U.K.But around issue No. 12, we started really covering the domestic hardcore scene. We were never hardcore homies though. We loved the Cure and Echo And The Bunnymen. But genre didn't dictate content. If it was independent in any way, we were at least interested."
Touch And Gowent to great lengths to discover new music for readers. When a package arrived containing the first release from Dischord Records (a Teen Idles 7-inch) the staff noticed it had been broken in transit. "We taped it together to try to play it," says Vee. "We got it to play enough to tell it was incredible. We wrote [Dischord head and Teen Idles frontman] Ian McKaye and said, 'This record is great! Can we get another copy, maybe with some cardboard in [the package]?'"
Vee and Stimson's curiosities fascinated Jimmy Johnson. "It seemed like they would just go to a record store and buy everything," he says. "They had so much passion for the music, it just bled through the pages. The issues were almost like fantasy novels because you couldn't see these bands live or find their records at stores. It just seemed beyond comprehension that a band like the Circle Jerks out in Los Angelescould even exist when you first heard about them. There was nothing within 1,000 miles who was supposed to be like that."
Even with a continually strengthening community and increasingly cheap manufacturing options, zine publishing was a labor of love before information became an easy-to-access commodity. "Zines created a network of access to information that was essentially forbidden," Johnson says. "In this internet era, access is open to everybody and unlimited. Back in the ’80s, there wasn't a mainstream that allowed visionary ideas to trickle through. Everyone who fought against the mainstream went up against incredible odds and subverted it."
Money was always an issue, especially since most people with deep passion for counterculture rarely have much. "I borrowed $100 from [beat movement poet] Allen Ginsberg for the first issue of Search And Destroy," says Vale. "It was hard to keep going with such a small budget. At one point in time, I had a beautiful vintage guitar, but I sold it to pay for issue No. 8."
Advertisements brought some revenue to zines, but the addition of commerce brought new conflicts. "The point of mainstream magazines was to please advertisers," Johnson says. "That's very disconcerting as a reader or listener who expects art and music to have value other than to satisfy monetary needs.” But to Johnson, ads contributed to the appeal of zines rather than distract from their message. "Zines allowed bands and labels to publish their information in a forum that didn't exist before," he says. "It would have never been viable for SST Records to publish an ad in Rolling Stone for the first Black Flag EP, but there was an ad in Slash to order their Nervous Breakdown record for $2. It wasn't just commerce, it was unique content that only existed there."
The price tag of long distance phone calls was another particularly daunting hurdle to publishers. "We couldn't do phone interviews," says Vale. "If you wanted to call a band in London, it was $1 per minute. Compare that to my rent, which was $37.50 [per month], and it just wasn’t practical." High rates also affected Vale's business. "I sent my zine all over the world, but I hardly got paid from overseas," he says. "I couldn't afford to call Australiato ask about the $10 they owed me for sending 20 copies at 50 cents a piece."
But, in the great punk-rock tradition, zine publishers found ways to work around the long-distance obstacle. "I got a letter from Ian MacKaye one day with a 1-800 number and a bunch of instructions," says Vee. "He had figured out how to call a major corporation—I think it was Avon—and dial into their phone system to make outgoing calls. We did that and we'd talk for an hour-and-a-half. A few days later I'd get a phone call saying, 'This is so-and-so from Avon. We have a suspicious phone call from this number, do you know anybody from Washington, D.C.?' I would say no and hang up," says Vee, laughing. "Hopefully the statute of limitations has expired on that one."
Although Touch And Go, Search and Destroy and Forced Exposure no longer publish, each found a way to live on. Forced Exposure now operates as a distributor of independent music with over 30,000 titles. Search And Destroy was rebranded as RE/Search, documenting independent culture from 1980 until 2005. Before Touch And Go shut down their presses, Vee started Touch And Go Records, originally to release a 7-inch for the Necros. Vee left the label in the hands of the Necros' Corey Rusk in 1983, and the label released albums by the likes of Big Black, the Butthole Surfers and Ted Leo And The Pharmacists before becoming a catalog imprint in early 2009.
The remaining DIY print zines are still viewed as powerful works with deep intrinsic value. "I see a zine like Razorcake, and I like to hold them in my hand," Vee says. "I would hate to see them all go the way of the internet. I sit at a computer all day at work, I don't want to do the same thing when I'm at home." Many zines like MaximumrocknRoll and, yes, even AP, graduated into magazine status. Even in the unlikely circumstance that all print zines become strands of binary code on the world wide web, Vale is confident that their underlying spirit will live on. "People ask me why punk never dies, and to my eyes it's nothing stylistic," he says. "It's anti-capitalist. You're not doing it for profit, you're doing it to spread ideas, to share the truth as you feel it and make sure what you say isn't censored by anyone but yourself. How is thatever going to die?" alt