Ahead of his talk with Toby Mott at the ICA, the founder of the legendary Sniffin’ Glue fanzine shares his thoughts on punk in the 21st century
“You start off by kicking down the doors, then you end up at Butlins!’ quips writer and musician Mark Perry. He’s recalling his experience of the punk scene, where he situated himself front and centre after founding fanzine Sniffin’ Glue in 1976. “I just felt there was a need to have a magazine that was devoted to punk rock so I had the idea to start my own fanzine,” he explains over the phone. “That’s why it was important at the time, because it was the first UK fanzine to write about punk rock.” Inspired by The Ramones, Sniffin’ Glue quickly became an authentic outlet for punk in the 70s. Writers included future NME scribe Danny Baker, and were supported by photographs from Dennis Morris – otherwise known as ‘Mad Dennis’.
As punk celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Perry and punk historian/cultural archivist Toby Mott will go head to head on May 11 at the ICA in London, where Perry will also perform with his band, Alternative TV. Ahead of the event, we caught up with the writer, musician and publisher to talk about the historic Sniffin’ Glue, as well as punk’s place in the digital age.
Update 11/5: unfortunately Mark Perry will no longer be able to attend this talk, British pop singer Marilyn – well known for 1983 hit “Calling Your Name”, will be in conversation with Toby Mott instead. Marilyn was part of the British New Romantic movement which emerged in the late 1970s club scene and was popularised in the early 1980s
What was the significance of the punk fanzine during the 70s?
Mark Perry: At the time there were four established music magazines in Britain: you had the NME, Sounds, Melody Maker and Record Mirror, and basically, they wrote about the more established rock music. But when the punk scene started in 1976 in the UK, I just felt there was a need to have a magazine that was devoted to punk rock, so I had the idea to start my own fanzine. That’s why it was important at the time, because it was the first UK fanzine to write about punk rock. That’s why it was so significant.
Obviously, anti-establishment feeling is at the core of punk culture, so how is that energy voiced through a fanzine?
Mark Perry: Well, it was pre-internet and all that. The only voice young people had in the 70s was through music, unless you were lucky enough to be a DJ or writer or something like that. So starting your own fanzine was a way of getting that alternative opinion across. Because all the major music papers were owned by big publishing companies – for example, NME (was run) by IPC, a big publishing house at the time. So by doing your own fanzine, it meant that you could have your say, basically. You could have that alternative viewpoint. And quite quickly after my fanzine came out lots of others, all around the country, started (up) in the same way and had that alternative viewpoint.
Do you think a DIY zine movement would work today?
Mark Perry: Well, it’s different today because you’ve got the internet. If we want to have our say on anything we can go straight online to our blog, our Facebook page, our Twitter. But remember, in the 70s there wasn’t any of that. If you wanted to get your voice out there, you had to actually do something. When you started a fanzine in the old days, you had to actually cut and paste. You used felt-tip pen and cow gum to physically cut and paste it together. And then you’d go down the local photocopying shop. In those days, nobody had their own photocopiers. I mean, nowadays most printers can photocopy and in those days, you had to get up off your bum and go down the photocopying shop. It was more of a hands-on process. I don’t think there’s any need for fanzines, in the same way, these days because people can just start blogs and that, can’t they? You can put it all on YouTube. There are more ways of getting your voice out there nowadays and in the 70s there wasn’t, so you had to go and start a fanzine.
“Summing up what is described as punk now is quite embarrassing, I find. It’s all booze and drugs, and all ‘up yours’, and it’s not. To me, punk was much more positive than that. It was more creative” – Mark Perry
Has personalisation faded with the introduction of, say, social media?
Mark Perry: It’s interesting you say that. In the 70s, you basically had a blank page in front of you. For example, when I first did Sniffin’ Glue, all I had was a felt-tip pen and a very old typewriter. That was all I had. I wrote the heading myself. It’s my handwriting that became the Sniffin’ Glue logo, if you like. I didn’t pull it off a website like you can do. Nowadays you can go on these sites and you can literally type in, ‘Oh, I want punky typeset’ and you get lots of versions of punky typeset. So it’s all been done. But in those days, it was very much your own thing. What you produced was yours to design. Even the way you type. For example, my old typewriter had a few dodgy keys on it, and you can see that if you look through the fanzine. You can see there’s a dodgy ‘e’ and a dodgy ‘a’ here and there.The problem now is that we do everything through Google or Microsoft or whatever. We are conforming just by using them things, and it’s that contradictory thing where you’re anti-establishment, anti-government and all that on Twitter, but they’re using the tool that Microsoft created. And Microsoft exists because we live in a capitalist society, so it’s a contradiction, isn't it? You’ve got all this anti-capitalist, anti-establishment talk on a platform that wouldn’t exist if not for capitalism and the establishment.
It’s nice that people have a voice, but I don’t think they should lie to themselves that they are outside of the establishment. Once you pick up an iPhone and use the internet, you’re buying into the whole capitalist thing.
So do you think it’s possible to be original or individual in this day and age?
Mark Perry: I think so, if you don’t try too hard, in a way. If you accept that the restrictions are there, you can still have a voice.
A lot of people look back and say music was better in the 70s, but I don’t actually agree with that. I think there’s more interesting music being made now by more people because of the technology. I think that the very nature of music in the 70s and 80s differs, because the bands had their focus on getting a gig in a pub or club or something. And then they’d end up being a rock band. But with new technology, a lot of people can get their music out there and that music doesn't have to conform to anything. I buy a lot of stuff now, like William Basinski, which is basically 40 minutes of drone music, 40 minutes of ambient noise and creaking. That’s what people are putting out there and that wouldn’t have been possible in the 70s because you had to go through record companies, and a record company would listen to it and say, ‘We’re not putting that out, it's not gonna sell.’ So in some ways, new technology does allow people to be more creative, but it comes with restrictions.
It’s been said that you are an instigator of ‘true punk’ form, do you agree with this?
Mark Perry: I don’t know. I guess so? But it all depends on how people define punk. I’m very much old school – I was the class of 1976. The first lot. Later on, people started dying their hair and having mohicans and all that. They were having all those tattoos and taking it further, and I wouldn’t say I was that type. I certainly was one of the originators, but I don’t think you can blame me for everything.
To be honest, summing up what is described as punk now is quite embarrassing, I find. It’s all booze and drugs, and all ‘up yours’, and it’s not. To me, punk was much more positive than that. It was more creative. It wasn’t about getting pissed. It wasn’t that you’ve gotta wear the uniform. You know, the Dr Martens and your leather jacket, with your dyed hair. That wasn‘t what it was about originally, to me anyway. It was about being different than the norm, doing something on your own. So I’m very proud of the fact that Sniffin’ Glue was the first punk fanzine.
Were there any other fanzines around after the introduction to yours? Did you have any favourites?
Mark Perry: Yeah, there was other fanzines after Sniffin’ Glue started being successful and selling a few hundred copies. I did try to encourage people because a lot of other people came to me and said, ‘Oh, we wanna write for Sniffin’ Glue, can we write something?’ and my response was always ‘no’. I told them, ‘You can’t write for Sniffin’ Glue. What you should do is go out and start your own fanzine,’ and a lot of those people did. So you had great fanzines like Ripped and Torn, Fear and Loathing, Rapid Eye... There were literally hundreds.
Ripped and Torn was always my favourite because they came after (Sniffin’ Glue). That was the second punk fanzine after mine and I felt they really encapsulated the punk feeling even more than we did. Tony Drayton did Ripped and Torn and he was actually from Glasgow. So he wasn’t at the centre of things in London, like me, but he very much captured the punk spirit. He was a regular kid that just felt he needed to say something about the music he loved, which is what it was about.
Alternative TV released a new album last year. Can you draw up any comparisons between your latest material and your music from the 70s, at the height of the punk movement? Do they vary at all?
Mark Perry: Not really. They vary a bit in form, but it’s still me. The band (Alternative TV) has gone through lots and lots of changes over the years, but at the end of the day, it's still me. It’s still my voice. I am 59 now, but I still talk as though I am 19. It’s nuts! I still feel as passionate now as I was when I was 19. I first created the fanzine and the band when I was 19 years old, which was 40 years ago, and I still feel as excited and as committed to it as I did then.
There’s still a motive. I’ve always had my bullshit detector turned up to 11 and I have always been aware of things. And not just because of the government. It’s so corny to me that people say they’re anti-government, because we can all make mistakes. We can all be assholes, not just the government and the establishment – whatever that is any more. And we can all make mistakes and we can all be a bit naff. It’s about being true to yourself. It’s about being anti-bullshit, because that can come from anywhere. You’ve just gotta be true to yourself. With the band I’ve got now, we have our own record label and studio so we don’t have to deal with any companies. We can just do our own thing.
“I certainly was one of the originators, but I don’t think you can blame me for everything” – Mark Perry
Is punk still alive?
Mark Perry: Well, one of the sad things I find with the so-called punk scene is that you get these big punk festivals but they’re at holiday camps at Butlins! It’s ridiculous, and if someone would have come to us when we were first doing it in 1977 and said we were going to be performing at Butlins we’d have told them to fuck off. It’s not selling out, but it’s giving up. It’s a shame that it’s turned into this comfortable thing where you put your comfy slippers on, light your pipe and sit in front of a punk video, but I guess everything becomes that in the end. I guess that’s the natural progression. You start off by kicking down the doors, then you end up at Butlins!
The punk movement is renowned for uniting a collection of pissed off citizens, can you see that mentality being channelled in current society?
Mark Perry: It’s all a bit of a damp squib now. The ironic thing is that people are louder now through social media. They have a much louder voice nowadays, in some ways, but they don’t have the result. When you think about the revolutions of the 60s and 70s – not that there wasn’t much to complain about – but compared to now? Where are the groups singing about the stuff that’s going on in Syria? The current thing that pisses me off is we don’t even have people singing about social politics anymore. You’ve got Jeremy Corbyn, a Labour representative, who is telling the British people to agree with the Tory government over the whole EU debate. It’s ridiculous.
To have change that people can be proud of, and to say, ‘We did that, we changed that!’ you’ve got to actually get out there and talk about it. You had people in the 80s like The Specials, who were singing ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ on Top of the Pops. Where is all that now?