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Clinging to a pre-internet print ideal
steeled punk against tech-triumphalism.
The subcultural conservatism skewered in
“Letter to a Fanzine” perseveres in protest
by Sam Lefebvre

The first photocopy is crude, stark, and charged with the inimitable noise of error and chance. Created by a patent attorney named Chester Carlson in 1938, it depicts the date and "Astoria," his neighborhood in Queens. To commercialize his invention, Carlson partnered with a company called Haloid, which coined "Xerography" for pizzazz and old-world appeal - it's a portmanteau of the Latin terms xeros and grafia, for "dry" and "writing," respectively. The process has been so thoroughly refined and digitized that Carlson wouldn't recognize it, but at least one subcultural contingent has actively cultivated the imperfections of his very first copy for decades: punks. Carlson, a bureaucrat in the halls of intellectual property, unwittingly pioneered punk aesthetics.

Channeling Carlson today has new ramifications.

In the digital age, why make punk zines? The question is teeming with assumptions: that online alternatives are the most compelling reason not to make zines and, more arrogantly, that net devotees are entitled to an explanation. Still, someone from the punk camp retorts, "Tradition."

Punk's cabal of influence is certainly familiar with the internet, but for documentation and expression the genre's proponents cling to a dated print ideal: flyers, zines, record sleeves, and inserts. Even novel items like calendars remain its tokens of fandom. Punks aren't just nostalgic, insofar as nostalgia entails emulating something irretrievably gone, because print and zine-making never lost its subcultural cachet. Rather, belying the emphasis on habit and familiarity is conservatism, or an instinctive embrace of seemingly outmoded technology and convention.

Indeed, attesting to the formal and aesthetic stasis of punk rags is the fact that zine culture, considered broadly, is now decidedly separate. The wares peddled at, say, zine fests, where kitsch and craft reign, include everything but the churlish reportage and fan missives that characterize punk zines. For that reason - and in a nod to Daniel Stewart's venerable Distort publication - this essay herein replaces all mentions of "zine" with "mag."

Beyond the visual consequences of cheap reproduction via photocopy, intentional ignorance of doodads and apps and their prescribed use sometimes affects the linguistic content. In the 33rd issue of Down & Out, a Tasmania-based mag created by Sam Rice, there's an interview with Lumpy of Lumpy & the Dumpers. Rather than Skype or even telephone, Rice apparently supplied written questions to a surrogate interrogator who pestered Lumpy in-person. With Rice as a phantom third-party, the transcript becomes practically slapstick.

Lumpy's pal relays Rice's observation, "I saw that you played a show as The Blobs once," to which Lumpy responds, "No you didn't, you weren't there!" The interlocutor clarifies, "He said he saw that you played a show as The Blobs once." Duh.

The pair, seated in a food court, is alternately mystified and peeved by particular questions. The Tasmanian's specter is present in the read-aloud queries, but remotely subject to the duo's ongoing commentary, joshing, and pleas for conclusion - a unique dynamic that's the direct result of forgoing the most efficient technology for conducting an interview.

The perceived credibility of an underground publication like Down & Out isn't contingent on its role in breaking and setting trends or predicting commercial ascension. Still, Lumpy & the Dumpers were arguably the most hyped underground punk band of 2014, but one of very few interviews with Lumpy was facilitated and published by a guy on island state of Australia.

Punk mags' habit of - to use the least congruous terminology - "discovering talent" is largely understated. It's especially evident in regionally focused rags, such as the Midwest and Northwest Indiana-focused Cretins of Distortion, but even in the globalized underground exemplified by the Lumpy interview, punk mags' knack for responding first to subterranean activity endures.

Dumpers aside, there are no online interviews with Big Zit or Ooze, family bands and darlings of the ascendant NWI scene, but a lengthy Q&A appeared in an issue of Maximum Rocknroll. Big Zit and Ooze don't seem poised to get discovered by the college crowd, but Iceage did when MRR featured the band early on. The best visual chronicle of the much-touted Ground Zero Hardcore scene is a mag called 56 Flyers - which features the poster art of Sam Ryser and Eugene Terry - and the best interview with the latter artist is an issue of Nuts! Again, punk mags don't tactically cover bands with crossover potential, but it's a result of their proximity to the subject.

The much-reported plight of alt-weeklies reinforces the point. Commentators on the San Francisco Bay Guardian's recent shuttering, for instance, consistently noted that booming online media hasn't replaced the diligent in-depth and long-form regional reporting that alt-weeklies excel at. It's assumed that, in the 24-hour news cycle, blogs necessarily scoop print - and especially mags - but the opposite holds curiously true. When every eulogy for the Bay Guardian cites the shortcomings of insurgent digital forces, opting for ink entrenches readers against techno-triumphalism.

Reading punk mags, then - appreciating their unparalleled capacity as rickety cultural vehicles - underscores the shortcomings of digital alternatives. Down & Out, with its charming idiosyncrasies being a byproduct of obsolescent punk mag conventions, implicitly questions newfangled technologies.

Adapting slowly made punk a stubborn exception to a cultural moment's zeal for Silicon Valley's faith in the march-of-progress. By changing so little, punk mags unintentionally became lonesome but potent rebuffs to an era intoxicated by speedy digital developments. Simply put, reading contemporary punk mags is an exercise in tech skepticism.

Even those trumpeting for innovation in punk's visual culture call for rather little change. In the third issue Fashionable Activism, a sparsely designed, risographed mag, creator Kevin McCaughey suggests in his editorial that the error-laden look is a tired gimmick. In response, he highlights visual artists working in and around punk who he regards as original, such as Laura Pall Mall of the Austin punk band Blotter.

With tacky web gestures like pixilation and Comic Sans font, Pall Mall's work is a sort of nose-thumbing, realist affront to the rote aesthetics of punk orthodoxy. But it's a subtle insurrection. Pall Mall's distinctive flourishes are largely couched in today's putrid punk illustration sensibility. On an album cover in a distro bin, this work would mostly mesh with other homogenous art. Likewise, Fashionable Activism's look - as spare, considered, and balanced as it is - exacerbates the effects of contrast and image degradation like so many other punk mags referencing Carlson's first photocopy.

McCaughey, with his stated exasperation, and Pall Mall, with his snide web nods, suggest bucking punk norms. In more recent interviews (and Tumblr posts), Pall Mall said he ceased accepting commissions from other bands in the hopes of fostering a more fertile visual milieu. It's a noble gesture. Alexander Heir's artwork, for instance, is uncomfortably ubiquitous. There's something unsettling about Spanish hardcore 7"s ostensibly looking like products of Brooklyn and Brooklyn records donning kanji like ill-suited kimonos.

Still, though Pall Mall is justified in taking issue with biters, punk's habit of mimicry is as much an aspect of the genre as sick guitar riffs. And in the digital age, it has a sort of hidden utility: adhering conservatively to punk's aesthetic norms forces a critical look at the intersection of the genre's attendant subculture and the internet. Pall Mall's work grasps at it, but today's understanding of an old song - one that similarly spits venom at the people who like it - better illustrates the conflict.

"Why do punk rock guys go out with new wave girls?" So goes the semi-classic refrain of "Letter to a Fanzine" by Great Plains, from Naked at the Buy, Sell and Trade. As whinnying vocalist Ron House observes, punks and new wavers are specific types of underground rockers. The point of his rhetorical question is: how embarrassing. In a verse, he parrots a Nick Cave sycophant blathering about his "really intense" haircut, indignant that a local mag won't publish his inane letter. In another, he describes a fan beholden to "everything that comes out on SST" and another to "everything that comes out on 4AD," like sheep. The punk mag, in House's song, is the proxy target through which he mercilessly belittles an era's entire arena of fandom.

Only, today his critique seems declawed. Instead of a broadside, it sounds like a charming relic of the punk mag golden era. House considered mag culture, then a pragmatic necessity of underground music, fatally useless. Punks today elect mags as papers of record in part because the letters section that House considered provincial and petty now looks attractively autonomous, insulating a subcultural clique from corporations' monetizing trawl.

Likewise, it's telling that there's a contemporary mag called Limited Readership. House sneered at a publication's finite reach; punk mag publishers today choose a smaller readership over a massive but vulnerable one online. Digital expediency entails a lack-of-privacy caveat, so punks idealize the sort of clandestine underground that House harpooned.

Just as time instilled the immutable recording of "Letter to a Fanzine" with renewed significance, new punk rags resemble their predecessors and yet the motivations of readers and publishers have radically evolved. The song sounds galvanizing, even exultant, because punk mags persevere in protest. They emerged to spurn traditional media and remained relatively unchanged long enough, continuously harking to the noise introduced by Carlson's machine, to acquire a new oppositional function: interrogating the digital age.

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