The first half of the 1980s was a real boom time for Scottish fanzines and Alternatives to Valium, the brainchild of Alastair McKay, was one of the finest to emerge at this time and to kick off the first of this series Alastair agreed to talk about his fanzine.
What gave you the idea to start up your own fanzine and what were the main influences on ATV? Had you contributed to any fanzines before?
I was always interested in magazines. I made one in primary seven, one issue, written in felt pen, which I rented to the class for a penny a read – an interesting distribution model. At high school I did a xeroxed magazine called Blow Your Nose On This, which my pal’s mum used to photocopy during her lunch break at the Ben Sayers’ golf club factory in North Berwick. It was just daft stuff, photos of teachers, music rubbish. It was faintly influenced by Sniffin’ Glue, which I used to buy from Bruce’s in Edinburgh.
Was this where you started the rumour that the Pistols were going to play a secret show in East Lothian?
I mentioned in Blow Your Nose On This the rumour that the Sex Pistols might play in Haddington. Clearly they didn’t, but it was a real rumour, not made up by me.
Did you contribute to any other fanzines around this time?
Before ATV I had an idea for a magazine that was going to be called Fish Pie Talks, based on a misheard Captain Beefheart lyric. The idea was that it wouldn’t have journalism in it, but the artists would be free to express themselves however they wanted. I wrote to a few people, but (unsurprisingly in retrospect) most of them didn’t have the time or energy to do anything. A few people were helpful. The Visitors were encouraging and wrote back, and Mike Scott (then of Another Pretty Face) answered my letters at length. I was very encouraged by that, because his fanzine, Jungleland, was a big influence. I also have an abusive letter from Steven Hanley of the Fall somewhere. I’m not sure where that fits in the timeline, but evidently I’d annoyed him. Reading between the lines of the reply I’d written asking The Fall some tedious questions about selling out. Another time, and I think this made it into ATV, Mark E Smith sent me some xeroxed fragments which had fed into his lyrics. Anyway, Fish Pie Talks evolved into Alternatives To Valium, which I started at university in Aberdeen, though I used my brother’s Edinburgh address for a while
Interesting choice of name.
The name came from a feature in The Sunday Post. I used to get letters asking me for medical advice. I still asked people to contribute in their own words if they wanted, but mostly it became about interviews, ranting, and weird art and essays that people sent me.
The first issue came out in 1983, how many other issues followed and how many copies would you generally sell?
There were five issues (maybe six, but probably five). By the end I was printing 1000 and selling most of them.
How did you put ATV together?
I put it together myself, with the help of my then-girlfriend, Jane. I typed it all on my old Olivetti typewriter and photocopied it all until it was pretty much too small to read. I took many of the photos too. After a couple of editions, I was contacted by Les Clark, who was the singer in a fierce Aberdeen band called Nervous Choir, and also worked in design at the Press and Journal, and he started doing some design work, providing some nice pieces of type, and helping with covers etc. Les really helped the magazine look more professional. It was funded by sales and advertising. The amounts of money involved were very small. I didn’t make anything, but it didn’t make a loss either. I think the first issue was printed by Aberdeen University press, where the printer almost died when he saw the poor quality of the artwork (I hadn’t replaced the ribbon on my typewriter for a long time), but he did a brilliant job. Later issues were printed by some sort of fanzine collective somewhere in England – I can’t remember where. They were cheap, but they screwed up one of Les’s covers, putting a white border on a black page (that was the issue where I put a distorted picture of Diana on the cover because she was on the cover of every other magazine at the time).
And how did you distribute it?
Distribution was essentially done by taking the fanzine to shops such as One Up in Aberdeen, and student union shops, and I sold copies at gigs. I remember selling a lot at a Jesus and Marychain show in Edinburgh. Rough Trade in London were helpful. The real boosts in circulation came from getting mentioned in the music press. I think the NME gave ATV a good write up, as did Tony Fletcher’s (more professional fanzine) Jamming! One of the funniest write-ups was by Gary Crowley in Record Mirror. He suggested that people send postal orders or cheques to “Jock rocker, Alastair McKay”. I got loads of postal orders made payable to “Jock Rocker”, which took some explaining in the Post Office. I think John Peel may have mentioned ATV as well. But there was a real community feel about fanzines at the time – I did quite a lot of trades. What I noticed was that many of the orders which came in the post tended to be from remote, non-metropolitan addresses. They were from isolated people who were very keen to get hold of any information they could. They weren’t city hipsters.
Favourite Moments or Interviews?
I think one of the most exciting times was going backstage at the making of the TV programme Riverside. The Cure were playing (they did a thing with some dancers). Afterwards in the canteen I interviewed Robert Smith, and he told me that The Cure was, to all intents and purposes, finished. Today, I would have stuck that straight on the internet. Back then, it took me a few months to get the magazine out, but it was an interesting moment. Doing the interview was quite intimidating, because Siouxsie Sioux was wandering around (Steve Severin was playing in the Cure at that point). Generally, there wasn’t a lot of planning with the interviews. There were no PR people involved. I just turned up after live shows and asked. I did Ian McCulloch and Roddy Frame that way. Also, my idea for the fanzine was slightly political – so I did (gay activist) Peter Tatchell and Alex Wood, the socialist leader of Edinburgh District Council. They were actually more interesting than most of the musicians, because they had something to say and weren’t bothered about appearing cool. One of my favourite moments may be a myth, but my younger sister told me that ATV appeared on Grange Hill when one of the school kids was thinking about doing a fanzine. I hope that’s true.
What happened next, after ATV?
After ATV, I – along with everyone else in the mid-1980s – was unemployed for a while. I did some DJing at a club called The Flesh Exchange in Aberdeen. I did a bit of very minor talent scouting for a major record label (the only band I sent a positive notice about was Alone Again Or, who morphed into The Shamen. I was paid in records – that’s how I got the first REM album. I worked in community newspapers (the North Edinburgh News in Pilton) – I got the job largely because of ATV. Later, I worked for CUT magazine, and as Scottish stringer for NME, before working for Scotland on Sunday and The Scotsman for many years. I’m freelance now, which feels oddly like the mid-1980s.
And finally, what is the best alternative to valium?
At the time I was doing ATV, I would have said Maynard’s Original Wine Gums. My teeth aren’t up to that kind of abuse any more.
Thanks to Alastair for taking the time to answer those questions.
See the Blogroll sidebar for Alastair’s Alternatives to Valium blog. Or to see some of the photos Alastair took for ATV click here.
A is also for:
A Boring Fanzine: Produced by the label Boring Records and Bishopbriggs band The Exile, the first issue came out around the time of the release of The Exile’s Don’t Tax Me E.P. in August 1977 and was quickly followed by a couple more issues before the year was out. Mostly Scottish acts like The Jolt, Johnny and The Self Abusers and The Backstabbers are featured along with live reviews of bands playing here such as The Clash, Rich Kids and Graham Parker and The Rumour with some well written assessments of some of the most interesting album releases of the time thrown in too. An Extra Boring Fanzine seems to have been a special Christmas 1977 edition and #4 titled Another Boring Fanzine from early in 1978 included a review of the last ever Sex Pistols show in Britain (with Sid Vicious anyway) written by Billy Sloan, later a long running Radio Clyde DJ (see Radio sidebar). Far from boring.
(The) Absolute Game: Named after the third Skids album. TAG was one of Scotland’s first and finest football fanzines and catered to supporters of all clubs as well as the national team. A number of contributors now work for the sports pages of the mainstream media while Christopher Brookmyre, who wrote on subjects from playground football to his team St. Mirren, went on to become a highly successful ‘Tartan Noir’ novelist, his debut Quite Ugly One Morning (1996) won the inaugural First Blood Award for the best first crime novel of the year and was later adapted into a television drama by Clerkenwell Films for ITV. TAG lasted from 1986 until 2002 and 60 issues were produced. At its peak the fanzine’s circulation fell just short of 3000 copies per issue.
Alive and Kicking: I remember two fanzines in the late 1970s with this title, one from Glasgow and one from Stirling but I don’t think I ever bought either of them.
Always the Bridesmaid: One of a surprisingly large number of Hearts zines.
(The) Angry Corrie: A fanzine for hillwalkers and the Munro brigade. Wide circulation by all accounts.
Another Tuneless Racket: From East Kilbride’s and one of many Scottish zines to feature in Teal Trigg’s 2010 book Fanzines – The DIY Revolution. Put together by Ali Bruce, ATR featured mainly punk, particularly EK acts like The Stillettoes, The Electrix and the curiously named Sinister Turkeys, who were actually a very decent band.
Arsing About: The title parodied the far better known zine Hanging Around. This came free on occasion with another fanzine Wrong Image.
Away from the Numbers: East Fife football fanzine with an appropriate title for the few who watch their football at Bayview. During the 1990s they began adding an occasional music supplement called Ultracore. Started in 1989 AFTN lasted until 2001 but has since re-emerged as a webzine: http://www.aftn.co.uk/
AWOL: Highly rated Meadowbank Thistle fanzine that even got a mention on TV on the Saint and Greavsie show and on radio by John Peel (Meadowbank being his second team).
Aye Ready: Long running Rangers fanzine, which I’m guessing never missed a deadline.