Vox fanzine: Dark dispatches from Dublin’s post-punk scene

The cult Dublin fanzine celebrated a grim, golden age of originality and ambition

The Blades. Photograph: Terry Thorp

The Blades. Photograph: Terry Thorp

 

“I came from England in 1978 as I thought there was a great opportunity in Dublin for punk to flourish, but instead I was confronted with a narrow-minded bunch of saps.”
- Unattributed text by a member of The Pretty, possibly Paul Scully, in Vox, issue 3

Dublin fanzine Vox was first published at the start of the 1980s. For the first three years of the new decade, it was a cardiograph of the culture around what is generally termed “post-punk music”. The beating heart of its focus – emergent bands in Ireland (mainly Dublin) and across England – meant a great deal to a small number of people. This music had evolved from the petered-out anarchic energies and attitudes of 1977: almost immediately, something new had crawled onto the radar, something darker and brimming with ideas. Joy Division, The Fall and Wire may be the best-known examples, but they stand in stark contrast to each other, as did hundreds of other bands in the same exciting quarry – it is not musical style they had in common but ambition and approach.

Vox dedicated itself to these bands. The citizenry of this “music scene” spurned terms like “music scene”. The records were hard to get – they made their way to a handful of music shops via independent supply chains; a Basement Exchange employee might carry in cardboard boxes of lps on the mailboat past distracted customs officials. Vox concentrated on this music and the ideas that sustained it. In dense two-column design and lower-case typography, its issues are rich and thoughtful scrapbooks. Vox is a type of samizdat from the first three years of the 1980s, offering cogent notes from the city’s cultural underground.

Diversity of endeavour

Dave Clifford and Ray Murphy launched Vox in March 1980. Issue no 1’s cover price was 39p; the final issue, no 15, was 50p. With print runs of up to 1,000 copies, it was distributed via select record shops, direct postage and personal street sales. From an address in Rialto, Clifford wrote the bulk of it, gradually taking over layout from art teacher Murphy during the lifespan of the fanzine. The whole set has just been published as a handsome 416-page bound volume by Hi Tone Books.

Its contents drip nostalgia for anyone who was tuned in during that period: those alert to the Dandelion Market gigs, the Ivy Rooms, the Baggot and the Magnet, and listening to the nightly broadcasts of John Peel (BBC Radio 1), Pat James (Radio Dublin) and Dave Fanning. The book reminds us of the richness and diversity of endeavour facilitated by the ambitions of a constrained era.

Vox itself is an instructive example of the highly stimulated, strangely democratised thinking it now documents. While it commenced a couple of years before Channel 4 began broadcasting, its achievement was a musical and cultural inquiry into Dublin and Ireland that attempted to attain the same high benchmark of thought. Vox was infused with the insight of multichannel TVs tuned to Britain and Europe: it drew on a world of Arena and South Bank Show arts programming and subtitled films just as much as on the New Musical Express and the ideals of indie labels such as Rough Trade and Factory.

While it focused on vibrant music innovation within the seemingly outpost limitations of Ireland and its capital, its purview was informed by wider history and geography; while the contemporaneous Hot Press was breaking effectively new sociocultural ground in perhaps only jokingly “making Ireland safe for rock and roll” as Ireland’s “most fortnightly magazine”, you sense Vox had a sharper eye on a loftier, less past-burdened mission.

For all of its punk/new wave focus, Hot Press still worshipped at the alabaster statues of Hendrix and Clapton and rock guitar virtuosos; in Vox, such historical figures are absent and irrelevant, replaced with an obscure but challenging new canon of The Gang of Four, The Fall, XTC, Public Image Limited and Wire. Brief, efficient editorials announce each new issue and offer functional wisdom.

Spoon-fed people

Potential contributors were advised they “don’t have to be a rock expert to write – in fact I find it a severe handicap at times”. “Enthusiasm” was declared to be a prerequisite, and the reader wishing to become a writer was urged to “get the head clear” by listening to Public Image Limited, Killing Joke, Bauhaus, Colin Newman (of Wire) and The Fall.

Ambitious explanatory essays presented music as an ideological and aesthetic hunting ground, addressing musicians as “individuals who have tired of the way the system expects them to ‘get on’ and the way leisure and information is spoonfed to people”.

Conceptualism was distilled into plain steps that bands could put into immediate practice. And there was light relief: in the same pages, Virgin Prune Gavin Friday would gush in with an enthusiastic list of eight of the finest bands in Ireland: Chant! Chant! Chant!, The Atrix, Nun Attax, The Blades, The Shade, New Versions, DC Nien and The Peridots.

Its segments shapeshift into interviews, statements, observations, essays, analyses and advice on all things post-punk. This compact monochrome print publication’s mission and enthusiasm often blur any distinctions between who is speaking. Shirking the temptations of declarative bylines and ego, the pieces often bleed together the words of the interviewee with those of the editorial narrator.

Rather than befuddle, this graphic device sustains a block-of-thought effect: a world of ideas courses through Vox, a continuum and flow from which readers can fish out some swirling ideas.

The word “experimental” permeates Vox. It becomes a given as you view each issue now through the prism of fondness and faded memory: the early 1980s world evidenced is a grim, golden age. The originality and ambition of the bands is stunning: few appear to overlap in sound or concept. This is a zone of artistic integrity and expression, of not being indulgent. Intentions and time frames are sharp and delineated. Bands make great progress as they are charted across a few issues with a new demo tape or a great gig or talk of bringing out a seven-inch single. And then, perhaps with the idea of going to London, they fall apart and break up.

Passive entertainment

Music was enthusiastically prescribed for the reader with the doctor’s devotion to healing: Teardrop Explodes, Wah! Heat, The Swell Maps, Crass, Joy Division, A Certain Ratio, The Pop Group, Clock DVA, The Dancing Did, Microdisney, The Fall’s Fiery Jack – all these names a certain subset of Vox’s constituency were already scrawling in biro and marker in some poignant schoolbag war against their peers’ Black Sabbath and Genesis. Vox stated the obvious in saying such a music dosage could “make more sense of your urban life”.

“Passive entertainment” was consistently pilloried and disparaging reference was made to “a night-out-type audience”. Vox bore witness to a moment when music culture thrived on the purity and irony of having little to do with scale or commercial success. You have to admire the vision behind an essay that offered two very simple diagrams as part of a Marxist analysis of the economic structures behind gigging in Dublin, its points numbered for greater clarity.

Cathal Coughlan and Sean O’Hagan of Microdisney. Photograph: Ciaran O’Tuama
Cathal Coughlan and Sean O’Hagan of Microdisney. Photograph: Ciaran O’Tuama

“I despise the hordes of 1977 hippies who ‘hang out’ at Advance ripoff each weekend [Advance was a record shop run by Fred Talbot on South King Street where you could get some of the records your heart desired]. Everyone is similar. Anarchy on the back but not in the head. They despise arrogance and elitism – so they should – tribes have no place in 1980. I am arrogant and elitist because I’m better than them and I know it.” (From Vox, issue 3)

The music business and industry are treated with suspicion. Its most rotten elements are big record companies, and venues and their management

There is a sociological swashbuckle to Vox’s reference to tribes – to the skins, punks and rockers with which it peoples the capital’s streets. The use of the word “hippies” above is a barbed attack on punks hanging out around Advance Records, itself scathingly attacked as a “ripoff” (a key term in the punk lexicon). This Dublin of 1980 to 1983 is sketched in derogatory tones as a city which does not understand its own simmering grassroots culture: its mean streets are a battleground of forces.

The music business and industry are treated with suspicion. Its most rotten elements are big record companies (eg CBS specifically disliked for crimes revolving around The Clash); and venues and their management (invariably deemed small-minded and judgmental about music-fan clientele, and employing bouncers who antagonise the various tribes into anger). A vivid episode about a broken window at the Magnet bar for which The Threat have to stump up £75 is recounted by singer Maurice Foley under the sober heading of “Statement”.

‘Substandard’ rejected

Issue one (March 1980) opens with an interview with The Atrix. Within a few short paragraphs, the interviewer (Clifford) is deriding the repressed Dublin culture of “Liffey parochialism”; Chris Green’s magical keyboards are referred to as “fluid” but they “do not, as popular music press has said, dominate the band”. Instantly we are in a special space, not so much elitist as forced away from the mainstream. In a rare criticism of a band subsequent issues will lionise, Public Image Limited are classified as “agents of popular media”. The late John Borrowman imparts The Atrix’s idea that “we were not interested in coming out with something substandard”. And so, within its first page or two, Vox has you in a zone where the bar has been ambitiously raised. Across various forms of articles, observations, notes on style and commentaries by people in the street, a manifesto is excavated straight out of the traps at the start of a dire and economically depressed decade.

Vox fanzine was culturally resistant to the influence of PR (an activity distinct from bands’ self-promotion) and made it a target for editorial disdain. “A recent edition of Hot Press (vol 4 no 9) went so far as to contain eight pages which included cover and full-page advertisement on The Police (especially Sting). How such a decision is originally made I don’t know, but it obviously reflects the marketing of ‘popstars’ as practised by the music industry. It also turns attention away from home product.”

Vox was not there to serve that industry – it was there to serve the artist and the fan, freed by the enthusiasm of the margins to criticise a world of “corporate mechanisms”.

London looms as an infinity – as a heaven and hell, as a place to progress to and in which to fall apart, and as a place of music scene comparison. One piece concludes with the sturdy moral advice that if the band in question ever went to live there, the only way it would make money is by working on the building sites.

Dark light

This early 1980s Dublin city teems with bands – often arising from the ashes of other bands. The interviews are statements by young men of how they will avoid the pitfalls of those who came before them. Society is pegged as a corrupt, dank place and the art of music is a dark light within it. Cork lurks as a second city somewhere to the south, engaged in its own fermentation – and its Microdisney members Cathal Coughlan and Sean O’Hagan contribute some acerbic pieces. And from England, The Fall’s Mark E Smith and Psychic TV’s Genesis P-Orridge also convey their written thoughts. Try this snippet from Smith: “One of my recent ex-friends was/is a computer operator. He was great fun. We’d get drunk together etc . . . But then I met his workmates, who were over-educated, inadequate slobs, then I found out he was beating his wife.”

Vox reads as an agency of expression. It delivered a generous and muted manifesto for cultural curiosity in the early 1980s

Vox namechecks Futurism and thinkers (reference to one “K Marx” echoes The Fall’s stylised sleeve-note abbreviation) but does not generally sully itself by naming politicians of the day or the church or any other agency corralling how people live and think. There is something very noble in this, as it allows the reader to be a participant in their own version of events. The editorial view is not corrective, it is encouragement.

The Psychedelic Furs are interviewed and challenged on everything they say. The two final paragraphs of the piece end as follows: “Yes, the Furs are nice guys really, they take rock’n’roll as a joke – they use it, it’s a job, but they are also using you! We don’t like the Furs as a band. We don’t want you not to like them, but next time examine the Furs when they come to Dublin or release an album. Just ask yourself ‘What are these guys doing for me?’”

Vox reads as an agency of expression. It delivered a generous and muted manifesto for cultural curiosity in the early 1980s. It was a call to cogent arms: inviting contributions from readers – even berating them as the issues go on – to write better and be clearer in what they were trying to say. Space was a constant motive: space to think, to perform in, to develop: “We are all potential performers after we select our space.”

In a piece about artist Michael Hentz, conceptually rich reference is made to a trip to the Dublin mountains where “a glass staircase was buried in the ground”. This is post-punk and performance art planted as a seed. The lost world of Vox is a similar crystal ladder, sowed in the soil nearly 40 years ago. But now available in a respectful print format to be disinterred and taken step by step.

Vox 80-83 (No 1-No 15 complete) is published by Hi Tone Books

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