Rocks Off: The story of a fanzine
For three years in the mid-Nineties, I ran a music fanzine called Rocks Off, or Rocks Off!, as it was called for the first six issues - the title, minus the exclamation, of course pinched from the opening track on the Stones’ Exile On Main Street. Like most good ideas, it sprang from a drunken conversation with a friend, Keith. We were both music nuts, friends from our college days, and spent much of our time together talking about bands, records and gigs.
We wanted to spread a little of this enthusiasm. So, in the summer of 1993, we put together the first issue - everything was written on a manual typewriter in those days - and printed out 50 copies, sneaking into Keith’s employer’s office one Saturday morning to use the photocopier.
We bought our own paper - we weren’t animals.
A couple of press ads later, we’d sold a handful of 'zines and been sent a few demo tapes, and it felt like the start of something good. It certainly was for me, as the ad I’d placed in a magazine called The Zine (a huge glossy pro fanzine that was sold in WHSmith) led to a swap with a certain Tara Wilcock, who’d just produced the debut issue of her 'zine, Scuzz. We got married four years later.
From issue three onwards, Rocks Off became my baby, as Keith handed in his half of the mag’s ownership. It was around this time that I got involved with Tara’s Wildhearts 'zine, Ginger Nuts!, which naturally attracted the attention of the band’s head honcho, Ginger.
I met Ginger in March 1994 at a Wildhearts after-show party. He was charming and flattering, and hugely supportive of my writing, which floored me. If you’d told me six months prior that a guy whose music meant everything to me would be shaking my hand and praising me, I’d have told you to stop mucking about. But it happened, and I couldn’t believe my luck.
Rocks Off was the key to a world I’d never thought I’d be allowed access to. Okay, so I wasn’t being courted by the Stones or anything, but just being guest-listed at gigs at the Marquee, and mixing with musicians who knew my name and wanted to hear my opinions - heck, I was even being reviewed in Kerrang! - was enough to make me feel like I was doing something worthwhile. I was also making friends who thought like I did - people who lived for this stuff, basically.
Some of my best memories of this period are conversations: the three-hour-long interviews I did with Tim James of SkinTrade and John Hayward of The Wild Family; my impassioned defence of my musical tastes to Kerrang! journalist Chris Watts, who I accosted at a Suzi Quatro gig at the Marquee after he’d given Scuzz a bit of a kicking in Kerrang!; the barmy chat that Tara and I had with Last Great Dreamers in their dressing room before a gig in Portsmouth. (I thought that the transcript was very funny so I printed it in full - all nine pages - but with hindsight a good edit would have worked wonders.)
From issue six onwards, I was well into the swing of things and let my conscience off the leash. My writing became more attitude-driven, resulting in some spirited but bilious copy as I tore into bands I didn’t believe in, along with some of my peers in the 'zine community for what I saw as bland opinions and regurgitated press releases. I had fire in my belly, and no mistake.
I was lucky I didn’t get my arse kicked, though a flick through issue nine’s 'zine reviews, in which I reviewed my own effort, at least proves that I didn’t take myself too seriously: “More egotistical, self-righteous, over-opinionated crap from the guy who once stood on his seat and furiously headbanged to Stryper when he saw them at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1987. Darren thinks he knows it all; he thinks everybody else is wrong, no matter what their opinion; and, while he freely dishes the dirt on everybody in the music industry, he will often break down in tears and weep uncontrollably if anyone so much as says his fanzine is ‘good, but not to my personal taste’.”
I, er, couldn’t have put it better myself.
Regrets? It’s customary to say “I have none”, but I would like to apologise to City Kidds for running hot then cold on them within the space of four issues, effectively retracting my initial, positive write-up. I heard from press officer Steve Beebee that the band were “confused”, and I don’t blame them.
Apologies, too, to Marco Morrone from Leather Boyz fanzine for resorting to uninspired mickey-taking when I ran out of argument against his defence of the LA glam scene, which I’d taken against with some ferocity. I was, at times, a bit of a tit: a slave to a certain way of thinking, despite - or possibly because of - my rebel stance.
Rocks Off limped to the finish line in the summer of 1996, when issue 10 was stapled and sent to a few friends. By this point, I’d given up hope of selling vast quantities - despite embarrassing myself 18 months previous by turning down a job offer so I could do the 'zine full-time. That’s how much I believed in this, and how deluded and desperate to escape normality I was.
The small but appreciative audience I’d picked up through the mag’s ties to the UK glam scene weren’t interested any more. The Marquee had closed the year before, taking many of the bands who played there with it, and I was writing about Ocean Colour Scene, Kula Shaker and Oasis.
Three years later, I started up a new 'zine called She Didn’t Like Rock ‘N’ Roll - the name cribbed from a Crybabys song title - which, despite covering the kind of stuff that Rocks Off was awash with in its heyday and featuring what I considered to be my most mature writing to date, died a death after just one issue, bringing the curtain down on my 'zining years.
It’s a bit of a head-scrambler to think that, if I hadn’t started writing and self-publishing, my life would be entirely different now. I wouldn’t have met Tara, my wife and best friend. I wouldn’t have worked professionally as a writer and an editor throughout the late '90s and most of the noughties. I’d have never got to meet, and in the case of Ginger Wildheart work with, some of the musicians I admired. And I’d have a completely different set of friends - and possibly even a different attitude to life, such was the impact of the people I met through the fanzine.
So the next time you have one of those drunken conversations with a friend in which you devise a cunning plan to put the world to rights, give it some serious thought the next morning. You never know - you might not change the world, but you might just change your own little chunk of it.