“and other rock’n'roll habits…”
Mark Perry would like to make something clear. He was not responsible for that immortal image – reproduced in Jon Savage‘s monumental history of punk rock, England’s Dreaming – which featured diagrams of finger positions on a guitar for E, A and B7, with the caption: “Here’s three chords. Now form a band.”
“That wasn’t in Sniffin’ Glue. It’s so mythical now, but it never was. I’ve had to put so many people right,” he shakes his head. “I’ve had people tell me I’m wrong, saying ‘Course you did it. Don’t you remember?’ I wish I had. It’s a great idea. It was perfect. It keeps getting quoted as a Sniffin’ Glue thing. It shows you how easy it is for these things to happen.”
But it’s not surprising really. Since a 19-year-old Perry founded the UK’s first punk fanzine in 1976 and, in a remarkable display of editorial integrity, closed it a year later despite healthy sales, Sniffin’ Glue has been more talked about than seen. Shutting it is something he doesn’t regret a bit.
“By the end you can see it’s lost the thread a bit. Punk had already got to another stage. All the bands were signed, it was on Top of the Pops, the papers had younger writers. So we thought ‘let’s end it on a high and make it a legend’. And it was a legend a year after it had finished, and has been ever since. Which is much nicer than being a boring old magazine which has been around too long.”
With yet another burst of interest in Britain’s last socially divisive pop explosion coinciding with the release of Julien Temple’s final word on the Sex Pistols, The Filth and The Fury, (itself a Daily Mirror headline) the time is ideal for the publication of Sniffin’ Glue – The Essential Punk Accessory. It consists of a reprint of all 12 issues (plus the bonus of a tiny Christmas 1976 special called Sniffin’ Snow) and an excellently illustrated history of the magazine and its times, largely told through a highly entertaining conversation between Perry and his school friend and collaborator, Danny Baker.
Though its production values were inevitably non-existent, much of it is still entertaining today, and not only for nostalgic old punks. Even at the time it didn’t hesitate to criticize the less savory aspects of the scene. “We were seen as the great banner wavers of punk, but, if you read it, we were always questioning it – the violence at gigs, how the Pistols fans were just a bunch of posers. We knock the Clash for signing to CBS. We were arrogant in a way, but that’s what it was about. I think that comes across nicely,” Perry says, clearly delighted that his teenage opinions have lasted the course.
Surely, though, it must have been odd to find yourself turned almost overnight from a bored bank clerk to “Mark P”, Voice of Youth? ”It was strange. I’m not sure it could happen now in the same way. But around ’76 there wasn’t much going on. There were hardly any rock mags, and because it was so limited where it could be written about, when punk came along there was an opening for someone like me to come along and write an alternative viewpoint to Melody Maker or NME,” he recalls. Not that Perry was a likely trendsetter.
“It was a weird thing for me to do. I was a quiet person at school. I was in the background, I wasn’t a leader. I always hedged my bets, I wasn’t very confident. Danny was a loudmouth, but we all followed a guy called Steve Micalef who later helped me with Sniffin’ Glue.” Micalef, or Steve Mick as he frequently appeared in the pages of SG, seems to have vanished into the bohemian demi-monde of Brixton.
“Somehow punk came along at the right time for me. Because I was the first one, those of us who were lucky enough to be there at the start, the innovators if you like, got carried along with it,” Perry says, as if still amazed by events. “After two or three months I found myself on television and in the papers.”
In this media-saturated age it’s difficult to comprehend just how distant from their audience rock stars were at the time. “I think people forget. Me and Danny talk [in the book] about how rock used to be on the margins, it used to be underground. Yeah, it got in the charts, but they weren’t the celebs they are now, they didn’t knock around with prime ministers. And I think it was better like that. It’s so assimilated now that everyone’s so cool with it. As Danny says, ‘No one cares what music you like anymore.’ You can like a bit of house, a bit of drum’n'bass, Johnny Cash, Sex Pistols, Oasis… Alright, we don’t want to be beating each other up over it, but let’s have a bit of belief, a bit of faith in something. When I was into ELP, kids at school used to say ‘that’s rubbish’, and I used to think ‘they don’t understand me’ and it’d make you feel good. At the time that was a serious choice – you were into prog rock!” This middle-aged man, hardly looking older than his spiked hair and safety pinned days, obviously misses that inherent confrontation.
“I have arguments about this sort of thing all the time,” he admits. “Take hip hop. How do they allow that parental warning sticker? So you get chucked off the label. Form your own label! We haven’t really changed at all. We just think we have.” He resorts to a mock-Cockney whine. “It’s not like The Good Old Days. I sound terrible, don’t I, but I long for rock to produce that excitement again.”
Perry retains his enthusiasm to this day, planning to release two albums later this year with his long-running band Alternative TV, though his day job is with the Employment Service, a long way from Baker’s television and print ubiquity. He does have certain regrets about encouraging neophytes though.
“Any idiots could get on stage, but is that a good thing? Let’s face it, the more bands you get, the more shit you get,” he observes, recognizing the same problem with the dance music of the past decade which initially took many of its cues from punk. “Everyone’s scared now. It’s like ‘everyone should have a go’. No! If it’s shit tell them. They’ll still have a marvelous life without it.”
He’s right because he still cares, and because this mild-mannered fan of Sixties Britpop and Supergrass, given to picking up lost country rock classics in second-hand shops, can proudly say of his baby that “at its peak it was the greatest rock’n'roll mag in the world, because it was truly part of what it was writing about, and it was writing about it as it was happening”.
“Sniffin’ Glue: And Other Rock’n'roll Habits: The Essential Punk Accessory” 2009 Omnibus Press