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You're So Vague How Vague transformed from a punk fanzine like many others into an alternative culture handbook like none other

You're So Vague

How Vague transformed from a punk fanzine like many others into an alternative culture handbook like none other

by Alan Rider, Contributing Editor
first published: October, 2023

approximate reading time: minutes

Vague is possibly the best and most perfect example of where freedom, creativity, and a rebellious counter cultural attitude can take you.

In the ‘What’s In A Name?’ intro piece by Vague editor and chief instigator/agitator Tom Vague that opens this book of reprints of this iconic and unique fanzines’ early years, there is an attempt to define vagueness and the associated state of vagrancy which has been both feared and punished down the ages.  Needless to say, that attempt resulted in only the vaguest of definitions, such is the nature of vagueness, which makes it possibly the perfect name for a fanzine born out of punk but which ended up transcending that limited genre by some considerable degree. Although on the face of it, Vague started out as a punk fanzine in the mould of Sniffin’ Glue, Ripped and Torn, and others, it had matured into something very different by the time it finally spluttered to a halt in 1992 after fourteen and a half years, having morphed into a bible of Notting Hill psychogeography, counter culture, cyber-punk and psychic terrorism through a series of book size Vague ‘annuals’.  This first volume of the anthology, covering the first five years and 15 issues, weighs in at a hefty near 500 large format pages, dwarfing the only previous book about Vague, 1992’s excellent but slimline ‘The Great British Mistake’, and charts the development of the fanzine from its birth in Wiltshire where a young Tom Vague would encounter The Clash at Bournmouth Winter Gardens in November 1977, after which there would be no turning back.  By September 1979 Vague had sprung into physical being, sporting the ubiquitous clunky manual typewritten text and blurry xeroxed photos that were de rigueur for any self-respecting punk fanzine at the time.  The debut issue featured The Banshees, Cure, and Vague favourites Adam and The Ants (until, that is, they betrayed their early supporters in 1981 by turning into the pantomime pin up pop act most now know them for). The Ants were set to be a regular fixture in all of the early issues, some of which verged on Ants FANzines in the truest sense.

Vague Cover artThrough the visually striking scanned issues captured here, each accompanied by a detailed description of each by Tom himself at the back of the book, you have a fascinating and compelling look in the rear view mirror back to a genuinely exciting and unique period when music seemed dangerously revolutionary and provided a template for how to live your life for a generation. The evolution of Vague into a handbook for political art terrorism was gradual over these first 15 issues, which featured every punk and post punk band of note (Adam and The Ants, The Clash, Bow Wow Wow, Joy Division, Pil, Ramones, Crass, and so on) plus a few outliers, reviewed and/or interviewed in an endearingly scrappy and anarchic style, with some issues even intended as tour programmes for The Ants and Bow Wow Wow.  There are so many great moments captured in these pages it is nearly impossible to single any one out. One issue even featured an interview with Gary Glitter with the heading ‘There’s a little bit of Glitter in everybody’, an unfortunate phrase which would come to have very different connotations in later years! Vague is full of wonderful asides like that and developed a unique look and style of its own, frequently aped by later fanzines, built around the views of its creator, Tom vague, who talked almost as much about his mood and travails getting to gigs and carrying out interviews than about the actual gigs or interviews themselves. By issue 12 (which gives this collection its cover image) things were beginning to change, albeit subtly. 

Subtitled ‘Tales from The Blank Generation’ after an essay featured in that issue, the usual features on bands like Killing Joke were now interspersed, no, superseded, by articles “predicting the downfall of the archaic systems of Government in both the East and West” and suchlike. Issues 13 and 14 continued the transformation, gradual though it was. Music was still the main feature, but increasingly the unique Vague blueprint of future issues was developing.  Writing about music would soon not be enough to satisfy Tom’s rapidly evolving creative and intellectual urges.

Self-awareness was always high on Vague’s agenda too.  Indeed, the single sentence statement by Tom Vague introducing this book simply reads “I was going to write a load of crap about alternative media, but you’re not interested in that are you?” I’m quite pleased about that actually, as writing crap about alternative media is my role as a reviewer! The Vague ‘Spikey Tops’ knew full well that they were merely charting the problem, not fixing it, but the die was cast.  Issue 15 featured rants, the end of music, cartoons of ‘Those Loveable Spikey Tops’ and exhortations to ‘Live your life the Vague way’, features on the ‘Stop The City‘ protest campaign and the Native American Women’s movement.  From issue 15 onwards, Vague would become almost unrecognisable from its beginnings, charging head first into the culture war, whilst at the same time rooting itself in its eventual spiritual and adopted home of Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove (which Tom continues to chart the social history of to this day).  The very last sentence appearing in this book is “the only thing to fear is work”, a statement diametrically opposed to the suffocating Victorian work ethic that drives today’s society and politics, yet is the clarion cry of the true vagrant and free spirit.  Volume two, due in 2024, is where Vague transforms into something very different from its punky beginnings and will be well worth the wait. Until then, there is plenty in here to keep you going and no retrospective history of post punk will ever say as much about what it was really like in those days as the pages of Vague do.

I have always been a fierce champion of the fanzine and independent street level print press as the last/only true expression of individuality where you are in complete control and free to express your unedited opinion, not reliant on tech giants or publishing houses to disseminate or censor your thoughts.  In my view Vague is possibly the best and most perfect example of where freedom, creativity, and a rebellious counter cultural attitude can take you. I genuinely believe that a magazine like Vague would stand little chance of even getting off the ground in the current environment, let alone be able to evolve in its own oblique and unique way over fourteen and a half years, and as such is a rare gem to be both captured and preserved, and also treasured and celebrated, and we should be grateful indeed to PC Press for providing us with that opportunity in such style.

Vague Volume One 1979-84 is available now direct from PC Press, online retailers, and all good bookshops (and probably a few bad bookshops as well).  Volume two will follow in 2024.

Alan Rider
Contributing Editor

Alan Rider is a Norfolk based writer and electronic musician from Coventry, who splits his time between excavating his own musical past and feeding his growing band of hedgehogs, usually ending up combining the two. Alan also performs in Dark Electronic act Senestra and manages the indie label Adventures in Reality.


about Alan Rider »»

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