We were all seriously spoiled for choice when it came to underground fanzines in the early/mid 1990s, and didn’t even know it. Some, like Popwatch and even my own Superdope, weren’t even all that underground, and could be easily found in nationwide Tower Records stores and had print runs in the thousands (mine only actually hit those numbers once). Yet there was only so much that I could or would read back then, to say nothing of my limited-means income that only allowed just so much superfluous fanzine spending.
I actually passed on all of the Popwatch mags I saw then, with merely one exception – then only later wondered why I hadn’t accumulated them in the 90s. It may be that I incorrectly saw it more as a corporate-leaning magazine rather than as a fanzine per se; such were the very important distinctions that dictated the terms of my pocketbook.
What became retrospectively clear was just how strong a line Leslie Gaffney’s Popwatch had built to the incredibly fruitful New Zealand music scene of the time. Popwatch #6 arrived in 1994 when there was just one amazing NZ 45 after another coming out on US labels like Majora, Siltbreeze, New World of Sound, Ajax and Roof Bolt. Alastair Galbraith and Bill Direen each came and played shows in the US – I saw ‘em! – and this issue interviews both gentlemen. Galbraith actually contributed the glossy cover collage art you see here. I particularly like Bill Meyer’s “Who Is Bill Direen?” piece – honestly didn’t read this until after I’d interviewed Direen myself for Dynamite Hemorrhage #2, twenty years later, thinking that I’d finally cornered the US market.
There’s a whole passel of top-tier contributors to Popwatch #6, including our old pal Brian Turner, then the publisher of Teen Looch fanzine (and don’t worry, Brian, if you’re reading this – we’ll be getting to the ‘Looch one of these days). Turner contributes a piece on Japanese noise; Tim Bugbee interviews Jim Shepard; Gaffney herself interviews Crawling With Tarts. Corporate magazine my ass.
It was a laff to see reviews by Les Scurry, a guy I used to DJ with on KFJC circa 1989-90 when he was the music director over there. The dude was a serious curmudgeon and seen-it-all nihilist before his time, and it comes out in his many dismissive reviews in this issue. He did the same thing when he’d stand in front of the entire KFJC stuff at our mandatory weekly meeting on Wednesdays and go through that week’s new releases that’d been mailed to the station – “this is garbage”, “this one’s a big pile of dumper”, “you can forget playing this on the air” and so on.
The reviews section is really the only blot on the Popwatch record, as aside from Scurry, it’s relentlessly positive to a fault, and it attempts to review absolutely everything, as was the wont of many fanzines that styled themselves as comprehensive guides did at the time. I’ve written about these tendencies before; there were and remain irreconcilable pet peeves.
I also magnanimously recognize that not everyone reads these things the same way that I do; I’m always looking for guidance as to what’s the next set of records to buy, while others might be looking for some larger context on the state of underground music in 1994, be it San Diego pop-punk, twee midwestern jangle or UK industrial noise. But it’s tough for me to really contextualize anything when reading a review of some indie-pop doofus that concludes, “This is what music should be”. Oh yeah?
Or these choice sentences: from an Alastair Galbraith review: “Dedicated to Pip Proud, an English singer that no one’s ever heard of…” (three issues later this Australian singer would be featured in Popwatch); and from a Sleater-Kinney review: “Three hardcore girls from NYC”. Anyway, there’s stuff reviewed in here that is obviously pre-internet, and that has stayed that way for nearly 30 years, completely stuck in the analog world forever. I still want to hear that Spuyten Duyvil single Scurry praises in a very rare moment of favorableness.
The great thing about Popwatch is they were all pretty much like this: packed to the gills, full of New Zealand worship (they also documented Barbara Manning extensively, another huge favorite of mine during this era) and were bursting with highly educated, navel-gazing, record-collecting contributors. I’m stunned as to how nearly impossible it is to find anything about it online; it has stayed just as remotely analog as many of the long-tail bands it covered.