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The zine scene—comics, wrestling, skateboarding, music
London, Ontario, in the 1970s—population 250,000—was, by many accounts, a conservative and boring town, so average that it served as a market-test city for retailers and fast food chains; its great musical contribution to the world was Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, a brass ensemble that claimed to play the sweetest music this side of heaven (and sold more than 100 million records). But by the late 1970s, punk culture, which had already established itself in London, England, and New York City and other major centres, began to take root in London, Ontario. Young musicians and art school students began to gather around galleries and studios that were popping up downtown. They formed their own bands and started to play shows at jam spaces and dive bars—the Cedar Lounge, York Hotel—and the scene grew; over the years London sustained several hundred bands. By the early 1980s, the punk scene began to splinter and to be replaced by smaller, more specialized art and music scenes, which continued to provide a space for London musicians, artists, writers and publishers to engage with counterculture, DIY aesthetics and anarchist politics.
Out of this milieu emerged the music zine What Wave, published from 1984 to 1996 by Dave O’Halloran and Rena MacDonald, a young couple from London, Ontario. They had no publishing experience when they began to produce What Wave but they were already immersed in the world of alternative music magazines and punk zines as readers of the legendary US publications Kicks, Bomp and New York Rocker, which at the time were the only publications where you could get the straight goods on emerging bands, especially in a small, conservative town in southern Ontario.
Dave and Rena took over What Wave from Al Cole, guitarist for the Legend Killers, who had been publishing What Wave for a couple of years: in the fall of 1984, Al gave them a box of back issues of What Wave and a clip-art collection of old monster magazines. Dave and Rena had just returned from a trip to New York, where for the first time they saw bands associated with American garagepunk—a punk take on psychedelic ’60s garage rock—that had not yet been discovered in London, Ontario, and about which, Dave recently recalled, they wanted to get the word out to their friends and fellow punk fans.
Dave, a computer tech, and Rena, a high school special needs teacher, published their first issue of What Wave in December 1984. It was thirty pages long, on standard 8 1/2 x 11" paper and side-stitch bound. It featured Deja Voodoo—a Montreal duo that played twangy punk known as sludgeabilly—on the cover, interviews with Katrina and the Waves from London, England, and UIC from London, Ontario, and reviews of the garagepunk shows they had seen in New York: the Tryfles, the Pandoras, the Fuzztones, the Fleshtones, the Slickee Boys. The first fifty copies were sold with bonus candy left over from Halloween.
What Wave had had a small print run and featured writing about rock and punk. But now Dave, who became known as What Wave Dave, and Rena began to print longer issues and to publish more frequently. They broadened editorial coverage, writing not only about music but also about comics, wrestling and skateboarding. And they expanded their music content to include a range of sub-genres and offshoots of punk and rock, including surf, roots, garagepunk, grunge, hardcore, rockabilly, sludgeabilly, psychedelic and other associated streams of underground music.
A typical issue of What Wave contained photographs, articles, interviews and comics by Dave and Rena and a few local artists and writers. Covers were designed in the collaged, crude mode of punk show posters. Production took place in Dave and Rena’s apartment: articles were typed out on the typewriter, cut out with scissors, arranged on pages, decorated with clip art, glued down and then turned over to a friend at the local print shop, who printed the pages at a discount. (The friend, Mike Niederman, is often cited as one of the foundational figures of punk culture in London, for printing art, zines and show posters for many bands, artists and publishers, and for providing jam space in his loft to the first London punk bands.) When the printed sheets arrived, Dave and Rena would invite friends over to help collate pages, a process of shuffling from one stack of letter-size pages to the next throughout the entire apartment, then stapling each copy along the spine, sometimes for many hours through the night, until they had a few hundred or a thousand copies of What Wave bound and ready for distribution.
What Wave could be purchased for $1.00 (more for later issues) at record stores and comic shops, at first in London and Toronto, and then, as What Wave became better known (through word of mouth and reviews in other zines), in cities in North America and Europe, including Germany, Sweden, France, Spain and England. Within a few years, demand rose for the music written about in What Wave, and Dave and Rena began to produce mix tapes to distribute with copies of the zine. They also produced several 7" records of local bands, promoted many concerts, and hosted many touring bands at their house.
Printing and postage, the major publishing expenses, were covered by revenue from single-copy sales, subscriptions (roughly twenty at any given time) and door money from benefit concerts put on by local bands to support What Wave; the rest of the subsidy came from contributed writing and art and other volunteer labour, the typical creative subsidy model required of publishers of zines and cultural magazines.
What Wave continued to publish for twelve years and became a success by Canadian publishing standards: at its peak it had a circulation of a thousand copies, a tiny but dedicated subscriber base, distribution in North America and Europe. Dave and Rena dedicated their leisure time to travelling throughout Canada and the US to see concerts and to visit record stores and comic shops, where they would trade copies of What Wave for records and zines and magazines, a kind of barter system that allowed them to hear and read about the music they liked, to write about it for What Wave and to promote the community that sustained them.
In the early 1990s, Dave and Rena began to raise two daughters and they devoted much of their time to family life. The last issue of What Wave came out in 1995 (reissued in 2000) and contained a “family tree” that connected the bands—more than 270—of the London, Ontario, punk scene of the 1970s and 1980s. These days, Dave hosts Radio What Wave, a weekly ninety-minute program on CHRW, the University of Western Ontario community radio station, during which he continues the What Wave tradition by talking about and playing underground music. He and Rena still host touring bands in the guest room of their home.
The story of What Wave—volunteerism, the DIY ethos, creative subsidy—is an example of cultural publishing at its best. Zines and cultural magazines are not so much facilitators of a lifestyle as they are a lifestyle, a way of being in the world for publishers, writers and readers.