Oi Polloi

An Interview with Simon Tesler — Co-Founder of BLITZ Magazine

Published: Thu Jan 09 2020

During my regular trawls through the dusty plastic containers of Manchester’s finest second-hand shops, I occasionally stumble upon old copies of a magazine called BLITZ. Published from 1980 up until 1991, the magazine was a fair bit before my time, but from what I can gather, along with i-D and The Face, it was one of the first publications to really push the mix of music, film, art and clothes in one readily available paper package.

On one page there might have been an interview with a young Robert Downey Jr, and on another, a chat with Shaun Stussy - as well as reviews of Derek Jarman films and articles about a mysterious new television sensation by the name of Twin Peaks.

A lot of it is still highly readable today - and it’s funny how much of the stuff mentioned in its pages has gone on to gain ‘classic’ status.

Seeing as I’ve never heard anyone talk about BLITZ before and I know very little about it, I thought I’d pester co-founder and editor Simon Tesler to find out a bit more...

My research suggests BLITZ started in 1980. For a bit of context, what other magazines were around back then? What would you pick up from the newsagents in the late 70s?

That’s right. We published the first issue in September 1980 at the very beginning of our second year at university. We put it together over the summer break after our first year exams. Forty years on, it’s hard to conceive just how prehistoric the media industry was then, compared to where we are now. This was literally the age before computers, before digital cameras or digital anything; before music videos, CDs or mobile phones. There were literally only three television channels in the UK, BBC1 BBC2 and ITV. Channel Four didn’t start until the end of 1982.

And the magazine industry of the time was just as stunted. Teenagers were limited to music newspapers like the NME – my personal bible of the time - and Melody Maker and Sounds, or “girlie” fanmags like Jackie. There was no colour in newspapers, and the only two papers with colour magazines, or indeed supplements of any sort at all, were the Sunday Times and The Observer. The only colour monthlies were bland titles like 19, Honey or Over 21. There was Cosmopolitan, yes, but no Elle or Marie Claire or Q or GQ or Empire or any of the other glossies that launched during the course of that decade.

There were literally only three television channels in the UK, BBC1 BBC2 and ITV. Channel Four didn’t start until the end of 1982.

For kids growing up back then, how important were magazines? With no internet and only a few television channels, I imagine anything containing anything near to underground culture would have seemed pretty amazing back then.

Well underground culture itself was pretty different. It really was underground for one thing. You only ever found out about anything by word of mouth. The main exception was the live music scene in pubs and clubs, which was well documented by the music inkies, especially the NME and Sounds, which were more in tune with edgier, punkier bands. Otherwise, underground culture, or indeed any form of youth culture, was only exceptionally rarely covered by the media.

What led you and Carey Labovitch to start Blitz? Am I right in saying you were students at the time?

That’s right. It was actually Carey’s idea originally. For years, she had been making different sorts of magazines at school, cobbled together on a Roneo machine, which was like a very primitive form of photocopier (because photocopiers didn’t really exist back then either!)

Her idea for BLITZ was really a reflection of the times we were living in. The emergence of punk had really inspired kids to think differently about what they could do for themselves. “Well if anyone can start a band, maybe there are also other things that anyone can do without any training or without grown-ups to tell you how to do it”. The same people who had spent their evenings going to punk gigs were now growing up and trying to make a living, preferably from something more interesting than working in a bank or a boring office.

Inspired by the music press, perhaps (like I was), they were writing or taking photographs; or acting; or making clothes, or art. This was the beginning of an explosion of ‘alternative arts’ in Britain – theatre companies, street entertainment, stand-up comedians, independent clothes shops, filmmakers and so. The emphasis of this new feeling was on appearance, on image, style and design as a way of transmitting ideas.

The idea behind BLITZ was to reflect what this new and very disparate group of people were trying to do, and in covering them we aimed to offer a platform for capable young writers and photographers who were unable to get work in the established magazines because they lacked not ability, but cuttings in their portfolios.

What was the first issue like?

Well, we were only 17 or 18, and we had no professional experience of how to make a magazine; so we kind of just made it up as we went along. For the first issue, Carey did pretty much everything except the writing and photography, pasting up the final pages on her bedroom floor and taking them to the printer. But after that, she and I found our respective roles quite quickly. She took on the duties of publisher, selling advertising and organising distribution, while I was in charge of the editorial.

Right from the beginning the idea was that we wouldn’t be just another student paper: we wouldn’t write about student activities; we’d write about the wider world, and about all the things we were interested in personally. Design, film, politics, theatre, art, video, fashion and anything else that crossed our intellectual radar.

We wanted to make a mark. So another thing we did was to publish in A3 format; the idea being to stand out on the newsstands. Actually, as it turned out, the opposite was true. The only place newsagents had in their shops where they could put an A3 magazine was with the international newspapers, so we tended to get a bit hidden away. So when we left university and went professional in 1982 we had to shrink down to an expanded A4 format like every other magazine…

By the third issue the magazine was picked up by WHSmiths and it wasn’t long before it was published monthly. Making a new magazine every month sounds like a lot of work. What was an average day like for you back then?

Well for the first six issues, the average day was doing our university work in order to get a degree! Putting the issues together was mainly in the holidays or in between uni work. But when we came back down to London in 1982, we managed to borrow a grungy little office in Soho and our little team of four – Carey and me, and our friends Tim Hulse and Shauna Lovell – set about trying to make a living out of BLITZ. Later we added a full-time designer, Jeremy Leslie, and a receptionist.

Right from the beginning the idea was that we wouldn’t be just another student paper: we wouldn’t write about student activities; we’d write about the wider world, and about all the things we were interested in personally. 

Our writers and photographers were all freelance, almost all of them people in their early 20s like us, who’d bought an issue and liked what they saw, and got in touch offering ideas and suggestions for content.

But yes. Making a new magazine every month is indeed a hell of a lot of work. You know how everyone has one of those scary work dreams? Like going onstage and you’ve forgotten your lines? That kind of thing? It’s 30 years since I had to create an issue of a magazine but, honest to God, I still have dreams today where we’re about to go to press and I still don’t have an image to put on the front cover.

Blitz wasn’t a music magazine or a film magazine or a clothes magazine… it covered a wide mix of subjects across the board, and there’d be interviews with everyone from Ken Dodd to Hunter S. Thompson. Where did this mix come from? Was it just a case of you picking out things you were into?

Exactly so. As I said before, the idea was to produce the kind of magazine we wanted to read. We felt that people like us would want to read the same kind of things. So in that sense I guess we were deliberately “uncommercial”.

Iain R Webb, our brilliant and highly unconventional fashion editor from 1982 to 1986, sort of summed it up in a spread he did mid-decade. His approach was to convey a mood or a style not a shopping guide, and quite often he would deliver a set of pictures in which you couldn’t see the clothes at all. Sometimes, designers gave him stick for that, so in one spread, he painted in big letters on a plain white t-shirt, “We’re not here to sell clothes”.

There also seemed to be a strong blend of what would maybe be seen as both high and low culture. As well as things about film and theatre, you featured a lot of stuff about television at a time I can imagine it was still seen as a ‘lesser artform’ or whatever. I’m not too sure what my question is here really, but was this blurring of boundaries an intentional thing?

Absolutely. And yes, good point about television. Considering its immense captive audience and its influence over all sectors of the population it’s extraordinary how little coverage television received at that time. (Quite the opposite nowadays, of course, when famous-for-being-famous TV “personalities” hoover up far more editorial coverage than they deserve.)

Back then though, no one wrote about the personalities who had dominated our formative years from that box in the corner of the living room. So yes we wanted to ask questions of those people; not just the cool ones like Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson or Jonathan Ross or Brookside and Grange Hill creator Phil Redmond, but also the uncool ones like Ken Dodd, or Cannon & Ball, or Coronation Street’s Pat Phoenix. Once we even put one of the decade’s most influential TV executives - Michael Grade, the man the Daily Mail called TV’s ‘Mr Nasty’ who had run both Channel 4 and the BBC - on the cover.

But also, growing up in the 1970s, I used to love Clive James’ insightful and often hilarious reviews of the week’s television in The Observer newspaper. (These were memorably collected for posterity in collections like The Crystal Bucket and other books). Paul Morley – who had been one of my journalistic heroes in his days at NME in the late 1970s - began writing for us from around 1983 and had, I think, been similarly influenced, so he started doing a regular review column looking back on the good, the bad and the ugly of the previous month’s TV.

Bit of a stock question here, but have you got any good stories from the heyday of the magazine? Considering the people who were interviewed, I imagine some funny or strange situations must have came about.  

One that is seared into my memory was a chaotic party we held – actually we had quite a few chaotic parties – but this one in particular was to celebrate the end of the 1980s. We had an exhibition at a fantastic huge open warehouse space in West London that used to be the fashion designer Katharine Hamnett’s store. We’d invited all the cover stars from every issue of BLITZ so loads of celebrities were there. The artist David Mach build this extraordinary 20-foot-tall column out of back issues of BLITZ, and we had lots of exhibits epitomising the key objects or trends of the decade, all encased inside a wall of Absolut vodka bottles.

Absolut also provided a hell of a lot of vodka, and the whole event very quickly got out of hand, with guests and gatecrashers all off their heads on the free-flowing booze. Someone put a cherry bomb down one of the toilets and blew it up; someone else flushed a bra and pants down one of the other toilets, and people were blatantly attempting to dismantle the bottle exhibits and steal their contents. At some point, the police and the fire officers were called, and determined that the party was a safety risk and had to be closed down, and they forced us to close the big barred gate that led in from the street to stop anyone else from getting in.

Unfortunately, it was just at this point in the evening that one of our most iconic cover stars, Siouxsie of Siouxsie & the Banshees, arrived - fashionably late of course – and accompanied by a large entourage, only to be denied entrance. She was predictably furious, and I was required to shamefacedly explain through the barred gate to her that yes, of course I knew who she was, but that the matter was entirely out of my control, and no she couldn’t come in.

That doesn’t sound ideal. BLITZ is often mentioned in the same sentence as iD and The Face, who both also started in 1980. Was there a bit of competition between the magazines? 

Hahaha! Not at all! We were all the best of friends… Er… No.

The funny thing was that the three magazines were all privately owned and run by couples. Carey and I were and are a couple. Terry & Tricia Jones launched and ran i-D. Nick & Julie Logan launched and ran The Face. We were effectively three separate husband and wife cottage industries.

The big difference, of course, was that Terry Jones and Nick Logan were each 15 years or more older than us and had many years’ experience at the highest levels in the established industry, at Conde Nast and IPC and EMAP, whereas we were just a couple of university kids with no experience at all.

To answer your question, yes, there was a lot of competition. I could never understand that, because we were all to some extent on the same side against the entrenched industry at large. We should really all have been pulling together against the old guard.

There wasn’t really any sense of competition with i-D. They did their thing and we did ours, and several contributors went back and forth between the two magazines, and Terry and Tricia Jones were always really nice and supportive if we met at events.

However, I think it’s fair to say that wasn’t the case at all with Nick Logan. I never met him, but we were always told that he nursed a lot of bad feelings towards us. Apparently, Face contributors were told in no uncertain terms that there would be no going back if they ever started working for BLITZ. What a shame.

Very strange. An issue in 1988 featured an interview with Charles Manson. What was the story there? How did that come about?

That was all down to one of our most prolific writers, Jonh Wilde [Jonh is the correct spelling]. Growing up in the 1960s, you couldn’t not have been aware of the Manson Murders because of the blanket coverage they received in the media. Quentin Tarantino is our contemporary in age, of course, and he had been nursing a similar fascination for years before Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. I forget exactly how this came about, but Jonh teamed up with the writer and musician Nikolas Schreck, who is and was one of the leading experts on Manson, and had interviewed him several times.

In another issue we also interviewed Reggie Kray, one of the infamous gangsters who had ruled parts of London back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It's not that we were lionising these guys, we were just trying to get some objective impression of how and why they came to be who they were. 

Unreal. Slight change of subject here, but after much chat about the so-called ‘death of print’ around ten years ago, it seems that people still read magazines. What are your thoughts on the printed page today?

Do they, though? It seems to me – and it’s a terrible shame - that although newspapers are just about managing still to hang on for now, the age of magazines is well and truly over.

Just as changing technology allowed college kids like us to start our own magazine in 1980, the latest wave of change allows literally anyone at all to start their own virtual magazine on social media, and distribution is as easy as pushing a button.

Yes, of course, there are still magazines, but in the sector we once inhabited with BLITZ these are now only once or twice a year affairs like AnOther or The Gentlewoman or others. Beautifully produced, of course, but fed entirely by fashion advertising, and entirely dependent on that income stream. I’d be surprised if any sell as many as 5,000 copies per issue. I couldn’t be happier that they exist, but the days of mass-circulation magazines is over; and the age of mass-circulation newspapers is unlikely to survive the decade to come.

It's not that we were lionising these guys, we were just trying to get some objective impression of how and why they came to be who they were. 

The last issue of BLITZ was in 1991. How come it stopped? And what did you do next? 

I said we made it up as we went along. Well, one of the problems with that philosophy was that no one told us that the economy is cyclical; that for every boom period there is also a bust. We started BLITZ in the recession of the early Eighties, and we really rode the crest of the wave that followed, pumping all our income into producing thicker and more expensive issues, and also diversifying into other publishing projects. As a result, we weren’t prepared for the equally brutal recession that hit in 1990. Our advertising revenues simply melted away and we couldn’t afford to keep BLITZ going.

However, one of the sidelines we’d launched was a company producing business-to-business directories and newsletters for the magazine publishing industry. Luckily we were able to hang onto that business and build it up in the 1990s. Carey and I are still partners; we got married in 1989 and we’re still going strong almost 40 years after we met and launched the first issue…

Amazing. I think I’ve pretty much run out of questions now. Thanks a lot for doing this. Have you got any wise words to wind this up with?

If I’m honest, though it grieves me to say it, if I was starting again now with a magazine like BLITZ, I wouldn’t be doing it in print, I’d do it on Instagram or whatever the next platform is that comes along.

The basic underlying truth is that you have to follow your own instinct. If you have a passion to do something, whatever it may be, you have to pursue it as hard as you possibly can, and if you’re very lucky you can make it pay. But it takes a lot of perseverance and also a determination not ever to take no for an answer.

There’s a saying credited to the famous advertising man Leo Burnett: 'When you reach for the stars, you may not quite get them, but you won't come up with a handful of mud either.' My wife Carey has a similar saying that has always been her modus operandi: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get…”

For those interested, select issues of BLITZ can be viewed in PDF form over on this site.