Brian McMahon has been leafing through – and scanning – the pages of Irish print history for the last five years with his celebrated blog, Brand New Retro. The blog has focused on the discardable, everyday history of Irish culture through the pages of editorial and advertisements found in a huge trove of magazines and newspapers from the 1950s through to the 1990s, that so often went on to become nothing more than tomorrow’s fish and chips wrapper, or that simply went kaput as is the way of the print industry. A collaboration with graphic designed Joe Collins led to Brian fulfilling a long-held plan to turn the blog into a book, and late last year, Liberties Press published Brand New Retro: Vintage Irish Pop Culture and Lifestyle in a tasty coffee-table format that allows you to flick through the history of Irish print, from saucy proto-lad mags, to now quaint opinion and advice columns, to glamorous and glorious fashion spreads. We talked to Brian about his journey from sticking together his own Dundalk punk fanzine, Too Late, with his brother to the publication of this delicious time capsule of a book.
Tell me about your background and interest in magazines and how you got into doing Too Late?
Well, Too Late was around Christmas or December 1978, that would have been influenced by the whole punk thing, the realisation that you could do-it-yourself. Myself and my brother went over to England that summer before, working in a pea factory, Smedley Peas and we made a lot of money – well, relatively, there was no tax – and I spent mine on buying a bass guitar and an amp and he just poured whatever he made into getting a print of 1,000 magazines. He was in college in Dublin. Back then there was no real photocopiers, so you went to the printers and got the best price. it was X amount for 500, and so it was cheaper to do a thousand. We’d always been magazine and comic fans, NME and all that. It was all down to punk I think, that spirit I think.
What age were you?
I would have been 17, and my brother would’ve been 19. It was good times. When people say to me, ‘You go to all the trouble of scanning stuff…’ but it’s so much easier than what you had to do then. They’re in the book and you can see them. You had to cut out newspaper headlines to make the title for a magazine. I know that when it says ‘Number One’ on it, it comes from a box of 20 Carroll’s Number One cigarettes!
Were there other examples of people doing this at the same time?
There was Heat down in Dublin. In this book it’s got Bob Geldof on the cover, but it did have a story about U2, and there was an action taken against them and they subsequently shut down… but it was a big inspiration, it was very clean, very strong graphics – you see there’s a pastiche of Time Magazine. The two guys, Jude Carr and Pete Price were the main men behind it.
Beyond your initial collection, where do you source everything else beyond that?
It’s hard work, but it’s easy work as well because I do like going through second stores and markets, car-boot sales, all round the country. I’ve always had a tradition of doing that, because you’re always in the hope of finding something. And then online too. You can target something – I remember Depeche Mode were on the cover of the NME, and I knew it was in Dublin because they played in the SFX but I couldn’t tell what street they were on [on the cover] and there’s a photo in the pub and I still can’t tell what pub it is! Somebody had suggested something on the website but it didn’t ring true with me. But I remember that was there, but I didn’t have that NME, so I went on eBay and I kept searching for ‘Depeche Mode, NME…’ and eventually it came up at a reasonable price.
Was there a point or a catalyst or a reaction when doing the website went from being say a hobby to a more serious one?
I was serious about it from the start! But it was great to get feedback. I suppose there was a motivation there to catch up on the web stuff a bit as well, because it was about ten years since I’d worked on the web, and I was curious to see how it had come on – because I had been there from the early enough days of people doing websites – to see how a normal enough guy, not a total techie guy could get on with it. It proved that most people can do it, they can get the site up and running. The site was free for the first four months, I didn’t have a unique URL and by using WordPress in the cloud, I didn’t have any hosting issues. I wasn’t paying a penny for the first six months. It was only when I decided to get a unique URL and get rid of the ads, but even that’s minimal.
In terms of the book, what informed whittling down the selection in the magazine.
As an editor, you know – that’s a very interesting question! On the website, there’s three and a half thousand different scans, so there’s a lot there.
I worked with a friend called Joe Collins, he collaborated with me. He’s a graphic designer and he also works in advertising, so he had a real passion for the ads. And one of the reasons for working with Joe was that I said that this was going to be a little bit iterative. We’ll have to see how things are going, I’m not going to give you the exact thing, the finished copy, at the start, because different things will come into play. Some things won’t work. I wanted to get a balance. I wanted to get a mixture of colour and black-and-white. I wanted to get a fair representation of the decades as much as possible. And then there was stuff that I knew we wouldn’t get copyright clearance for print, and then there was just stuff that wouldn’t work in print – maybe it was because the original content was so poor in quality and when you scanned it in it looked a bit ugly. It was a mixture of all those things. In the end, it was really about how interesting was it visually, to get a wide spread of women’s, men’s, fashion, music, lifestyle. A lot of stuff fell by the wayside and some stuff I’d think, ‘Oh, how did that not make it?’ but that’s just the process I went through. But every page I’m happy with, there’s a ‘wow’, or a conversation piece.
It leans more towards the visual element rather than reprinting articles – which I guess could just be reprinted as text.
Yes. It even happens on the website, the visuals are pushed up to the front, and the articles are usually there as a thumbnail if you want to read it. But the thing is, I can see from the stats [on the website] that a smaller percentage of people click on the article to read. But that’s the nature of the web I think, people just want to go in a browse. And also the stuff where I wanted to put the articles in, it just didn’t look right. I thought, well, if they really want to read more about something, they can go to the web article on it. But I still think there’s a balance of enough to read and enough to look at. It’s not just a pure coffee-table book with nice visuals.
What’s the story with clearing rights usage? Is that something you’ve built up because of the website that you know the people to talk to?
You’ve hit the nail on the head there. It really, really helped. It was just like suddenly we decided to do a book and we had to do all this *[rights clearing]*. We’d built up relationships with so many people over the course of the four and half, five years of doing the blog. So that really helped. A lot of people actually were very pleased to have their work reviewed and rejuvenated in some ways. They were happy then to have it in print as well.
We did the cover of the book early on, way back in April. So when we approached people and said ‘This is what we’re going with,’ I was able to show them, actually, a mock-up of the book that we did about a year ago, even before we got did the cover. That’s how we got the deal with the publisher and it also helped when went and talked to people that this was what we were doing, and we’d like if you’d give us permission to use your images – and it really helped. And then we would show them that it was a real chronicle of Irish magazines.
So you mentioned that you went to the publishers – was it a case of you going and piloting the idea to other people, rather than an external party coming to you and saying, ‘Let’s make a book of your website’?
Yes. It’s funny, I always thought somebody *would* come and approach us and ask us that! I never just had time to do the book, but I’d always been thinking about it, and preparing for it, mentally. The pivotal moment was when I spoke to Joe – he was in between jobs, so he had to prepare portfolio, and he prepared his portfolio in a book form. So he said, why don’t you do something like that for your site? And I said I was thinking about it and that I’d always thought about doing a book. He was a big fan of the site, he really appreciated the advertising and the copy and the work that went into it, so it was a great match. And he was dedicated, he was committed, and motivated because he loved the content.
I said it wasn’t going to be about money, it’s just about doing something that we’re proud of, that’s beautiful. We did the prototype, about 50 pages and the chapters were a little different, but it was very much the same. I had given him a very brief brief and what he came back with was very similar to what we ended with in the final product. So we got the book printed and we sent in a big poster in a big tube – maybe half the size of this wall – with one of the ads doctored up saying that there’s the promise of a book, contact here if you’re interested. We sent that to five publishers and three of them got in touch straight away. Because if you look at the process of putting out a book, you have to go through these channels, we knew that we just didn’t have the time, and also that this book was something a bit different as well, it wasn’t a work of fiction. So that had a good reaction, and in the end we went with Liberties, who are independent. I think there’s a bit of a Factory Records vibe about them! They’re independent and they gave us total artistic freedom. They weren’t coming and saying, ‘I think we need a bit more U2 in here’. But with the quality of the prototype and, if I say so myself, the quality of the website, it was going to be good.
One of the things that I was struck by was how risque or saucy some of the things from the ’60s and ’70s from what I assume was a very Catholic Ireland. Were there any parts where you were surprised by the type of content, whether it covered stuff that you didn’t expect – or didn’t cover it?
Your point is good about the nudity, or semi-nudity. I do remember that at the time, so it wasn’t a total shock looking at it. People who are a little bit younger, Joe for example is at least ten years younger than me, he said, ‘Oh, I never knew this existed’, whereas I would have remembered. What surprised me… I think some of these ’60s fashion catalogues are amazing. There’s a reason they’re on page one! That come a little, smaller than A4 catalogue that could so easily have gotten lost, but I was just lucky that my mother had held on to it, that I got my hands on it, and when I scanned it in everything looked good. Like, the photographer’s not credited on that! It’s probably Tony Higgins or something like that. They deserve to be in a book. I do feel pride that they’re now in people’s houses.
Do you find a lot of the same names and connections cropping up? Like, for example, there’s one *[Father Ted writer]* Arthur Mathews cartoon in it and when I looked up Almost News on your website, I saw Tony Clayton-Lea was working for it – were there a lot of those connections and familiar names?
There is. Almost News is very interesting because a lot of them went on to bigger things. Arthur had his own magazine called Gakbag, which is where I took the cartoon in the magazine from, but he also worked for Almost News and he had ‘Trendy Trevor’ and a couple of other cartoon strips.
I knew it from the ‘Dan The Pints Man’ cartoon strip.
Ah yeah… again, we would have loved to have fitted more in! But we ended up going with the one in the sports chapter, because I felt the sports needed to be lightened up a bit – it was getting a little bit too ‘sporty’. I wanted to bring in more pop-culture, George Best’s girlfriend, Sinead Cusack – that was exciting, I remember it as a kid. And then of course you have Dunphy and Giles in there too.
Do you have stuff like The Slate in your collection?
I do, but it didn’t make it into the book because I just had to draw a line somewhere, which was around the mid-’90s. I do like The Slate but it wasn’t going to fit in. As we said about the editorial process with as I said to Joe at the start, it’s going to evolve, something I’m not too sure about just yet but it will take shape, and that was the decision I made into the process.
I noticed there’s no college magazines in there really.
There’s a picture in there a Yes magazine from the mid ’60s which was a college produced one, there’ s good post on the blog about it, but it’s not featured in the book. But, you know, college mags tend to be poor. They’re justing pasting stuff, some stupid cartoon they got somewhere else, all those rag-mags, they’re useless. Even on the blog now if someone gives me a magazine that’s old and it’s Irish, if it’s no good, I’m not going to put it in for the sake of continuity. Unless there’s something in it of value, it’s not going to make it.
Are there any particular favourites in there?
*[Pauses]* Ah there’s so many! I do regret now, maybe, not doing a bit more of these showbiz snippets. Everything is themed together so these snippets give you a bit more openness to throw things in together. So I like that page, but I could open any page… and look at that, two bands who are back in Dublin this month *[The Blades and U2]*. Because it’s all coming from my own collection, it’s the same way as maybe having records at home, you know where you bought it, you remember where you bought it. And I know where all these are coming from. Ah, I really don’t have favourites… I could pick any one here and say why I like it.
Brian McMahon’s Brand New Retro: Vintage Irish Pop Culture and Lifestyle is out now, published by Liberties Press. For even more Irish print history, check out www.brandnewretro.ie.
Words: Ian Lamont
Photos: Brand New Retro