Desperate Times: Brilliant Book Collection of Legendary Seattle Underground ‘Zine
Desperate Times was that rare combination of underground fanzine and professional publication, published in Seattle for six glorious issues in the summer of 1981. The entire run has been collected into a new book, Desperate Times: The Summer of 1981, edited by Maire M. Masco. With a cover designed by Art Chantry, Desperate Times is a perfect cultural snapshot of early 1980s Seattle, and a brilliant example of how alternative publications can be archived and presented in book format.
Desperate Times (the ‘zine) was the brainchild of Masco and fellow collaborators Dennis White, Daina Darzin, and Billy Shaffer (who served as art director). Much more so than Seattle’s music magazine The Rocket, where I was an editor, Desperate Times was the product of the area’s underground/alternative/punk music scene. Both Masco and White were heavily involved in that scene, producing and promoting music shows, releasing records on local bands, and generally being very cool. The art direction, by Shaffer, was brilliant in its tabloid simplicity, bringing a sense of order and format along with bold, provocative graphics. Its big, heavy, condensed headlines, cut-and-paste collages, and high contrast photographs gave Desperate Times a powerful graphic feel, along the lines of what was appearing in NME and other British music papers at the time, but with its own unique flavor. And of course, there was that amazing logo!
Masco says in the book’s introduction that to produce the first issue “we stole blue-line boards from The Rocket.” Actually, a lot of Desperate Times‘s production was done at Square Studio, an adjunct space to The Rocket that was hosted by a ever-changing collection of art directors and graphic artists (including myself). The paper was produced with old school graphic design tools and a typewriter; Masco says that for the first issue “we didn’t have enough press-type for the page numbers.” And when printed it was perhaps the dirtiest, inkiest publication of all time. Masco explains proudly, “We printed Desperate Times as cheaply as possible. We used the lowest grade pulp paper and leftover ink.” The paper was so dirty that you could practically blow ink dust off the pages, and after one reading your hands would be covered in black ink (there was never any color printing in Desperate Times).
The editorial content of Desperate Times was split between coverage of local bands and music and reviews of national (and international) acts who came to play in Seattle. Although most of the Seattle and Northwest bands covered by Desperate Times are now lost to history, there was plenty of brilliance from bands like 3 Swimmers, Blackouts, Children of Kellogg, Audio Leter, Enemy, Fartz, Fastbacks, Joe Despair, Little Bears from Bangkok, Moving Targets, Pop Defect, Pudz, Rapid-I, Refuzors, Spectators, Student Nurse, U-Men, Visible Targets, X-15, and many more. The roots of Seattle’s late 80s-early 90s musical explosion are in these pages. In fact, Desperate Times arguably features the first in-print mention of the world “grunge,” used to refer to a Seattle band’s sound. That came in a letter in issue #2 from Mark Arm, about his pretend band Mr. Epp & the Calculations (Arm would later go on to form Green River and later Mudhoney, both legendary Seattle grunge bands).
“We wrote about things that were important to us, but not part of the popular culture of the time,” states Masco. The early 1980s brought the election of Ronald Reagan, undeclared wars in Central America, and a lot of just plain bad popular culture. For those of us who were living through that period in Seattle, Desperate Times was a bold, brilliant beacon of light in a what felt like a very desperate time. It makes me very happy to see this collection, which is truly a thing of joy. Folks who were around and part of this scene in the Pacific Northwest during this time will find the book insanely seductive, like a punk high school yearbook. The book itself is a superb historical document and collection and hopefully a model that other regional and national ‘zines and undergrounds can follow in the future. Masco had done a great service for so many people by preserving and highlighting the music (and voices) of a generation of Seattle-area musicians and artists.
(Above: Desperate Times book cover design by Art Chantry)
Below are four covers of Desperate Times (art director: Billy Shaffer)
Desperate Times, number 4, August 19, 1981
Desperate Times, number 5, September 3, 1981
Desperate Times, number 6, October 7, 1981