Blah-faced cheek

Bastard child of Ray Gun, PR puff or the hippest mag in town? Liz Farrelly looks at Blah blah blah and sorts out the hype from the harder stuff

It’s the early Nineties. The economic downturn is trimming the excess fat off magazine publishers’ lists, but the stagnant mainstream has prompted a new generation of innovators to have a go. The results: Dazed and Confused, G-Spot, The Herb Garden, Blow, ABeSea, Another. It is a magazine junkie’s heaven with something new to try every month… and then there is Ray Gun. Launched in 1992 by Marvin Scott Jarrett, not a very shy nor retiring American, and designed by David Carson, Ray Gun’s success earned its designer superstar status and gave its publisher a lust for world domination.

As the Nineties tick on, newsagents’ shelves are almost audibly groaning under the paper evidence of media overload. With fanzines going mainstream, thanks to link-ups with image-conscious commercial sponsors, the cycle of stagnation and regeneration is ready to begin again. The question is, do we need another youth-oriented magazine or has everything been done in print that can be done?

Everything new eventually becomes stale. Magazine publishing needs a good shake-up, and Blah blah blah, MTV Europe’s new magazine launched by Scott Jarrett, will rock the boat. It will either be mega-successful, shaming every other title into a major rethink, or the projected audience will resent being subjected to a great big MTV-backed vehicle. Selling itself as “MTV in print” is a bit of a mistake. Blah is actually more interesting than wallpaper.

With a subheading “The Rebirth of Print” – a crafty sideswipe at Carson’s monograph “The End of Print” – Blah blah blah was launched on 14th March, the morning after a very drunken party the night before. It is an interesting exercise in guerrilla tactics. Jarrett came to London, the home of the underground/overground style mag (remember life before The Face and i-D? Bleak wasn’t it?), to sell a US version of that brand of print-based anarchy back to the Brits. And why not, if appropriation is the name of the postmodern game?

Landing in the UK last September to find designers for a proposed Ray Gun Europe, Jarrett got side-tracked into negotiations with MTV, which wanted its own magazine and would buy into publishing credibility. Ray Gun Europe went on hold and, from the designers who pitched, Jarrett chose Chris Ashworth and Neil Fletcher of Substance. “We got the job because we’re fresh,” says Ashworth, the more talkative of the two. Having freelanced at MTV for 18 months, he knows the power structure, can cope with the “corporate bullshit” and refuses to be phased. On MTV’s involvement in the first issue, he admits: “They saw every stage, but only changed spelling mistakes and took out any negative comments about MTV. But that’s it. From issue two onwards it’s just us.”

Obviously the politics of a publishing venture like this are intriguing, where “street cred” is offered and bought by a multi-national communications giant (MTV is owned by Viacom). But what about the actual product? Pick up the first issue and the most glaring impression is the similarity between the Blah masthead and good-ole-you-know-what… If, however, you knew Ashworth and Fletcher’s previous work you’d recognise the monochromatic, in-your-face, degraded type as intrinsic to their graphic language and realise they’re not simply conforming to a Ray Gun Publishing housestyle. Maybe they should have done something defiantly different. Maybe Jarrett chose them because he likes that graphic look.

A combination of low-tech devices – fax-fucked or scratched out Letraset, blurry images that wouldn’t pass Boots’ quality control and a gritty northern obsessiveness with layering and scanned-in textures (out of the school of Eg.G in Sheffield and Pd-p in York, where the two used to work) – means at first glance Blah looks unreadable. There’s nothing revolutionary about the division of the 98 pages plus covers into sections (front: news, middle: features, back: reviews), with a mix of 70 per cent music to 30 per cent fashion and “alternative” – i.e. MTV-sponsored – sports.

The articles are a bit too long and flow into each other, with story-opening spreads appearing unrelated to the rest of the feature, and few ads to signal where a story starts and ends. Although there is no grid, the visual anarchy never overpowers the content. The tone is “insider” and some of the articles read like primers – so you’ll get the references next time – but it helps if you’re a fan of the music press, UK or US. Your starter for ten, who is Perry Farrell? All this may be off-putting, but I managed to read every word and was impressed with the depth and maturity of some of the writing. At a guess I’m ten years older than the target reader but Blah blah blah didn’t alienate me. Ha!

Ashworth explains the schizophrenic aesthetic: “Each spread is designed to fit the content of that feature. We approached it this way because everything is so stale. People of our age are used to seeing different types of information so they’re not expecting to see everything laid out the same way. Designing a story about The Prodigy, a techno band, is in fact a different brief to an article about Ash, an indie band.”

Knowing, relating to, and actually being the audience, able to design in difference, that’s the key. Ashworth and Fletcher have extended the role of visual and written information, breaking the rules of magazine layout along the way. Today there is no orthodoxy, no one style of music or fashion that predominates. In a fragmented social and cultural environment, visually sophisticated consumers are able to recognise what interests them and mix and match to suit their individual tastes. This is the experience of being young in the dying years of the century. Ashworth and Fletcher are attempting to design a magazine which offers that freedom to choose amid total visual mayhem.

But, when the ad sales department (based at MTV) gets into its stride, content and value for money could be sacrificed for the usual 60/40 mix of editorial to advertising. But now, with only 18 pages of advertising in the first issue (not counting the double page plug for your favourite music channel), it’s obvious MTV is subsidising the whole affair.

The major drawback is the mix of content. Blah blah blah will be perceived as a style magazine because it looks like one. Actually it’s a music magazine, because that’s the business its sponsors are in. It could fall between two stools trying to entice readers away from existing titles – it doesn’t offer enough music for a Vox reader, nor enough attitude for an i-D reader.

The print-run of 120 000 is very ambitious and they’ve got a way to go to challenge the supremacy of, say, The Face (last issue 210 pages plus covers). But the enthusiasm is there, and a will to succeed. If the design cognoscenti think Blah blah blah isn’t for them, they could be right. But wait until the second issue to make your mind up. Doing it all again and again, under the pressure of a deadline, that’s the crucial test of creativity in magazine design.

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