A look back at “Slander,” a short-lived publication that razzed Madison bands in the 1980s.
Those of us too young to have ever set foot in long-gone Madison venues like O’Cayz Corral and Club de Wash often get a polished, romanticized version of what the local music community was like in the 1980s and 1990s. Listening back to the recordings of bands including Fire Town, Poopshovel, Killdozer, and Appliances-SFB, you can understand why—people were making a variety of really compelling music here during that fondly recalled era, and a good number of those people are still contributing to music in Madison today. Local recording studio Smart Studios became a regional and eventually a national powerhouse.
While there’s plenty of justified praise to go around in retrospect, it’s harder to get a sense of how people on the ground actually talked about themselves and each other during that time. What about the gossip, the in-jokes, the sniping?
We still have one imperfect window into that in the form of Slander, a short-lived zine whose then-anonymous writers and editors published seven issues starting in 1984. Never serious, accurate, or ethical, Slander nonetheless makes it clear that local musicians of the day could appreciate a crude joke or two at their own expense. Just seeing that can deepen one’s affection for the music and the people who made it.
“We here at Slander are an odd lot in that we tend to enjoy the local scene more often than the national or even international scenes,” read one of the many self-referential pieces in the zine’s first issue. “This is not because we don’t like the acts from other parts of the universe, but solely because we’re a bunch of cheap bastards who just want to have a good time, drink some cheap beer, and be with our friends. (We have friends? ed.)”
The local music commentaries in Slander read less like what we’d call “snark” today and more like maniacal fan-fiction. Slander repeatedly claimed across multiple issues that the members of psych-rock band Ivory Library were continually murdering each other: “Now they have opened up a guided tour of Ted’s new garden in which they will show eager onlookers the very stretch of tomato patch where the ex-guitarist lies in grotesque fertilization.’ Typical headlines included “WHITE SISTERS BEAT THEIR OWN MUTANT CHILDREN WITH BATS!!” and “CATTLE PROD FUCKS UP BIG TIME.” Several issues carried the tagline “Because bad press is better than no press at all,” and number 7, apparently the last, proclaimed that it was “The music zine that is ruining its own life.”
One of Slander‘s creators, Madison native Charlie Cheney, spoke about the project on the record recently. Cheney explained that he got the inspiration during a study-abroad trip to London in 1984. The British music press has long had a reputation for being sensational and harsh, and the writing in New Musical Express and Melody Maker set the tone for Slander, which often reads as if written by very vindictive people drunk on their own power. “They were hysterical because they would rip on everybody,” Cheney says of the British publications he read in the ’80s. “They were just brutal.”
Cheney particularly credits a conversation with singer-songwriter Pat McCurdy, who was touring in the UK at the time, for giving him the final push to create the zine. For whatever reason, he specifically remembers that McCurdy and his band were sporting new, pointy shoes. “I was in London for Junior Year Abroad and Pat visited with his band,” Cheney says. “We met near Carnaby Street where the whole band had bought shoes for their shows back home. As we drank beer in a street pub in Covent Garden we came up with the whole idea.”
Returning to Madison, Cheney collaborated with a few friends and decided to start an anonymous zine that would rip on both musicians they liked and ones they didn’t. The tools at hand were crude. “We were making it on a Macintosh SE with no hard drive… we could run PageMaker and the operating system off of two floppy disks,” Cheney recalls, adding that the zine’s “color” issues were simply colored by hand with highlighters. Layouts were absurd, and used photos that had nothing to do with the actual stories. Still, Slander actually managed to sell paid ads to record stores, venues, and restaurants, and over the course of its run musicians would actually look forward to getting lambasted in its pages. At one point, late Isthmus journalist Tom Laskin (also Appliances-SFB’s vocalist) asked for an interview with Slander‘s editors. They wore masks and met up with Laskin at Ella’s Deli, which was then located on State Street.
“It was really just about giving press to all my friends, but just doing it anonymously, because we thought it’d be funnier,” Cheney says. “We’d also rip on people we genuinely didn’t like, but you couldn’t tell the difference, which was awesome. And we did it all anonymously so people didn’t know who it was. We’d be in bars and people would be talking about the latest issue or whatever, because we were all friends together, even if we didn’t like each other’s music that much. Some people that were honestly being ripped on were so excited that they’d been torn up by Slander. We’d kind of sit in the corner trying not to break character.”
When not accusing local band The Weeds of being witches, stoking a dubious rivalry with Isthmus, or claiming that Madison punk standouts Tar Babies’ 1987 SST release Fried Milk was a polka record—”a great gift for all of your northside Chicago suburbs parents”—Slander occasionally dabbled in something vaguely adjacent to fact. One issue ripped on a member of the band White Sisters for supposedly playing his own band’s single on a jukebox at a bar, declaring “How gauche.” This was at least based on an actual rumor Cheney heard, and he recalls it being one of the few times someone got genuinely offended by a Slander piece.
Slander was also reliably honest about the fact that the editors openly solicited bribes. (Not conventional journalistic practice, to say the least.) “We’d tell people to leave a six-pack of beer at B-Side with a note, and if the beer was good, we might call back,” Cheney says. A couple bands actually tried it. In issue #5, the editors lash out at the members of Cattle Prod for sending a 12-pack of Busch: “Hey, we may be assholes, but we’re not CHEAP.” Another issue praises the members of Poopshovel for providing Slander‘s staff with a half-barrel: “These guys know which side of the bread gets buttered with barbitol boy, yeah. These men are PROFESSIONALS. The rest of you ungrateful bastards could learn a few lessons from these fine young gentlemen.”
Some of the humor in Slander wouldn’t fly today, even under the banner of twisted satire, but thankfully the more unsavory comedic instincts don’t dominate things. Mostly it’s just really (mostly knowingly) sophomoric work from smart-assed twentysomethings looking for an excuse to give their friends a hard time. And the editors were at least self-aware enough to turn the barbs inward, often portraying themselves as wildly corrupt, drunken degenerates. Cheney says he’d stand by the work, but admits he hasn’t actually read it in a long time. These days he’s in and out of Madison, and often on the road in a folk duo called Sugar Still.
Slander‘s creativity did go beyond simply making stuff up and being gleefully offensive, too. The center spread of a special double issue was an “autographs page” where readers could supposedly collect signatures from a who’s-who of local music figures, including Rockin’ John McDonald, Butch Vig, Pete Kaesberg and “All the bartenders in town.” There are even some crude digital drawings (presumably created on that ancient Mac), including one that shows a fan blowing bubbles around, with the caption “BURSTING THE BUBBLE OF ITS OWN SELF IMPORTANCE.” One headline, “O’CAYZ EXPLODES STRANGELY,” feels ominous now—the venue did in fact burn down in 2001.
What hasn’t changed is the basic human desire for recognition, and Cheney feels that tapping into that was a key part of Slander‘s perverse appeal. “Everyone just needs a little bit of approval and some confirmation that what they’re doing is worth it,” Cheney says. “People who say they don’t are very, very strong individuals, or liars.”
Editor’s note: Special thanks to Steve Manley of B-Side Records for lending his copies of “Slander” to make this story possible.