From headbangers in Hastings to new romantics in Norwich, pen pals and lonely hearts columns were a staple of music magazines from the 1970s to the 1990s. Hopeful, passionate and bored fans sent in their photos, names, addresses and obsessions for publication and crossed their fingers, hoping for a big response. Decades before the advent of online forums, fans would then exchange handwritten letters, gushing over the likes of Pat Benatar and Whitesnake. Teenage goths from Scunthorpe and Southend could fall in love, the ice broken by their shared love of Siouxsie and the Banshees. The ads would generally convey a passion for music, but between the lines were cries for connection, pleas for love.
As a music obsessive from a small Yorkshire town, I saw my own thoughts and feelings echoed in them and started wondering: what became of the seekers? Did they find rock’n’roll romance? Do they still love Bauhaus and Alien Sex Fiend? How did life work out? So I tracked some down.
‘It’s how I met my husband’
Kelly Maskell, 39, lived in Orpington, Kent. Fan of: Smashing Pumpkins.
I placed an ad after I moved to Britain from America in 1997. I was 16 and had left behind my school, my friends, everything I knew. My motivation was loneliness and frustration. I wanted to see live bands but I didn’t feel comfortable going on my own. I got about 100 responses. I met up with a few people and, in a roundabout way, it’s how I met my husband. One person who wrote became my boyfriend. That didn’t work out, but the man I would go on to marry was a good friend of his. We’ve now been together for 15 years.
I work for a big pharmaceutical company today, but I still love all the bands. Smashing Pumpkins will always have a special place in my heart. I would still say I’m a goth, and I got into steampunk, too. It goes with the gothic Victorian style, the corsets and stuff. I didn’t have such a hard skin back then. If I wrote to somebody and they didn’t write back, I would think: “What’s wrong with me?” It’s a shame pen pals are not a thing any more because there was nothing better than getting regular letters through the door. When it changed to emails, it lost the magic.
‘I was in the video for Radio GaGa’
Stephen Wallis, 65, lived in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. Fan of: Iron Maiden.
Me and a few mates did it for a laugh. There weren’t any computers in them days, it was all by letter. I was working as a hospital porter, living in for about £2 a week. I got hundreds of replies. That’s how I met my wife. She saw my picture and decided to write – and I didn’t have a problem with that! She’s Japanese and used to come to Britain with her friends. She followed a band called King’s X all over the world. We first met up at an Iron Maiden concert in London and it just went on from there. Around 1990, we got married.
I still go to see the old bands and some new ones too. I’m 65 now. My favourite of all time is Queen. I first saw them in 1973 at the Hammersmith Odeon in London and I’ve been in the fan club for 40 years. I was in the video for Radio GaGa: about 400 fans all got invited, and we all had to wear the white suits. I’ve still got mine at home somewhere, must be worth a fortune now.
I’ve had motorbike accidents, broken both arms, but things haven’t really changed that much. I work at a hospital as a chef now. What I did in them days I still do now, except I don’t drink lager as much, it’s too expensive. I wish I’d learned to play music. In the early days, I was too busy riding motorbikes. I could’ve been a rock star by now!
‘She was a real Miss American Pie type’
Garry Fraser, 55, lived in Edinburgh. Fan of: Stiff Little Fingers.
My pal Davie and I had just left school and were unemployed. We turned to being skinheads. We could only go to gigs where you’d get in free if you showed your dole card. We got quite a few responses from the ad. We never met up with anyone, but I wrote to a pen pal in America about two or three times a year, for about 10 or 15 years. She was a real Miss American Pie type. Because her lifestyle was so different to ours, we kept in touch.
My brother was into the original skinhead scene from 1968 when it was all Jamaican reggae and original ska. As time went on, we realised the scene was getting more and more racist – and got out. Eight months after that picture appeared, I became a dad. I was a kid becoming a father. Now I’ve got three grandchildren and four kids. My life now is nothing like how I would’ve imagined it. I’ve been married twice, I’ve got four kids to three women. I’m OK financially, but it’s taken a long time to get to where I am now.
I was very impulsive when I was younger. When I was 16, I thought I was adult enough so I never sat my exams. My advice to my younger self would be stick with it, otherwise you’ll be 45 before you get a decent job. Go back, get your education and stop being a dick. Now I’m a manager for Edinburgh council in charge of the bin collections. I’ve still got my original pilot jacket from 1984. I wear it now and again, for nostalgia.
‘I had dreams of moving to Chesterfield’
Lesley Cripps, 54, lived in Cirencester, Gloucestershire. Fan of: Siouxsie & the Banshees.
When I was 17, I couldn’t even imagine being 21. I didn’t have many aspirations, maybe that’s why I was a punk. It wasn’t until I was a lot older that I looked back and realised that a lot of my rebellion was because I was angry. My parents were separated and my life wasn’t always easy.
We used to visit family in Chesterfield and I had dreams of moving there, that’s why I mentioned it in the ad. But it never happened. I don’t remember anybody ever contacting me. I wonder, if they had, might I have actually moved?
I was quite naughty, but I don’t regret it, because in the end it made me a better person. I did support work for a family support charity called Home Start for a while. I understood what was difficult for them. My life since has been fantastic. I’ve done so much travelling and now do an admin job for luxury holiday homes. Nobody would ever imagine I used to be a punk. I keep the tattoos covered up.
‘Kerrang took a year to print my picture’
Adam Cox, 38, lived in Worksop, Nottinghamshire. Fan of: Deftones.
I lived in Worksop in the East Midlands, quite a dead-end town. Nobody around was into the same music. Being a teenager before the internet and trying to meet like-minded people was difficult. I was in a bit of a Coal Chamber phase – rebellious but not overly crazy. I sent a photo off to Kerrang but it took well over a year to get printed. By that time, I looked completely different.
I still got plenty of replies and met up with a lot of people. We’d just go around music shops and chat on a Saturday afternoon in town and in the nearest cities, Sheffield and Nottingham. My main interests were music, in whatever form, and moving out of the town I lived in.
Fear Factory and Machine Head’s early albums I still play now and again, but I generally moved into punk. I played in a hardcore band called the Legacy for 10 years until the mid-2000s. We did a couple of albums and toured Europe. Now I work at a college, helping students with additional needs. Life is life, just crack on. I’m fairly happy with how things turned out, though I’m still nostalgic for the 90s: listening to Korn and bands of that era, going down the local rock pub and getting really drunk.
‘I got one response, from a girl in Poland’
Geoff Martin (called himself Geofrey Mute in his ad), 54, lived in King’s Lynn, Norfolk. Fan of: the Damned.
I’d jacked in school at 16 and was just going to loads of punk gigs. My so-called friends placed an ad for a joke. I knew nothing about it until people started saying: “Look, you’re in there!” I only got one response, from a girl in Poland. It was all a bit embarrassing as there was piss-taking from my peers. The letter is long-gone, unfortunately.
King’s Lynn wasn’t the easiest place to grow up in. A whole load of us were outsiders. We were cruel to anybody that wasn’t punk enough. We used to call them “cheesy punks” – people that just dressed punk at the weekend. I still listen to punk occasionally and I still class myself as one in attitude but not in clothing or appearance. I’ve got a streak of rebellion still, not kowtowing down to authority. Then again, I do work for the Natural History Museum.
I’m a senior curator in lepidoptera. I started collecting butterflies and moths when I was about 10. When punk came along that had to be dropped, because it wasn’t the kind of thing you should be doing, but I picked it up again afterwards. If you’d told me then how I would end up here it would’ve been a big surprise. My ambition was just to go to gigs and live in a squat.
‘I got bags of letters from all over the world’
Paul Bolger, 56, lived in Waterford, Ireland. Fan of: Black Sabbath (up to Mob Rules album).
Me and my mates were all heavy metallers, punks and skinheads, going to the youth club, trying to get off with girls, and going to Dublin to buy records when we could afford them. I used to make money painting band logos on the back of leather jackets.
For a laugh, I took a photo of myself in a Woolworths photo machine and wrote that stupid ad. I got bags of letters from all over the world. I’m still in touch with a couple. There was a Scottish girl who came over to stay with us in 1983 and ended up just hanging out with my sisters.
I was in a band called Purple Haze. We were a knock-off of Michael Schenker, Scorpions and Iron Maiden. I love listening to our music now but I couldn’t really sing it. My voice always leaned more towards bluesy, rootsy, country stuff, which is what I do now. I have an album coming out. I should know better at the age I’m at, but fuck it, it’s good fun.
I went to Germany for two months and came back five years later with a family. I never got famous or rich, but I’ve done what I wanted. At the time of that photograph, I made a decision that I would never get paid for anything else but talking, drawing, writing or singing. For the last 30 years, that’s what I’ve been doing.