Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Aural Sects: Punk Rock Oral Histories

I just finished reading John Robb's Punk Rock: An Oral History (Ebury Press, 2007), which is the latest entry in the punk/postpunk oral history category, a genre which got kick-started in 1997 with Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's still-unparalleled Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. (Of course, pop culture's attraction to oral histories really started with Jean Stein and George Plimpton's groundbreaking Edie: American Girl (Grove Press, 1982).)

I've read just about all the punk and postpunk histories because it was the defining music of my generation that's stuck with me through college and long afterwards. (I'm very resistant to change, like Italo Calvino's Aquatic Uncle in Cosmicomics who refused to jump on the Amphibian Bandwagon and evolve!) John Robb is a musician (ex-Members, Goldblade) as well as journalist, and his foray into this burgeoning field is pretty good, emphasizing a lot of so-called "second wave" working-class punks (Angelic Upstarts, Discharge, Sham 69, UK Subs, Comsat Angels, Rudi) who walked-the walk and not just the talk that many of the first-gen university and art school-educated bands (The Clash, Stranglers, Howard Devoto, Gang of Four, Cabaret Voltaire) gave voice to. There's a lot of quotes from Steve Diggle of Buzzcocks and Pistols cast-off Glen Matlock (Rich Kids), though of course the book ends with Johnny "Rotten" Lydon's summation of the punk ethos: "Don't copy, think for should make your own of everything."

I don't have the energy to write a detailed analysis because, quite frankly, I'm feverishly sitting here zonked out on meds and twitching uncontrollably from a poison ivy encounter (a Man vs. Nature battle in which, yet again, Nature has vanquished homo gardening nincompoopis! See my pustule pix below).

Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of Calamine Lotion!

I'm including Simon Reynolds' superb Rip It Up and Start Again, which is not an oral history per se, but has to be mentioned because it's the definitive word on the postpunk period (which started with the breakup of the Sex Pistols in 1978), and which is based on reams of interviews conducted by the well-versed author.

Anyway, here's how I stack the books on this subject.

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored History of Punk Rock
by Legs McNeil and Gilliam McCain
(Grove Press, 1997)

Though Cleveland and Detroit get their nods, this one could have been subtitled "New York, New York." The first cut is the deepest and Please Kill Me is still the one to beat as far as chronicling the true "first wave" of punk, which was conceived in the burned-out husk of Midwest cities like Detroit (Stooges, MC5) and finally breach-birthed in New York City. Features the best in-depth interviews with the major players and bands, including the Velvet Underground, Ramones, New York Dolls, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Blondie, Dead Boys, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith; the local club/performance spaces like Mercer Arts Center, CBGBs OMFUG, Ritz, The Bowery, St Mark's Place; and the scenemakers like photographer Bob Gruen, Robert Mapplethorpe, Leee Childers, Jim Carroll, Danny Fields, Hilly Kristol, Punk magazine, New York Rocker, etc. 'Nuff said: read and bleed!

Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984
by Simon Reynolds
(UK Faber and Faber edition 2005; US Penguin edition 2006)

You can't have postpunk with having had pre-postpunk, so there you have it. It's all there, especially John Lydon's post-Sex Pistols PiL, who provide the inspiration and jumping off point for Reynolds' unrivaled history of the bands and music that not only chronologically succeeded but, in effect, trumped punk: Joy Division, Talking Heads, Throbbing Gristle, Scritti Politti, Gang of Four, Wire, The Pop Group, Cabaret Voltaire, Slits, Magazine, Pere Ubu, The Fall, Young Marble Giants.

Reynolds' approach, unlike other punk histories, forgoes chronological order (there was too much overlap) and instead breaks up his narrative into micro-narratives arranged by geography - by city, like the lesser known northern provincial music scene towns of Coventry (Specials), Sheffield (Cabaret Voltaire, Human League), Leeds (Gang of Four, Mekons), Birmingham (English Beat), Cardiff (Young Marble Giants); regions (Ohio's Cleveland-Akron Rust Belt); or even whole countries (Scotland) - while other chapters are based on genre or sensibility - synthpop, industrial, New Pop, the influence of writers like William Burroughs, Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard (especially on Ultravox!) - or the Postpunk Record Labels (Postcard, Creation, Rough Trade, etc.). I really loved the chapter on Scottish bands from Glasgow and Edinburgh and the whole Postcard Records scene - Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, The Skids, The Associates, The Fire Engines, and Josef K. - the last a band I only recently discovered and now love.

And no one else has come close to documenting the DIY/Postpunk Movement celebrated in the chapter "Messthetics: The London Sound," which is the best guide to the music now available from Hyped2Death Records, much of which represents lone single or cassette releases by complete unknowns, hicks from the sticks who took the anyone-can-do-it aesthetic to heart. ("Messthetics" takes its name from a Scritti Politti single.) See Hyped2death's full line of Messthetics regional releases: Messthetics: UK DIY/Postpunk 1977-1982.

For some reason, the UK version of Reynolds' tome has three additional chapters on the US postpunk scene, including New York's Mutant Disco/No Wave Scene, Progressive Punk and SST Records, Second Wave Industrial and ZZT Records.

London's Burning: True Adventures on the Front Lines of Punk, 1976-1977
by Dave Thompson
(Chicago Review Press, 2009)

I love all of Dave Thompson's books. (Again, this is not an "oral history" per se - there are no big blocks of rock personnae quotes filling up the page - but it has a vibe similar to the genre, with the added bonus of Thompson's distinctive prose.) This one reads like a "I-was-there" day-by-day, release-by-release account because, well, Thompson was. In the spring of 1976, he was a 16-year-old getting his schooling at a record store, where he found himself in the right place at exactly the right time. He went to all the right gigs, like at Don Letts' Roxy, and crammed in as many shows a week as he could see in the year of the Queen's Jubilee and subsequent musical jubi-Melee. The most info you're likely to find about The Damned and the Adverts on tour, Ian Dury's Kilburns, the Maniacs, and The Stranglers, as well as the Finchley Boys crew - I even learned the sad fate of the Stranglers' No. 1 groupie, "Daggenham Dave" (who is not to be confused with the guy Morrissey sang about). And at the end of each chapter, Thompson provides a recommended playlist.

Thompson really sets the stage with his in-depth account of how reggae and the squatters came together to forge a DIY culture that allied blacks and whites together against the establishment, especially after the Notting Hill Carnival riot.

The book also name-checks many of the bands kicking around that got left behind in the history books when punk broke, like Roogalator, Dr. Feelgood, and The Heavy Metal Kids.

We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk
by Mark Spitz and Brendan Mullen
(Three Rivers Press, 2001)

Outside of X, The Dickies, Fear, The Zeros, Dead Kennedys, and the Weirdos, I never much cared for the West Coast punk bands, but I was interested in learning more about its scene - which included the fascinating DJ/scenemaker Rodney Bingingheimer - and this oral history is the best book on the subject out there. Mullen was a Scottish ex-pat who briefly ran The Masque club and practice space. The Runaways, their Svengali-hypemeister Kim Fowley, Tomata du Plenty and The Screamers, The Nuns (whose proto-pretty singer Jennifer Miro was the West Coast fetishist answer to Blondie's Debbie Harry), Michael Des Barres, Black Rodney, The Bags, Agent Orange, Germs, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, TSOL, Adolescents, The Go-Gos, Akron ex-pats Devo in their Californication phase - they're all here. Plus quotes from Beck's mom (and former Warhol star), Bibbe Hansen and great photos by Jenny Lens.

As companion pieces, I recommend watching the Rodney Bingenheimer documentary The Mayor of Sunset Strip, as well as Dick Rude's documentary short LA Punk: The First 5 Years (included as an extra feature on Don Lett's Punk Attitude documentary) - and, of course, Penelope Spheeris' cult classic The Decline of Western Civilization. Oh, and Kim Fowley's tripped-out appearance on Tom Synder's The Tomorrow Show: Punk & New Wave is great, too. Essentials, all.

From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World
by Clinton Heyward
(Penguin Books, 1993)

Very good on the (mostly) New York and (some) Cleveland scenes, though Dave Cawley points out that he's sick of reading the obligatory punk references to Pere Ubu that seem to accompany any oral history. (Can you tell he's not a fan?) Too bad, Dave, Ubu, Dead Boys, Rocket from the Crypt, The Mirrors, Suicide Commandoes, and Tin Huey all get their due here, but mostly it's Detroit's Iggy & The Stooges/MC5 and New York's punk 'n' New Wave pioneers (Ramones, The Dictators, Blondie, Suicide, Talking Heads, Blondie, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Television, Richard Hell & The Voidoids, The Mumps, Tish and Snooky, etc., etc.) In fact, this is probably the best dirt dished on Wayne County, Neon Boys, Television, Verlaine and Richard Hell - I really learned a lot from it.

Punk Rock: An Oral History
by John Robb
(Ebury Press, 2007)

A valuable addition to the genre that I would recommend reading after first taking in the books above. I learned a lot about the early Clash - back when Mick Jones and Keith Levene and Tony James and Brian James were hanging out (and yet to meet Joe Strummer and his 101ers). And a great appreciation of Pub Rock - Wilco Johnson and Dr. Feelgood, the Kilburns, and so on, from this book. Robb interviewed more than 100 contributors, including in-depth talks with Glen Matlock, Mick Jones, Don Letts, Slash, Billy Bragg, Hugh Cornwell, Steve Diggle, and Captain Sensible.

Punk Lives!
But having just picked up the 2-disc Punk Lives! CD, which features tracks by a lot of bands I was unfamiliar with (including many good-quality live performances at Don Lett's Roxy club), I was glad to learn more about the Angelic Upstarts, Sham 69, Slaughter and the Dogs (who were on the bill with the Sex Pistols at their legendary Lesser Free Trade Hall gig in Manchester), UK Subs, and their ilk.

England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond
by Jon Savage
(St. Martins revised edition, 2002 )

Never mind the bollocks, read Jon Savage! I've never read it all the way through (just the Buzzcocks bits), but it's considered the final word on the Brit punk movement and any punk history worth its muck always quotes Savage. The definitive story of the Sex Pistols and the first punk wave (well, in England, at least). I did read Savage's The England's Dreaming Tapes, which is a straight "oral history" transcription of the voluminous interviews Savage conducted before penning England's Dreaming, and loved the chapters on Buzzcocks and their talented graphic designer Linder Sterling (also an erstwhile musician in Ludus), who co-edited The Select Public graphic (and I do mean graphic!) collage-zine with Savage.

And if you're into the Pistols, it behooves ya to check out the story of their legendary gig at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall, I Swear I Was There: The Gig That Changed The World by David Nolan.

I Swear I Was There: The Gig That Changed the World
by David Nolan
(IMP, 2006)

This is a detailed book account of the Sex Pistols' famous gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester on June 4, 1976. (Though the tickets were misprinted as "4 June 1076" - collector's erratum item!)

I Swear I Was There: "4th June 1076"

Organized by Bolton Institute of Technology students (and fledgling Buzzcocks) Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley - after they drove down to London to see the Pistols perform and wanted to bring the "What's the buzz, 'cock?" excitement back home - this was the gig(s) that supposedly launched dozens of punk and postpunk bands - including Buzzcocks, The Smiths, New Order, The Fall, Warsaw/Joy Division, Simply Red, A Certain Ratio, Ludus, Magazine - because it drew a Who's Who of musicians and influential journalists (including Paul Morley and Tony Wilson, later of Factory Records, Hacienda, and "Madchester" fame). It was also the gig(s) where future 'cock Steve Diggle was recuited into Buzzcocks following a missed audition rendezvous. The gig was voted by Channel 4 television as one of the three most important gigs of all time, and was featured in the films 24 Hour Party People and Control.

The Sex Pistols' performance that night before a handful of fans has been named by critics as one of the most pivotal performances in music history, not for its quality but because of the effect the music had on the audience, many of whom (Mark E. Smith, Morrissey, Peter Hook, Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner, Mick Hucknall) went on to form their own bands. What's lesser known about the Lesser Hall gig is that many have forgotten that there were actually two Pistols gigs there - most people (like Ian Curtis) went to that second gig, which took place six weeks later on July 20.

"Until now, everyone's been happy to print the legend. For the first time, here's the truth," reads the jacket blurb and Nolan's account meticulously defogs the mystery surrounding the events, with many previously unpublished photos, interviews with key players and fans (John the Postman!), and audience members. The legend mentions all the future influential bands members in the audience, but does anyone remember the name ofthe opening band on 4 July 1976? It was a prog-rock band called Solstice, recruited at the last minute when Devoto and Shelley realized Buzzcocks weren't yet ready for prime time.

Buzzcocks played at the second gig on July 20 along with a then-glam rocky Slaughter and the Dogs, who printed up flyers giving themselves top billing - and relegating the 'cocks to the ignominious billing of "Plus Support"!

Nolan also produced a Granada TV documentary film of the Lesser Free Trade Hall gigs under the same title that aired on ITV.

Watch I Swear I Was There.

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