It is July of 2013, but I wrote this in June of 2011. I am cleaning out the drafts folder on this blog, and so here we are. This post has been done that entire time, but I didn’t get around to finishing the soundtrack — I had been posting soundtracks with book reviews. But if I’m not going to get to it, I’m not going to get to it, so I might as well throw this out there.
title: Punk Rock: An Oral History
author: John Robb
other shit: 2006, Edbury Press. Ed. Oliver Craske. 539 pages plus an index and a handful of pictures.
rating: 3.5/5 safety pins
I get that the Clash is the only band that matters and all, but the thing is that I don’t care about pub rock. I like listening to pub rock, and I particularly enjoy it in pubs, but I just cannot give a shit about chapters in books that tell me which bands played in which pubs. This is important because before he was in the Clash, Joe Strummer was in a pub rock band called the 101ers, and a lot of the first-wave UK punks were hugely influenced by pub rock (Eddie and the Hot Rods come up a lot, for example). Therefore, when you read books about British punk, you end up reading about pub rock. Which is to say that this book, which aims to be an oral history of the UK punk scene and covers 1950-1984 with varying degrees of depth, started off really slow. The first three chapters were spent on pre-punk and protopunk and pub rock and glam, 1950-1975, and it took me a month to get through them. It took me two days to get through the rest.
The more oral histories of punk I read, the more impressed I am by Please Kill Me, the great book about the NYC scene. It gets progressively harder not to compare these other, later books to that one, which had a really cohesive narrative and really gives you a sense of the music and the people involved. By contrast, this book felt sort of scattered and splintered, jumping around from city to city and scene to scene. Yes, punk rock itself splintered, but while reading, I found it difficult to keep track of who was who and what the hell was going on, or even when anything happened. And with the exception of John Lydon (Johnny Rotten), who’s so distinctive and surly that two sentences out of his mouth give you a pretty good idea of where he’s coming from, I didn’t get much of a feel for the people and personalities who were around. The book felt light on the anecdotes and gossip and was almost entirely focused on the music. Nothing wrong with that, really — it’s a book about music! — but it’s odd to have read a 500-page book comprised of people talking and come away with no real sense of who those people are.
That aside, I mostly enjoyed the book. It did manage to convey how small the early scene was, how there were only ever 20 people around and one day four of them would have a band, and the next day, all four of them would be in bands with entirely different people until everyone found something that worked. It also did a good job of conveying how life-changing a force punk rock was in 1977 Britain. I found that really fascinating, because here, it was a lot more spread out and kind of slow-moving. Over there, though, there was this machine-gun attack of punk singles, and the Sex Pistols went on television and swore a lot, and it exploded all over the place. There was this media frenzy, and the labels were crawling all over the early bands hoping to sign them and make a quick buck. In the States, that didn’t really happen; punk didn’t go mainstream for reals like that until 1991, whereas in the UK it came aboveground overnight, caused some sort of mass social panic, and then went back underground. I still do not agree with anyone claiming that punk rock died in 1978, but at least I now have a better idea of where they’re coming from.
The book wound down and lost me again toward the end, when it started delving into the various factions like oi, ska, goth and post-punk. It all felt very perfunctory, maybe a page or two and a handful of quotes and then Lydon hating everything, and after something like 200 pages on 1977 alone, ten pages to cover 1980-1984 felt like a cop-out. I sort of wish the book had just stopped in 1978.
Still, the highest praise I can give a book about music is that it makes me want to listen to the music in question, and this has had me blasting 77 punk for a while now and loving every second of it. So much classic, classic stuff.
In 2013, when I am finally posting this, I see that I actually DID make the playlist. I got stuck on the commentary, because I can’t post anything by the Ruts without talking about my Rut-related Feelings. Maybe I’ll get over that and just put the damn thing up without comment. This will mark my growth as a person.