Thursday, November 29, 2007

American Hardcore: A Tribal History: Steven Blush (Feral House, 2001)
Burning Britain: The History of UK Punk, 1980 – 1984 (Cherry Red Books, 2004)
The Day The Country Died: A History of Anarcho Punk, 1980 – 1984 (Cherry Red Books, 2006)

The fact I spent much of the decade we call the 1980s writing about music has, no doubt, influenced my point of view, but I consider it to be one of the richest periods for “popular music” despite the fact most of the good stuff was not in fact popular. Certainly an enormous quantity of music of the so-called alternative variety was released in the 1980s. Some critics of the era no doubt do not consider this music to be remarkable. Most of the music I most loved, Sonic Youth, the Dream Syndicate, the Birthday Party, the Swans, Scientists, the Fall, the Mekons, the Tall Dwarfs, etc., is not what most of these same critics would call punk rock. Likewise, these are not the punks that Steven Blush and Ian Glasper have chosen to chronicle in these three excellent and much needed books. Nevertheless, hardcore punk bands such as Crass, Flux of Pink Indians, the Subhumans, the Dicks, Bad Brains, Negative Approach, Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, Scream, Minor Threat and hundreds more were important bands that have influenced thousands of others. This legacy needs to be chronicled and these books begin that complex and difficult task with passion.

By 1980 the supposedly smart critics thought punk rock was dead. Most days of the week, I was one of them. We must have been wrong because there was a whole bunch of stuff still being released that was called punk rock. Much of this music was dismissed by those in the know, perhaps sometimes with good reason. As usual, there was a lot of great punk music ignored by critics and loved by fans. These three books attempt to get a handle on this stuff.

It is unfortunate that three separate sub-genres are invoked in the process of describing these beloved bands. It does the music little good to put it into these boxes. There are many annoying sentences that come from the mouths of humans, but one I hate very much is a question asked by the smart aleck who comes into our bookstore and hears some unfamiliar music playing. The sentence has several variations but usually goes something like: “What do you call this stuff?” The aleck does not mean: “is it the Flying Burrito Brothers or the Fiery Furnaces?” He means: “is this punk or country or what?” Most of us cannot understand new music unless we can call it something: rock or punk or blues or what have you. I am as guilty as the rest of you dopes. Point in fact: I have already wasted time arguing what was or was not punk. We have lost the ability to describe music without placing it into a box. How else could Ian Glasper and Steven Blush write about the music they love without putting it into a box and calling the box: U.K. punk, anarcho punk and/or American hardcore? If I had the answer I would be a pretty smart guy. As it is, I am just another annoying smart aleck waving my sword at another windmill and shouting about something no one else gives two hoots about. To be fair, the sub-genres, employed by Glasper and Blush, are well established. The authors merely give them credence by writing these books on these punk rock sub-sets, and honestly I could not be more pleased. To the non-fan the groups featured in these three books, Ian Glasper calls them the 2nd wave, all sound much alike. Still these three types of punk definitely have their own sound and look.

The “first wave” punks, England’s Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Undertones, the Buzzcocks, Alternative T.V., and many more, as well as their U.S. equivalents: the Ramones, the Patti Smith Group, the Heartbreakers, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, Pere Ubu, Television, etc., were bands that mostly sounded not at all alike. They were punks because the critics called them punks, not because they put on a certain outfit and adapted a certain sound. By 1980 the critics had moved on to something else, but there were still a slew of kids who wanted punk, so they created this 2nd wave, often using the most formulaic sound and style of the earlier batch. These 2nd wave kids dressed in what amounted to a uniform that quickly became the punk look. As for the sound, a little bit of the Ramones and the Pistols sound was massed together and played as fast as possible. Steven Blush points out two early punk singles as the basis for what became the hardcore sound: “Out of Vogue” by California jokers, the Middle Class and “Pay to Cum” by the very serious and talented, all African-American, Bad Brains.

For the sake of one noisy windmill that is no doubt in the minds of most readers, I will insert a few words for the “original punks” whoever the fug(s) they were. I am very aware of the fact these so called “first wavers” were by no stretch of the imagination the first punks. Both the term and sound of punk was being tossed around long before the Pistols or the Ramones were a tingle in Johnny and Joey’s respective whatever part of the anatomy you want to metaphorically mention. The Sonics, the Velvets, the Stooges, the Electric Eels, the Modern Lovers, and the list could continue to include dozens of other pre-‘76 bands that could be and/or have been called precursors to punk. That is the subject for a whole bunch of other books that have already been written or should be written.

The punks of interest here are from the period between 1980 and 1984, though most of the bands went on long after that crucial year. Some of them limp on until the present day. A few others, notably Crass and Flux of Pink Indians, existed prior to 1980.

The term “hardcore punk” is usually reserved for the American bands of the early 1980s, but it can be liberally tossed in the direction of both sets of U.K. bands, and is sometimes employed by Glasper. The proof of my point would be that bands from all three books played the same venues when they toured the States, occasionally on the same bills. I mostly saw my hardcore punks, my U.K. punks and my anarcho-punks (when I had the opportunity to see them) at Atlanta’s the Metroplex, at both its early ‘80s downtown locations. My fondest memories of the Metroplex were at its short-lived, first location, an old store front, where DRI and Scream played wonderful shows to crowds of only a dozen or two. After just a few months the Metroplex moved a few blocks up the road on the same downtown corridor to a larger, darker, cavernous building. The 2nd location lasted for years and featured many of the bands featured in all of these three books.

American Hardcore by Steven Blush is especially welcomed, though it is not a new book. Since 2001 I have spent many hours at the bookstore gazing across the floor at the wonderful cover photo of the blood soaked face and torso of Danny Spira (Wasted Youth). The picture scares the kids. They ask mom, their terror barely concealed, “is that blood real?” Moms' answer varies. My favorite was post-punk mom, half my age, telling her five-year-old and horrified young straight-laced, rightist Christian-to-be: “yes it is real.” When the inevitable, “why” followed, tattooed-Mom described Spira as: “very punk rock.” She went on to detail how the blood vessels in the mouth are close to the surface. She explained how it is easy to produce much blood pounding mouth with microphone. I have no idea whether Mom knows her anatomy or if she understands punk stagecraft. On the other hand, I have little doubt her traumatized daughter had blood soaked nightmares featuring bloody Spira-like boogieman for many months to follow.

Blush has adapted a vaguely folklorist technique, much like Legs McNeil’s classic Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, which documented the New York punk scene of the Ramones, Television, Blondie, the Dictators, etc. almost entirely with interview quotes from those who were there. Steven Blush was a part of the scene he is trying to describe. He was the manager of the brilliant underrated D.C. outfit No Trend, whose terrifying “Mass Sterilization” was in regular rotation on my own radio program of the period. He certainly deserves his two cents in this story, but unlike McNeil he voices his point of view loudly and often. At times his sneeringly subjective analysis is just what is needed. Elsewhere, it seems out of place and unnecessary such as when he is introducing John Brannon (Negative Approach, Laughing Hyenas, and (currently) Easy Action) in his chapter on the amazing Detroit punk scene. Blush finds it necessary to mention that Brannon was “characteristically dopesick during our interview for this book,” a bit of gossip that seems out of place and spiteful.

Blush seems to hold a particularly large grudge against the blip on the radar that was the “Atlanta hardcore scene.” In his chapter on the various tiny scenes that united to form “America’s Hardcore”, he goes out of his way to make fun of Atlanta, with a degree of venom he employs nowhere else in this book. First he derides the 688 Club, something I have done about a million times. Yet a mother can insult her own children. This fact does not mean the same mother can sit back and listen to some stranger use the same sort of language without getting a bit riled. The 688 Club was exactly like dozens (perhaps hundreds) of other similar establishments scattered across the American urban landscape of the period. I have been to clubs no better or worse in D.C., Philadelphia, Cleveland, Baltimore, Boston, even New York at the exact time Blush is writing about. Yet he finds it necessary to describe “gaudy new wavers in gold lame’ pants” at hardcore gigs. I don’t recall our “new wavers” (and I think I was one of them) being particularly gaudy unless he is describing my friend Lawrence Thom (of the Fans and Now Explosion). Larry T. would have delighted in gold lame’ pants and loved showing off to handsome, homophobe hardcore kids. This gaudy comment would have gone unmentioned if Blush did not proceed to dismiss Atlanta’s entire hardcore contribution: “More than a few touring outfits suffered through wretched local openers like DDT and Neon Christ.” My involvement in the hardcore scene was marginal, at best. Still it hurts me in a way that is hard to explain when Blush belittles these two fine punk bands. DDT and Neon Christ were equal to most of the hundreds of bands Blush describes with much understanding and love elsewhere in these pages. He reserves his hatred toward the Atlanta bands and almost no others. Lucky for us the scope of his book does not extend to Atlanta’s second, lesser wave: bands such as Jack the Lad and Dead Elvis. When he is not picking on Atlanta, Steven Blush does an excellent job of documenting the rich and vivid world that was hardcore circa 1980 to 1984.

During these same years, there was a comparable punk scene in the U.K. In his effort to document this scene, Ian Glasper employs a less creative approach than Blush, but his results are two enjoyable and much needed books. Glasper divides U.K. punk into two distinct genres. According to his “Disclaimer” at the start of Burning Britain, he did not start out with this concept in mind. Several bands originally interviewed for the first book were held over for The Day the Country Died after Glasper belatedly concluded that anarcho Punk was “a whole different scene.” This should have been pretty obvious to begin with. Frankly, I could do without most of the bands desribed in Burning Britain. Most of what I have heard from the likes of Vice Squad, GBH, UK Subs, Anti-Nowhere League, the Exploited and the rest is 2nd wave punk at its worst. Every cliché that is or was punk is wrapped up in the simplistic and unlikable sound of these groups. Yet, Glasper has a knack for making these assholes sound at least interesting, and I really want to go back and give them a second chance. Unfortunately, it is difficult to track down the original vinyl releases of most of these bands. Listening to Discharge on CD seems absurd. The fact that someone has seen fit to release many of the bands (from all three books) in digital format is equal parts silly and wonderful.

The Day the country Died documents a much broader and more creative array of bands. These so called anarchopunks have been gathered together according to political criteria. The fact that I share most of the political ideology of Crass and the rest, no doubt colors my perceptions – again. Politics or no politics these bands are simply a much better batch of bands. The diversity is impossible to deny. Also, quite a few of the bands that Glasper lumps into the anarchist genre appear rather dismissive of the anarchist ideology, at least from the perspective of 20-something years along. Yet, the second most ideologically hardcore of these groups and a long standing favorite of my own, Flux of Pink Indians (a.k.a. the Epileptics) are perhaps the most musically progressive punk band in history. Over the course of their 3 longplayers they journey from blistering Pistols derived hardcore (Strive to Survive) to full throttle noise comparable to the extreme electronics of Merzbow (Fucking Cunts Treat Us Like Pricks) to a fully orchestrated percussion driven postpunk (Uncarved Block). I cannot think of any band that has made a comparable development in so few years since the Beatles. The anarchopunks are a diverse and always interested array of bands: Hagar the Womb, Rudimentary Peni, Rubella Ballet, Ambix and Chumbawamba. At the solid punk center of this scene lay such bands as Conflict and the Subhumans, with early records that hold up to this day, much like their America counterparts. In both volumes Glasper groups the various bands according to the region they emerged from. This technique will mean less to American readers, than to the British, but I found it helpful getting a grasp on how the bands relate one to another.

There is much more that can be said, that should be said, that will not doubt be said about the hardcore punk music of the early 1980s, and no doubt. these three books will be followed by many others. Until that time, these three are highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

I put this "ten best" list together for the "A Cappella Books Newsletter." Though 2007 is not quite done yet, and there are a few faves not included because we do not sell them at the store, I thought I would share this list with anyone (if there is anyone) who might be reading my blog. I will probably post a more complete list in January, but until then, here is this:

1. Percival Everett: The Water Cure (Graywolf Press) Everett is a revolutionary novelist. Like most of his many novels, this latest is mostly about language. The theme this time around is the language of love and loss turned to hate and murder. Perhaps finally The Water Cure is about the terrible state of this “nation of stupid fucks,” where one man’s anguish is barely audible.
2. Chris Hedges: American Fascists (Free Press) Hedges is the only writer capable of evoking a concept of faith that does not fade to ash against the background of the horrors faith has wrought in our apocalyptic era. His take on the American turn toward fascism is gripping, readable and, obviously, terrifying.
3. The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas (Rizzoli) Douglas’ artwork may be the greatest of many important contribution the Black Panther Party has left our culture. These unique, poignant drawings and paintings were originally designed for use as handbills, posters and in the pages of The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service. Yet, as pretentious as this may sound, they belong to the annals of great art, and this beautiful collection is long overdue.
4. Paul Auster: Travels In Scriptorium (Henry Holt) The mathematical genius of Paul Auster has been compared to Kafka and Borges, but in 2007 Auster reminds us of no author but Auster. The narrative sketch outlined on the jacket flap of Travels in the Scriptorium does indeed recall something that Borges might have similarly outlined, but would have never bothered completing. At the risk of oversimplification, Auster’s originality is the execution not the idea, and it is the execution that leaves us wanting more.
5. Kevin Young: For the Confederate Dead (Knopf) Kevin Young writes poetry that the ordinary reader not accustomed to reading poetry can easily enjoy, and still there is nothing easy or trite about his work. The poet laureate of rhythm ‘n’ rights lives in our midst in the city of Atlanta, but he belongs to everyone.
6. Mike Davis: Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (Verso Hardcover) is a brisk, smart history of the asymmetrical weapon of choice. Davis ties resistance movements of the 20th century to the radical Islamic struggle of our terrifying present-day. War without end follows a road scattered with shrapnel, broken bodies and hope lost.
7. Michael Lesy: Murder City (Norton) The combination of “found” photographs from Chicago newspapers of the 1930’s with appropriately journalistic recounting of one “senseless” act after another results in a true crime masterpiece. This book demands more from its reader than fans of this genre are perhaps used to giving, but the extra effort is well worth the time.
8. Dave Zirin: Welcome to the Terrordome (Paperback original) Zirin is a cutting edge radical sports writer. His razor rhetoric is tuned perfectly for the sports hater and sports lover alike.
9. Todd Boyd: Super Fly ‘70s (Harlem Moon Paperback original) Boyd brings in focus the sexy, funny, turbulent, soul-fried vibe of a decade long due a revisionists turn. Disreputable forms of art such as Blaxploitation film, disco, and the comedy of the “chitlin circuit” are scrutinized with care. Not to steal from “the ghetto” the very art these stigmatized neighborhoods long protected. Instead Boyd remodels the African-American ghetto into a living gallery complete with laughter of thousands ironic souls, spicy smells of a million delicious meals cooking and the warm loving embraces of infinite homes built amidst oppression and hatred.
10. Jabari Asim: The N Word: who can say it, who shouldn’t, and why (Houghton Mifflin) Asim explores the language of white supremacy of our wretched history from the birth of the nation to the post-Katrina present day. Though he does not exactly answer the question (without question mark) of his subtitle, his distinctive and satisfying analysis makes this essential reading. The answer he does finally give is better than the question posed.