There was a creative explosion in the mid-70s that was called “punk”. It started in New York then moved to London and then went everywhere. It was a case of conception, morning sickness and birth happening all at the same time. That may be overstating it, in the romance of hindsight, but there were definitely a lot of fluids involved, so I’m gonna go with it. I think it’s about chucking everything and starting over. That’s the impression I get anyway.
I tried like to hell to find an organizing principle for this multi-post list of books about punk: regional? chronological? playing style? type of book? Catastrophic failure. If punk has an organizing principle, I don’t know what it is. Besides, the surest way to heap scorn on myself and this list would be to front that I’d figured it all out and how it fits together. Nope.
This is just a bunch of books about punk and all its attendant shizz. If your entire idea of punk can be boiled down to “mohawks and safety pins”, then this list may be a confusing experience – but I also hope an enlightening one – cuz punk is vast. Through this wide array of literature, you will see where punk came from, how it changed and what fractious siblings it popped out of its bloody birth canal.
Special thanks to my friend Bob from DC and his gang of pals who, in a social media frenzy version of the proverbial 3-minute-song, dropped about 50 book recommendations on me. If there is anything you think should be on the list, please feel free to add it in the comments with a few words of why, etc.. It would be a very punk DIY thing to do, and I would appreciate your contribution. If, on the other hand, you have a beef or a bitch or a gripe or a bone to pick about something on the list that you don’t think should be there because blah blah blah, please feel free to kiss my ass. (Not really, it just sounds like a punk thing to say. If there are any glaring missteps, they are mine, as I added a few titles to Bob & Co’s original list. Those guys absolutely know what they’re talking about; me, not so much. But I am trying dammit.)
Ok – enough of my bullshit. In the words of Dee Dee Ramone: ONE!TWO!THREE!FOUR…
Black Monk Time – Thomas Edward Shaw and Anita Klemke – The Monks were an American band (started by GIs, no less) based in Germany in the mid 60s. Their one album, entitled Black Monk Time, was bracing and original, and is often called the first punk album – despite having been released nearly 10 years before punk actually “happened”. (And really – what could foster violent disillusionment more than “playing all night to drunken and angry Germans”? ) This is the story, from the POV of an original Monk (Shaw) and his wife (Klemke).
From the Velvets to the Voidoids: The Birth of American Punk Rock – Clinton Heylin – This is the comprehensive history of that initial germination of pure New York punk, much of it in the words of the main characters themselves: Blondie, MC5, Television, Lou Reed, Ramones, Iggy – everyone. Essential.
Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk – Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil – Another history of the birth of punk in New York – mostly at CBGBs, the Olduvai Gorge of the movement, but from the perspective of Legs McNeil, cofounder of THE punk magazine (called Punk). Legs was close enough to the action to get a few blood/sweat stains of his own. This gets right what the movie CBGB got wrong. (Although the book suffers from a lack of Alan Rickman.) Keep your eyes open for the 20th anniversary edition of this one.
Queens of Noise: The Real Story of The Runaways – Evelyn McDonnell – Out in Los Angeles, 5 teenage girls – including Joan Jett and Lita Ford – had formed a band called The Runaways. Despite a level of exploitation from their manager, they were playing legit rock that had a lasting impact, especially coupled with the independent spirit of punk that was already spreading out from New York.
Subculture: The Meaning of Style – Dick Hebdige – This influential book is from the late 70s. It is a study of youth subcultures in England, and finds that class and economic distinctions are instrumental in the production and specific symbology of various groups: punk, mod, etc.. One interesting point he makes, that will come up later in this list, is the powerful connections between punk and reggae.
Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century – Greil Marcus – This book examines the century’s movements of subversion, from DaDaism to punk (specifically, Sex Pistols). This is a way to connect a huge amount of culture and art, but not everyone buys into his arguments. You’ll have to judge for yourself.
Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys – Viv Albertine – Viv Albertine was the guitarist for The Slits, a key band on the London scene, right in the mix with Sex Pistols and The Clash. This is her memoir. Full of incredible stories with all your fave punk personalities, but also very transparent about her experiences during and after her time with The Slits.
24 Hour Party People – Tony Wilson – This is a novelization of Tony Wilson’s work in Manchester, primarily with Joy Division/New Order and the industry-changing contracts he made with them thru his record label, Factory Records. He was also proprietor of The Hacienda, an important club in the later Manchester scene.
1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion – Caroline Coon – Don’t be confused by the title: this is Caroline Coon’s 1977 snapshot of punk as it was happening in London. Photos, interviews, etc. with Sex Pistols, The Slits, The Clash, et al. This, before anyone had the chance to start slapping labels and theory on everything.
We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of LA Punk – Brendan Mullen and Marc Spitz – This is the LA punk scene, including The Runaways, X, Black Flag, etc.. Mullen also owned the Masque, which was a central punk venue and hangout. Note: This is heroic stuff: these punk warriors saved Los Angeles from the shit-tyranny of The Eagles.
Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag – Henry Rollins – Not just a memoir, Get in the Van is the touring journal of legendary Häagen-Dazs manager turned Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins. This is basically the beginning of the American hardcore version of punk. There are pix and illustrations. This is prob as close as you can come to touring, and not end up sleeping on a stranger’s kitchen floor.
American Hardcore: A Tribal History – Steven Blush – The second edition of this history is the one you want, as it has tons of new material (not just extra photos, but new interviews and such). This covers the so-called peak of hardcore, from 1980-86, and looks pretty comprehensive, from origins to bands to labels to the cooling of the fires after ‘86. Or, you can watch the documentary.
Enter Naomi: SST, L.A. And All That… – Joe Carducci – Carducci was with the label SST, which was run by Black Flag founder Greg Ginn. SST put out a lot of the key bands in Los Angeles, and Naomi Peterson was the unofficial – but talented – photographer. Carducci wrote this retrospective upon hearing of the sad, early death of Peterson. It is honest and intimate: a really unique way of looking back on the LA punk scene.
The Importance of Music to Girls – Lavinia Greenlaw – This is Greenlaw’s autobio of growing up and finding herself thru music, in particular punk, which hit London smack in the middle of her adolescence. Lucky, lucky. This is punk and its influence from a fan’s point of view.
ADDENDUM 7/31 – A totally brand new punk book:
The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar – Franz Nicolay – I’m no expert, but I bet there is some kind of similarity between the bloated spentness of 70’s NY and post-communist Eastern Europe: at least there’s plenty of space & energy for a DIY revolt. Nicolay is a musician and some kinda perogi aficionado (“Slavophile“, actually – which I didn’t know was a thing). That combo, plus the quality of his writing and the location make this a singular memoir.
PUNK AROUND THE WORLD
This punk library (all four parts of it) focus on the English-speaking world, mostly US and UK. But punk travels and is thriving in variations all over the place, often with its original spirit intact. Here is a great piece from VICE about the harrowing situation of punks in Indonesia. These are mostly street kids, survivors of the 2004 tsunami, who struggle under the oppression of sharia law.
Up next: MORE PUNK.