Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Clinton Heylin's "Babylon's Burning": Review

Posted to Amazon today. Subtitled "From Punk to Grunge," it does not leave the 70s until past 500 of its 640 pp. of narrative history. The "college rock" indie-label roots of what used to be called the US alternative scene and the subsequent realization at the end of the 1980s that you could admit to liking Sabbath & Zep as well as punk receive thoughtful but scant coverage compared to the immense and usually engrossing detail given the latter half of the 1970s, mostly in Britain rather than the few American centers of innovation in NYC, Ohio, and sporadically California. The emphasis on England, both London & Manchester, I found appropriate, as again and again the British combination of "the theatre of aggression" and what led quickly out of the dead end of gobbing and cartoon thuggery into post-punk and experimentation seems to have largely improved on American inspirations, whether the Stooges, Ramones, or the overlooked Pere Ubu.

The spark came from across the Atlantic, even as far as Radio Birdman and the Saints (the former group gains its own chapter early on) in Australia. Yet, it took a minority, often off major labels, to defy the conformity of the non-conformists as the punk subculture became commodified and immersed in its own contradictions of purity vs. mass exposure, anti-everything vs. a lack of progress, limited musicianship vs. a desire to complicate musical possibility. Even by early 1978, before the Sex Pistols released their LP, many on the original scene, as is the wont of such pioneers, lamented that the punk ideals had already become tarnished by the marketplace and the mall.

The quick rise and steady fall of punk's moment took, however, decades to plot accurately. Its trajectory proved exciting, as Heylin meticulously documents by his own interviews woven into a choppy but rewarding text full of quotes, press kit snippets, liner note excerpts and musings from the 1970s music weeklies. While in an aside Heylin sniffs at "purple prose" chroniclers and instigators such as Jon Savage, his authoritative "England's Dreaming" combines sociology with a fan who was there. Savage should be read first, but in the decade since, Heylin has built upon this fundamental study of the origins of British punk with a broader perspective.

I also recommend a scribe he unfairly dismisses, Simon Reynolds, in his recent "Rip It Up & Start Again: Post Punk". Heylin bridges these two solid histories, although he places much more weight on the pre-1980 side of his textual span. "Babylon's Burning" benefits from this unevenly distributed, but chronologically longer take, that begins with such groups as Suicide in the waning hippie-junkie days of the early '70s, and he excels in his careful attention to the Cleveland and NYC artsier movements that intersected with the Ramones and CBGBs' axis. As a veteran of the LA punk scene, I found his take on the violence that overwhelmed this nascent and more eclectic local movement accurate; Heylin's correct in that we had images from the weeklies of the British punk scene long before we could hear the bands, even on long delayed and rarely imported vinyl, so we formed our own mental impressions of what they sounded like from afar! Unless you have heard most (I have heard about 100) of his massive array of around 110 groups in his discography, however, this energy may seem inert on the page.

Any music historian suffers this challenge. A four-CD set dated 1973-78 on Sanctuary Records in Feb. 2007, the notes promise, "compiled and annotated by the author" with "rare and unreleased tracks" to correct some of this sonic reduction. Heylin writes with serious analyses, and has many books (a short shelf on Dylan alone) on rock including an earlier NYC 1970s-era volume. He never forgets the fun, poignancy, and contradictions of his subject matter. His prose combines witty wryness and snarky phrasing on every page. Readable, thoughtful, and dense without being dull, this I found an ideal companion despite its hefty size for many long hours that reminded me of how many of these bands and songs still resounded in my own mind as well as occupied considerable space on my shelves in vinyl or disc form.

Bands who recognized the danger of being anti-everything, and the fate of those who tried to tear down without offering any other structure with which to construct a better, more genuine, type of musical expression closer to the experience of fans who despised pomp decadence and prog excess emerge as the most prophetic. The bands who veered early from the mosh pit ahead came out better artistically if not on the charts. The front runners Pistols, Clash & Damned found themselves quickly spent, even by 1978! But, Buzzcocks, Penetration, Subway Sect, Magazine, Mekons, Throbbing Gristle, Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Fall, Pere Ubu, the Adverts, the Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers, and Joy Division all managed, if for a couple of albums at best, to capture a purer and more intelligent, less forced, British or Northern Irish maturity that accepted a wider heritage of the best of the past that music offered.

Similarly, I welcomed the attention Heylin gives-- although I wish it was not so truncated-- to such wonderful later LPs as the first full-lengths by Dream Syndicate, Gun Club, X, or the best from the Minutemen, Husker Du, Meat Puppets, or Black Flag from the American indie-label movement. A mention's better than no mention, although dozens of bands might lengthen this list that Heylin leaves out. These later chapters, alas, feel winded and weary compared with the brisker pace of the punk era. But, once again, this book is long as it is.

There remain, unfortunately, problems with such an ambitious attempt. The title may be misleading; the art director put Johnny Lydon-Rotten on the cover along with Kurt Cobain to hint to readers or buyers that this volume's not about reggae. The song that inspired the title receives little explication, a minor hit if a deserving success from The Ruts, whose Malcolm Owen gains a considerable amount of attention as a predecessor to Ian Curtis's own path to destruction. The photos, for such a cultural history, are skimpy and reveal little fresh about their posers. The discography is well-chosen, but lacks the annotation that makes Savage's hundred page appendix an invaluable reference source.

Now, the flipside. What's confusing is that Heylin brackets and adjusts by his own insertions and deletions from original sources so often-- nearly every one of hundreds of quotes gains editorial attention that alters the transcription. So, why do other errors persist? He appears to have written down by ear some of what persists here as misspellings. The whole process of using these laboriously "corrected" quotes does not make for a smooth page, and makes the product choppier when compared with his more consistent prose.

This will not be a comprehensive study. I wonder, in fact, why he did not end with the death of Ian Curtis. My hunch is that he had leftover material from the 80s he tacked on, and the book would have been tighter in execution if he had never entered the 1980s. Simon Reynolds for Britain and "Our Band Could Be Your Life," by Michael Azzerad, despite the flaws of both books (I review them on Amazon) will fill in many gaps.

Here's some corrections. LA is not a "trek" of eleven hours from SF at least by car and probably not even by bus circa 1978. The Elks Lodge in LA gets a plural totemic adjective. I doubt if the Gang of Four played what one musician is quoted as hearing as "marshall music." The Radiators from Space, in a poorly composed sentence, appear to be "Derry's leading rock band" rather than Dublin's. Roxy Music's sax player is not Andy "McKay." Neither was Salvation Army's leader Michael "Corseo." Lee Ranaldo did not go to college at SUNY "Binghampton;" nor did Black Flag or the Circle Jerks come from "Huntingdon" Beach (three times misspelled).

Still, anywhere that you can enjoy Mark E Smith's definition of a genre he soon outgrew as the "mistreating of instruments to get feelings over" (317) and where you can ponder profound epitaphs on the lifespan of punk by such as Richard Hell, Genesis P-Orridge, Howard Devoto, Pete Shelley, Brian James, Jason Ringenberg, Joe Carducci, Mark Arm, John O'Neill, Vic Goddard, Dick Witts, Una Baines, Caroline Coon, Vivienne Westwood, and Lora Logic shows the range of interviewing and citation that supports a flawed, but compulsively readable study. The first two chapters (on NYC and then Australia early 70s) I found plodding, but once Malcolm McLaren and John Lydon entered, not to mention Bernie Rhodes, the energy kicks in and, until many pages later with the demise of Ian Curtis and then the slow decay of Kurt Cobain, never lets up. So, stick with a slow start and hold on tight. It's a bumpy ride, but fans will enjoy the jolts and humps.

Image: British cover shown has Kurt in a different pose, not looking down as US artwork on Johnny but with his hair over his face.

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