Thursday, April 11, 2013

Russ Bestley and Alex Ogg's "The Art of Punk": Book Review

Nine hundred images, mostly record sleeves from recalled or forgotten bands, illustrate this large-format presentation of the evolution, rise, and dominance of the punk aesthetic over the past forty-odd years. Russ Bestley and Alex Ogg contribute a deft introduction, short topical essays and captions. Interviews with familiar pioneers such as John Holmstrom, Jamie Reid, and Malcolm Garrett enrich the contents, along with lesser-known designers like LukTam89: this typifies the broader chronological and geographical scope that this edition emphasizes.

This range, from the counterculture of the early 1970s to the globalized anarchists and D.I.Y. provocateurs who continue the anti-corporate ideology far from the Broadway adaptation of Green Day's American Idiot or the shelves at the Hot Topic franchise, exemplifies the reach of a movement tired of the mainstream. But, it's a movement very eager, in many cases past and present, to court mass acceptance as well as media outrage, manufactured more often than genuine. Bestley and Ogg begin by covering terrain already trod by contributors to the interviews in Jon Savage's England's Dreaming {Tapes} and John Robb's Punk Rock: An Oral History. The analysis here fits into what has emerged as the conventional narrative. However, it expands the usual Malcolm McLaren-Vivienne Westwood-Situationists-Sex Pistols-Kings Road Chelsea chronology as it continues. 

Ogg and Bestley define punk's "visual legacy" by its "graphic codes--symbols of struggle and resistance, but also a complex subcultural visual vocabulary and, more cynically, a means to tap into deeply held anti-authoritarian sentiments by lifestyle branders": this combination, they argue, resonates today. The resulting study offers valuable texts to frame the images. Posters and photos intersperse with sleeves for more singles and fewer albums, representing the bulk of the product. 

This can prove as uneven as the sounds themselves these bands recorded. The authors mention the typographic pattern on the reverse of the Buzzcocks' seminal Spiral Scratch EP but do not include it. They note how The Undertones' single "Jimmy, Jimmy" incorporated a transparent sleeve, but they leave it off of a full page filled with colored vinyl that failed to be as innovative. They applaud the work of Raymond Pettibon for SST Records but this gains far less page space than that of Winston Smith's concurrent contributions for the Alternative Tentacles label. A welcome nod later to the adaptation of the aesthetic to current styles only whets the appetite for what should have been a long chapter on this under-examined aspect of punk's relevance, a subject demanding far more depth. A related subject, punk's interpretation by designers beyond the musical world, deserved elaboration.

With a large-scale format, the editors fumble some opportunities for the wisest use of a generous page layout. A poster for Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex gains a big share of space arguably unnecessary to demonstrate its quickly and cheaply reproduced, and rapidly overused, incorporation of photocopied tones and harsh colors. On the other hand, Jamie Reid's soon-withdrawn appropriation of a tourist advertisement for the Pistols' "Holidays in the Sun" shrinks to insignificance. 

Yet, other sections succeed. Reid's clever parody (also soon withdrawn) of an American Express advertisement for the post-Johnny Rotten Sex Pistols' appropriately titled and conceived fiasco The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle benefits by a large scale reproduction. A glance at send-ups of punk by enterprising bands or conniving labels shows the double-edged predicament of making fun of the clowns. Peter Gravelle's outtakes from the photo session for the pie-smeared faces whimsically adorning the debut LP from The Damned reveal the humor inherent in punk. As the photographer observes appropriately, whipped cream optional: "You'd always get, out of five, maybe one good-looking kid, two that were average, one that was a bit geeky, and one you'd have to try to hide." 

The tension and opportunity inherent for The Damned and others who managed to survive the first surges of punk in the late 1970s revealed more chances for self-mockery, as well as self-promotion, whether or not McLaren stayed on as Svengali. Bestley and Ogg decipher New Wave well. Major labels, with the cash lacking for indies such as New Hormones who released Spiral Scratch or New Rose who put out The Damned's first singles, tried to imitate the product and the sounds and the look of punk, but marketed more widely, with arguably greater or lesser amounts of ambition or cynicism.

Colored vinyl, collectibles, limited editions, novelties: the majors gleefully sought to separate fans from their wallets. However, the often maligned New Wave boasted, as its name defined, an avant-garde pedigree from film and the intelligentsia; arguably preferable in some musicians' as well as some marketers' minds to a term associated more with male prison rape prior to John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil's caricatures and long-lived promotions for the Ramones. Ogg and Bestley allow Holmstrom the room to roam into his invention, thanks to the Presidential Seal and a visit to Washington D.C., of the most enduring of logos, that for the back-to-basics leather-jacketed NYC band which preceded the rise of the media-savvy Pistols. 

As with the lucrative deals given the Pistols and the merchandising rewards for the Ramones, the division between those who stayed true to an imagined punk purity and those who sold out to the New Wave blurs. The editors conclude about this A&R fueled "battle of the bands": "Like its hipper cousin post-punk, new wave has been retrofitted to suit a neat and precise historical framework, placing it more firmly within the corporate stereotype it initially set out to oppose." Their judgment serves as an applicable verdict for the visual and aesthetic energy of punk and its restive relations. (Amazon US 10-14-12; slightly altered for PopMatters 10-23-12)

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