My friend and long-ago college tutor Randy Fertel is writing a follow-up to his well-received book of essays, A Taste for Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation (see my review here). The new book will explore the uses and abuses of improvisation as an idea and a strategy in the arts, popular culture, and politics, and what I’ve seen of it so far is both fascinating and directly relevant to our current predicaments. Anyway, he texted me last night to ask if I could suggest a book on the history of punk music, which immediately sent me to my book shelves and to the composition of the list I’ve shared here, in case anyone else may be interested in this topic that has meant so much to me.
Interestingly, I’ve never seen a cohesive history that starts with the New York scene (CBGB), blends in the UK (Sex Pistols, etc.), and adds in LA, Cleveland, DC, Akron, etc. in that incredibly packed and explosive 2-3 years (oil embargo, gas lines, Drop Dead New York) made so depressingly indelible to those of us who graduated out of high school into it (1975-’77). That said, here are my Top Ten books about punk, for your reading pleasure.
Homstrom, John, & Hurd, Bridget. PUNK: The Best of Punk Magazine. This is a hefty coffee table book that reproduces the New York ‘zine that coincided with the very beginning of punk in New York. It’s fun to read, feels juvenile and clubby and silly. But introductions to each issue throughout the book do a good job of pulling together what was going on in the streets, what mattered, and how the sound and look developed (first issue was January 1976).
Legs McNeil. Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. Legs co-founded PUNK magazine, was in bands, etc. A little frustrating as the story is told in fragmented interviews and dashed off asides, but he was there, knew everybody, and paid attention.
Jon Savage. England Dreaming. This may be the best punk history, fierce and on point, but its focus is the English scene, especially the shooting star that was the Sex Pistols, so it doesn’t catch that first ignition of punk in New York. One of my favorite books about music and its impact on culture, back when music could do that.
Lester Bangs. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung; Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste. Guessing you know Bangs, the mad king of rock critics, whose stream of consciousness writing and make it bleed tastes made each of his record reviews and interviews a punk manifesto (his review of James Taylor, for instance, is a hilarious plea for something please to come blow up the music scene). Most of the reviews came pre-punk, but he was there when it happened, wrote the first review of Patti Smith’s Horses, traveled with the Clash, and even took a stab at an article called “The Roots of Punk” (in Mainlines, that doesn’t mention a single band but perfectly nails what it felt like to be a confused teenager of the era).
Patti Smith. Just Kids. I’d include this in a list of my favorite books of the century so far, just so achingly beautiful in its appreciation of youth’s glory and what comes after. Have you read this yet? Damn it’s good. Patti, of course, was the first punk goddess (and there were a lot of girl bands in punk), put out the first punk single (Piss Factory), and single-handedly changed college fashion with Robert Mapplethorpe’s black and white photo of her on her first album Horses.
Richard Hell. I Dreamed I was a Very Clean Tramp. If you ask me, Hell was the first punk punk (Warhol and Reed and Iggy and the Dolls his immediate influences, but let’s draw the line here). And what’s amazing is that he’s aged into a sort of elder statesman of the scene, sober, articulate, and more clear-eyed than wistful over what he created and survived. This autobiography is almost as well-wrought as Patti’s, and less insular.
Dee Dee Ramone. Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones. All four of the original Ramones are dead (one of their later drummers survives). Dee Dee lived all the excesses of punk like a latter-day Keith Moon. He wrote most of their best songs, could hardly play bass, and that was fine. A line from the book: “People who join a band like the Ramones don’t come from stable backgrounds. Punk comes from angry kids who feel like being creative.” The Ramones are a sort of miracle, the perfect punk band before punk even had that name, and they never made the mistake of evolving into something less crude. I will always love them and their individual members in the same way I love all four Beatles.
Simon Reynolds. Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984. Punk was dead in two years, so they say. But most of the bands I love came after that, were just as punk as the originators, and even got record deals. This is a highly readable straight history of punk’s splintering into hard core, ska revival, new wave, straight edge, etc., leaning towards all the amazing bands from the UK then.
Michael Azerrad. Our Band Could Be Your Life. This chronological history covers roughly the same post-punk era (1981-1991), but focuses on the American bands. Title is from a song by The Minutemen, one of my favorite bands, and if they ain’t punk, what is?