Monday, May 07, 2007



Sleep deprivation and heavy nappy-changing schedules have kept me from my blogging duties of late, for which I apologise to all half-dozen people on earth who care. You'll see I've put a rather lousy image of Clinton Heylin's recently-released Babylon's Burning book to the left there, which I guess means I'll give it a brief review.

The first I heard of it was actually via The Weekend Australian, which reprinted a review from the Guardian that was heavy on the praise but also equally heavy on general cluelessness on behalf of the reviewer. Still, it's a book on punk rock, and penned by the commendable Clinton Heylin, who also wrote/edited the rather excellent From The Velvets To The Voidoids, so I was willing to shell out the big bucks for the hardcover version upon release. I finished said book a fortnight ago. Verdict? Another book on punk rock to add to the pile.

Heylin, an Englishman w/ many of the prejudices such a predicament brings, at least had the good sense to either completely ignore or simply not to repeat too much of what he already covered in his From The Velvets... compendium. In other words, the Velvet Underground are barely even mentioned, and not too many words are wasted on the likes of Patti Smith and the ins and outs of the Rocket From The Tombs/Pere Ubu family tree. All great (and important) music, of course, but it's been covered elsewhere. The book starts somewhere round the formation of the CBGBs scene, centering on the adventures of Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell, Alan Vega and various 'Dolls, and then heads east to mid '70s London and the various future camps which made up the likes of the 'Pistols, Damned, Clash, etc. Again, covering any of this is a risky move at this juncture, somewhat also irrelevant after Heylin's previous book and Jon Savage's definitive England's Dreaming, though I was glad to see Heylin take things from a different perspective.

For one, he gives The Clash a hiding for their bogus and entirely insincere rad politics (not to mention their boring music, which also gets a mention), heaps praise on the wonderful Buzzcocks (who come out of BB looking like heroes, both musically and personally) and even dedicates ample room to documenting the UK's pub-rock circuit which, dull as 99% of that music was (Ducks Deluxe, anyone?), it did give punk a helpful springboard and a few more venues to perform in. Heylin's criticisms of the 'Pistols' post-Matlock numbers such as "Bodies" and "Holidays In The Sun" are completely off the mark, though that's a matter of taste. All in all, his coverage of UK punk ca. 1976-1980, right up until the last commercial gasps c/o the Ruts, Stiff Little Fingers and the Undertones (note: Heylin is covering "punk" of the Pistolean vein, not "post-punk") is certainly better than most.

Unfortunately, as an Englishman, he goes a little off the rails when it comes to dealing w/ American hardcore and its fallout. I can't speak for the man and don't personally know Heylin or his musical background that well, but I got a distinct feeling, whilst reading the second half of BB, that Heylin never actually listened to any American hardcore punk of note as it was happening. The late '70s Masque/Mabuhay scene is documented adequately (though I'd recommend Brendan Mullen and Marc Spitz's We Got The Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story Of LA Punk for the full[er] overview), but things seem to fall apart once the Californian and DC scenes explode. I mean, I may be wrong, but after putting the book down upon the final chapter, I began to sense that Heylin didn't even like a whole lot of the music he was covering. More than that, he discussed little of the music and a whole lot of hoo-ha surrounding the violence and politics of the HC movement. All fine and good, but the only reason the likes of Black Flag or Minor Threat are of any interest to people in the year 2007 is because they made excellent music. Heylin doesn't seem that interested.

A lot of this book's material has been covered elsewhere before: From The Velvets..., England's Dreaming, Our Band Could Be Your Life, Rip It Up And Start Again, American Hardcore, We Got The Neutron Bomb, etc. It's getting to the point where I could pick out a quote from BB and instantly know the interview/source material it was taken from, though Heylin has taken enough left turns to keep it interesting right up to the final page. Jason and the Scorchers anyone? The Long Ryders? Lone Justice?! An entire chapter or more is dedicated to these outfits, and believe you me, I, too, was scratching my head in confusion as to why on earth Heylin decided to waste a portion of his readers' lives detailing such irrelevancies. That was, until I read the following chapter which dealt w/ the SST and Dischord scenes and then wrapped it up as a contrast to the previous chapter: there were two roads for post-punk America to take in the '80s - DIY or the major-label dump site. Am I glad he bothered? I think so.

The verdict once again? I read it in a flash, so I figure I enjoyed it. Heylin is no punk rock literate a la Jon Savage, though his breezy, conversational style is a cinch to read, there's still some previously unheard juicy gossip floating throughout and he gets major kudos for giving the Saints, Radio Birdman and the Birthday Party due credit in the punk rock pantheon. As a last note I will add that it needs a fact checker, and I'm hoping the paperback version gets a once-over from someone else, since the Gun Club's Miami was not released on Slash, Husker Du released two more LPs on SST after Zen Arcade and Chuck Dukowski's pre/post-'Flag outfit was Wurm, not Worm. And I don't know how to put umlauts in text.

ON THE JUKEBOX...

1) KRAMER - The Guilt Trip 2CD

2) ZZ TOP - Tres Hombres CD

3) BLACK FLAG - The Process Of Weeding Out 12"

4) CONTORTIONS - Buy LP

5) SEEDS - Web Of Sound LP

6 comments:

Nazz Nomad said...

good synopsis of the book. the chapters on the australian punk scene was terrific, as is the material on the uk 76/77 scene (apparenly everyone knew everyone!!!!!). the us scene is given short shrift, it's almost as if the author interviewed just a couple of folks from the west coast (like the rain parade)and figured that was enough.

he shouldn't have bothered and just ended it in 1978. but i guuess he wanted to tie the whole thing in with the rise/fall of nirvana.

Anonymous said...

Nice review, Dave. I just don't get what's so hip about the current Clash-bashing (as they were A Flock of Seagulls, Duran Duran or fucking Dire Straits). I know it's just a matter of taste, but calling their music "boring" is as accurate to me as calling The Fall "generic" or Black Flag "wimpy", even more from a guy that appreciates so much bands like Mission of Burma, the Sex Pistols, the Saints, Bad Brains or Wire (unless you're talking about that lousy "Cut the crap" album).

Jan said...

Yep...the Clash's first album is hands down the greatest output form the UK's class of '76/'77. Whereas my idea of boring would be listening to all of "Never Mind the Bollocks" in one sitting.

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Dave said...

Jan, you are the man who cried wolf once too often. I simply give your opinions absolutely no creedence anymore.

Dave said...

Anon: I didn't realise there was a contemporary trend in Clash-bashing. So far as I knew, they were still a band which every clueless rock-crit douchebag fawned over, often hailing as a more "musical" example of punk rock. I can say this: even when I was a '77 Brit-punk-obsessed 13-year-old, I thought the Clash weren't all that much. I put them behind the Pistols, Damned, Buzzcocks and even Siouxsie. For me, the early albums are tuneless bog-rock thrash, and the latter albums are embarrassing displays of white-man cod-reggae. There's a couple of songs I dig, I admit that ("Tommy Gun", "Rock The Casbah"), but a whole lot of kaplooie in between I'd rather never hear again. No apologies there. Joe Strummer seemed like a cool band, but his band stunk.