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There’s nothing like a European intellectual to make you proud to be an American. In Punk Rock: So What? The Cultural Legacy of Punk, 14 British savants rise to the challenge of editor Roger Sabin’s concern that the history of punk “is being rewritten” and in the process the revisionists have made “some serious errors of emphasis.” The contributors, mostly academics but also a few journalists, are former punk fans of what Sabin calls “the right age”—the age of people who might well have had their first kiss, first joint, or first political discussion the week that Johnny Rotten first said “fuck” on British television. Despite being spiritual members of the class of ’77, however, many of these writers don’t know what they’re talking about—or, rather, they know only the tiny bit of punk they’ve chosen to remember.
The essayists accept the editor’s premise that serious errors have been made, although they don’t entirely agree on the nature of those lapses. Still, they generally share a Brit-centric (if not always London-centric) outlook. One of punk history’s frightful misapprehensions, Sabin suggests and other contributors agree, is that the music started in the United States. “How far recent claims for America-as-starting-point amount to cultural imperialism,” he announces, “is at least worth taking seriously.”
Now that takes me—or, more properly, them—back. Ironically, part of what motivates these authors is a nostalgia for the Britain that was once sufficiently hidebound to be shocked by punk. I’ve never seen that Britain, but in a 1989 interview no less a punk archetype than Joe Strummer told me that it’s long gone. Explaining his lack of interest in the early Clash song “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A,” he explained that “now a song like that is superfluous. There’s a 7-Eleven or McDonald’s on every corner in London. It’s kind of boring to complain about those things now.”
There is, of course, an essay in this collection titled “I’m So Bored With the USA,” and numerous disparaging references to the Ramones, the band that created the buzzsaw-pop sound that launched a hundred British punk careers. But if you happen to be in London and stop for refreshment at the Ramones’ favorite restaurant, Burger King, don’t worry that you’ve committed an act of cultural imperialism. Burger King is owned by a British company.
Today’s multiculti (and multinational-corporate) Britain is in fact remarkably transformed since 1977—which is one of many interesting points this collection barely addresses. Punk’s “attempt to shock and disturb were hugely (perhaps overly) successful. But there is a problem,” David Huxley concedes, “in the way that is extremely easy to offend the British establishment, the middle classes, and an awfully lot of people over 40, whatever their class or income.” In other words, British punk wasn’t exceptionally potent; it’s just that the sensibilities of ’70s Britain were exceptionally fragile.
Most of these commentators are fixated on the Sex Pistols, a band that made a few great singles and a memorable mess but whose music wasn’t notably distinctive. To American ears, “God Save the Queen” simply sounds like the Silver Jubilee update of “School’s Out,” yet Robert Garnett exults that the song “was banned not only from the airwaves and TV, but also from public display. It nevertheless reached Number 1 in the charts, and for the first time in pop history the top position in the chart was occupied not by the name of the band and the title of the song, but two thick, blank, black lines.” Impressive, I suppose, but if this “is punk at its best” (as Garnett says it is) then Americans bands were handicapped because their ancestors, 200 years earlier, had wisely banished royalty and instituted freedom of the press. Not a bad deal, especially when you consider that we got Patti Smith, Television, the Ramones, Blondie, and Talking Heads, too.
This transatlantic tussle, of course, is oversimplified and ultimately of little use. Punk would never have happened without the Velvets, the Stooges, and the New York Dolls, but it also needed David Bowie, Brian Eno, and Nick Lowe. One of these writers, Bill Osgerby, heretically admits to finding punk’s roots in American surf music and garage rock—just where U.S. rock-mag and fanzine writers located them in the mid-’70s—and he rightfully labels the Dictators “unsung heroes.” He traces these precedents soberly and credibly—until, that is, he ends by celebrating the Dickies.
Osgerby’s essay appears in the second half of the book, “Experience, Memory, and Historiography,” which is shorter on academic jargon and longer on common sense than the first half, “Shock Waves and Ripple Effects.” This second section includes Lucy O’Brien’s consideration of the new possibilities punk discovered for women, and their roots in Germaine Greer’s early-’70s call for “cuntpower.” Sabin himself contributes one of the best pieces, a re-evaluation of British punk’s reputation for anti-racism. He notes that, quite aside from the explicitly racist “oi” punk that grew out of bands like Sham 69, some of the most prominent left-wing punks had their lapses into reflexive racism and anti-Semitism. He also considers why punk generally had little use for “Asians,” the Indian and Pakistani émigrés who constitute Britain’s largest and most persecuted ethnic minority: “Asians didn’t have the same romance as Afro-Caribbean youth—especially in terms of the latter’s reputation for being confrontational with the police—and what was equally problematic, they had no music comparable to reggae with which punks could identify. As fellow ‘rebel rockers,’ they were a dead loss.”
Sabin’s work as an editor, however, is less admirable. Much of Punk Rock: So What? is culturally provincial and overly academic. Indeed, many of the essays are largely a discourse—as the Cultural Studies majors say—with four essential books: Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond; Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style; Simon Frith and Howard Horne’s Art Into Pop; and Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century. Given that all the contributors were involved in punk, more distinctive material might have been used. Many of the writers do engage in personal reminiscences, but most of these are circumscribed and unrevealing.
The editor also should have paid more attention to accuracy, especially when the contributors cast their gaze across the Atlantic. Contrary to assertions made here, Phil Spector did not produce the Shangri-Las, and the scriptwriter for the aborted Sex Pistols’ movie Who Killed Bambi? was Roger Ebert, not Russ Ebert. The discussion of Washington’s “Straight Edge” scene is a complete botch; apparently having confused D.C. with Des Moines, Mark Sinker claims that Minor Threat was the “flagbearer” for the punks of “non-coastal America.” Such errors are the result not only of sloppiness but also of the book’s narrow agenda. Hard as it might be for Sabin and his cohorts to admit it, Punk Rock: So What? would have benefited from some stateside contributions—or at least a reading by an American fact-checker. CP