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Babylon’s burning: From punk to grunge

by: Clinton Heylin


July 12th, 2009 · post by gavin · 1 Comment

Publisher: Penguin books

Gavin Burrows gives a thorough consideration of the conclusions in Babylon’s Burning, and wonders why hardcore seems to have been erased from the narrative and the Bromley scene turned into punk rock’s year zero.

For a history of a movement so volatile and anarchic as punk, this book is surprisingly neatly structured. At least that’s what I said after reading Clinton Heylin’s earlier account of East Coast Punk in the Seventies, From The Velvets to the Voidoids. There he was portraying a scene which existed within quite fixed limits; few bands playing outside their North East corner of the US, and no-one exactly leaping the gap between cult act and mainstream.

Aiming at comprehensive- ness, it can’t help but fail and fall into convolution.

If this follow-up has a similarly bookending subhead, From Punk to Grunge, the comparison ends there. It should really be titled What Punk Did Next, a tangled tale which involves a British burst and consequent invasion of the States, a parallel cross-invasion by the American originators (such as The Ramones), everything suddenly getting thrown in the media spotlight, and a whole lot more there isn’t really time for him to tell you about (but he will anyway).

This sprawling ambition and tireless spirit of investigation becomes simultaneously the book’s weakness and its strength. Aiming at comprehensiveness, it can’t help but fail and fall into convolution. Asked to stretch from the Stooges finally succumbing to dementia onstage early in’74 to Kurt Cobain blowing his brains out over twenty years later, it’s like a rope bridge asked to stretch too far, which snapped and got all tangled up on itself.

At the same time, it’s the apparent digressions which most make the book stand out.

As characters flit in and out of its six-hundred-plus pages, it becomes difficult to follow (even with the ‘Dramatis Personae’ scoresheet in the back). At times it even feels like an edited extract from a much longer book, with participants appearing and disappearing somewhat arbitrarily. For example, Chrissie Hynde’s dalliances with the original London punk crowd are recorded here in detail – despite the fact they all led to nothing. Yet the band she subsequently formed, The Pretenders, get not one mention!

At the same time, it’s the apparent digressions which most make the book stand out. The whole second chapter is devoted to the early Australian punk underground – Radio Birdman and The Saints. The third is then devoted to the British pub rock scene (Dr. Feelgood and Kilburn, and the High Roads) and the paradoxical way it influenced punk both positively and negatively.

Moreover, even when he does cover punk’s ‘greatest hits’ stories, he doesn’t simply print the legend. Like an experienced tour guide, Heylin not only knows which details to point out but why. Once he gets to Seventies Brit-punk, Heylin’s not just happy to play up the role of Subway Sect and The Prefects (bands who normally feel the airbrush of history upon them) but accentuate the tension they created – between “those who wanted to redeem rock & roll [and] those who thought it high time it lay down and died.” Time and again, you feel Heylin hasn’t just read up on this music but gets it. Thankfully, its all a long way from those gormless TV specials with their clueless and binary opposition of ‘dinosaur bands’ against ‘dole queue rock’.

Other limitations of this book are more expected. At one point Heylin describes the (then more unusual) picture sleeves of punk singles as “a vital visual counterpoint to so many of these audio assaults.” He occasionally refers to punk clothing and throws us the odd gig poster, photo or press cutting. But such moments come your way with the frequency of raisins in cheap muesli. Seventies Brit Punk was an eruption expressed in music, cover art, fanzine and dress. To concentrate one aspect is to neglect the vital whole. Perhaps its’ unfair to expect a music journalist to travel outside his comfort zone, and certainly Heylin goes further than others. But he merely points the way, not shows it…

Far too quiet on the hardcore front

Of course a book, even one this long, has to be treated a bit like a gig. There won’t be space for all your favourites on the set-list, you have to settle for more of a representation.

Of course a book, even one this long, has to be treated a bit like a gig. There won’t be space for all your favourites on the set-list, you have to settle for more of a representation. However to neglect a whole sub-genre of punk, as Heylin effectively does with hardcore, is quite another story. Of course he’s not so myopic as to bypass this entirely, but what he says tends to be whistlestop, inadequate or even misinformed. A history of hardcore with, for example, one passing mention of Bad Brains is going to end up with more holes than Johnny Rotten’s jumper. Sadly, this does seem to be part of a general tendency for books on punk to treat hardcore as an estranged relation – either dismissing or focusing on it. But it’s doubly depressing for a man who shows such a genuine ear for the music elsewhere, when it here turns to such cloth.

Hardcore, Heylin explains, was “an attempt to strip the music down to an essence based on immediacy of impact, hence its proclivity to sink to the lowest common denominator.” And, of course, those of us who have wasted many an evening being earbashed by trustafarians tantrumming about veganism might be tempted to give him his point. Yet you could say the exact same thing about the Stooges or the Ramones – as many did. Velvets to the Voidoids is a good book precisely because it doesn’t do that, it looks at East Coast punk with an awareness of it’s cross-tendencies.

At one point he lambasts hardcore for not living up to Lester Bangs’ prediction for “a new, free music that would combine the rambling advernturousness of the new free jazz with the steady, compelling heartbeat of rock.” Yet so many bands took up precisely this baton their squonk even won itself a collective term – jazzcore. Besides which, as punk has so often proved, reductionism can be as valid an artistic choice as addition and shouldn’t automatically be treated as musical fundamentalism. It would be a truer description that hardcore took the blues base out of punk (till then largely unchallenged), and reversed the traditional hierarchy of treble over bass. (Pretty much what metal simultaneously did with hard rock, hence the two’s bizarre and protracted love/ hate relationship.)

It is true that hardcore audiences (particularly around LA) became notoriously hostile to anything that wasn’t custom-built for slamdancing. Yet you could say something very similar about British audiences and pogoing. As The Only Ones’ John Perry recalls: “It was clear… you need to abandon any attempt to play accurately – there were waves of people crashing into the PA… you might as well… just ride it.” Though of course Heylin also recounts other bands didn’t “just ride it”, but used the opportunity to gleefully deprive the audience of what they so dearly wanted. Again this is just as true of many bands on the hardcore scene, such as Flipper. Hence their infamous slogan, ’We’ve suffered for our music. Now its your turn.’

This scene, it must be conceded, took a strong punk influence and turned in some great music. But its development was surely tangential to punk, with punk-hardcore-grunge much more of a continuum.

Heylin intercuts the hardcore sections with an account of the emerging Paisley Underground, by way of making a point via contrast. (One fading to black, the other bursting into colour.) This scene, it must be conceded, took a strong punk influence and turned in some great music. But its development was surely tangential to punk, with punk-hardcore-grunge much more of a continuum. As future Long Ryder Sid Griffin commented “I knew that it would be good for a guy like me who wasn’t inherently angry and self-hating.”

Grunge, of course, was “good” for its adherents for precisely the opposite reason. Green On Red and The Long Ryders might well deserve a book of their own. But do they really belong in a punk history more than Fugazi or Big Black? You can’t help but wonder if Heylin, primarily a Sixties scholar, is taking a side simply through reverting to type. This suspicion is certainly compounded when we reach the section on (the equally bass-driven) grunge, where we find the hardcore influence has disappeared entirely! (The one exception being Flipper, the San Francisco band here transplanted to the Seattle section.)

Instead Heylin’s equation for grunge becomes ‘punk-reunited-with-classic-rock’. A valid observation in itself, particularly if we take his chief example of Black Sabbath. But it ignores not only hardcore but the influence of Sixties garage rock from the Nuggets and Pebbles compilations, surely the source of grunge’s love of distortion.

Flying a Black Flag

Hardcore, of course, had a double meaning – as well as a musical style, it was a personal statement. You were expected to be hardcore, not just listen to it. At its worst this degenerated into mere macho posturing, as pilloried by the Dead Kennedy s with their “harder-core-than-thou” put-down. But for others it was a political statement. As the crust hardcore zine Profane Existence put on their strapline, it meant “making punk a threat again.”

Yet Heylin, primarily a music journalist, has little time for politics.

Yet Heylin, primarily a music journalist, has little time for politics. Frankly, this skepticism can often be refreshing. The Clash’s cartoony and confused politics, so often sanctified, here get a deserved drubbing. He mentions how their first London gig was an invite-only affair for music biz insiders, who seemed strangely unperturbed by all those earnest threats of “sten guns in Knightsbridge.” Such contradictions caused two drummers to walk in succession, Terry Chimes pointing out, “Well we are attempting to become famous and sell lots of records.” Similarly he recounts The Saints’ sneering reaction to Chelsea’s ’Right To Work’ single, “What about the right not to work?”

Yet even The Clash weren’t mere posers. While a song like ‘White Riot’ might be ludicrously naive, with its hamfisted calls for ‘white man” to “throw a brick”, it arose from a general sense that music could become a focus against oppression. Heylin seems keen to pin every senseless act of Saturday night violence to this stance, as if such things had never happened before punk, as if such calls weren’t an attempt to get out of them. Both these reasons may lie behind Heylin’s focus on Black Flag, as the band most representative of hardcore. First, both the band and the stable of acts on their SST label, largely left behind any remnants of hardcore within a few years. Or in Heylin’s words “took leave of the Luddites”. This helps him to paint hardcore as a cul-de-sac.

But this also allows him to focus on the band’s founder Greg Ginn – who Heylin clearly doesn’t like. Here Ginn becomes the epitome of hardcore, a nihilistic, self-centred suburbanite oblivious to any effect his actions have on others. Yet not only does this pillorying seem one-dimensional, it’s also somewhat disingenuous.

There is nothing particularly bad or even surprising with Black Flag acting like this, a group of youths are more likely to react to their immediate circumstances than read up on the history of capitalist social relations.

Black Flag might sound sussed, named after what’s been a worldwide anarchist symbol for over a century. Yet the band were more waving the term than engaging with it. They might as well have been called Red Rag. (With the bull in this context the LA Police Department.) Lyrically the band focused on the most immediate and obvious examples of oppression; teachers, jocks, cops who hated punk haircuts, suburbia’s tedium, consumer culture in its most obvious manifestations. There is nothing particularly bad or even surprising about this, a group of youths are more likely to react to their immediate circumstances than read up on the history of capitalist social relations.

Yet this focus on Flag bypasses the bands who did have a deeper political awareness, such as their own label mates The Minutemen. Heylin quotes Richard Meltzer’s account of seeing Flag play in a black area: “After the cops closed the joint, the kids… went out and trashed the ghetto, pissing and puking in doorways, hurling bottles through windows… I never went back.” Yet, even if we’re to take Meltzer as a reliable narrator, the all-black hardcore band Bad Brains put on free shows for the local ghettos, inspired by no less an example than The Clash. Though this of course isn’t to suggest Bad Brains’ politics were problem-free as a whole!)

Bromley is the epicentre

But if Heylin has a blind spot for scenes such as hardcore, others are the apple of his eye.

But if Heylin has a blind spot for scenes such as hardcore, others are the apple of his eye. When we’re at late Seventies England, his focus switches from expansive to exclusive. At one point he quotes Siouxsie on this era, “Days and weeks seemed like very long stretches of time, and a lot happened very quickly.” This quote becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, as he covers events on a gig-by-gig (if not rehearsal-by-rehearsal) basis until you feel you’re following events in real time. The sudden increase in density is a little wrenching, like you’ve bitten into a kernel within a nut. Or stumbled upon one book stuffed into another.

Moreover, Heylin’s fixation is quite definitely with the (numerically tiny) Bromley Contingent scene which spawned the Pistols, Clash and Damned – with any outside this in-crowd getting scant attention. (Unless they’re a band you really can’t ignore, like The Jam.) The Stranglers, for example, are onstage just long enough to explain how they fell out with the Pistols’ retinue. While this might make for an odd read, it’s not necessarily a bad move in terms of punk history.

This scene obviously was important, you could write a whole book about it (and people have). But it lends itself to the reading that punk was an earthquake with an epicentre, with all that came before mere fore-tremors and the stuff after only made possible by it. Those who take punk’s ‘do it yourself’ mantra as a guiding principle may not be too enamoured by this, and suggest punk doesn’t need a central temple. It also wouldn’t explain why, for example, The Saints were already performing in Brisbane (not near Bromley) without waiting for the Pistols’ permission. Of course, they may have continued in obscurity without the UK punk explosion. But the Bromleyites were surely more catalyst and enabler than instigator. It also leads to another problem…

Keep on burning (not fade away)

This primacy of the originating moment comes back to haunt us in a secondary way. At one point Heylin quotes Steve Turner: “My theory is always most bands do their best stuff in the first two or three years, and then get out.” By his Epilogue (‘You Gotta Lose’), Heylin has turned theory into an irrefutable rule: “No one… had yet managed to hold onto the punk ideal beyond the third album… Quite simply, punk had always been about trying to recapture that ecstatic moment when a band plays together for the first time, and the mind goes click. Things will never be this honest or real again.”

At one point Heylin quotes Steve Turner: “My theory is always most bands do their best stuff in the first two or three years, and then get out.”

As evidence, he starts his book with the Stooges splitting and finishes it by focusing on the most extreme form of getting out there is. The suicides of Kurt Cobain and Ian Curtis are tied together in a bow made from a Richard Hell quote; “[The punk ideal] is so ambitious that it can’t be maintained. It has such a level of intensity…. it’s going to destroy you [if] you try to maintain [it].”

As so often with this book, in many ways this rule is refreshing. ‘Three-strikes-and-you’re-done’ has a veracity for bands in a way it doesn’t for visual artists, novelists or film-makers. Many bands do descend into dullness by their third album, which rock bios or consumerist fans ignore out of some misplaced ‘brand loyalty.’

Yet it’s surely a tendency, not an irrefutable rule. First, it assumes the cause of both man’s suicide was musical, seemingly for no other reason than both were musicians. Yet, not entirely unsurprisingly, they faced personal conflicts – each quite different from the other. Also, this exclusive linkage of punk with ‘burning out’ would seem misplaced – Hendrix, Joplin and Jones haven’t said much for themselves lately either. Bands and scenes tend to the short-lived in the faddish and volatile rock world, it’s scarcely something unique to punk.

But the main problem is the way the prophecy is made self-fulfilling. When bands don’t split up when they should, Heylin simply cuts them out of the picture anyway.

But the main problem is the way the prophecy is made self-fulfilling. When bands don’t split up when they should, Heylin simply cuts them out of the picture anyway. (With a few exceptions like The Clash, kept in to ‘prove’ the rule.) For example, he quotes a young Elvis Costello: “Gram Parsons had it all sussed. He died! I’m never going to stick around long enough to churn out a load of mediocre crap, like all those guys from the Sixties.” And if that’s not what Costello did in our consensus reality, it can be made so in Heylin World. The fact that Heylin himself called Costello’s later album Imperial Bedroom ‘masterful’ isn’t allowed to intrude.

Sonic Youth have now been going (in pretty much the same line-up) for twenty-eight years and counting. And to add two bands not namechecked by Heylin, Fugazi clocked up twenty before their “indefinite hiatus”, whilst The Ex thirty before recently losing singer GW Sok.

Come to think of it this the theory’s very deviser, Steve Turner, is still playing with his band Mudhoney! Heylin takes the insistence of both Joe Strummer and Adam Ant that in a Damascene conversion they split their old bands as soon as they saw the Pistols play and (somewhat gleefully) proves this wasn’t exactly so. But maybe this ‘burn out’ business is just as substanceless a cliché.

For all this bold talk of honesty and intensity, Heylin’s attitude has a simpler and much more musical root. Having already defined punk as based around the Pistols, Clash and Damned triumvirate he assumes it must always follow their rule – pull music back to it’s pumping Sixties basis. Yet again this is in one way welcome, pulling the carpet from under the scene’s absurd Year Zero rhetoric.

As Tony James admits, “the early London SS, the early Pistols, it was all about The Small Faces, early Who, early Rolling Stones.” If the Stones don’t sound like the early Stones any more, then form another band who do. But its consequence is to determine punk as a perpetually reinvented wheel, a repeated attempt to turn back the clock before its hands slip your fingers and it starts that ticking business again.

He allows for progression, but it inherently involves leaving punk – as it did for the SST bands.

Particularly in today’s nostalgia-drenched music scene, where every youth club gig isn’t a lost golden memory but an overpriced CD, must punk be trapped into perpetually looking back?

Yet aren’t these confines at most one way to define punk? Does it have to be five minutes of frenzy, then twenty years trying to recapture a lost youth? The pioneering bands (the Velvets, the Stooges, the MC5) were simultaneously pioneering and primitive, pulling in influences rock music had not felt before. Patti Smith famously sang, “I don’t fuck much with the past, but I fuck plenty with the future.” As Heylin’s own book shows, many bands from the classic punk era didn’t conform to this ‘back to basics’ model (The Prefects or Subway Sect). Howard Devoto defined “the punk ethic” as “constant change, avoidance of stale conceits, doing the unacceptable. [I’m] disgusted by sameness.” Similarly David Thomas said of his band, Pere Ubu, they “must remain flexible, changeable and contradictory”. Particularly in today’s nostalgia-drenched music scene, where every youth club gig isn’t a lost golden memory but an overpriced CD, must punk be trapped into perpetually looking back?

→ 1 CommentThis entry belongs to the following categories: Book reviews · Reviews

1 response so far

  • cristina posted:
    Oct 29, 2009 at 9:12 am. Comment #1

    nice review and this rang true in so many parts, I think for many of us it now seems so much like you say “five minutes of frenzy”