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Spinning Out of Control



Gina Arnold

Kiss This: Punk in the Present Tense

(St. Martin's Griffin)

George Gimarc

Post Punk Diary: 1980-1982

(St. Martin's Griffin)

By Douglas Wolk

A friend of mine was active in the mid-80s New York hardcore scene, and I once made the mistake of asking him, in a very general way, what it was like. "Well," he said, with the air of a Zen master presenting a koan, "sometime in the 50s, the poet Richard Huelsenbeck was asked for help by the organizers of an exhibition on the Dada movement. He told them it would be like trying to reassemble the pieces of a bomb after it had exploded."

Two new books take as their subjects periods in pop music so complicated and confusing that they, too, might as well be exploded bombs. George Gimarc's Post Punk Diary: 1980-1982 is a day-by-day examination of the transition from the last shock of punk's first generations to the flowering of synth-based new wave. Gina Arnold's Kiss This: Punk in the Present Tense is a little harder to nail down, but it mostly concerns the post-1991 popularization of certain kinds of music that came from punk and the contradictions inherent in their commercial viability. (Somehow that thesis is stretched to include sections on the Kiss reunion and why she hates Deadheads, among other things.) In her introduction, Arnold unwittingly echoes Huelsenbeck: punk, she says, is now "everywhere--fragmented and strewn across an increasingly distant landscape...its shards are pretty, but they have no edges."

Unfortunately, Arnold's not the one who can put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Her Punk in the Present Tense turns out to mean, almost exclusively, old-school three-chord punk in its most public recent manifestations: the Sex Pistols' reunion, the rise of Rancid, the Ramones' appearance on Lollapalooza, and so on. Showing that these bands have become mass-cultural phenomena isn't just easy, it's tautological. Arnold has to know that new and often excruciatingly independent punk is still being made in huge quantities, and that even if the records don't sell millions apiece, they constitute a closet economy; she can't have researched a dispute between Berkeley's Gilman Street punk collective and a local brew pub or name-dropped Maximum Rock 'n' Roll as many times as she has without noticing. In the book's afterword, she writes that she gets a weekly listing of upcoming Bay Area punk shows, but "when it comes to punk rock in grotty venues, I've seen it, I've smelled it, I know its every nuance and note. It's absolutely inconceivable to think that one of these bands could actually change my life."

Therein lies the main problem with Arnold's attempt to document what has happened to punk: most of Kiss This is about what has happened to her. At moments when some cold-eyed historical perspective would be nice, she inevitably veers into autobiographical reminiscence or travelogue. In her introduction, Arnold claims to have realized that punk rock is "now a meaningless philosophy" in March 1996, when her old heroes the Sex Pistols announced their plans to reunite. This is a bit like the opening assertion in Philip Larkin's "Annus Mirabilis": "Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three / (Which was rather late for me)."

Plus, Kiss This is terribly written. Nearly every turn of a page reveals dippy cant (Pearl Jam are "vilified by the mainstream media...no other band attracts the kind of negative attention they do"), incoherence (Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon designs the X-Girl clothing line, Arnold says, "despite the fact that...Gordon's supposed text is supposed to be feminist"), or inaccuracy (she claims the Saturday Night Fever sound track shipped 762 million copies, or one for every seven people on the planet, and that Sub Pop sold 49 percent of its stock to Sony: wrong conglomerate).

Then Arnold tries to explain the meaning of it all. But her subject is so complex that any single conclusion she could draw would be wrong, so she tries to have things both ways. Was the Pistols' reunion show in Finland where "punk rock was going to end," or is the death of punk "a crock of shit"? Depends which page you're looking at.

Post Punk Diary, the follow-up to Texas disc jockey Gimarc's Punk Diary: 1970-1979, is less imaginative than Kiss This, and vastly more useful. For each day of 1980, '81, and '82, it recaps what was happening in what was then generally called "the new wave"--what records were released, which bands played at which (mostly English) clubs, how the scene was covered in various media. Most entries are fleshed out with a bit of description, and there are a few pointers to the later significance of certain people--for instance, the entry for December 8, 1982, notes that the Frantic Elevators' Mick Hucknall rerecorded the band's "Holding Back the Years" with Simply Red.

The book isn't much more than a distillation of primary sources, mostly the British music weeklies Sounds and New Musical Express (with some help from Americans like Trouser Press and New York Rocker). In the years Gimarc covers, new wave exploded into underground factions (hardcore, Oi!, industrial) and more radio-friendly ones (the New Romantics, college rock). That's a lot of shrapnel, and Gimarc gathers up most of the available pieces and curates them with little analysis. In a brief introduction titled "Foreward--Into the Past!" he writes, "There are no foregone conclusions, no value judgments. Make your own connections between the people and events."

As you might imagine, Post Punk Diary is rather Anglocentric, and even so it's a little short on information about British bands that didn't get covered in the weeklies--there's nothing on the prolific and interesting Homosexuals, for instance. And there are some significant omissions from its coverage of the American scene, like Liquid Liquid and the Embarrassment. But it does go awfully deep: searches for Oh OK (Michael Stipe's sister's band) and the Young Snakes (Aimee Mann's first group), as well as the Scars, the Fatal Microbes, and the Yobs (all obscurities I like but previously knew nothing about), all hit pay dirt. Aside from the marvelous 1983 edition of Volume: The International Discography of the New Wave, which now goes for triple-digit sums, it's the most complete reference tool about this particular moment in music.

And a complete reference tool is exactly what's appropriate. The scenes and situations covered by Post Punk Diary are so thoroughly interrelated that they can't fully be understood outside the web. The minor bands and songs illuminate the major ones. It deepens the meaning of the Specials' "Ghost Town" to know that a Londoner who picked it up the week it came out might also have found the Psychedelic Furs' "Pretty in Pink" or the Flying Lizards' Fourth Wall among the new arrivals, and then perhaps gone to see the Red Crayola and Furious Pig at the Venue or Aztec Camera at the Moonlight Club. It's amazing to learn that a reviewer wrote of U2 in March 1980 that their "strange sleight-of-hand...might one day harden into a hollow, grandiose and massively successful style."

Facts, arranged properly, can tell stories, and Gimarc wisely doesn't bother spinning them. How does it all come together? That's for individual listeners to figure out as history's shrapnel keeps turning up in the body of the present.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): book covers.

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