Babylon's Burning: From punk to grunge, by Clinton Heylin

In search of the Garage of Eden
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The Independent Culture

There's a noticeable absence of direct lyrical quotations in Clinton Heylin's epically inessential doorstop of punk rock history. It's understandable: music publishers charge a relative fortune to reproduce the tamest pop aphorisms. Yet they remain naggingly present, for Heylin cunningly peppers his uninspired prose with lines from songs, obscure and well-known. Sometimes they even fit. More often he confuses the appropriate with the appropriated.

It's a rare light touch in a determinedly idiosyncratic book. The author of From the Velvets to the Void-Oids, a primer on punk's prehistory, certainly holds opinions. The Clash? A bunch of frauds beset with contradictions (something he proves by quoting old interviews where they admit to being fraudulent and beset with contradictions). The Ramones? Worthless after their first urgent blasts had exhausted their one, very good idea. Joy Division? Public schoolboys (he means grammar) who let their mercurial producer, Martin Hannett, create a sound that Heylin didn't like. (The author, educated at Manchester Grammar, seems to have a bizarre beef with King's School, Macclesfield.)

Other writers are similarly excoriated. Poor Simon Reynolds, author of the beautifully written, occasionally naive Rip It Up and Start Again, is dismissed for deeming "post-punk" to be "All the Music I Liked When I was Young". Sane people might see this as a perfectly reasonable rationale for its re-examination. It's like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons giving Father Ted's lengthy acceptance speech at the Golden Cleric Awards. ("And now we move on to liars.")

Punk's origins lay in unity. Ownership of a Stooges or Velvets album sealed a spot in the circle of the strange. In an age where everything wasn't known, collated and instantly available, such clues were hard to track down, but every town had a few adherents. Lasting friendships and collaborations were based on shared tastes. Although not necessarily. A touching chapter explains how in all Australia there were but two bands that could remotely be described as "punk": the brilliant, abrasive Saints and the dogged, derivative Radio Birdman - yet they didn't get on.

By the mid-1970s, what had been fun for a few obscure junkies in New York became a genuine phenomenon in Britain, with a national media to accelerate its exposure. Everywhere folk chose corny, catchy pseudonyms. Some are still stuck with them today (Rat Scabies? Lydia Lunch?). Many interesting new voices were heard, but soon enough the record industry was again doing what it does best: making money and ignoring unprofitable innovation.

But who doesn't know this basic tale? Apart from a certain comic irascibility, does Heylin offer anything neglected by better writers, such as Jon Savage, whose definitive England's Dreaming remains unsurpassed?

He does cover some neglected corners. A refreshing overview of Ulster punk rehabilitates Stiff Little Fingers' ferocious first album. His interest in California's revved up "cowpunk" movement of the early Eighties makes a change from the usual "punk begot hardcore" trope. New York's ephemeral "no wave" scene is often overlooked, though at this distance its significance seems debatable.

The importance of Dr Feelgood's ultra-gritty rhythm 'n' blues as a precursor of punk is recognised, as is the bleak humour of John Lydon's creation, "Johnny Rotten". The defiantly mature Wire receive their dues for exploiting the possibilities of the situation. He even takes his title from the ill-fated, forgotten Ruts, and details their story.

But his knowledge has limits. He seems entirely unaware of the Ruts' huge influence across the Atlantic, notably on Ian MacKaye's Fugazi. Whole genres, some still extant, go unremarked upon, from goths to anarcho-punks. The music of Crass was drab, but to lump in the hugely influential, long running anarchist collective with racists like Skrewdriver is begging for a libel suit. An assertion that the "heavy-metal/punk symbiosis had been largely held at bay in the UK", ignores the rise of Motorhead and an entire generation of metalheads inspired by the Pistols' uncomplicated example (and taste for amphetamines). He may not care for Guns 'n' Roses, but their image and sound obviously owe plenty to the New York Dolls and Sex Pistols. (They even covered a song by the late Peter Laughner, a punk pioneer already referenced.) The pointless extension of the tale through the Eighties, possibly tacked on at the publisher's insistence, has been covered better elsewhere. By the time grunge broke, punk was far from the cutting edge. For many who bought their records, Nirvana was nothing more than a superior rock band.

Heylin's main sources appear to be old music papers. The fact that the Canadian (not American, as he claims) film director Mary Harron, in 1976 a staff member of Punk magazine, had been the girlfriend of one Tony Blair at Oxford goes unremarked, because this interesting aside did not appear in the NME. He is particularly lousy at describing music. Take this snap review of the Ruts' flop single "Jah Wars": "Some of the best protest lyrics this side of Donovan, the G-force of a seminal rock band and a dub sound dripping with dreadlocks." Most music books will at least inspire the reader to dig out the records. This one does not.

What Heylin, an acknowledged expert on bootlegs, does like is assertions that are impossible to corroborate. For him, perennial support band the Subway Sect, a band so raw "we didn't even know you had to tune a guitar", exemplify Brit punk. Partly because they had real talent, demonstrated on a brace of singles, but mainly because the tapes of their first album remain lost. Ditto the original, barely recorded line-ups of Television and the Heartbreakers.

Unexpectedly, Buzzcocks are the true heroes of this tale, restoring concision to both rock and pop, consistently encouraging talent and, based in Manchester, distant from the fractious relations between the capital's biggest names. Their perfected pop punk lives on in bands adored by children while their contemporaries fuel the nostalgia of grumpy old men.

"Punk had always been about trying to capture that ecstatic moment when a band plays together for the first time," Heylin concludes, casually contradicting all that came before (while simultaneously berating the selfishly dead Kurt Cobain, the only figure mentioned here that the American music business ever noticed). This search for the prelapsarian spirit of the Garage of Eden drove Malcolm McLaren, Bernie Rhodes and, yes, Joe Strummer. It was born nostalgic, so no wonder punk's innocence was used up so quickly.

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