Books: Going underground

Do rebel geniuses or rip-off artists create the greatest pop? Ben Thompson argues that critics may have missed the beat
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Energy Flash: a journey through rave music and dance culture

by Simon Reynolds

Picador, pounds 12.99 (with free CD)

Night Beat: a shadow history of rock 'n' roll

by Mikal Gilmore

Picador, pounds 12.99

Turned On: a biography of Henry Rollins

by James Parker

Phoenix House, pounds 10.99

Last year, in his ground-breaking polemic The Accidental Evolution of Rock 'n' Roll (Da Capo Press), the American music critic Chuck Eddy gleefully overturned the traditional ethical hierarchy of pop writing. Like a cruel, Gucci-clad Jesus scattering well-meaning charity workers from their temple of presumed integrity, Eddy set about the moral certain ties that underpin the shaky edifice of "the aesthetics of rock".

Culture evolves not through the noble endeavours of a pantheon of official individual geniuses, argued Eddy, but through a haphazard catalogue of expediencies and happenstance. Corporate corruption is not inimical to rock'n'roll's healthy development; it is integral to it. And pop's finest moments come about, not as a consequence of the adherence to the obscure principles of underground cadres, but "when greedy kids on the make, ones who don't mind looking like they're on the make - contemptible bastards, who'll serve up any tossed-off perfunctory garbage their audience will swallow - inadvertently allow their humanity to leak out".

This thesis obviously has its problems, but as a means of shaking off the tyranny of the canon - that most irretrievably anal of all rock's fixations - and as a spur to new and constructive thinking, its impact is little short of revolutionary. (Eddy used it to consider such hitherto overlooked musical phenomena as "The Power Ballad" and "Working Woman Rock".) Yet these three books can all, in different and variously commendable ways, be seen as attempts to shore up the status quo in rock.

Simon Reynolds, for one, makes an unlikely reactionary. One of the most consistently adventurous and forward-looking of British music writers, his journalism - in Melody Maker, The Village Voice and especially The Wire - marks out and then secures advanced positions with the alacrity and ruthlessness of a PCP-crazed marine commando unit. His previous volumes, Blissed Out and The Sex Revolts (respectively, an audacious attempt to establish 1987 as a rock annus mirabilis to match those 10 and 20 years before; and an even more audacious attempt to subject pop history to the rigours of psychoanalytic theory) both succeeded in establishing their own aesthetic universe. But Energy Flash doesn't quite pull it off.

Plainly intended as a musical companion to Matthew Collin's magisterial Altered State, this new book endeavours to cover the waterfront - from the Acid House explosion of summer 1988 to the fragmented but still vital electronic dance landscape of 10 years later. Unfortunately, in Reynolds's bid for encyclopaedic sweep, the fearlessness and originality that make him such a valuable critical presence have been rather brushed under the carpet. His adherence to the shadowy ideal of an underground just does not sit with the rather formal, official kind of history he seems to be writing,

Since, by his own courageous admission, Reynolds only really came properly to appreciate this music in 1991, the first three years of his time-span seem second-guessed. Meanwhile, his pioneering work on such later mutations as 'Ardkore, Jungle and Gabba Techno rather loses its kinetic rush when shoehorned into a general history. While Reynolds's willingness to think hard about the music he loves is exemplary, it is hard to resist the nagging suspicion that his ability to enjoy any cultural phenomenon is in direct proportion to the extent to which it might be used to illustrate a quotation from the French theorist Paul Virilio.

Mikal Gilmore's chosen subject is not Virilio but virility. Perhaps understandably, for a man with the misfortune to have been born the younger brother of double murderer Gary Gilmore (a legacy explored with great courage and intelligence in his memoir Shot Through The Heart), the iconography of this veteran writer for Rolling Stone mgazine - from Mick Jagger to Tupac Shakur - seems to be predicated on a feeling that violence is the ultimate charisma.

In the age of the remix, the conventional wisdom that music journalism should only ever be published in its original form is a ridiculous anachronism; like insisting that music is always at its best when recorded live on a shoddy cassette. But Gilmore's collected work does rather suffer from his subsequent attempts to graft on an overview.

Only in a fascinating meditation on the career of Michael Jackson (resonantly titled "The problem of Michael Jackson") does the book really come alive. Reading Gilmore's lengthy observations on such well-worn topics matter as The Rolling Stones or Lou Reed, one is inclined to hanker for those critics - such as Nick Kent or Lester Bangs - who stamped their own individual characters on encounters with such familiar legends.

Gilmore seems unsure of how to reconcile the intimate voice of his first book with the diffuse subject matter of a quarter of a century of pop criticism. He flirts with putting himself into the story as an actor ("The first time I met Bob Dylan was... the day he showed up at my front door") only to beat a modest retreat ("What brought Bob Dylan to my door was simply that we had an interview to do") on being confronted with the unmythical nature of his calling. When Gilmore tries to up the ante, the results are not always felicitous. His assertion that the music of the Jesus and Mary Chain "can thrill you like the best and worst stolen orgasms of your life" is liable to have discerning readers reaching for the sick-bag.

There was only ever meant to be one biographer of the American hardcore punk legend turned MTV regular Henry Rollins, and that was Rollins himself. Given that the man with a neck the width of a giant redwood has filled volume after volume and disc after disc with his clipped confessional writings and surprisingly jovial spoken-word reminiscences, a biography might seem rather superfluous. Rollins himself certainly thought so, and has devoted a fair portion of his substantial energies to putting English journalist and fan James Parker off the scent.

But, as with Nick Broomfield's recent documentary film Kurt and Courtney, a subject's entirely legitimate attempts to shield from prying eyes have had the unlooked-for side-effect of keeping their tormentor on his mettle. Rather than embark on some tedious post-Hornby meander around his frustrated attempts to hunt down his prey, Parker engages with his subject at every level. The consequence is that what seemed at first sight the least promising of these three titles turns out to be - by a handsome margin - the most gripping and instructive.

Parker captures the brutal excitements of American hardcore punk - particularly the compelling and hilarious contradictions of its puritanical sub-sect, Straight Edge - with a vigour and immediacy all the more commendable for his having been born just too late to experience them at first hand. He is equally good on the intellectual and cultural backdrop to the Rollins story. He moves from Friedrich Nietzsche to his Californian inheritor Charles Manson; and from the consequences of skateboarding for the psychological development of young American suburbanites to the unexpected impact of Napoleon Hill's self-help tract "Think and Grow Rich" on the unlikely black, Washingtonian founding fathers of hardcore punk, the Bad Brains.

If Turned On loses a tiny bit of momentum in its final chapters, that is largely its subject's fault. Rollins has stubbornly refused to provide closure, by continuing to stay alive and have a career. As weaknesses go, this is a beauty.

In the end, it is not the fearsome atavism of Rollins's onstage incarnation that emerges as his most daunting attribute, but his instinct for self- preservation - his ability to mutate and survive. From Parker's punk avatar to Gilmore's "shadow history" and Reynolds's "dionysian paroxysm programmed and looped for eternity": it is in the space between these myths of renegade otherness, and the pragmatic reality of what Eddy terms "entertainment for monetary gain", that the real uncharted territory lies.

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