The Punk Reader: Research Transmissions from the Local and the Global
Intellect Books, Bristol, UK, 2019
328 pp. Paper, $33.00
Are Punk and scholarship dialectical opposites? A good Punk song is a short, sharp shock; a good academic paper is fully developed, carrying citations and bibliography. Punk is best insouciantly tossed off, weak when it takes itself too seriously; scholarly research and publication are serious, impressive endeavors, thoughtfully developed and revised. My own Punk lodestar Iggy Pop said a few years ago on a nighttime TV talk show that all Rock needed “something stupid” about it, “or else you get Bono”. Yet The Punk Reader examines Punk generations beyond Iggy’s Stooges and stoogelings of 50 years ago, its recent communities in various nations, locations, and circumstances. Twenty-first century Punk blossoms around the urban planet, and here are some dispatches.
Kristy Loman explains how Groningen Punks distinguish themselves from the rest of Holland, interrogating the local and the global from interviewees ages 23 to 55. Punk is parsed in Portugal and in Vancouver as is the nature of both aging and nomadism within Punk scenes. Punk’s various self-defined groupings in Madrid over the decades is further complicated by Central American refugees and sectarian politics there. Guadalajara, Mexico is a hotbed of Anarcho-Punk, while the Sao Paulo subway system is a contested zone among Punks, police, and populace. The Punk Reader travels around the world in academic clarity. We learn of autonomous community in Bandung and “sonic extremism” as one buttresses of identity in Malaysia, and a chapter on the Punk scene in China affirms my own glimpse of it from brief phone videos of bands that friends teaching in China periodically post.
There have always been great arguments about authenticity in the world of Punk, here raised by documenting Iran’s unofficial, hence underground, musical scene, thus broadening the aesthetic definition of Punk music. Often authenticity arguments arise when bands expand their audience into the mainstream, perhaps comparable to criticisms of people of color “leaving the hood” upon career advancement. Alastair “Gords” Gordon recounts the hand-wringing and anger over Chumbawumba’s moment of success.
Benjamin Van Loon’s chapter on Los Angeles Powercore genre, begins its history in the mid-seventies Glam of Rodney’s English Disco. Powercore is the music of Powerviolence, which despite an eye on California Punk during that era, are terms I’d never read before. While maintaining the standards of the rest of the book, his essay is leavened with underlying bemusement of a seasoned rogue; he’s the author here with whom I’d most like to share a beer (and then throw the bottles at the band! Sorry).
Punk has flourished internationally as a place for outsiders, kids who didn’t fit in with parental or hegemonic peer expectations—what in the Stooges’ era were called “freeks”. A countervailing media-driven force is conformity, required “Punk” tropes (short songs, leather/torn/pinned clothes) rather than functional strategies, that might provide suburban comfort at the cost of creativity. The Punk Reader is a serious reference and a good read, but something seemingly missing is humor, a light touch here and there (appropriate in some chapters’ concluding paragraphs?). This is a criticism I’ve had for other distinguished books on this community-building music of emotional surge, defiant adrenalin and ecstatic joys. Am I the only reader who needs to be reminded that Punk rock n’ look n’ lifestyle is terrific fun, too?
I respect this substantial book, but I wish I found it a bit more transgressive, cynical, inventive…that is, Punk. And irritated that it’s most lawlessly so in its failure to list picture credits; I’m constantly amazed when scholarly projects scrupulous about textual citation are sloppy regarding visual imagery. The essays with their responsibly captioned photos of Punks in their elements are gatecrashed by cool gnarly photocopied flyers tossed, enlivening the party and very welcome but disappointingly unsourced. The book designer might reply: Whaddya expect, I’m a Punk.