July 31, 2012
By most accounts, Jon Savage typed the last word on British punk twenty years ago when he published his 600-page history England’s Dreaming. Yet former Membrane John Robb recognized the gap in the tale that appears in any third person telling: the punks didn’t get to tell their side of the story in their own words. So he went to work on picking the brains of over 100 first and second wavers and ended up with his own bulky tome titled Punk Rock: An Oral History. Not surprisingly, the 2006 book recycles a fair share of what Savage already laid down, but it is meaningful to get the story straight from Mick Jones, Siouxsie Sioux, Captain Sensible, Gaye Advert, Ari Up, Pete Shelley, Poly Styrene, and the lot, particularly since some of these folks are no longer pogoing through this mortal coil.
Our cast spends the first 50 or so pages rhapsodizing about their influences and putting to rest the well-traveled clichés that the punks had nothing but disdain for hippie psychedelia, prog, and glam. Then they get deep into the details of their formations, their rises and falls, coloring in between the timelines with the personal perspectives and stories that make Robb’s book unique and essential in its own right. Don Letts comes clean about being the second biggest collector of Beatles memorabilia in England before hocking it all to devote himself to reggae and punk. Captain Sensible relates the tear-jerking tale about how The Damned’s first break up drove him to cry his peepers out while watching Abba: The Movie before heading to XTC’s debut record release party to molest their cake. Robb also gives voice to those who got shut out of England’s Dreaming, spending much time with agit-proppers Crass and paying respect to such punk offshoots as Two-Tone ska, Goth, and Oi, which our tour guide is keen to sever from its racist image. Such politics play a powerful role as punk finally invites feminists to the Rock & Roll party and right wing, National Front ideology attempts to piss on it.
Robb plays a broader role in his book than mere behind-the-scenes interviewer and editor with his sometimes awestruck, sometimes sly interjections. His retort to Sniffin’ Glue-founder Mark Perry’s rant about how The Clash unforgivably betrayed the scene when they signed with CBS Records is—no hyperbole—the greatest footnote ever footnoted. While I have no reservations in recommending PM Press’ new reprint of Punk Rock: An Oral History, I must offer one valuable bit of advice: feel free to skip ahead anytime you see a quote from that whiney, self-impressed windbag John Lydon. Put a sock in it, Johnny!