Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

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Monday, January 24, 2011

“Kids of the Black Hole: Punk Rock in Postsuburban California” by Dewar MacLeod (University of Oklahoma Press)

For those of you who get a bit edgy when you see a word such as “Postsuburban” in the subtitle of a book on a subject such as punk-rock, rest assured that this is not some dry, dull, academic textbook. Yes, it is academically sound, and certainly is worthy of being published by a University Press. Nevertheless, author Dewar MacLeod generally, and refreshingly, keeps jargon to a minimum. What it is, then, is a lively, readable, and at times quite personal account of the rise and spread of punk rock in the L.A. area in the late 1970’s, and the subsequent development of hardcore in the outlying areas as the world greeted the 1980’s.

MacLeod is quick to point out that the punk phenomenon is far from native to Southern California. Despite the pioneering punk-in-formation styles of L.A. bands such as the Runaways and the Droogs - the latter are curiously absent from the book, perhaps because they would not attain their full impact until several years later, and then in Europe - punk-rock proper was a product of New York City and London, and essentially had to be imported into L.A. It caught the ears of young Angelenos who found themselves bored with the soft-focused country-folk-rock which dominated the Southern Cal scene during the 70’s. A lot of young kids were looking for something more visceral, more exciting, more relevant to their interests, and found it in New York’s Ramones and London’s Sex Pistols.

MacLeod tells how one of the key players in the formation of a punk-rock aesthetic on the L.A. scene, writer/publisher/record producer/store-owner Greg Shaw (1949-2004), attempted to establish an audience for roots-oriented rock’n’roll in new, up-to-date guises, and indeed is thought to have coined the very term “punk-rock” in the early 70’s. (I might dispute that, because I recall hearing the term “punk” during the 1960’s, applied to some of the garage-rock bands also favored by Greg Shaw. But at that time, the term conveyed an attitude more than than a specific musical genre.) But Shaw was already approaching 30 by the late 1970’s, and his school of energetic, yet “respectable”-sounding power-pop seemed too tame for many of those club-goers who needed to hear something louder, faster, nastier, and less polished. So while Shaw supplied much-needed early exposure, a chance for some bands to get on vinyl, and a place for them to sell their discs, in the end his musical preferences failed to win the day.

(At this point, I should parenthetically point out that the reason I have taken such an interest in those sections of the book where Greg Shaw is discussed is quite simple. Through our correspondence in the early 1970’s, centered around his fanzine “Who Put the Bomp”, he was my original mentor, my role model, the man who helped me crystallize my ideas on music - though I eventually went off on many different tangents, aesthetically and professionally - and thus is more responsible than any other non-family individual for the path my life has taken. A lot of us who became music journalists in the 1970’s, many of whom are still working, or as in my case dabbling, in the field owe a great debt to Greg Shaw. I am pleased to be able to take this opportunity to thank him, posthumously, for all he did for me.)

The disputes between Greg Shaw and the newer breed of punk musicians, writers, and promoters are significant, of course, but MacLeod also discusses many other facets of the L.A. punk underground. We get to see, for example, a young fellow named Jan Beahm transmute into Bobby Pyn, then further into Darby Crash of the much-revered (by some) and reviled (by others) band The Germs, and witness his rise and tragic fall. MacLeod takes us inside the clubs/halls/lodges to vicariously witness through his own memories and solid research the sights, sounds, and personalities which made this once-imitative scene increasingly unique. We see the turf wars, as different factions vie for supremacy, and we watch what had been a relatively benign scene (in the sense that any destruction caused by the first wave of L.A. punks was generally self-destruction) deteriorate into violence, much of it (but not necessarily all of it) provoked by the LAPD, who would raid clubs and smash heads with little or no provocation. Through all of this, the music continues to be loud, fast, and even, on occasion, distinctive.

Unfortunately, the hardcore scene which developed in Huntington Beach and other outlying areas, turned increasingly violent. The reasons for this violence were no longer connected to turf wars or even the police, but simply violence for the sheer sake of that rush of excitement that accompanies violence.. The violence sometimes extended beyond the audience to the band members themselves, and the music reflected this turn of events. One wishes MacLeod would have devoted even more space to objectively examining what specific cause-and-effect relationship there may have been between hardcore-punk music and hardcore-punk violence. Perhaps he takes for granted that it’s readily audible in the very sound of Black Flag or the Circle Jerks.

As a whole, I find this to be a well-balanced look at a phenomenon that is too often treated superficially, subjectively, and with such flagrant prejudice that it quickly becomes clear that most writers (on both sides of the discussion) are more interested in stirring up emotions through a screaming diatribe than offering an impartial examination of events as they occurred. Does Dewar MacLeod have his prejudices? I’m sure he does. But he manages to keep things on an even keel by interviewing many people who were there, and letting the story unfold as it happened. This is the way the writing of the more controversial aspects of popular music history should be approached, but too often is not.

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