BOOK REVIEWS: Pretty Vacant: A History of UK Punk & Punk 365 

Salad Days: Corporate publishers get it wrong again

The MC5 didn't birth punk rock. Neither did the Velvet Underground or Television. Actually, it was never born. It was an N.Y.C. art-rock abortion that was rescued by thousands of pissed-off kids who raised it from the gutter and threw it onstage to be a bloody antidote to vapid pop culture.

A lot of books attempt to capture the essence of that late-'70s/early-'90s golden age, to varying degrees of success. Some have focused on specific parts: the clothes, the attitude, the fallen wasted. But most try to apply the top down approach that yields the biblical recitations of Stooges-begat-Ramones-begat-Sex Pistols, etc.

Pretty Vacant: A History of UK Punk attempts to chronicle the heyday of the Sex Pistols/Clash explosion that changed British music. Punk 365 is a photographic assault on the history of punk in general, spanning from 1966-1993.

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Pretty Vacant: A History of UK Punk

If you're going to start out with a title like A History of UK Punk, you've got to deliver more than a Sex Pistols setlist. Instead, this 289-page historical blowjob on Malcolm McLaren namedrops a few bands and devotes a whopping five pages to the Clash.

Too much of the book relies on author Phil Strongman's anecdotal descriptions of who-knew-who, venue lists, and Pistols gossip.

About the impact of the Pistols' fashion sense: "A boy could wear a battered pair of old, narrow Levis and be cool, a girl could, if she dared, wear a black T-shirt over stockings and suspenders and be high chic."

And there's this expansive conclusion: "...McLaren's personal magic brought the Pistols together and, crucially, kept them there long enough to spark an entire genre..."

There it is: McLaren invented UK punk.

The Damned, The Buzzcocks, and Stiff Little Fingers get mentioned a few times because they were on the bill with the Pistols, but with no context or separate existence other than supporting the Pistols. Later bands that were just as influential like Subhumans, GBH, and the controversial Skrewdriver never even get mentioned. But there is an unfascinating effort chronicling the origin of Joy Division.

It all comes down to the Sex Pistols for Strongman, and there are some good stories about their legendary tours. If you're a hard-core Pistols fan, this book will be a good way to pass the time while doing your laundry.

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Punk 365

This steaming pile of hipster necrophilia is best suited for aspiring fashion designers who use the word "punky." All the spiky hair and weird sunglasses are here, and you can flip through a 27-year history of how to dress for distress.

Born from the same series that brought us Golf Courses of the World 365 and Soccer 365, it's loaded with 365 pages of stage shots and cool people you won't remember.

It's a well-printed photo book, and there are a few gems — especially photos by Jenny Lens, Jill Furmanovsky, and Janette Beckman — but it utterly fails to document any of the essence of what these bands were a part of.

After starting with an early Stooges photo from 1970, the book descends into "I was there" pics of Max's Kansas City, Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and inevitably Debbie Harry. Eighty-six pages later brings the Ramones, and another 20 brings the Sex Pistols. After that, you wade through a long line of bands that nobody gave a shit about, peppered with a few good shots of The Dickies and The Clash.

Many of these shots are of bands that the editor(s) said "were cool, too." There are publicity shots of Pere Ubu, The Flamin' Groovies, The Fall, The B-52's, and Blondie. Actually, the whole book is diluted with obscure photos of short-lived bands like Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, The Cortinas, The Raincoats, and The Necessaries. But I guess they look cool.

Missing from the book are Bad Religion, D.R.I., The Exploited, Dropkick Murphys, 7 Seconds, and many more. But in their place we get Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Musical Youth, and The Pretenders.

Pretty Vacant: A History of UK Punk and Punk 365 offer little more than a Barnes & Noble-friendly literary legacy that celebrates the haircuts and ignores the thousands of teen tribes that broke from the program and invented their own culture. With three chords and some Xerox machines, they subverted the whole music industry machine. And they had a lot of fun doing it, too.


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