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The Shape of Punk to Come

Taking Punk to the Masses: From Nowhere to NevermindTaking punk to the masses: from nowhere to nevermind

McMurray, Jacob

Fantagraphics Books

ISBN: 978 60699 433 7

Taking Punk to the Masses:From Nowhere to Nevermind is the book of an exhibition that the Experience Music Project, which is a pop culture and music museum in Seattle, put on to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s album Nevermind, as you probably could have guessed from the title. So,  it is a look into a very specific line in punk history.  I have to say that I was initially leery as hell of this book, as I am of all books within this genre (is punk history a genre of books?  Whatever, you know what I mean).  But admittedly, I know next to nothing about the beginnings of the punk scene in the US, especially as it relates to bands… well, bands outside of the New York scene.

That was definitely something that I liked about this book.  McMurray has covered some really interesting ground in this… well, its almost more of an exhibition catalogue than anything else.  Fantagraphics only published this first pressing in April 2011, so it’s a really recent volume too.  In the introduction, McMurray mentions that most of the stuff in the exhibition (and the contents of the exhibition are so varied that only the word ‘stuff’ can really cover it – everything from posters and photographs to zines and cassettes to guitars) has come from EMP’s deep archive.  If that’s correct, in the words of Liz Lemon, I want to go to there, because there is some seriously rare and beautiful things in that collection.  My favourite moment was opening a page and seeing a photo, kind of grainy and informal, of a group of women.  They all looked varying degrees of familiarity to me, which is no surprise, because when I looked closer, the picture was of Viv Albertine (The Slits), Debbie Harry (Blondie), Siouxie Sioux (the Banshees), Poly Styrene (XRay Specs), Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders), and Pauline Black (The Selector).  Like, Oh Em Gee, right?  Imagine finding that sucker in a shoebox somewhere.

I guess sometimes the read-ability goes a bit off, but the artifacts are pretty amazing in themselves, and it’s given me a lot to listen to.  The Riot Grrl movement stuff was particularly interesting, though I could have done without all the stuff about how ‘these women influenced thousands to get involved in the movement, blah blah blah’; to me, it just came of as slightly patronising.  I think that Mark Perry did a better job of describing the role of women in the punk scene, though obviously he’s talking about British punk.  There seemed to be a lot more credence given to punk-as-catalyst, you know, punk beginning the new wave movement, punk beginning speed metal, the cross pollination that went on between punk and metal, punk and pop, all of that kind of stuff.  What a lot of writers about punk don’t seem to want to accept is that punk is the basis for a lot of genre music today,  just as metal and reggae and rockabilly influenced punk.  Ahh, it’s all just the circle of life, innit?

I don’t know if I could really recommend this book to anyone but the biggest grunge fan.  I certainly would disappoint rabid Nirvana fans, unless they had the kind of sensibility that it takes to look around the genre of grunge and want to see where it all began, you know?  There are certainly amazing objects which are catalogued in this book, so it makes a great read for a music fan who can’t find their way to Washington to go to the EMP themselves.  However, because it’s such a broadbrush approach, it can be a little vague and… I don’t know, I want to say ill defined, but it’s not that bad.  It’s just kind of a primer session, you know?  Which is not bad in itself, but not really what I was hoping it would be.  If anyone knows of an equivalent to Jon Savage’s book England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond about the US scene, let me know in the comments, huh?

Having said all that, they do have a picture of Artis the Spoonman’s spoons.  And surely, that’s worth the price of admission.


NOTE: The title, she is not my own work.  It’s the title of an album by punk band (*groan, or hardcore band, if you want to get pedantic), Refused.  It’s a super-damn-fine album, so go and listen to it right now.