Tuesday, June 16, 2015

New Ibbetson Street Press book to address sociology of punk rock

Jim Sullivan, journalist, former Boston Globe rock music critic and host of the XFINITY on Demand music-interview show Boston Rock/Talk, and freelance journalist/author Susie Davidson have begun a book project on the political and social elements of punk, post-punk and new wave rock of the mid-late 1970s and early 1980s.
Punk rock got rolling in America - credit the Ramones, Heartbreakers and Television - but its appeal was limited, early on. It spread, however, like wildfire in England, especially after the above-mentioned American bands toured there. In England, punk rock was, for a time, pop music (meaning: popular) - far more so than in the U.S.  In 1976 and 1977, England was in the throes of high unemployment and under the reign of the union-busting Margaret Thatcher. Unrest and disaffection was in the air. Politics infused the music.
The Sex Pistols and the Clash seized the moment, the Pistols releasing the most powerful 1-2 opening salvo in rock history with the singles “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “God Save the Queen.” The Clash likewise sounded the call for London youth in “London’s Burning” - it was “burning with boredom now” - and in “Career Opportunities,” where those opportunities were “the ones that never knock.”
As Sting told Sullivan in 1979, backstage after a concert at Boston’s Paradise Rock Club, “The Police are not a punk band, but punk kicked open the doors for bands like us.” And while the Police were not overtly political, a number of those who rushed through the doors were. In the aftermath of punk rock, no subject was off-limits.
Although some bands from its heyday are still performing live and even releasing new works, the ambiance of the era is now both finite and nostalgic. Therefore, Sullivan and Davidson believe that the time for archiving and documenting the political and social aspects of punk rock and its musical outgrowths is now, as the movement recedes into musical history, and as misleading caricatures tend to prevail.
To wit, Sid Vicious and his personal and public demise may be the face of punk rock to many - then and now. He lived fast and died young. But as Johnny Rotten told Sullivan in a 1996 Boston Globe interview conducted during the Sex Pistols 20th anniversary tour, "He was a coat hanger from start to finish. Amazing. He's the most popular coat hanger in this history of bad music. . . . Old Sid. That man never played."
Added guitarist Steve Jones, "It was kind of a mistake getting him in the band. It was mainly 'cause he looked the part and he'd come to all our shows, and John knew him. But he couldn't play, and when he joined, the whole chemistry just went out the window."   
Sullivan and Davidson aim to explore and publicize the social consciousness inherent in punk rock - some of it, anyway - and dispel the myth that the scene was one of self-destruction, negativity, and purposeless anger. (Although, of course, there was some of that!) But at its best, there was a mix of intellectual integrity and pure passion, a reflection of the political and social forces of the times.
The book, tentatively titled "The Politics of Punk Rock: A Mythbusting Primer," will include anecdotes and insights from Sullivan's interviews with major players of the punk scene, and draw from Davidson's own past music articles and personal insights as it explores both the varied social issues and influences of the day, and the wide, continuing musical manifestations of punk rock.
For Sullivan and Davidson, the late teens and early to mid-20s ages of most punk musicians reflected their own comings of musical age, and their emotional reactions to these same pressing issues and the music that individually interpreted and defined them.
Photos from Boston scene photographer Phil-in-Phlash and songs throughout the book will depict well-known original and latter-day punk, post-punk and new wave groups such as the more well-known Green Day, Midnight Oil, The Jam, The Sex Pistols, the Clash and Gang of Four. Other classic punk and post-punk bands will include Dead Kennedys, Agent Orange, the Adverts, Mekons, the Anti-Nowhere League and Naked Raygun; topical punk performers including Attila the Stockbroker, Billy Bragg, the November Group, the Proletariat and the Fall; Ska and 2-Tone bands The Specials, The Selector, UB40, Madness, The English Beat and other skankers; and pioneering female-led punk ensembles such as X-Ray Spex, Crass, the Au Pairs, the Slits, and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
These are just a few of the bands and the punk genres that will be covered in this new work, which will explore post punk and new wave, and touch on modern-day influences.
Sullivan writes::
     I saw the Clash at their first Boston area performance, in early 1979, at the long-gone Harvard Square Theatre. Anticipation ran high - for as the hype went, the Clash was “the only band that matters” - and, hype be damned, the Clash did not disappoint. In fact, they opened the assault with the salvo that was “I’m So Bored with the USA.” It was a British kids anthem - they were not only fed up with their own system, be it pop music or politics, they were tired of being fed American pop culture.
     Here, when they performed the song, it hit home immediately. We too were bored with the USA. (Well, bored and angry … Jimmy Carter’s malaise had settled in.) At the Harvard Square Theatre, people were standing, pogoing, fists pumping. At one with the band, with those sentiments.
    But here’s the thing: The song wasn’t originally conceived as an anti-American song at all. When Joe Strummer wrote it, it was initially an anti-love song, a kiss-off to a soon-to-be-ex. “I’m so bored with … you!” It was only through the band working it through together that it became what it became. Iconic, important, cathartic. It surely would have been a great song had it remained in its initial form, but in its political form, it gained a whole lot more traction than it might have had, had it remained personal and pissed off.
     It is worth noting: The song has got to work as a song - the melody and rhythm - before is works as a message. People hear and feel the music first; understanding the lyrics - or the thematic thrust - comes a bit later down the line. For the bands, for fans.
The book, which will be published by Ibbetson Street Press of Somerville, will be available in print at local bookstores, and in print and online through Amazon.
For information, contact ibbetsonpress@msn.com

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