Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Gobbing on Babylon

I just finished reading Clinton Heylin's newest book, Babylon's Burning: From Punk to Grunge. The cover depicts Johnny Rotten and Kurt Cobain, and the book ends with Cobain's suicide. (I didn't know he shot himself while listening to Automatic for the People. It's a weak record, but that's going a bit far...)

The book actually begins in the early 1970's (pre-Pistols) with Lester Bangs, Suicide, and Television. The twenty pages that Heylin devotes to Radio Birdman and the Saints are among the strongest in the book. Music fans raised on mp3's and the internet (that's code for "you goddamn kids") may find it hard to imagine people like Rob Younger and Glen Matlock looking at posters and rock magazine reviews of Television's first single and being deeply influenced just by imagining how the music sounded.

Heylin expertly draws his story arc from NYC and Detroit to Australia, then to London, Manchester, Cleveland, LA, and SF, demonstrating the cross-pollination of musical ideas and emphasizing the importance of bands like Dr. Feelgood, the Subway Sect, the Ruts, and the Only Ones. He attempts to encapsulate the years and scenes covered in his own book, From the Velvets to the Voidoids, plus Please Kill Me, Our Band Could Be Your Life, We Got the Neutron Bomb, and Rip It Up and Start Again. The latter seems to be a thorn in Heylin's side; he ridicules Simon Reynolds as "Mr. Post-Punk" and writes that Reynolds has distorted the term post-punk to include "All The Music I Liked When I Was Young".

Heylin claims to be more objective than Reynolds and other authors on punk. He says that "a significant number of books misrepresent the period". Heylin does a decent job covering the American indie scenes of the 1980's, but his prejudices are clear. He obviously doesn't like hardcore (for example, he unfairly equates Greg Ginn with Jimmy Pursey). One factual error I noted: Heylin states that Bruce Pavitt founded Sub Pop in 1983 "as the title of a column in The Rocket".

Babylon's Burning is weakest at its conclusion: we are to believe that Cobain killed himself because he lacked the artistic honesty to write a song as maudlin and simplistic as "Everybody Hurts". Thanks, but no. Self-loathing and self-pity may be two sides of the same coin, but at least anger is an energy. Johnny said so.

Alberto y lost Trios Paranoias: Kill
Alberto y lost Trios Paranoias: Gobbing on Life


At 5/08/2007 4:01 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review, I'll have to pick up Heylin's latest. I really liked From Velvets to the Voidoids, especially the section on Cleveland.

But even then it was clear (in the updated edition, anyway) that Heylin did not care too much about any other book that describes that era of music. Based on your review, it sounds like nothing has changed.

Oh well, it doesn't matter to me if an author has an attitude, as long as his books are good. And Heylin's are.

At 5/08/2007 9:26 PM , Blogger jon manyjars said...

Thank you, anonymous stranger. I do recommend the book; I was just picking at details. Heylin does seem to respect Lester Bangs, Nick Kent and Jon Savage; but he only mentions John Holmstrom once, in passing, and he doesn't acknowledge Legs McNeil at all.

At 5/08/2007 9:56 PM , Blogger Paula said...

maudlin and simplistic

This is where the weird, irrational laws of musical taste come into play...cuz I'm sure there are a lot of country (even alt-country!), folk, or pop songs that you like that have lyrics as simple as "EH."

I'm not criticizin' ya, I do the same thing. I guess it's just about expectations or something.

FWIW, I like that song--it's a novelty to hear Stipey sing lyrics that make sense.

At 5/09/2007 5:03 PM , Blogger Joe Stumble said...

Haven't read this book but I did read Rip It Up and Start Again. That was one of the more interesting yet frustrating books I have read in a while. I agree with Heylin's assessment of the author only writing about postpunk with regards to it being "All The Music I Liked When I Was Young".

One of the most annoying aspects of the book is how he discredits bands like DEVO for selling out then expects us to buy into Scritti Politti's sellout as some sort of deep journey of artistic and philosophical discovery.

I agree that "Everybody Hurts" is maudlin btw. I prefered it when I didn't understand what Stipe was saying.

At 5/09/2007 5:56 PM , Blogger jon manyjars said...

Paula: I guess one man's Red Red Meat is another man's Poison.

Joe: Apparently Scritti Pollitti was engaged in some type of metacritical discourse with the pop mainstream, whereas Devo was, um, selling out.

At 5/10/2007 9:53 AM , Blogger Nazz Nomad said...

I thought the book was exceelent in it's coverage on the Australian punk scene (Radio Birdman (whom the author loves) and The Saints (whom the author kinda dismisses as a bunch of drunks. The incestuous beginnings of UK punk were also handled nicely.
I guess due to the other book he wrote (The Velvets to Voidoids) the author ignores NY punk and instead inexplicably focuses on the "Paisley Underground" L.A. scene.
The Nirvana stuff was absurd...

At 5/11/2007 11:11 AM , Blogger anandamide said...

Punk was created, in part, as a reaction to the likes of Elton John. As you can see below, however, very little has changed in Elton's world:


At 5/11/2007 4:12 PM , Blogger jon manyjars said...

Well done, Anandamide; but I think your rewrite of "Where the Wild Things Are" (starring Axl Rose) is the funniest thing I've read since "Vanna Karenina":


At 5/18/2007 6:44 PM , Blogger Slits Fan said...

Simon Reynolds is kind enough to help me with a project of mine (that seems to be going nowhere.

I agree that he seems a little biased towards or against some bands, but since the intro is basically him going on about how he has a hard-on for The Sex Pistols/PiL/John Lydon, I wasn't too shocked.

At 5/19/2007 8:23 AM , Blogger jon manyjars said...

That project of yours, I assume, is your book about the Slits? Sorry to hear that it's not going anywhere. Maybe you could turn it into a 33 1/3 book about "Cut"!


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