Sunday, July 25, 2010

November 13, 2009: Psychobabble recommends ‘Babylon’s Burning: FromPunk to Grunge’

For a genre that ostensibly sneered at intellectual-pursuits and nostalgia, Punk Rock has sure spawned a lot of analyses and histories. There have been exhaustive studies and accounts of British Punk (Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming), East Coast Punk (Legs McNeil’s Please Kill Me), and West Coast Punk (Marc Spitz’s We Got the Neutron Bomb). Clinton Heylin’s Babylon’s Burning: From Punk to Grunge ambitiously tackles all of these branches, while also delving into the movements in D.C. and Australia; the post-punk, no wave, and paisley underground movements of the ‘80s, grunge, and just about every other offshoot of the genre an obsessive rock geek could think of. As a result, Babylon’s Burning is a messy smorgasbord that touches on innumerable bands from the backbones (The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, Nirvana) to the toe bones (Eater, The Killjoys, Long Ryders). The backbone groups are the glue that fastens all of these disparate groups together, but Heylin refreshingly emphasizes the importance of less celebrated groups like The Slits, The Damned, The Fall, and Radio Birdman, giving them near equal space to The Pistols and The Clash.

It tosses a wide net, but Babylon’s Burning gives a thorough, vivid portrait of Punk and all it wrought, although the title may be a little misleading: by page 530 of this 622-page book we’re still in the ‘70s, so it’s main focus is firmly on Punk’s first wave. But the final 30 pages of the book, in which we’re finally introduced to the grunge era touted in the book’s title, is a provocative account of that period, which Heylin basically illustrates as Punk’s last gasp. His iconoclastic portrayal of Kurt Cobain as a Rock star who publicly professed his fidelity to Punk ideology, betrayed that ideology at every possible opportunity, and killed himself because he couldn’t live with his hypocrisy is intriguing, although I think it’s highly remiss to ignore the role Cobain’s drug addiction played in his death. I didn’t agree with all of Heylin’s assertions, but I do appreciate a history that manages to be as opinionated as Babylon’s Burning, and Heylin balances his theories with ample quotes from Brian James, Howard Devoto, Siouxsie Sioux, TV Smith., Elvis Costello, Poly Styrene, and countless others responsible for creating the scene.

As with all of these Punk books, Babylon’s Burning will help all but the most devoted Punk fans to discover a few bands she or he had never heard of before. That may be the most valuable contribution of any piece of Rock writing, but Babylon’s Burning is also essential for its variety, the neat way Heylin ties the various bands together, and the heady dose of punk attitude he mainlines into his prose. It’s a starter, but anything that attempts to accomplish as much as Babylon’s Burning does couldn’t be anything else.

Buy it here: Babylon's Burning: From Punk to Grunge
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