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Pistols Packing

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Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols lead the British charge in new history of punk.

Punk: The Illustrated History of a Music Revolution
By Adrian Boot and Chris Salewicz
Penguin Studio; 159 pages; $22.95 paper

Reviewed by Nicky Baxter

ACCORDING to many popular-music historians, punk is supposed to have altered forever the face of music. In the space of 24 months, (circa 1975­77), white youth in the U.K. and the U.S. turned the tables built by pop's Boring Old Farties. These scribes write of a "cultural revolution," while often failing to fortify that claim with factual evidence. In fact, the evidence indicates that, like disco, like psychedelic rock, punk was (is?) almost all pose with little purpose.

As for punk's claim to be authentic rebel rock, one has only to point to the Sex Pistols' recent tour; John Lydon, formerly Johnny Rotten, openly admitted he's in it for the money. Which places the Pistols' pointman for the blank generation in the same league as those B.O.F.s that Rotten once railed against: the Eagles, Pink Floyd, Jimmy Page, ad nauseam.

For the most part, Adrian Boot and Chris Salewicz's Punk: The Illustrated History of a Music Revolution avoids the myths clinging to the genre while providing a blow-by-blow account of the music and the men and women who created it. Like any good critical analysis, the book details the contradictions from which punk sprang and which ultimately caused it to crash and burn itself out.

Not unpredictably, Punk begins with the infamous Pistols TV interview with journalist Bill Grundy in the waning days of December 1976. By now, the sordid tale has been written about countless times. In a pathetic attempt to stir up some sort of controversy, Grundy prods the group into spewing a stream of expletives--not deleted by the show's on-air crew.

This outrage would prove to be a bit of show-biz bizarreness fatal for both parties. For Grundy, the aftershock was immediate; with no little justification, the BBC axed him. For the Sex Pistols, this vulgar outburst of juvenilia would have far more sinister repercussions as they would become victims of their own squalid image. Tragically, this image would be mercilessly exploited by Malcolm McLaren, the group's manager and would-be Svengali.

BOOT AND SALEWICZ sum up their position early on, arguing that punk was "a stinging, relentless satire, an outrageously expressed scream for freedom." For them, this obnoxiously loud, purposely confrontational music was an act of desperation, a sneering up-thrust middle finger to the "Establishment," an entity that was only broadly defined. In fact, punk itself could claim no unifying ideology.

The authors go on to assert that punk "kickstart[ed] radical thought into a sphere higher than at the end of the 1960s." Such a claim is problematic, however, for if punk had an underlying ethos, it was one of nihilistic violence.

Indeed, like the hippie ideals it claimed to loathe, punk never really challenged the prevailing status quo: monopoly capitalism, white supremacy, class divisions, et al. Rather like that of the preceding era, punk's rebellion was largely confined to symbolic fits of passionate rhetoric. And whereas the "peace & love generation" grew long hair and shopped at secondhand stores for the artsy-cum-street look, punks were equally concerned with appearance: black on black offset by spiky studs and rainbow-colored Mohawks became de rigueur overnight.

That said, punk did manage to accomplish something the Haight gang didn't; it established the idea that music could be produced without being underwritten by corporate giants.

THAT BOOT and Salewicz are British is evident. Not only is their prose more florid than that of the average American pop writer, replete with quaint, sometimes impenetrable Limey-isms, but their emphasis on U.K. bands at the expense of stateside groups reveals an unfortunate bias.

True, seminal outfits like the New York Dolls, Patti Smith and the Ramones are mentioned, but they're treated like bit players in a B-movie rather than the central figures they were. Still, for Anglophobes, Punk is pure hell (one doesn't associate punks with any place as pristine as heaven, after all).

Just about every British band that made it (and many more that didn't) is chronicled at length; in some cases, the authors' attention to detail borders on the obsessive; do we really need to know that a twosome calling itself Snatch existed for a quickie?

More intriguing is Boot and Salewicz's provocative dissection of the Sex Pistols, praising the band for its undeniably powerful impact during its formative stages one moment and taking the piss out of them for their blundering stupidity and decadence the next. The sharpest Pistol, John Lydon, reveals himself as a perceptive but arrogant agent provocateur, contradicting himself at every turn.

But the writing partners save their most deadly venom for manager McLaren, referring to him as a "Machiavellian character ... [self]-justifying almost beyond belief," with a very well-cultivated sense of immoral superiority. "McLaren," they continue, "was never one to let an inconvenience like truth interfere with his furthering of the punk plot." They note further that the banning of the Pistols in U.K. venues in 1977, accepted even today as an incontrovertible verity, was in fact a McLaren fabrication.

Punk is littered with splashy photographs and original artwork that fairly leap from the pages, confronting readers with garishly compelling snapshots of live performances, photo ops and concert posters. Like the text they accompany, these visuals are both visceral and cleverly conceived. As well-written and witty as this Punk: The Illustrated History is, one remains unconvinced that punk was essentially different from metal or disco. Finally, it's only rock & roll.

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From the February 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro

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