underground since'89

send vinyl, tapes and zines for review to:

tobi vail P.O. Box 2572 Olympia, WA 98507 USA

email mp3's, links, photos and flyers to:


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Punk Rock: An Oral History by John Robb

i have read about two hundred pages of this in the past week and i have to say, it's one for the fans!

you don't get a lot of second-hand analysis of what it all meant, but rather a reflective play by play account of how it all went down by those who were there.

in case you don't know who john robb is, he was in the membranes, this is about the english punk scene...

as with any oral history, my favorite part is listening to those involved track their influences. studying aesthetic lineages in punk is one of my favorite pastimes. it involves hours of research and hanging out, studying the private record collections of people who have been around longer than you, asking them questions, listening to how they discovered what means the most to them and learning how what they unearthed evolved into their own art and how it provided them with the tools to create a meaningful existence and try to change things via participation...to be more than a consumer...to realize your place in history....that history forms you ...and then to try and use that same methodology to impact future history...to use being in a band or making a fanzine as a way to create the world you want to exist in...and to recognize that this is totally possible because it has happened before and it will happen again.

there is something i miss about the pre-internet times. people used to come over and hang out because i have a lot of records and they were interested in the stories behind them. now i post anecdotes online for whoever to read, but i am less upfront in some ways, because who wants to share intimate details and acquired knowledge with faceless strangers? i used to have entire friendships based on talking about records. now it seems like people are vultures, waiting to get 'your list' so they can go home and secretly download it and wait to mention it to you again after they have read the wikipedia page!!!! like, 'hey have you heard this'...hmmmm, maybe (quickly google) then they come up with some kind of 'informed anecdote' and formulate an opinion based on being indifferent and detached...i feel like people are so dismissive these days. i hear people dismiss the sex pistols (johnny rotten, so amazing!) or subway sect (Vic fucking Godard!!) or the damned (the Captain!) or sham 69 (jimmy pursey's first sentence in this book: I Was Born Punk!!!!!) or generation x (Tony James!) or the ramones or patti smith even and i'm like, seriously get over yourself! what Do YOU LIKE? duran duran? donovan? the shirelles? i like (some of) that shit too, but it does not compare to punk! i mean, if they are young kids in groups starting their own scene then this would be a healthy rebellion, but most usually they aren't. they are just consumers who aren't in bands. or if they are in bands, they don't challenge the status quo, they uphold it. that's not punk. it's poser.

i'm not saying that pop music isn't ever transformative or meaningful...but it is punk that gives us an entry point into the culture. pop keeps us on the outside looking in, fulfilling our prescribed roles as consumers...fans. punk demands that we act and question 'the way things are'...to get out of the audience and destroy the stage! at its worst it's cacophony and aimless, ignorant rebellion. at its best a means of active resistance, a meaningful life, community, participation. you win whether it's good or bad then, innit. as a style it might be tedious, but as a method it's always fresh because it allows the dispossessed, often in the form of the kid, to intervene in the world (i.e. start a band) however they see fit at the moment they are alive.

anyhow, there are still aesthetic evolutions, but they are less linear and the chronology is sorta confusing, in that anyone can reference any tradition from any time period sorta instantly....which is really overwhelmingly exciting yet simultaneously so daunting as to make you not even care enough to try...well that is sometimes how it makes me feel. i wrote about this recently, but who cares how many mp3s you have on your hard drive if you can't even listen to them? the upside is we get these extreme trends like all the awesome screamers-influenced bands of the early 2000's. but sometimes it just comes off like pastiche or tribute bands.

and what will future oral histories have to tell us?

"I remember when that one blog said bla bla bla and then I downloaded bla bla bla and that's how it all started"


so this book is reminding me that the stories and how we tell them to each other are what it's all about....if we don't do anything except check email or listen to 'demos' on myspace and watch everything on youtube and occasionally see people we know at 'the bar' then really, what is happening?

i want to use the internet for storytelling, i try to do that, but it seems like people are looking for instant gratification rather than impact. i have a lot to say, all the time about everything...i want it to sink in. i think books are best for that kind of storytelling. but friendships can be good for that as well...

"remember that time we all drove to portland to see unwound and then the car broke down.... and someone had a gun in the back yard and the cops came.... and then your mom got pissed because we were late but she didn't know that we lied to her... and then i bought the zero's record but left it at the 3rd street house and then the frumpies wrote that single based on 'cosmetic couple'..." etc so much better than 'remember when we checked our email and then went to work and then went to the bar and then came home and checked our email again'.

i like the idea of doing stuff just so that you can have something to remember later...that has always worked for me as a motivating factor. pretend your life is a movie and you are a fictional character. that is what this book is reminding me...the difference between real life and a mediated, virtual existence. punk to me=real life living. to be alive, to be open, to care enough to fuck shit up.

oh, and that i fucking love the clash:

let fury have the hour/anger can be power...don't you know that you can use it?



Matt E. said...

Right-fucking-on, I really liked what you had to say here. You put into words something that was previously a vague, disquieting notion in my head. Good stuff.

Colouring Outside The Lines said...

thank you for re-awakening my brain with your sense and understanding xox


I really like this, but think you're being too hard on modern times. I wouldn't argue that this modern computer interaction is all that progressive or helpful, and I do believe it is perhaps to blame for some of the sedentary ways and apathy of some people.

Also, I'm sorry but it's really hard for me to get excited at all about Tony James! xoxo

Tabitha Says said...

dear brett, i think it is necessary to always be dissatisfied with the present or else we are not actively creating the future. if there is one thing consistent in my writing is that i am always hard on modern times as an ethic and tony james and mick jones rule! soooo sick of post post post post post post post post post post post post post post post post post post post post post post post post post post post post post punk ... and really being invigorated by actual punk in all forms


fair enough, and i'm with you 100% in the constant critical analysis; just saying that i'm not totally convinced that now is lamer than then, whenever then was.

i'm in similar straits, but have been getting my kicks listening to Crass and reading Crass liner notes. always gives me a little bit of extra hope.

Tobi Vail said...

sure but to miss that there is a difference than hanging out in real time with people and talking about records-- than reading blogs and downloading someone else's list without bothering to learn their perspective...that there is a difference between virtual world and real world...there is a difference between punk and poser...is to miss the point of what i'm trying to say...seriously am asking a real quesiton: re future oral histories...what will they have to say? things are more commodified, individualistic....less regional, less isolated and scene-based....more 'branded' via rigid genre categories. still punk as a methodology is alwasy fresh like i said...and if people can stay focused and questioning rather than consuming/selling and upholding capitalism than that method will continue to be rad and legitimate--but clearly people need to be reminded of that. we need to be vigilant, political, critical, engaged and from my vantage point there is a lot of sloth, self-indulgence/hedonism, apolitical nonsense, genre policing and copycat thievery. if i see another band with native american signifiers who are not native or west-african influenced who are euroamericans with ivy league degrees in post-colonial studies...well, it's more than tedious, it's offensive. i've never been too into originality or whatever, but you have to be sharp and you have to speak out, to put yourself on the line...or what is the point? that's what i've always done and am trying to do with my writing here. punk looks surprisingly sharp and beautiful again and this book is really rad and full of inspiration and ideas. totally loving it. generation x and the clash were kids when i was a kid and now they are old and i am old, which is a part of it i'm sure, but they mean the world to me again and i am totally immersed in their visionary idealism,,,to hear them reflectiving on it as adults is really great...totally inspiring as they still are punks, will always be punks as will i...the young idea as opposed to the capitalist idea of 'youth' (see jigsaw #4 1991), which recognizes that it is in some ways easy when you are young because capitalism allows for a short period of rebellion (adolescence) before conforming...it's much harder to resist as an adult...if, as susan sontag once said, adolescence now ends at 35 or 40 (true for punks and artists at least) then all the more reason to become vigilant as i approach middle age, looking up to Mark Perry, Mike Watt, John Robb...young till I die is about that...jigsaw termed this 'the redefinition of youth in terms of the revolution', where youth abandons its capitalist constraints and becomes an ideological framework...i'm all about all ages again and loving shows this year...can't wait until the olympia all ages project gets their venue...until then i will be alphabatizing my punk singles over here in the fortress of solitude, reading punk history and trying to come up with my next move...cheers. viva la rock n roll paris is the city of the dead heroes

Tobi Vail said...

Last night saw High Life open for White Magic....sort of hilarious with regard to my comment here about what kind of music I don't want to hear more of in 2009...the guy was great in White Magic, but he shouldn't do his solo thing, it's more than unoriginal and bad, it's borderline offensive...like Paul Simon Graceland...as well as a weird performance of authenticity via the folk song and the spiritual. Well the guy is a cool guitarist in White Magic. Is he just trying to sell records to kids in Brooklyn, like my friend said? Trendy or not, it came across as self indulgent and foolish. More on White Magic,who ruled, later...

Pavelsdog said...

Tobi, I appreciate your insight into the dilemma of "real" versus "mediated" or "real" versus "online" and I have found "online" friendships to be less satisfying than "real" face to face ones for sure. However as an active photographer in the Baltimore / DC area interesting and/or quality feedback on one's work can be hard to come by.Flickr, a photo website, has provided me with a unique forum to see and hear and participate in intelligent conversation regarding my and others work. I may have to check out that book "Punk Rock and oral history" it sounds like its a good one from your review of it.
Sidenote: I was fortunate enough to see you play at a couple of shows in DC with Bikini Kill when you were together. Awesome shows, thanks for that.
Take care, Paul
My photos can be seen here: