WHERE YOU'RE FROM IS WHERE YOU'RE AT...
"Our Generation: The Punk & Mod Children of Sheffield, Rotherham & Doncaster, 1976-1985" - Tony Beesley (Days Like Tomorrow 2009, 444 pages, available via Amazon £19-99)
This is a terrific effort by Tony Beesley, & really is pretty essential reading for anyone interested in the early years of punk, new wave & post-punk. Its assembled in oral history format, edited down from the author's interviews with friends, associates & people on the scene. There are already several really good books of punk-themed interviews (notably by John Robb), but where they concentrate on the musicians & other big players on the scene, this book takes a ground-up rather than top-down view of the story.
Although people like Jarvis Cocker are quoted from other books, the nearest you'll get to big hitters here are Jo Callis (Rezillos/Human League) & 999's bass player - and the book's all the better for it
Although the book concentrates on the local story around Sheffield, Rotherham & Doncaster (with fairly regular diversions to Manchester as well), there's nothing parochial about it. My experience of punk was totally from the London end of the scene, so its fascinating to read about how it all happened somewhere else - some big differences, obviously, but a lot that's the same. Of course, there's also a strong universal element here too, as the book's inevitably as much about Tony & his friends growing up, negotiating the teenage years, & their own punk-inspired creative efforts.
The book really works through the volume of detail, verbal & visual. Apart from the photos at the various clubs & gigs, there's an incredible amount of great stuff like flyers, fanzines, adverts, newspaper cuttings, ticket stubs & other ephemera., & gives the book a nicely authentic fanzine feel.This helps evoke the atmosphere of the time, and its great seeing pictures of Tony's mates & others as they evolve through punk, new romantics & all the other myriad styles & groupings of the time.
Photo: The Author Tony Beesley
The drab early 70's years are well described - like most punk fans, the author was really into Bowie, Bolan & glam in general (& never loses his love of soul music, either), and is strong on describing some of the groups who almost anticipated punk, like the Doctors of Madness, Mott the Hoople & the Sensational Alex Harvey Band.
There doesn't seem to have been the kind of London pub-rock scene, where Dr Feelgood, the 101'ers & Kilburn & the High Roads were able to make connections & prepare the way a little for punk (although most of the pub-rock scene is forgettable & over-rated: endless groups pretending to be Little Feat or the Band)
When punk happens its initially little more than a rumour up North, creeping up from London, or to be found out about in out-of-date music papers. Everything changes in July '76 when the Pistols & Clash play the Swan in Sheffield. The impact on the author is immediate & immense. Where initially he & his friends are conscious of being behind the times compared to the London scene, they're soon part of a lively gigging scene, & in a few years the whole London end of things is pretty much irrelevant.
Once the music biz realised that punk wasn't going to go away like some novelty single, there was a really bizarre & amusing period as everyone wondered, "what is punk?" The record companies flailed away, signing everything in sight in the hope that some of them would succeed. This led to all kinds of anomalies, with anyone from Tom Petty, Mink de Ville or Dire Straits being promoted as part of punk. Equally, were older groups who turned to punk - like the Stranglers or Vibrators - to be accepted or not?
After that first crucial Doncaster gig, the book is mainly concerned with the constant live action in the area, focussing mainly on the Windmill in Rotherham, the Doncaster Outlook, & Sheffield's Limit, Top Rank & Leadmill. There are great descriptions of many gigs, & its really good to be reminded just how many good groups there were then, apart from the big names like the Clash, Jam, Pistols & the Damned. There were also originators like Subway Sect & the Buzzcocks, & people with massive live reputations like 999, Radio Stars, the Ruts, UK Subs, Adverts & others who've been pretty much written out of the story since then.
Apart from recording the vibrant local gigging scene & visiting groups, there's also a wealth of detail about local groups like 2.3, & the vastly underrated Cabaret Voltaire (who probably deserve a book on their own). There are also a host of interesting stories from the Sheffield electro scene, beyond the familiar ABC, Human League & Heaven 17 ones. And in keeping with the punk DIY spirit that informs the book, there's also the story of the author's own group, the Way & how they battle their way (arg!) into the spotlight, before being sabotaged by the perennial "musical differences".
The book's really strong at evoking the in credibly rapid shifts in scenes & styles that followed the initial punk uprising, & the amazing musical diversity that flourished for a few years. Some of these scenes overlapped & fertilised each other, while others would also be in opposition.
Apart from punks - who would become more factional as time went on - there were Teds, heavy rockers, hippy students, football crews, Mods - traditional & revivalist, Two-tone, soul boys, casuals, skins & later New Romantics.
The scene took a real shift as the decade ended. The original punk main players were in disarray or touring the US, & as unemployment rose & the Thatcher Dictatorship took a grimmer hold on society, the atmosphere inevitably hardened. Tony Beesley doesn't shy away from the less palatable aspects of the scene - a serious level of violence at gigs, inter-factional fighting & paranoia. As if all that wasn't bad enough, racist movements like the NF were active in clubs , at gigs & on the terraces encouraging violence & division.
But as is so often the case, extreme times can inspire real creativity & the diversity on the music scene in the "new wave"/post-punk period is astonishing. The Fall, PIL, Siouxsie, the Cure, Magazine, Siousxsie, Wire, early Ultravox to name but a few. This was really the time when the scene divided, between those who saw punk as a DIY/try anything positive creative force, & the increasingly conformist scene generated by groups like the Exploited & Conflict, & which provides most of the public perception of punk now.
Basically, there are chapters devoted to each of these movements, as told by the participants & onlookers - mainly punk, of course, but they're all given their time in the spotlight. The story of the early days of the Sheffield scene, & how it evolved to the point where for a while it overtook the London music biz scene, is very well told. Equally, the Two Tone phase is massively important - tho' the author's a bit too generous with some of the later Mod scenes.
The book captures the uncertain mood of the time, after the first wave of punk had spent its energy & everyone wondered what would come next. Record companies & music papers flailed around desperately in the hope that they'd be the ones to discover the Next Big Thing - Power Pop anyone? Papers like Melody Maker, NME & Sounds had much more influence on the market than now - Sounds tended to be always playing catch-up, especially after NME's promotion of punk from early on, & was always desperate to find or invent a scene to call its own, whether it was Garry Bushell's "Oi!" groups , trying to work up a mod revival from the "Quadrophenia film (we got Secret Affair & the Merton Parkas instead) before finally making a mark with the elegantly-named "New Wave of British Heavy Metal".
I hope I've managed to convey the sheer scope & arduously assembled details in this book. Its this recording of detail that makes books like this important. If the book does have a fault, its almost that its scope is so ambitious, covering all the many changes & convulsions in music & society between '76-'85 - there's really enough material here for 2 or 3 books. In fact, I believe Tony Beesley's already working on a couple more books, going into some of the places & people in more depth - bring it on! The book never loses its extended fanzine feel, & that's what gives it a lot of its character - although it could do with a bit of a spellcheck/edit (things like "Black Uruh" for "Black Uhuru"). But any of the minor faults in this book are down to sheer enthusiasm & love of the subject, really.
Don't be put off by the local emphasis of the title - although obviously the book will be extra enjoyable for anyone who was on the scene there at the time - because its a universal story, not just of how the punk ripples spread out in the late 70s, but abt growing up & finding your identity in changing times. You'll love this whether you were there or not.
"Our Generation" simply overflows with great stories, characters, visuals & all kinds of detail you won't find elsewhere. I'd say its essential reading for anyone interested in punk & the wider picture of the late 70s.
In addition, if you like the sound of this, there's a great website - www.ourgenerationpunkandmod.co.uk - with even more pictures & info relating to the book.
Mark Gregory - "No sleep till Saltburn" (£9-99, via www.lulu.com 300 pages)
In a similar vein, anyone interested in getting down deep in local scene detail should take a look at Mark Gregory's "No Sleep Till Saltburn". This is another lovingly compiled slice of local musical history, concentrating on the North East's metal scene in the early 80's, featuring bands like Black Rose, Battleaxe, Satan & Raven. Mark's run the full course from wannabe drummer, thru fanzine editing, local radio & promoting gigs, so knows what he's writing about. So far I've only seen a sample chapter & synopsis of the book, but its well written, with a nice humorous side to some of the anecdotes & observations. Again, there looks to be a good selection of fan pics from the time. So if you ever spent an evening stitching a Tygers of Pan Tang patch on to your denim jacket, this one's for you.
Reviewed by Den Browne 06.02.10