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THE DEVIL'S IN THE DETAIL: DEN'S NOVEMBER 2010 BOOK REVIEWS

  • This is Our Generation Calling! Punk & Mod in & around Sheffield: the conclusion - Tony Beesley (Days Like Tomorrow books 2010)
  • Black Postcards: A Rock'n'Roll Romance - Dean Wareham (Penguin 2009)
  • Banned in the UK: Sex Pistols Exiled to Oslo 1977 - Trygve Mathiesen with Harry Nordskog (co-research) - (Melhus 2010; 29 euros, available from www.sexpistolsatpingvinclub.com

This is Our Generation Calling! Punk & Mod in & around Sheffield - It's been a real joy over the last year to watch the progress of Tony Beesley's "Our Generation" series, now completed with the third book - "This is Our Generation Calling!" - following on from "Our Generation: the Punk & Mod Children of Sheffield. Rotherham & Doncaster 1976-1985" & "Out of Control; Punk Rock at the Doncaster Outlook & Rotherham Windmill 1976-1978". "Our Generation" reverts to the large paperback format of the first book, which is great as it means there's even more room for all the fan photos, flyers. reviews, cuttings, tickets & other bits'n'bobs that usually get lost.

This time the story focuses on the tail end of the initial surge of punk, and the many diversions that followed: New Wave, Powerpop, Two-Tone/ska, Mod & Post-Punk, early Goth to name but a few. There are huge differences in terms of influence, importance & longevity here, but all receive equal attention. It's a great reminder of the diversity of that era, & there are fans of every genre represented here. In addition, it makes the point that people always listen to all kinds of stuff, despite media attempts at stereotyping punks, soul boys, whatever. There was a real feeling of "where do we go from here?" after the end of the Pistols & the first wave of punk lost impetus - did you go back to the rock or funk you'd been into before, with a bit of added reggae? Maybe you'd succumb to the "New Wave" diluted punk offered by the mainstream? Or follow the likes of PIL, Magazine & the other post-punk pioneers on their journey into the Can-zone & beyond? Meanwhile papers like Sounds & NME were casting around frantically for the next big scene - one week it'd be the Pleasers, then Secret Affair, or maybe August Darnell/Kid Creole?!

It's basically the same characters (& the author himself) telling their stories in the three books, which is cool, as by the end of this one I felt like I almost knew folk like Julie Longden & Steve Marshall. Equally, where in the first book their contributions were mostly edited into a patchwork of short quotes, here the extracts are much longer & give more of an idea of the personalities as well as the music they liked (or didn't). With more space the stories & characters are able to develop a depth almost like a novel, so the book's never in danger of just being a list of groups & gigs. There's a universal vibe here - alongside the music & the styles - the whole late-teens/early 20's experience, where you're consumed with all the "Who am I? What do I want? What do I really like?" type issues, & all the leaving home/going out into the world stuff like relationships is coming on strong - the uniquely intense friendships, & tentative early relationships that are rarely so intense again.

Musically, the book takes in the whole long trip from punk up to recent groups like the Libertines & Arctic Monkeys & even finds space for the usually overlooked tribute band scene. The sheer diversity of music & sub-cultures covered here is head spinning. There's a lot on the various phases of the Mod revival & scooter (ist) scenes, & the way that 2-Tone & ska managed to be retro/revivalist & very much in the present at the same time. And so it goes - the early days of the Sheffield electro scene, the first tentative stirrings of Goth & the differing directions taken as punk evolved through new generations, not forgetting rave, grebo, grunge, Britpop & many more - they're all recorded here. So many music books are content to take lazy "big picture" perspective - the "Our Generation" series is like some fabulous musical & social time-capsule.

"The devil's in the detail", says the cliche, but it's the layers of detail that really make this book so effective. If you're intrigued by things like a local newspaper report which begins "An outing from a South Yorkshire yoghurt factory turned sour when rival fans clashed at a Sheffield pop contest", then this book is for you.

Apart from the great stories & pics recorded in the book, there's also another story going on here, & it should be a real inspiration to any wannabe writer. When the first of these books came out, it was a real home-produced labour of love, just like all those self-funded punk first singles, when it's a buzz just to see your name out there. Tony Beesley marketed it mail order from home, but now he's broken through to the mainstream market of places like Smith's, HMV & Waterstones, on the strength of word-of-mouth & not resting on his laurels once the writing was finished.

Banned in the UK: Sex Pistols Exiled to Oslo 1977 - One of the best books I've read of late was David Nolan's "I Swear I Was There: the gig that changed the world", about the legendary Sex Pistols gig at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall in June '76. According to the myths, everyone who was there went on to form a group. Like the Chelsea Hotel on the night Nancy Spungen died, the place would need to be the size of Wembley Stadium to accommodate everyone who now claims to have been on the scene.

Now there's a superbly produced book from Norway which sets out to do a similar job for the Pistols' gig at the Pingvin Club in Oslo in July '77. This was between "God Save the Queen" & "Holidays in the Sun" & not long after Sid Vicious had replaced Glen Matlock. This was at a time when Maclaren claimed it was impossible for the group to play in England, & when the group had suffered a series of violent street attacks in London. Away from the destructive media frenzy at home, the group were able to relax a bit.

The book's main instant appeal will probably be the 47 new photos of the Pistols, on & offstage, in colour & b/w, during the trip. There's also some good Pistols-inspired artwork, & as in Tony Beesley's book, some lovingly preserved fliers, newspaper cuttings, tickets & other ephemera. I can't overstate what a joy this book to look at. It puts some of the shoddily produced, meanly illustrated, music books from major UK publishers to shame.

Trygve Mathiesen has produced a fascinating in-depth account of this gig, which includes verbatim transcripts of press conferences given by the group, in-depth accounts of the gig itself, & even a list of the 200-odd people who were there! Punk rock had barely registered in Norway at the time, & it's interesting (& quite funny) to read how local journos & scenesters were expecting to have earnest discussions about Marxism & anarchist theory with the group. There are also a couple of chapters here which, for me anyway, don't really work - a kind of potted guide to Situationism & some rather over-academic analysis of the Pistols & punk in socio-political terms ("Negative Dialectics & Non-Identity", anyone?). But this shouldn't detract from how good the book is as a whole.

The interviews with "Johnny Rotten", as he then was, & Sid Vicious are particularly revealing. John Lydon shows himself to be wary & aloof at times, & paranoid at being set up for an English tabloid-style rubbishing. Once he's convinced of the good intentions of the interviewers, he's as perceptive, original & constructively confrontational as always. The picture of Sid that emerges is really interesting (especially as this was just before I got to know him). It's before the drugs had really taken over, when he was just as happy with a beer or a bit of whiz as an armful of smack. What never changed with Sid was that if people were oafish, ignorant or prejudiced around him, that's what they'd get back in double measure - but approach him honestly & without any bullshit, and you'd find a very sharp, intelligent, guy with a really quick sense of humour.

It's probably the photos that will be this book's initial selling point, and a colourful, imaginative layout all the way through. In addition to Trygve Mathiesen's writing, credit to Harry Nordskog for research, & Alex Ogg for additional commentary. Available from Rough Trade mail order for £24.50 (www.roughtrade.com)

Black Postcards: A Rock'n'Roll Romance - I'd had Dean Wareham's "Black Postcards" book in the Waiting To Be Read pile for ages, & finally got it out when I was listening to the latest Dean & Britta project, the excellent "13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Tests" (reviewed here a while back). It's very different to most of the music books I read. Dean Wareham's a very honest, matter-of-fact writer, sometimes maybe too much so for his own good. He's always committed to the music, but is very candid in admitting his failings as a brother, lover, husband & father. The book takes from his childhood in New Zealand, through his family's move to the US, and tells his story from the beginnings of Galaxie 500 to the end of Luna.

Although the book's subtitle claims it to be "a Rock & Roll Romance", it's a singularly unromantic tale. Anyone looking for sensational revelations or wild writing will be disappointed. It's the routine quality of how he writes & his story that make this book so engaging. It really shows just how much making music for a living becomes as grinding & routine as any other job. Non-musos like me imagine that being in a group must be a mind-bendingly intense experience, full of passionate creative highs & dire interpersonal lows. "Black Postcards" shows that in fact it's a lot like doing any kind of job for most of the time. I haven't read anything else that so accurately conveys the monotonous round of writing/practicing/recording, followed by touring schedules, obligatory media interaction, year after year. Equally, most of the time the other people in the group aren't too different from the person at the next desk in the office. You might connect at times in dislike of the boss, or sharing a payday drink together, but outside work there's no connection. Once that tenuous bond is broken you go your separate ways. There's the same feel here, as the almost anonymous members of Galaxie 500/Luna clock on for another tour or album, with their usual gripes & concerns (mainly around song-writing credits). Gradually transport & hotels improve as the groups get more recognition, but essentially they're stuck on the treadmill, at the mercy of sudden changes in musical fashion or record company politics.

The tone of the book is lightened by Dean Wareham's dry sense of humour, with some really amusing accounts of Spinal Tap-like conversations on the road to balance out the general atmosphere of stress from permanent debt to their label & the personal dilemmas that come with prolonged touring. It's also a very good excuse to get out some old Galaxie & Luna albums & float away for a while.

Review by Den 07/11/10