Book Review: Punk Diary

Maximum Rocknroll
270, November 2005

Punk Diary: The Ultimate Trainspotter’s Guide to Underground Rock 1970-1982 
George Gimarc
Backbeat Books

George Gimarc’s Punk Diary: The Ultimate Trainspotter’s Guide to Underground Rock 1970-1982 is a 750-page day-by-day history of punk and new wave, but its attention to the underground—the heart of punk and what matters to punx, not sociologists—is patchy. The largest index entries belong to Sex Pistols, Damned, Stranglers, Clash, etc. No surprise there. But there is a lot more time spent on new wave than punk, and somewhere, Kickboy Face rolls (again) in his grave. To get a feel for the book, we need look no further than page 1. It begins with August 1970’s release of The Stooges “Funhouse.” So far so good. Next up are Stiff Beach, who eventually evolved into XTC. After them come Beans who were distant predecessors to Talking Heads. And so it goes.

I am admittedly out of touch with normals, but are there really people in the world who have the lunatic fascination with Squeeze or Oingo Boingo that I, and all my friends, have with DISCHARGE? Really, does anyone give a shit about the antics and critical reception of such forgettable, mediocre, mainstream bands? A cool entry for Hugh Beaumont Experience seemed bizarrely out of place until I realized the author hails from Texas. There are several other real punk bands from Texas covered (eg, Vomit Pigs and Bobby Soxx), but these obscure acts, whose stories can be compelling, especially because they have not yet been told fifty times already, are the exceptions.

The book is fun and useful for factoids, like how Stiff Little Fingers or SST Records got their names, or even what reviewers originally said about some of your favorite records. But it is not a serious addition to punk historiography. At $24.95, any reader of MRR would probably get more enjoyment out of a couple early issues of this magazine purchased on eBay. If Gimarc put out a version of the book that excised all major-label “punk” after 1978 or so, it might be a worthwhile investment for punx.

Gimarc’s foreword makes two chief claims, both of which are wholly disingenuous: first, “What makes this unlike any other rock book is that it treats the scene on a day-to-day basis, diary style, the way it actually happened, the only way that this tangled web can make sense . . . Going through this book from beginning to end, you will experience what it was like to watch the scene unfold, without having to change wardrobe.” It is true that no other book (except the two previous volumes which were merged to create this one) treats punk in this way. Thanks be to Sid! Gimarc is making a large philosophical assumption about how events unfold in time, and how one can understand history. A day-by-day account is actually rather lazy, in spite of the amount of work we are to assume Gimarc put into its construction, because it absolves the author of the responsibility to weave the threads of a narrative, to reveal the causative connections between events, the connections that we call history. That we know the order of events (the dates, in most cases, are totally unimportant) does not mean we know why they occurred. Slogging through this book is completely unlike the experience of watching a scene unfold—its pseudo-omniscience is quite different from the biased, limited, and contingent viewpoint one would have had at the time. But more importantly, since this is a book one is supposed to read, I really hope the hope the years before my involvement with punk, which sure seem exciting from the photos and the fanzines and the bloody music, were a lot less dry an d boring than this book makes them seem. Reading that “Realities of War” was released on a certain day is nothing in comparison to what it must have been like for someone to spend a week’s savings on it, run home to throw it on the turntable, and have one’s eardrums—and notions of the possibilities of music—ruptured.

The second disingenuous claim is, “In Punk Diary there are no foregone conclusions, no value judgments.” Again, laziness. On the surface, it seems true that Gimarc faithfully tries to recount the events without saying that, for example, the Pistols were better than The Damned. But an examination of his methodology reveals that Gimarc suppressed whatever opinions he might have and replaced them with the opinions of the music press of the period. New Musical Express and Sounds, the two primary music tabloids in England during the punk explosion, are the source of most of the quotes about the music. Their authors were highly opinionated, often snobbish, and full of venom for whatever was being championed by their counterparts, in fine tabloid fashion. Thus, on Oi!, we get Garry Bushell’s often ridiculous sub-Marxist support for the scene in Sounds and kneejerk hatred of the same in NME. A dutiful author or editor might attempt to distill the truth, or at least a reasonable opinion, from them, but Gimarc lets the two versions hang in the air, replicating the maddening journalistic habit of giving equal time to each side of a debate even though one (or both) is an outright falsehood. Again and again, Gimarc re-prints reviews from the time, as if they are somehow true, and as if these value judgments are acceptable whereas his own are not. What the reviews said is often fascinating, but the notion that these reviews shoul d be the final word in a history of punk is ridiculous.

What’s especially offensive is that these weeklies, for the most part, were contemptuous of punk. They had been partly responsible for creating the rocknroll world punk rebelled against, and after they deemed punk to have expended its energy, they were eager to return to the status quo. So we got the fiction of new wave, which was punk sapped of all its radical qualities, repackaged for commercial success. And now, the new wave fuckers to whom Gimarc devotes so much space, like U2 (who have more index entries than The Ramones), are hobnobbing with world leaders, giving some pop-culture credence to the first world’s murderous economic policies in the developing world. Gimarc naturally skipped the 1980 Slade/U2/Discharge gig review in Sounds in which Bushell described Discharge as having “all the grace and appeal of a syphilitic sore” and noted that “Bono’s glum, self-satisfied pronouncements [are becoming] increasingly offensive.” Readers of MRR, a magazine that has always recognized the cross-border nature of the music, will be disappointe d by the international coverage in Punk Diary. Sweden’s Rude Kids (whom I love) get a couple entries, because Tony Parsons wrote an article about them in NME, but, for example, the more popular Ebba Grön receive no mention. Even still, Gimarc doesn’t discuss Rude Kids’s sound, only their antipathy for The Stranglers, who wrote an anti-Sweden song.

Gimarc includes occasional mentions of well-known Canadian, Dutch, and Australian bands, but don’t go looking herein for any insight into the early punk scenes of Japan, Germany, Finland, or Spain because these countries generally did not produce bands who sang in English. As a result, there was no coverage in US/UK rock magazines, which catered to the industry even after punk rock had revealed its bankruptcy. Gimarc derives his history from those magazines, so we are left to contemplate the claim that there are no foregone conclusions or value judgments. Right. Except the value judgment that says a history of punk rock need not include bands that sang in languages other than English or that never desired coverage by the tabloid music press. I can’t help but feel a little sorry for George Gimarc. This book is a wacky idea come to a collector/fanatic/wannabe-author in the middle of the night made manifest. He should’ve rolled over and gone back to sleep.

© 2019 Stuart Schrader