Book Review – “What Is Punk?” (2016)

Can Play-Doh be punk rock?  Based on what I see in the book What Is Punk? the answer is a resounding yes.

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Released in 2015, What Is Punk? is a cool little kid-style book (suitable for little kids and big ones too) that explores the history of punk rock using the clay creations of Anny Yi and the couplets of Eric Morse.  Over the course of 30 pages or so we’re treated to some imaginative dioramas of punk fashions and icons.  The early influential bands and individuals are all here from Iggy Pop to the Sex Pistols to the Ramones to Bad Brains.  And while the stage set-ups are cool, it’s the attention to detail that caught my eye.  Safety pins?  Check.  Zines?  Check.  Henry Rollins’ tattoos?  Check.  Plus there’s a two page spread dedicated to the ladies of punk featuring The Slits, Poly Styrene, and Siouxsie Sioux.  It’s impressive how broad of a reach Yi and Morse were able to have in such a short book.

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Not only are Yi’s figures and backgrounds impressive, but so too is the photography, all of which is in color and impeccably lit and shot.  While the book is certainly directed a young audience, even as a not-so-young-anymore punk there’s a lot here to like, and I think it’ll put a smile on your face.

You can learn more about the project at the book’s website HERE.

Book Review – “X-Ray Audio: The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone” Edited by Stephen Coates (2015)

xraybookI’m not much of a crazy format guy when it comes to vinyl, though I’ll confess to a certain weakness for both colored vinyl and 10″ records.  I’d seen something online a while back that caught my eye, though – a record that looked like a flexi disc, but that was in fact cut into a piece of x-ray film.  It turns out this was a method of underground bootleg recording in the Soviet Union back in the late unpleasantness that was the 1950s and 1960s, and there was a new book in the works on the subject.  Since I’ve been into books longer than I’ve been into records, I shot the niche publisher some money for a pre-order, and a couple of weeks ago I got a pleasant surprise when my copy of X-Ray Audio arrived in the mail.

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I’m not going to tell you a lot about the story behind these discs as I am about the book itself.  It’s a well-produced piece of art in its own right – hardbound, 160 pages, and heavily illustrated, roughly half of which is given over to full page images of various old school Soviet picture and x-ray records.  Plus if you order the special edition (£5 more than the “regular” price) you get your own flexi disc made to look like an old x-ray record, with the added bonus that it actually plays (I just played mine).  £30 isn’t cheap, but it also isn’t a lot to pay for a nice hardback like this, so if you’re interested you can order HERE.

Editor Stephen Coates does a nice job of bringing in some Soviet x-ray record experts to tell the story behind these intriguing recordings.  Long story short, x-rays of the era were soft enough to “cut” onto using a recording lathe, but sturdy enough to hold up to at least a handful of plays.  Stories of clandestine recording sessions, raids by the secret police, and the thrill of buying an illicit record (and the agony of taking it home and realizing it was a piece of crap) form the framework of the narrative.  it’s a relatively quick read, but it covers the necessary bases quite well.

If you want to learn more about tX-Ray Audio: The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone, you can check out the x-rayaudio website HERE.

Book Review – “Vinyl: The Analogue Record in the Digital Age” by Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodward

I took a number of sociology classes in college (three of which were Deviance, Criminology, and Juvenile Delinquency, if that gives you any indication as to how my brain works…) and that discipline always fascinated me, mostly because it uses such broad strokes to attempt to describe society, cultures, and the factors that drive behavior.  My actual major was psychology, which surely contributed to both my interest in the “big picture” sociology tries to provide as well as giving me an understanding about how groups and individuals are both related and totally different at the same time.

I find articles and books written from a sociological perspective to be both interesting and challenging.  Interesting because it can be like herding cats, taking a broad swath of individual experiences and trying to fit them in to a box that more or less contains and explains them.  Challenging because it can be hard to grasp.  It’s easy to read a case study of a specific individual and use that to explain some aspect of their behavior, like the person who abuses alcohol or drugs in an attempt to dampen or escape some personal trauma or loss, or the collector/hoarder who surrounds themselves with physical objects as a way of providing a sense of stability and control in their lives.  But sociologists can’t rely on the individual, they need to look at lots of individuals and how they exist with this nebulous thing called “society” that is challenging to define and grasp, like trying to hold a big handful of dry sand.  You have to get out of the mindset of “yeah, but that isn’t always why people do X… I used to know this one guy who…”  Look, there are exceptions to everything.  Psychology concerns itself with the individual, and often the exceptions; sociology is trying to give us the view from above, looking at the group as a whole.  Micro versus macro.  Yin and yang.

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Which brings me to Vinyl:  The Analogue Record in the Digital Age, the new (Feb. 2015) book by sociologists (and record fans) Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodward.  I figured this would be a challenging read, and it was.  Sociology uses its own language (has a sociologist ever done an overview of the subculture that is sociology?  That might cause a black hole to form.), and for the untrained (like me) that can make for some slow going as you try to wrap your mind around what they’re saying.  But if you’re willing to put in some effort, there is some interesting stuff here.

Bartmanski and Woodward aren’t focused on specific subcultures per se in Vinyl – this isn’t book specifically about record collectors or the fetishization of objects, though both are undercurrents within the narrative.  Instead they’re more concerned with the relatively recent re-birth of vinyl, a medium that was at least two generations obsolete but is making a strong come-back, and what that tells us about ourselves.  The DJ and techno scene, particularly as it exists in Berlin, serves as a backdrop of sorts, though the authors do range around a bit, particularly in discussing the vinyl culture in Japan, including visits to some of the very same Disk Union stores I visited in Tokyo last year – the same time as their visits.  Could I have been standing next to one of them while flipping through vinyl in Shibuya?  Maybe.  And certainly telling, given that the social aspect of the record store is one of the topics they touch upon.

I find myself thinking about my relationship to vinyl more often than I probably should.  Why did I decide to get back into this medium after having sold off my record collection two decades ago?  Why not stick with CDs, or even more logically go full technology and learn to love the mp3?  CDs and mp3s are more practical from a space standpoint, and digital downloads are certainly faster – you get delivery of the music you want immediately.  Hell, why not pay to subscribe to a streaming service and just toss all the physical media? That would be way cheaper.  I have friends who have pursued all these routes – Chris still owns every single CD he ever bought; Tristen went down the mp3 road; and Ken is all about Spotify.  I can’t argue against any of these well-reasoned and logical decisions.  So why the hell did I want to get back into a format that was so overtaken by technology that it was almost dead?  Cassettes certainly hurt vinyl.  While no one in their right mind would ever say that a cassette sounded better than a record, they had the huge advantage of being portable so you could play them in your car or Walkman, and prior to the rise of the CD I probably split my music purchases as 60% tape and 40% vinyl.  The CD obliterated the cassette completely and totally (though it is making a minor comeback of sorts), with the exception of using blank tapes to record CDs, and just about ran vinyl out of town.  And then the mp3 came in and stomped all over everyone, leaving CDs hanging on for dear life and vinyl covered in dust.

But vinyl came back.

The authors bring it all full circle in the 12-page Epilogue that closes out the 177 page book (177 pages of text, 204 total ages if you include citations/biblio/index), and if you’re willing to take it on faith that they did their due diligence and research (trust me, they did), this is where to go if you’re a non-sociology minded reader.

We feel confronted on a daily basis with too much too fast.  Inflation of files, updates, apps and incessant flow of evanescent images may desensitize rather than inspire if left uncontrolled on our omnipresent screens.  (p. 165)

We all have so much coming at us so fast today, often we can’t give more than a cursory glance to any of it.  Emails go unread.  Facebook updates by friends and family quickly scrolled through.  Tweets from people we “follow” but in many ways still ignore.  It’s too much a lot of the time.

We can become desensitized to music as well.  Consider the process of acquiring music.  It used to be you had to actually go somewhere, a store, to make your purchase.  You had to make an effort to go there and undertake a physical exchange – you handed over either cash or a credit card and got back a physical object.  Today your credit card info can be saved on iTunes.  Want to hear “Knockin’ At Your Back Door” by Deep Purple (“Sweet Lucy was a dancer, but none of us would chance her, because she was a samurai…” so good!)?  Walk over to your computer and for 99 cents you’ll have it on your hard drive in about 30 seconds.  But yet it doesn’t feel like you bought something.  You never noticed the transaction (handing over your credit card), and you just have a row of information on your screen in your iTunes library to show for it.  For those of us who came of age before the digital era, that’s disconcerting.  And the value proposition has changed – there’s no longer a tangible object that might hold onto at least a fraction of its economic value.  It’s ones and zeros.

The authors credit much of vinyl’s survival as a medium to the DJ and dance scene, and there is certainly some truth to this, one suspects particularly in Berlin where so much of their research was based.  But that was survival.  It’s resurgence is more tied to the issues identified before.  Vinyl is a way of slowing down the pace of technology, both in terms of change and the pure volume of stuff coming at us.

It is about reintroducing elements of the ‘sacred’ moments and objects to one’s mundane routines… We have tried to show how vinyl’s many affordances may make our engagement with music more focused and culturally ‘sustainable’, and thus more meaningful.  (p. 166)

Vinyl makes you work for it.  It’s not easy to skip around from track to track, which in the case of the LP makes you more likely to listen to entire sides of music.  Plus there is the physical aspect of taking the record out of the sleeve, putting it on the turntable, dropping the tonearm… and if you listen to singles, you’re doing that every three minutes or so.  Even when the side is done, unlike a CD that you’ll just leave in the player until you get around to ejecting it, perhaps days later, the record keeps spinning – you have to make a point of lifting that tonearm off and stopping the motion.

Bartmanski and Woodward don’t spend an inordinate amount of time on record collecting, though it is a thread that weaves its way throughout their study, both in the behaviors and motivations of the collectors as well as how labels choose what to release and in what quantities to create demand.  In the Epilogue they address the fetishistic aspects of vinyl, whether these be the pure collectibility of the object or as it relates to the retro aspect of the record and, perhaps even more importantly, how it is utilized, be that in a club setting or at home as a way to slow down and more deeply connect with the music.  A sociological overview of record collecting itself could easily fill another book, though frankly would be much less interesting.

When I spent an afternoon with musician and music historian Dr. Gunni in Reykjavik back in 2013, we’d both just finished reading Simon Reynolds’ 2011 book Retromania:  Pop Culture’s Addiction to It’s Own Past.  Ironically that book got me even more excited about vinyl… just as it convinced Gunni that it was time to get rid of most of his records (which luckily for me gave me the chance to pick up some tough-to-find Icelandic punk classics!). I’m still not sure which of us made the right decision, though logically I realize there is no right or wrong here.  I’ve certainly spent not insignificant amounts of money on vinyl and have put a lot of my free time into it (like this blog…), and our free time truly is the most valuable “commodity” of all.  But I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment out of it and met more than a few people who are now friends.  Yin and yang.

Let me leave it to the authors to have the last word today.

Behind vinyl there is a kind of love.  On its surface, we find beats and signs of culture as it affords and shapes one of the most beautiful things there is – musical experience.  (p. 177)

Oh, and in case you’re interested in what I was listening to while I was writing this, it was Arabian Horse by Gusgus.  On my iPod…. 🙂

Book Review – “The Truth of Revolution, Brother: An Exploration of Punk Philosophy”

I read a ton of books about music.  Biographies, band histories, stuff about collecting, stuff about specific genres… in the last three years or so, I’ve probably amassed around four shelves worth, not including the stuff on my Kindle.  I don’t usually do book reviews, though.  Not because I don’t like books – I obviously do.  And as an author myself, I certainly know how great it feels to receive a positive review.  I just try to limit myself to just the books that are particularly special.  Sometimes it’s because of the subject matter, others because of the passion shown by the author(s).

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I suspected I’d be writing a review of The Truth of Revolution, Brother right from the first time I learned about it, which was via the Facebook page of Icelandic musician Einar Örn Benediktsson, whose work with Purrkur Pillnikk and Ghostigital I admire very much (oh yeah, and he was in the Sugarcubes too… I guess they were decent…).  The authors of the project (Lisa Sofianos, Robin Ryde, and Charlie Waterhouse) had a Kickstarter campaign going to help fund the book, which would allow them to make the book they wanted to make, not something that some editor at some publisher told them they had to make if they wanted to ever see it in print.  I’d never been involved in a Kickstarter before, but I loved their passion, the subject matter, plus the fact that the book was going to feature not just one but two Icelanders, so I made my pledge.  I love the idea of supporting someone’s passion project.  Besides, it’s pure DIY, and that’s one of the cornerstones of punk.

My copy arrived in the mail the other day, and I actually put aside the book I was reading so that I could start The Truth of Revolution, Brother right away.  This isn’t a book about punk rock in the traditional sense – in fact the music itself is more or less an afterthought.  Yes, bands have their parts in the narrative, particularly Crass.  But the music isn’t at the core.  It’s about the philosophy:

But this project, and this book, is not about what happened then.  It’s not about the past.  It is not really about the music or the art.  It is about the ideas and the lived experience of punk as they relate to today.  

[…]

If punk was an explosion, then this is about what’s happened after the dust settled. (p. viii)

Thirty different “punks” were interviewed and/or wrote essays, and it’s their recollections and ideas that form the structure of the book.  Highly recognizable names like Ian MacKaye, Steve Albini, and Jello Biafra appear alongside some less well-known, but still very influential, old school punks like Tony Drayton, Dominic Thackray, and the former mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland, Jón Gnarr.  Interspersed throughout are also a series of essays devoted to punk themes – Disruption, Creation, Construction… plus some color art plates.

The interviews are intriguing as each person talks about how they “discovered” punk and the influence it had on their lives.  Certainly much of the influence was musical – early punk made people feel that they could go out and start their own bands, and many of them did. But the real impact was deeper than that.  It wasn’t just that you could form a band; it’s that you could go out into the world and try to do what you wanted to do, and to do it your way.  It was about finding ways to operate outside of the mainstream, outside of corporate culture with it’s rules and profit motivations.  It was about living the kind of life you wanted to live, about being informed and making the right decisions for your life.  It was about accepting other like-minded people, even if they were different than you.  Often punk is defined as being against things – anti-capitalism, anti-racism, anti-establishment.  But that can just as easily be turned around 180 degrees.  Punk is for equality; for DIY (do-it-yourself); for making informed decisions about how you want to live your life.  And that’s what Sofianos, Ryde, and Waterhouse, along with their interview subjects, are presenting to us.

One of the common threads flowing through these interviews was the life-changing nature of punk’s revelations.  But not everyone went off to live in a squat and become a vegetarian and try to operate outside the mainstream.  In fact, some decided to actually operate within the mainstream, the so-called “sleeper agents;” those who perhaps work for the man, but use their positions to spread punk ideals through their actions, influence, or even their money.  Steve Albini is a well-respected music producer/recording engineer. He could spend all his time getting paid lots of money for high profile projects.  And sometimes he’ll take a job if he’s offered a ridiculous sum.  But he’s even more likely to provide his services at a very discounted rate if he’s into your project and sees your passion.  That’s punk.

The Truth of Revolution, Brother is a philosophy book, not a music book.  The accounts of independently lived lives is inspiring and invigorating.  It’s not about tying yourself to some specific dogma, even if that dogma is “punk” itself.  It’s about living a good life, a positive life, a life of your choosing and one worth living.  It’s a great reminder for those of us who constantly have to fight getting caught up in our own stuff, our jobs, our possessions.  It’s a reminder of what’s real and what’s important.  And our role in deciding for ourselves how those things are defined.

Book Review – “Dust & Grooves: Adventures In Record Collecting” by Eilon Paz

The internet is an amazing beast.  The platform it provides for people to communicate and share ideas is staggering, and I’d guess that our ability to connect with others has expanded more in the last 10 years or so than in the rest of human history put together.  I can write a blog post, and people anywhere in the world can see it, comment on it, or contact me.  But there is also the flip side – it’s a vast wasteland of crap and scams and celebrity news, a place where people can hide behind screen names and act like assholes.  But that’s not the internet’s fault; that’s all on the people who use it that way.  The internet is just a tool.  Nothing more.

Music fans, like any other group of fans, hobbyists, or people with similar interests, have certainly embraced the internet as a platform for communicating with each other.  When I got back into vinyl I started searching out blogs and online resources that fit my specific interests, and that’s how I stumbled across Eilon Paz’s website Dust & Grooves.  Eilon is an Israeli ex-pat photographer living in New York who is also an avid record collector, and the website was a way for him to combine his two passions by interviewing record collectors and photographing them in their homes with their collections.

I was hooked immediately.  From his profile of 76-year-old Joe Bussard and his seemingly impossibly huge collection of 78s (and who describes rock ‘n’ roll as “the cancer of music”) to traveling to Africa with Frank Gossner to chase down local funk music, to my all-time favorite, the journey to Mustafa’s basement in Istanbul to drink coffee and check out his lovingly amassed collection of local records, I read and re-read them all, checking back in weekly hoping there would be a new one posted.  So when I read that Eilon was putting together a book based on the website I knew I had to buy a copy.  I only wish I would have participated in the Kickstarter campaign to show my support in a more significant way (sorry Eilon!).

So what better day to release Dust & Grooves:  Adventures In Record Collecting than the record collector’s Christmas, aka Record Store Day.  There were a few stores in Seattle carrying it, so we headed over to Silver Platters in Seattle’s SODO area to hopefully get one of the three copies they ordered – and fortunately they still had one left by time we got there.

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Dust and Grooves:  Adventures In Record Collecting is a monster tome, a big (nearly 10″ by 12″), heavy 400+ page hardback that could certainly be described as a “coffee table book,” though that’s selling it short because it’s much more substantial than that.  The first 273 pages are devoted more or less exclusively to Paz’s fantastic photos, many of which are done in the collage style that Eilon does so well, with quotes from collectors about their passion for vinyl interspersed.  There are even two pull-out “centerfolds” that give the photographer even more canvas to show his shots in all their glory.

The remaining portion of the book is devoted to collector profiles, a dozen in all, done in a similar fashion to those appearing on Paz’s website.  Some of these in fact were culled from the site, including those of the aforementioned Bussard and Gossner, but there are plenty of new ones here too (I think it’s about half and half).  This isn’t a catalog or a book full of arcane knowledge that is going to help you figure out of your copy of that “original” Beatles record is actually valuable or not.  It’s a journey through our shared obsession.  It will make you feel good inside and make you want to immediately go out to the used record store and start digging.  It will remind you that music matters.  And why.

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This might be a hard book to track down in stores, but fear not vinyl-heads because you can buy it directly from Eilon’s website HERE, in both a regular edition and a signed/numbered limited edition.  And it’s worth every penny.