Russ Bestley & Alex Ogg (Omnibus)
Any book seeking to reflect the breadth and scope of art pertaining to and influenced by punk rock has its work cut out. Once you get past the subjective and often nebulous definitions of what punk actually is, you’re pitched onto the horns of the conceptual dilemma. Here, the authors have opted for a broad historical overview, which – for those of us who were there at the time, remember the occasion and have been hearing about it ever since – is mercifully short on recounting punk’s history verbatim, preferring to connect key events to the genre’s visual legacy and lineage.
In terms of tone, after an introduction that is couched in academic language, the narrative settles down to its task with some style, providing a detached descriptive voice that links engaging firsthand accounts from the likes of Mick Farren, Arturo Vega and Marc Zermati. Visually, The Art of Punk is impressive – with high production values (no screen clash here) and a dynamic format. Efforts have quite evidently been made not to show us too much material that we’ve all seen before without diluting the historical aspect.
Another issue facing the authors would have been the selection of a starting point. This is always a highly subjective issue and wholly dependent upon the individual’s specific interpretation of what constitutes punk rock. Sagaciously, Bestley & Ogg have plumped for the nebulous creative stew that formed around the Nuggets era garage bands, which feeds neatly into the American genesis of the form and is aptly supported by Mick Farren’s assertion that the idea of any ‘Year Zero’ is a complete myth.
Although The Art of Punk has its academic aspects, it is by no means an ascetic study – the idea that humour was an important element of punk rock is explored and archly demonstrated by Andrew Matheson’s knowingly pretentious contribution, which richly evokes the ennui of the mid-1970s. The book also takes a resolutely internationalist perspective, which enables Marc Zermati to make some excellent points about the key role played by France in the development of UK punk.
Having established the broad parameters of their treatment, the authors then progress their narrative with efficiency and clarity – neatly unravelling the notion that the genesis of punk was in any way linear or straightforward and establishing the genre as a subjective concept. Any conceptualising is performed with deftness and economy, with heavyweight theorising leavened by striking graphics such as the display of early Adam & The Ants gig posters and seldom seen ephemera that includes provincial flyers and 8-track cartridge cases. Further contributions from such notable designers as Jamie Reid and Malcolm Garrett serve to lash the chronology to the establishment of a new visual syntax, while the voices of less well known contributors (Peter Gravelle in particular) evoke the zeitgeist.
Just as Bestley & Ogg successfully identify and explore the tangled swamp of ideas from which punk rock sprang, they also bridge and delineate the popularly perceived chasm between punk and new wave with authority and style. The authors also do well to navigate the competing currents of successive eras, describing the roots of the DIY aesthetic, the mushrooming of ideas within post punk, and identifying the developmental parallels between British and American punk and its attendant fanzines, without becoming bogged down in the wealth of detail that is imparted. Similarly, the manner in which ‘independent’ became traduced to ‘indie’ is effectively recounted.
The global aspect of The Art Of Punk enables an entire planet’s worth of rarely exhibited visuals to be seen, while simultaneously recounting the expansion of punk rock far beyond the elitist hierarchies of its dual transatlantic epicentres. In order to display all the material covered in the detailed narrative, the book could easily run to several times its 224 pages, so tough selections have evidently been made and at times the necessity of including images from countries such as Bulgaria, Poland, and other outposts has meant that some sleeve art that is culturally significant is not particularly visually stimulating. However, for every derivative Japanese sleeve there are two or three from elsewhere that catch the eye and excite the senses. Equally, the European ‘punxploitation’ segment is great fun. The inclusion of two pages of Worldwide Punk Top Tens may not be to everyone’s tastes (for me it was a little reminiscent of the first couple of pages in any issue of Maximum Rock’n’Roll), but it does represent a useful resource for further investigation.
By the time we get to Chapter Six (c1982), most of the original art-school elite are elsewhere, messing around in zoot suits, leaving the medium to be balkanized by a variety of less petit bourgeois factions. The conceptual sectarianism of the era is again expertly untangled by the authors, with the competing ideologies of the time illustrated by the way in which sleeves from proto-hardcore bands such as Discharge and the Varukers are set adjacent to ‘street punk’ offerings from the Exploited and the Partisans, post punk sleeves from the likes of The Wall and opportunist outfits such as the execrable Vice Squad and Anti-Pasti. It is this chapter that throws an illuminating beam upon the point at which punk rock genuinely connected with politics, rather than merely playing with political concepts left over from the previous generation. This is effectively realised by the pages examining Crass’ connective ideology and the devastating manner in which it was visually expressed.
After exploring the development of US hardcore and the lengthening of the d-beat cul-de-sac, a segment recounting the subsequent anodyne Californian pop/punk scene is enlivened by the inclusion of two superb examples of Stainboy’s sumptuous contemporary poster art. Likewise, the differences between the derivative, metal-infused and creatively moribund modern hardcore underground is thrown into sharp focus by Luk Tam’s global perspective, which makes effective direct reference to the graphics displayed and enables the authors to expand the narrative to encompass the wider visual language of worldwide punk in the modern age.
Finally, The Art Of Punk steps outside of the world of sleeve art and related promotional materials to investigate the contemporary commodification of punk and the way in which its graphic language has been utilised to sell a wide range of products, from washing-up brushes to ransom note font fridge magnets, as well as including a short summary of present day fine artists who employ punk tropes and subject matter. Fittingly, this engaging and authoritative account ends with Milo Aukerman’s comments about punk’s inclusive and accessible nature.
While the authors are no doubt hearing on a daily basis that specific sleeves should have been included, this is so much noise – compressing four decades of punk’s development into one weighty volume, and doing it well, is akin to trapping lightning in a bell jar. A visual feast driven by well-observed commentary, The Art Of Punk is a rewarding read that can be dipped into for endless ocular highs.
The Art of Punk is available now from bookshops and online retailers