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A Cultural Dictionary of Punk 1974-1982


Nicholas Rombes


London: Continuum, 2009

Paperback. 320 p. £14.99. ISBN: 9780826427793


Reviewed by Carey Fleiner

University of Delaware




When I opened up the packet containing A Cultural History of Punk, my older colleague (mid-50s) immediately grabbed it up and said, ‘Cool, a punk dictionary! Gimme’. He flipped a few pages—‘Nope, no CBGBs. Can’t be any good’, then tossed it back onto my desk.

Author Nicholas Rombes faces a challenge in writing about punk: how one analyses a genre which was never meant to be tamed or categorised. Indeed, as he notes, ‘One of the goals of this book is to go back to that moment in time when the term “punk” was unstable, ambiguous, loaded with so many suggestions’ [200]. An analysis of punk, he argues cannot be overly long; it can’t be introspective. He illustrates this point with frequent references to speed, length, and duration—the speed at which the Ramones recorded; the speed at which the Sex Pistols self-destructed; the duration of ‘Anarchy is Dead’, ‘the best song to explain punk’ [9], which clocks in at 30 seconds.

Another challenge is placing punk in its contemporary context which is Rombes’ primary goal—punk has become so praised and lionised that the true context is difficult to find—even contemporary mainstream media directed one’s expectations [‘Headlines from 1977’, 117-188], and punk was the subject of nostalgia as early as 1981 [264]. The relationship between punk and nostalgia is one of the main themes that tie the book together—and it explains a number of the unlikely entries. Punk is not simply the music: it is an attitude of defiance, independence, self-sufficiency, and DIY— ‘doing it yourself’. So by this broader definition, ‘punks’ could include Herman’s Hermits [119-120], The Captain and Tennille [36], Jimmy Carter [36-37; 74-77], or an episode of TV’s CPO Sharkey [55-56]. The Ramones, in whom Rombes holds most stock (he has elsewhere written on them [The Ramones: Ramones 33 1/3]), exemplify punk’s relationship with nostalgia. They took their image from the ‘50s punk, the hoodlum in a leather jacket and pegged jeans, and their attitude from memories of growing up listening to ‘60s girl bands and watching sitcoms on television—they have as much in common with the nostalgia for the ‘50s as anyone else did in the early ‘70s for that not-so-innocent time [12; 31].

So Rombes places punk in its cultural context, hence entries which at first seem bewildering. And, yes, there are omissions. He admits this from the start. Nevertheless, most of the likely suspects one would expect in a book on punk which covers the years 1974 to 1982 are here—The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, the Clash, and CBGBs—they may not, however, be in the likely places: the most informative entries are not the eponymous ones. Context shapes the direction Rombes takes: Punk attitudes and the discovery of punk music by a young listener alike grew ‘like a weed [preface]’. And like a weed, spreading out from its multi-branched roots, punk, too, grew up in random directions, taking its shape and character from its surroundings. Rombes’ book is a personal memoir and odyssey as well as an analysis; it is not meant to be read in a linear fashion—and in fact, to do so would be aggravating, as many of the same ideas, if not their wording, is repeated throughout. There is no index.

Rombes states in his preface, or ‘opening shot’, that his emphasis is on primary sources—and he includes ‘speeches, interviews…lyrics, advertisements’. He also deliberately arranges entries in the same way one might find diverse contents of a fanzine. For example, Rombes does not explain the allure of the band Helen Keller, but instead gives a list of facts about them [118-119]; the city of Cleveland, an important area for the development of punk, is described in a list of contemporary quotes [10]; the Ramones’ career is presented as a bulleted list— ‘the first album in ten tracks’ [223-225]. Some entries are lifted straight out of contemporary press; for example, random excerpts from the June 1980 issue of East Village Eye describe the magazine [80-83]; a letter to the editor complains about a positive review of the Sex Pistols’ latest album [116]; headlines from various AP news articles describe punk rock around the U.S. in 1977 [117-118]. Even the illustrations bring to mind a fanzine as well—photographs, contemporary ads, and newspaper cuttings are deliberately printed at low resolution to remind one of smudgy photocopies in homemade fanzines.

Rombes’ writing style mirrors his primary sources and continues the theme of fanzine-style prose: stream of consciousness [4; 68]; sentences left unfinished (‘ “I Got You Babe” as covered by the Dictators is the most important song ever recorded because’ [125]); short stories (‘Cindy [2]’, ‘Frankie Teardrops’ [91-101], Patti [186-193]); lists of headlines, dialogues, and reminisces. He also switches to second person singular present in some of his entries, for example, in his discussion of discovering and pursuing the Dils [69-70] or his exploration of ‘Dot Dash’: ‘When you first heard this song, you knew little about the band and worried that once you learned, you would see that you were wrong’ [75]. Rombes’ style and sources have two effects—one, he relives his own memories, and two, he puts the reader into discovery mode.

A Cultural History of Punk is an effective read—it draws the reader in, it informs, it tantalises. As Rombes’ angry alter-ego notes, ‘Punk is simply not a worthy subject of so many words’ [320]. Entries are deliberately provocative and even sometimes hostile. The book is personal and inclusive even as it describes a genre that thrives on isolation and obscurity. But that was punk—notes Rombes, punk was about exclusion, but what was shared is the obscurity and consequent discovery. The more obscure your band, the cooler you were. Punk fans shared a quest for new bands; the subsequent search for information and exchange of cassette tapes, such an integral part of the punk scene, form a microcosm of punk’s mélange of obscurity, isolation, DIY, and camaraderie—homemade tapes with songs isolated from their fellows, a gestalt of sound, anarchic in their crude creation (as one recalls the huge warnings on record albums of a drawing of a cassette tape rendered into a skull and crossbones with the warning, ‘Home taping is killing music’) yet uniting punk’s fans.

Whither punk? Why then is it admired as other‘70s genres are not? Because of its anarchy, its rebellion, and its disdain for the mainstream, punk had to end; it had to self-destruct, hence its nobility. ‘Self destruction was the only way to cope with becoming mainstream’ [156]. Indeed, as Rombes stresses, becoming mainstream, that is, selling out, was the antithesis of punk—and in his entry on the Clash, he argues vehemently to this end why the Clash were not true to the punk ethos [47]. This is the very dilemma of rock and roll as a whole, he notes in his section on Nirvana [162-163]: rock and roll is schizophrenic—it must provide an exclusive ‘scene’ for aficionados, but also satisfy a broader audience to satisfy the record label’s need for commercial success [162]. No band can do both; they either sell out or self-destruct, sometimes on purpose, as the Pistols and Nirvana did, according to Rombes. ‘Punk’, he writes, ‘[was] a whisper, a secret, on its way to something too big to remain secret’ [247].




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