The Encyclopedia of Punk
New York: Sterling Publishing, 2010
Paperback. 392 pages. ISBN 978-1-4027-7937-4. $19.95
Reviewed by Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université François Rabelais-Tours
Filmmaker Penelope Spheeris wrote a foreword for The Encyclopedia of Punk. I am not certain it was a wise move on the part of author Brian Cogan or the publisher, if what was expected of her was to give (street) credibility to the project. She was born in December 1945, which means she was already in her thirties when punk exploded, i.e. decrepit. I myself would have picked some survivor, some in-and-out-of-rehab aging guitar player who was in his teens back then. Spheeris is known for Wayne’s World (1992), but she is also (in)famous for two fascinating documentaries in particular: The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) and The Decline of Western Civilization Part III (1998), in which she more or less exploits punk musicians and street punks, rather than document them. Her foreword does not add much to Cogan’s excellent encyclopedic work. I am quite sure I do not want to know exactly what she means when she writes that “most true punks are highly intelligent and honorable,” [vii] a pronouncement that is objectionable on so many levels.
Cogan is an academic and a musician. He is, among other things, the co-author with Tony Kelso of The Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, Media and Politics (2008) and Mosh the Polls: Youth Voters, Popular Culture, and Democratic Engagement (2008). He is too young to have been aware of the 1976-1977 punk scene, but that has in no way affected his knowledge and appreciation. I myself was the perfect age, living in London to boot and a Roxy regular, but I never felt reading the book (as I sometimes do when perusing similar material) that here was someone who was too much of a detached cultural historian to fully grasp punk. Surely his being a Brooklyn punk rock musician helped...
I particularly recommend the following entries in this new edition of The Encyclopedia of Punk that originally came out in 2006 (in alphabetical order): Angelic Upstarts; Lester Bangs; Blondie; Boomtown Rats; David Bowie (“Bowie was a huge influence on punk, particularly in his Ziggy Stardust and Berlin periods, also helping to promote the careers of proto-punks Lou Reed and Iggy Pop” ); Bromley Contingent; Butthole Surfers; Buzzcocks; CBGB; Wayne / Jayne County; The Cramps; The Damned; Dead Kennedys; Doc Martens; Gang of Four; Generation X; Richard Hell; The Homosexuals; Joan Jett; Joy Division; John Lydon (AKA Johnny Rotten); Max’s Kansas City; The New York Dolls; Nico; Pansy Division; Iggy Pop; The Ramones; Riot Grrrl; Siouxsie and the Banshees; The Slits; Patti Smith; Suicide; Television; and Johnny Thunders (Cogan provides a tremendous photograph captioned “Johnny Thunders shows off his sneer in London”). I suspect some finicky readers might disagree with Cogan’s take on The Gossip, Nirvana, The Stranglers, or Talking Heads, especially, but that is to be expected in such works.
The Malcolm McLaren entry is pleasantly balanced [186-187]. In the same order of things, I thoroughly enjoyed the Sid Vicious entry, which is measured, on the whole, a rare achievement when it comes to Vicious, who “lives on (somewhat strangely) as a punk icon, a romanticized version of the junkie as pin-up idol” . It is not strange at all that Vicious thus lives on, but I applaud Cogan’s statement that “Vicious recorded a sublime cover of Sinatra’s ‘My Way’” in 1978. That record is sublime indeed, to a punk ear anyway, as German singer Nina Hagen meant to stress when she released her punk cover of Vicious’s punk cover in 1980. Cogan is right to claim that it is a cover of Frank Sinatra’s cover of “My Way,” for even though the song was originally a 1967 French song by Claude François, “Comme d’habitude,” and even though it is the most often covered song in twentieth-century musical history, it was indeed Sinatra’s “My Way” that Sid Vicious sublimely massacred, turning it into an ultimate punk anthem. Much in the way punk can be seen as anti-hippie, or anti-disco, or even anti-pop, this version of “My Way,” to me, in its anti-crooner sinister nihilism, marks a decisive moment in (cultural) history, linked to Vicious’s murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen and his own final overdose—that some have seen as the death of punk.
The two pages entitled “The Politics of Punk” might have been a little bit more fleshed out. Cogan does not really address the anarchy question, and addresses the gender and race question too rapidly for my taste, as I wished he had developed the evocation of 1970s British disenfranchised white males from, say, North London. He does, and I am grateful for this, write that in “the late 1970s, there was a close relationship between British punk rockers and fans of reggae, with ska being a particularly fertile genre for creative cross-pollination” . The racial implications of the said cross-pollination were, of course, extremely interesting, and have too often been overlooked.
The pictures alone justify the expense, they form an admirably handpicked collection. The Index is highly useful, the Selected Bibliography perfectly selected, including as it does the indispensable and sometimes contested books by Lester Bangs, Dick Hebdige and Greil Marcus. This book will be useful to Cultural Studies scholars and punk aficionados alike. How can one not sympathize with Cogan when he confides that the book was a difficult undertaking in the sense that with it he would release “to the general public something of which [he’d] always been very possessive.” He then writes, and this will be my conclusion: “When I was young, punk gave me a sense of identity and belonging that I could not find elsewhere, and it was an epiphany when I discovered that there were other outcasts like me” . Indeed.
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