The 10 best books about punk rock
From a holiday in Cambodia to anarchy in the UK, spanning hardcore to straight edge, here are ten of my favourite tomes about one of music’s angriest, influential and most articulate movements.
Please Kill Me: The Uncensored History of Punk by Legs McNeill and Gillian McCain
If the best bit of any music bio is everything everyone got up to before they got famous, this outrageous and uproarious, dirty and debauched oral history is all best bits.
It describes in hedonistic detail all the hijinks many of punk’s best known and not so well known pioneers got up to in the sweaty, grungy mosh pits of New York’s early scene.
Blondie, Ramones, The New York Dolls, Iggy Pop and more reveal all. Possibly more than you might want to imagine. Mötley Crüe, eat your heart out.
England’s Dreaming by John Savage
Like Please Kill Me, this is one of the urtexts of punk history and literature. Exhaustive, fanatical, leaping off the page with passion and bile, it’s one of the first detailed journalistic histories of the Sex Pistols. Savage, one of music writing’s great stylists, argues the band didn’t just change English music, but England itself, forever.
Rotten: No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish by Johnny Rotten with Keith and Kent Zimmerman
As snarly and articulate and contradictory and witty as the man himself, this is a warts and all memoir that takes aim – and offends – nearly everyone with the same bilious glee.
From Margaret Thatcher to Malcolm McLaren, corporate greed to the commodification of punk, this is the genre’s most (in)famous frontmen at his anarchic, brutally honest, brilliantly eloquent best.
You might not agree with everything he says, but you’ll laugh out loud at most of it.
Stranded by Clinton Walker
Punk wasn’t just NYLON. From one of Australia’s premier music historians, this is the definitive account of the nascent Brisbane punk scene, spearheaded by The Saints, who hosted DIY gigs at Club 76, their rundown share house in Brisvegas’s inner city Petrie Terrace.
Beating the Pistols to become the first band outside America to release a punk rock single – from which Walker’s book gets its title – they presaged, along with other seminal Aussie acts like Radio Birdman, the Cheap Nasties and the Celibate Rifles, the explosive new sound to come.
American Hardcore: A Tribal History by Steven Blush
To US '80s hardcore what Please Kill Me was to the '70s scene, this is a detailed chronicle of the art, culture, philosophy and, most importantly, the music.
It features interviews with luminaries like Henry Rollins of Black Flag, Dave Dictor of MDC, Brett Gurewitz of Bad Religion, Ian McKaye of Fugazi, Flea, Bad Brains and more.
The soundtrack to the subsequently acclaimed 2006 documentary is like the Lomax archive of hardcore and post-hardcore.
Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus
Although many might associate punk with angry adolescent boys head-butting each other as they pogoed to the Pistols or the Ramones, the scene was equally defined by icons like Siouxsie Sioux, The Slits, Patti Smith, Lydia Lunch, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex and more.
They laid the foundations for the Riot Grrrl movement of the early '90s, featuring such seminal acts like Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear and Sleater-Kinney, pissed-off by sexism, tired of keeping quiet and ready to rock out. A roar of grrrl power!
Just Kids by Patti Smith
If you’ve ever looked at the cover of Horses and wondered how this incredible poet and singer ever came to be, this is where to find her – and her then-lover, controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (who took the iconic album cover portrait).
Just two kids trying to make their way into life, love and their art, as they navigated the seedy corridors of the Chelsea Hotel and the travails of finding their voices in a metropolis bursting with creative energy. Sweet, sad, wise, it’s a masterpiece of reflection and lyricism.
Golden Years by Ali Eskendaran
Described by its author as the world’s first “American-Iranian beat-punk novel” it’s the thinly fictionalised story of a youngish American-Iranian punk rocker still trying to live and fulfill his dreams as he crashes through personal demons, romantic entanglements, the highs and lows of performing and penury.
The day after Eskenderan delivered the manuscript, he and his friends, members of the band The Yellow Dogs, were tragically murdered by a rival musician. Frenetic, hedonistic, and ultimately elegiac, it echoes with a kind of eerie irony.
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallsberg
City on Fire is an audacious and assured debut that was years in the writing and which nabbed its 20-something author a reputed $2 million advance.
It is is a huge, sprawling, messy, terrifying saga that starts with the murder of a young punk in Central Park on New Year’s Eve in 1976 and roams across the Big Apple from the brownstones of the Upper East Side to an abandoned tenement in the once gritty, now trendy, East Village.
Encompassing myriad tangled stories and the incredible explosion of cultures from hip hop to new wave, disco to punk that emerged from the violence and darkness that infested the stoops and alleyways then, this exciting 1000 page whopper thrums with punky energy and what Hallsberg calls New York’s “muchness.”
The Goldfinch with safety pins and a razor blade.
Please Take Me Off the Guest List by Stacey Wakefield, Nick Zinner and Zachary Lipez
A brilliant multimedia manifesto featuring music, audio interviews, evocative photos by Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner, and moving, addictive and side-splitting stories and essays by former Freshkills singer Zachary Lipez with long time collaborator, artist and designer Stacey Wakfield. As much a work of art and literature as a music book.
Sunil Badami is a writer, performer and presenter. You can hear him every other Friday on Lunch with Myf, where he chats about the books he loves on You Gotta Read This!