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Books - G

GIMME SOMETHING BETTER: The Profound, Progressive, And Occasionally pointless History of Bay Area Punk From Dead Kennedys To Green Day - Jack Boulware and Silke Tudor {Penguin 500 pages}
How’s that for a mouthful of a title? Before I even start, I have to say that this was one of the most enjoyable and informative books I have read on any subject, let alone that of Punk Rock. This excellent tome is an oral history of one of the most continually inspiring and progressive Punk scenes on the planet - that of San Francisco.
While it’s understandable that the DEAD KENNEDYS’ name was used in the book’s title, the book actually pre-dates the band. It opens with a look at the barren music industry of the early 70s before citing THE TUBES and, like so many other areas, the live arrival of THE RAMONES as primary influences. Of the formative Bay Area bands, it’s CRIME and THE NUNS that, quite correctly, spearheaded the movement. The book also acknowledges Dirk Dirksen’s infamous Mabuhay Gardens club as pivotal to that era.
From there, it’s a no-holds-barred look at Punk in San Francisco and the Bay Area with every conceivable band of even minor importance mentioned. But it’s much more than a look at the historical importance of the bands. The strength of this book is its depth of coverage on every aspect of Punk in the Bay Area, so it reads like a virtual historical scene report. We get chapters on venues/ squats like the infamous SF Vats and The Farm, notable scenesters like the DMR twins, the Texas invasion of MDC, DRI and DICKS, the fight against the Reagan administration and incidents like MISFITS splitting a guy’s head open and Sammytown FANG’s murder charge while both zine Maximum Rocknroll and venue 924 Gilman Street are featured extensively.
Obviously with a book of this nature, where over 200 people are quoted, there are contradictions, petty jealousies and compete animosity toward various people and elements of the scene: DEAD KENNEDYS themselves take a bit of flack for not really being ‘Punks’ and there is some fascinating debates about the merits of both RANCID and GREEN DAY. The inclusion of these slightly contentious elements captures the entire breadth and character of the scene - something this book does better than any other I have read on a localised scene.
The book consists of 55 chapters plus an introduction written by former OPERATION IVY vocalist Jesse Michaels and a closing Who’s Who of the contributors. A sign of any good book (especially one that documents history) is the inability to put it down once you’ve started to read it; I found I’d pick this up to read a chapter, and two hours later I was still engrossed!
Aesthetically, there is no ‘photo gallery’ like in many books of this ilk; Gimme Something Better instead opts for (and in my opinion, wisely) photos accompanying the chapters - most importantly all these photos are tagged.
Faults? This is really hard to fault, but something that would have been beneficial (especially to someone who picked this up on the strength of GREEN DAY’s name being on the cover) is a quick-reference glossary of the most important records to come outta San Fran. Yep, many are mentioned in the text, but a quick-reference guide to which specific album by FLIPPER or JAWBREAKER or AFI is the best would have been interesting. I thought Fat Wreck Chords may have got a bigger mention also.
As a book, this stands as one of the best books about not just a localised Punk Scene but about Punk Rock per se. It analyses, in first-hand clarity, every aspect of Punk Rock - be that police harassment, violence, drug abuse and poverty along with blind determination, idealism, unity, individualism and, simply, some of the best fucking music to be made on the planet. It’s a captivating, in-depth book on every level and one that stands on an equal pedestal with Please Kill Me, England’s Dreaming and Dance Of Days as the definitive account of its subject matter. Essential.
NB - The book has been edited down from an estimated 800+ pages! Additional excepts can be found on the book’s website (itself worthy of a mention): http://gimmesomethingbetter.com/  (03.10.10)

GIRLS TO THE FRONT: The True Story Of The Riot Grrrl Revolution - Sara Marcus {Harper Perennial, 372 pages}
Covering the period between 1989-1994, this is an extensively researched and comprehensive look at the phenomenon that was Riot Grrrl. It’s a tract of Punk that, beyond BIKINI KILL, I never got into. It seemed rather exclusive and to my (no doubt biased) eyes, sexist. In this book, Marcus presents a detailed analysis that is both honest and sincere, but also balanced in her examination of the positives, negatives and hypocrisies that ran through what was initially a stunningly empowering movement.
The narrative dates back to 1989 as future BIKINI KILL singer Kathleen Hanna boards a bus to Seattle to meet her hero, writer Kathy Acker. From there, Marcus gives a detailed and intelligent account of every aspect that formed and inspired the Riot Grrrl movement. Obviously music is featured heavily with the focus on BIKINI KILL, BRATMOBILE, HEAVENS TO BETSY and the UK’s HUGGY BEAR. Other pivotal bands mentioned include FUGAZI, NIRVANA (pre and post megastardom) and SONIC YOUTH.
The strength of the book lies not in its exploration of the music that was spawned from the movement, but what ran parallel to the sounds. We read of the multitude of zines the helped shape the ethics of Riot Grrrl; we are given insightful history lessons in the politics of the day and of pre-1989 feminism; we read of the geographical hot spots be it Olympia, DC or the lesser known Omaha; most interestingly, we read of the frequently intense personalities who made Riot Grrrl inspirational, volatile and political.
It’s via the probing of these personalities that the movement’s idiosyncratic double-standards really come to light. For every ten grrrls who had become empowered after enduring terminal mental/ physical/ sexual/ sexist/ societal/ personal abuse, there would be one causing hardline, problematic issues. One of the major aspects of Riot Grrrl appeared to be its autonomy where, "everybody could do what she pleased - but within reason of course" which resulted in one grrrl being ostracised when she went to the mainstream press, while another was told to, "fuck off and die straight whitey Punk."
The movements downfall is written with diplomacy and sagaciousness. It’s clear Marcus had a close, personal affinity with Riot Grrrl, but she doesn’t shy away from telling of the founders apathy towards it as things progressed, or of the disillusionment of the organisers of the Omaha convention who witnessed nothing but selfishness and apathy.
The amount of research done by Marcus is second to none. She’s trailed through a mountain of zines and interviewed all the major names (and many lesser personalities) giving the book a very authentic, definitive sensibility while her narrative flows with a virtual breathless fluidity. The text is augmented with photos, a bibliography and footnotes on the main players.
Considering I had little knowledge and minimal interest in Riot Grrrl, I found this captivating. The amount of information Marcus provides is exemplary and her honesty in documenting both sides of an ever-increasingly fractious and zealous movement is admirable. Highly recommended not only for those with an interest in Riot Grrrl, but also for those with a penchant for all historical aspects of our Punk Rock. (18.09.11)