LEFT OF THE DIAL: Conversations With Punk Icons - David Ensminger (296 pages, PM Press)
Compendiums of interviews, when put together by the person who conducted the interview, can often be hit or miss. Uniform questions can litter the interviews with equally uniform answers while other questions can be a bit too obsessive and frequently self-obsessive. Those who continually put out interviews that are interesting, witty, incisive and respectful are rare; thankfully David Ensminger is one such interviewer.
This book features 22 interviews with a myriad of Punk Rockers, most of which have been published elsewhere, be it in the pages of Maximum Rocknroll or Artcore, or in Ensminger’s own magazine, Left Of The Dial, that ran for eight issues between 2000 and 2005.
The interviews are split into two parts. The first, entitled ‘Tales From The Zero Hour’ look at those who championed Punk at the start, so you get the likes of an exceptionally excellent interview with Peter Case (NERVES/ PLIMSOULS) along with a funny (wot else?) Captain Sensible chat, DILS, ZEROS, Charlie Harper (OK but a bit dull compared with the rest in the book) and an insightful piece about San Francisco’s Deaf Club venue.
The second part of the book, ‘Hardcore Sound And Fury’ takes all the USHC legends and opens them up to Ensminger’s encyclopedic knowledge of Punk Rock folklore. We get Jello Biafra (not one of the better interviews but still a great read), Ian MacKaye, Vic Bondi, Dave Dictor, Gary Floyd, Shawn Stern, Jack Grisham, Keith Morris - a veritable who’s who of USHC in fact. Unexpected highlights came in the form of Lisa Fancher of Frontier Records, Mike Palm of AGENT ORANGE and U-Ron Bondage of REALLY RED that challenges the Peter Case interview as the book’s highlight. Oddly, an interview with STRIKE ANYWHERE ends the book and while it’s a fascinating read from a clever and sincere man (that’s the vocalist, Thomas Barrnett), it just seems a little bit out of step with the rest of the book.
What makes these interviews that much more entertaining is Ensminger’s questions that probe history and placement rather than recording techniques. He also has, as stated, not only a massive knowledge of Punk Rock as a movement that transcends music, but also politics and how Punk evolved within political time frames and was even possibly sub-consciously influenced by the political era. That’s not to say he doesn’t ask the direct questions - I imagine Captain Sensible was thrilled to be asked about ‘Music For Pleasure’ while Ian MacKaye might be equally tired of questions about TEEN IDLES.
Along with the text, Ensminger has culled a number of flyers and rare photos taken by himself or Houston based photographer, Ben Desoto.
Riveting, intelligent reading which has a sincerity about it many music ‘journalists’ fail to achieve as they’ve never actually lived it in the way Ensminger has. Even if some of the bands are of little interest to you, you can be guaranteed that, somehow, Ensminger will extract some unknown historical fact or a blunt, frank and damning political (or socio-political) polemic. If the mark of quality of a book of this nature is what there is to be learnt, I can honestly say I discovered something from each and every interview. (25.01.14)
LOVE ROCK REVOLUTION: K RECORDS And The Rise Of Independent Music - Mark Baumgarten (288 pages, Sasquatch Books)
K Records, a record label based in Olympia, WA (and certainly not to be confused with K-Tel), is the epitome of what an independent record label is and how it should operate. This book is an informative biography of that label and, more specifically, its owner, Calvin Johnson. Personally, I own very few records from the label but Johnson’s commitment to the ideals of Punk and the DIY culture are certainly on a par with a label of the ilk of Dischord.
The book is split into three sections with ‘Youth’ obviously being about Johnson's formative years, dating back to a child in the mid-60s. From there it progresses onto his discovery of Punk Rock and a trip to Europe to load up on singles before finally getting a spot on KAOS radio. This first part is notable as, after each chapter, there is a ‘Brief History’ of what has been discussed. They provide a good but basic overview of Zines, Cassettes, Hardcore, College Rock etc. The chapter concludes with the forming of Calvin’s band, BEAT HAPPENING.
The following two sections detail the rise of the label and the twists and turns of Calvin’s musical muse. It’s an engaging story; Johnson steadfastly applies his DIY ideals to every aspect of the label and his musical projects. We read why he wasn’t interested in NIRVANA’s demo, of the International Pop Underground festival and of a myriad of differing characters and sounds that somehow synchronised into one eclectic movement under the influence of Johnson and K Records.
Author Baumgarten’s narrative has a fluidity about it that encourages the reader to keep turning the pages. That’s not to say it lacks detail as this is an incisive, informative book that collates information from a broad range of interviewees and historical information but, unlike some books of late, this is not cluttered or inaccurate.
The book is rounded out by a full K Records discography, an introduction from Baumgarten (a man who has written about music in the Pacific Northwest in a number of national publications and is currently editor of Seattle’s City Arts) and a Foreword by Stella Marrs. One thing is does lack is photography. The discography would’ve been great if padded out with some album artwork and an inserted six or so pages of photos showing Johnson and some of K Records’ bands would’ve made the individuals in the book a bit more accessible.
That said, Baumgarten has delivered a book that draws the reader into Olympia and Johnson’s world. He writes with affection but without slipping into fawning adulation of the subject matter which, in turn, has lead to a comprehensive, accessible, informative and ultimately enjoyable biography about a genuinely DIY record label. (16.10.12)