Books - S

SAFETY IN NUMBERS: My Journey With L.A. Punk Rock Gangs 1982-92 - Adam Wilson {280 pages, self-published}
Coming from an English town, it’s hard to comprehend that the Los Angeles Punk scene was so populace that Punks themselves split into rival gangs. Sure, I’ve experienced loyalty to local bands when they travel out of their home town but most times it’s a case of rival tribes - be it Punks, Skins, Mods, Rockers, Metal Heads etc. So this book, written by someone who was active and influential in LA Gang life, makes interesting and graphic, if sometimes bemusing, reading.
Wilson was originally born in New York City but at the age of four, his mixed-race parents moved to LA. His mum was an Irish-American and had issues with alcohol, while his African-American father was an actor. His parents soon separated and in came Jackie, his father’s new partner, who Wilson disliked. He had an unsettled schooling and, at the age of 11, found Punk Rock via his Dad’s record collection, which lead to David Bowie and then to KROQ and Rodney On The Rock.
He attended his first gig in 1982 and encountered notorious LA Gang, the LADS, soon after. At the young age of 13, he was living in the Hotel Hell squat. At the age of just 14, he decided he was, "done living in squats," and moved home - only to have his father commit him to an institution at UCLA Hospital.
From there, it’s a story of his involvement as a founding member of the gang Chaos, and numerous gigs. He spent some time as a roadie for an early incarnation of NOFX. He also dived headlong into alcohol addiction, drug usage and even formed a short-lived band, MISUNDERSTOOD.
Beside all the gang confrontations, which included the likes of The Suis (SUCIDAL TENDENCIES crew), Circle One Family, (CIRCLE ONE’s crew), FFF, Mad City Punks, Hollywood Rat Patrol and more, there are notable allies of Wilson’s who, through his narrative you start to recognise and acknowledge their traits, be it Shady, Aldo, Atom Medoza, Payaso or Big Larry. The city of L.A. takes on a character of its own too, as Wilson goes through the city, finding new hangouts be it Gardner Park or a cemetery.
It’s also interesting to note that Wilson had some kind of conscience when it came to unnecessary violence. Sure, he was there for gang rumbles and always had his mates’ back, but when a long-haired rocker is beaten just for being gay, or Skinner, a skinhead girl, attacked trendy girls for no reason, he is quick to distance himself from such mindless antics.
The finale of the book is heart-wrenching as one of his closest friends is murdered. It’s a chapter that sums up the book in many ways; the strong bond of friendship was founded on the gang life that eventually took that friendship away. Wilson does go through some kind of catharsis however as he gets clean and revisits one of his old haunts.
The book is filled out with some slightly grainy photos of all the main characters.
Wilson’s narrative is very readable; there is no thesaurus-obtained wording, no wandering off into esoteric realms, nor any glamorization of the life he lead. It is very genuine; sincerity seeps out of the pages and he certainly holds the attention. Bands are obviously mentioned, and he does suggest Punk as he knew it was over in 1986.
The question I’m left with after completing the book however is, was Wilson really into the Gang life? Yes, he had that unity with his gang members but more often than not, all he wanted to do was have a good time, enjoy some quality Punk Rock and get high. He comes across as far too socially conscious to even want to consider drive by shootings etc. I may have that wrong, but Wilson comes over as a decent guy, who loved Punk Rock, having a good time and felt an affinity with those Punks he was closest to.
This is a solid and revealing read. It’s a Punk Rock coming of age story and a brutally honest one at that - but one that does have some form of redemption at its heart. (04.11.17)

SMASHING IT UP: A Decade Of Chaos With THE DAMNED - Kieron Tyler {310 pages, Omnibus}
As we all know, THE DAMNED was the first Punk band to release a single, an album and get to America. There are numerous other firsts they achieved, including being the first band I actually bought a record by (‘Love Song’ in 1979, after seeing them on Top Of The Pops, aged a mere 10). This is also the first genuinely in-depth look at what is the most under-documented band of the original wave of UK Punk bands.
Author Tyler has done a rather clever thing here by concentrating on the band’s first ten years - probably the band’s most vital ten if we’re honest. THE DAMNED’s history is long, complicated, fraught with dismissals and incriminations, jealousies and contradictions, so trying to condense the entire 40 years into one detailed tome would require a page count akin to the Encyclopedia Britannica. However, sticking with the first decade has allowed Tyler to delve into the era in detail. He has also scored new interviews with all original members which makes for fresh reading. Subsequent members, notably Algy Ward, Paul Gray and Roman Jugg are also interviewed anew.
The first chapters are excellent as they expose the formative years of the individuals and how the band got together. Each recording session is discussed, each record release (with each album getting a highly readable retrospective synopsis from Tyler), each tour and major event are all discussed along with the ever-changing managers, record labels and band members.
For a music journalist who has been published in MOJO, Q and The Guardian among others, Tyler has really done some excellent research and got to the very heart of the band - and done it without making the crap errors that often occur in biographies. We also have to remember this is THE DAMNED; the outsiders of the original pack. There was none of the revolutionary high (McLaren funded) couture of SEX PISTOLS or political polemics of THE CLASH. Instead there was simply a wild, adrenalin (speed) laced, high energy, destructive Punk Rock experience. So while this gives you all the facts and figures, you also get the chaos, the hilarity, the band’s seemingly innate ability to fuck it up for themselves and the inter personnel friction that has lead to distance and estrangement that borders on bitter hatred.
Tyler’s narrative is easy to read and has good continuity. It follows a linear timeline that ensures the reader knows what era the text is referring too. There’s no flitting between eras and he writes with equal depth and passion about ‘Machine Gun Etiquette’ as he does ‘Anything’, drawing attention to the positives without shying away from the negatives. He also gives a brief over-view of what has happened to the band since ‘Anything’, going right up to the recent ‘Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead’ film. Again, this is written with knowledge and respect.
The book is filled out with 24 pages of high quality photos (although many have been seen before), Introduction, Index, Prologue and and exhaustive but essential Notes section where Tyler gives credit to any material’s original source and also adds significant information regarding various instances that occur.
I’m usually very skeptical and critical of these kinda biographies. Too often the journalist hasn’t got all his facts right, it’s been poorly proof-read and lacks drive and sincerity. None of that can be said about Tyler’s work here. This is engrossing, accurate and written with respect and insight. The new interviews in particular give this an authorised feel and keep the narrative alive and vibrant - particularly when incriminations start to appear.
I’m delighted to say (fuck that - shout it from the roof tops baby!!) that finally, there is a book about THE DAMNED that stands up to anything written about the other ‘77 era bands, is astute and intelligent, and treats THE DAMNED with respect.
Totally recommended and about bloody time! (28.12.17)

SOUNDS OF GLORY: Confessions From The Glory Days Of Sounds Volume Two - Garry Bushell {200 pages, Newhaven Publishing)
I imagine many reading this will remember the days when the music press actually meant something. Back in the 70s through to 90s, there were the three big publications: Melody Maker (the least readable, rather tame in its preferences and writing), New Music Express (aka NME which was a bit more cutting edge than MM but still pandered to an elitist student readership) and Sounds. It was Sounds that I was an ardent reader of. It was witty, spearheaded both Punk and Metal without ever actually defining itself as either and generally featured better bands, better writing and was more down to earth. It also had one Garry Bushell writing for it from 1978 through to about 1984. He championed the Oi! movement (for better or worse) and was always a contestable character.
This book collects about 25 interviews, most of which appeared in Sounds. The bands include SPECIALS, MADNESS, ANGELIC UPSTARTS, COCKNEY REJECTS, SELECTER, RUTS, BLONDIE, JAM, CRISIS, CRASS, SEX PISTOLS and RANCID among others. Oh - and Engelbert Humperdinck! Most are entertaining reads it has to be said, with highlights being SPECIALS taking of Manhattan, SELECTER nearly getting lynched by Texas rednecks, accompanying the MO-DETTES to a gig at the infamous Cuckoo’s Nest in Orange County and, on finding the venue closed, going to Zubies to pass some time before realising the bitter and bloody disgust Zubies regulars had for all things Cuckoo’s Nest, THE BLOOD being entertained at the Sounds conference room and totally trashing it and a truly alarming tale of RUTS vocalist Malcolm Owen splitting his head open on cymbals during a gig with the DAMNED and being hospitalized. There’s also a genuinely hilarious review of Festival Of The 60s held at Butlins in Barry Island. Could’ve done without the innuendo laden piece on Judge Dread though. Nearly all of Bushell’s on-road experiences with these bands come with details of considerable alcohol in-take also.
The odd thing about some of these interviews however is that they take place long after Sounds had ceased publication. The RANCID and CRASS pieces (the latter being with Steve Ignorant who eulogises the greatness of COCKNEY REJECTS) were both conducted in the last couple of years while the SQUEEZE piece is from 2010.
The book also fails to make it clear whether these pieces are word-for-word replicas of what appeared in Sounds, editted or written with the benefit of hindsight. A number of them include postscripts, suggesting one of the former two options. There are no graphics either - a printed insert showing the original interviews’ layouts would’ve been nice - as it is we’re left to Bushell’s interviewing skills and analogy laden narrative.
The book is rounded out with an introduction by Bushell on how he managed to blag his way into a job at Sounds and a self-congratulatory synopsis on Bushell and his media career.
Love him or loathe him, it’s impossible to deny that his time at Sounds wasn’t interesting. While these interviews aren’t exactly the most probing or insightful exposes to ever be penned by a music journalist, they do offer humour and a working class sensibility that the likes of NME could but dream of. Well worth checking out for a taste of 70s/80s Punk hedonism but certainly room for improvement. (28.05.17)

THE SPITBOY RULE: Tales Of A Xicana In A Female Punk Band - Michelle Cruz Gonzales {162 pages, PM Press}
If ya didn’t know, SPITBOY was an all-female Punk band active in the early 90s and based in San Francisco. Gonzales was the drummer of that band, known at that time simply as Todd. This is an engaging read that documents her memories, ideals and personal identity with intelligence, wit and wry hindsight.
The narrative goes back to when Gonzales was in her school band, playing flute and discovering the GO-GO’S. It’s a familiar story, that of where a single band not only sends one off in a new direction but completely changes life’s path and future decisions, but it’s always an interesting story to see what band was the catalyst for the author to become who she is today. From there, we get to read about Gonzales first Punk band, BITCH FIGHT, moving from small-town Tuolumne to the San Franciscan metropolis, SPITBOY forming, recording and touring and the band’s ultimate demise. It could be viewed as standard band biography stuff, but Gonzales makes the narrative much more personal and intimate than many other such books.
For starters, SPITBOY was not a band of hard-out party animals, so there’s no tales of drunken debauchery (seems the band preferred the challenge of Travel Scrabble). Instead, we get an on-going, first-person account of Gonzales understanding her own Chicana heritage within the confines of an all-white, all-female band. Her observations about her background when compared with the rest of the band are insightful, thoughtful and to-the-point without being remotely jealous or chastising. The issue of sexism also rears its ugly head with several small-minded creeps who seem to think it’s OK to not just be suggestive but totally abusive. Fortunately, SPITBOY was a band that could confront such bigotry and come out victorious.
Elsewhere in the book we read of the friction caused by the band not aligning itself with the then-popular Riot Grrrl movement, the culture shock of touring Japan, getting pulled over in New Orleans by cops with guns at the ready and the drug squad ready arrest, the band’s alliance with LOS CRUDOS and of the actual SPITBOY rule.
Gonzales’ narrative is direct, pointed and without too much halcyon reflection. By the end of the book, the reader certainly feels that they understand and relate to the traits of Gonzales as well as the rest of the band, and that is in no small part due to the conversational tone with which Gonzales writes.
This is a brief read though; of the 162 pages, 20 are filled with some excellent photos while each chapter also starts with a photo. There is a preface by former Maximum Rocknroll and Punk Planet columnist Mimi Thi Nguyen and a foreword by Martin Sorrondeguy of LOS CRUDOS/ LIMP WRIST fame.
Without a doubt, this is much more than just a band biography. It is as much a book about self-discovery, female camaraderie and personal politics as it is about a female Hardcore Punk band doing things their own way and succeeding at it. I am sure plenty of people could find both inspiration and confidence after reading this book - and that extends beyond people of colour and females to encompass any and all who feel marginalised by society or intimidated by their local Punk scene. If that’s not the mark of success for a book, I’m not sure what is. (23.09.16)

SPOKE: Images And Stories From The 1980s Washington, DC Punk Scene - Scott Crawford {130 pages, Akashic Books}
With all that has already been written about the 1980s DC Punk Scene, it’s hard to imagine anything new on the subject could be published. However, this book, which is beautifully packaged within a hard back sleeve, approximately the size of a 10"EP and laden with photographs and interviews, certainly offers plenty for the hardened DCophile to enjoy along with a few images previously unpublished.
This book has been published to accompany the recent (and rather excellent) documentary Salad Days, which was directed by this book’s creator, Scott Crawford. The core of the book features over 200 high quality photos from the likes of Jim Saah, Cynthia Connolly and Bert Queiroz. Most of these are monochrome (some with a sepia tone, a few others in full colour), several never published before and all strikingly clear and evoking the era perfectly. These images alone captivate, bringing this most influential and politically progressive Punk scene to life. They’re energetic, intimate and passionate, with Akashic not cutting any corners on printing or photo reproduction as the pages are gloss paper, the photos perfectly toned, sharp and of a size that allows the viewer to almost fall into the page. It’s unjust to single out individual photos for attention, but those of RITES OF SPRING, IGNITION (some of which are magnificently moody), EMBRACE, MARGINAL MAN, VOID, SCREAM and, of course, MINOR THREAT all have a dynamic that has the mystical special factor.
There is also plenty of text. Rather than a generic and sprawling scene overview, Spoke presents each band chronologically, dating back to 1977 with BAD BRAINS and culminating in 1989 with the formation of JAWBOX. After a brief intro on each band, the remaining text is in the oral history format, featuring those in the bands and those who made the scene that the bands performed in. The narrative can be candid, frequently amusing, occasionally volatile, constantly revealing, brutally honest, refreshingly insightful and sometimes bewildering - obviously depending on the band. I’m not going to regale you with the best stories the book has, but I will tell you that the chapters on RITES OF SPRING, FUGAZI, IGNITION, GOVERNMENT ISSUE, THE FAITH and GRAY MATTER all stood out for me.
The book is filled out with an introduction from Crawford himself and brief biographies of all those who are quoted in the book.
This is actually a very brave publication from both Crawford and Akashic as it is no doubt going to get compared with both Cynthia Connolly’s Banned In DC and Mark Anderson’s Dance Of Days (both of whom contribute to Spoke) - books about the same subject matter, that are predominantly photo documents and both of which should be on any self-respecting Punk’s book shelf already as they are defining tomes on this iconoclastic scene.
However, the chronological and band focused direction this book takes, coupled with the oral narrative, striking imagery and sublime layout does make it a worthy companion piece to those two books - and one that is not necessarily the weakest of the three by any stretch of the imagination. (03.06.17)