Smells Like Anarchy

Clinton Heylin is the greatest living writer about rock music. He’s never enjoyed the elite status of seminal graybeards such as Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus or the mythical aura of gonzo martyr Lester Bangs. But Heylin stands alone because he combines the tireless reporting of a Peter Guralnick with the intellectually acute critical insights of Christgau, Marcus, and Bangs. He’s neither the best historian nor the best critic, but he’s the finest combination of the two skills.

Clinton has written definitive biographies on both Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, and his From the Velvets to the Voidoids masterfully filled in the blanks on how American punk music slowly emerged in cities such as New York, Boston, and Cleveland. In a sense, Babylon’s Burning: From Punk to Grunge is Heylin’s followup to From the Velvets, an examination of punk’s impact and how it changed shape in the years between “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

In a deeper sense, however, it’s a parallel-universe version of his earlier book, as Heylin focuses most of his attention on England rather than the United States. The patented Heylin style is in place, roughly the literary equivalent of documentary filmmaking. We get long, bold-face quotes from the key players, connected by Heylin’s print narration.

More than any other book, Babylon’s Burning explains the social conditions that fueled punk: the way that the dole inadvertently subsidized British music by enabling no-future rebels to buy gear and avoid stifling employment; the key role of squatting as a life choice (Joe Strummer’s pre-Clash band, the 101ers, took its name from the address of a squat he shared with several friends); and the star-making role of the English music press.

In his more analytical work, Heylin’s passion can sometimes manifest itself as know-it-all brusqueness. For example, his stellar examination of Dylan’s studio catalog, Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions 1960-1994 , is slightly marred by his petty shots at Sony A&R man Steve Berkowitz over song selections for Dylan’s bootleg-series releases. It’s clear from the Dylan book that Heylin himself would have liked the archivist gig, and he resents having to live with choices made by someone he considers an inferior.

Fortunately, Babylon’s Burning emphasizes Heylin the storyteller: his attention to detail and determination to tell a convoluted, complex story without dumbing it down. That means copious references to now-forgotten cult figures such as the Kursaal Flyers and The Adverts, but it also creates a context by which we can understand the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Buzzcocks, and the Jam.

This is the third noteworthy book that’s attempted to tell this story. The first, Gina Arnold’s Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana, was a haphazardly reported, first-person account of the Amerindie revolution. The second, Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, was a revealing collection of profiles on the major American punk bands of the ’80s. Compared to either book, Babylon’s Burning shortchanges the American side of the punk equation. The book gets so wrapped up in the story of British punk that it doesn’t firmly set its gaze on American hardcore until the final 100 of its more than 600 pages. It feels like a film that’s run too long, and is forced to compress a decade’s worth of events into a final few minutes.

That might be an aesthetic decision as much as a practical one. Heylin’s sources generally view Kurt Cobain as a hypocrite who babbled on about punk integrity but had little understanding of what punk really meant, and you get a feeling that the author shares that view. The abrupt ending is a reminder that punk’s story is a messy, contentious one, and where Heylin succeeds is in explaining the movement’s infancy.


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