Before reading Clinton Heylin’s Babylon’s Burning: From Punk to Grunge, remove the god-awful dust jacket. Its eye-twitch-inducing color scheme of neon pink and lime green, coupled with cropped photos of music icons/court jesters/tragic metaphors Johnny Rotten and Kurt Cobain, is truly, appallingly tacky. Trash it, use it as scrap paper or a coaster. But just get rid of it.
Aside from this awful cover and some other shortcomings described below, Heylin’s study is a good companion piece to his previous From the Velvets to the Voidoids. Whereas that earlier book dealt mainly with the origins of American punk rock, Babylon’s Burning attempts to close the loop, from punk to Post-Punk/New Wave/No Wave/Hardcore/Grunge, and all those other media-invented terms that neatly categorize music like varieties of soup.
The book’s greatest strength is its detailed examination of the evolution of Pre-Punk to Punk, from about 1971 to 1977. All the major players (and many bands only truly sick musos still listen to) are covered in depth. Even if some of the early chapters repeat material from Velvets, there are enough added details (especially the sections that deal with Australian and Irish punk) to make these sections more than just a rehash of that book.
Along the way, Heylin convincingly challenges many accepted punk myths and misconceptions made popular by scores upon scores of questionable, B-movie-grade punk histories. The well-worn belief that punk bands (especially the British variety) “couldn’t play and that didn’t matter” is shown to be overly simplistic. In addition, the punk cliché of “Year Zero,” in which punk bands would dismiss all musical influences by essentially pissing on the legacies of most previous music groups, is shown to be little more than a combination of empty posturing and effective publicity stunts.
One of the more intriguing questions Heylin’s book raises is whether it is possible to maintain punk credibility and its vaguely-defined ideology after a band signs to a major label. Despite the oft-repeated phrase that “punk died the day The Clash signed to CBS,” it is worth noting that the Clash, as well as many other punk and post-punk bands, produced their strongest albums while working under the cruel whip of a major label. Sure, major labels then, as now, might have been run by cold, calculating suits driven by bottom-line profit numbers, but even a group as ostensibly anti-industry as Public Image Ltd released their finest album (Metal Box) on Virgin. Heylin’s implied conclusion is that there is a distinction to be made between maintaining artistic credibility and caving in under the weight of commercial interests.
But the book is not entirely a warm summer breeze. Its coverage of the post-punk years, notably 1984-1991, is spotty at best and grossly negligent at worst. After over 500 pages covering practically every gob-launch made in 1977, Heylin summarizes these years in about 100 pages, which gives these closing chapters a tacked-on feeling. Key groups are either mentioned only briefly (Mission of Burma, Pixies), or ignored completely (Pavement, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr). Likewise, major musical developments are ignored, including the early 1980s Athens, Georgia scene, and the Washington, DC hardcore scene. Essentially portraying Kurt Cobain as a poser and major label sellout, Heylin’s last chapters seem to offer more in the way of shock value than any real insight into how Nirvana et al tie into the overall punk tradition.
One last shortcoming is that Heylin doesn’t bring closure to most bands’ stories. Sure, everyone knows about the Sex Pistols’ 1978 disintegration and later, 1990s legacy-destroying reunions, but many of the bands are basically left dangling within the pages. The Clash’s story stops at London Calling (maybe this is for the better), Gang of Four is not mentioned after Entertainment, and Pere Ubu’s output apparently ended after Dubhousing. In this respect, it’s a shame that Heylin couldn’t provide a synopsis for each band as part of the book’s nearly 700 pages.
For fans of punk rock and early post-punk, especially the British variety, this book is one of the better histories written, with interviews, opinions, and insights from those who helped create and define the punk aesthetic. However, music fans interested in the 1980s rise of American indie music, who realize 1980s American music consisted of more than the Minutemen, Husker Du, and the Replacements, will likely be disappointed with the slapdash approach taken to that era.Powered by Sidelines