Simon Warner, our occasional contributor from England, wrote this review of the book, False Prophet: Field Notes from the Punk Underground by Steven Taylor (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003) when the book was first published. The review first appeared in the journal Ethnomusicology Forum, Vol. 13, No. 2, November 2004, and was reprinted in a recent edition of Simon’s newsletter, Rock and the Beat Generation.
Cultural history is one of our areas of interest, so we’re pleased to repost this review here, with Simon’s kind permission. It complements a related post, The Elusive Nature of British Punk, by Malcolm Sharps which appeared here on March 1, 2023.
IF THE SEISMIC rumbles of punk were most noticeably felt between 1975 and 1977, the years in which virtually all of the key recordings of this musical moment were released, the earthquake that struck London and Manhattan in particular had been building for almost a decade before that. Furthermore, the tremors that rippled from the central eruption have really never settled. For a quarter of a century after that furious burst of creative energy, the effects, the impact, of a brief revolution, have not been shaken off.
Put shortly, the punk chronology stretches some way beyond the London club called the Roxy and New York’s famed Bowery bar CBGBs, both of which became key geiger-counters of a sometimes chaotic experiment. In fact, we need to go back as far as the garage music of the Standells or the Seeds from America’s mid-1960s, to the Velvet Underground, Stooges and MC5, later in that same decade, to trace the antecedents of what eventually burst forth. If we trace the line of history forward, the aftershock embraces the no wave of New York, the new wave of Manchester, Liverpool and California, the hardcore and straightedge scenes of Washington, through bands like Joy Division, Wire, XTC and the Gang of Four in Britain, to Bad Brains, Black Flag, NOFX and Green Day on the other side of the Atlantic, and considerably more besides.
I think this is a useful preamble to a review of Steven Taylor’s readable and idiosyncratic account of what it was to be an active American punk in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For his book False Prophet: Field Notes from the Punk Underground frames a drama that unfolds at a time when many of us may have assumed punk had gone to the same genre cemetery that is now home to skiffle, beat groups and glam rock. In fact, punk lives on in the hearts and minds of at least two generations since. If it is marginalized, returned to the underground whence it came, only occasionally to re-surface on day-time radio or in the Top 40, the spirit of an uncompromising time in rock ‘n’ roll history survives in various outposts. That is, in Detroit or Leeds, Berlin or Rome, in illegal squats and social ghettos, in independent record labels and a network of back-street venues, where amplified noise and nostalgie de la boue tend to go hand in hand.
Nor do I say that from first-hand experience. It is Taylor, a versatile guitarist who was also the musical accompanist to the poet Allen Ginsberg for two decades, a Fugs member since 1984 and now professor of writing at the renowned Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, who casts his astute eye over these frayed places, over these spirited refugees who breathe punk with a commitment that is both enduring and extraordinary. For five years, he was a member of a critically noted though persistently uneconomic outfit called False Prophets. A lower Manhattan act, the band had been going for some while before he was recruited as a stand-in guitar player only to stay for several tours in North America and Europe. Taylor endured many fights and disagreements, artistic and some pugilistic, stayed on through a small number of highs and some emotionally draining lows, before the sheer exhausting stress of running a life on creative dedication and political integrity but barely making a dollar proved too much and the project crumbled.
What happened to punk after the filth and fury of Johnny Rotten’s Sex Pistols and Joe Strummer’s garage band the Clash, the art and artistry of Television and Talking Heads and the comic book capers of the Ramones, Blondie and the Damned, was that the music became assimilated and diluted. The youthful spurt of pent-up aggression was tamed by the industry. If you were too difficult to pigeon-hole – the Pistols, Television – you split up. If you had commercial possibilities, you signed long-term deals with major labels, released double and triple LPs in the case of the Clash, worked with Phil Spector in the Ramones’ case, or enjoyed number one singles that grafted disco, reggae and rap onto the power pop sounds that exemplified Blondie.
But there was a determined rump that stuck fervently to the values of the punk ethic – independence, no sell-out, adherence to a loosely drawn notion of individual freedom laced with a febrile suspicion of establishment structures – and that never went away. In Britain, Crass and the Anti-Nowhere League typified the cult; in the US, the Dead Kennedys and Fugazi were examples. A little later, False Prophets were part of that latter tradition and Taylor’s overview of what went on – a piece of snapshot analysis at the rock face and mostly on the run – is valuable for that. His story is part cultural studies, part autobiography and part journal. If it is fragmented as a result, the fracture of theory and practice, bound by the writer’s own experiences – composing, playing, arguing, falling in love, facing up to contemporary terrors like heroin and Aids, if at a slight distance – is far from ineffective. It is a metaphor for the difficulties of bringing subcultural analysis, for instance, into the bear garden of manic moshing and the graffiti-splattered cubicle of the venue’s toilet stall, and into an arena where collectives committed to a version of anarcho-syndicalism come face to face with the terrifying gutter fascism of Nazi thugs at the local rock keller. In this engaging and picaresque adventure there is the ongoing struggle to secure a record deal and retain artistic control, the enervating rows about issues of political correctness within the band and without, the parallels with earlier art radicals like the Beats, the free jazz fraternity and the cinematic underground.
I hugely enjoyed Taylor’s personal and professional punk odyssey. All too few books have so dispassionately attempted to outline, explain, divulge the realities of living, breathing rock’n’roll musicianship: the blood, the toil, the sweat, the despair. Punk has been characterized either romantically as a post-Situationist gesture, a slice of minimalist agit-prop cranked up loud or as a mindless, moronic assault on the craft and art of music-making. Taylor proves that it cannot be characterized so simply: it can be all those things, political and petulant, but also inventive and irreverent, ideological and infantile, creative and crude, prosaic and poetic. Thankfully an articulate player/singer/poet/writer has had the energy and foresight not only to face the white heat of the circuit but also to record its sometimes thrilling, often grimy, but also mundane details, carefully and honestly.
Summarizing the de facto realities of this labour of love, Taylor explains: ‘False Prophets lived to tour. None of us ever received payment for gigs other than in a touring context (and then only, and minimally, in Europe). All of the band members had to work regular jobs. On tour, the dream of becoming full-time musicians is, for a period of weeks, realised. There isn’t much money (only a modest per diem of about 10 dollars a day, because gig fees are low, drives between shows are long, and gasoline is expensive), but there’s the life of a professional – all one does is travel and perform. The tour is also important in what I call the band’s cycle of production because it is the link between records, where one sells the latest record at gigs (a crucial source of cash) while selecting and perfecting the songs for the next’ (pp. 104-5).
From the itineraries to the budgets, from the detail of instrumental inventories to the rider requests for quite basic vegetarian foods (all too regularly ignored), the account is a revealing survey of the underbelly of rock practice.
Is this volume a work of ethnomusicology? Has the author visited a subculture now sufficiently subterranean that he becomes the witness to a lost, or at least declining, civilization? Can ethnomusicologists ever effectively work their own patch or have they to experience the Other, an unfamiliar culture, to truly do their job well? Are these revelations ethnography entangled with memoir, autobiography on the frontline and, if so, what value do they have for the music scholar? False Prophet does raise some of these issues: the author wrestles, to a degree, with them, too, and the reader inevitably contemplates them. But, however we define this book, it does provide a useful and serious addition to that slim literature on the world of the working rock musician and adds an extra layer to earlier accounts by Sara Cohen, Barry Shank and Jason Toynbee.
Punk is a slippery fish, sometimes a shark, and Taylor, frequently just avoiding the teeth of the storm, reels in some lively and incisive insights. Plus, the book comes with the additional bonus of a band CD Invisible People, and a number of haunting drawings by Eric Drooker, reminiscent of the graphics associated with the great avant-garde comic Raw.
Cohen, Sara, Rock Culture in Liverpool: Popular Music in the Making (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991)
Shank, Barry, Dissonant Identities: The Rock’n’Roll Scene in Austin, Texas (London: Wesleyan University Press, 1994)
Toynbee, Jason, Making Popular Music: Musicians, Creativity and Institutions (London: Arnold, 2001)
Simon Warner, School of Music, University of Leeds, UK
See also: ‘The punk with a PhD’, March 27th, 2023