BOOK REVIEW: What Is Punk? (Akashic Books)
by Adam Perry for Westword 10/28/2015
My daughter, Sidney, is somewhat of a punk-rock connoisseur, at least for a Boulderite, and especially for a five-year-old. Sure, she’s obsessed with Cinderella (the princess, not the band) and digs Frozen, but “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill is near the top of Sidney’s favorite songs. Plus, when she heard the Clash’s debut album last year, Sidney unknowingly echoed many noted rock critics, scoffing, “Papa, this just sounds like the Ramones. Can you put the Ramones on?” She was even able to recognize that the theme song to PBS’s The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That! blatantly rips off “Glad to See You Go.”
When I asked her to define punk rock, Sidney—one of probably very few kindergartners in Colorado who show off the Ramones posters above their beds during playdates—told me, “Punk is a sound that is awesome. Punk is loud and has loud singing. I just like it.” With Sidney’s budding music-geekdom in mind, I recently procured a copy of the new children’s book What Is Punk? and sat down for a father-daughter jaunt from Iggy through the Dead Kennedys.
Billed as “a punk primer for the youngest set,” What Is Punk? is thirty pages of colorful clay figures (by Anny Yi) and a playful recap of punk history written by Trampoline House’s founding editor, Eric Morse. It’s an especially entertaining and educational little book if you pause with your child to share a YouTube snippet each time a new band is mentioned.
One of the highlights of What Is Punk? is a scene outside CBGB in Manhattan, ostensibly in the mid-1970s, featuring cartoonish clay likenesses of members of crucial early punk-associated acts Television, Blondie, Talking Heads, the New York Dolls and the Velvet Underground. It’s all in good fun—and wonderful for any kiddo to get exposure to some of the all-time great American rock bands—except that the Velvet Underground (New York’s late-’60s alternate-universe Grateful Dead) was defunct by the time those other acts effectively gave birth to punk in the East Village, inspiring the 1977 punk explosion in England and eventually the ‘80s hardcore revolution in California.
Even more confusing is that not until three pages later do the Stooges—whose phenomenal 1970 sophomore LP Funhouse essentially invented the raw power that still defines most punk—get a mention, although the hugely influential Detroit quartet had broken up by the time CBGB began hosting the aforementioned groups, along with the Ramones.
Arguing over what represented the first true punk band is useless, sure, but providing a simple, accurate timeline would have been an easy task for Morse. What Is Punk? gets on track, however, when Yi’s extraordinary clay scenes move along to late-’70s England. Partly because of the amazing photos included in the Clash’s big, hot-pink eponymous biography, my daughter now loves Joe Strummer, but Yi’s incredible Sex Pistols scene in What Is Punk? piqued her curiosity about the Pistols’ brash music and “silly names.” By our second time reading What Is Punk? as a bedtime story, Sidney was already able to identify Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious by their outfits.
Yi and Morse also hit a home run with the two-page spread declaring “just like the boys, the girls came to play.” Clay figures of the Slits, Siouxsie Sioux and Poly Styrene are framed over pink wallpaper, a nice touch if you’re trying to get Disney princess-obsessed tykes into music with edge, or—as Morse writes—young women who “made a holy racket with their glitter and their grit.”
When I asked Sidney what she thought of the female-fronted bands featured in What Is Punk?, she replied, “They are weird. I like them more because they sing louder.”
Pressed for her personal review of What Is Punk?, Sidney continued, “It is really fun because it has lots of pictures of clay people. It is amazing that they can make those people. But I don’t want to play punk, because I’m shy of being with so many people I don’t know in the audience.”
The book’s succinct, effective conclusion is fantastic: “Punk is music, it’s art, it’s culture and vision. But if you really want to know punk you just have to listen.”
More than anything, Yi’s engaging clay figures (especially those depicting Milo Aukerman and Iggy Pop) represent the bulk of what enticed and educated Sidney within What Is Punk? That’s partly because Morse was so general in his description of what punk actually sounds like—“a deafening roar,” “a fresh new sound,”—until the last few pages, when the unlikely pairing of Steve Ignorant and Glenn Danzig is juxtaposed with the words “loud and fast.”
Along with adding a more straightforward, accurate timeline, it would have been helpful if Morse had used the first few pages of What Is Punk? to plainly describe not only the instrumentation and musical ethos of early punk, but also what it was a musical reaction to. Still, What Is Punk? belongs on the bookshelves of music-loving parents, because Morse’s creative, charming narrative and Yi’s unforgettable clay scenes bring to life the genesis of a music that’s all about freedom and energy, and they do so in an amusing way that has my kid excited to travel down the many rabbit holes of punk history.