I’m a sucker for a good punk rock history book, especially one that’s written well, is honest, is accurate, aims its focus beyond the various in-crowds that permeate each region’s “scene,” doesn’t have character assassination as its primary raison d’être and isn’t obsessed with tossing the whole movement into a nice big hole and dumping dirt on it. Sadly, most that I’ve read suffer from one or more of the aforementioned shortcomings, especially those with either Steven Blush or Brendan Mullen’s names attached to it, which would line the bottom of a well-soiled birdcage, had I a birdcage. I’m well aware it’s bloody hard writing a book—especially a non-fiction book about a subculture rife with factionalism, in-fighting, and generation upon generation proclaiming the whole thing deader than a Beatles guitarist whenever they get tired of dealing with “scene politics” and move on to that corporate job they swore they’d never work back when they were young, idealistic and had a trust fund—and that is why I find it amazing that so many seem to be intended as some sort of long-winded snipe at old enemies or reinforce half-truths and/or outright lies. Yet they do, as evidenced by the myriad of books that either declare punk was populated by a very small number of truly hip people in L.A./London/New York/Frisco (and the know-nothing joykillers who wrecked the party for the cool kids), died in 1979/1980/1983/1986 when said hip people moved on to roots rock/hair metal/post-punk/skiffle and nothing EVEN REMOTELY PUNK-RELATED occurred between then and when Nirvana suddenly popped up from nowhere, with no history whatsoever, at which time punk was miraculously resurrected, packaged, and sold for mass consumption and became part of mainstream American culture and, as a result, there is no longer any punk “underground” to speak of. Ugh. Still, as with so much of the CDs that come through this magazine, I wade through these books, hoping that someone will eventually make an honorable stab at portraying a more holistic, accurate picture.
George Hurchalla’s Going Underground takes just such an honorable stab and the result is one hell of a book. Treading through the same geography and time period (and then some) as Steven Blush’s American Hardcore, Hurchalla veers away from the lurid rumors, misogyny, and dearth of information about the music and/or scene itself that makes Blush’s book the steaming pile of nihilistic revisionism it is and instead focuses on punk/hardcore’s migration from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and into the heart of middle America. Taking the bulk of its information from fanzines from the period covered, the book offers in-the-moment opinions, rather than merely bitter backward glances from once-active participants, with contemporary commentary and his own personal history and insight interspersed throughout. Much of the tale is told from the points of view of lesser known bands (although there is plenty about the more famous as well) hopping in vans and driving out to dives in the middle of nowhere—from Kansas to Chicago, Philly to Florida—just for the sake of playing, and isolated groups of kids banding together in open defiance to a music industry that ignored them and a mainstream culture that vilified them. The picture he paints is not always pretty. Pulling no punches when addressing the narrow-mindedness, back-biting, the herd mentality, and the mindless violence that was very much a reality of the period covered (and continues to be a problem in some areas), he unflinchingly points out punk’s repeated failures at the local level, where it often becomes mired in its own stupidity and absurd politics. He counterbalances punk’s shortcomings, however, with its successes, both nationally—where its ability to rally disparate groups of people around a common cause helped to build a true underground network of media, venues, and distribution systems literally from scratch—and on a personal level—where many involved found nearly every aspect of their lives influenced. Most rewarding of all, much of the focus is on the music itself: what was going on both in the scene and in the mainstream culture to inspire the music and, in some cases, even delving into the aesthetics of merely picking out a guitar to complement lyrical content.
Going Underground is not without problems; like others, Hurchalla implies the success of bands like Nirvana, Green Day, and a few others has resulted in the loss of punk’s underground. While it may be true on one level that some aspects of punk have been lost—there is no denying that some so-called punk musicians have wholly embraced the mainstream music industry and all its shiny baubles and that punk’s most innocuous aspects have been co-opted by the very culture it was rebelling against—the underground has, in one form or another, continued to exist. For example, not long after the period upon which he chooses to end the book, Chicago enjoyed a hardcore renaissance thanks to bands like Charles Bronson, MK Ultra, and the hugely influential Los Crudos; the Billy Childish-inspired trash punk scene initially centered around the San Francisco Bay area and an obscure Los Angeles fanzine called Pure Filth in the late ‘80s exploded and bands like Supercharger and the Mummies and Rip Off Records found themselves enjoying considerable popularity; and legions of bands from across the country began to fill spaces left by bands like Bad Religion, the Offspring, and Rancid as they embraced the mainstream. Punk’s underground has remained just as active as ever, and while many bands’ desire to fit nicely into one pigeonhole or another is indeed exasperating, many others continue to defy easy categorization, as even a casual listen to the BellRays, Fleshies, Lost Sounds, Le Shok, or the Heroine Sheiks can attest. It would’ve also been nice to see a little more attention focused on some subjects merely touched upon here, such as the contribution and experiences of women and minorities, punk’s impact on other artistic media (visual arts, performance art, writing, etc.), the roots and effect of the mid-’80s skinhead influx on the greater punk scene, and some of the more interesting ways the scene branched out and influenced and/or created other forms of music. Some grammatical and factual errors can also be found here and there, but what makes Hurchalla’s book so important is that it captures the spirit of the movement, its idealistic sense of purpose that, despite punk’s many shortcomings, has managed to survive and continues to influence a wide swath of people. Warts and all, this is an outstanding attempt providing a general, yet through, look at an influential, long-neglected period in America’s musical history. Coupled with the equally excellent Fucked Up and Photocopied, Going Underground now stands as the definitive statement on the history of America’s punk/hardcore scene. George, I tip my worn-out beret to you. –Jimmy Alvarado (Zuo Press, 5775 SE Nassau Ter., Stuart, FL, 34997)