Punk USA: The Rise and Fall of Lookout! Records: By Kevin Prested, 191 pgs. By Kurt

Mar 19, 2015

Punk USA is a primarily oral history account of the story of one of the favorite punk labels of the 1980s and ‘90s, Lookout Records. Started in the ‘80s by Larry Livermore and David Hayes, some seminal punk bands of that time—Screeching Weasel, The Queers, The Mr. T Experience, Operation Ivy, Green Day, and Avail—all released albums with the label. And then, in 2005, Lookout, for all practical purposes, went out of business. What happened and why? That’s what Punk USA tries to explore, but only does so to some degree.

The first half of the book talks about the rise of the label: how it was started, what releases were put out, how certain people were involved, and the EastBay punk scene in general. Sometimes this can be painstakingly detailed, such as the information on seemingly every release from the early years and how each respective band got “signed” to the label.

The second half of the book details the fall of the label, which basically details a he said/he said between the co-owner for many years, Chris Appelgren, and the various bands signed to the label. It can be confusing, but what I came away with from reading all the back and forth is that perhaps a better subtitle for the book would’ve been The Rise and Fall of Chris Appelgren. He’s quoted more than anyone and is allowed to give his point of view on the entire history, which is only fair, as he’s accused of being the reason for the label’s financial failure—one far greater than I had imagined. According to the book, “Lookout somehow squandered what may have been upwards of $50 million between 1991 and the time of their bankruptcy,” most of which was from Green Day and Operation Ivy royalties.

Multiple times, Appelgren notes that he didn’t have a business background and once co-owners Livermore and Peter Hynes (the new co-owner who came on after David Hayes left the label years before) left in the late ‘90s, it appears that poor business sense is what caused the label to fail.

Author Kevin Prested noted that he couldn’t fit everything in the book that he wanted: “Huge chunks ended up being trimmed. As much as I love Brent’s TV or Surrogate Brains, the casual reader might not be interested in five or six pages of writing on each of these 7” releases.” You’re right. What the reader of a book about a label as important as Lookout wants are interviews with the bands that made the biggest impression on the punk scene, as well as the average bands. That being said, there are no interviews with any of the guys from Green Day, Operation Ivy, co-founder David Hayes, Ben Weasel from Screeching Weasel, Tim Barry from Avail, or Kevin Army, who produced a ton of releases for the label. There’s also nothing extensive from Larry Livermore.

Anytime a book is written, it’s good for the author to admit any biases (like the fact that Kevin Prested used to write for Lookout’s blog and website, which I discovered doing a search for him online) and limitations. If you can’t get someone to talk to you, you need to admit that up front and also acknowledge that your book will suffer because of that. To compensate, Prested should’ve drawn from other sources than just original interviews. For example, sure, the members of Green Day may be hard to contact, but it’s important to let the reader know you, the author, tried. And if you can’t get them to speak with you, surely they have made comments about Lookout or those involved with the label in interviews.

For example, I wondered where Livermore and Hayes got the money to start Lookout—a subject never addressed in the book. According to an online video interview with Hayes, it was from Larry selling pot he grew. That’s the kind of information that needs to be in a book about the history of a record label. There are many other pieces I felt were missing—things I wanted to know, but whose gaps weren’t filled due to the lack of participants.

What is here is only one part of the story of Lookout Records. The other part still needs to be written. Kurt Morris (Microcosm, 2752 N. Williams Ave., Portland, OR 97227)

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