We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001 : By Eric Davidson, 351 pgs. By Mark Twistworthy

Jun 03, 2011

Written by the singer of the New Bomb Turks, the Ohio-based raw punk rock’n’roll band whose first record is a classic of its genre, this book could have been a lot of things. I was quite excited when I first saw it, and I was hoping it would be a “tell all” type of real experiences from the Turks tenure. Instead, Eric Davidson over uses a beatnik-era writing style to skim the top of the scene that most people would generally refer to as ‘90s garage rock, providing details and anecdotes from—for the most part—the most popular of bands from the era. I would think that Davidson certainly has stories to tell relating directly to the legacy of these bands (aside from using the fact that the Turks once played with many of them). Unfortunately, it appears that he had a different agenda, one that appears to vacillate from one point to another throughout his writings.

In forming my opinion about this book and reviewing it, it’s important to know that I own or have owned records by almost every band discussed inside. I have seen the New Bomb Turks countless times, and was even at one of the shows specifically mentioned in this book: New Bomb Turks and Gaunt at Emo’s in Austin in 1993 (as well as the Houston show on the same tour). I believe that someone who is less familiar with the bands discussed inside would definitely get more out of the book, while those who are completely familiar with everything inside would get less.

The book begins by dismissing every descriptive term previously used to describe the raucous and raw buzz-saw garage punk scene from which his band and many of the other bands talked about in this book are categorized. The reasoning behind that, according to the author, is because the scene has “never had an identifiable and marketable genre name,” something which “gets you up a couple more rungs on the mainstream ladder.” His solution is to himself coin the phrase “gunk punk.” An underlying and probably somewhat unintentional current which flows throughout the book seems to be pigeonholing of all of the bands into such a genre, be it “garage rock,” “low-fi,” “neo-garage,” or whatever. The grousing of this scene not being marketable because of a lack of a genre name is ridiculous if you’re trying to pigeonhole bands like the Turks, the Mummies, and the Hives into the same scene. When you boil it all down, it’s all really just rock’n’roll, and the need to attempt to coin a phrase for all of these bands seems ludicrous. “Gunk punk”? Sorry, man. The term “garage rock” works just fine.

Getting a little deeper into the book, you start to think that the story is going to be centered on the Ohio scene from which Davidson and the New Bomb Turks called home. The first few chapters lead you to believe that the book is headed into an area of a regional memoir of the Midwest raw garage punk scene with an emphasis on Crypt Records, but this shortly proves to be inaccurate. Davidson obviously has much respect for Tim Warren, the dude who ran Crypt Records and had his hand in more than a few important records from this scene. A funny, albeit awkward, point early on in the book is during an interview with the legendary Billy Childish, leader of the undisputedly important bands Thee Headcoats and Thee Mighty Caesars, both of which had records on Crypt Records. When asked about Tim Warren and Crypt, Childish sarcastically responds, “Look, I find it very odd that the questions are based around Crypt. I mean, I’d been playing music ten years before Crypt. My career doesn’t begin with the great Tim Warren!”

The interviews, including the previously mentioned Billy Childish interview, stand out as the best parts of the book. Often thoughtful and informative, included are talks with Long Gone John (of label Sympathy For The Record Industry, in which he actually somewhat acknowledges his scummy reputation as one of the worst record bootleggers of the ‘90s), The Raunch Hands (the band featuring reputable garage rock producer Mike Maraconda), Blag (of the Dwarves), Johan Kugelberg (who compiled the first few Killed By Death compilations) and a few others. The interviews are especially interesting when they touch upon some of the very public feuds between bands in this scene. The interview with Trent Ruane of the Mummies where he discusses in depth their very public feud with Crypt Records is a perfect example of an interview that held my attention.

Throughout the second half of the book, the author’s agenda seemingly switches away from Crypt Records adoration and instead changes to a bastardized version of Garage Rock for Dummies, attempting to give mention to many of the most popular bands of the era who were doing anything that would generally be classified as “garage rock.” Other books have attempted to skim the top of different music scenes in the same fashion and failed, as there is no way you can cover every band deserving credit (see: American Hardcore), and this book is no different.

If you are a person who likes garage rock and weren’t intimately familiar with all of the bands discussed, I can see that this might be a good way to get turned onto something new. A twenty-song download code is included in the book which includes songs by many of the bands interviewed and discussed throughout these pages. It’s is great way for someone who isn’t familiar to hear the bands which they are reading about. Personally, I was disappointed that there are not any tracks included by one particular band repeatedly heralded through the book, Union Carbide Productions, as they are one of the bands mentioned over and over again which I have never heard. After reading about them here, I’ll definitely scour the used bins at my local shops so I can check them out.

While the book has its interesting moments, I ultimately found it a little disappointing in that I was too familiar with most of the bands covered and it therefore had little to offer to me. If you were only somewhat familiar with ‘90s garage punk and had an interest in discovering more bands, I can see how this book could be a useful resource, just as long as you can look past the above-mentioned shortcomings. (Backbeat Books, backbeatbooks.com)