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The Blitz Kids
Saturday 1 December 2001

Punk: A Life Apart
By Stephen Colgrave and Chris Sullivan Cassell, $95

Punk was sold down the river at precisely the moment it peaked. It was the big fast sell-out. How quickly punk became a fashion statement, the exact opposite of its only reason for being. In a way it was the first big subversive musical culture to go corporate; the first big underground to be eaten by the mainstream.

Look at grunge and poor Kurt. Market forces were one of the things that killed it and him. The same thing's happening in techno, only in different ways. The original revolution distills and the unity divides. The power decreases, the music goes soft.

But you can't scoff and sneer, not with punk. To consider it terrible and terribly un-punk that a glossy $100 coffee-table book on it is out for Christmas - in punk's silver jubilee year, what's more - is futile. It can't be viewed as a betrayal. Not after all this time. And not after punk was betrayed by its only Svengali in the first place. It should just be celebrated as an enormous book filled with lots of great pictures of funny and furious people.

Just as punk can be celebrated as a period of a few months, maybe even a year, when it felt like music could change the world. It didn't though, did it? It made small progress but then died, cruelly and brilliantly.

That Punk is in part put together by Stephen Colgrave, the marketing director of ad giants Saatchi and Saatchi, just makes the memory more cruel and brilliant. It's a Christmas book, perfectly conceived and marketed, and very easily advertised. Anyone of middle-age is the target audience. The ones who could claim ownership - I was there. More than likely a dad's Christmas book, and consequently funny and the tiniest bit weird.

The way Punk is put together is uninteresting and unoriginal, which are further ironies. It's a book of quotes and photographs that are "designed". The quotes are from about 100 punk figures interviewed by avowed "ex-punks" Colgrave, the adman, and writer Chris Sullivan, who after punk formed Blue Rondo a la Turk and were not very punk at all. They also use unpublished interview transcripts from the Julien Temple Sex Pistols film, The Filth and the Fury, as well as original interviews with Andy Warhol's crew from The Factory, in late '60s New York by photographer Nat Finklestein.

This is the book's start point. Warhol and The Velvet Underground. "I loved Lou Reed," says Danny Fields, the ex-manager of the Ramones, the Stooges and Jonathan Richman. "But he could be very nasty." Much is made of the Beat poets and William Burroughs. Then it's Iggy, Johnny Thunders, MC5, the New York Dolls, Television, Ramones, the Modern Lovers and Patti Smith. The real punks, and all Americans, which is pretty good for a British book. The Brits usually conveniently forget about New York and all that it meant.

Only then does it go into Malcolm McLaren, the Pistols, the Clash and all the rest of them. This UK punk movement (minus, conspicuously, the Jam and Stiff Little Fingers), the suspicious demise of the Sex Pistols, then Sid Vicious' grim death, make up the bulk of it, dues paid in the early chapters. The rest briefly documents reggae, ska, XTC, New Wave then hiphop, all skimmed over and dispensed with, perhaps in an effort to render Punk "complete". Not to mention relevant. Apologists for punk are always looking for new threads of deep relevance.

The pictures, however, are extraordinary - and even after a generation saturated with well-worn images of punk and the Pistols, there are many new ones. Most came from the interviewees and have never before been published. They're used big and in bulk, often bled to the edge of the high-grade page, so it's a picture book really. The quotes are merely to dip into from time to time.

Great pictures. Great subject matter. More pictures of it all than ever before. But they feel a bit cartoonish, caricatures in a strip. As documents, as moments of "truth", they're not convincing, somehow. Strange to find that kind of response to them.

So Sid and Nancy wait for a train, on a bench. He's got his shirt off. She's got her mouth open and her dumb Courtney Love eyes. You can still smell the heroin on them. Funny anti-heroes, a bit off, not really real. Same as Johnny Rotten gooning for the lens again, and again. Same as Siouxsie in the dark, Strummer screaming, all the punk poses, ripped up and torn, spiky hair, slashed skin, big boots, bad teeth.

I love the double page on the Sex Pistols' TV incident, bordered by the taunt from host Bill Grundy: "Go on, you've got 10 seconds left. Say something outrageous." The montage of pictures documents the 10 resulting seconds which kickstarted the whole punk tabloid circus.

I also love the picture of Joey Ramone in bed with Debbie Harry, a true-crime magazine discarded to one side. There's a great colour shot of Steve Jones and Ronnie Biggs poolside in Rio, drinking and smoking, their bare chests an identical over-tanned orange. And look at the unremarkable kids on the Anarchy In The UK tourbus ... oh hang on, it's the bands. The Clash and the Pistols. Looking for all the world like unremarkable kids. A bit like the unremarkable kids being "punk" today, 25 years on - the underground techno DJs, the internet anarchists and the anti-globalisation protesters. The ones who are already fending off sweet flirtations from the corporates, the admen and the multinationals.