Babylon's Burning: From Punk to Grunge
Clinton Heylin's Babylon's Burning stands as a worthy entry onto the School of Rock required-reading list. It's as thorough and minutely researched a documentation of punk rock history as you're ever likely to find. It is not, however, appropriate for the Punk Rock 101 class; it's dense and heavy as pound cake, and even readers with more than a passing knowledge of the era would do well to consult the list of "Dramatis Personae" helpfully included in the back. More to the point, you wish Heylin had just gone ahead and identified the players as he went along. If you don't know who Richard Boon is, for example, you might like to be made aware that he managed the Buzzcocks before reading extensive quotes from him. Names of players, venues, and peripheral bands zoom by so quickly that it seems a better strategy might have been to put the list in the front of the book as a bit of suggested prep-work.
That said, if ever you wanted a minute-by-minute account of the rise of the beast that became punk rock, this is it. Heylin limns the development of every spark of light in the nascent movement, focusing on co-crucibles London and New York but turning his attention to lesser-known hot spots like Sydney and Cleveland and anywhere else a few kids might have owned a Stooges record and a couple instruments. The result is exhaustive and illuminating, revealing threads of influence and resurrecting bands that should be new to all but the most obsessive of fans.
So exhaustive, in fact, that the last chapter, which covers punk's spawning of hardcore and, eventually, grunge, feels tacked on and somewhat pointless. It does justify the book's subtitle but begs the question of why Heylin chose grunge as the end of punk's trajectory. It's a curious choice--punk rock is the beast that will not die, no matter how often it's declared dead; you could pick any number of points as the day punk rock died and be argued down. Why cap off such a meticulously realized book with a scattershot account of American bands from 1980 to the present, ending with Kurt Cobain's shot heard 'round the world? It's even more puzzling considering how many pages Heylin uses describing just how punk Cobain wasn't--from his lack of real knowledge of punk history to his kowtowing to the powers that be at MTV and Wal-Mart. Certainly to do justice to the genres that punk spawned--everything from hardcore to new wave to jangly R.E.M.-style college rock to, arguably, fey lo-fi K Records ear candy--would require another book or two, not an 85-page rush through at the end of an otherwise fine specimen of rock history.