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Personality Crises

Two Photography Books Remember Punk's Growth Spurts

By Tony Ware | Posted 12/24/2008

In late '70s London, punk set out to bring rock back to basics after arena rock's excesses and guarded access. Along the way, it got a bit tripped up in its own identity, at which time Spartan skinheads rose in rejection of an exaggerated fashionable uniform. Over in Los Angeles, American hardcore took denouncing punk's peacock nature to its extreme, allowing anyone with a marker willing to write a band's name on a white tee to join the pack. Now a window is opened on all three communities by the books Skins & Punks and Radio Silence: A Selected Visual History of American Hardcore Music. Punk may roll a little in its grave now that it's been mythologized, but if it's going to get the coffee table treatment at least these collections offer it respect.

Gavin Watson, a Brit, grew up behind a lens and within a movement. Hailing from the working-class neighborhood of High Wycombe and working in London as a darkroom assistant, he used his after-hours time to develop images of his friends and their extended "family." Removed and simultaneously immersed through his looking glass, Watson was a Two-Tone generation skinhead who first put together and published a set of intimate, text-free portraits of the era in 1994 entitled Skins. Vice magazine convinced Watson to draw from his 1978-1985 archives--aka his personally, ironically named "Box of Death"--for a new book of spare candids, Skins & Punks.

On the opposite side of the Atlantic, Nathan Nedorostek and Anthony Pappalardo found that Minor Threat could become a major habit, and their love of 1980s American punk has resulted in the exhaustive catalog Radio Silence. Coming from skate magazine and art design backgrounds, the authors have a deep-seated appreciation for the blunt iconography that could be slapped on a Xerox flyer, hoodie, seven-inch records, or skateboard deck to show your allegiances. And don't think you can turn more than three pages without seeing mention of Black Flag, Ian MacKaye, or Bad Brains.

Despite both being "punk," British skinheads and American hardcore were two very different communities, and these books offer up such divergent portrayals. With its genesis partially in the fetish fashion of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, British punk was about fucking shit up, while American hardcore's sparse aesthetic was about shit being fucked up. For the skins, dressing the part was a way to rise above, and if you couldn't leave a mark you at least left a wake of stares. American hard-core kids, however, eschewed the "live fast, die young" approach, as described in the Radio Silence foreword, trading it in for an attitude of less talk, more rock. Who has time to worry about casting the perfect mohawk when you've got an Econoline van to unload?

The 140-page Skins & Punks captures the feeling of being out of step with the majority's rank and file, a silent glimpse at how the cast out could lash out. Each page-filling print has a central focus, the frame is rarely crowded. And that's what makes it interesting--despite the striking clothes and the haircuts, nobody appears to be competing for attention. It's adolescence without too much of the malice associated with punk, just pride in being rough, tumble, and humble. Being born into a socioeconomic marker didn't define those who didn't want it to: whites, blacks, Asians, gays could all shave their hair. Just like anybody else on the dole, you make the best you can--in this case with two suspenders and a fitted point collar. But there's an intimacy and a camaraderie found, a look behind the lifestyle that concentrates more on life than the style.

Where Skins & Punks is a book haunted by the fading hues of growing up, Radio Silence is a fully possessed book about never growing old. It captures the zenith of a movement when it wasn't just about the band, it was about banding together. Gone was tonal melody, because social harmony was gone. Whereas the UK skinheads had one foot in taking back classically British style from the inflamed influences of New York, hardcore built its own infrastructure. Hardcore stoked and abated the apathy of a generation: come as you are as long as you aren't a mindless consumer. If Skins & Punks is about finding a style that both celebrates and says piss off to the past, Radio Silence is one about using culture built from nothing to avoid a seemingly static future.

Like a yearbook, Radio Silence is populated by the numerous quotes of the graduating class: Performance photography, images of vintage, hand-printed shirts, and similarly small run record sleeves are placed around lyrics sheets, handwritten notes, 'zine excerpts, and the odd essay. It's called a "selected" visual history, but it feels like little could have been left out. Starting out coastal--Southern California, Washington, D.C., and New York being extremely well represented--American hardcore formed a nationally entrenched network where folks took pride in doing it themselves, and this book shows how damn many of them were doing so between 1978-93. It flares so bright and so constantly that at times it edges toward white noise, but it remains compelling.

There's a smack of irony in showing a rebellious subculture in its most mundane moments, as does Skins & Punks. It's also somewhat wry to package the most austere arm of punk in such an exhaustive way as in Radio Silence. But those looking to celebrate the realness of either can appreciate these color-saturated iconoclasts and encyclopedic collections.

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