Destined to become a classic on the subject alongside Legs McNeil’s Please Kill Me , Babylon’s Burning is a groundbreaking, definitive account of punk rock, one of the most influential and lasting music movements in history a movement that ironically was built on self-annihilation. Acclaimed critic Clinton Heylin seamlessly weaves together the lives of disparate artists who had in common not the music (there was no distribution) but the pictures, words, and fashions depicted in magazines like Creem and NME . It was a sound that eschewed conventional lyrics, promoted a gutteral musicality but yet contained a keen pop sensibility. Whether exploring the work of early progenitors like Suicide, The New York Dolls, and Patti Smith or charting the progress of the bands who legitimately took up the mantle in the eighties and nineties, Clinton Heylin brings to life the strands of a global artform. From the Sex Pistols’s clarion call of a record, Never Mind the Bollocks,” to Kurt Cobain’s songs of an alienated youth, Babylon’s Burning is the brilliant, exhaustively researched story that once and for all defines what Punk is and is not.
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When it comes to the heyday of punk rock in the mid to late 1970s, Heylin has put together a solid history, drawing upon interviews with many of the key players from the era. The focus on London bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash is unsurprising, but New York combos like the Ramones and Television also get their due, and even groups whose influence is less generally recognized, like Cleveland's Pere Ubu or Australia's Radio Birdman, receive well-rounded treatment. Heylin (From the Velvets to the Voidoids) is opinionated, but only rarely do his undisguised preferences disrupt the story. (One notable exception comes when he calls the death of Sid Vicious's girlfriend, Nancy, "justifiable homicide.") If he'd simply closed out his account with the suicide of Joy Division's Ian Curtis in 1980, Heylin would have perfectly captured the punk era. Instead, he spends another hundred pages building up to the death of Kurt Cobain, branded as a poser and a sellout. That the story so quickly works its way to Nirvana after such an in-depth exploration of the '70s underscores the tacked-on feeling of these final chapters. It's a shame, because the core material is strong enough that it didn't need to grasp at such ersatz "relevance." (Jan.)
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