The Best of Punk Magazine
Crime was up. The Yankees sucked. Times Square, the “Crossroads of the World,” was known more for its porn, prostitutes, and pushers than anything else.
In such a place and era, art tends to shadow reality. In dirty bars and seedy clubs, punk was born. On the stages of CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City, and the like, bands that drew audiences barely outnumbering the staff some nights created music that became legendary and personas that became the foundation of how young musicians would conduct themselves over the next three decades.
In the early days of the scene, bands like The Ramones, Television, the New York Dolls, and Blondie dominated the landscape using showmanship, work ethic, and an understanding of promotion that many groups at that time, or even now, had no knowledge of. They, and others, knew to make their music heard–it had to be taken directly to the kids who spent their money to come see them. They needed an outlet.
Enter Punk magazine.
‘Zines have been around forever. As far back as the Holy Roman Empire, there have been scratchings on stone tablets translated as “Down With Corporate Harpists!” What made Punk stand out then and what has made it so memorable is the obvious hard work and care that went into every issue as well as the access the staff had with the artists. Granted, talking to Joey Ramone or Richard Hell at that time wasn’t the same as getting John Lennon to sit down with you for a couple hours, but in hindsight, the stories Punk put out on bands that are now considered a seminal component of rock music can be looked at as brilliant and ground-breaking.
Bits and pieces of these magazines are still accessible online and in various biographies and autobiographies and the magazine itself started back up in 2006, but recently, It Books released The Best of Punk Magazine, an amazing coffee table edition compiled and written by Punk editor-in-chief John Holmstrom featuring the issues in their entirety. In addition, the book features behind-the-scenes stories of each issue and the staffers themselves talking about the fan reaction to the ‘zine, the musicians they interviewed, and the struggles they faced just getting each edition published.
“Legs” McNeil is probably the man most immediately associated with Punk as its “resident punk” and the man who allegedly coined the term “punk” after seeing it used on the TV show “Kojack.” Along with Holmstrom and publisher Ged Dunn, a unique moment in time was documented for future generations. What this beautiful hardback edition provides is not only the magazines themselves in their entirety, but the stories behind the issues as well as the tales behind the magazine, its staff, and the scene itself.
McNeil, who continues to be a force in music journalism with his book Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral History of Punk along with his blog, PleaseKillMe.com, may have shone the brightest with his interview of former Velvet Underground vocalist Lou Reed in the first issue. McNeil conducted the interview as a young, unapologetic fan of both Reed and the music scene while Reed came across as the bored, bourgeois rock star he was criticizing McNeil for being a fan of. Rarely do you see a writer allow himself to be portrayed as a willing whipping boy for someone like Lou Reed and even rarer do you see someone like Reed rising to the bait.
For me, however, the piece of brilliance that will always stand out when I think of Punk are the photos, more specifically, the photo spreads. While the magazine’s artwork was beautifully done, the comic strip-like photo montages were incredible with “Mutant Monster Beach Party” starring Joey Ramone, Debbie Harry of Blondie, Andy Warhol, and more as the pinnacle of excellence. An entire story shot in photos with some of the genre’s biggest names as willing participants with word balloons and special effects later drawn on the photos and then laid out in the magazine in comic book form. Utter magic, especially now with Joey long since gone.
The entire compilation, lovingly crafted, warts and all, show a magic time in a form of music that was innocent and beautiful and raw in its loud, unabashed glory. Besides the aesthetic of the magazine, just having, on record, interviews with bands like the Sex Pistols, the Dead Boys, Television, the Talking Heads, and so on, when they were at their young, dangerous best, is reason enough to ensure this tome is in your collection.
A fan of rock music would find this book to be a must-have. A fan of punk needs to go to their nearest chain brick-and-mortar store and steal it immediately. OK, don’t steal it, but buy it from an independent local shop. The important bit to take from this is to buy it. It is worthy of ownership.