If you fancy yourself a historian of all things punk, then you’re going to need Ian Glasper’s The Scene That Would Not Die on your bookshelf. Published by Earth Island Books, it’s the fourth and final volume in Glasper’s loving, meticulous, and exhaustive chronicle of the UK punk scene(s) beginning with 1980. Following The Day The Country Died: A History Of Anarcho Punk 1980-1984, Trapped In A Scene: UK Hardcore 1985-1989, and Armed With Anger: How UK Punk Survived The Nineties, Glasper’s latest tome covers that last twenty years of punk and ends in the present day. It’s a history that bears witness to the dawn of social media and the early days of music streaming and finds contemporary musicians continuing to play the music they love while anxiously pondering its future in the shadow of Brexit and COVID-19.
First and foremost, The Scene That Would Not Die is a reference book. Explaining his decision to list the bands he profiles in alphabetical order, Glasper notes of his previous books that readers tend to “cherry-pick their chapters” and that “very few read the book from front to back.” Yet even though the book reads like an encyclopedia of bands whom — despite decades of dedication and, in many cases, by design — you’ve never heard of, the entries call out to each other like voices in the night as musicians cite their influences, jump from one band to another, or straddle multiple bands at once. What emerges is the story of a community bound as much by a love of hard-driving guitars and heavy, pounding drums as by a suspicion of mainstream culture and the trappings of a consumerist vision of success.
Not surprising, perhaps, is the fact that many of the bands featured in this volume are as dedicated to political issues as they are to their music; indeed, for most of them, the two go hand-in-glove. Veganism, anti-fascism, anarcho-syndicalism, and socialism are a few of the stances that the musicians profiled herein embrace. Nonetheless, as Justin Wood of two-piece anarcho punk band 51st State insists, the real joy of his brand of punk is that it’s “a little bit like a reset button that shakes you up from the consumerist negativity of our current culture and world.” What’s more, he adds, the punk scene on the whole “is a really broad church, and there is such a wide range of music within it… There is such a variety of bands, holding different views and politics, but all exist within punk, and this does mirror the broad scope of humanity in society; I think that even though this can be a frustration, it is probably human and it should be a nurturing and positive scene.”
The book also goes a long way toward replacing the shopworn Sid-Vicious-inspired stereotype of the punk-as-mindless-ne’er-do-well with an incredibly erudite and socially-conscious model. Take, for instance, the ruminations of Chris Dodd of Bad Breeding, who comes off as a cross between a scholar of Marxism and a character from a Don DeLillo novel when he discusses the future of not just punk but humanity as a whole: “For me, I’ve always seen a return to class analysis as the crucial tenet in pushing for radical deconstructions of the systems and frameworks that purport to govern our lives. This will become ever more apparent as the climate continues to rapidly evaporate and it becomes starkly obvious that our current economic mode runs counter to the existence of life on earth. There’ll be no time for navel gazing or liberal point-scoring when the earth is either ablaze or underwater.”
As the above and many, many other passages of The Scene That Would Not Die suggest, one of Glasper’s strengths as a historian is to let his subjects do the talking. When he does interject, it’s only to provide context so that the bands he’s chronicling can tell their owns stories, or to offer discographies and select-listening lists (including some very helpful URLs at the end of each entry). And while the ease of finding this music certainly signals the end of an era when to be aware of a band like Atterkop meant being neck-deep in a scene of like-minded individuals, the good news is that punk will never die. As unlikely as it may seem that punk can, in Glasper’s words, remain “relevant and meaningful to a risk-averse society in the face of such instant gratification,” the fact that the genre is always moving forward, “never past tense,” means that “as long as someone wants to stand up and ask ‘Why?’ or say ‘No!’ in a loud, angry voice, there will always be a place for this feisty subculture.”
Review by Marc Schuster