10 must-read punk and ska books of the last 12 months!
Over the last year and a bit, we’ve all had to find ways to amuse ourselves, and a lot of that amusement would have probably involved film, TV, the internet and baking banana bread. But a lot of you may have been keeping entertained the old fashioned way – by reading a book.
There have been so many incredible books about punk over the years- memoirs, biographies, oral histories and photographic records – that to list them all, we’d have to set up a website the size of Amazon. For now, we’ve gathered together the newest of the new – the best punk and ska books to be released in the last 12 months, plus some glimpses at your new favourite books to be released imminently.
This is the same disclaimer as ever- this is not an exhaustive list, and maybe we’ve missed your favourite. So, by all means, add your own in the comments!
Cheers! Molly xx
We’re Not Here to Entertain: Punk Rock, Ronald Reagan, and the Real Culture War of 1980s America
Author: Kevin Mattson
The hardcore punk scene of 1980s America was a hotbed of political and philosophical debate and activism. Doing justice to the many bands ‘zines and ideas that were an integral part of the scene is hard. Luckily, Kevin Mattson has more done it in his ambitious, fascinating, and exhaustively researched book We’re Not Here to Entertain.
The book’s subtitle – ‘Punk rock, Ronald Reagan and the Real Culture War of 1980s America’- tells you all you really need to know about what the pages will cover. It is not a mere biography of the myriad of bands that made that era of punk rock so vital. Instead, it is a political and cultural overview of a turbulent decade for the world’s largest superpower and the young people who could see through the Reagan presidency’s shallow promises and dangerous rhetoric.
Every aspect of the punk scene is explored and catalogued in Mattson’s book- there are exhaustive lists of bands, gig rosters, ‘zine makers, tour organisers and activists. Mattson strikes a great balance between catering to the hardcore music aficionado and the more generally culturally curious. An impressive aspect of the book is the examination of the literature, philosophy, poetry, and art that was voraciously consumed by those in the scene, creating an interesting juxtaposition between the public persona of punks as violent meatheads with the reality that they were some of the most well-read and politically active groups of people in the country.
In Defense Of Ska
Author: Aaron Carnes
If you’ve ever felt that ska is unfairly maligned, not taken seriously, or not given the musical credibility afforded to other genres, then you are not alone. In Aaron Carne’s new book In Defense of Ska, the author takes on the haters and makes a compelling case about a vibrant genre’s musical history and legacy. Punktuation caught up with the author to discuss the idea behind the book, the truth behind the idea that US ska came out of nowhere in the 1990s and which scenes are still thriving today.
In Defense of Ska is not a chronological history of ska music, although there is plenty about the genre’s history packed in the pages. Instead, it reads like an anthology of essays, anecdotes, interviews, and opinions that explore the underpinning of the genre- where it started, where it went, where it’s still going- with the life events that paint a picture of a scene always playing the underdog but mainly having a great time in the process.
There and Black Again – The Autobiography of Don Letts
Author: Don Letts and Mal Peachy
If ever there was a man on the punk scene with incredible stories to tell, that man is Don Letts. Award-winning filmmaker, DJ, rock star, broadcaster and generally cool dude, Letts has oft been cited as a major influence in the burgeoning 1970s punk scene, particularly with regards to promoting reggae in those early days when he was DJ-ing at punk clubs.
The Letts story cannot be told with reference to one man alone- the book features stories, anecdotes and namechecks for a who’s who of music- Joe Strummer, John Lydon, Pattie Smith, Nelson Mandela and many more.
Don Letts’ life has seen many a cultural moment come and go, and these topics help illustrate the life of a man who moved through his incredible life with grit and determination. Told in part as though a film shooting on location, this book is a must for punk fans and those interested in all the major political events in the last 50 years, along with some fascinating stories of music, film, and humour, and humanity.
Fallopian Rhapsody: The Story of The Lunachicks
Author: Jeanne Fury and The Lunachicks
Lunachicks are considered part of the riot grrrl legacy due to their hardcore punk sound and their songs exploring every aspect of life as a modern woman, from navigating beauty standards to reproductive rights. Although hailing from New York (as opposed to the West Coast, which was the epicentre of the riot grrrl scene), Lunachicks were compatible with the riot grrrl messaging, which sought to document the lived experience of young women and challenge the male-centric image of rock music. They toured with the likes of No Doubt and The Ramones, spreading a reputation for raucous stage shows.
Fallopian Rhapsody is a story of a band. Still, it is also the story of the women in the band- from self-described ‘freaks’ in High School to punk rock heroines and then experiencing a series of frustrations that meant the band itself was possibly unable to reach its full potential. An essential part of punk history for all you riot grrrls and boys.
Ska Boom! An American Ska & Reggae Oral History by Marc Wasserman
Author: Marc Wasserman
Make sure your ska itch is well and truly scratched with another great book on the subject by musician and author Marc Wasserman. Ska Boom looks at the American ska and reggae movement and proves that the US wasn’t a passive partner in the nurturing of ska scenes when compared to the UK. Featuring interviews with an impressive array of ska musicians from bands such as Bim Skala Bim, The Uptones, Fishbone and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, this is everything you possibly didn’t know about ska.
For those who have long thought of the ska movement in waves, recent books and documentaries on the subject have sought to demonstrate that this simplistic take on the genre’s activities fails to recognise the fact that ska scenes have been flourishing and growing all over from the very beginning. Before the likes of Reel Big Fish and Save Ferris were on the scene riding this ‘third wave’, bands like Fishbone and The Toasters were kicking off the burgeoning interest in ska in America not too long after 2 Tone sprung up in the UK.
Wasserman takes us back to the beginning of an American craze using first-hand testimony to illustrate that the ska pot had been bubbling across the states from the get-go.
Punks in Peoria- Making A Scene in the American Heartland
Author: Jonathan Wright and Dawson Barrett
What major locations do you think of when you think of thriving punk scenes? New York and London in the 1970s? Olympia, Washington in the 1990s? Peoria, Illinois in the 80s and 90s? Not the last one? Well, Wright and Barrett have an essential story to tell in their new book about the impact of punk in an average town not used to the power and fury of the punk rock scene.
As punk spread throughout towns and cities in the US, perhaps it had the biggest effect on those living in small Conservative towns that were marred by economic inequality and cultural stagnation. Punks in Peoria pieces together the story of how a scene developed from the ground up, a tapestry weaved of DIY shows, zines, fans and record shops. A scene that offered community, creativity and purpose for a group of like-minded individuals proving that punk can be a force for good anywhere. If there was ever proof that punk is vital and unstoppable, then it is here in this tale of it taking hold in the most unlikely places.
Dayglo! The Poly Styrene Story
Author: Celeste Bell and Zoë Howe
Punk icon Poly Styrene inspired and influenced generations of punks with her creative, free-thinking and authentic persona as the frontwoman of punk outfit X-Ray Spex. Styrene stuck out from the beginning with her fun, colourful and satirical take on the world- a true original in a vibrant scene.
Styrene’s daughter Celeste Bell teams up with writer Zoë Howe (author of Typical Girls- The Story of The Slits) to tell the story of an incredible life and one that had its fair share of hardships and challenges. From Styrene’s childhood in Brixton in the 1960s, her time at the forefront of the punk movement and then through faith, motherhood and ill health- her life is laid bare in all its glory and vulnerabilities. The Poly Styrene Story is an essential part of punk rock history, including interviews with a whole host of characters who knew and loved her.
I’m Not Holding Your Coat: My Bruises and All Memoir of Punk Rock Rebellion
Author: Nancy Barile
A memoir about being there when American hardcore punk was on the up- bands like Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, and Black Flag chartered their own course of punk greatness amidst a sea of flailing limbs under the shadow of Reaganomics and possible nuclear annihilation. Barile was both a fan and promoter in the Philadelphia punk scene in the 1980s, and this is her recollection of being right where the action was.
It wasn’t an easy ride- the book covers some of the issues surrounding the building of a punk scene- fights, tough neighbourhoods, turf wars. But you get the feeling Barile had a blast finding her way through it all.
The book brings us up to Barile’s present-day and how she can utilise her life experiences to pass on wisdom to the next generation.
Stranded: Australian Independent Music 1976-1992 (2nd Edition)
Author: Clinton Walker
The new edition of Stranded was released in February 2021, some 25 years after the original edition hit the shelves. Written by Sydney-based writer Clinton Walker, the book gives the inside story of Australian bands who were instrumental in carving out a thriving independent music legacy for the country from the 70s to the 90s. The artists discussed include The Saints, Birthday Party, Nick Cave, The Scientists and many more.
Stranded is a mixture of styles- weaving in autobiographical passages from the writers life to more research-based context and interviews, creating a scrapbook of musical history. The new edition has been expanded and contains nearly 200 photos to bring this period of history to life.
The author himself has described the book:
“Stranded is not so much about how and why these artists and their music were spurned the way they were it’s more about how they persisted, survived… It’s a story with an arc that conforms precisely to the classic hero’s journey – the casting-out from the garden, the quest beyond, the triumphant homecoming.”
Rebel Music in the Triumphant Empire: Punk Rock in the 1990s United States
Author: David Pearson
The 1990s was a funny old time for punk, particularly in the US. The 1980s hardcore movement had been petering out struggling under the weight of its own internal expectations- for a while, and in its place, a new underground punk scene began to spring up from its ashes. It was also the decade that gave punk a mainstream boost- bands like Green Day and Offspring achieved chart success putting the concept of punk under a microscope- how can a scene reconcile with making money and getting airplay on MTV?
It was also a time of comfortable assertions of its superpower status for America- considering itself a victor of the Cold War and waging wars overseas. It is a truly perfect time for punk to show what it is made of when it speaks truth to power.
In Pearson’s book, he makes a solid case against anyone who could have written off 90s punk as trivial and frivolous. From increased representation within the scene to lyrical challenges of some of the major political and social issues of the decade, 90s punk bands were fighting for their own causes in a different cultural and political landscape than their 70s and 80s counterparts. But Rebel Music in the Triumphant Empire demonstrates that those battles were no less important and the scene no less revolutionary. Pearson’s knowledge goes far beyond the bands that received radio play and sold millions of albums- his book will take you on a tour of a scene that had more to offer than just Dookie.
And if the above is not enough for your hungry minds, keep an eye out for these:
Sell Out- Dan Ozzi (Out October 2021)
The story of 11 bands and their major label debuts, including The Donnas, Green Day, Jimmy Eat World and The Distillers. What happens when our beloved, independent bands decide to sign on the dotted line and throw in with punk’s natural nemesis- big record companies. Ozzi has conducted over 100 interviews to tell 11 mini-biographies of 11 bands that made the move that had some label them as traitors, hacks and, of course- sell outs.
Hell of a Hat- Kenneth Partridge (Out Sept 2021)
If you want to be an expert on ska, here’s another must-read. Partridge draws on interviews from some key figures, including the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Sublime and Less Than Jake, to tell the story of a genre that found huge success at a time when its upbeat, lighthearted nature seemed to reflect the optimism of its environment. Although overwhelmingly apolitical in nature, American ska of the 1990s was by no means less vital for fans, offering community, camaraderie and fun for those willing to learn to tie a tie and get up and dance. Partridge sets the rise of 90s ska in its societal context and draws out its roots and how successive ska, swing and jive acts laid the foundations for one of its most successful periods.
For a good punk read any time, there are some great papers, articles, opinion pieces, and books chronicled on the Punk Scholars Network website: Books -PSN Intellect Books Imprint — Punk Scholars Network
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I’m Molly Tie- a freelance writer and punk blogger! I have two major musical loves in my life- punk and the music of the 1960s. I love all eras of punk- from 70s UK to US pop-punk. I’m particularly interested in issues relating to women in the music scene. I am currently writing a book that explores the lived experience of being a female into punk music. The book is a labour of love- and my aim is to get it published in 2021.