Dave Thompson, London's Burning: True Adventures on the Frontlines of Punk, 1976-1977 (Book Review) by jgn on Sunday, December 6, 2009 in Reading, Listening, and Reviews

Dave Thompson, London's Burning: True Adventures on the Front Lines of Punk, 1976-1977 (2009). $18.95. [Amazon]

The history of UK punk has been told so many times, and so well, that it's hard to believe that the story can be told again. But it can. Dave Thompson's London's Burning is a recollection of his mid to late teenage years, when he saw all of the groups in their earliest gigs: The Sex Pistols, of course, but also those a bit more afield, such as the Adverts, and the ones you haven't heard of who were in the orbit of punk but didn't get much attention -- such as Masterswitch.

There are a few things that really stand out in this memoir. The first is the radical importance of reggae. English music was in a dead period, and white kids needed their revolution. The music at hand in 1974 and 1975 with the revolutionary message was reggae. Each chapter starts with a list of tunes in "heavy rotation" in the author's mind, and until we get well into the 1976, it's dominated by reggae. The lists are very interesting as well, because it is a distinctly "street" collection of reggae tunes. I think you'd have a hard time finding all of these as downloads.

Thompson is always well aware of the circumambient economic situation. Of course, all of the other books talk about how there were no jobs and workers were miserable under Maggie. But Thompson remembers that in the late 70s, no one had a theory; they just had misery:

[F]or anybody looking to draw conclusions from the events which ultimately cause 1976 to shape the landscape of the decades to come, it is only the sweet fortunes of hindsight that sllow even a vague hypothesis to take shape. For the people on the ground, in the frontline, at the sticky end of the pointed stick, 1976 was the same as 1975 was the same as 1974 was the same as 1973 and so on ad infinitum.

There were still no more than three channels on the telly; the programming still ended around midnight with the rousing chords of the national anthem. Some shows were still being broadcast in black and white. The pubs closed at eleven . . . [However, hindsight] might view the mid-1970s through a monochrome lens, but life was not gray, it was not flat, and it was not grim. A lot of people had a lotof fun in the 1970s . . . The big difference between "then" and "now" was that people were making their own fun then, as opposed to waiting for some multimedia conglomerate to package it up and deliver it to their door. (pp. 102-103)

Thompson is also good at pinpointing how 1976 was different from 1982: In 1976, Thompson says, the situation of the miserable economy "was not merely without precedent, it seemed to be without remedy as well" (p. 98). By 1982, punks had a pattern. So . . . 1976 becomes all the more interesting because it was all improvisation and invention.

The last thing I would say about this nifty book is that it's great on the bands that got lost: Roogalator, the Rumour (who had a great album without Graham Parker), Tom Robinson Band -- they're all here, and will compel you to dust off the old singles and LP's, if you have them.

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