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Book Reviews From Toronto to the Berlin Wall: Two eighties punk books show there’s no one way to stick it to the man

Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall

By Tim Mohr

Published by Algonquin Books, 384 pages

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Tomorrow Is Too Late: Toronto Hardcore Punk in the 1980s

By Shawn Chirrey, Derek Emerson and Simon Harvey

Published by UXB Press, 320 pages

Prisoners of Conscience perform at the Turning Point in 1984.

Al Hackenberg

Punk rock can’t stop courting contradictions. It’s a subculture built on opposing norms, but whose aesthetics are routinely and lucratively co-opted by the normies it opposes; its figureheads who find the most fame often embrace the structures they once fought. But some of its contradictions run far deeper than designer distressed shirts that mimic Richard Hell or erstwhile skate-punks selling shares in a space-research company. Some of the greatest contradictions in punk are intrinsic to the attitudes that make people embrace it in the first place.

Book-length ruminations on the history of punk hit the, ahem, mainstream nearly two decades ago – itself two decades since the Ramones released their self-titled debut, beaming a particular brand of do-it-yourself lower-Manhattan mentality into the ears of kids the world over. Contradictions were dredged up even in the earliest popular punk books. In his 1996 New York Times review of Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil’s Please Kill Me, considered by many a defining take on New York punk’s nascence, the long-time rock critic Robert Christgau is unable to stop himself from pointing out the scene’s inherent ironies. An interviewee’s complaint that the Sex Pistols-bred competing British scene was devoid of musical value, Christgau writes, “leaves open the question of just exactly what kind of music punk rock was.”

Just as all books on music have come to embrace more hyperlocal subject matter, so, too, have books on punk – including two new punk books that blend the fun and struggle of the genre while playing into its inherent contradictions.

Both zero in on the 1980s, when punk’s politics and speed became more extreme. Burning Down the Haus, by the translator and former Berlin DJ, Tim Mohr, dives into the lives of East Berlin punks and their role – however unintentional – in the collapse of East Germany. And closer to home, a cadre of Toronto hardcore-punk veterans led by Derek Emerson, Shawn Chirrey and Simon Harvey released Tomorrow Is Too Late, an oral history of a burgeoning scene that captures the city’s sometimes-competing ideas of how to best move punk forward after its first wave.

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Burning Down the Haus blends both interviews with many surviving figureheads of East German punk with detailed files unearthed from the State Security Service, or Stasi. Relatively void of direct quotations – source material being in German and all – Mohr’s writing strings seamless stories across both: Historic concerts unfold with equal heft as life-changing interrogations of punks whose anti-state lyrics constituted crimes. It’s a record of ragged inhibition and constant persecution among a group for whom self-expression was held above all else. Some bands contained secret Stasi snitches; one band, Planlos, even imploded under the weight of Stasi-sewn misinformation, so strong were the state’s efforts to take down punk.

But divides ran deep among some of the punk kids rebelling against East German authorities. Many initial groups avoided East Berlin’s official band-licensing system that would guarantee them live performances, because they refused to align with the state in any way. Others such as Feeling B embraced official licenses as a chance to spread punk’s good word.

Toward the late eighties, licensed punk bands got more mainstream attention as the steadfast anti-state punks stoked grassroots activism. When the Berlin Wall finally fell, the punks of East Berlin found themselves inadvertent figureheads of a cause they didn’t actually want to champion. “None of the people who had laid the groundwork for the fall … envisioned a unified Germany,” Mohr writes. “Those people had sacrificed their places in society for the chance to form a new one.” The transition to a unified Germany wasn’t easy – nor was it a clean break. In the disarray, some punks still squatted buildings, in some cases for another two decades. And as Berlin evolved, punk’s ethos clung: Even Berghain, the exclusive electronic club around which much of the city’s present musical identity orbits – at least to tourists – began as a do-it-yourself repurposing of a steam plant. Its chief bouncer? An old East German punk.

The stakes in Tomorrow Is Too Late aren’t quite so high. But the book captures the Toronto-area personalities, both reverent and skeptical, behind hard-charging hardcore in the time of the genre’s birth – a ruthlessly fun document of nostalgia among punks who struggled to find venues who’d taken them, let alone get documented in local media at the time. It’s “the yearbook we never had,” the authors write, honouring the history of bands such as Young Lions, Youth Youth Youth, Bunchofuckingoofs (who also have their own book, Dirty, Drunk and Punk, by Jennifer Morton) and the acts that emerged in their wake.

It revels in the details of a Toronto that existed before every square inch became condo fodder: unheated plywood-garage homes, shows so raucous they knocked ceiling tiles down onto veterans at a lower-floor Legion, cops infiltrating a Circle Jerks concert and forcing everyone, including the band, to sit down. Like Burning, Tomorrow carries with it a latent urgency to document a decades-old scene before memories fade. It carries its own intra-scene contradictions, too.

One of the authors refers to the circle pit at a 1986 Dr. Know-Die Kreuzen-D.R.I. show as “era-defining,” while 150 pages later, Brian Taylor of Youth Youth Youth declares that “the whole skippin’ around in a semicircle thing” was a sign the scene had gotten “too safe.” One promoter tells the authors that sexual identity didn’t matter in Toronto hardcore – immediately after filmmaker Bruce LaBruce is quoted on the scene’s “hatred of homosexuals.” Tomorrow even concludes with the authors celebrating Not Dead Yet, the present-day hardcore festival that shares a name with a mid-eighties documentary that many of the book’s key interview subjects slag for misrepresenting the scene.

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Even taken together, Burning and Tomorrow manage to share in a small irony that could only be bred by punk. The former documents the most DIY-possible punk scene in an oppressive regime, but was put out by an established publisher; the latter covers the scene in a comfortable Western city, but was put out by a DIY publisher created for that very book, with physical production overseen by scene veterans themselves. But here’s the thing: That rules. Punk doesn’t define itself by clean lines. It’s better defined by self-interrogation – a wholly subjective process that both of these books pull off in their own ways, both despite and because of their contradictions. They’re the kind of contradictions that make you want to jump up and down. Maybe in a semicircle. Maybe while listening to a lot of loud, fast noise.

Josh O’Kane is a Globe and Mail technology reporter, 2018 Polaris Music Prize grand juror and author of the music book Nowhere With You.

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