’77 a suitably chaotic read

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’77: The Year of Punk & New Wave

By Henrik Bech Poulsen. Helter Skelter, 382 pp, $30, hardcover.

For those of us old enough to remember the first wave of punk, the appeal of Henrik Bech Poulsen’s ’77: The Year of Punk & New Wave may be largely nostalgia. The book offers an A-to-Z guide to every nasty little British and Irish punk band that put out a record in 1977, which first-time author Poulsen presents as the miracle year for a self-made movement that set out to rescue rock ’n’ roll and ruin the music industry.

The contents of ’77 are thorough to the point of obsessive. Starting with Acme Sewage Company and ending with the Zeros, with some 200 stops in between—for Chelsea, the Damned, Eddie and the Hot Rods, the Stranglers, the Vibrators, you name it—Poulsen documents every last 45-rpm single, every rare mispressing and sleeve. At the same time, the book’s layout, with its Smith-Corona typeface and murky black-and-white shots of frowning teenagers in sunglasses, recalls the late-’70s fanzines that misfits used to assemble lovingly with Scotch tape and school-library mimeograph machines.

The middle-aged, Copenhagen-born Poulsen has no lack of pep for that “mythical” time: “Seventyseven. Say it. Say it again. It has a great sound to it, doesn’t it?” But he doesn’t wander down memory lane here; instead, he cordons it off and scours it forensically. For this reason, the book does something more than create warm and fuzzy feelings: by including everything, it shows nostalgia up as selective memory. For every razor stroke of genius by bands like Wire and Buzzcocks, there were flimsy tracks by coattail-surfers like Billy Idol’s vacuous Generation X, with their haircut-based theories of rebellion. At times, it adds up to the feeling you get when you dig out your old boxes of LPs stashed in the basement, only to be reminded that back in the day you were cheerily listening to plenty of utter shite alongside the records that have since been deemed classics. (Yes, here’s your tattered old London Calling. Ah, those were happy times. But what’s this next to it? A play-worn copy of Joe Jackson’s I’m the Man? Well, well.)

Still, Poulsen can summon a raft of evidence that 1977 was something exceptional in rock. Any year boasting such a startling range of groundbreaking performers—from XTC to Throbbing Gristle, Elvis Costello to the mighty Sex Pistols themselves—was obviously thrilling. What’s more, any year in which such dissimilar bands not only hit their stride at the same time but also fed off one another creatively, as they did briefly in 1977, was a rare phenomenon. Any gig where, for a few quid, you could see the Clash headlining a bill that included Buzzcocks, Motí¶rhead, and the Heartbreakers, all of them at or near their prime, was clearly worth a lot more than the price of admission. Any self-taught movement that put an end to the dominance of Pablo Cruise and the Little River Band deserves all of the praise that Poulsen heaps on it. Yes, the author’s delivery in ’77 sometimes gets so worked up that it stumbles over itself. (Just what does it mean for a punk band’s single to give “a well-directed middlefinger in the ribs” to an older generation of musicians?) But Poulsen is dead right in arguing that what happened 29 years ago in rock music was fast, ingenious, and reckless enough to create a sonic boom that still echoes today.