Book review of Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years

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Book review of Unreleased Beatles, Richie UnterbergerBuy your copy Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years starstarstarhalf starhalf star Author: Mark Sladen and Ariella Yedgar
Publisher: Merrell (2007)
Genre: Rock 

What a fascinating concept, maybe what arty English punks the Buzzcocks were thinking about when they sang of “nostalgia for an age yet to come:” A coffee-table book about art that was happening in the punk-rock era. You imagine a bunch of sneering revelers, the coolest street art, ransom-note creations, spikes and blood, leather and sweat. After all, one would think that’s what the publisher wanted us to believe, releasing it on the 30th anniversary of the Summer of Punk – the debut of the Sex Pistols "God Save the Queen" single.  

The end product, however, doesn’t quite deliver on that promise. New York was a vibrant punk scene, and its lead artist was…Keith Haring? All right, there were other people there, but Haring’s all over this book, along with Mapplethorpe, and a total of 30 top artists from the period, whatever that means. There are plenty of controversial images here, laid out in gorgeous clean pages, with impeccable printing values. These artists’ work never looked so brilliant, even hung on walls in museums. Mapplethorpe’s pictures of gay men and Patti Smith, no doubt, not only changed the way people (especially in Cincinnati) thought, felt, and talked about art, but they represented a harsh new reality brought about by punk’s in-your-face attitude. There are pictures of punks living in punk squalor and offering up nasty sneers, and there are some downright filthy Mark Morrisroe photos that evoke the gritty-nasty stuff that happened between nights at the club. And of course there’s the legendary “God Save the Queen” single covers by Jamie Reed, including the “swastikas in her eyes/safety pin in her mouth” version. The shocking Raymond Pettibone pen-and-ink cartoons get us in the punk mood, too.  

But what keeps this nearly $50 book from feeling like it’s actually worth $50 is that it features the top-shelf artists of the period. You don’t feel like you need to shower after reading the essays (quite wonderful and enlightening but not half as forceful as Lester Bangs rapping about the Clash) and going through the photos and artwork and collages and other creations of picked-up pieces and lo-fi printing. Probably half of these lovely works came from a parallel world of museums and galleries where people admired them and paid good money for them – even when they were new – perhaps while sipping wine. That’s art, yeah. But it’s not punk. Joey Shithead from DOA might or might not appreciate this stuff, but he sure as hell didn’t buy any of it. He lived it. And that’s what this book is missing -- it’s not recreating, reliving the dream. More photos of club life, more record covers, and more portraits like Nan Goldin’s French Chris at the Drive-In (included) gunning down a can of Schaefer would have done the trick. Maybe featuring more lesser-known, man-in-the-mosh-pit type artists would have given this volume a more do-it-yourself feel, and perhaps have better represented such a do-it-yourself period of music, art and politics. As it stands, the book feels less like a punch-you-in-the-mouth book and more a staid history in pictures for the hoity-toity, the very crowd the punks were rebelling against in the first place. 

~mojo flucke, ph.d.