“We’re so pretty! Oh, so pretty vacant!”
If those words have ever rung true for you, then Phil Strongman is addressing you with his book Pretty Vacant: A History of UK Punk. Of course, he may also be rushing to cash in on the spate of punk reunions recently, to tell his original story of the genre, but then, hasn’t punk always been about knowing the right way and right time to strike a pose?
After penning and co-penning Cocaine: A Novel and John Lennon and the FBI Files, respectively, Strongman illustrates the history of punk with this decent, entertaining overview from someone who was actually there. He is a talented writer, and even those who have no interest in punk’s style or substance will find themselves engrossed in Pretty Vacant’s storytelling.
Strongman’s narrative is almost cinematic, and his screen is dominated by none other than the Sex Pistols. The enormous influence of their first gig is chaptered, as is the home lives of each of the members, the importance of the band on all rock music since, how many influential people were first inspired by the raw power of punk. The Clash, Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Buzzcocks, and the Ramones also crop up from time to time, and an entire chapter is dedicated to an excellent assessment of the major proto-punk bands and their legacies—the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, and the MC5. But the Pistols, as the title would imply, rule Pretty Vacant’s roost as the ultimate punk band.
Charting each of the major players in England’s mid-70s punk scene like pieces in a game of chess, Strongman focuses on and explores the often notorious backgrounds of punk’s major characters. Indeed, the tone of the book is at its most excited and involved when shedding light on guys like Sid Vicious, implying that the burnt-out star’s shady childhood would have a future hand in his explosive influence in the punk saga. This includes abandonment by his father, an upbringing in the drug culture of the early 1960s, and even one page that describes the act of him killing his pet cat, “an ominous sign of things to come”, according to Strongman, as “nearly all those who mutilate or kill pet animals go on to mutilate or kill human beings”.
The book continues to trace the rise of punk through CBGB and Punk! Magazine, reaching a climax at the Sex Pistols’ infamous interview with Bill Grundy on the Today show in 1976. Keeping in line with punk-rock’s ironic twist, the television appearance wrecked Grundy’s career yet launched the Pistols to stardom, and serves in Pretty Vacant: A History of UK Punk to split the story’s contents, ending the first half, Going Underground, and beginning the second, Going Overground. After the ‘swear-in’ highpoint, however, nothing in the chronicle of the Pistols matches that spontaneous, chaotic moment of airtime. The book ends on a very sorry note when looking back, that of the band’s lacklustre reunions over the years and frontman Johnny Lydon’s guest appearance on reality TV.
For someone who was there through all of these events, including that first, extraordinarily influential concert at the 100 Club, Strongman delivers an oddly detached take on the history of punk. For all its pleasures, Pretty Vacant curiously misses any of Strongman’s emotions and experiences for the bigger picture, making it read like a third-person narrative. He factors himself out of the equation, and you have to keep reminding yourself he was actually there.
The book also occasionally glosses over and over-analyzes on the cultural impact of the movement, putting the reason for it all—the music—as a footnote to a paragraph’s scrutiny on Nazi memorabilia. Not surprisingly, this gives rise to frequent instances of eye-rolling exaggeration. On page 257, he bizarrely tries to link the amateur musicianship of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton to some kind of expression of their inner punk, subsequently responsible for their success as democratic politicians. If you’re looking for the answers, too, to why the Pistols suddenly became famous in such a short time and then imploded, from playing 20-person halls to being acknowledged as a landmark in rock history, good luck finding them in here.
In this way, Pretty Vacant: A History of UK Punk is not quite as good an overview of a genre as, say, Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind’s Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground, a comprehensive introduction to Norwegian black metal and the extra-curricular activities that movement entailed. Pretty Vacant might also be faulted for bogging down in character descriptions that are likely to confuse the general reader, although punk fanatics will likely find Strongman’s insider view priceless.
Ultimately, though, punk doesn’t have to be concerned with good publicity; it was about “taking the unfashionable and making it fashionable”, in the words of Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, who is heavily scrutinized in this book as the mastermind behind the Sex Pistols’ success. While Strongman’s pronouncement of that group and all who contributed to it as “the most important band since the Beatles” may be a little bit of a stretch, with Pretty Vacant Strongman makes a determined case for punk’s longevity, proving that the genre’s spirit will never die. Just ask Johnny Lydon, who is purportedly gearing up the old warhorse for an American tour this year.