Northwestern Exposure: Tracing The Birth Of 'Punk'

Jun 3, 2011

Punk has been experiencing an existential crisis for quite some time now. Is it a musical genre, a fashion, an ideology, all three? A debate even rages as to whether it's dead or alive. No matter where you stand on the question of what punk is (or if, indeed, it still has a heartbeat), its inarguable that there have been dozens of books published about its scenes, sounds and socio-political impact since the late 70s, when the music of bands like The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Clash hammered its way into the public consciousness.

Taking Punk to the Masses: From Nowhere to Nevermind is the latest volume dedicated to the celebration of punk — specifically, in this case, punk music from the Pacific Northwest. But unlike its notable forebears (Legs McNeil's Please Kill Me, Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen's We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of LA Punk among them), it complements its substantive oral history and vivid testimonials with an array of arresting visual artifacts — pivotal punk imagery that includes iconic show posters, electrifying performance photographs and heaps of wild costumes and dilapidated guitars — to tell its rambunctious story.

Compiled by Seattle-based curator/graphic designer Jacob McMurray, Taking Punk to the Masses is the print companion to an exhibition of the same name, currently hosted at Seattle's Experience Music Project. But where the exhibition's focus is on that city's homegrown grunge heroes Nirvana and the impact the band had on underground culture, the book is interested in the larger cultural implications of punk's transition from outsider status to mainstream fixture.

The Kingsmen's unmistakable garage rock anthem, "Louie Louie," is a fitting opener. McMurray smartly points out that what we know today as punk rock was born not in the clubs of NYC, LA or London, but in that seminal group's native Portland, Oregon. The book then jumps nearly a decade beyond the Kingsmen's landmark 1963 hit to discuss the gender bending art troupe, Ze Whiz Kids, who were to Seattle what the New York Dolls were to their hometown. No story on the evolution of punk is complete without the discussion of this short-lived but influential glitter rock scene of the early 70s Pacific Northwest.

It's only after the first wave of 70s and 80s punk rock has dissipated that this idea begins to solidify. As regional scenes in Washington, D.C. and Minneapolis were bringing bands like Minor Threat and The Replacements national awareness, the Pacific Northwest was forging an identity unlike that of any other part of the country. Local bands like Beat Happening and the Melvins made way for Nirvana, whose tortured frontman Kurt Cobain and galvanic single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" upended popular culture in the early '90s and opened the doors for other heavy-riffing, flannel-wearing, platinum-selling juggernauts like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. Krist Novoselic, Nirvana's bassist, wrote the foreward to this book.

Paradoxically for a volume dedicated to such a proudly ragged and roughhewn aesthetic, Taking Punk to the Masses is a beautifully constructed gem. Even more peculiarly for a history lesson wedged between hard covers, it'll make you hear the music that has so spectacularly inflamed your speakers and headphones for three decades run

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit