The best books about 1980s punk and politics

The Books I Picked & Why

The Other Eighties

By Bradford Martin

Book cover of The Other Eighties

Why this book?

Martin tears down the mantra from the right that Ronald Reagan was the best president ever. Or in the words of the historian Gil Troy that Reagan “invented” the eighties. Martin has one chapter on punk rock as a protest movement, but he also places punk in a wider context – with the rise of the Nuclear Freeze Campaign, the burgeoning movement against intervention in Central America {“No More Vietnams”), and the Divestment Movement against racial inequality in South Africa. The 1980s become not just the era of Reagan but a moment of protest that was larger than we have understood.

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The Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime

By Michael T. Fournier

Book cover of The Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime

Why this book?

From Martin’s expansive look at things, let’s move onto a more granular approach – Fournier’s Double Nickels. Fournier focuses on just one band and an album (albeit a double record album and one of the best to come out of punk in the 1980s). The Minutemen played a fast, discordant music that sounded like jazz as much as hardcore thrash music. Fournier’s examination turns up something few people consider, that punk wasn’t all about blistering music but rather sophisticated in its nature. Fournier documents how the bassist in the band, Mike Watt, had extended conversations with one of the most important artists associated with 1980s punk – Raymond Pettibon (who as of now has made his way into accomplished art museums and galleries). They talked about everything from Ludwig Wittgenstein to James Joyce. Band members supposedly got into heated debates about history and would stop at public libraries while touring to resolve their differences. What the book teaches its readers is that punk in the 1980s was surprisingly sophisticated and intelligent – something many parents back then didn’t recognize as they feared their kids turning nihilistic and violent. Read this book and you get precisely the opposite.

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The Aesthetic of Our Anger

By Mike Dines, Matthew Worley

Book cover of The Aesthetic of Our Anger

Why this book?

Albeit about Britain more than America, the authors collected together here show how easy it was for young punks to move from just listening to music to political engagement. Most of it being direct action: squatting abandoned buildings or civil disobedience against the nuclear arms race. The most accomplished band here was Crass who had an immense impact in the United States and who drew from different sources, including, I quote, “Ghandian principles, radical philosophy, the aesthetic of the Beat and Bohemian poets, and the words of Rimbaud and Baudelaire, as much as… the formal anarchist tradition.” It’s unfair that many believe punk just to be nihilistic and violent – and the authors here show why (it should be pointed out that Worley has his own book on this, which is also quite good: No Future)

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Is It My Body?: Selected Texts

By Kim Gordon

Book cover of Is It My Body?: Selected Texts

Why this book?

Known mostly as the bassist for the noise band, Sonic Youth, Gordon was also a sophisticated critic and supporter of the growing punk movement in America during the 1980s. In this collection of essays (many of them originally published in art magazines), she explains one of the most distinct movements within 1980s punk – “straight edge,” refusing drugs and alcohol, thereby disassociating the classic mantra of sex, drugs, and rock n roll. With a sharp eye, she explains, “These kids are antidrugs, antidrinking, anti-Reagan, and antisex – not so much out of puritanism as from a desire to be in control, and to avoid being manipulated by the consumerist system.” She praises the Do it Yourself (DIY) spirit of 1980s punk, enjoying watching bands “jam econo” (that’s a Minutemen term). She also holds this sort of activity in contrast with the blasé spirit she gets from observing new wave nightclubs where dull MTV videos blare at yuppies in places like Danceteria. Gordon’s collected essays are full of such observations.

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Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991

By Michael Azerrad

Book cover of Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991

Why this book?

An expansive compendium of many of the most important punk bands of the 1980s – especially Black Flag, the Minutemen, Minor Threat, Husker Du. Essentially Azerrad provides interesting band biographies. He also listens to participants and recognizes the difficulty of DIY touring, including sleeping in the tiny tour band with other members squashed together. Greg Ginn of Black Flag is quoted, “If we got a flat tire, we would get an old tire that was discarded in the back of a gas station that they’d given up on and put that on… It was real bare bones.” Azerrad discusses the independent record labels that Black Flag and Minor Threat ran – SST and Dischord. Here too there was a crazy work ethic in operation, creating what he calls a “hand to mouth” existence. DIY forced upon many participants a work ethic that is often overlooked or ignored.

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