My favorite books about 1980s punk and politics

Why am I passionate about this?

I was a participant in the D.C. punk scene during the 1980s and helped start an organization known as Positive Force. I remember hearing about the group “Parents of Punkers,” the head of which compared punk to a violent cult. They would go on television and scare watchers about what their kids might be doing. I remember at the time that this missed the realities of my own experiences and made me want to protest this moral panic. But I knew this required some distance from the “punk rock world” I had inhabited. I kept thinking about writing this book and the timing was right.


I wrote...

We're Not Here to Entertain: Punk Rock, Ronald Reagan, and the Real Culture War of 1980s America

By Kevin Mattson,

Book cover of We're Not Here to Entertain: Punk Rock, Ronald Reagan, and the Real Culture War of 1980s America

What is my book about?

Many remember the 1980s as the era of Ronald Reagan, a conservative decade populated by preppies and yuppies dancing to a soundtrack of electronic synth-pop music. In some ways, it was the "MTV generation." However, the decade also produced some of the most creative works of punk culture, from the music of bands like the Minutemen and the Dead Kennedys to avant-garde visual arts, literature, poetry, and film.

In We're Not Here to Entertain, Kevin Mattson documents what Kurt Cobain once called a "punk rock world" --the all-encompassing hardcore-indie culture that incubated his own talent. Mattson shows just how widespread the movement became--ranging across the nation, from D.C. through Ohio and Minnesota to LA--and how democratic it was due to its commitment to Do-It-Yourself (DIY) tactics.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Other Eighties

Kevin Mattson Why did I love 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.

By Bradford Martin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Other Eighties as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ronald Reagan looms large in most accounts of the period, encouraging Americans to renounce the activist and liberal politics of the 1960s and '70s and embrace the resurgent conservative wave. But a closer look reveals that a sizable swath of Americans strongly disapproved of Reagan's policies throughout his presidency. With a weakened Democratic Party scurrying for the political center, many expressed their dissatisfaction outside electoral politics. Unlike the civil rights and Vietnam-era protesters, activists of the 1980s often found themselves on the defensive, struggling to preserve the hard-won victories of the previous era. Their successes, then, were not in ushering…


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

Kevin Mattson Why did I love 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.

By Michael T. Fournier,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In recent years, the Minutemen have enjoyed something of a revival, due to both a chapter in Michael Azerrad's book "Our Band Could Be Your Life", and a feature length documentary film, "We Jam Econo", showcasing the band's legacy. (And having a song serve as the theme for MTV's "Jackass" show doesn't hurt, either.) To date, though, the band's actual work hasn't been the subject of much attention - everything has focused on either the interpersonal relationships that made the Minutemen so distinctive or the sudden and tragic death of guitarist/singer D. Boon. This book shines a light on the…


Book cover of The Aesthetic of Our Anger

Kevin Mattson Why did I love 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)

By Mike Dines (editor), Matthew Worley (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Aesthetic of Our Anger as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Literary Nonfiction. Music. Punk is one of the most fiercely debated post-war subcultures. Despite the attention surrounding the movement's origins, analyses of punk have been drawn predominantly from a now well-trodden historical narrative. This simplification of punk's histories erases its breadth and vibrancy, leaving out bands from Crass to the Subhumans who took the call for anarchy in the UK seriously.

Disillusioned by the commercialization of punk, the anarcho-punk scene fought against dependence on large record labels. Anarcho-punk re-ignited the punk ethos, including a return to an `anyone-can-do-it' culture of music production and performance. Anarcho-punk encouraged focused political debate and…


Book cover of Is It My Body?: Selected Texts

Kevin Mattson Why did I love 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.

By Kim Gordon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Is It My Body? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Throughout the 1980s and early '90s, Kim Gordon—widely known as a founding member of the influential band Sonic Youth—produced a series of writings on art and music. Ranging from neo-Conceptual artworks to broader forms of cultural criticism, these rare texts are brought together in this volume for the first time, placing Gordon's writing within the context of the artist-critics of her generation, including Mike Kelley, John Miller, and Dan Graham. In addressing key stakes within contemporary art, architecture, music, and the performance of male and female gender roles, Gordon provides a prescient analysis of such figures as Kelley, Glenn Branca,…


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

Kevin Mattson Why did I love 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.

By Michael Azerrad,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Our Band Could Be Your Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Finally in paperback, the story of the musical revolution that happened right under the nose of the Reagan Eighties - when a small but sprawling network of bands, labels, fanzines, radio stations and other subversives re-energised American rock with punk rock's d-I-y credo and created music that was deeply personal, often brilliant, always challenging and immensely influential. OUR BAND COULD BE YOUR LIFE is a sweeping chronicle of music, politics, drugs, fear, loathing and faith that is already being recognized as an indie rock classic in its own right.

Among the legendary bands featured are: Black Flag, the Minutement, Mission…


You might also like...

Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

By Kathleen DuVal,

Book cover of Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

Kathleen DuVal Author Of Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a professional historian and life-long lover of early American history. My fascination with the American Revolution began during the bicentennial in 1976, when my family traveled across the country for celebrations in Williamsburg and Philadelphia. That history, though, seemed disconnected to the place I grew up—Arkansas—so when I went to graduate school in history, I researched in French and Spanish archives to learn about their eighteenth-century interactions with Arkansas’s Native nations, the Osages and Quapaws. Now I teach early American history and Native American history at UNC-Chapel Hill and have written several books on how Native American, European, and African people interacted across North America.

Kathleen's book list on the American Revolution beyond the Founding Fathers

What is my book about?

A magisterial history of Indigenous North America that places the power of Native nations at its center, telling their story from the rise of ancient cities more than a thousand years ago to fights for sovereignty that continue today

Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

By Kathleen DuVal,

What is this book about?

Long before the colonization of North America, Indigenous Americans built diverse civilizations and adapted to a changing world in ways that reverberated globally. And, as award-winning historian Kathleen DuVal vividly recounts, when Europeans did arrive, no civilization came to a halt because of a few wandering explorers, even when the strangers came well armed.

A millennium ago, North American cities rivaled urban centers around the world in size. Then, following a period of climate change and instability, numerous smaller nations emerged, moving away from rather than toward urbanization. From this urban past, egalitarian government structures, diplomacy, and complex economies spread…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in punk rock, rock music, and dysfunctional families?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about punk rock, rock music, and dysfunctional families.

Punk Rock Explore 43 books about punk rock
Rock Music Explore 219 books about rock music
Dysfunctional Families Explore 101 books about dysfunctional families