Children of the lost ’70s generation, prepare to feel thy age. It was disconcerting enough to realize that last month marked the 15th anniversary of the breakup of the Sex Pistols. Now comes DiY, nine separate volumes tracing the rise and fall of punk and its friendlier offshoots, power pop and new wave. (That’s 1976-83 to you baby busters.) Volume 1 rips open with the unforgettable yowl of Johnny Rotten on a rare demo of the Pistols’ ”Anarchy in the UK.” Immediately, we’re slammed back to the days of porcupine haircuts, the Ramones, performers gobbing on stage, skinny ties, and safety pins that were not used only for diapers.
DiY is more than a refresher course for those eager to relive pogoing (that’s an early version of slam-dancing for you busters) to the beat of the Clash’s London Calling. It is the first and most comprehensive anthology of one of rock’s most cataclysmic eras: a now-mythologized time when a generation of American and British kids, bored and disgusted with the inflated beast rock had become by the mid ’70s, essentially reinvented the wheel by forming their own bands and stripping rock back to crude guitar basics. DiY (”Do it yourself,” one of the mottos of the time) piles those bands on thick. Each volume is crammed with roughly 20 tracks, stretching from the Sex Pistols to the Cars to glorious one-shot wonders. It’s a sprawling mess, but that’s okay. For those who missed out on it the first time around or were simply too young, DiY is the perfect way to plug back into a revolution.
Sounds nauseatingly like baby-boomer nostalgia for the British Invasion, huh? Sure it does. But for ’70s American rock fans, who had been perfectly content listening to the Eagles, it was exciting — not to mention a little frightening. Imagine tuning into a radio station late at night during those years and stumbling upon spitballs by the Stranglers, Patti Smith, or early, pre-”Heart of Glass” Blondie. What was this crude stuff — and what made you not want to turn the dial? The first five (and best) volumes of DiY re-create that ambience to a ripped T. The two volumes of UK Punk (subtitled Anarchy in the UK and The Modern World) are essential primers, pressing together forgotten gems like the Adverts’ ”Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” or Eddie & the Hot Rods’ ”Teenage Depression” alongside more familiar three-minute rabble-rousings by founding fathers like the Pistols, the Jam, and the Damned.
The good old-fashioned pop song lived on too, but even it sounded different — refreshed and alive — as heard on two volumes of UK Pop (Teenage Kicks and Starry Eyes), with tracks like Bram Tchaikovsky’s ”Girl of My Dreams” and the unstoppable ”Back of My Hand (I’ve Got Your Number)” by the Jags. And volume 5, Blank Generation — The New York Scene, does a satisfactory job of collecting the dark rumbles of Television, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, the Ramones, and other denizens of CBGB, the New York Bowery club that spotlighted those freakazoids.
Mythology has it that technique didn’t matter in punk; passion, attitude, and energy did. What’s eye-opening about DiY, though, is how melodic many of these songs now sound. For all their spit-and-bile reputation, punkers knew how to write good songs and play them with energy and verve. Compared with much of the amelodic mantras that pass for alternative rock these days, the Buzzcocks’ mesmerizing ”Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” or ”Another Girl, Another Planet” by London’s the Only Ones are downright poppy. At times, DiY sounds like the last great era of rock 45s.
The era was bound to end, of course, and the last four volumes (not in stores until Feb. 19) find the candle flickering. We’re Desperate — The L.A. Scene is spotty, but garage-band-revisited tracks by the Germs and the Zeros make a better-than-expected case that the City of Angels had more to offer than X. However, the two volumes devoted to American heartland power pop, Come Out and Play and Shake It Up!, are padded with too many twee, featherweight attempts at Beatlesesque chime. And Mass. Ave. — The Boston Scene mostly demonstrates that Beantown’s punk scene was fairly hapless, despite a few decent tracks by Human Sexual Response (the deadpan-ironic ”Jackie Onassis”) and Mission of Burma.
DiY has other flaws, too, such as the absence (due to contractual restrictions) of punk Mount Rushmores like Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, and the Clash. Between the lines, though, DiY makes its case that the music didn’t completely die with Sid Vicious. Instead it paved the way for the network of independent labels and misfits that comprise today’s alternative scene. Punk’s throbbing pulse lives on in Nirvana and plenty of other Seattle types, even in Guns N’ Roses. As we move ever closer to the 20th anniversary of the Sex Pistols’ breakup (and to unsettling rumors of a reunion), we’re still feeling the aftershocks of punk, and DiY makes a good chunk of that earthquake rumble to life again. Anarchy: A World: B+ Kicks: A Eyes: A- Blank: B+ Desperate: B- Come Out: C Shake: C Mass. Ave.: C-