Rock & Roll Books
Babylon's Burning: From Punk to Grunge
by Clinton Heylin
Canongate, 694 pp., $25
That "Certs-is-breath-mint-Certs-is-a-candy-mint" debate about whether punk began in the UK or U.S. isn't at issue in the second of Clinton Heylin's lengthy tomes about alt-rock's roots. In 2005's From the Velvets to the Voidoids, his thesis was that "modern music begins with the Velvets," and that's hardly arguable. Yet the aphorism that only a few thousand people listened to the Velvets but all of them formed bands isn't nearly as indisputable as saying that about the Sex Pistols, the band at the heart of punk. Never mind those Sex Pistols, though, Heylin's got something entirely different to say in Babylon's Burning, and he's likely to piss off lots of people, especially when he crucifies Kurt Cobain and calls Nancy Spungen's death "justifiable homicide." To his credit, Heylin's best revelation comes with the book's exploration of Britain's famed welfare system paying people (musicians) not to work. In other words, the government underwrote "God Save the Queen," while political anthems like the Clash's "Career Opportunities" were jokes: They didn't need opportunities, not with the royal handout. Heylin also has a good bead on the power England's mouthy rock press had in bestowing Next Big Thing titles. Unfortunately, the book stays mired in the late-Seventies and then skips forth through the ensuing years, landing on Nirvana's shot heard round the punk world for the final assessment. That's a potent reminder that the only difference between hype and hope is one vowel.