Book Review: Punk Tees (Martin Popoff) - by JCE


I will get to the book review, but first I have to give you the background on how I came to read this book.  The book was a Christmas present from my daughter.  She is 16 years old and she went out shopping on her own this year.  My daughter & I have a very close relationship, and one thing we both love is music.  We can talk for hours about bands we love and why, and even though we have a larger than normal age gap (I’m an older Dad), we have a lot of overlapping taste in music.  I take my daughter to rock shows all the time, and we have a ball. So when I opened this gift, which she was very excited to give me, it choked me up.  If you’re a father, you probably know what I mean.  In the card she wrote with it, she said “Thanks for being such a great Dad and for supporting me in the things I love, such as music...”  So let me wipe the tear out of my eye and tell you about the book.   

I would give this book 3 out of 5 stars.  The book attempts to tell the history of punk rock through a series of write-ups about various bands and punk t-shirts.  There are some brief oral histories provided by people like Roberta Bayley, who shot the cover photo of the first Ramones record.  The book, for me, has a lot of positives, and a few negatives.  First, let’s get my criticisms out of the way.  The book is a nice, quick history of punk.  There’s discussion of punk fashion and such, but the t-shirts seem almost unnecessary.  Still, it’s a unique and clever way to present the history that is the subject of the book.  It’s a whirlwind tour of all the punk bands that are most well-known.  The t-shirt thing is a bit of a stretch though.  I think if the book had really been more of a punk t-shirt collector’s bible, with way more shirts pictured, it may have been more unique and interesting.  My other criticism is that there were only a few things I read in the book that I hadn’t read numerous times before.  But I have read a lot of biographies and books about music, so that’s more my fault than the author’s.

Let’s get to what is good about the book. I like the graphics, the color photos and the paper stock: it’s a high quality book.  It’s small, about 9” x 9,” which I kind of like.  It’s 192 pages with many photos, so it’s a quick, easy read.  As far as content, the best thing about the book is that they got it exactly right, as far as the history goes, at least in my opinion.  The author, Popoff, broke the book into four chapters, which are meant to cover distinct eras of punk.  He started with the Velvet Underground, MC5, New York Dolls and the Stooges, but he also references how in some ways, even earlier bands could have been considered punk.  He argues that The Who were punk in their own right and he tells you why he feels that way.  I think he got it right.  The t-shirt for The Who, with the target, really looks like punk to me.  The smashing of equipment and the music itself could certainly be thought of as punk.  The book also has some very specific dates in history, of certain shows and things like that.  There is an attention to detail in that respect, but the book is very general in nature.  Chapter one includes the Ramones as well.  

Chapter two covers the British heyday: citing the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned and many others, all of which are exactly the right bands to mention.  I remember getting punk tees in Georgetown as a teenager during this era of punk and thinking they were like a badge of honor to wear into my high school.  Since the book is supposed to be about t-shirts, it would have been nice if there were multiple examples for each band, but only one example per band is provided, and they are quite obscure examples, which maybe is a positive aspect.  Again, this chapter mentions virtually every band from that era that I know about, and a few I didn’t know about, which was a nice added bonus.

Chapter three is your post-punk or new wave chapter.  It covers a lot of bands including The Jam, Siouxsie and the Banshees, more of the Damned, Blondie, Lords of the New Church, etc.  Most of the chapter is pretty spot on, but some of the bands could easily have made it into chapter two.  The book seems to take the position that Pistols and Clash era punk was over very quickly, which is a valid argument I guess.

Chapter four moves on to hardcore and includes both oi! bands from Britain like Cockney Rejects and also American hardcore: Circle Jerks, Dead Kennedy’s Black Flag, etc.  This chapter relies mostly on California bands, but it cites Washington D.C., Boston and Minneapolis as vital hardcore scenes and includes Minor Threat, Gang Green, Husker Du and early Replacements.  The only shirt in the whole book that I actually own is the last one pictured, the Social Distortion skeleton shirt.

Bottom line:  Punk Tees is a nice book.  The concept of using t-shirts to tell the story of punk didn’t work all that well, because it’s not all that detailed as to punk history or t-shirts, it’s just a little of both.  But when your music-loving daughter spots a book on punk tees and identifies it as a perfect gift for her Dad, well that it makes it a great book in my opinion. – JCE