another tuneless racket

Another Tuneless Racket: Punk And New Wave In The Seventies, Volume One: Origins 
Another Tuneless Racket: Punk And New Wave In The Seventies, Volume Two: Punk
Another Tuneless Racket: Punk and New Wave In The Seventies: Volume Three: UK New Wave
Another Tuneless Racket: Punk and New Wave In The Seventies, Volume Five: The American Beat – West
By Steve H Gardner (self published)

The best intentions are often derailed by practicality. After being gifted Volume One of “Another Tuneless Racket”, the plan was to acquire and read the other three back-to-back and then write a review. A fine goal but one that slipped after realising their combined volume came to almost 2,400 pages and life was getting in the way…

After delving deep into the series, it’s clear that the beauty of “Another Tuneless Racket” is that once you get your bearings, you can dive in almost anywhere, pick up on a thread and keep going. As you'll gather from the titles, each volume zeroes in on a time and place in the history of punk and new wave music, and then takes up the story of key acts. The series serves as a roadmap through the twists and turns of punk and new wave across most of the western world. 

It’s meticulously researched but you’d expect that from author Steve Gardner, He’s a lanky Yank from San Diego who grew up on the US East Coast where he went to university before finding himself working in engineering. A music obsessive from an earl;y age, he'd been bitten by the punk rock bug by the time he blew out the candles on his 21st birthday cake. 

A man needs a hobby so Steve started a zine, Noise for Heroes, which took an evangelical interest in underground music scenes, especially in Europe and Australia. The zine spawned a label, NKVD, that gave a home to some worthy acts, most notably Adelaide’s Exploding White Mice in their later days and his own band. The Gamma Men, in the ‘90s. He made a concrete Australian connection with ex-Vanilla Chainsaws frontman Simon Chainsaw in their studio only band The Chainsaw Men, and visited Down Under to sample the music first-hand.  

NFH lasted 23 issues in print and persisted as a web zine for almost a decade. It was one of THE best music zines of the pre-Internet 1980s and ‘90s. (If you don’t believe me, you can order the compiled volumes online at Amazon for a more than reasonable price.) 

People took to NFH because Gardner was an opinionated, well-informed, witty and a matter-of-fact writer. He knew his wheat from his chaff and his arse from his elbow. Power and melody were his musical by-words. 

He’s also stark raving, kangaroo-loose-in-the-top-paddock, mad or he wouldn’t have tackled such a massive task. The man’s supposed to be gracefully retired. Cue the old drummer jokes, but his choice of instrument probably explains a lot.  

Turning to Volume One and Gardner lays out what amounts to a personal manifesto before pulling together the threads of punk rock’s origins. I generally dodge  introductions and the childhood years in musical biographies and cut to the chase. Gimme the sex, drugs and rock and roll. The part where the doomed band goes out in a blaze of ignominy.  

Well, Volume One isn’t one of those books where one life is laid out in chronological order; It’s a surprisingly coherent attempt to make sense out of sometimes separate and isolated, and often  entwined musical events and scenes. You' should read the first 104 pages. It’s a scene-setter, a manifesto of sorts, and will help you to know where the author is coming from. From there, the journey doesn’t always take a predictable route. 

The manifesto is where things heat up for mine. Steve makes a case that the Stooges and the MC5 are not entitled to be regarded as the godfathers of punk rock. This is sacrilege, of course, especially if you found your own way to those progentors via the likes of Radio Birdman.  Saint Lester would be spinning in his casket to hear this (although he drew a line further back to Question Mark Mark and the Mysterians and The Kingsmen.)  Gardner then cites 15 reasons why the Stooges and the Five don't deserve grandfather status – and of course I can dissemble many of them with one typing hand tied behind my back. 

I know that a teenaged Ed Kuepper owned a copy of “Fun House” that he bought from an Aussie mail order club that was the last stop for doomed and discontinued overseas LPs that labels wanted to dump at bargain bin prices. But opinions are like asses – we all have one. This is exactly the sort of personal take that makes “Another Tuneless Racket” essential. 

Gardner freely admits his pathway into the punk was via Graham Parker, Elvis Costello and then the Sex Pistols with nods to Springsteen and The Tubes along the way. He was a classic rock guy but not a pretentious rock guy. The New York Dolls, the MC5, the Stooges and the Velvets were not on his radar in 1977. Immersion in those pools occurred later. 

As to the UK scene-starters, Roxy Music and Bowie also weren't on the Gardner radar. Steve takes a stand on behalf of Dr Feelgood and Eddie and the Hot Rods, for laying the real bedrock for the Pistols, The Damned and just about everything else labelled as punk. His depiction of the Feelgoods showcasing at a record label sales conference full of soul-less salespeople is hilarious. Piss is taken at regular intervals over the course of three volumes. Jimmy Pursey and Sham 69, we are looking at you.   

Radio Birdman and The Saints are covered in fine detail. His tandem interview of Rob Younger and Deniz Tek is perceptive and enlightening. There’s the odd blip – Pip Hoyle was there from the get-go, for one, and Rose Tattoo never played the Funhouse. You’d be hard pressed to find many other Americans who didn’t grow up with Birdman knowing this much and “getting” them at the same time. Best Aussie act since The Easybeats, indeed. I'm unsure  how the Saints ended up in the Origins volume and the Radios in the Punk one but that’s a quibble. 

Gardner’s dissection of the New York CBGB/Max’s scene is detailed and balanced (even if he missed the mark in not hearing more in the post-Television work of Verlaine and Lloyd.) The Dictators get their credit. It was a disparate place with the poets like Patti Smith and the back-to-basics crew on the other and you get equal doses of fact and opinion. 

Likewise his take on the US West Coast where the divide between punks and new wavers puts that fronteir war in perspective. New Order and The Imperial Dogs even get nods. Steve gives dues to the L.A. triumvirate of Kim Fowley, Greg Shaw and Rodney Bigemheimer and for all their foibles and failings, you should too.  

Unique perspectives abound: Rather than take apart the lyrical takedown of society in the Dead Kennedys’ incendiary “California Uber Alles”, Gardner decides to dissemble its B side, “Man With The Dogs”.  Countless key records receieve potted reviews. 

Interviews from a host of zines and the mainstream music press are exhaustively sourced, with the English inkies coming in for a hiding for their notoriously superficial and fickle critiques. That jellyback Tony Parsons takes some heavy artillery hits in particular and his “review” of a Ramones show is especially telling. You too will say, fuck that guy. 

Gardner gives similarly short shrift to the music mafia’s Australian fraternity - unfairly when you recall that RAM did give Birdman a critical leg up via editor, the late Anthony O’Grady. RAM and Juke were positively nclusive compared to the poisonous Poms.

If you’re looking for an analysis of new wave and punk from a particular geographical scene, you’ll likely find it in these pages. Later volumes are more helpfully broken down with top-of-the-page headings to make navigation easier. Appendices, recommendations and timelines wrap up each book. The only omission is an alphabetical index at the back but the contents section will usually take you to where you need to be. 

There is nothing like “Another Tuneless Racket”, both in its ambition and scope. His goals are ambitious - and the self-deprecating Mr Gardner will hate me for saying that he hits his targets, for the most part Yes, Volume Four is still to come and will be published all in good time and out of sequence. Those drummers, hey?

For about $US12 a copy on Amazon in the United States or $A27-40 via the same store’s Australian arm, there are no excuses for not owning the “Another Tuneless Racket” series. They’re also available via Bandcamp

three mcgarrett