When compared to my music collection, I’ve read surprisingly few books on punk. Five, to be exact—including the one under discussion. And yet, a brief flick through the first few pages makes one thing clear: this is the book I’ve always wanted.
Kevin Mattson’s We’re Not Here to Entertain: Punk Rock, Ronald Reagan, and the Real Culture War of 1980s America is no standard musical history. Rather, it is a fascinating and exhaustively researched exploration of the intellectual and literary influences of ’80s American punk that arose throughout the first half of that decade.
I must admit that I bridle at the use of the term “culture war” due to its post-2016 implications on both sides of the Atlantic. However, Mattson provides ample historical context, both politically and culturally—from nuclear proliferation and U.S. foreign policy to the homogeneous entertainment industry symbolized by MTV and Hollywood ‘summer’ movies—which create a convincing case for use of the term and makes the multifaceted challenges posed by punk rock all the more interesting.
Though its overarching focus on punk may lead to a self-selecting audience, this would be a mistake, for the book offers a rich cultural history and is even more noteworthy for its scholarly investigation into a subculture. For instance, though I haven’t read that many books about punk rock, I’m confident that there aren’t many others with epigraphs by Anthony Burgess, Albert Camus, Guy Debord, and Friedrich Nietzsche—and that’s just the first chapter.
But it’s not just given academic weight by way of epigraphs, however. What’s on offer is a journey through multiple medias, from the films of Alex Cox and Penelope Spheeris to the poetry of Dennis Cooper via the literary precedents of Straight Edge sentiment—among many others. And Mattson takes these reference points further than mere mention by devoting pages to painting personalities.
With regards to Cooper, for example, we learn who inspired him and who didn’t, and how he differed from other punk poets such as Patti Smith and Richard Hell. Raymond Pettibon, meanwhile, was a name I was previously unfamiliar with but, given his influence, is someone I’m glad have been made aware of. Likewise William Gibson, whose sci-fi writing I’m definitely going to explore.
One of Mattson’s greatest achievements is his analysis of the mainstream political culture of the time—with particular emphasis on nuclear proliferation and the anti-dissident attitude of the Reagan administration—in relation to the punk ethos. I have come away from the book with a greater appreciation for the music, as my understanding of the culture against which it was reacting, has been deepened.
Nothing I have read before has given me such insight into the existential fear people felt regarding nuclear catastrophe. This is not something that one would necessarily expect in a book about punk rock but, again, this analytical breadth and depth is its bread and butter.
Much attention is given to zines, which popped up all over America throughout the years under discussion. It’s interesting to learn not only of the differing editorial lines, but also that there was such a strong emphasis on both political theory and political issues—both domestic and international.
Indeed, the zines are indicative of the degree to which this counterculture was tuned in to the issues of the day, with particular emphasis on U.S. foreign policy in Central America, especially its war against Nicaragua. I was familiar with BYO Records thanks to the third volume of their Split Series albums (featuring Rancid and NOFX), but I didn’t know that they evolved out of the Better Youth Organization, founded in 1979 by Shawn Stern of Youth Brigade.
Meanwhile, the pressure put on Destroy L.A. zine by the FBI, which essentially led to its demise, is an example of both the challenges the punk scene faced and the perceived threat it posed to the status quo.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Mattson’s history is the importance of the punk movement, given the challenges it presented to the mass market homogeneity of the entertainment industry, and the dominant ideologies of the time—with Ronald Reagan being emblematic of both.
In fact, the DIY nature and creativity of the underground which Mattson sees as so important, are precisely what I find so inspirational and encouraging. Revisiting these bands and ideals reminds me of when I first discovered punk, and the power it appeared to exude.
We’re Not Here to Entertain is a superb history of American punk rock during the years 1980 to 1985. It is a rigorously researched, richly detailed and rewarding read that makes worthwhile reading not only for those interested in punk, also but those interested in music and culture generally. It is not to be missed.
Purchase the book here.