We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001
by Eric Davidson
We Never Learn is a ragged riff of pop history, as punky in form as it is in content. The language and imagery author Eric Davidson pounds out can be gruesome and gaudy – this isn’t One Direction he is writing about – but also carries a relentless energy that practically blisters off the page.
Punk-based though it may be, We Never Learn is certainly written in the key of a deeper nostalgia. During an interview, former scenester and indie record mogul Johan Kugelberg reflects to Davidson that “before American Graffiti, there really wasn’t the idea of retro consumption culture.” But he underlines (with some unintended though useful irony) that it “is something that certainly has been evolving…”
Davidson, former lead singer of semi-garage-revivalists the New Bomb Turks dives deeply into that trash heap of retro culture. His personal pile is “Gunk Punk” – a choice of label for the ultra raw, stripped-down rock and roll of bands descended from the likes of The Troggs, Sonics and Seeds, and with which he is spiritually and artistically aligned. It is a nostalgia for bowl cuts, beaten up tube amps, two chords and a certain shaggy version of the truth.
In We Never Learn, Davidson has produced a fanboy appreciation of his demarcated genre, cataloguing a music scene that was a bit of an ironic reaction to the 1980s garage rock revival (see: The Fuzztones, The Chesterfield Kings, etc.) that was, itself, a somewhat ironic recalling of the 1960s garage/protopunk bands. Davidson’s prose itself often recalls a hyper-hipster schtick associated with the campy aspect attached to the garage scene, such as when he riffs off a description of San Francisco-based “trashthrash gods” the Dwarves:
“Kooky kill-tune conquistadors, they truly evoked the ‘blender’ metaphor, pureeing all greaserock tenets into one-minute hilarious heaves to the head via an unholy trinity of trash classics and the most crazed live performance of the era.”
Other times, he works with slightly deranged metaphors that jolt like a sudden shriek of feedback: “Teengenerate hit the stage last, and the place was like napalm in a hot-air popcorn maker”. A roll-call of the band names he drops throughout the book reads like free verse poetry: Gories, Mummies, Mighty Caesars, A-Bones, Dirt Bombs, Raunch Hands, Action Swingers, Cheater Slicks, Dwarves, Dead Moon, Devils Dogs, Supersuckers (etc.)…
It may seem a bit over-the-top, but when you are writing about bands like The Mummies who gigged while swathed head-to-toe in gauze bandages, that tactic is well-founded poetic license.
We Never Learn succeeds on two levels: chronicling that Gunk Punk movement (aligning a huge number of bands loosely, but convincingly enough for his needs), along with its stars, achievements and aesthetic, while also outlining one of the key artistic impulses of our era in trend-revivalism. That is, since the 1960s or so, what comes across in pop culture as “cool”, rebellious and edgy is often a reinvigoration of previous outliers – in some cases, revived over and over, with subtle tweaks for the times (a faster beat here, less innuendo and more outright cursing there).
A recent blitz of memoirs published by alt/indie rock legends (Al Jourgensen from Ministry; Dean Wareham from Luna/Galaxy 500; Richard Hell) has established a whole new subgenre for aging GenXers looking to revisit their younger days in a manner akin to flipping through a crate of old vinyl found in the basement. We Never Learn would fit, if not quite snugly, in this rack. Davidson’s book isn’t a personal/confessional tell-all (although the New Bomb Turks do pop up more than once). Neither is it an academic study of a pop phenomenon (the Gunk Punk genre encompasses a wide range of acts and aesthetics, with very different raisons d’etre that jostle beneath Davidson’s canopy). The book is more like an extended fanzine, stuffed with photos and poster art that make it feel like a capsule of pre-internet indie culture. In that sense, it is a great success – pop art and artifact all in one. Nostalgic, perhaps even meta-nostalgic, but joyously loud as the consistently reinvented music itself. Retro, for sure, but based in the ageless impulse to just cut loose and live a bit.
Flip it here and crank it up!