By Kevin Prested
In Punk USA, Kevin Prested takes on the huge task of exploring the rise and fall of Lookout Records. Documenting the label’s ownership and employees, the bands and releases, and the music scene itself in 191 pages is quite an accomplishment. His book is painted in broad strokes allowing for huge events and chunks of time to be neatly summarized and easily understood. Without a detailed focus on any one moment or any one band, Punk USA is able to avoid the pitfalls of taking sides in historical conflicts or becoming a biography for one or two particular Lookout bands. However, it is this bird’s eye view of history that also makes this book very good but not great.
Lookout was the most important pop punk label of the 1990s. They released records for Green Day, Operation Ivy, Screeching Weasel, The Queers, and Mr. T Experience. Lookout also put out music for a number of other bands that ended up being less successful and less nationally known. Some of these bands include Brent’s TV, Tilt, and Blatz. Prested treats all of the Lookout bands and releases with similar coverage. Devoting the same amount of print to larger and smaller bands is egalitarian in approach and gives the reader a general timeline of events. However, by focusing on too many bands, Prested prevents his book from delving into the historical significance of the key bands and the major releases that launched punk rock onto the national scene. Missing the opportunity to learn about the workings of seminal bands or the creation of landmark releases is a huge missed opportunity.
This approach also handicaps Prested’s coverage of the major events in the label’s history. The departure of founder, Lawrence Livermore, is discussed briefly, the on again and off again relationship between Lookout and Screeching Weasel is only touched upon, the details of mismanagement of millions of dollars from Green Day’s recordings is hardly examined, and the dealings the label had with Ben Weasel and the negative effect his label’s (Panic Button) sale to Lookout had on the health of Lookout is reported upon but not thoroughly explored. Covering these events in greater depth and more detail would have made more a more interesting read.
The 1990s punk scene launched a ton of bands into the mainstream. Labels like Epitaph, Fat, Nitro, Fearless, and Hopeless all played a part in exposing great bands to a national audience. However, it was the initial rise of Lookout that helped support the highly influential and extremely prolific Gilman scene. Lookout became home to pop-punk releasing the genre defining My Brain Hurts and Anthem for a New Tomorrow by Screeching Weasel, Love Songs for the Retarded by the Queers, the Operation Ivy collection, and Mr. T Experience’s Love Is Dead. Additionally, and probably most importantly from a historical perspective, Green Day’s early releases were put out by Lookout. Green Day’s success not only brought attention to the Cali-punk community but bankrolled Lookout allowing them to create an aggressive schedule of releases for years.
Prested has condensed a good deal of history into an orderly timeline of events and gives equal time to the various parties that make up the story of Lookout Records. The book is easy to digest and is a great way for newer fans of punk to learn the history of an extremely important time for the movement. There are a ridiculous number of stories that could be told about Lookout’s heyday and many of them are in this book. However, the approach Prested chose to employ in telling Lookout’s tale prevents him from the deep exploration of key moments in the label’s rise and fall. The approach also fails to explain the most intriguing moments of the label’s historic run. I enjoyed Punk USA and the additional information (parts of the book that were cut for various reasons) found on Prested’s website and I would heartily recommend this book to any fan of the genre. However, those of you seeking details about the inner workings of the label and its bands may be somewhat disappointed as Punk USA will likely leave you with more questions than answers.
Check out these other posts:
Screeching Weasel – Punk rock 101: a quick look at all their music and cherry picking the best stuff each release.
A look back at Love is Dead with Dr. Frank of the Mr. T. Experience.
A book review of NOFX’s Hepatitis Bathtub.
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