Why Be Something that You’re Not: Detroit Hardcore 1979 – 1985 – Book
by Tony Rettman
It would seem in the past decade or so that there has been a lot of interest in the history of punk rock and early hardcore. A small handful of books were written on the subject and there was even a movie or two. While usually the mid to late 1970s punk gets covered, there was a book called American Hardcore that did a really poor job in trying to tell the history of hardcore punk rock in the United States. The movie of the same name was better than the book but still didn’t do a very robust job in covering all the major scenes in the United States as Chicago barely got a mention and Detroit was completely ignored. At least someone remedied the lack of coverage of Chicago by making a great movie about the old scene here but until now Detroit barely received any credit despite having been home to a handful of legendary hardcore bands and one of the most successful independent labels of all time.
Enter Tony Rettman, a freelance music journalist who took it upon himself to go out and document this small but very important music scene that happened thirty years ago. Luckily for him that unlike the scenes in New York and Los Angeles, most of the key players of the Detroit scene were still alive so he had the ability to get the stories and histories directly from the people who were there and most involved.
Why Be Something You’re Not tells the story about hardcore punk in Detroit and that little Touch and Go scene featuring The Fix, Necros, Meatmen, Negative Approach, Bored Youth, and others. Much like similar books about punk rock, this one is written in a narrative that sets the topic for the oral recollections of the people involved in the bands/zines/record label being discussed in any given chapter. The book starts with a brief history of how punk came to be in the Detroit area along with Cleveland which was close enough to Detroit that the two scenes ended up living in harmony for a brief time as some kids who were way into punk rock in Ohio would find themselves a new home and place to hang out in Detroit with like-minded punk rock fans.
Those like-minded Detroit punks were Tesco Vee (who also wrote the forward to this book) and Dave Stimson who had started a little fanzine called Touch and Go which was one of the earliest punk rock fanzines in the Midwest and one that ended up spawning a great little punk scene there in Detroit. The book gives some history on those guys and how they came to start a fanzine, it mentions all the good record stores that had the good sense to stock punk rock records back in a time that no one would, and it talks in great detail about the bands that formed around these guys, namely The Fix and Necros. The “big two” became the inspiration for a few other bands to form in the area including Negative Approach who became one of the most revered hardcore bands ever (and one that was appreciated by way more people decades after they broke up).
The book gives great detail on the forming of Necros, The Fix, Negative Approach and the Meatmen (among a few others) and the bands that formed in the area after them as well. It also gives great detail on the bands’ recording of their various 7″s, the various clubs that hosted the hardcore shows in the area, and of course the Touch and Go zine and subsequent record label. It seemed that these people’s memories were quite good as the various oral histories are quite detailed. While most of the major players of that scene were interviewed for this book, the biggest and strangest omission was Corey Rusk, who went on to take over Touch and Go Records and was also the bass player in the Necros. How he wasn’t included is a mystery to me and I’m curious to find out why.
On top of the great history, the book is littered with tons of great old photos, flyer scans, and pictures of the old records that are as much fun to look at as the book was to read. The book was a fairly quick read at about 240 pages and was made even quicker by the fact that I found it near impossible to put down. At the end of each chapter I would tell myself I’d just read a couple more pages and the next thing I know I was suddenly at the end of the book because I just kept going. The end of the book also features a really detailed list of all the bands of the era, who played in them and what records they released.
Why Be Something That You’re Not stands up nicely against the best books covering the early punk scene and is a mandatory read for anyone who is a fan of any of the bands from the Detroit scene, and just fans of early United States hardcore punk in general. It was well thought out and executed to near perfection and the only complaint I could come up with is that I wish it was a lot longer, but then again the scene covered in this book was too short so it is fitting that the book is too.