In Search of Titos Punks

In Search of Titos PunksIn Search of Tito’s Punks – On the Road in a Country That No Longer Exists

By Barry Phillips
published by Intellect Books

260 pages

ISBN 9781789387315


In Search of Tito’s Punks manages to simultaneously get under the skin of punk rock in the former Yugoslavia, while covering recent history and providing a travel guide cum road trip narrative while still being an enjoyable read, says Nathan Brown.

The author of In Search of Tito’s Punks, Barry Phillips, played bass on the Demob record No Room For You. This single by a multi-racial band from Gloucester was self-released on Round Ear Records and became an anthem for punks in the early 80s, helped by its inclusion on the ubiquitous Punk and Disorderly compilation album. The band self-imploded not long after. So it came as a surprise to Barry to hear years later that No Room For You had struck such a chord with punks in former Yugoslavia that it had been adopted as a staple and covered by numerous bands from that scene.

This revelation led to Barry making connections with punk rock protagonists and planning a journey to understand why. In the process, he learned more about the former Yugoslavian punk scene and met some of its key activators and participants. In one fell swoop this book acts as travel guide of the Rough Guide meets Bill Bryson variety, charts the development of punk in former Yugoslavia, and gives a summary of the history of this part of the world over the last century or so.

Barry is a talented, descriptive, writer and, as a result, I found myself as interested in the surroundings and people he described on his journeys as I was in him getting under the skin of the punk scene – the thread that joined it all up. The narrative takes us from the Netherlands (and the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia) across Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia and even to the Forest of Dean where he catches up with former Demob member Miff, who wrote and sang No Room For You. Tales of the chaotic, violent years when Demob first formed give the truth to the sepia-tinted selective memory that convinces us the old days were always good.

There is almost an element of thriller in the way Barry battles his way to his destinations despite the best efforts of the transport system – and in the UK, the weather – to defeat him, somehow finding his way to his destinations. Edge of the seat stuff! I’m not sure my stress levels could deal with the chaotic public transport on this particular road trip. Barry becomes The Phileas Fogg of Punk, with his own Passpartout, Tomislav, getting him out of scrapes – although unable to accompany Barry across all nations of the former country he grew up in.

Throughout the book, we are reminded that Yugoslavia was not behind the Iron Curtain and that punks could travel to Italy for gigs and to buy records. Hell, they could travel to London and Paris as well. The fact that foreign punk records were (often years after their initial release) licensed and released by state-owned record companies is surprising. Even more shocking was that state-funded record labels released homegrown talent and that punks were able to use state cultural channels and venues to organise gigs and provide media coverage. Then there are the bands who played in Yugoslavia. The Ruts, Stranglers, 999, Dr Feelgood, UK Subs, I could go on. There is also the interesting tale of how Nirvana failed in their first attempt to play Slovenia, and when they finally did it turned out to be one of their last gigs.

The fact that this part of the world spawned such a vibrant contribution to the worldwide punk scene is a testament to the dedication of its participants. Compulsory military service hampered Yugoslavian bands and then throughout the 1990s war impacted where bands could and couldn’t play and split personnel. There are a total of fifteen interviews with band members, label owners and promoters, appearing after every one or two chapters. The scene is set in the preceding chapter as Barry regales us of the lead-up to the interview and the time he spent with each of his new found friends. Some of the interviewees were there when punk first broke and they are still involved now. Within a couple of chapters I was scouring the internet for records by Pankrti (like an amalgam of Clash, Pistols, Adverts and Generation X), the proto-hardcore Prljavo Kazalište and other Yugo punk bands. YouTube thankfully provides access for those who cannot afford the record collector-fueled high price tags. A selected discography provides a comprehensive list of recommended listening.

The final chapter Standing At The Gates Of The West: Hitsville Yugo has a lot of fun with Clash references left right and centre. It provides something of an overview or reflection of what Barry gleaned from his interactions. His modesty in admitting that he couldn’t hope to catalogue everything is often missing in works of this kind. Rather than seeking to be the authority on the subject, Barry is clear he is providing his take. A couple of sentences from this reflective analysis stood out to me: “Overwhelmingly, the interviews in this book are characterised by a rejection of nationalism and a certain sense of sadness for the passing of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Amongst the punk veterans there is a feeling that, while not perfect, times were better before the dissolution.”  Providing more context, there is also a timeline of Yugoslavian Punk from 1975 until the federation’s break up, submitted by Croatian punk chronicler, Vinko Baric.

In Search of Tito’s Punks is a Punk Scholars Network title and like other PSN titles is published by academic journal publisher, Intellect, but it doesn’t feel like an academic book. There are occasional, useful, footnotes but the text isn’t interrupted by the academic referencing system. There is no thesis or methodology set out. This makes this text eminently more readable for a non-academic.

The price may surprise folks who are used to the price of potboilers in the “alternative rock” section of a bookshop but concerted efforts have been made by the Punk Scholars Network to make this book more accessible by volunteering editing and design time to bring the price down. It is also very well written and properly researched, unlike many of those cheap purchases.

The issue of Punk Scholars is an interesting one.  While it is wonderful that some talented intelligent people from the punk scene are challenging academia and questioning punk, some people I’ve spoken to are wary of an increasingly frequent academic analysis of punk, or even the need to be accepted to be legitimate. I don’t think there’s a problem here as the way punk has been viewed in its myriad forms and stages of development has never really been the driver of its development. If the forces of polite society, mainstream media, the police and even Parliament couldn’t derail us from our paths, how could some academic papers written by insiders? We can still have both visceral kneejerk responses and analysis. There have always been examples of intelligence and analysis bubbling up in this artform – arguably this is when it is at its best.

Punk Scholars Network also recognises “independent scholars” who certainly know their shit through lived experience, but have no attachment to an academic institution. This book is one of the PSN’s attempts to widen the discipline beyond institutions. As Russ Bestley, a PSN convenor told me “It’s certainly not an ‘academic’ history despite the series/publisher. We’re trying to reach a wider audience with this one.”

Available from Intellect Books

Punk Scholars Network Facebook group


Review by Nathan Brown.  His Louder Than War author archive can be found here.

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