Book Review: Punk USA: The Rise and Fall of Lookout Records by Kevin Prested

You hear a lot of praise about punk rock in the 1970s, but the ‘90s had a burgeoning punk scene, too. Bubbling just under the big alt-rock banner, punk bands proliferated mainly on the West Coast – Portland, Seattle, LA, San Francisco – and you usually didn’t see or hear of them unless you were into the scene or read Maximum Rock and Roll or other underground zines.

San Francisco’s Lookout Records was at the forefront of that scene, releasing EPs, albums, and vinyl singles from ska punk band Operation Ivy, Mr. T Experience, the Donnas, Avengers, Rancid, Bratmobile, Screeching Weasels, and Green Day’s first two albums, 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours and Kerplunk. After Green Day signed to Reprise in 1993 and achieved mainstream success, sales of their Lookout albums helped the label prosper. Affiliated with Maximum Rock and Roll and the Gilman Street Project (an all-ages music venue in West Berkeley), Lookout Records provided a shot of adrenaline to an increasingly fragmented punk rock scene.

Now Green Day’s in the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame and Lookout Records is no more. The label folded in 2012, pulling their catalog from digital platforms and returning masters and inventory to the bands.

Punk USA: The Rise and Fall of Lookout Records traces the history of the Bay Area’s punk label, from its inception in 1987 to its demise in 2012. Author Kevin Prested compiled the book from hundreds of interviews with Lookout’s staff members and bands. Paring down the original 178,000 word manuscript to 191 pages, the book includes release details and band histories (told mostly in oral narrative form by the people who lived it).

Lookout founder Larry Livermore, who sold the label in 1994, wasn’t interviewed, but there is plenty of input from Chris Appelgren, who took over after Livermore left (along with Cathy Bauer and Molly Neuman) The usual ownership squabbles over money and musical direction lead to Livermore’s departure. Money factored into much of the discontent with Lookout, as it does with the big labels, and not just for the owners. Andy Ernst, who worked on Green Day’s Lookout albums, talks about asking Billie Joe Armstrong and Livermore for a percentage of profits from the albums he produced. Screeching Weasel, Furious George, and other bands fought with Lookout over money and label support.

A thorough look at the rise and fall of one of the 1990s great indie labels, Punk USA: The Rise and Fall of Lookout Records spends a moderate amount of time describing and critiquing the music itself. Ultimately, though, it deals more with the business side of the label and clashing personalities that created and sustained it. You can read more about Lookout bands and their releases on Prested’s website.

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Jade Blackmore

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