PM Press Blog, Review

NoMeansNo Review

By Mike Dunn

Today I’m reviewing “NoMeansNo: From Obscurity to Oblivion: An Oral History,” by Jason Lamb, with Paul Prescott, published this past January, by PM Press. Definitely one of the best band histories I’ve ever read. It is told through short interview clips of band members, friends, associates, and fans, interspersed with tons of beautiful album art, posters, and photographs. It’s raw, and honest, and incredibly funny, and will leave you with a new appreciation for this influential band.

This book is so good that I had to put it down after the first couple of pages so that I could turn on my stereo. And then I continued reading while blasting “Wrong,” and “Why Do They Call Me Mr. Happy,” and didn’t put it down again until “The Day Everything Became Isolated and Destroyed” had played through twice.

Brendan Canty (Fugazi) said NoMeansNo reminded him of the Minutemen. I like this comparison. Both bands were characterized by hard thumping basslines, intricate guitar work, super tight musicianship, with a jazzy, funky, but entirely punk sound. And with lyrics much more sophisticated and intelligent than many of their contemporaries. Mike Watt, bassist for the Minutemen, said he loved NoMeansNo.

Of course, being a fan, I already knew what great musicians they were. What I didn’t know (but probably should have guessed) was that the Wright brothers, John (Drums) and Rob (Bass) were trained on classical music and jazz. And that they were fans of an eclectic mix of different genres. It warmed my heart to read how they would set aside special time on every tour, usually during a night drive, to listen reverently to the Residents’s “Mark of the Mole” in its entirety. That is dedication and good taste!

On the 10th anniversary of the Alternative Tentacles record label, Jello Biafra put out a compilation called Virus 100, featuring cover versions of Dead Kennedys songs performed by various artists. Everyone thought NoMeansNo would choose one of the edgier DK anthems and blast the hell out of it. Instead, they did an a cappella version of “Forward To Death.” I had totally forgotten about that cover until I read this book. Had to go back and listen to it again. It was awesome! They each did a different instrument with their voice. A real testament to their musical talent and quirky sense of humor.

I also really loved the story about when they were in the San Francisco Bay Area and crashed at the home of Kamala Parks (Gilman Street, Maximum Rock and Roll, and Kamala & the Karnivores). Instead of ogling her extensive collection of punk records, they went to straight to her dad’s collection, getting really excited by all his Mahler records. It reminded me of the first time I met the parents of a girl I was dating in high school. Instead of grilling me about my intentions with his daughter, her father asked me if I liked jazz, and promptly started playing me a selection of his favorite free jazz artists, Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler. Perhaps one reason NoMeansNo always resonated so much with me is our shared appreciation for jazz, classical, and weird stuff, like the Residents.

Another thing I liked about this book was hearing so many people saying what nice and decent guys they were. When touring, and crashing at other people’s homes, they had a reputation for leaving the house cleaner than they found it. No matter where they stayed. They always did the dishes, too. And sometimes vacuumed. They never trashed the place, or acted like brats, as so many other punks routinely did. They were real mensches in a scene where so many other guys thought that being punk meant fucking shit up and being a dick.

They were super nice, but real pranksters, too. And this book is chock full of anecdotes about their various practical jokes. I found it particularly amusing to read about the tricks they played on some of the more hard-edged punks of the era, like Jello Biafra and Henry Rollins. Indeed, when Jason Lamb read some of these stories aloud at Punks With Books, May 26, 2024, he had the audience, and other panelists, in stitches. I feel blessed to have been part of this event, along with Paul Prescott, Michelle Gonzales, Juanita E. Mantz Pelaez, Billy Bragg, and James Tracy. If interested, you can see a clip of that event here:

I highly recommend “NoMeansNo: From Obscurity to Oblivion: An Oral History.” It’s a fun read. You’ll probably learn something interesting from it. And, with its large format and color images, it’ll look great on your coffee table. Unless, of course, you’re still living a punk lifestyle and don’t have a coffee table. In which case, it’ll look great on your floor. Or on your milk crate. Or, as in my case, on my bed with the pile of other books I’m reading.