Punk USA: The Rise and Downfall of Lookout! Records (2014)

Kevin Prested

Lookout Records was situated in a unique position as pop/punk saw a post-grunge boom in the mid-nineties. The label held the release rights to Green Day’s pre-major-label back catalogue as well as the Operation Ivy releases (by pre-Rancid members). The millions in revenue that these releases generated annually for the label meant, essentially, that they were free to do as they wanted with the many other bands they released and were not bound by the usual financial restrictions of an independent label. Despite this the label would come to fall behind on it’s royalty payments to most of its bands, including Green Day, all of whom would eventually take back ownership of their releases leaving the label destitute.

The rise and fall is told as a series of feature articles about key label releases as well as a chronological oral history. Oral histories collate excerpts from interviews to provide a narrative through many different perspectives. Music histories are often told through oral history because, I guess, so much about the experience of music relates to its interaction with and experience by a fan base. This leads to the inevitable cliché in music documentaries of well-known musicians describing how they felt about a band when they were younger… usually worst personified in obligatory load of drivel from Bono. I don’t think there is a comparative use of oral history in other mediums (i.e. film, art) as it seems it is only music where there are so many shared group experiences.

The obvious problem with oral histories is that it is all necessarily subjective, a patchwork of opinions and recollections which need not necessarily be verified. I’d love to declaratively state that oral histories are awful, lazy and a cop-out but unfortunately, I must admit, at least to an extent they are sometimes necessary. Even the best books about music scenes are often decried as biased, subjective, or marginalising. Even Please Kill Me: The Oral history of Punk, which seems to insulate itself in its title as being subjective and prone to error, was accused of being too subjective and prone to error.

So, while I wish that this book, like all oral histories, used interviews as sources and wrote with a consistent narrative voice I understand too that it would be inviting an unholy amount of criticism to do so. Prested writes that as the label grew out of the same time and place as the venue Gilman St and adjacent to the magazine Maximumrocknroll there was a sense of ownership throughout the local scene. Furthermore, the casual and friendly nature of the recording contracts with the many bands the label released also promoted a sense of camaraderie and ownership. There are a lot of people, many represented in the book, who felt that Lookout did wrong. Meanwhile, though Lookout records was at its peak a multi-million-dollar business it only ever employed a few handfuls of people. The label was never so large that there were enough people on the inside who could objectively piece together the path to disaster.

With such a delicate subject where many people felt different kinds of personal connection to and, in turn, betrayal by the label and its owners it was bound to be difficult to try and chart the labels history and the points which lead to its failure. In his introduction Prested is self-aware enough to attempt to explain why he is simultaneously the best person to write the history and rise of the label but perhaps not so well-suited to tackle the decline.

Prested’s unabashed fandom leads to a high level of detail on the signing and key releases of the labels bigger bands. He also does a great job explaining the origins of Green Day and Operation Ivy The book provides more detail than I’d ever come across and fills in a lot of gaps in my knowledge about pre-Green Day bands and the many bands Operation Ivy members took part in before Rancid. I now also understand and appreciate the importance and standing of other pivotal Lookout bands like Screeching Weasel, Tilt, Avail, and The Queers as Prested writes comprehensive biographies of these and many more bands. I would happily recommend this book to anyone with an interested in 90’s pop/punk because of this level of information, trivia, and care for the subject(s). There are also often larger stories hidden in the side mentions of venues/people/bands/magazines which have renewed by interest in revisiting issues of Punk Plant as well as finally cracking the Gilman St book.

It’s unfortunate in a way that Prested must go on to detail the fall of the label. Time seems to have blunted many interviewee’s sense of anger and outrage. The attitude is predominantly ‘so it goes’ with occasional allegations of negligence and improper conduct which are never substantiated or explored. There is no real ending, summation or moral to take from any of the events as they are portrayed. There is no passing of judgment or clear damnation. There are points, where the book allows people to contend what, ultimately, was the downfall of Lookout but they also mere straws piled on mountains of mistake.

The story of the label reflects the fall of the music industry in general. A gigantic amount of hubris and lack of planning for leaner times. Mass riches squandered in a way that seems incomprehensible in a post internet/streaming world. A more objective investigative book could be written about the mismanagement and fall of Lookout Records and its peers. This is what I initially thought I wanted when I finished it. With time though I’ve realised that Prested’s book is successful because of the chosen focus. A witch-hunt wouldn’t have proven anything other than what we know. The entertainment business squandered money at its peak. Lookout was more foolish than some and as bad as many. The witch-hunt would rake bitter fuel over dying coals, but an exploration of the labels highlights, success and legacy shows not only why it was so important but the reason so many were heartbroken at its failure.



Overthinking: Where is livestreaming heading?

I don’t use Facebook very regularly anymore and so have missed its push for users to make and use livestreaming. I’ve noticed it a lot on other platforms like Instagram and there seems also to be many mid-level channels on YouTube who have been encouraged to produce live videos.

Frankly, most live videos I’ve seen so far have been glitchy and made with token effort. Platforms are pushing for producers to provide live content but some of the best producers of video content are great because of the planning and editing they put into their normal videos. In a live setting, they are unable to provide the same slick form of entertainment and, ultimately, most content producers seem to use their live streams for Q and A sessions or virtual meet and greets.

In terms of journalism live streaming seems to have more potential:


With Facebook Live there has been an uptake in the use of already available streaming capability. This is because of the high number of Facebook users and the platforms ability to place such heavy emphasis on Live streaming.

The effect on journalism as cited by Matt Dusenbury is best exemplified by Justin Stapleton’s live reportage severe weather in Houston in 2016.  This example shows livestreaming provides the potential for reporters to interact with the viewers of the broadcast and tailor factors of the broadcast to their reactions. As in the example of Stapleton he was able to, in real time, provide viewers of his broadcast with information they needed.

Live streaming journalism is already leading to an increased immediacy and candidacy in the reportage of breaking and rapidly developing news events. In addition to the increased speed of the news cycle tools such as Facebook Live could also lead to an unprecedented self-reflexivity of news and a breakdown of the divide between reporters and their audience. Traditionally audience input has had to pass through producers. Live streaming has the potential for the broadcaster and audience to directly interact and for the news to be tailored to the audience’s needs.


The various social platforms have been intent on becoming media companies for a while now. Twitter has a deal to live stream the NBA and Instagram and Snapchat are still trying to pivot their ‘story’ style into watchable channels and news sources. Similarly, YouTube is trying to curate the best of its platform into YouTube tv.

I wonder where all of this is head? To what extent are these platforms looking to curate? Could we all one day have our own 24-hour non-stop tv channel of live and scripted content which is unique to our own personal preferences and priorities?

Based on the Instagram models our channels could be location based, preference based or revolve around subscriptions. But what about the shared experience of watching pre-scripted content.

As interesting an idea as this might be do any of us really want this? I wonder if live streaming is a technology we don’t want to be pervasive. Live streaming suits us for news and legitimately interesting live events but I think it could be a development which, like video chat, we prefer to only use occasionally.

Perhaps it will evolve eventually and make more sense. Perhaps live-streaming will be integrated into subscription based TV. Perhaps. In the meantime, I’ll continue to grit my teeth while content producers fiddle with cameras bulge their eyes as they try to react to subscriber comments.

Tech Waves and Evolution in Journalism

Martha Gellhorn (L) and Kim Barker (R) reporting from different ends of the 20th century.

An initial goal of this blog and part of the meaning behind the name Pins and Strings was the intention for much of my writing to explore perceived or real connectedness in cultural influence and development.

In my upcoming run of reviews of foreign correspondent autobiographies, which began with John Simpson’s We Chose to Speak of War and Strife, I’m beginning to develop the idea different waves of journalism and journalist personality based upon the technology available in each journalist’s respective era. Simpson provides a very good history and evolution of journalism within his book but avoids defining eras. He is perhaps too close to the subject and his subjects to want to classify and instead hails all as iconic and heroic.

Which isn’t to say I think defining different waves of journalism based upon technology lessens the achievements of past or current journalists. It has however undoubtedly lead to different priorities and tactics in reporting. The autobiographies of Martha Gellhorn, Edward Behr, Marie Colvin and Kim Barker are almost representative, respectively, of each quarter of the 20th century. Barker and Colvin share many of the same personal qualities as Behr and Gellhorn but the latter spend much of their time dealing with manually typing stories and frantically searching for methods of mailing (Gellhorn) or wiring (Behr) their editors. Colvin and Simpson share occasionally similar frustrations as they struggle for satellite signals and Barker as she searches for internet. These searches are never as desperate as that of Gellhorn and Behr however.

In considering these eras or waves in the modern era it is not just the journalist and the methods and tools at their disposal but also the wants and needs of the news consumer which must be taken into consideration. Were Behr and Gellhorn subject to less from the end users of their news? If so was it commensurate with the challenges they face and the technology available?


The advent of the internet and smart phones led to the end of the telegram and much of the problems for journalists in lodging stories. It has also changed the way in which news is consumed. Today multimedia journalism, while not absolute, is increasingly the most common and widespread way of reporting and consuming news particularly for breaking and complicated stories.

In The 21st Century Journalism Handbook Tim Holmes explains this shift is due to the increased availability of high speed internet. This mean, he writes, that consumers can now ‘interact with what goes on around them like never before’ and are no longer ‘stuck with a local paper and a local radio or TV station’.

Gitner and Kennedy, in Multimedia storytelling for digital communicators in a multiplatform world, posit this ‘ability for the citizenry to talk back (18)’ means journalists must be ‘more flexible, faster and accountable even as technology makes this easier in a way’ and that this, in turn, only ‘Makes journalism richer and deeper’ (27).

Journalists from various agencies in Libya

Looking forward news may become even more portable and instantaneous with the rise of snapchat like temporary stories and the provision of live streaming through various social media platforms. Developing issues in journalism may relate to how both professional and citizen journalists deal with the platforms curation and censorship of these livestreams.

Most ot of all I wonder what the likes of Martha Gellhorn and Edward Behr would have reported with the ability to instantly transmit, to provide background information through hyperlinks and film and edit video in the palm of their hands. With such media convergence what would someone like Martha Gellhorn have done with a smartphone as she embarked from her hiding place on a nurse’s boat onto the beaches of Normandy? What would we have learnt about Vietnam or Tiananmen Square if Edward Behr had live-streamed it? It’s easy to see why Simpson was reluctant to differentiate between generations of 20th century journalists though I think these few examples also illustrate just how much we take for granted in the age of multimedia journalism.

We Chose to Speak of War and Strife (2016)

John Simpson

John Simpson is the world affairs editor at the BBC. He has worked at the BBC as a journalist for his entire career and much of his work was as a foreign correspondent. He was once hunted by Robert Mugabe, avoided bullets at the Tiananmen Square massacre, bore witness to the Kosovo War, the first Gulf War and countless other pivotal world events.

This, his latest of several books which have detailed his life as a journalist, is more of a history of the evolution and role of the foreign correspondent. I first heard of the book in an interview between Simpson and Phillip Adams on Radio National’s Late Night Live. The segment was titled ‘The End of the Foreign Correspondent’ and in the interview Simpson posited that the role of foreign correspondent has all but been replaced by news services and freelance local journalists and implied his book was a sort of response.

This idea of an obituary to the profession is perhaps an angle which Simpson used to promote the book. Meanwhile, the back-cover blurb uses a different angle by name-dropping Hemingway (who only appears in the book tangentially in an anecdote), and also portrays the book as a series of hair-raising adventures.

In actuality, the book is neither an obituary to foreign correspondence or an auto-biographical tale of adventure though there are elements of each. Rather, Simpson has compiled an anthological history of the foreign correspondent. He has culled from history books, foreign correspondents auto-biographies, his own life, and his own auto-biographies.

I’ve a certain immediate and unfounded suspicion of Simpson based around generational difference and Australian/English colonial histories. I was interested in the subject but wary of both him and his book. As the structure of the book revealed itself to be neither searing indictment of modern corporate journalism or personal tales of adventure I was even more willing, perhaps even eager, to decry the book as little more than a lazy cash-grab copy-and-paste exploitative compilation of other journalist’s lives.

I do have small criticisms of the book but they do not relate to Simpson’s use of other writings. If anything, I applaud him for having curated such a diverse, interesting, and at times obtuse collection of writings on foreign correspondence. He is also humbly adept at backgrounding himself as a segue device between the various journalists.

In terms of criticisms the book does almost collapse under its own ambitions in the opening chapters. Simpson begins with a history of the origins of the foreign correspondent. He seems to be aware of the concentration required to keep track of the unfamiliar names, wars and monarchs involved in the first instances of foreign reporting. To keep the reader interested he intersplices elements of his own autobiography and the effect is that initially the book seems messy and self-absorbed.

Simpson also uses a wry, almost arch, tone of voice which is seemingly common to journalist biographies (including Edward Behr in the 60’s and Kim Barker in the 2000’s). I think the idea in using this tone is to avoid sensation but it often leads to anti-climax, detachment, boredom or even smugness.

Simpson also often misses the irony in romanticising the early decades of foreign correspondence and laughing at the many examples of its excess and drunken follies. After detailing the history of a profession that was often unnecessarily lavish Simpson ends the book decrying the extinction of the foreign correspondent. He posits that the living expenses of the foreign correspondent are seen as too expensive in the modern age.

I’m can’t speak to the veracity of Simpson’s assessment of the current state of foreign correspondence. In Kim Barker’s book Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which details her time as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan in the 2000’s, there is an underlying theme of budgetary constraints. That said she is often stubbornly reporting on Afghanistan while her editors are asking her to look for different subject matter or report within different countries.

Thirty fives years earlier Edward Behr in his autobiography (entitled ‘Bearings: A Foreign Correspondent’s Life Behind the Lines or, alternatively, ‘Anyone here been raped and speak English?’) which was published in the early 70’s, also ends his book with the budgetary worries and concerns as both Simpson and Barker.

I don’t think it’s necessary new or surprising that there is an effort to curtail spending on foreign correspondents. In the wake of the global financial crisis many industries have had to scale back from past excesses and autobiographies of the music, movie and tv stars similarly lament the contemporary states of their respective industries while also yearning for the golden era of endless expense accounts.

Ultimately, it’s hard to truly know how objective Simpson and his views on the modern state of journalism are. He continues to occupy one of the top spots at the BBC after having lived through the golden era of foreign correspondence. Is the foreign correspondent really dying out? Will the news industry learn to adapt? Or will it copy its entertainment cousins of music and movies and adapt cry poor while still living rich?

Thankfully these questions are not the real aim of this book. I do wish that Simpson had been more willing to predict the future of journalism or provide some sort of guidance to up and coming journalists. Instead he provides a loving curation of the many chapters of the profession as lived and written by past heroes of foreign journalism such as Don McMullin, Martha Gellhorn, and Marie Colvin. The book cherishes and values the lives of these and many other individuals. Simpson celebrates their passion and work and grieves for those who were lost along the way. It is an invaluable resource as it acts as aa stepping stone towards dozens of other amazing journalist auto-biographies. A fatalist could call it the book an obituary to the profession. An optimist would view it as a sort of celebratory honour roll and call to arms.


*Edit 16/7 Kim Barker’s book was actually titled The Taliban Shuffle and adapted into a film with the title Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.