At first glance, Punks in Peoria is a familiar chronicle of a small town scene. Anyone who grew up outside a big city will resonate with the disparate, slightly desperate way the Peoria punks ransacked their hometown in search of like-minded fans. This is a book to read if you grew up travelling miles to stand in a dark, loud room and watch your favourite band with the same people each week. It’s also a book about how we build our communities, and how outsiders connected before social media made all of our lives much, much easier and also much, much harder.
Punks tells the story of Peoria’s punk rock music scene, from the mid-80s to the mid-00s. As a religiously conservative blue-collar town, Peoria wasn’t a natural fit for young punk rockers and a lot of the book is about the lengths local promoters and bands went to in order to build a scene. Despite the lack of venues (some of the more memorable gigs were played in gymnasiums, veterans bars and even a laundromat), Peoria attracted big name bands like Jesus Lizard and Fugazi, while also producing homegrown legends like Dollface and Plans Mistaken for Stars. Anecdotes abound as Wright and Barrett recreate the atmosphere of those early gigs and the sense of optimism as big record labels started scouting small towns for ‘the next Nirvana’.
Unfortunately Punks suffers from the usual set of issues faced by music and scene historians. Maybe due to a surfeit of local loyalty, Wright and Barret seem set on naming every single gig-attendee in Peoria. No band is ever “bad”, no gig boring, and all are afforded a similar amount of time on the page. The result can feel a bit monotonous and there are certain chapters which read more like a list of names then the story of a scene. While the actual words are never used, the book is haunted by the ghost of “you had to be there”. Descriptions of Peoria itself are relegated to section intros, leaving the reader to flounder around on Wikipedia in order to understand the relevance of certain towns, tours and labels.
That said, the connections Wright and Barrett draw between happenings in Peoria and the changing life of U.S. politics and music are genuinely fascinating. If you’ve ever been part of a small, DIY scene this book will take you on a screaming nostalgia trip. And if you haven’t, you’ll still have a better understanding of how independent music developed in the U.S. and an epic playlist of Peoria punk rock anthems.
Punks in Peoria: Making a Scene in the American Heartland is published by University of Illinois Press on 15th June 2021. Preorder here from bookshop.org.