At one point in time, Bay Area label Lookout! Records was the label. Though it started out as a way to document the things happening in the area’s vibrant and thriving punk rock scene, thanks to the success of a little band called Green Day, the label soon grew from a local happening to a label of international renown and respect. Much like labels Sub Pop, 4AD, or Touch and Go, you could count on a Lookout! release being a record of quality without actually having to hear the band first. The phenomenon of 1994 wasn’t a fluke, as the label would strike gold again with The Donnas, and then with Ted Leo. It seemed that Lookout! had become a label with a golden ear for melodic punk and the ability to share it with the world. Things looked bright.
And then it all fell apart.
“Money changes everything,” as the song says, and that’s pretty much what happened with Lookout!. The success of Green Day propelled the label to new heights, and with new heights came new responsibilities, as well as the realization that even the smallest band now had a higher profile, thanks to the label’s new-found regard and status. Suddenly, what was once a happy, idealistic label built on a punk rock aesthetic has suddenly become a full-time business with the bottom line suddenly becoming an important factor in the day-to-day operation—a development that did not sit well with the punk-rock purists of the Bay Area scene, the bands on the label, and, ultimately, several of the label’s founders.
At times, Punk USA feels less about the music and more about the infighting, the acrimony, the backstabbing, and mistrust. It’s shocking to read that a label that put out so many great, fun, enjoyable, and vital records was, at its core, a very unhappy, bitter place. And yet, that feels like the moral of the Lookout! story—how success can change things, people, and ideals. The battles between the label and Screeching Weasel, Furious George, and Pansy Division show that just because your label claims to be “punk rock” and “independent” doesn’t necessarily mean they are inherently good or ethical. And though there’s a lot of dirt on the background here, it’s to their credit that founders Larry Livermore and Patrick Hynes opted out of appearing here. While their voices are certainly missed, the already sordid story would probably turn down into a muck of uninteresting mudslinging and he said, she said.
It must be noted that what Punk USA seemingly started life as is not what it became, as author Kevin Prested acknowledges in his preface. That’s a slight disappointment for those who followed this book’s creation on Facebook, wherein would document the latest conversations with different bands and artists. From what he hinted at, he’s got enough information to write a second book, one that is less a history and more an encyclopedia of the label’s roster. Here’s hoping he does that; Punk USA is great, even if it feels less about the music and more about the sordid politics that brought down one of the better independent record labels.