Simon Reynolds – Rip It Up and Start Again
The first thing to say about Simon Reynolds is that he is a very, very good writer. Well-researched, dealing deftly with everything from critical theory to in-band gossip.
Also that this is the nearest thing we have to a definitive account of these remarkable years. Why didn’t I read it earlier??
And finally that I’ve never come across anyone more able to capture the way music sounds in a few well-chosen metaphors. That’s a very, very hard thing to do, even more so when the music concerned is all broadly from within one genre. If you can call this exploratory period a genre.
The way he’s managed the deluge of material from this explosively, anxiously, zeitgeisty creative period is also impressive, working through a series of themes grouping bands and developments together in more-or-less chronological order. If anything would work when so much is interconnected and simultaneous, this does.
But it does risk throwing some babies out with the bathwater: for example, unless you’ve a good head for dates (or lived through the era yourself) you could be forgiven for thinking, after reading him, that post-punk was invented by PiL. I mean, John Lydon can be forgiven a lifetime of dodgy ads and in-it-for-the-money reformations of either of his bands, having entirely reinvented music not once but twice within four years of his twentieth birthday, and in radically opposing directions, and written some extraordinary lyrics (Poptones, Careering (on Metal Box, 1978), God Save the Queen (various labels… 1977) to name but three) to boot.
But the thing we now (not least thanks to Mr Reynolds) call post-punk was around well before Public Image (Virgin, 1978) brought dub-deep bass to denizen of the record section of Woolies (in my case the branch in Tavistock, Devon, where I bought it soon after it came out. Or my friend did, didn’t like it, and gave it me shorn of its newspaper-styled sleeve). It got me wondering, how we perceived it all at the time: for me, at least, the outpouring of music that took the restlessness of punk but moved beyond its puritanical aesthetic realm *was* punk, so obviously a response to the highest/lowest possibilities of a call to permanent artistic revolution that there was no distinction between one and the other. Or if it had a name, it was New Wave, not yet a sub-genre of faintly punk-influenced pop with crap ties, just a word for a deluge of things that seemed somehow related to punk but weren’t it; some of them, even had already been around for a long time, but no one had previously noticed: from Cabaret Voltaire to Ian Dury. And we knew something special was happening, chiefly because the one and only way of hearing this stuff without buying it was via John Peel — an obsessively taped and curated and shared and late-night devoted and anticipated listen — and John Peel told us, night after night, that something remarkable was going on, as well as demonstrating this by playing it — all of it, not just the London DIY-ers. Which leads me to the next oddity in this book: that (in spite of himself apparently discovering this music via 10-12am sessions by the radio) Reynolds hugely downplays the influence of this man, the role he played in making this musical wave genuinely nationwide and cross-pollinating. And of the culturall significance of those things we now call mixtapes, with their homemade covers.
But the real oddities relate to the chronology I mentioned earlier, to how he deals with the beginnings and the endings. I don’t blame him in a way, as trying to define the edges of any ‘period’ is a thankless task.
Firstly, the beginning: he knows, because he says so, that arty, various, clever ‘punk’ existed alongside the shouty-three-chorders from the off: Subway Sect, Wire, Siouxsie are all there at the start, or so close to it that it doesn’t matter. Over the pond, this is even more true of Patti Smith and Television, art-extraordinary ‘punk’ avant la lettre: they are ‘out’ yet, Talking Heads are ‘in’ the book: why?.
What all this music has in common is that it combines the artistic ambition of prog with a new discipline – a refusal to noodle (even side 2 of Horses (Arista, 1975) has a certain focus) - and a certain harsh dash of (usually urban) charged realism: indeed that statment is about all one can do to pin down those qualities the musics of the era share; and it’s odd that this doesn’t come over, given that one of Reynold’s most salient contributions is to show us how much — shock horror – ’prog’ and ‘post-punk’ are in fact a continuum. Nonconformist electrified pop music with artistic ambition: a continuous wave of invention from the mid-60s to the mid-80s.
Allied to this is an odd inability to join some of the dots: in addition to the above early-arty parks, much ‘pure punk’ is excluded, even when profoundly relevant. I can’t work out if this is an editorial judgement, managing the material, or (surely not) ignorance — the only reason I have for wondering about the latter is that he doesn’t seem to know that Siouxsie’s Lord’s Prayer (Join Hands, Polydor 1978) is a rehash of their first live performance, one of the most seminal if least listenable moments of 1976 and ‘real punk’. But it means that the echoes of, for example, Can in the Pistols (Submission, Problems: on Never Mind the Bollocks, Virgin 1978) are not noticed, and even more importantly the Clash are lumped in with all the other rockists. Not without reason, but one can’t overstate the signifgicance for post-punk of their early reggae experiments – Police and Thieves (on The Clash, 1977), White Man (in Hammersmith Palais) (CBS, 1978). As I blogged last week, these tracks reinvented the intensity of roots reggae for a white, non-religious audience, and really understood the significance of the groove, the bass, to boot: given the openness to such things that is a defining feature of post-punk, surely this is a major gap in his story? Meanwhile, while London Calling (CBS, 1979) is barely post-punk, it was certainly influential, and certainly has its left-field moments, not least the title track itself; while by Sandinista! (CBS, 1980) and Combat Rock (CBS, 1982) they were certainly in the van of the more left-field experiments of recent years, albeit with a certain posey rock-starrey sheen.
Here, at the later end of his story — the end, 1982-4– things get even odder. Lots of space is devoted to an excellent account of how New Pop emerged out of post-punk, as everyone from Green to the Human League to the Associates turned scratchy DIY experimentalism into liquid pop gold, while retaining (well, perhaps not, in the case of the Human League) a certain avant-garde intelligence, creating briefly one of the few eras when pure pop has also been genuinely clever, suprising in emotion and content, innovative. All this is fair and square, but if one is including this, which in his account even embraces the likes of Spandau Ballet or Depeche Mode under the post punk heading, but doesn’t include the Smiths (or at least explain their absence), then something very, very strange is going on. Morrissey was there with Devoto, Shelley, E. Smith, Albrecht and the rest, watching the Sex Pistols in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1976, after all; indeed lyrically at least, the Smiths might have been the last 4/4 guitar band to find a genuinely new niche within the inherently conservative, and increasingly marginal, musical form we still (*ouch*) call ‘rock’. And then there’s a whole, at its most interesting emphaticaly non-urban, aspect of the period, an extraordinarily important – indeed underestimated – story which deserves a chapter to itself: what, no Pogues? No (gawdblessem, the little wonders) Dancing Did?): postpunk electric roots. At least, staying briefly in the imagined countryside in spirit if not in fact, he understands the Blue Orchids, who did more than anyone to move the boundaries of the period into zones of explicit spirituality, new hip priests indeed.
Anyway, an excellent read, and excellently written, and full of new information and new insights into this touchstone era.