Simon Reynolds Redux

A Conversation from the Past About Post-Punk

by David Ensminger

27 November 2011


Life Outsourced, Lived Vicariously

If punk rock can partly be contextualized by examining the Rock Against Racism gigs, and Oi and Ska movements by examining the skinhead and race riots of 1981, how can post-punk be similarly contextualized?

In the UK version of the book, there’s a chapter on the second-wave of industrial bands based around the company Some Bizarre, it’s called “Conform to Deform”. Unfortunately, I had to cut it and a couple of other chapters out of the US version. It covers groups like Einsturzende Neubauten, Test Dept, Coil, Psychic TV, Swans, Foetus, the ‘dancefloor infiltrator’ phase of Cabaret Voltaire, and so forth. And with Test Dept, the Miner’s Strike (which actually started in 1984, at the very end of my book) does figure, as does the Falkland War, because they were involved in musical events in support of the miner’s and against the War. 

Depeche Mode are also in that chapter because their albums Construction Time Again and Some Great Reward, were very much a pop take on Test Dept, songs like ‘Everything Counts’ were anti-Thatcherism, there’s imagery of a worker holding a hammer on Construction, and they use all sorts of metal-bashing sounds a la Neubauten and Test Dept.

But you know, there’s a lot of political events that happened in that period and I don’t think that many of them are index-linked directly to the music, it’s more the general tenor of the time that is important, and in terms of 1983-84 you get that as a backdrop to the shift away from New Pop, with things like ABC’s doomed attempt to go political on their second album. The year 1983 and the reelection of Thatcher (and 1984, ditto for Reagan) are part of what book-ends this period, the disbelief of those on the left that those leaders could be re-elected despite their policies having caused huge unemployment.

Do you think that any philosopher has impacted pop culture deeply since Derrida—seemingly the last significant presence of critical thought in “white” rebel music? Has “white” music stalled while black and Third World music performed all the heavy work of transforming culture?

I don’t think Derrida has really had that much influence on pop culture because his ideas are so complex and subtle, and so related to very close work on philosophical texts. But obviously a bastardized idea of ‘deconstruction’ did filter down into common parlance. And certainly in the UK, someone like Green Gartside disseminated some of the concepts and the general sensibility into popular discourse, so that you got a group like Eurhythmics singing about “the language of love” which is obviously something they’ve copped from Green (and maybe ABC, the lexicon of love), which Green in turn got from Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse and from what he called, in an interview with me, the whole “turn towards language” in philosophy in the ‘70s.

The idea of the love song that deconstructed itself, of subverting love songs from the inside out, was quite widespread in the UK during the ‘80s, you got it with groups like Prefab Sprout, who did songs like “Desire As” and “Cruel”. Even the Pet Shop Boys indirectly soaked up some of this sensibility (Neil Tennant the singer was a pop journalist, writing for Smash Hits). I think the general culture-wide shift towards irony and not-really-meaning-it and standing slightly outside one’s own utterances/emotions is caused by much bigger forces than things going on in the French academy though. ‘Late capitalism,’ as diagnosed by Fredric Jameson in his famous Postmodernism essay, is the real culprit.

That then relates to your final question about “white” music stalling…. What I was trying to grapple with in the after-chapter is something I’ve elsewhere called “the rift of retro”, which is the onset in earnest from the mid-Eighties onwards of a self-reflexivity in rock culture, it ceases to refer to anything outside itself and instead refers back to its own history. Postmodernism, I guess. And obviously there were examples of that going on in music before 1983—glam rock (Bowie with Ziggy Stardust, the archness of Roxy Music, even someone like Gary Glitter or David Essex with “Gonna Make You A Star”). But it really starts to cross a threshold in the early Eighties with groups like Jesus & Mary Chain.

Joe Levy, when he was the music editor at Village Voice, coined this term “metacasm” to describe groups like the Pooh Sticks, Teenage Fan Club, Urge Overkill, where there’s this second-remove, playing-at-being-rock thing going on. But I think there was an aspect of that to things like Guns N’Roses too. At any rate, it does seem quite hard for rock bands to signify in the way that they used to in the ‘60s and ‘70s, some kind of disengagement virus has entered the cultural water table.

There are exceptions: metal seems to still be a pretty earnest, un-ironical culture; they’re very serious about what they do, and in some ways it’s a bastion of a lot of prog-rock and post-punk ideas to do with expression, art, virtuosity, angst etc. The freak folk stuff, too, is kind of “the new sincerity”, albeit with a postmodern, recombinant streak musically. But I think you’re right about white rock stalling in a way that black music hasn’t. I would say there’s even a sense in which white bohemians have “out-sourced” the burden of building a vibrant counterculture onto black youth.

For some of us, there’s a sense in which we’ve lived vicariously through black resistance and black futurism. Which sounds bad, but then, thinking of it another way, why wouldn’t someone like myself be drawn to what feels like the most potent, committed, edgy, risk-taking etc. etc. music that’s available – i.e., street rap, grime, etc. etc.—especially when the alternative is a whole bunch of wan, not-quite-meaning-it styles of retro-rock? Some of the most interesting white artists in recent years who have been battling their own “metacasm” impulses, like LCD Soundsystem and Art Brut. Or Hot Chip, who are precisely in this fix of being drawn towards modern black music but also know they can never belong to it or contribute to it and are forced to have this kind of wry, self-mocking relationship to R&B and rap.

* * *

Writers like the indefatigable Simon Reynolds have made an indelible stamp on both popular and critical cultural commentary over the last few decades.  Even now, as the bands he highlights in this interview fade away under the pressures of a new influx of talent, some remain steadfast in their musical trajectories. Gang of Four released the evocative and pithy Content last year; others are endlessly looped on First Wave XM satellite radio. This interview evokes post-punk’s profound underbelly, its bottomless methods and ideas worth re-exploring, in an ever-timely fashion. Reynolds doesn’t hype warmed-over, faux-new wave fashion trends, he explores the tangled tendrils of post-punk’s fervor, which transcends place and year.

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