PopMatters published an interview with iconic writer Simon Reynolds last summer about his book Retromania (see “Retromania vs. Innovation: An Interview with Simon Reynolds”, AJ Ramirez, 27 June 2011). Recently, I found the titillating interview from 2006, below, in my own archives, where it has languished since my blog became no more than digital gray matter. Given that we’re at the ten-year anniversary mark of important post-punk bands like Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Rapture, this talk from the past holds a compelling present day relevance.
The first version of my email exchange with the Reynolds, centered around the release of (Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, Penguin, March 2006), was top-heavy and laden with thick questions I lobbed at him. I remixed it here by slimming down my own rhetoric. Plus, ten years has lapsed since EP’s by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (self-titled) and The Rapture (Out of the Races and Onto the Tracks”) retrofitted ‘80s dance-punk grooves for bored 20-something rockers, so now is the perfect chance to evaluate the Rip It Up and Start Again era anew, which Reynolds has mined with aplomb.
What do you think Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Rapture, and Mars Volta mimic from the vintage years you cover: 1978-1984. You note, “It’s thrilling and enjoyably disorienting to hear the sound of my youth resurrected”?
I started thinking about post-punk as something worth writing about at length towards the end of 2000, and embarked on a long article for Uncut magazine about it—it ended up much longer than what they were able to print. But at the point, end of 2000, early 2001, it was really the earliest stirrings of the neo-post-punk thing. There was some reissuing going on, but bands-wise there was Erase Errata and Life Without Buildings, and things like Chicks On Speeds doing covers of songs by The Normal and Delta 5. I don’t think The Rapture were around yet, or at least they were but hadn’t fallen into DFA’s clutches.
The band that really made me think about post-punk again for the first time in a long while, though, was actually a few years earlier, this UK outfit Position Normal who had a fabulous record called Stop Your Nonsense in 1999. They were plugged into a side of post-punk that none of the current post-punk influenced bands really tap into—the whimsy and ethereality, the kind of quirky “bedsit” one-off singles that John Peel used to play on his show, people like the Native Hipsters and Family Fodder.
The Position Normal record was made out of samples from odd sources, what sounded like old reel-to-reel tapes bought at charity shops, plus it had this dreamy guitar like Durutti Column and a real quality of eccentric Englishness that again recalled the late ‘70s and John Peel. It highlighted a whole side of post-punk that the current bands don’t seem aware of, or at least, they’re not attracted to it.
The current wave has honed in on the angularity, the punk funk/discopunk aspect. So, it’s the side that’s more bound up with the “punk” in post-punk, and being an aggressive, exciting live band—as opposed to home-studio experimentalism or electronics. And it’s this side of post-punk I’m going to concentrate on with the Rip It Up And Start Again compilation that V2 put out in early 2006. We have tracks by Durutti Column, Thomas Leer, Fatal Microbes, Young Marble Giants, John Cooper Clarke—a lot of ethereal, dream-drifty music, downtempo and subdued. So of the current wave of retro-post-punk, I would say they tend to have a somewhat limited conception of what post-punk is—the coordinates are very much Wire, Gang of Four, maybe A Certain Ratio and Joy Division.
The other thing missing is the political commitment. Radio Four tried with their last record, but it didn’t really work. It came across like Midnight Oil. It seems like it’s hard to “do” the music + politics equation these days. That may just be because post-punk’s social and political context is unrecoverable; a unique set of circumstances existed then. And a lot of belief in the power of music to change things has been beaten out of us in the ensuing decades.
People are more realistic, perhaps, although it’s arguably a form of “cynical realism”. Perhaps it’s better to be idealistic and deluded! It certainly enabled the post-punk groups to leave behind this amazing legacy of music that still burns your ears with its urgency.
Do you think the Ramones were redundant and basically creatively exhausted after their second album? Tom Greenhalgh from the Mekons told me he admired a new record by AC/DC because it was, to paraphrase, pure and somewhat ingenious. Could the same be said of the Ramones?
I like the Ramones just fine, but I don’t think anyone could claim they were a band that progressed musically. I don’t know their ‘80s output very well, but I’d be surprised if there was an all-synth record or one where they incorporated a horn section! Of the stuff I know well, the only slight swerve I can think of is End of Century which might be my favourite, and that’s actually a retro-move, with Phil Spector producing. So, I think there’s a real sense in which if you’ve heard one Ramones album you’ve heard ‘em all. That’s what makes them punk where Talking Heads are post-punk.
It’s funny you mention AC/DC. I once reviewed a bunch of AC/DC reissues and made just that comparison—asking why AC/DC were not as respected as the Ramones, when they were just as minimalist, and especially early on, quite angry-kids-kicking-out-at-the-world oriented. I think their roots in early ‘70s British blues-rock makes AC/DC more traditional and less seminal than the Ramones. But that just makes AC/DC’s records more enjoyable to me than the Ramones, they actually swing.
You ponder heavily about the voice, performance, and death of Ian from Joy Division. Are your writerly conjectures (“Was he somehow able to channel a latent form of this electrical disorder of the nervous system and transform it into his personal signature”) a kind of myth making itself?
I don’t think you can understand Joy Division as both a phenomenon and in terms of their music without factoring in the tremendous power and importance of myth, mystique, and mystery. And as much as most post-punk groups were anti-Romantic, I don’t think that’s quite the case with Joy Division.
See, it’s clear from reading things like Deborah Curtis’ memoir (Touching from a Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division, Faber and Faber, October 2007) that Ian always had this idea of dying young in the back of his mind; he really loved Jim Morrison and the Doors and I think this idea of becoming myth was alluring to him. There’s some text on their first EP An Ideal for Living that declares, “This is not a concept EP, it is an enigma.” It’s clear Ian cultivated that aspect of mystique. Not saying too much in interviews, for instance, not breaking the spell. He was into the arty end of glam rock, Bowie and Iggy and the Velvets, and the group did have an interest in image and projecting an aura.
I also think there’s a real sense of irreducible mystery about Joy Division’s music, there’s something going in there that resists being captured. The only people who’ve got close are writers like Paul Morley, who was their big champion at the time at <>NME, who wrote about them in a really abstract way—it’s as though the only appropriate response to Joy Division is to come up with your own poetry to match and parallel the group’s “poem”.
Writing about Joy Division’s music was probably the only thing I felt intimidated about when doing the book (Rip It up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984). Partly because it has been written about so much, so there’s a sense of a well-told story. It’s also been written about often so well (it’s the kind of music that makes rock critics raise their game). But also because ... how do you write about the darkness etc., etc., and not risk being hokey or melodramatic?
But again, just the fact that Joy Division, a band who sold a fraction of the number of records that say Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd did, are about to have a second movie made about, shows that there’s a dramatic, rock mythical element that can’t be suppressed, it’s totally integral to whatever they were. [Note to readers, the referenced movie is Control, by Anton Corbijn, October 2007.]
The epilepsy thing is a genuine mystery, the fact that he was dancing in that twitchy way onstage before he developed the illness. I never saw them live but saw Joy Division doing ‘Transmission’ on TV and it was pretty eerie to see, especially as I was unprepared, I didn’t know that was his performance “style.”
Have you seen New Order revisit old songs, or reunited Gang of Four, Wire, Mission of Burma, or others? Does it remind you of a whole new kind of dinosaur rock, or do you think those bands remain vital and forward-looking?
I haven’t seen New Order do that. I saw Mission of Burma and Gang of Four, both exciting for me as I never saw them back in the day. With groups like that, you kinda feel they deserve a second crack at it and a chance to reap some rewards and some adulation, because maybe they didn’t get what they deserved at the time. It’s not forward-looking, how could it be? It’s easy to get disgusted, or just amused, by the number of bands from all eras of rock’s history still treading the boards.
The idea of the Pixies reforming is just befuddling to me, as I was one of the journalists hyping them the first time around. But then again, what are rock bands supposed to do with themselves for the rest of their lives? The turnover in the music industry is really cruel, most get three or four years before trends move on. So you might be 26 … and that’s it? I can’t blame them for keeping on keeping on. Or coming back.
Post-Punk's New World Within the Old
Though post-punk bands tried to create “a new world within the old”, they still had attachments to consumer society. For instance—record contracts, commodities, publicists, or at least press releases, even for Throbbing Gristle. Sure, labels like Factory toyed with meanings, like creating catalog numbers for mere ideas. Were they cocooned in the society of the spectacle?
Throbbing Gristle probably had some fun with operating like a professional record company, given the nature of what they were doing! But more generally, there’s an intrinsic contradiction with any form of counter-culture that chooses to express itself through the market, through selling cultural commodities and putting on paid-admission performances.
As you say, that’s the spectacular-commodity society recreated right there. People used to complain that the hippies had just generated a kind of “alternative capitalism” and labels like Rough Trade could be seen as perpetuating that, or at least remaining ensnared by that contradiction. Rough Trade tried to operate as a collective, with decisions made communally and everybody paid the same. But underneath this cooperative-like front, they were actually a privately owned company and eventually, in order to survive in the more competitive, reduced-market of the ‘80s, they adopted managerial structures—or made explicit and official the kind of power structures that had been informally in operation from the start.
They got caught up in a logic of entryism—they believed in the music they were putting out, wanted it to reach the largest number of people, and so tried to compete with the majors and took on major label-like strategies (hiring radio pluggers, for instance). A classic case of becoming like your enemy. In a sense they fell victim to the mainstream’s definition of success as “hits”. Whereas earlier Rough Trade would have questioned what a “hit” was, the competitive structure enshrined in the institution of a chart, and wondered why did music have to enter into a system where there were few winners and many “losers”?
It’s possible to do stuff outside the exchange economy—there was and still is to some degree a free festival circuit in the UK that began with the hippies in the early ‘70s and had a renaissance in the early ‘90s, when it hooked up with rave culture, so you had all these free raves in the English countryside or warehouses and abandoned government buildings in the cities. You could see the kind of energy that gathered around the Grateful Dead, especially the tape-trading thing, and the fact that the band allowed people to tape the shows, as a kind of residue of that countercultural thing.
Another thing I’ve long found really inspiring is the pirate radio culture, which is essentially giving away music for free. There’s some minimal advertising on the pirate shows but they only cover the costs of replacing transmitters and such; the DJs actually pay a subscription fee to the station owner for the privilege of having a show. In post-punk days and today, there are circuits where people swap cassettes of their own music, so it’s less producer/consumer oriented and more free agents trading their own cultural artifacts. You could even see the Libertines’ thing of having gigs in people’s living rooms as subversive, a democratizing of culture, breaking the barrier between band and audience. And blogs today are an example of a renaissance of amateur, DIY culture.
Why do think that the New York punk scene exuded anti-black, anti-liberal sentiments, when punk pioneers the MC5 practically prayed at the church of Sun Ra, soul, and radical Black Power politics?
It’s almost too big a topic to deal with in an interview. In many ways, the Lester Bangs article
“The White Noise Supremacists” (Village Voice, 1979) says it all. By the mid-‘70s, there was a sense of fatigue about liberal ideas. You started to get the beginning of the backlash that would eventually push Reagan to power. That was coming from the heartland, but at the same time the new breed of hipsters like Legs McNeil were reacting against the preceding hipster generation’s set of ‘60s values.
Being hard-hearted as opposed to bleeding-heart, cynical instead of idealistic, deliberately philistine (that whole Dictators thing of being into pulp, the trash aesthetic, the B-movie/Mondo thing) as opposed to searching out the edifying and elevating. They didn’t talk about PC versus un-PC back then, but there was that impulse around to embrace the politically-incorrect epithets and use them for their shock effect. The justification being that the Sixties liberation movements had created sanctimony and piousness.
Do you think punk and post-punk challenged the hegemony of large cities, with their pretensions and nepotism? In essence, is the story of great music the story of outsiders, in every sense?
That’s certainly what’s going on in the UK during this period: the North rises up, and in turn Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh, each have their moment in the spotlight. With the exception of Cleveland-Akron, though, which didn’t last too long anyway, I didn’t get so much of a sense of that cultural decentralization going on with the US scene.
New York and San Francisco seemed like the two post-punk capitals, acting as magnets for bohemians and misfits from all over the US like they always have. So for instance, MX80 moved to San Francisco, right? And the Athens, Georgia, bands really had impact when they started playing a lot in New York. Obviously there are college towns that have vital scenes, like Boston, and strange little records coming from all over the place. But I don’t get the sense that America generated counter-capitals to New York City and San Francisco, places that were eclipsing those cities as hubs of activity.
Los Angeles is a different story. The most interesting music, to my ears, came out of what could be thought of a periphery to LA, the SST scene in Hermosa Beach: what I call—in the UK version of the book (Rip It up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984), which has an SST chapter not included in the American edition (yeah, go figure)—“progressive punk”. (Note: SST was/is a famous hardcore punk label ala Black Flag, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr.). But then LA is a city that’s all peripheries, really.
I’m pretty underwhelmed by the first-wave Hollywood punk scene, it seems like a real “you had to be there” moment. And after that imploded, the LA alternative music scene goes really retro, although there seems to have been a way-way underground post-punk scene, of sorts, in LA. But when you put its recorded legacy next to what came out of San Francisco and New York City, there’s no comparison.
Chicago, I think, its “post-punk” moment occurred in the mid-‘80s, after my cut-off point. That’s when you got Big Black on the one hand and Wax Trax on the other, both suffering significant Anglophile damage (Steve Albini’s early stuff was very Wire/Killing Joke influenced apparently and you can hear Gang of Four all the way through the Big Black recordings, while we all know about Al Jourgensen’s early Ministry career as MTV eyeliner-and-synth boy, don’t we?)
Now that you have studied the period so intensely, how would you describe the rise of the synth as a major force within art-rock and post-punk?
Yeah. It was a really important tool, and in a paradoxical way allowed the post-punk groups both to resume the expansive experimentalism of pre-punk progressive music culture while also making a clear differentiation between themselves and a certain kind of prog-rock megaband.
The latter tended to use synths as keyboards, in a pianistic or organ-like way—lots of bombast and frilly arpeggios. But they could also be used (as Eno had done, and a few others, especially in Germany) as a source of abstract noise. Or rhythmically, to create these very precise pulse-grooves. (Which the prog rock megabands didn’t do, they had live drummers and their music had lots of disjointed time signatures and tempo changes, they weren’t into a hypnotic, motorik form of propulsion. Cos it didn’t suit their versatility-showcasing, exhibitionistic ethos).
What links the radical body politics of punk and porn? You quote Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo (“Porn is important to the lower economic levels”); meanwhile, Tutti from Throbbing Gristle was featured in porn magazine layouts, Wendy O. Williams had bit roles in two porn films, and Lydia Lunch had a gun placed in her vagina in the Richard Kern film Fingered.
There’s a number of things going on here. Obviously, there was this avant-garde tradition of pornography (Susan Sontag wrote a famous essay about this, differentiating between “the pornographies” in “The Pornographic Imagination” Partisan Review, 1967. Republished in Styles of Radical Will, 1969. Republished. Picador, 2002.) going back to de Sade, and taking in Jean Genet, Georges Bataille, and —most crucially for the post-punkers like Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle—William S. Burroughs and J.G. Ballard. This wasn’t porn as titillation, porn for prurient stimulation, porn as wank-fodder, but as a mode of perception perhaps, or a route to certain kinds of avant-garde literary effects. And obviously transgression.
There’s also a sense that would have been around that modern world had a pornographic aspect, like that famous image of the Vietnamese girl screaming and naked because she’s torn her napalm-soaked clothes off, or the equally horrible one of the Vietnamese man being executed with a revolver to the head. Groups like Throbbing Gristle would have plugged into that aspect: the pornography of the Final Solution, the gruesome accounts that were being published of serial killers’ exploits, or the book Beyond Belief about the child-murderers Ian Brady (a de Sade fan, actually) and Myra Hindley.
Porn and the Anti-Liberal Backlash
Porn would also relate to what we were talking about before re: the anti-liberal backlash of people like Legs McNeil. Feminists, by the mid-‘70s, were anti-porn, and so if being anti-liberal was your shtick (or genuine creed) then being pro-porn would fit. And as it happens Legs McNeil followed up his punk oral history Please Kill Me with an, er, oral history of the porn movie industry!
Devo, I reckon, were just sexually starved, that’s why they were fans of Hustler! Hustler, though, sounds like quite an interesting magazine, this writer Laura Kipnis wrote a fascinating and provocative article about it in Village Voice, talking about this element of class rage and scurrilous baiting of the establishment in it, e.g., their printing of a nude photo surreptitiously taken of Jackie Onassis.
With people like Lydia Lunch, the porn impulse relates to the idea of pushing boundaries of expression, the “emotional nudism” of her lyrics, her love of the literary avant-garde, and maybe back to radical theater and ‘60s stuff like the Living Theater.
It’s complicated, because there would have been a ‘60s impulse towards libidinal liberation, breaking taboos, building a culture of Eros vs. Thanatos, and the feminists at that point would have been right in the thick of that (as would the gay liberation movement—porn, I think, has a much less negative status in gay culture than straight). That late ‘60s, early ‘70s stage of women’s liberation was called “radical feminism”, it was much more like women claiming the freedoms of men and attacking things like Miss World for their sanitized view of what women were like. You look at a figure like Germaine Greer, she was into female wildness and female libertinism, sleeping with whoever you liked, she was into the whole Sixties rock’n’roll dope and fucking in the street trip, etc. So while that generation of feminists might have criticized a magazine like Screw for chauvinist attitudes, there’s an extent I think that they’d have regarded it as a fellow traveler in cultural liberation.
Then by the mid-to-late ‘70s, what was called “cultural feminism” took over—figures like Andrea Dworkin, the focus shifting more to things like rape, wife abuse, porn as pernicious and oppressive. Lunch, then, is perhaps more in the Greer mold. (Later doing her spoken-world stuff she’s more anti-patriarchal and Dworkin-like perhaps in her all men are rapists mode of rhetoric).
Funny thing: Richard Kern’s son Fletcher used to go to the same East Village pre-school as my son Kieran, we see them in the neighbourhood regularly!
Do you think that American underground hipsters, despite their own knowledge of Derrida, see Scritti Politti, ABC, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood as mere fluff, compared to say, The Fall?
Making this connection between post-punk and what we in the UK called New Pop—in the US people talked about New Wave or New Music or Second British Invasion—was one of the main objectives I had in doing the book. I mean, it’s simply a historical fact that the two things were inseparable, it’s all one unified epoch of music. There are obvious band narratives that show this—Scritti Politti being the paradigm example, also the transition from Joy Division to New Order.
If you dig deeper, you have things like the fact that Human League and Gang of Four were originally on the same label, Fast Product, and the guy behind the label, Bob Last, went from working with Go4 and the Mekons to being the manager of Human League, Heaven 17, Scritti Politti, and, via his partner Rob Warr, ABC. Warr had managed Gang of Four during the Entertainment! era. Or you have things like Altered Images starting out as kind of protégés of Siouxsie and the Banshees.
But I’d gathered over the years that a lot of Americans are unaware of these connections, and that the New Pop seemed from an American perspective to be just this stuff that materialized out of nowhere on MTV. And when it arrived here it was jumbled up with a lot of stuff that I personally find quite flimsy and vapid, like Culture Club, Kajagoogoo and Duran Duran. I’ve seen some early reactions to Rip It Up… on US-based blogs where the writers are clinging really hard to this idea that there’s ABSOLUTELY NO CONNECTION between the culture that produced The Fall and Swell Maps, and the likes of Duran Duran and Thompson Twins. But you know, Duran Duran actually played in the same Midlands venues as Swell Maps!
And the Thompson Twins are another paradigm example: Alannah Currie, the woman in the band with the shaved eyebrows and albino-blond curls, she was originally in this all-female punk-reggae band, modeled on the Slits. They were called the Unfuckables and they used to go around paint-bombing sexist advertising billboards and things like that! She played free jazz saxophone and had originally picked up the instrument after seeing the Pop Group!
There’s definitely a cultural difference between America and Britain, the word ‘pop’ is not a dirty word in the UK— perhaps because there isn’t the same fixation on live performance as there is in America, so that a lot of people’s primary experiences of music are based on seeing things on TV. Also the mainstream radio was better in the UK, during this period there was only really Radio One, which was state-controlled and had more of a commitment to doing interesting stuff, less chasing of the middle ground, less fear of listeners switching to other stations (because there weren’t any other stations!). And I guess we have a more prominent tradition of arty, clever pop—starting with the Beatles but going on with things like Bowie, Roxy, T-Rex, even things like 10CC. Sparks, for instance, were huge in Britain, but nothing in America.
So, the idea of pop as a forum where interesting, weird things go on—and as a forum that could be redeemed by arty types—that is so much stronger in the UK. The New Pop groups had all grown up on glam, their role models were Bowie and Roxy.
You essentially end with Frankie Goes to Hollywood. They are like pioneers of pleasure. Yet, you don’t juxtapose them against earlier gay rockers, like Dead Fingers Talk, or cross-dressing Jane County. Do you think punk culture, and post-punk culture, are inherently shaped by gay outsiderness?
I’m not familiar with Dead Fingers Talk; for the post-punkers Tom Robinson’s approach was kind of a touchstone of what-not-to-do with politics and pop; Bronski Beat had some nice tunes, but always came across as slightly worthy. But it’s true that there was a strong gay influence in the more arty and theatrical end of post-punk and New Pop—from the gay radical theater input in San Francisco with groups like Tuxedomoon, to the disco-worship and hysteria of the Associates, to Soft Cell’s love of the torch song, Northern Soul, and sleaze. Club 57 and B-52s obviously owed a huge amount to gay sensibility, that John Waters-type kitschadelic thing. DAF’s homo-eroticism, Japan’s neo-glam exquisiteness….
Different facets of gay sexuality, and also a more diffuse androgyny/pansexuality, crop up all over the place. But there was also a lot of stern “heterosexual modernism” about too! So, I don’t know about “inherently shaped by gay outsiderness.” The gay element, the glam rock element, it has to be noted, was also there in a big way during punk—Jon Savage has written about how the early punk scene in London resembled the Factory.
You seem to deplore the end of post-punk. The Clash tried in vain to remain on the cusp of current music on Cut the Crap, basically a product of their production team under the helm of Bernie Rhodes, not Joe Strummer. Is it possible to talk about the record as a failed attempt to redefine themselves as post-punk?
Well, I don’t know if I deplore the end of post-punk, because there’s a sense in which it had exhausted its ideas, and the turn to ‘60s-type ideas and influences, for people like me who’d never listened to that music much, was very refreshing and mind-opening when it started to happen in 1983. The groups who did persist with post-punk ideas in the mid-‘80s and beyond were mostly pretty dreary and second rate—I’m thinking of outfits like the Membranes and Bogshed, or the second-wave industrial/avantfunk groups who imitated Cabaret Voltaire and A Certain Ratio—outfits like Hula, Portion Control, and Chakk. The post-punk thing had run its course by 1983-84 (as had New Pop, actually).
So, there was a sad little period of drift and fracture in the middle ‘80s, people started ransacking the archives in earnest for want of anything better to do, and it was quite a demoralizing time as I recall. Then you started getting people building on aspects of post-punk, whether it was Sonic Youth making No Wave listenable and rockin’, or the acid house and UK techno people picking up on some of the avant-funk/industrial/synthpop stuff of the early Eighties and taking it into the future.
I do think that the post-punks were a bit unfair with the Clash. They became the whipping boy, especially from PiL. But if you look at their records, after Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the Clash are exploring all kinds of ideas, going in all kinds of directions, not all of them work, but they were trying dub stuff, funk stuff, they had a go at rap. They did some great things in that period up to and including Combat Rock. But it didn’t quite register as abrasively modern in the way the post-punk groups did, because the Clash were also doing quite a lot of stuff rooted in traditional American roots music. So they were exploring the present with their funk/dub/rap tracks but also discovering the richness of the past. Also they were always, right through it all, a rock’n’roll band in spirit and that was what most post-punks were trying to leave behind.
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.
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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.