[21 October 2005]
With regard to histories of rock music, Simon Reynolds writes: “In the more extreme or sloppy accounts… it is implied that nothing of real consequence happened between Never Mind the Bollocks and Nevermind.” The post-punk era has been perhaps the biggest casualty of that critical ellipsis.
In a sense, it’s an understandable oversight. Punk was a largely homogeneous phenomenon that spawned iconic images, individuals and events; it was a youth culture ready-made for sociologists and perfect fodder for tabloid media on the lookout for the latest folk devil. Post-punk, on the other hand, lacked its predecessor’s iconography, its tabloid-ready imagery and—initially, at least—its colorful characters; lyrically and musically, it was more diverse, often idiosyncratic and challenging; and, save for the greatcoat, there was no immediately identifiable uniform. All told, post-punk wasn’t as obvious and easily reducible as a cultural phenomenon, and it didn’t lend itself to simplistic press coverage. That’s not to say that post-punk bands have lacked recognition over the years but, rather, that the likes of the Pop Group, Pere Ubu, Wire, Devo and Joy Division have rarely been placed in context and considered together as part of a particular cultural moment. Rip It Up and Start Again does precisely that. While a rash of early ‘00s bands borrowed promiscuously from post-punk (for instance, Radio 4, Erase Errata, Franz Ferdinand, Interpol), Reynolds’ book offers the first developed and sustained assessment of the aesthetics that such artists have found so appealing. It also provides a wide-ranging, rigorously historicized account charting the dynamic interrelation between the music of the post-punk era and its multiple socio-cultural contexts.
Focusing primarily on British and American music between 1978 and 1984, Reynolds emphasizes the idea that the glossed-over post-punk years were not marginal to the history of rock: they actually spawned a range of sounds that were more revolutionary than punk itself and that left a far more significant legacy, laying the foundations for the subsequent emergence of alternative music in all its myriad forms. Post-punk made good on punk’s threatened but ultimately incomplete revolution. For all its Year Zero talk and its Stalinist purges, punk was essentially retro, a stripped-down version of ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll and ‘60s garage rock and, despite its initial shock value, by mid-‘77 it was mired in self-parody. Moreover, any political charge it did have was often diluted by cartoonish, nihilistic rebellion and simplistic sloganeering.
Against the grain of punk’s “No Future” mindset and its destructive urges, post-punk really did embrace the future and was relentlessly creative and innovative, fleshing out punk’s back-to-basics sound with such disparate influences as dub, American funk, Krautrock and Eurodisco. Its protagonists also displayed a far greater political sophistication, a firmer, more realistic grasp of the conditions of their musical production. While post-punk of course had ties to its immediate predecessor, Rip It Up and Start Again situates the genre in terms of both linkages and ruptures, not only in relation to punk but in relation to the broader musical spectrum. Reynolds suggests that the early ‘70s, so maligned by punk’s loudest voices, were not, in fact, a cultural void and that post-punk belonged to a movement in imaginative and inventive art-rock spanning the entire decade. Indeed, he raises the possibility that punk’s sound and fury was, for the most part, an aberration in that greater trajectory.
Reynolds’ central contribution is to contextualize post-punk’s more radical, progressive aesthetic and to see the bigger picture; his skillful historicizing is key to the book’s success. With regard to British post-punk, for example, he doesn’t trace a naïve cause-and-effect relationship between context and artistic expression, nor does he merely provide a cursory and essentially decorative background. Rather, he shows how music, as one specific cultural node, developed in a dynamic relationship with other such nodes to foment a distinctive alternative culture characterized by its resistance to Thatcherism. To that end, Reynolds traces the rise of indie labels, the transformation of the music press, the shifting role of music writers and the rising importance of the independent record store.
In addition to situating both British and American post-punk in terms of wider historical and aesthetic forces, Reynolds brings his rigorous analysis to the relationships among different strains of post-punk music itself. Moving from PiL to James Chance to Throbbing Gristle to the Residents and beyond, he examines the continuities and discontinuities between the period’s heterogeneous sounds and creative philosophies and constructs a fascinating genealogy of a rich and vibrant phase in music. Mirroring the complexity of a time during which so much was happening, concurrently, in so many different places, the book’s structure eschews a strict chronological order: some chapters deal with pairs or clusters of artists in terms of a shared label, milieu or sensibility; some focus on a certain genre or style (New Pop, industrial, Goth); and others are geographically determined (for example, New York’s No Wave scene).
Reynolds doesn’t focus exclusively on the usual post-punk suspects, though, and much of this book actually examines how the genre’s ethos continued to resonate with artists who emerged in the ‘80s, often achieving considerable commercial success. Especially compelling is his account of New Pop: although many of those early ‘80s artists might appear, to some, to embody a risible musical era best left to VH1 Classic, Reynolds’ take on the period isn’t just an exercise in hipster contrarianism or fanciful revisionism. Far from it. What he has to say about bands like Heaven 17, the Associates, ABC and Frankie Goes to Hollywood makes for engaging, intelligent reading. Similarly, he traces early ‘80s developments in rock on both sides of the Atlantic, taking in British new psychedelia (the likes of Echo & the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes and the Blue Orchids); proto-Goths such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Birthday Party and the Virgin Prunes; the “progressive punk” of American groups like the Minutemen, Meat Puppets and Mission of Burma; and the spectrum of second-wave industrial artists from Psychic TV to Depeche Mode.
Reynolds has a strong, distinctive voice that never gets in the way of his subject matter (a breath of fresh air amid the look-at-me verbiage that increasingly passes as music criticism). He writes incisively and thoughtfully. Although in places his discussion of artists draws on concepts from post-structuralist theory, he remains accessible to a general audience. His observations are never gratuitous or forced, always provocative and illuminating—something that sets him apart from numerous similarly inclined critics who err on the side of obfuscation and crypto-intellectualism. Equally impressive is Reynolds’ command of the basics of music writing: foremost among them, the ability simply to convey the sound of a record, something that’s becoming a lost art. It’s also deceptively difficult to write objectively about music with which one has grown up and which one loves. Reynolds, however, is able to step back from his subject and come at it anew. He evokes records that were admittedly his first passion, that have been written to death by others already, and articulates the sorts of nuances and pleasures that would leap out on first hearing but, for most of us, would be dulled by familiarity. Reynolds has a remarkable knack for listening afresh, defamiliarizing those sounds and then communicating them to his reader in a way that allows him/her to appreciate them again. Often it’s as simple as a striking choice of images. Of Suicide, he says, “Vega’s half-spoken/half-sung incantations resembled a cross between rockabilly and method acting,” and then there’s Mike Watt’s bass playing, which “lunges, darts, churns and pulsates like a sackful of randy hamsters.” As for Pere Ubu’s David Thomas: “Whinnying like some peculiar asexual monster, [he] sounded like Beefheart if his balls had never dropped.”
The most intriguing and perhaps troubling question raised by Reynolds concerns the difference between the post-punk era and the present in terms of music’s relationship with politics—specifically the dissipation of the synergy between political consciousness and music over the past two decades. Rip It Up and Start Again documents how unique the post-punk period was in Britain and America from a political perspective, particularly with regard to Thatcherism’s ironically catalyzing effect on the arts in the UK. Within that energized artistic context, one of post-punk’s defining characteristics was, at some level, its oppositionality and its political tenor—something that manifested itself in multiple ways and with differing degrees of success: for example, the Pop Group’s sloganeering; the more sophisticated demystification of everyday capitalism on the part of Scritti Politti and Gang of Four; the feminist aesthetics of the Raincoats and the Au Pairs; and sonic explorations by bands like This Heat and Cabaret Voltaire, who showed that the subversion of canonic forms and structures was as radical a gesture as a direct lyrical assault.
In 2005, many of the issues that concerned the post-punk generation have only intensified: cultural imperialism, the subversion of democracy by global capitalism, a yawning chasm between rich and poor, the homogenization of culture, the growth of militarism, and so on. However, now that there’s more than ever to rebel against and to be outraged about—and when we can inform ourselves so much more quickly about issues—music has become progressively less politically engaged. Although music still conveys resistant political messages, precious little of it rises above the level of execrable cant, earnest protest or preachy twaddle. Indeed, when you listen to the majority of contemporary politicized artists, you actually find yourself agreeing with that old (disingenuous) conservative adage that music and politics don’t or shouldn’t mix. Of course, that’s an absurd proposition but, at this historical juncture, you could be forgiven for wondering if radically politicized music is still possible and, if so, what it would sound like.
In the introduction to Rip It Up and Start Again, Reynolds mentions that one of his objectives is to reevaluate whether it had been worth devoting his life to writing about music. This book answers that question affirmatively.