Simon Reynolds Redux: A Conversation from the Past About Post-Punk

Simon Reynolds discusses Joy Division and The Ramones, sex and politics, and punk's blatant localism and latent racism around the time of the release of Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984.

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.

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