Agony Shorthand

Friday, December 09, 2005
“RIP IT UP AND START AGAIN : POST-PUNK 1978-84” by Simon Reynolds.....

Like you, like everyone, I’ve got a time and place to pinpoint my warp-factor surge of interest in music that travels beyond the commercial Top 40. And in retrospect, though it’s kind of embarrassing, it explains why I felt the need to order this particular book the same day I heard about it. Though I was already a 13-year-old fan of offbeat groups of the “new wave” and had heard a little punk rock on the local college station, I think the day my mom took me to the “Little Professor Book Center” (I’m not kidding) in San Jose, CA in October 1980 might have sealed the deal. There I found a kid’s bookstore that was in the process of transforming itself into a New York City-style cornucopia-of-magazines store, and in the racks were copies of Britain’s NME, Sounds and Melody Maker. That day, I bought a copy of Sounds with Howard Devoto from MAGAZINE on the cover, and I’m serious, in the intervening weeks I must have read that single issue a dozen times back-to-front. Not knowing that the same thing was already going on in the US and had been for years, I was floored by the sheer number of new, inventive “post-punk” bands that were releasing 45s every week, gigging constantly across the UK, and that were generating rhapsodic hyperbole from the music writers of the day. I had thought in my youth and naiveté that the only two stands of the movement were punk (the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, The Avengers) and “new wave” (the B-52s, the Bush Tetras, Talking Heads). Mom took me back a couple weeks later and I stocked up on more Sounds, NMEs and Melody Makers, and that really helped beget the obsessive record accumulation that continues to this day. I bought many of the records discussed in this book sound-unheard (“Bela Legosi’s Dead” and even X’s “White Girl” 45, for instance), just because the UK music papers said they were the best of the best.

I relate all this because those same music papers were the blessing & the curse for Simon Reynolds, himself a current British music journalist about whom I know almost nothing about. Blessing in the sense that they compelled him as a teen, as they did me, to explore the abundance of cheap 45s & to listen to great radio (him, John Peel; me, KFJC) to figure out what to buy next, and therefore get the firsthand exhilarating rush of taking part in a particularly buoyant era of rock music. Curse in that Reynolds fell for the papers’ ridiculous hypotheses and outsized pronouncements about mediocre bands that had one intelligent, kindred-soul loudmouth, so that the whole book reads less like a history of “post punk” than of the UK music papers’ interpretation of post punk. I know, because I read their drivel repeatedly back then, and when it pops up on the internet today, it often reflects in hindsight just how bad and tone-deaf some of that writing truly was. I’ll tell you what I like about this book, though – Reynolds casts such a wide net in writing about “post-punk” that he reels in some great chapters about neglected or overlooked music. This book actually reads best when taken chapter by chapter, because one exciting chapter about the militant Leeds scene (GANG OF FOUR, DELTA 5, AU PAIRS) or early industrial music (THROBBING GRISTLE and WHITEHOUSE – surprisingly the best chapter in the whole book) will likely be followed by one that talks about uninteresting fops like Malcolm McClaren or the “synthpop revolution”. Hometown pride aside, I was pleasantly surprised to see an entire, well–told set of pages called “Freak Scene: Cabaret Noir and Theater of Cruelty in Post-Punk San Francisco”. It focuses on FLIPPER, the RESIDENTS, CHROME, TUXEDOMOON etc, and helps to rewrite a scene history that’s been given short shrift by most conventional accounts of this era to date. He revisits territory covered in other books as well – the SST scene, MISSION OF BURMA, GANG OF FOUR, and of course, perhaps the top exponent of the broadly-defined post-punk bands, THE FALL. Reynolds even writes well about the UK goth scene that I have a small soft spot in my heart for – Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, the March Violets, the Birthday Party and the Virgin Prunes. He comes off as a pretty affable guy who didn’t have to do much homework, as he was already making himself a big part of this era by religiously attending gigs and devouring the weekly rags.

Said rags would often build up these inane bands because they happened to have some blabbermouth “character” in their ranks who was given to grand pontification about the future of music and his band’s unique role in it. I’m talking about people like “Green” from SCRITTI POLITTI, or Julian Cope, or Pete Wylie from a forgettable band called WAH! HEAT. I remember when a band like WAH! HEAT or THEATER OF HATE or THE ASSOCIATES would be raved about every issue in the NME, all because some shameless schmoozer in the band had what it took to get the “mere pseug mag ed”s to write about him. Reynolds still raves about these people as if 21-28 years hadn’t passed and as if these acts’ less-than-meager roles in music development’s history hadn’t been firmly established. I remember these magazines would also get really worked up about great statements of ambition from total pop schlockmeisters like HEAVEN 17 and their “British Electric Foundation”, or the people behind ZTT Records -- the label that brought you FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD. These stories are placed on an equal footing with those of The Fall or Pere Ubu, and while I know there’s no accounting for taste, the inanity of stacking this deservedly-forgotten music next to artists whose influence is felt in waves today could be called high treason.

At least Reynolds makes some sense out a previously-useless term. Post Punk is defined as what happened when the start-a-band ethos of punk got trickled down to towns outside of London and to people who might not have been particularly nihilistic nor punk-rock dumb, yet who already had a creative or artistic streak just waiting to be sparked. These people ran with it in creating new vistas for punk after the hype and excitement of the first wave had worn off, and Reynolds is pretty convincing at marking its apotheosis at about 1984 (in the sense that that’s when the creativity and spark started to run dry, in both the UK and US). He also thankfully does not claim that rock and roll was reinvented by NIRVANA in 1992. He proves to not be stuck in his glory years when he writes in the afterword about the bands of 2000-2005 that have taken ideas from his heroes & run with them in new directions (I’m actually far more cynical and critical about The Raptures, the Interpols and the Franz Ferdinands than he is). With the appropriate caveats detailed thus far, “Rip It Up and Start Again” has enough meat and interesting tidbits to be worth your while.