Monday, April 23, 2018

The next big thing

I've finally finished Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up And Start Again. It took a while - not because the book is long (it is) or tedious (it isn't) but because it's so dense, comprehensive and convincing in its coverage of the post-punk period that I regularly felt overwhelmed and daunted by the sheer number of artists and bands it compelled me to investigate.

In a nutshell, Reynolds' argument is that while punk painted itself as a radical break with the past and as the shock of the new, in reality this was far more true of what came after. Examining the period from 1978 to 1984 with forensic focus, he provides copious evidence to substantiate his thesis.

The first half of the book, which is aptly named after an Orange Juice lyric, underlines the incredible fertility of the immediate post-punk period, inevitably covering those synonymous with the term (Public Image Ltd, Joy Division, The Fall) but also many others of disparate musical styles and approaches. The chapter on Throbbing Gristle is particularly effective in making clear that The Sex Pistols weren't the only ones to bait the establishment and assault bourgeois taste and decency; COUM Transmission's Prostitution exhibition at the ICA preceded the furore over 'God Save The Queen' by several months.

The second half traces the influence of post-punk (and punk) through into more unlikely spheres and genres such as 2-tone and so-called "new pop", flagging up a handful of acts that themselves made the transition (The Human League, Scritti Politti) and culminating in the surprisingly cogent contention that Frankie Goes To Hollywood were very much in the image of The Sex Pistols - and indeed imploded in a similarly spectacular fashion.

Reynolds organises his material into chapters in two principal ways. The first is by identifying an ethos or mindset that unites two or more bands; for instance, The Pop Group and The Slits are treated together due to their interest in the primitive and the tribal, while Talking Heads and Wire, both art-school bands, are regarded as transatlantic cousins. The second is by exploring geographical scenes that developed organically with their own unique flavour; thus he takes us to Gang Of Four's Leeds,  Cabaret Voltaire's Sheffield, Orange Juice's Glasgow and Echo & The Bunnymen's Liverpool.

As someone slightly frustrated by what felt like the parochial myopia of Jon Savage's otherwise excellent England's Dreaming, I was pleased to find that Reynolds looks beyond these shores to the US, devoting chapters to Detroit (Pere Ubu, Devo), New York (no wave), San Francisco (out-there psych-influenced acts), "mutant disco" and "punk-funk", and the rise of SST Records.

Unlike Savage, Reynolds writes not only knowledgeably - Rip It Up And Start Again is evidently the result of extensive research and benefits from first-hand interviews with many of the major figures - but also passionately. This is no dry guidebook (if such a thing were even possible or desirable); on the contrary, his opinions are always implicit, and sometimes quite explicit. Few bands, if any, are universally lauded (he acknowledges duff albums and calls out missteps); in a handful of instances, inevitably, his descriptions - which are always evocative and never fail to pique the interest - do rather oversell the reality. Likewise, at times I bristled slightly at his dismissive characterisations (for instance, of The Jesus & Mary Chain as little more than "record collection rock"). But I'd much rather a book that comes very much from the heart than one that attempts a dispassionate survey of an artform that, perhaps more than most, seeks to stir and inflame.

As well as being a zealous primer and an engrossing cultural history, Rip It Up And Start Again is a testament to the status and power that the music press once had, to the ability of journalists and publications to create images, shape narratives and guide tastes. At the current moment, with NME effectively no more and mainstream music magazines few and far between, those days seem like a long time ago.

If there's one single take-home message from the book, it's that "post-punk" should never be used as a term to describe a specific genre or style of music; instead, it refers to a particular period of time during which there was an explosion of different styles. This is a lesson I need to learn - though in that I'm certainly not alone.

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