Thursday, May 17, 2007

Rip It Up and Start Again

Review of Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, by Simon Reynolds. Was in the Toronto Star, 2006.

It used to be that the Velvet Underground was the universally acknowledged grandfather of alternative-minded rock. Today, though, trendy young bands like Interpol and Franz Ferdinand and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are more likely to find inspiration in Joy Division’s ghostly vocals and brittle guitars, or Gang of Four’s jagged groove, or the Talking Heads’ jittery polyrhythms. All of those bands had their heyday in the late 1970s and early ’80s, that fertile few years that followed the punk rock explosion. Other groups from the same period are finding new audiences, too; some, like Wire and Mission of Burma, are even touring and recording again after long hiatuses.

Which means that Rip It Up and Start Again is well-timed. The book throws a spotlight onto the “postpunk” scene – or scenes, rather – by touching on dozens of groups from the U.K. (most of them) and the U.S. (a smattering), including the five named above. In doing so, author Simon Reynolds, a music writer originally from Britain but now living in New York City, is looking to correct a rock-history imbalance: the brief punk movement has been much mythologized, but its musical aftermath, less iconic but more interesting, has been under-considered.

Unlike punk, though, postpunk is fragmented and diverse – a stew of sometimes contradictory ideologies, aesthetic impulses, and musical styles. So Reynolds must look for some common ground from which to start. To that end, he reminds readers that the punk of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols was essentially regressive, backing away from the bombast and pretensions of modern rock in favour of primal three-chord riffery. Postpunk, he argues, is not just the music that followed punk, but the music that followed punk and was also progressively “futurist,” or self-consciously innovative rather than imitative.

And where better to begin than with John Lydon, first known to the world as Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten? After the Pistols broke up, Lydon formed a new band, Public Image Ltd. (PiL), that purveyed rousing rock noise influenced by Jamaican dub, German art rock, and disco. He also billed his new project as a “corporation,” showing that he’d learned something about public-relations theatre from notorious Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren.

From PiL, Reynolds moves on to other first-wave postpunk acts that sprang up all over England in the late 1970s, like Joy Division, the Fall, Throbbing Gristle, and many others. Though dissimilar in style, these acts shared a keen hunger for new sounds (often incorporating electronic and funk grooves), a disdain for rock and roll conventions, and in many cases a passionate left-wing political stance.

The downside to all this is that since bands like the Pop Group and Gang of Four tended toward the shrill and had a fondness for lecturing, a dour and dutiful feel sometimes creeps into the first half of Rip It Up. So it’s a welcome development when, in the book’s second half, Reynolds broadens the focus into “new pop” – acts that worked unabashedly retro influences into their sonic mix and/or cultivated a poppier, radio-friendly sound. His consideration of the ska-revivalist Specials, the synth-pop giants the Human League and ABC, and the fame-craving Orange Juice (whose classic soul-flavoured single gives Rip It Up its title) varies and warms up the tone considerably.

Reynolds has done a great deal of research here, and Rip It Up is a valuable reference. But since it’s essentially a series of miniature band histories, it has limitations. The emphasis is on reportage, not analysis; a few more startling or thought-provoking insights here and there would have given us strength for the long march from group to group (more than 50 groups in all). Similarly, Reynolds’ workmanlike prose struggles to capture or spread a sense of real excitement. He lauds many bands I haven’t listened to in years and others I’ve hardly heard at all, but he rarely inspired me to go back to the records, and I’m usually a soft touch for that kind of thing.

The book’s conceptual rigging sometimes feels a bit shaky, too. Most of the American chapters especially seem like arbitrary detours (even when the bands are undeniably important, like Pere Ubu) and might better have been dropped. And as we get further into the 1980s, decisions about who gets covered, and how much, start to seem like a nightclub bouncer’s velvet-rope whims. Many omissions are perfectly understandable; no one needs to read another few hundred words about how the Clash grew from straightforward punkers into an uncommonly ambitious and adventurous band. Still, for such a wide-ranging book, Rip It Up ends up having a strangely cloistered feel, offering little acknowledgement that this allegedly world-changing collection of groups existed within a wider milieu of rock – even of postpunk British rock – at the time.

All of that said, there’s no other book out there quite like this one, and Reynolds has done some important work in putting together this vast collection of information. (He did more than 100 original interviews for the book, and they go a long way toward enlivening the text.) And he tells plenty of good stories along the way. Like that of Scritti Politti, who began as scruffy agit-prop deconstructionists and later morphed into the smooth MOR-pop stylists that they’re mainly remembered as here in North America. Or the creepy case of Bow Wow Wow, in which Malcolm McLaren took a malleable young pop band, appointed a 14-year-old girl as the lead singer, and marketed their records with a relentless and vaguely sinister campaign of titillation. For students of rock history, an abundance of anecdotes like this should be reason enough to read the book.

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