“Read a Damn Book – 144: Rip It Up and Start Again”
Let’s get the suspense element out of the way: I LOVE THIS BOOK! I first discovered it maybe 10 or 12 years ago, and I have now read the dang thing three times. And each read-through has provided me with serious enjoyment, as well as a few new bands to LISTEN TO, (thanks to the magnificent DEPTH of material here.) This time, it was the Scottish band, The Associates, who I’d never really paid attention to. They were a weird, operatic post-punk / new wave act that fractured and broke up just as they were poised to take their unique sound to the top! You can read all about their rise and disintegration in chapter 20 of this book… People, get ready for a heady ride through Simon Reynolds’ RIP IT UP AND START AGAIN!!!
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual book that I read. The image is included for review purposes only!]
Simon Reynolds – Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978 – 1984 (2005)
Last summer, I reviewed Jon Savage’s massive, excruciatingly detailed text, England’s Dreaming – Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond, which is brilliant, and which looks at the evolution of the punk movement, particularly in Britain, where punk wasn’t just a few headlines that scared parents, but became a full-fledged pop phenomenon with several punk bands cracking the Top 10 on the pop charts! Savage focuses his exploration of punk by looking primarily at the Sex Pistols, answering a series of essential questions in relation to that most notorious, legendary group. He asks: What was happening in the world, and specifically in London, that led to the punk explosion? Who were the people involved with the Sex Pistols? How did the band form and then develop the specific reputation that they had? And what impact did the Sex Pistols’ career have on pop music and pop culture while they were still together (a very short period of time, in retrospect) and after?
Savage’s book is dense (in the best way) and thorough and systematic and fascinating, covering almost a day by day account of the Pistols’ short reign, and I believe his focus on this band (while mentioning a multitude of other groups swirling around the Pistols) is the right approach for the thesis that Savage is promoting, that the Sex Pistols DID have an important and lasting effect on the world---and he ends his account, basically, with the dissolution of the Sex Pistols, the death of Sid Vicious, and the immediate after-effects of the band's inevitable self-destruction… But the world didn’t end with the final Sex Pistol’s gig at the Winterland in 1978. In fact, in a weird way, the death of the Pistols (and, in Savage’s view, of punk in general) was the Big Bang that birthed a new world…
Enter Simon Reynolds, whose book picks up right where Savage’s leaves off, with John Lydon, ex-Johnny Rotten – lead madman of the Pistols, starting his long running, infinitely transforming project, Public Image Ltd. Lydon (who legally wasn’t allowed to use the name “Johnny Rotten” after the Pistols because that name was owned by his manipulative ex-manager, Malcolm McLaren) was still a HOT commodity, having been the front man to one of the most controversial (and thus INTERESTING) music groups of the last few decades, and he quickly found himself a new band and signed a no-holds-barred contract to a four album deal with Virgin Records. Lydon had soured on punk after the debacle of the Sex Pistols and decided that punk was just another dead-end that had been too quickly absorbed back into the musical mainstream, so he decided to get a little WEIRD with his new project…And thus, in a way---sort of---not really---but kind of completely---POST-punk was born. (To be honest, those early PiL albums are STILL unsettling to this day, and I can see why they freaked everybody out, especially the record label…)
Reynolds decided NOT to go the Savage route and talk about the evolution of music after the “death of punk” by following a single band. Instead, he lovingly catalogs about a hundred different bands in this book and looks at how the performers connected with and influenced each other. He discusses the regional contexts that gave birth to many of these groups, (growing up in Manchester or Akron, Ohio, was not the same as growing up in London or New York,) and he charts a loose evolution of the multitude of styles and sounds that came from punk influenced groups, including: the dark swirl of postpunk, crunching industrial, reggae and dub influenced 2-Tone ska, disco inspired synth-pop, anti-disco jangle-pop, the camp of goth, the art terrorism of no wave, the rediscovery of studio technique with new pop, as well as the dozens of other side-genres, weird little labels, and bands too odd and unique to fit comfortably in any single category. According to Reynolds, punk wasn’t just a flash that instantly burned out, but was a launching point for a thousand conceptual projects. I’ll let Reynolds explain for himself:
“The postpunk vanguard---bands such as PiL, Joy Division, Talking Heads, Throbbing Gristle, Contortions, and Scritti Politti---defined punk as an imperative to constant change. They dedicated themselves to fulfilling punk’s uncompleted musical revolution, exploring new possibilities by embracing electronics, noise, jazz and the classical avant-garde, and the production techniques of dub reggae and disco” (p. 1). “Punk’s simple stance of negation, of being against, briefly created unity. But as soon as the question shifted to “What are we actually for?” the movement disintegrated and dispersed. […] The by-product of all this division and disagreement was diversity, a fabulous wealth of sounds and ideas that rivals the sixties as a golden age for music” (p. 11).
In other words, the detonation that punk caused sent music and culture flying in a million directions in search of meaning and purpose, and (ultimately) new SOUNDS. Each sub-genre saw itself as an extension of the punk ethos, every move a calculated rebellion against the mainstream, against stagnation, against political and racial and gender inequality, and against boredom itself. Experimentation became the norm for a few years (Reynolds pinpoints ’78 to ’84 as the years where this exploration was in full flower) and the radio and record stores suddenly became extremely interesting again---until MTV appeared and consolidated power back in the hands of the “INDUSTRY,” and the search for winning formulas and easy “HITS” became the focus once again. Reynolds’ argument is interesting and well developed (through interviews, lyrical analysis, and historical research), and reading about the bands and quirky personalities that Reynolds chooses to highlight is also a real treat, especially for someone who loves “alternative” music. These people and what they were doing make for great STORIES!
I have to admit, I was too young to enjoy punk on it’s first appearance (I was six when the Pistols broke up), and I was relatively late to the party for new wave and postpunk, only really catching on to these non-styles somewhere around 1986…but I fell hard for new wave once I discovered it!
As a kid, I spent several years---from 1981 to 1986---in a little town called Castle Rock, Washington, where we couldn’t get cable television, and only a few Top 40 radio stations came through clearly at our house in the hills. Thanks to this isolation, I was essentially unaware of most music (other than a few records and tapes owned by my family members---and whatever boring slop they played on the radio). I did like a few of the quirkier things that made it onto the pop stations back in the early ‘80s, like Blondie and Men Without Hats and Duran Duran, but for the most part I just didn’t really CARE about music during the period that Reynolds claims was the most exciting!!! (I was so naïve…)
However, upon returning to the “big city” of Longview, Washington, in 1986 (a small town with an impressive population of about 40,000 loggers, dock workers, and regular church goers), I finally discovered MTV, (specifically the “alternative music” program, 120 Minutes, which aired on Sunday nights and played punk and postpunk “closet classics,” as well as new tunes by bands that were too strange for normal viewing hours, like Siouxie and The Banshees, Front 242, The Dead Milkmen, The Cure, Skinny Puppy, Yello, Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk, and eventually some early acid-house and techno tracks by people like M/A/R/R/S and La Tour), and I quickly became a LOVER of all things “alternative.”) At that point, when I was about 14 years old, music became an obsession for me---and it remains one of my greatest pleasures to this day!
So, now that I’ve rambled along for several paragraphs, let’s get back to the review. Rip It Up and Start Again is a fun and fascinating experience. It’s about 400 pages long, but feels too short, to me. (I want MORE!) Reynolds’ writing style is easy to read, he has a sly sense of humor, and his love of the bands and the music that he’s writing about comes through loud and clear. And it’s easy to see why he would love writing about this era. These folks were some fascinating human beings. The members of bands, like Devo, Public Image Ltd., The Pop Group, Talking Heads, The Fall, The Human League, Scritti Politti (who I always thought were just a boring, cheesy pop group, but boy was I wrong…), and a few dozen others all had strong personalities and some driving ethos, a mission, or a peculiar GOAL that kept them moving and shaking and creating these quirky, unique songs---and learning about the folks BEHIND this great music, coming to grips with their stories and motivations, makes their music that much more interesting to me…
AND!!!! If you don’t know very many of the bands that I’ve mentioned in this review, you OWE IT TO YOURSELF to read this book, because beyond being a great read, it’s also an absolute WHO’S WHO of the most interesting music to come out of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. These bands, most of which have tunes that you can listen to RIGHT NOW on the YouToobs, pioneered about a hundred different genres and gave weirdos, like me, a reason to keep spending our hard-earned allowances on records and cassette tapes! Most of this music is still brilliant---it sounds like no other era---and thanks to books like this one (and Savage’s tome), the world can still discover (or rediscover) some of the most intriguing, challenging, and GROOVIEST songs to come out of any decade. I’ve said it several times, but this really is a wonderful book, which I can’t recommend highly enough! Get it, read it, and then go listen to these bands!!!! Done…
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
SUPPORT INDEPENDENT FOLKS WHO ARE JUST MAKING STUFF BECAUSE THEY LOVE IT!!!