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Saturday, March 25th, 2006


Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984

by Simon Reynolds

The Art of (Postpunk) Noise

A review by Gerry Donaghy

There is a saying that when one door is closed, another opens. The door on punk rock was effectively slammed shut in January of 1978, when Johnny Rotten, the lead singer/raconteur of the Sex Pistols, tauntingly asked his audience, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" at the end of their show at San Francisco's Winterland. It was a salient question at the time. In less than two years his band had gone from guttersnipe musical upstarts to ubiquitous media whores. Instead of smashing the system, they became the lubricant for the machine that is the music industry. Seeing the punk movement he so earnestly believed in devolve into both parody and its own lockstep conformity, Rotten quit the band and immediately distanced himself from punk.

According to Simon Reynolds, the postpunk door opened when Rotten, rechristened with his surname Lydon, formed Public Image Ltd, or PiL, which was a distinctively different band from the Pistols. Incorporating Jamaican dancehall bass, dissonant, improvisational guitar riffs, and Lydon's autodidactic lyrics, PiL baffled the punks, who pelted them with beer cans during their debut performance. But for others, the birth of PiL was a chance for disillusioned fellow travelers to embrace a diversity of styles and influences beyond the myopia of punk rock. While there wasn't that much of a distinction between, say, the early Clash and the Pistols, the bands featured in Rip It Up and Start Again were uniform only in their musical heterogeneity.

In Rip It Up and Start Over Again, Reynolds marshals a considerable knowledge of the postpunk era (purist may argue whether this is an accurate term for the years of 1978-1984, but it's as good as anything else) and welds it to an erudite writing style that is both informative and opinionated without reeking of snobbishness, managing to write about both the pioneers and the grotesqueries with the same straight face.

This book came about, Reynolds states, because "There are scores of books on punk rock and the events of 1975-77, but virtually nothing on what happened next." Reynolds is trying to rescue the period from being remembered solely as a "campy comedy zone… characterized by pretentious stabs at video-as-artform, and by English eyeliner-and-synth fops with silly haircuts." Indeed, if your only memories of the era are the far-out coiffures sported by Flock of Seagulls, or the silly helmets that Devo wore, then there is much for you to learn in these pages, Grasshopper.

In addition to his insightful profiles of such luminaries as Talking Heads, Pere Ubu, Gang of Four, and Joy Division (to name just four), Reynolds also delves into the realms of their influences. Part of Lydon's distancing himself from punk began when he hosted a radio show in the UK, where he played records by ex-Velvet Underground members, roots reggae, Can, and Captain Beefheart, and it's gratifying to see such attention paid to postpunk's various inspirations. It's also gratifying to see attention being paid to bands that never got much love from American record buyers (Suicide, Throbbing Gristle, Chrome), as well as the author's inclusion of 2-Tone Ska bands under his postpunk rubric.

There is a telling passage in the introduction that sums up why Rip It Up and Start Again is essential reading: "When a rock critic reaches a certain age, they often start to wonder if all the mental energy they've invested in this music thing was actually such a shrewd move. Not exactly a crisis of confidence, but a creasing of certainty." You don't have to be a rock critic to experience such a moment of reckoning. In an era where nearly every musical memory you've ever cherished can be repackaged and force fed to you via commercials and insipid VH1 flashback specials, you begin to feel less like a fan and more like a demographic. Rip It Up and Start Again reminds the reader of a time when music was the only thing that mattered, of a time when the music you listened to (or didn't listen to) was the lingua franca of life as you knew it. Even if you weren't around or paying attention during the postpunk years, Rip It Up and Start Again will reward the curious reader with endless musical diversions to explore.

P.S. I was going to gripe that the one thing lacking in this book was any kind of a postpunk discography, but when I got around to reading the table of contents, I noticed that there are additional reader resources at the author's website: www.simonreynolds.net. The pospunk discography he has posted there, all twenty-six pages of it (so far), is well worth the trip.

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