Back in the late eighties the younger and considerably more impoverished version of a jumped-up pantry boy religiously scanned the music press in whichever branch of WH Smith was closest to hand. I would start with the NME, then move more quickly through the matt-gloss of Melody Maker, looking at Sounds only if there were time and text on the cover which grabbed me. Simon Reynolds was a by-line I would frequently see in Melody Maker, a name I remembered from browsing through Monitor fanzine on a stall at a festival in Hyde Park in 1985. I viewed his taste with a mixture of disdain and intrigue – Young Gods, Meat Puppets – and also mistrusted (or was secretly in awe of) the form of intellectualism he applied to such groups, just as if he had ever seen my fanzines, he would have raised an eyebrow at my delusions about the authenticity of the music I wrote about and the intensity with which I celebrated groups operating in the shadow of C86. Infamously he went on to make sociological study of those whom few outside of the music press called ‘cuties’, utilising a tone which may have been sympathetic or at least genuinely curious, but which it was hard not to take as a slight, even if you felt yourself to be on the very edge of the tribe and actually agreed with some of his observations. But the eighties were incredibly divided times, and conflict was a modus operandi for many music writers, especially so between those an outsider might divine as kin.
So it was a surprise to me that his should be the name on the cover of a book about post-punk. He wasn’t there writing at the time (not that this matters, and any that were might very well not want to live through it all so exhaustively again) and in the late eighties he appeared to be working for the enemy. In a sense it turns out we were on the same side all along, or at least have drifted towards each other, from converging directions. And now I wonder, if my ears had been less selectively deaf and my mind a little more open, whether I might have liked Cabaret Voltaire, or Hüsker Dü, or the Minutemen as described in Rip it up and start again. Indeed, whether I might like them now.
The reason I come to the book so late is down to my recollection of the assessment made by my friend Pete Williams from his reading of Rip it up that it was a missed opportunity, failing to establish themes across the terrain and instead lurching from scene to freak scene and style to anti-style with each chapter. This indeed it does, and overview is there only in the parentheses of the prologue and afterchapter. Simon does try to connect outwards within each scenic chapter, so that you get a sense of what was going on concurrently – but even he feels the reader needs the benefit of a post-punk timeline to facilitate the realisation that, say, Gary Numan and Tubeway Army first reached number one in the same month that Unknown pleasures was released. The overviews are the chapters richest with argument: ‘Punk threw the record industry into confusion, making the majors vulnerable to suggestion, and fluxing up all the aesthetic rules so that anything abnormal or extreme suddenly had a chance’ and ‘even the incomplete experiments and ‘interesting failures’ carried a powerful utopian charge, were part of an exhilarating collective conversation. Certain groups existed more on the level of an idea than a fully realized proposition, but nevertheless contributed simply by existing, by talking a good game in the press.’
Writing a book with a subject like that of Rip it up, you’ve the choice of at least four approaches – by scene and style, chronological, thematic, or something more random, each one likely to damn you in the eyes of someone like me who might have written the book themselves if only they’d got around to it. But there must be another way of imagining it, and I wonder whether the author saw that way and felt it was too hard, too much, too fraught with the danger of unattainability.
Which is not to say that there’s anything wrong with the execution of the chosen approach – far from it. Great quotes are excavated and pitched in with customary good timing. Pere Ubu describe themselves as ‘avant-garage’. Brian Eno is recorded as noting that many of the No Wave groups operating in New York in 1978 were ‘research bands’ taking ‘deliberately extreme stances that are very interesting because they define the edges of a piece of territory… having that territory staked out is very important… it makes things easier for everyone else.’ And there’s an early sign of Nick Cave’s preoccupation with biblical good and evil: ‘Dirtiness is next to antigodliness’. Reynolds is especially good at setting a group and its music in context, giving the reader who wasn’t there at the time a strong sense of the sound’s impact upon the first sympathetic ears that heard it. For each key individual, you also see the rationale and the irrationality which brought them to the music they made. But there is a lack of sympathy for the later works of most of the artists covered, as if it is only the thrill of the new which counts, and while it’s true that many produced their best work early and faded, to read Rip it up you’d think this post-punk lot were all fireworks quickly spent. Perhaps this stems from not wanting to overstep the bounds of the period.
Inevitably behind the laudably fair tone, you sense the partialness or otherwise of his taste, and I’m sure that finally dictated which groups made the cut and which didn’t. It would be difficult to make the book any more comprehensive without its weight becoming off-putting. Yet I can’t help feeling that north American post-punk gets a raw deal. The flow of the book breaks down completely for the New York ‘Mutant disco and punk funk’ chapter, deliberately or lazily (in the scheme of so much hard research). There must have been more going on than meets Reynolds’ eye, or mine. Countering this, there are well-made points about the pioneering spirit and experimental climate fostered by national radio and the burgeoning number of independent labels in Britain as compared with more isolated pockets of adventure in certain cities in the States, with the distance between those pockets, the lack of a national broadcasting network and relatively conservative record labels also inhibiting invention.
As for elsewhere in the world, it’s understandable that, for example, New Zealand’s time-lagged response to punk and post-punk isn’t outlined, but the Clean, the Verlaines, and the Chills – the early Flying Nun roster – deserve to stand alongside the Fire Engines, Josef K, and Orange Juice. Recorded in 1982, the Chills’ ‘Flame-thrower’ is about as close as a song gets to resembling the object after which it is titled.
Reynolds is sniffy about what came after 1984 – after the golden bloom of his own adolescence, and very possibly subject to the periodic disenchantment which assails anyone who spends too much of their life listening to and thinking about music. He puts this down to the spirit of futurism surrendering to slavish retroism. ‘The desire to ‘rip it up and start again’ that had driven first post-punk and then New Pop still existed. But for the first time that impulse took the form of looking to the past.’ So many of the groups he writes about in Rip it up took inspiration from the early seventies, Beefheart, Bowie, Roxy Music, Kraftwerk and Can prominent among them, and Reynolds himself says in the prologue that ‘post-punk also rebuilt bridges with rock’s own past’. No-one begins with an entirely blank sheet of paper – it’s epistemologically impossible. For me it comes down to a debate about degree. Simon contends that in 1985 there was a shift ‘from post-punk groups using their influences as inspirational fuel to indie-rock bands increasingly deploying them as citations.’ This has the jaded air of someone saying that ‘they don’t make ‘em like they did in my day’. Convenient too, if one is writing a book whose cut-off point is relatively random and needs a thesis which shields the arbitrariness. All groups loosely connected to C86 (a media construct, remember) are swept aside with the generalisation that their music was ‘post-punk with the most radical elements (the politics, the black/white fusion, the studio experimentation) purged.’ This oversells the quantity and quality of black-white fusion in post-punk and selectively neglects to mention, for example, McCarthy, the Wolfhounds, and Big Flame all of whom appeared on the C86 tape, though none of them, it is true, placed their best work there.
Ending each part – ‘Post-punk’ and ‘New pop and new rock’ – with an echo and a reprise of John Lydon’s famous ‘ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’ Sex Pistols sign-off is too neat and too negative for what has been an absorbing celebration of a period when wilful, bloody-minded musicians and non-musicians joyously dismantled artistic and technical barriers so as to reach greater heights. Surely Simon should have fallen back on Josef K: ‘Sorry for laughing… there’s too much happening’. Or on ‘Poor old soul’, a song by Lydon’s inverse, Edwyn Collins, the second part of which has the chorus ‘no more rock’n’roll for you!’ running through it like the wording on a stick of rock: ‘Come clean / I will not be a party to your scheme / I mean the things you do just make me want to scream’.
That would better have done justice both to his book and the spirit of the times.