Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Simon Reynolds - Rip It Up and Start Again

It's doubtful that there has ever been a rock genre as self-conscious and pretentious as post-punk.  The bands chronicled in Reynold's tome seem to have taken themselves and pop music very, very seriously; even the aggressively "fun" New Pop exemplified by the likes of Dexys Midnight Runners and ABC was coldly calculated as a reaction against the dour anti-pop aesthetics of other prevailing post-punk bands.  The book captures a time when many new (mainly British) rock bands, invigorated by punk's rejection of traditional rock star values, began to call into question the entire meaning of pop music as a functional commodity.  The post-punk bands seemed to share a radically left-wing critique of capitalism and pop's role in the system (which is why it was mostly a British phenomenon in an era when most American bands and the American public were extremely, disarmingly apolitical), the the two most in-your-face politico-rock bands being the Pop Group (who screamed, "We are all prostitutes!  We all have our price!") and the Gang of Four (who declaimed that repackaged sex was a tool of the capitalist patriarchy), each of which are extensively covered in separate chapters.  This instinctive distrust of large corporations led, naturally, to the rise of independent labels in the latter half of the 1970s such as Rough Trade, Mute, etc., a scene that would explode in the 1980s following the lead of that original wave of pioneer venture capitalists.  The crux of the matter, however, is that even bands that didn't want to be pop stars still wanted their music and message to reach the widest audience possible, a possibility that could only be truly enabled with the distribution and advertising network of a major label; and thus, bands were caught in the dilemma of whether to stay true to their anti-corporate principles or go for the brass and a popular audience, which as pop bands they should at least theoretically be aiming for.  If this all seems rather over-thought and incredibly self-conscious, well it was - Reynolds covers the ideologically-soaked outlooks of the majority of the post-punk bands deftly.  The post-punks were here to party, but in a nerdily hyper-intellectual way: they wanted to move the brain and the buttocks simultaneously.

Reynold's main thesis was that punk, while revolutionarily inspiring on the level of style and rhetoric, was distressingly reactionary and conservative on a musical level, consisting mostly of the same guitar-rock cliches that had been a staple since the mid-'60s Who.  (He's correct on this count, of course.)  The bands that he labels post-punk (a label that, like most movement labels, is a label retro-actively assigned - I doubt that many of these bands would have described themselves as post-punk at the time) wanted their music to be musically as well as rhetorically revolutionary.  Punk rock, with its amateurist anyone-can-do-it rhetoric, opened the floodgates for a lot of non-musician dilettantes to pick up instruments, with many refugees from the non-music arts scene spilling over into rock bands.  While occassionally this led to a great band formed by visual art students in the guise of the Talking Heads and Wire, it as well led to a lot of arty non-musical nonsense.  The problem with non-musicians trying to make music should be self-evidently obvious, as the unlistenability of art projects like Throbbing Gristle (the most glaring example) and many other industrial & experimental synthesizer pop bands made clear.  Reynolds steers clear of negative value judgements of most of the bands he covers, which seems warranted in a documentary history such as this, but the book is equally a critical thesis as much as a history, and as such a bit more willingness to call crap when it's crap would have been welcome, lest he steer young readers in the wrong directions and they actually try to pick up Slits and Scritti Politti records.  (You'll be disappointed, kids.)

The caveat emptor for American readers is that the U.S. edition is over 200 pages shorter than the U.K. edition, with substantial portions and sometimes entire chapters edited or cut out.  It's a baffling decision, as rock'n'roll books generally sell fairly well, even those on such non-commercial subjects as lefty-arty post-punk bands, and I for one would loved to have read the chapter on Magazine (one of my favorite post-punk bands) that was left out of the American edition, for example.  But it's still a hefty 400-page tome full of lengthy chapter by chapter essays that cover a broad range of bands - at least a couple of dozen bands covered here by my reckoning, and most of them are covered in reasonably deep 10 to 12 page sketches.  The essays on the MTV-era New Pop bands like U2, the Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen, et. al., near the ends of the book seem rushed, and it shows that these chapters were victims of the unfortunate ax-chopping editorial staff.  I really didn't need to read an entire chapter on Frankie Goes to Hollywood, but it is illuminating on the process of manufactured hype (as well as the chapter on Malcolm McLaren and Bow Wow Wow, which covers some unsavory territory - I'd already known that McLaren was an old pervert obsessed with pedophilia as a shock tactic, but not that disturbingly obsessed.)   If the book's narrative is a bit formless, that's only fitting as post-punk was never a movement like punk, but rather a rag-tag collection of misfits retroactively shoved under the post-punk umbrella.  So the decision to include the Residents, Zappa-esque oddballs who'd been issuing albums since 1973 and had no connection to punk whatsoever, and leaving out, say, XTC, is a bit head-scratching, but on the whole most of the bands seem to fit in with the post-punk moniker.   Overall the book amounts to a well-argued and thought-out overview of a bohemian subculture(s) of a deeply interesting, deeply transitional era of pop and rock.

No comments:

Post a Comment