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In "Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984", music writer Simon Reynolds tries to cover some new ground, producing the definitive (if not the only) book on the history of "post-punk". Born from the ashes of punk's implosion, post-punk saw the rise of daring, experimental new bands who took the guts and DIY ethos of punk a step further, breaking down the limits of conventional rock'n'roll in a fashion that punk arguably failed to do. Reynolds provides a lovingly compiled document of the movement's birth and decline, from the last days of the Sex Pistols to post-punk's petering-out into "New Pop".
The book itself is a nice bit of work, with an eye-catching yellow and pink cover (a cheeky shout-out, I'm guessing, to the Sex Pistols' artwork for "Never Mind the Bollocks") and with a fair sprinkling of black and white images inside (band photos, record artwork and various other artifacts). It cost me £10.99 at Waterstones' a couple of years ago, though it's available on Amazon for much less now. The back and inner cover are glowing with accolades, and the consensus is that Reynolds has produced a timely, detailed and intelligent study of a much-neglected musical era.
Reynolds sets the scene with brief "story so far" of pop and rock in the late seventies. His prologue is titled "The Unfinished Revolution", suggesting that post-punk was the fruition of what punk started but was too rash and close-minded to fully deliver. As punk burnt out, it left behind a new generation of would-be musicians: they had the rebellious spirit of punk, but they didn't dismiss other genres out of hand. They admired the texture and atmosphere of Bowie and Eno's Berlin trilogy, the minimalism of The Velvet Underground and krautrock, and an eclectic mix of black music, disco and dance. These new bands would, in their own ways, go on to reconcile the leftover energy and attitude of punk with a much more far-reaching, inclusive blend of musical influences.
There's an immense amount of ground to cover here, since "post-punk" is a hugely diverse and largely retroactive label; dozens of bands can fall under its umbrella without sounding anything alike, or having anything in common other than a philosophy particular to that point in time. But Reynolds is enthusiastic and unfazed. Keeping roughly chronological, he moves from one city or scene to another, from chapter to chapter, closely following musical developments on both sides of the Atlantic. It's no mean feat, and he juggles a dozen saucers with great skill.
The first half of the book covers post-punk at its most fresh, daring and controversial: John Lydon throwing off the Johnny Rotten name and testing new waters with Public Image Ltd; the emergence of Buzzcocks and Magazine; the early days of Devo and Pere Ubu in the U.S.; "No Wave" developing in New York; the founding of independent labels Factory, Mute and Rough Trade in the U.K.; the art-school roots of Wire and Talking Heads; the political wit of Gang of Four and The Mekons in Leeds; Cabaret Voltaire and The Human League's futuristic electronic dabblings in Sheffield; The Fall and Joy Division's dark musings in Manchester; the shambolic anti-rock of Scritti Politti; the debauched performance art of Throbbing Gristle; the off-the-wall theatrics of Tuxedomoon and The Residents in San Francisco.
The book's second half sees post-punk's experimental peak waning, and its exponents assimilated into pop music: the 2-Tone label and ska revival; Adam and the Ants' breakup and the subsequent success of Bow Wow Wow and Adam Ant solo; the explosion of synthpop with the new Human League, Gary Numan, Ultravox, Visage, Heaven 17 and ABC; the underrated Scottish scene yielding The Associates, Josef K and Orange Juice (who wrote the titular song "Rip it Up"); the fleeting golden age of New Pop with Simple Minds, Duran Duran, Eurythmics, et al; a return to guitar-based sounds with Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure and their gothic kindred; Liverpudlian neo-psychedelia with Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes; the American hardcore punk scene with Black Flag and Hüsker Dü; the industrial trappings of Psychic TV, Einstürzende Neubauten, Swans and Depeche Mode.
There's a lot to learn, and each chapter is filled with interesting facts and anecdotes. Some more notable bands are given greater space than others, understandably, but Reynolds tries to dedicate some time to all of them, offering at least a couple of paragraphs for each and managing to maintain a smooth narrative throughout. If you like any of the above bands, there should be some great titbits for you, or maybe even some grim facts you'd wish you hadn't read. On one hand, I loved to learn that Talking Heads' "The Overload", from their seminal album "Remain in Light", had been inspired by Joy Division - even though the band had never heard a Joy Division record, only read about them in magazines. On the other, it was a shame to read how Frankie Goes to Hollywood were so dominated by their label and producer that almost none of "Welcome to the Pleasuredome" was recorded by the band themselves.
Reynolds' document draws to a close around 1985, where the fresh, experimental drive of post-punk and New Wave fades, to be replaced with indulgent repetition, big budget videos and Live Aid. Reynolds recaps the previously-covered bands and the state of their careers: some fallen by the wayside, ruined by the industry, and a lucky few continuing their cult or global success. He does give some credit to later-blooming bands such as The Smiths, Primal Scream and The Jesus and Mary Chain as heralds of a new era's alternative music - so all isn't lost, though it's clear that the late seventies and early eighties remain closest the author's heart.
Reynolds is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable writer - a fanboy, but a smart one. He doesn't look very deeply into the politics of the time, or explore the subcultures that surrounded a lot of the music, which seems a shame but is understandable in a book that already covers miles of ground. Though eloquent and detailed, Reynolds writes with an accessible light touch that keeps the book entertaining, even through chapters about bands or scenes I didn't know or like. Even in the few times I found myself becoming bored, the chapter would end in favour of a fresh new one; some other chapters I wished were longer, just because I was biased in favour of certain bands, but the variety really keeps the pages turning.
It's an essential read for any fan of punk, New Wave, and that unidentifiable stuff in between, whether you lived it at the time or (like me) love the music but wasn't alive or sentient enough to appreciate it when it was new and happening. "Rip it Up and Start Again" is not only a labour of love, but a well-written, well-researched study of a subject that was crying out for such a book. It isn't an easy genre to condense into one volume - not even a genre at all, really - but Reynolds' effort is nonetheless courageous and unlikely to be bettered for some time, uniting both obvious and obscure bands under one roof with a lot of care.
"The Sex Pistols sang "No Future", but there is a future, and we're trying to build one."