Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984
Simon Reynolds, Faber & Faber, 2019, 608 pages
MARK GULLICK savours an appreciation of an excitingly original music scene
Punk rock in both its British and American incarnations is probably as thoroughly documented as any musical genre. Punk seen as a transition, stage or catalyst, however, and the loose, disparate and inspired genre it gave rise to, is relatively uncharted territory, which makes Simon Reynolds’ Rip it Up and Start Again necessary reading for those interested in some of the most innovative rock music to emerge from the Western world in the last century or this.
Post-punk had something which punk had only in larval form – variety. Punk simply could not pluck cards randomly from its deck and come up with a hand as musically diverse as Joy Division, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, XTC, Throbbing Gristle and Devo. The sheer range of styles is breath-taking when it is presented in the accurate and mannered style of Reynolds’s book, and this is a thrilling account of a time of invention and music as genuine art, one which I bemoaned the lack of until a music journalist friend alerted me to Rip It Up.
Punk did not simply stop, of course, allowing post-punk to clock in for its shift, although Reynolds does follow convention by marking the territorial division in the traditional way. Thus, punk ends with the final Sex Pistols gig in America, and the post-punk period commences with John Lydon’s formation of Public Image Ltd. But, as Reynolds shows, there is another dividing line, not temporal but conceptual. Where punk was mostly visceral, post-punk was in large part cerebral.
Although the title of Reynolds’s book – the name of a song by Scottish band Orange Juice – suggests a year-zero reset for alternative music in Britain, there was of course a shading of one ‘movement’ into its successor. Punk had liberated rock music in two main ways, financial and formal. Pre-punk, you needed record company backing or well-off parents to buy equipment (undoubtedly one reason so many British rock bands of the 1960s and 1970s were so posh). APE (after the punk era), you could emulate The Cure’s Robert Smith, who recorded the band’s first albums with a £17 electric guitar from Woolworth. I saw the guitar played on several occasions, having known The Cure when they were starting out, and it always sounded good to me, becoming a trademark sound for Smith.
The formal liberation is less obvious, but punk stripped down the concept of the song to its bare components, and this demystification of music carried on into all the major post-punk bands. The Gang of Four’s Damaged Goods is about as far from Yes as it is possible to get. But this was not the denial of rock history, far from it. Among post-punk bands there was also an awareness of what went before them that had evolved from the semi-nihilist ramalama of punk rock into a type of working manifesto.
Punk bands had their lineage in 60s garage rock, rockabilly, The Stooges, MC5 and more, and some were more rock-literate and aware of the provenance of their sound than others. But where punks had a vague inkling of what birthed them, post-punks knew to antiquarian detail which bands were their progenitors. And they were not just aware of musical artistic tradition. You were more likely to hear Sheffield industrial-synth duo Cabaret Voltaire (as their name would suggest) talking about Dada as The Damned.
Put simply, the musicians who followed the punks were several leagues more intelligent. Magazine’s Howard Devoto, all of Wire, XTC, even The Fall’s Mark E. Smith – given bouts of incoherence – were all thinkers. There is a delightful snippet in which Reynolds tells of The Ramones’ dumb amazement, while touring with Talking Heads, that David Byrne et al read books in their down time instead of raising hell. Rather sadly, the abiding iconic figure from punk ended up being Sid Vicious, as inarticulate and destructive a clod as you could find. Compare and contrast with Gareth Sager of visionary post-punk band The Pop Group;
In an NME feature, Gareth Sager argued that Western civilisations, being “based on cities”, were sick because they were cut off from “natural cycles”, unlike African tribes where repression simply didn’t exist
Whereas with punk there was a riot going on, post-punk sometimes felt like there was a seminar going on.
My own favourites from the period – Joy Division, Wire, The Fall, The Slits, Magazine and Killing Joke – receive the treatment you would expect as post-punk luminaries. I have a particular affection for Joy Division and Killing Joke, which stems from a wonderful 45-minute conversation about music with Joy Division’s tragic singer Ian Curtis a year before his suicide, and a drunken evening with Geordie Walker, Killing Joke’s phenomenal guitarist. He wouldn’t let me pay for any drinks, claiming that we were drinking the royalties from Love Like Blood, the band’s biggest hit.
Reynolds is not Britcentric, however, but rather transatlantically exhaustive. He ranges across the herring pond with the ease of a practiced music journalist, showing an appreciation of sub-genre as well as genre.
Musically, punk is familiar territory. The Ramones, 1234, rolling eighths on the bass, total 4/4 drumming and what was habitually described in the music press of the time as ‘buzz-saw guitar’ (the go-to adjective for post-punk guitar sounds being ‘angular’). Post-punk was both more experimental and far more knowledgeable and expansive concerning its ancestry than punk. Its effects were also not limited to the music. Graphic design also benefitted from post-punk, and Rip It Up has occasional sleeve art which shows a much more advanced visual and graphic awareness about packaging – perfected by Scritti Politti’s use of famous branding to adorn their sleeves – doubtless a result of the link between post-punk and art college.
Much of the post-punk conversation tends back towards art and art rock, and various players have their say on the subject. Deciding what is art and what is not, of course, is akin to playing rock-scissors-paper in that the winner has not displayed any particular skill in the subject. But at the same time even the culturally tone-deaf can tell that there is a difference between Wire and Magazine on the one hand, and The Damned and Slaughter and the Dogs on the other. That said, the more trying aspects of the art-school approach are highlighted by a Wire gig at which, onstage,
…someone attacked a gas stove, while Zegk Hoop featured twelve people with newspaper head-dresses on playing percussion
Art, quite possibly, for art’s sake.
Any review of a cultural movement is now habitually viewed through the prism of the present, given the interesting times in which we live. To use the contemporary vernacular, Reynolds is pleasingly non-woke. It is a simple fact that, while punk took inspiration from black music, post-punk was almost entirely a white phenomenon. Then, of course, this might draw the occasional disinterested observation. Given that the one Reynolds includes, bemoaning the whiteness of the post-punk scene, comes from Lester Bangs, we would do well to remember that Bangs was a drunken drug addict best known for being Lou Reed’s court jester.
If post-punk had happened now, the whole movement, if such it was, would be under the Klieg lights of woke. Music is strictly patrolled by the commissars now, as is the whole entertainment industry. Post-punk took a studied view of politics rather than a coerced one. Reynolds makes an astute observation about post-punk bands and their rather more guarded approach than their forebears, not to race but to anti-racism, which feels very familiar today;
[W]hile most British post-punk groups participated in the Rock Against Racism tours and festivals of the era, they were wary of both RAR itself and its sister organisation, the Anti-Nazi League, suspecting them of being thinly disguised fronts for the militant, left-wing Socialist Workers Party (who valued music purely as a tool for radicalising and mobilising youth).
Today it is of course mandatory for musicians to keep their CV up to date concerning race. It is difficult to imagine XTC’s debut album, White Music, having a problem-free release just at the moment.
If you already enjoy the music of any of the bands covered by Reynolds, Rip It Up is a schoolroom of apocrypha. Personally, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures remains very close to my heart and not least because of sound effects on two tracks, Insight and I Remember Nothing. They sounded, respectively, as though someone had recorded an old lift for the first song, and smashed bottles in the second. I had never heard music like it. How did they do that? The answer, of course, was hidden in plain sight, like Edgar Allan Poe’s purloined letter. The producer of Unknown Pleasures, Martin Hannett;
…loved the occasional extreme effect: On the debut Unknown Pleasures, he miked up the clanking of an antique lift for Insight and incorporated smashing glass on I Remember Nothing.
Reynolds achieves two pleasing results for a rock music writer in that he does not assume the role of central arbiter who decides what is good and what is not (he limits himself discreetly to assessing cultural value) while simultaneously being unable to disguise his favourite artists (he has an obvious soft spot for PiL and Scritti Politti). So it is as the enchanting hybrid of fan and researcher that he traces the many tributaries of the post-punk river, and the many cultural effects, not least in the media.
Punk did post-punk a great service by creating a highly significant, high-circulation, rock-literate music press. Reynolds estimates that, including the ‘knock-on’ rate of readership, where copies are read and passed on, the combined readership of the four big titles was around two million a week, figures the MSM would kill or die for now. And so post-punk was not left floundering around wasting its sweetness on the desert air because of mass media’s lack of interest. They had a dedicated press from the start.
They also had a figure who is sainted in any music biography covering the period he was alive, and rightly so: John Peel. Having championed punk and taken enthusiastically to its descendants (before an attack of musical malaise in the mid-1980s led him to claim that “I don’t even like the records I like”), Peel was as crucial as he had been and was to be in the promotion of what Reynolds calls “dissident music”, music produced outside the establishment industry channels:
Peel’s support of the marginal and maverick was all the more crucial because Radio One, before deregulation of the airwaves, enjoyed a near monopoly over pop music in the UK.
The production side of the music industry also underwent change due to post-punk. It is a common perception that while punk was about DIY records and musical autonomy, its demise represented the end of independence and the return of the big record companies and promoters. In fact – and Reynolds devotes a painstakingly researched chapter to this – the punk bands couldn’t wait to get famous and get on a major label, while the period covered in Rip It Up was notable for the fierce autonomy of some of the bands and labels. Of course, as The Clash’s Joe Strummer (somewhat hypocritically) had noted, record labels were always going to be “turning rebellion into money” and, as Mark E. Smith wryly noted, “all the English groups act like peasants with free milk, on a route to the loot”, but the post-punk era saw more determination about retaining creative and financial control.
But any movement is only what its defenders say it is. Post-punk, as Reynolds makes beautifully and caringly clear, was very far from monolithic. Ska, Goth, New Pop, synthpop, Industrial, post-punk’s territory is expansive and divulgent. Some was complete news to me, and I was what Mark E. Smith called a “printhead” at the time when it came to the New Musical Express and Melody Maker. I had never heard of (with the exception of The Residents) the subject bands of the chapter ‘Freak Scene: Cabaret Noir and Theatre of Cruelty in Post-punk San Francisco’. Reynolds is encyclopaedic.
He is also a good music writer. Elvis Costello once quipped that “writing about music is like dancing about writing”, which contains a point but does not tell the full tale. Many rock writers use the experience as a rite of passage to the ‘proper papers’, whereas with Reynolds, his love of his subject matter keeps the prose buoyant and the descriptions of the music – which can unseat music writers prone to exuberance – are concise and evocative. It feels as though, had you not heard one note produced by one band in Rip It Up, you would still find it an enjoyable read.
Rip it Up and Start Again is a wonderful book about an exciting and artistically fresh few years. Reynolds counts himself fortunate – after having been a slow starter with punk – to have been involved in the wonderful flat-pack Renaissance that was post-punk:
Young people have a biological right to be excited about the times in which they’re living. If you are very lucky, that hormonal urgency is matched by the insurgency of the era – your innate adolescent need for amazement and belief coincides with a period of objective abundance. The prime years of post punk… were like that: a fortune.
His good fortune is also ours.