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Monday, 13 November 2006

Rip it Up and Start Again...

Been reading Simon "Shirty Gertie from Number 30." Reynolds' overview of the post-punk scene.* Yeah, it's alright - much less theoretical than I'd expected and in a disarming introduction he admits that, like me, he pretty much missed out on the punk scene at the time, finding his fanaticism for pop music stirred more by the diverse explosion of music that followed in the aftermath of the Pistols' demise. The book is, he admits, an attempt to return to the source of a lifetime devoted to the study of pop, one brought about by the familiar bout of soul-searching that I'm sure many of my readers have gone through, mid-life. Rip it Up and Start again: or, why have I wasted my life on a whole bunch of plastic?? might have made a nice subtitle now I think of it.

However, such subjectivity is both blessing and curse - especially if you were expecting (as I was) an overview of the period (1978-84) that could compare with the scope achieved by Dave Marsh, for instance, in his excellent "my favourite 1000 records of all time" exercise, The Heart and Soul of Rock & Pop. Because it seems to be based on a very personal view, Rip it Up does read very well and Reynolds communicates with the vigour and eagerness of a fan (the section on Gary Numan, for one, provoking a pleasant pang of nostalgia in this reader). It's not remotely dry, which I'd assumed it would be, and - based on my so far having read only the sections based on stuff I know myself - he does actually appear to have listened to many of the records. Indeed, even a cursory scan of the contents makes it hard to argue with his assertion that the years 1978-84 represent something of a golden era for adventurous popular music. Only Reynolds goes so far as to suggest that it rivals (and possibly even eclipses) the era between 1965-67 commonly regarded as the high watermark of ambitious pop music. And it's here that the subjective nature of Reynolds' approach begins to undermine his thesis.

Before the first chapter proper, one is already scratching one's head as Reynolds describes the "failure" of punk in the eyes of the post-punk movement. Failure to do what, exactly? Flipping back a few pages to see exactly what I'd missed, I realise that there's no real delineation of what the punk movement was in the first place - this, we are told is a subject fully covered elsewhere (Jon Savage's England's Dreaming probably representing the key text. Must read that one day, but Greil Marcus is so good on the Pistols in Lipstick Traces that I so far haven't felt the loss). Punk, we're told, was stylistically purely and simply a return to rock and roll basics, a movement aimed at overthrowing the hegemony of the major labels and returning ver music to ver kids, innit. But were there *really* any such clearly defined ojectives mapped out to the extent that one could sensibly construct an analysis of how successfully punk had performed in realising them?

Whilst this quibble might seem nitpicking (and it certainly doesn't undermine Reynolds' argument that what followed punk is perhaps far more worthy of consideration than the initial ground levelling of the initial '76/'77 explosion) the lack of an objective framework to support his assertion that the period was to all intents and purposes the finest era in the history of pop music becomes harder to swallow. Mightn't anyone make the same case for their own era of choice or, as in Reynolds case) that when they felt closest to the music as it came out, by the simple expedient of writing several hundred pages approving every other record that came out during whichever points on the calendar? OK, not exactly simple, but eminently do-able, given the time and inclination. There are also omissions - quite serious in my view - that, whilst they don't undermine his basic tenet (indeed, their inclusion could only have strengthened it) they reveal the way that Reynolds has rather skewed the picture being painted to suit his own ends, rather than allowing the evidence to shine through.

For instance, the index cites 5 references to Blondie, all of them turn out to be no more than passing. Perhaps, as original denizens of the CBGB/Max's Kansas City NYC scene they, like the Ramones, are considered beyond Reynolds' remit (although Talking Heads, who emerged from the same scene and are considered - quite rightly - to be deserving of a lengthy and detailed analysis). But given that the B52s, for instance, warrant a significant chunk of a chapter devoted to New York proto-disco, the decision starts to look a bit barmy - especially given the global success Blondie achieved with records that were, in my view, as exciting, ethereal and innovative as any of the outright pop music Reynolds writes about in the second section of the book. Odd then that records as sublime (and more pertinently, innovative, influential and germaine to Reynolds' argument) as 'Heart of Glass' and 'Rapture' don't warrant even a passing mention. Especially strange given his approval elsewhere of groups like the Pop Group and PiL incorporating dance and disco elements in their music.

So, as you read one whistlestop career precis after another - Magazine, have several high foreheaded members, boldly reintroduce prog keyboards but then Devoto overdoes the pancake on TOTP and scares off most of Western Europe....Talking Heads make some of the finest music ever made, Tina Weymouth invents slap bass and has a groovy Jean Seberg rug re-think, they initially all get on with with Brian Eno before David & Brian gett too pally and piss off the the other three and they don't use him as a producer any more.... and so on - without ever feeling that the thesis outlined in the introduction bears all that much relation to the words on the page. There's a huge wealth of excellent pop trivia - e.g. art poseur in extremis David Sylvian's dad was a municipal ratcatcher.... - and some great quotes "it's like seeing a vision of 1980": Bowie taliking about the Human 1979.

But, good and (broadly speaking) thorough as it is, I was expecting a bit more analysis and rigour. For instance, Thatcherism and The Bomb feature, but as in Simon Goddard's The Songs That Saved Your Life, they seem marginal diversions from the authors' own myth-spinning when in fact they were the central facts of the period as it was lived in - and it's a shocking distortion - especially from a supposed 'Marxist theorist' to downplay this. Indeed, there's maybe an argument that an analysis of the context of the period being discussed might have made for a more useful introduction to the pop music material, encomappsing as Reynolds suggests it did, the death of the old progressive liberalism and the rise of a new and virulent conservatism that we are still living with the effects of today. And, as I recall, the best music of the era struck a chord precisely because of it's relevance to those issues - The Smiths' 'Stretch out and Wait', The Jam's 'Going Underground', Kate Bush's 'Breathing' - those last 2 examples both number one singles, incidentally. Arguably, there's a better book than this and Goddard's Smiths effort, perhaps, in examining what the artists of the time missed - namely, the wholesale retrenchment of the post war social progress model. For me, only the Smiths music from that era seems to articulate the sense of loss. And in any case, if punk did 'fail' and we ended up with with Sham '69 and the Cockney Rejects, surely the same could be argued about post-punk because it led to U2, Simple Minds and.....apologies to more sensitive and easily nauseated readers, Frank Ferdinand.

Quibbles aside, I'd recommend a look at the Reynolds book but, being an old fogey, would push younger readers in the direction of the rock writing of Charles Shaar Murray, Nick Kent, Ian "Macca" MacDonald and Greil Marcus, all of whom do either the subjective/passionate or the analytical/boffin brainbox bit a bit more convincingly.

In other rock-related news, my Christmas list has been sorted, what with the announcement of a new 3 CD, 95-page booklet Tom Waits release. And finally: I fell asleep in the middle of the Pete Doherty Arena documentary. As is so often the case, the best bit was Eno's opening theme music.

Oh, and Paul Morley is a pretentious twat.

*see earlier post where he hissy fitted at our dear friend Timster over a trifling criticism of the American edition of the book.

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  1. If it led to Simple Minds, then punk failed.

    I've got that Doherty documentary to look forward to, but having said that, I may opt for "I'm a Celebri-twat, Get Me Outta Here..."

  2. Impressive, although I feel I should point out that Punk's Not Dead, just having a bit of a lie down.

    I've got "England's Dreaming" if you want to borrow it. It would mean having to meet up somewhere mutually convenient...

  3. i saw a large chunk of the pete doherty doc. i couldn't help but be impressed by the footage of him in the studio, his guitar playing was better than i expected it to be. personally, i don't get this media frenzy over him, it really is just because he's shagging a 'face'. so, would further doc makers please bear this in mind:
    1.don't ask him any more questions to camera, his answers nearly sent me into a coma. Not that he wasn't saying anything interesting, i just couldn't tell.
    2.don't point the camera at him for too long, he doesn't like it. yes i know you've got to film him, and he has agreed to it, but it makes him angry and he will spit in your face, which isn't very nice.
    3.why no footage of him chasing a dragon up his fore-arm, or woteva these addict chaps do? if your going to follow someone around who's obviously a personal disaster of a mess, show us why and maybe the hounds will be so disgusted that eventually the hunting of doherty by dogs will be banned by blair/brown and we can go back to ripping up foxes instead.

  4. Perhaps the Simon Reynolds book is supposed to appeal specifically to younger music fans who've heard bands like Interpol, The Editors or (eugh) Killers talking about late '70's bands being influences on their music.

    Those bands got a lot of coverage in the music press of the time but there wasn't really an overview of the era before this book (as far as I know). Maybe Reynolds thought that Blondie are already famous and well documented enough to need any more exposure and concentrated on looking at more obscure bands. If it gets a few people listening to Cabaret Voltaire or Subway Sect rather than (eugh) The Killers, then it's done its job. Still haven't read it meself, heh heh.

    England's Dreaming is pretty good, but a bit on the hefty side.

  5. Well I missed the Pistols...i'm a little too young but i did catch the UK Subs a couple of months back. So they may be past their prime but they were pretty good none the less

  6. I agree that 1978-84 were the best years ever for pop and rock, with 1981 being the pinnacle. Although this might be something to do with my age.

    I was just a bit too young for Punk, but really like a lot of stuff that came in its wake. Perhaps Buzzcocks and Magazine are punk, but there's a load of stuff from Adam and the Ants, Jam, Elvis Costello, Squeeze, Madness, Two-Tone, The Smiths, Billy Bragg, The Pogues, that were developments from that that I just find it impossible to find another era that begins to compare.