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ostpunk music should count itself lucky to have Simon Reynolds as its scribe. Rip it Up and Start Again, his chronicle of musical experimentation from 1978 to 1984, is as comprehensive as an encyclopedia, yet it reads like a collection of short stories, each detailing some of the weirdest and most interesting bands ever to record. As he points out, it's a woefully under-contemplated era: "The early '80s, especially, is still considered a campy comedy zone, an era characterized by pretentious stabs at video-as-art form and by English eyeliner-and-synth fops with silly haircuts."
Rip it Up does to this stereotype exactly what its title suggests, celebrating a time when music was throttling forward with a drive unthinkable in our retro-oriented age. It was an era propelled by negative-space-filled recordings from the gloomy backwaters of Manchester, by the primal No-Wave screeches created in Manhattan's East Village, and by the conceptual art-rock leaking from Providence, Rhode Island, and Valencia, California. Despite its label, which suggests that the era was nothing more than a punk-rock afterthought, Reynolds' book reminds us that those cassettes we shoved into deep storage twenty years ago represent a genre of music that was far more than simply transitional. — Peter Smith
You've speculated that postpunk's creativity resulted from boredom in the 1970s, and that today that sort of boredom is "unimaginable." How do you think today's constant deluge of culture and entertainment affects modern bands?
I might be overestimating. Living in a small town may still be mindnumbingly boring. But it does seem, with current bands and consumers, that so much of the past is available, it's overpowering.
In a weird sort of way people have become how critics used to be. I started writing about twenty years ago. I was being sent all these records, and it quickly becomes overwhelming. To be able to survive in a state of overabundance requires quite a strong personality, or strong taste anyway. It kind of destroys any natural relationship you have with music. You're always skimming through it, coming to snap judgments. And that's what being a critic is like. Because of the net, ordinary people are now exposed to insane amounts of music.
Yes. You binge on it, but you don't actually have enough time to digest it. There's something to be said for things growing in isolation, but there are very few pockets of isolation left in the world. Boredom is a great motivator, and a vista of emptiness is something you want to fill.
In your introduction, you write that you never bought old records while growing up. There was too much excitement about the present, and a sense of speeding into the future. Growing up in the '90s, I never had that sensation — I was listening to '80s records by ninth grade. Was postpunk the last era of true originality?
Maybe in rock music. I was really into the whole rave electronic culture in the '90s, and I wouldn't want this book to be written up as, "It was so good when I was a teenager." I don't think musical futurism is a dead spirit.
But there is this sense that in postpunk, a unique set of factors combined. There was the political side, there was innovation and a couple of new technologies came along making synthesizers more usable. All these things combined to create a general ethos of pushing forward. I do find it hard to imagine those circumstances coming again within rock.
Do you think rock music is "over?"
There was a prime period for rock when it was the center of popular culture, and I think that's passed for a whole bunch of reasons. But I think it's still got a lot going for it. I hear records — not as often as I used to — but I hear records in that vein that excite me, like the Arctic Monkeys record. I just don't feel like it's shaking the world, really, and it's certainly not challenging anything musically.
You point out that the new postpunk bands (Interpol, et al.) take the angular postpunk sound but have little of the political message that was central to the Slits, Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd., etc. Is this stuff just a retro pastiche?
It's hard to say. If they're trying to bring back postpunk, or at least the ethos of postpunk, I think they've stumbled at the first hurdle by sounding like something from twenty years ago. It's almost like, to the extent that they sound like a postpunk band, they've failed to resurrect the spirit of postpunk. Franz Ferdinand sounding like Orange Juice is a bit like if Orange Juice had sounded like Buddy Holly.
It's harder and harder for people to make a record that sounds good and still rocks. There's no end to extremely experimental music that nobody wants to listen to. Gang of Four were innovative, but they still kind of rocked, you know?
That balance between an ideology and an emotional response is difficult. Postpunk was very intellectual, and in hindsight, some of these bands were more interested in concept than in music.
You know, I really like Scritti Politti, and a lot of what's interesting about them is how cerebral they were. Extremely involved thinking and self-critique, almost strangling themselves with this degree of self-consciousness. But what really makes it work in the end is [Scritti songwriter] Green as someone really like Paul McCartney, a great melodist with unusual but pretty melodies, slightly different chord changes, a really lovely voice. There's this weird battle in their records: ideologically, they're committed to doing strange stuff cause they feel it's going to free people's mental shackles or something, and underneath it, fighting it, is this pop sensibility.
Those two sides really seem in conflict.
Almost the same thing with Gang of Four. On the one side, they were fans of Free and Dr. Feelgood, these hard-rocking bluesy groups, but at the same time they wanted to do something different, so they messed with the natural feel of it, and made their music more like a weird diagram of rock.
I think the best groups are like Roxy Music. You have the guy who's the non-musician but has loads of ideas, like Bryan Ferry, and then you have someone who can really, really play, like Phil Manzanera. The best postpunk groups always had a few secretly skilled people. The stuff that didn't age well from postpunk was the stuff that was purely concept driven.
Bands like Joy Division and Talking Heads have emerged as sort of ageless.
Yeah. The fact that there are two movies about Joy Division shows their enduring appeal.
Punk rock was, in many ways, asexual. There's much more sensuality in postpunk — more interest in funkiness, rhythm, texture, dance. Do you think postpunk helped sexuality reemerge in music?
There was a lot of exploring sexuality, but I don't know if it'd be sexy in a conventional sense. You had a lot more involvement from women, different kinds of female voices coming through. The Slits were almost feral in some ways, and then Lydia Lunch was just this really forceful, intimidating character, but some of her songs are quite abject or decadent.
The Slits are proudly naked on the cover of their first album, but at the same time they aggressively dissociate themselves from "typical girls."
Partly it was to do with the whole personal-as-political thing. There was a lot of interest in sexuality and sexual roles and power structures within relationships.
There's that distrust of classic rock — male-dominated, sex-as-harvest, etc.
There was a lot of anti-rock talk at that time, an idea that rock was a very male, phallic idea of sexuality, whereas disco and funk were more polymorphous. I think [critic] Glenn O'Brien said that dance music was the best form of anti-fascist politics. It kind of broke down the body armor. Wilhelm Reich was fashionable then, and his ideas about fascism working through sexual repression had been rediscovered by some people. So dance music, to postpunk bands, was about freeing your body and freeing your mind in the process.
But initially their take on funk was a bit rocky. They tended to reduce it to hard bass riffs and a clipped guitar. They didn't quite understand the full range of sensuality in the music. It's not just a tough bass line. That was more a James Brown idea. They wouldn't quite get a grip on something like Earth, Wind, and Fire that was very lush, sensual, richly textured and arranged. There was still a bit of a suspicion of softness.
The earnestness of the era is almost touching. There was a real sense that you could be pure. I think bands nowadays wouldn't claim to attempt that.
That's one of the things that attracted me to it. Of course, there was also a sense of play and mischief. It wasn't like they were unsmiling people or unfun. But there was, as you say, an earnestness. They took it very seriously. And it can sometimes seem like they took it a bit too seriously, but I find it touching. n°
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©2006 Peter Smith and Nerve.com.