Sunday, 28 December 2008

(I never liked) POST-PUNK

In Rip It Up and Start Again, Simon Reynolds sets out in his fourth book to back up his claim that post-punk was the greatest era of rock music. Actually, he said it’s “a fabulous wealth of sounds and ideas that rivals the sixties as a golden age for music.” You can guess which era he really favors, but to avoid distracting controversy, he introduces the idea subtly, so that it might insidiously filter into popular opinion over time. How very post-punk of him. At a mammoth 556 pages, the book is daunting for those who think after punk “died,” music jumped straight to Culture Club and Oingo Boingo, or others who believe punk broke in 1992. It takes a real commitment to dig into, and will mainly reward the most devoted and obsessive of music geeks. The post-punk era simply does not have the dramatic, made-for-movies story arc that punk did. Which is precisely why the era is such a black hole in many peoples’ consciousness, and why it so badly needs to be told.

For most (DUMB) Americans, post-punk truly seemed to have a secret history. With virtually no radio airplay or mainstream media attention apart from Talking Heads and Devo, it was a hidden treasure trove to be discovered only by word of mouth, obscure fanzines, and eventually, college radio. I started gradually hearing about the bands just as post-punk was waning in 1984, in interviews with bands like The Minutemen and Big Black, who cited Public Image Ltd., Gang Of Four and Wire as influences. Before that, all I knew of punk beyond The Clash and Sex Pistols were hardcore punk bands like Agnostic Front and Exploited – who sounded like they were repeatedly hitting a stylistic brick wall. “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” said Johnny Rotten during the final Sex Pistols show in 1978. I did, because I’d been missing out. Some said punk died, others said it lives on in the millions of faceless bands as the new folk music, but few mentioned it spawned a music that was far more diverse, engaging, inspiring, ambitious and all-consuming. I became so obsessed with post-punk that I quickly dropped the new music format of my college radio show and focused on post-punk.

There’s no doubt that Reynold’s love of post-punk is subjective. He missed punk when it happened, but was there (albeit in an English suburb), 16 years old and overstimulated in every way when the epochal records of 1979 poured out. Everyone has romantic notions about the music of their teenage years. But Rip It Up and Start Again is more than nostalgia. It’s both a labor of love, and a massively valuable, dense history that’s never been told before. It’s fitting that the book begins with Johnny Rotten, who succinctly wrapped up the demise of punk in one sentence. Six months earlier on July 16, 1977, toward the end of the Sex Pistols’ peak, Rotten went public with his opinion on punk on “The Punk and His Music” on London’s Capital Radio.
He hates punk, and prefers Tim Buckley, former members of The Velvet Underground (Lou Reed, John Cale and Nico), Can, Captain Beefheart, Dr. Alimintado and other dub reggae, and even tortured art rocker Peter Hammill from progressive rock band Van Der Graaf Generator. Rotten was famously noticed by McClaren for his altered “I hate” Pink Floyd t-shirt. But chances are he bought (or stole) the shirt as a fan. After the show, McLaren was furious, as Lydon had blown his cover as "Johnny Rotten," an ignorant thug/monster and revealed himself as a (gasp) a hipster-intellectual. "That was pathetic", Rotten recalled a year later, "[because] I couldn't be half as ignorant, moronic, violent, destructive ... as they wanted to promote me.” The completion of that persona destruction was his new band, Public Image Ltd.
After telling the PiL story, Rip It Up documents the complex post-punk topography by taking a roughly chronological approach and grouping bands either by region or style. “Outside of Everything” addresses the Buzzcocks, Magazine and Subway Sect, while the third chapter jumps to Cleveland with “Uncontrollable Urge: The Industrial Grotesquerie” with Pere Ubu and Devo. The following chapters cover New York’s no wave scene, Britain’s tribal rival with The Pop Group and The Slits, independent labels and the DIY movement, the militant Leeds scene with Gang of Four, The Mekons, Delta Five and Au Pairs, the art school-inspired Talking Heads and Wire, the particularly fascinating and revelatory ninth chapter on Sheffield’s Cabaret Voltaire and The Human League, and Manchester’s The Fall and Joy Division. Yet we’re only half done, with sixteen chapters left to cover industrial, 2-Tone, synthpop, Scotland, punk-funk, goth, new psychedelia and “The Blasting Concept: Progressive Punk from SST Records to Mission of Burma.”
The idea behind punk was supposed to be to do away with venerated music and blues-based clichés and start fresh. That became an obvious sham when most punk groups recycled the same old Chuck Berry riffs, as filtered through mod, glam and The Stooges. Post-punk was really what brought punk’s original aspirations to fruition. While many of the musicians were well versed in music history, from German “kosmische” space rock to the progressive rock of Soft Machine and King Crimson, most of the music was strikingly original. It made sense that this often involved veering into esoteric, difficult listening territory that precluded any chance of commercial success. But unlike The Sex Pistols, the vast majority of post-punkers were not chasing the carrot of rock stardom. One of the most striking revelations I got from Rip It Up is how completely, seriously immersed these musicians were in the culture. Fueled by a thirst for knowledge, youthful energy and sometimes amphetamines, post-punk was a way of life that involved not just rehearsals, gigs and records, but passing around the Situationist pamphlet “Leaving The Twentieth Century,” reading Phillip Dick and J.G. Ballard, intense all-night sessions spent debating film, theater and political theory (Godard and Brecht, and Gramsci), creating visual art, and participating in performance art. While some of these activities might spark some interest from the girl at the art school down the road, it’s hardly the road to fame and fortune. They were simply passionate.