Review by S. Alexander Reed in Popular Music and Society, vol. 30, no. 2 (2007)
[download original .pdf here]
Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 US Edition
New York: Penguin, 2006
432 pp., $16.00 (paperback)
In Rip It Up and Start Again, Simon Reynolds offers a deep account — the first — of the chiefly British 1978-84 fallout of punk's rise and collapse. Beginning with the Sex Pistols' early 1978 breakup and the subsequent formation of Public Image Limited by the Pistols' lead singer John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), Reynolds narrates a series of roughly concurrent musical histories that together paint a lucid, if detached, history of the postpunk era and the genres it birthed.
Reynolds's unambiguous love of postpunk stems from his belief in (and in turn fuels his argument for) the period's “amount of great music created, the spirit of adventure and idealism that infused it, and the way that the music seemed inextricably connected to the political and social turbulence of its era.” (xi) Despite pop historians' frequent positioning of punk as a quintessential response to the English depression that ultimately gave rise to Thatcher's administration, Reynolds insists that “the long ‘aftermath’ of punk running from 1978-84 was way more musically interesting than what happened in 1976 and 1977, when punk staged its back-to-basics rock ‘n’ roll revival. Even in terms of its broader cultural influence, it is arguable that punk had its most provocative repercussions long after its supposed demise.” (xii)
Because punk's brief flame scarcely had time to spread beyond the geography of London and the demographic of the lower-middle classes before arguably fizzling (and selling) out, by the time the notion that any kid could change the world with music reached the northern cities, the suburbs, and the universities, punk's piss-and-spit politics of anti-everything (exemplified by the Sex Pistols' chant of “No future”) had worn thin, leaving a fast and desperate-sounding musical aesthetic in search of a new message to carry and a new community to nurture it. Or perhaps punk gave out in 1978 expressly because it had attracted these new fans and musicians who did in fact see a future and who, idiosyncratically to their socioeconomic and educational background, infused the genre with a forward-looking modernism that its teddy-boy roots lacked. Though it is of course naïve to suppose that punk itself was without sophistication, the reality that its savviest progenitors — most obviously John Lydon and Malcolm McLaren — were also vital in developing postpunk’s stylistic and political subtleties suggests that punk’s dissolution into futurism was a growth into a more resilient and fertile, albeit less gloriously iconic, music. Whether this dissolution came from within punk or from its new Bourgeois practitioners is neither especially clear in Reynolds’s book nor in history itself, but either way, the historical uniqueness of postpunk’s sense of exploration and richness of ideas is central to Reynolds’s feting of the era, and rightly deserves greater recognition in today’s scholarly understanding of western pop music history.
The meat of Reynolds’s book — his actual history of postpunk bands, labels, and producers in their heyday — is factually exhaustive, spinning threads that comprise nearly every significant musical and conceptual postpunk subnarrative. The book’s mini-biographies of Public Image Limited, The Pop Group, Gang of Four, Joy Division, Scritti Politti, and countless others suggest implicit connections between postpunk musicians by way of their astute grasp of leftist critical theory, enthusiasm for dub reggae and its high-tech production techniques, and a fascination with (though no allegiance to) Nazi imagery. But because the book offers so many individual historical trajectories rather than a wide-scoped single chronological narrative (which admittedly would be dizzyingly unfocused), it occasionally leaves one yearning for a broader view. While Reynolds paints a convincing backdrop against which postpunk developed, the connections between artists, between recordings, and especially among fans and in musical communities are often barely visible from one chapter to the next.
This is, however, a minor oversight when one considers that with few exceptions, most of the music in this book has simply never been discussed (or even acknowledged) at all in serious musical writing. The greatest contribution of Rip It Up and Start Again is the same to rock fans and musicologists alike: it whets the musical appetite, insuring its subjects both a new audience and deserved scholarly significance. Though Reynolds is a journalist by trade (and perhaps too seldom cites sources), the groundwork is laid here for serious academic inquiries into punk’s demise, class and futurism, industrial and Goth music’s glorification of pain, and the mid-eighties shift from ironic overidentification with capitalism to straight-faced musical yuppiedom. These are topics about which scholarship has always lagged far behind journalism anyway.
Those few whose knowledge of postpunk is on par with Reynolds’s may note his perspectives on Gang of Four, The Residents, and The Human League are particularly fresh, positioning the bands within Marxist theoretical frameworks while never showing off with intellectual name-dropping. While he modestly — maybe over-reverently — holds back when writing about such traditionally untouchable (and thoroughly documented) acts as Joy Division and Throbbing Gristle, and more or less overlooks The Sound, The Cure, The Comsat Angels, and The Durutti Column, for Reynolds to have expanded the book further in its schema would risk confusing it for an encyclopedia. That said, nitpickers will absolutely prefer the UK edition of the book, which contains photographs and an extra three chapters; sadly, the companion CD is only available separately on V2 Records. Even in the unwisely shortened US edition, however, the ease with which Reynolds sculpts such a wealth of information on the era into a narrative is only rivaled by Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming, and unlike the curmudgeonly Savage, Reynolds embraces the continuing legacy of his chosen music, cautiously celebrating the recent postpunk revival in popular music that lies at the heart of Interpol’s, The Killers’, and Bloc Party’s success. In his last and arguably most interesting chapter, Reynolds zooms out and fluidly traces postpunk’s descendents, deftly connecting grunge, acid house, ska, and industrial music up to the present. Though narrating an era explicitly outside of his book’s scope, Reynolds’s enticing brevity in this epilogue only underscores how exciting the future research sparked by his work might be.
Rip It Up and Start Again is an unpretentious book about smart music, and Simon Reynolds nearly always wisely lets the music’s intelligence speak for itself. Seldom has any pop been so critically self-aware as postpunk, and if audiences are willing to read between the lines in this book, they can see musically, culturally, and historically an untold story indispensable in understanding popular music of the last twenty-five years.