Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-84
London: Faber, 2005
In January 1978 British band XTC released their debut album. Punk rock in the United Kingdom had passed its zenith but there were many such acts, clearly not punk but propelled to the forefront of the music scene by the effects punk had had on commercial music. Elvis Costello, The Police, The Tom Robinson Band, The Boomtown Rats — none of them punk, but part of what the music press termed “new wave,” which would become, once it had a mission, a history and a context: “post-punk.” Innovative, experimental, intelligent, this mostly anti-dance music (disco was far bigger than punk) also had another feature, summed up by the title of XTC’s debut album: White Music. Although this would be unlikely to get the green light from a record company today (do they still have them?), we will return to that title.
Punk rock in both its British and American incarnations is 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’ book Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984 a useful and entertaining almanac, particularly if you were around at the time, as I was.
Musically, punk is familiar territory: The Ramones, 1-2-3-4 (which The Slits’ Ari Up would shriek at the start of every song, not to set time but because she thought that’s what you did), 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 took the liberatory spirit of punk and shifted its central frame of reference. Howard Kirk of Cabaret Voltaire remarked that post-punk was about more than “regurgitating Chuck Berry riffs.”
Punk did not simply stop, of course, allowing post-punk to clock in for its shift, and Reynolds marks a temporal division by which 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. Although the title of Reynolds’s book — from a song by Scottish band Orange Juice called “Rip It Up and Start Again” — suggests a year-zero reset for alternative rock music, 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 ‘70s were quite posh). APE (after the punk era), you could emulate The Cure’s Robert Smith, who recorded the band’s first albums with a £17 (about $25) 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.
But, and as Reynolds shows, there is another dividing line, not temporal but conceptual. Where punk was mostly visceral, post-punk was in equal part cerebral. Punk stripped down the concept of the song to its bare components, and this formal simplification of music — not “deconstruction,” please. Reynolds can’t resist the temptation on a couple of occasions — carried over 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 denial of rock history; far from it. Among post-punk bands there was also an awareness of what went before them, and what had evolved from the semi-nihilist ramalama of punk rock developed into a type of working manifesto.
Punk bands found their musical lineage in ‘60s garage rock, rockabilly, The Stooges, MC5, 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, many post-punks knew to archivist-level detail which bands were their progenitors (names that recur include Roxy Music, The Velvet Underground, Can, Captain Beefheart, and the obligatory Bowie). And post-punks were not just aware of musical tradition. You were more likely to hear Sheffield industrial-synth duo Cabaret Voltaire (as their name would suggest) talking about Dada as about 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. Reynolds tells of The Ramones’ dumb amazement, while touring with the 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 post-punk band The Pop Group: “In an NME feature, Sager argued that Western civilizations, being ‘based on cities’, were sick because they were cut off from ‘natural cycles’, unlike African tribes where repression simply didn’t exist.”
On the money or neo-Rousseauist nonsense as you will, whereas with punk there was a riot going on, post-punk sometimes felt like there was a seminar going on.
That said, the politics of post-punk were little more than placardism, cartoon Marxist finger-daubs. Green Gartside, the heart of Scritti Politti, would name-drop Derrida and Gramsci, but these were like flashy designer baubles with which to dazzle the post-punk world. Post-structuralist Marxism was essentially an accessory for Green, like a Prada tote bag. When the savant became disillusioned with Marxism — around the same time he commandeered the band and got rid of the squatter collective involved from the start — Gina Birch, bassist with The Raincoats, lamented that Scritti Politti “was no longer a democracy.” There was a lot of that sort of space-cadet political fluff around then.
The production side of the music industry also underwent change due to post-punk. It is a common perception that while punk was about do-it-yourself 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 in “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” record labels were always going to be “turning rebellion into money” and, as Mark E. Smith wryly noted in “C ‘n’ C/Stop Mithering,” “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.
Post-punk also 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, Television, Throbbing Gristle, and Pere Ubu. At least post-punk had musical diversity, and not so much of the racial kind, which would be entry-level today. Diversity was not post-punk’s strength. Of the random list above, only Dexy’s Midnight Runners really had any black influences (mostly Northern Soul) and the remainder are far more representative of a glaring aspect of post-punk. Like XTC’s album, it was white music.
Does a race require its own music? Does an ethny require a soundtrack? Much is made of the phrase “black music,” but to what does it refer? Hip-Hop or Sam Cooke? Howlin’ Wolf or Chic? The Upsetters or Jay-Z? “Black music” is just another fetish-word, revered not as music but as a key promotional element of the black brand. And if it is not straightforwardly simple to encapsulate black music, what of any white equivalent? Now, any medium named “white music” in our enlightened times would be under a savage artillery pounding from the woke regime’s big guns. The Left got themselves a little confused a while back when they decided classical music was racist, and now they are divided into two camps: Was Beethoven racist or black?
Reynolds features one particular cultural artefact from the era which eerily foreshadows our own culturally troubled times. Lester Bangs was a ramshackle New York music writer best known for being Lou Reed’s shambolic and drunken court jester, and in 1979 he wrote a piece for the Village Voice titled The White Noise Supremacists. According to Reynolds, Bangs makes an issue of
. . . the near total absence of black musicians on the CBGB/Max’s scene, punk’s fashion for using racist language . . . [a]nd Nazi imagery. Factor in the sheer whiteness of New Wave music, and you had a situation where, for the first time since before the 1920s hot jazz era, white bohemians were disengaged from black culture. Not only that, but some of them were proud of it.
Legs McNeil, founder of Punk magazine and credited for the original use of the word, stated unequivocally:
We were all white: there were no black people involved with this. In the sixties hippies always wanted to be black. We were going: ‘Fuck the Blues; fuck the black experience’.
We might wearily concur today, but for different reasons.
Reynolds was already aware — the book was published in 2006 — that operating in a field in which white culture was flourishing and is therefore worthy of critical praise requires a compensatory sub-narrative highlighting black input. No one who knew anything about the subject would deny black influences on white rock music. But not everyone who is white fetishizes black music in the same way the Left make a juju totem out of all black culture. Blacks invented the light bulb and the Internet and the cell phone and everything, and doubtless there is plenty more good stuff waiting in the warehouses of Wakanda. Why not gin up white music as indebted to the black version, whatever that is?
Reynolds, at times, does more or less what he says Manchester band A Certain Ratio did. This brittle, gloomy, funk-lite urban outfit were cast as the Mancunian candidates after the death of Ian Curtis, and Joy Division and New Order had both received flak from the music press about the fascistic element to their names, packaging, and cultural references. For A Certain Ratio, the evidence needed to be far less damning;
‘ACR had a bizarre sense of fashion — close-cropped hair, baggy khaki shorts’, recalls Manchester pop historian Dave Haslam. The look, vaguely redolent of colonialism or the Afrika Korps, led to accusations of flirting-with-fascism (a morbid preoccupation that [ACR singer Simon Topping] also shared with Curtis).
But these were still days — just — in which a bit of tokenism worked its wonders;
“Still, the presence of a black man behind the drum kit helped to counteract A Certain Ratio’s faintly dubious aura.”
Reynolds is undecided as to how far to reveal that he is onto the game of racial tokenism. He notes, concerning synth-pop band Heaven 17 (named for a fictional group mentioned in A Clockwork Orange, for trivia fans), that the year of their big hit, 1983, “was the year of the obligatory black backing singer.”
It is in the chapter on the Talking Heads and my particular favorites, Wire, that Reynolds hits peak white guilt:
The vocals tended to be high pitched, geeky and very ‘white’ . . . at a time when New Wave was at its most starchy white . . . the whitest-sounding music on the album . . . as Wire’s sound evolved, it seemed to grow colder and whiter . . .
I believe, sir, you have made your point. As far back as 2006, woke was always waiting.
And when Reynolds crosses the great divide from post-punk to the second section of the book on what he calls New Pop, he is able to show his multicultural credentials. The wave of sheeny, two-dimensional, sequenced, and synthesized pop music that grew out of post-punk in the 1980s — including Duran Duran, Wham!, and various pretty boys — was more obviously a cauldron in which various black ingredients were efficiently stirred: “The success of blue-eyed Brit soulsters like [Paul] Young and [Annie] Lennox made sense in a way, because the back story to New Pop was actually a black story.”
This is more like it. Now Reynolds is starting to get ready for the woke future. The black influences on the Two-Tone/ska bands of the early ‘80s — The Specials, Madness, The Beat, The Selecter — is worth pointing out en route, yes, but not worth thematizing. This is and ought to be a book about white music, or a strain thereof.
This is not to detract from Rip It Up, however, and Reynolds gives a full and enjoyable fairground ride through the era. I found myself thoroughly enjoying chapters on bands I had never heard of, let alone heard. Post-punk, as Reynolds makes beautifully and caringly clear, was very far from monolithic. Ska, Goth, New Pop, Synth-pop, Industrial; post-punk’s territory is expansive and divulgent. With the exception of The Residents, I had never heard of the subject bands of the chapter “Freak Scene: Cabaret Noir and Theatre of Cruelty in Post-punk San Francisco.” Reynolds is encyclopaedic, so some bands were complete news to me, and I was what Mark E. Smith called a “printhead” at the time when it came to religiously reading the New Musical Express and Melody Maker. And the importance of the music press was a debt post-punk definitely owed to its snotty cousin.
Punk did post-punk a great service in Britain 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 mainstream media would kill or die for today. 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 pack from the start.
In passing, Reynolds is a good rock writer who can’t resist the temptation of a bit of purple prose, which I never mind in a music hack given the exuberance of their subject matter. Many British rock writers used the medium as a springboard to the mainstream media proper, as I’m sure they did in the United States, and it was a pity over the years to see some of the wordy, slightly anarchic writers get their stylistic wings clipped as they had to adapt to the matte-grey coding that passes for contemporary mainstream media journalism. Julie Burchill is the only one still flying her true colors.
As well as a vibrant and rocking plot on the fourth estate, post-punk bands also had a figure who is sainted in any music biography covering the period he was alive, and rightly so: English DJ John Peel. This much-loved and lamented trailblazer began his media life as a sort of ambassador for The Beatles and the first Brit invasion in the ‘60s before becoming a household name on the radio for beating the path flat for more obscure rock music. 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.”
Post-punk’s innovations were not limited to the aural, however. Graphic design also made a quantum leap, 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 commercial branding to adorn their sleeves –, doubtless a result of the link between post-punk and art college, where several of the bands featured were formed.
For the record (as it were), this is my pick of albums released within the “Reynolds Window” of 1978-1984 that I couldn’t have lived without at the time:
Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures
The Slits, Cut
Scritti Politti, Songs to Remember
Magazine, Real Life
Talking Heads, Remain in Light
The Fall, Dragnet
Killing Joke, Killing Joke
Television, Marquee Moon
Alternative TV, The Image Has Cracked
And even that has no space for The The, The Associates, Byrne and Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, The Stranglers colossal Black and White, or countless others.
I found post-punk a rich and rewarding time and territory, and Rip It Up was for me both a pleasant, if somewhat noisy and chaotic, stroll down Memory Lane and a useful cultural document. I listened back to a lot of the bands and find a lot of it too shapeless and fractured for me now, and the industrial side of post-punk was too rich for my blood even then.
Post-punk came about because punk had to change or die. The post-punk “movement” said to the gasping, failing punks who had both preceded and enabled them the same thing Mark E. Smith said on a live recording from 1978 in which he harangues some punks in a Doncaster audience: “Are you still doing what you were doing two years ago? Well, don’t make a career out of it.”
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