RIp It Up And Start Again: Post-punk 1978-1984
By: Eric Greenwood
“Punk seemed to be ‘over’ almost before it really got started. For many early participants, the death knell came on October 28, 1977, with the release of Never Mind the Bollocks. Had the revolution come to this, something as prosaic and conventional as an album?”
Venerable British music writer Simon Reynolds perfectly times an historical document of the period directly following punk’s anticlimactic demise with Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-punk 1978-1984. Just as post-punk’s second wave has pushed beyond cutting edge independent music to infiltrate recycled commercial domains, Reynolds explains how it all began with a balance of acute historical reverence and wide-eyed, fanboy enthusiasm.
Since Reynolds never definitively defines post-punk itself in one static context (the term is used with such incongruent bands as Devo, Gang of Four, Pere Ubu, and Talking Heads, and that barely scratches the surface), its net predictably casts far and wide. Much like punk, post-punk exists as much in theory as it does sound. Reynolds narrows down the impetuses for the concurrent movements and pieces together ideas and sounds with anecdotes and an encyclopedic knowledge of parallel scenes, which follow linear and logical paths. But trying to label all that falls under the generic umbrella of “post-punk” as represented here is almost too much to bear. In the literal sense, he’s dead on, however. The rebellion of punk having inspired so many disparate styles, it only follows that the next movement be defined in terms of punk’s cultural zeitgeist.
Fittingly, Reynolds heavily credits punk’s scapegoat, John Lydon, for instigating post-punk’s momentum with his post-Pistols band, Public Image Ltd. And who better to have steered life after punk than the man most commonly associated with punk’s ubiquity? A few months before The Sex Pistols’ disastrous tour of the southern United States, Lydon was featured on a radio show called The Punk and His Music on London’s Capital Radio, wherein he deliberately undermined everything about his cultivated “punk” persona (much to the chagrin of manager, Malcolm McLaren), playing loads of roots reggae as well as songs by Tim Buckley, Captain Beefheart, Can, and Lou Reed, which immediately outed Lydon as a closet hipster, a man of complicated tastes, or, as Reynolds dubs him, “an aesthete.” McLaren exploded, calling Lydon a “sissy”, and moved on to his next protégée, Sid Vicious. To have such an esoteric music collection contradicted the chaos and disorder of “Johnny Rotten’s” vision of punk as “anti-music.”
Reynolds asserts that Lydon subconsciously spelled out the elements of his future band on that fateful radio show, as Public Image Ltd. would go on to incorporate dub reggae bass tones, machinated German deconstruction, and spiky, angular guitars, all of which were indicative of post-punk’s experimental ethos. But PiL was only a drop in the bucket of what was to come. No one could have predicted how influential this period of music would be, and for decades it has languished as a relatively undocumented and uncredited era. But now with practically every underground band ripping off Gang of Four, Wire, and Joy Division, it’s about time post-punk got its proper due.
Having been too young to witness punk’s explosion first hand, Reynolds came of age during post-punk’s heyday, and his retelling of this era is as vivid as if he were recounting last weekend. His passion for the music is palpable, as he delves into regional British scenes as well as the American underground with an idiosyncratic, conversational prose that’s decidedly British yet sustained with descriptors so caught up in reference points they border on nonsense. However, he clearly understands the music, its roots, its context, and its impact like few music writers today, many of whom seem so hyper-self-aware and steeped in mocking ironic one-upmanship that substantive reporting of this kind truly is rare.
Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-punk 1978-1984 will invariably inspire more than a few trips to the record store, as Reynolds reminds you of albums you’d forgotten about and introduces scores more you probably missed.