Monday, August 27, 2007

Book Review: Rip It Up and Start Again - Postpunk 1978-1984 by Simon Reynolds (U.S. version)

Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 is an ambitious and well-researched, though ultimately flawed, attempt at defining and chronicling the postpunk movement. Like post-Entertainment Gang of Four, the material is solid and engaging, but leaves you thinking it could have been so much better.

There are many things to like about this book, and these keep Reynolds’ study from being just another also-ran entry in the growing number of books examining the punk and postpunk eras. Reynolds’ enthusiasm and love of the postpunk music he discusses is apparent, and for the most part he tempers his enthusiasm and doesn’t fall into the trap of claiming everything from this era was without fault (though his over-the-top praise of Scritti Politti borders on the obsessive, wearing-blinders type of praise usually espoused by a band’s family members).

This enthusiasm lends a certain pace to the book that makes it very readable. Reynolds paints great pictures of the various musicians, freaks, con artists, suits, and lackeys that dotted the postpunk landscape, and rarely does the book get bogged down in extraneous details. (It should be noted that the U.S. version reviewed here is an abridged version of the U.K. edition).

The greatest strength of this book is how Reynolds convincingly places postpunk music in its broader historical, social, political, and economic contexts. Of course, some of this is easy; it doesn’t take much effort to show how Joy Division’s utterly humorless and bleak music was influenced by the band’s shithole hometown of Manchester (not to mention Ian Curtis’ fractured psyche). Though it can be a slippery slope (and borderline pretentious) to argue that a raucous noise band was somehow influenced by high art, Reynolds makes a strong case for exactly that, in the cases of Pere Ubu, The Pop Group, and Gang of Four. In these ways, the book reads like equal parts social history and music history, and the end result is that the reader is left with a greater understanding of how these outside forces influenced the music of the postpunk years.But enough of this Simon Reynolds Admiration society. Now it’s time to turn on the Nasty switch. There are just simply too many gaps in Reynolds’ study that prevent it from ranking as the definitive word on the postpunk era.

One glaring shortcoming is the key bands and movements that are summarily ignored or given short treatment, especially on the American side of the pond. The early 1980s American hardcore scene, both on the East and West coasts, is given scant attention. Likewise, pre-vortex-of-suck R.E.M. is not even addressed; Reynolds instead inexplicably focuses on the B-52s when discussing the Athens music scene. Finally, the crush-all-others-like-grapes band Mission of Burma is given a truly appalling Cliffs Notes treatment. While it is impossible to mention every band or movement in a relatively short book, Reynolds’ omissions of such areas in favor of chapters devoted to less-important bands (like Soft Cell and Human League) seems curious at best.Reynolds also fails to successfully establish what defines a band as postpunk, other than the fact that they fit within the years covered in this book. This inability to create a coherent definition, or at least to suggest the defining characteristics of the postpunk era, leaves the reader to conclude that the term postpunk is little more than a music journalist-invented term to neatly categorize a certain period of music.

However, the book’s greatest fault lies in Reynolds’ claim in the Afterword that the years 1978-1984 somehow represented a golden age of musical experimentation and creativity that surpassed both the punk era that preceded it and the indie era that followed it. With this approach, Reynolds dismisses the punk bands as ultimately musically conservative and the indie bands of the 1980s as little more than color-by-numbers imitations of previous groups. Sure, postpunk gave us a whole mess of tremendous bands, but it also produced garbage like Bow Wow Wow and Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Reynolds claims that the postpunk bands represented a clean break from the past in which all bands were constantly looking forward, which is contradictory given how Reynolds argues that art movements like Dada influenced many postpunk bands. And besides, no band operates in a vacuum, regardless of how sexy or macho the laughable concept of Year Zero in music still seems to be. Rip It Up and Start Again is a solid attempt at chronicling a subset of the postpunk era. For readers especially interested in the British version of postpunk, there is plenty to like. However, readers interested in the story of American postpunk bands, or the full story of the postpunk years, will be more disappointed. While well written and certainly an engaging read, there are too many contradictions and gaps in Reynolds’ book to consider it the final word on the postpunk years.


Lester Sands said...

hey. great review. it annoyed me how there was so much stuff on Frankie and hardly anything on US stuff. Still mighty fine book all the same. I'm just starting out with this blogging malarky... please visit my site and tell me what you think... any suggestions/comments/criticisms would be greatly appreciated.

Leanne said...

Good words.