Rip it up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-84
By Simon Reynolds
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Here are three snapshots to give you some idea of what to expect from this weighty almanac of impossible dreams realised and all-too- actual calamity transcended. First, there's punk's pre-eminent intellectual, Howard Devoto, sabotaging his entire subsequent career by standing "stock still" in mime-style whiteface throughout his debut appearance on Top of the Pops, then justifying his self- destructive response to this once in a lifetime opportunity on the grounds that: "the only way I could bring any significance to it was by taking everything away."
Next comes David Thomas, of Cleveland, Ohio's Pere Ubu. As if taking his name from the despotic king in Alfred Jarry's absurdist drama was not evidence enough of his creative integrity, Thomas's determination "not to rip off black music" led to him pioneer the vocal innovation of (to borrow one of the myriad ringing phrases which might endear Reynolds's writing even to those with no interest in music) "whinnying like some peculiarly asexual monster".
Then there's the eternally querulous ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon. When he and his band, Public Image Ltd, were informed that a plan to package their second album in a difficult-to-open circular metal canister was going to cost pounds 66,000 extra, necessitating the return of a third of their entire advance, how do you think they responded? Of course they agreed.
Five years ago, when Simon Reynolds started this book, its subject matter was something of a critical backwater. Since then, the enticingly ornery and conflicted post-punk era has become the inspirational well-spring for a new generation of ambitious and well- organised British and American bands (of whom canny Scots Franz Ferdinand might reasonably be said to be the paradigm), none of whom seem to find themselves hobbled by the kind of competing ideological drives which their fore-runners had to contend with.
As contemporary as much of the music now sounds, the people making it come from places which, just a quarter of a century later, are virtually unrecognisable. Had he been in a post-punk ensemble, instead of just inspiring one with the title of his novel The Go- Between, L P Hartley might have observed that "post-punk was a foreign country, they did things differently there".
The question of how and why then was so different to now crops up on pretty much every page of Rip it up and Start Again. The answers are in here too, but they must be approached circumspectly, through a welter of inter-connected timeframes dizzying enough to give Christopher Eccleston's Mancunian Doctor Who a nose-bleed.
The first of these concerns the exact relation between post-punk and punk itself, the unfinished revolution which Reynolds's brave musical sans culottes are generally supposed to have been hell-bent on completing. His introduction contends that perhaps "Revolutionary movements in popular culture have their widest impact after the `moment' has allegedly past", as ideas percolate down "from the metropolitan bohemian elites and hipster cliques that originally `own' them, and reach the suburbs and the regions". While that is very often true, it is not really the message of this book, since - in a twist which reflects the profound influence of the great American science-fiction author Philip K Dick on the musical canon under discussion - what was most truly post-punk was often also pre- punk.
David Thomas, for example,was horrified by the huge impact of the Sex Pistols' cartoonish nihilism, as his ambition for Pere Ubu's music was to "move it forward into ever more expressive fields... [and] create something worthy of Faulkner and Melville". Ohio's other great pre-punk post-punk band, Devo, had been going for years by then, mutating at their own pace in the mouldering compost of a dying 1960s counter-culture. …