Post-punk prophet

Simon Reynolds rips into rock’s strangest era
By JAMES PARKER  |  March 21, 2006

AS IT WAS: Reynolds's narrative arc begins with Johnny Rotten and Public Image Limited.Malcolm McLaren, eh? What a character. Older readers may remember “Buffalo Girls,” the 1982 hit single that introduced scratching to the pop mainstream. And no doubt you’ve all heard of a band he managed called the Sex Pistols. But did you know that he was once involved in the attempted production of “a soft-core rock ’n’ roll costume musical for kids,” The Adventures of Melody, Lyric and Tune, about three teenage runaways and their sexual education on the streets of Paris? Ethically unencumbered and brimming with gingery scorn, McLaren weaves his various trickster schemes in and out of the 400 pages of Simon Reynolds’s jubilant Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978–1984 (Penguin), always a step ahead of the pack. He gives Adam Ant the white stripe across his nose. He’s among the first Western pop artists to rip off African musicians, recording them without attribution or royalties for his Duck Rock album. And though it would be wrong to call him one of the book’s heroes — Reynolds writes about him with too much of a moral squint for that, decrying (for example) his “decidedly dodgy” magazine project Chicken — nasty Malcolm is right at the heart of the post-punk project, with his noble, defiant, half-cocked, spliff-addled attempt to turn ideas into music.

Of course, McLaren’s ideas generally had to do with violating that old lady the Establishment in some way. And not all of the young guns in Rip It Up share his jaded appetite for scandal. Gang of Four were interested in Brechtian alienation, Scritti Politti in Derridean deconstruction, the Pop Group in the orgasm think of Wilhelm Reich. Theory (at least in theory) were the engine: they had a think, and then they picked up their instruments — in many cases for the first time.

Reynolds’s avowed aim is “to capture postpunk as it was, a counterculture that, while fragmented, shared a common belief that music could change the world.” So off we go, on a whistle-stop tour of London, Bristol, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, New York, Cleveland, San Francisco, and even dumpy little Boston, as the art-and-drugs vanguard of each city grapples with the implications and the aftermath of punk rock. All the labels, all the bands, and even non-musicians like SF’s Mark Pauline, founder of Survival Research Laboratories (specializing in robot wars, whirling swastikas, and mechanized animal carcasses), have their hour in Reynolds’s account. 2-Tone? It’s here. No Wave? Check. Chrome, the Mekons, Liquid Liquid? All present and correct. But there’s more to Rip It Up than mere compendiousness. With a narrative arc that begins in the London dub dungeon of Public Image Limited and ends, five years later, in the worldbeating semen storm of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the whole grand experiment of post-punk is tracked and given coherence. And the characterizations are dead on: Suicide’s Alan Vega is compared to “a sci-fi Elvis”; the drums of Joy Division’s Steven Morris “seem to circle the rim of a crater.”

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Read an excerpt on Mission of Burma from Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984

Ten post-punk albums not by Gang of Four
1 | Public Image Limited, Second Edition (Warner Bros, 1979). The daddy of them all, still as bass-radical and cruelly avant-garde as the day it was released.

2 | In the Beginning There Was Rhythm (Soul Jazz, 2001). Top-notch compilation of British electro-skronkers. Get your Throbbing Gristle here!

3 | Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures (Factory, 1979). An icy wind comes off this one. Wrap up warm.

4 | Killing Joke (EG, 1980). In which the eclipse of Western civilization, to the sound of tribal drums and brutalized synthesizers, is eagerly anticipated.

5 | Adam and the Ants, Kings of the Wild Frontier (CBS, 1980). A teenybopper version of the above. Adam was a genius.

6 | Wire, Chairs Missing (Harvest, 1978). Is there a song title out there more arty than “French Film Blurred”? I think not.

7 | New York Noise (Soul Jazz, 2003). Soul Jazz scores again with this superb chronicle of NYC’s disco/sheet-metal pile-up circa 1980.

8 | Birthday Party, Prayers on Fire (4AD, 1981). Shamanic blues bone rattling from Nick Cave and his fellow Aussies.

9 | Pere Ubu, The Modern Dance (Blank, 1978). The gibberings of a large, worried man surrounded by rebellious musical instruments.

10 | Suicide, Suicide (Red Star, 1977). Pulse-based synth-punk with Roy Orbison–style vocals. Be the first to rip off this sound!

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