Post-punk prophet

By JAMES PARKER  |  March 21, 2006

Occasionally, all swept up in the romance of ideas, Reynolds will lose his footing in the commonplace: he describes the gold lamé suit worn by ABC’s Martin Fry on the cover of The Lexicon of Love as a “deluxe sartorial signifier.” (Well, yeah, it’s a gold lamé suit.) Along with this can go a certain insensitivity to bathos: when Scritti Politti played live in the early days, Green Gartside apparently found the business of making songs up on the spot to be quite tiring, but he pursued it, we’re told without a flicker of a smirk, “out of an ideological commitment to discarding rock’s stale routines.”

But really this is all in the post-punk spirit — playful but somehow unsmiling. Reynolds is taking these loonies, these impassioned squatters and art students, at their word: if they say they’re futurists, or anti-hegemonic Gramscian strategists, then so they are. And faced with the kamikaze earnestness of, say, Gang of Four — who made a possibly career-ending decision not to perform “At Home He Feels like a Tourist” on British TV because the producers wanted them to change the word “rubbers” to “rubbish” — what can one do but acquiesce? The liveliest chapters of Rip It Up deal with those post-punkers who most successfully lived their ideas and were consequently the least human: the po’-faced extremists of Throbbing Gristle, beaming horrible infrasonic frequencies to clear their garden of itinerant caravan-dwellers, or the maleficent McLaren, who “deceived and dominated” (as Reynolds writes) the various corruptible urchins who “fell into his clutches.”

FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD: The apotheosis of ideas pop?The apotheosis of ideas pop came in the early ’80s, with ZTT’s Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Here an “activist journalist” (Paul Morley, formerly of the NME) and a massively successful producer (Trevor Horn) conspired in the manufacture of a chartbusting sensation. Two parts mischief to three parts calculation, Morley and Horn homed in on the “last taboo” — heavy, glistening gayness — and set about their work. While the boffin Horn brewed up music that sounded like an orgy in Valhalla, Morley wrote the ad copy: “Frankie Goes to Hollywood are coming . . . making Duran Duran lick the shit off their shoes. . . . Nineteen inches that must be taken always.” Of course they conquered the world, but in the spermatic squelch-out at the end of “Relax” you could hear the entire post-punk project shooting its wad. “On one level,” writes Reynolds, “Frankie can be seen as punk’s last blast. But on another deeper, structural level, Frankie were a taste of pop things to come — the return of the boy band.”

So the pop machine screamed and cackled, the future was consumed, and here we are 20 years later besieged by clipped bass lines, spindly guitars, and the affect-free baritone (Interpol, She Wants Revenge) that is universally taken to be the very acme of post-punkness. Rip It Up is thus not only timely but salutary: having a fresh idea, we are reminded, was the whole frigging point. As Ezra Pound, drummer for A Certain Ratio, once said, “Make it new!”
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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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