'Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984,' by Simon Reynolds
Review by JIM WINDOLF
Published: March 5, 2006
Punk rock was great and it made for a great story. The Ramones and
other upstart bands came out of nowhere, playing songs that were loud,
fast and obnoxious. With more passion than skill, they made the
established rock stars look like pompous windbags. The movement came
to a fitting end with the self-destruction of the Sex Pistols in 1978.
Johnny Rotten turned back into John Lydon, Sid Vicious overdosed and
everybody else pulled their safety pins out of their cheeks. Since
then, scores of writers and filmmakers have been attracted to punk's
outrageous characters and shapely plot.
The story of punk's aftermath is more fragmented, with no clear
beginning, a mixed-up middle and a whimper of an ending. Pop-culture
historians have found it easy to avoid. With "Rip It Up and Start
Again," the brainy music critic Simon Reynolds steps forward to accept
the challenge. He is a brave man.
He begins with the demise of the Sex Pistols and the start of John
Lydon's next band, the innovative Public Image Ltd. After following
the careers of various British and American groups, like Joy Division,
the Fall, Gang of Four, Talking Heads, Devo, Pere Ubu, the Specials
and the Human League, he reaches an anticlimactic ending with Frankie
Goes to Hollywood, the Liverpool act responsible for the repetitive
1984 hit "Relax." (Charges are still pending.) David Bowie pops into
the narrative from time to time in the role of postpunk's worldly
This music was the soundtrack of the author's teenage years in
suburban England, and he still has great affection for it. "Being as
impartial and detached here as possible," he writes, "it seems to me
that the long 'aftermath' of punk running from 1978-84 was way more
musically interesting than what happened in 1976 and 1977, when punk
staged its back-to-basics rock 'n' roll revival." Just in case fans of
rock's supposed golden age feel left out of this barroom argument, he
also writes: "The postpunk era makes a fair match for the 60's in
terms of the sheer amount of great music created, the spirit of
adventure and idealism that infused it, and the way that the music
seemed inextricably connected to the political and social turbulence
of its era."
But "postpunk" proves to be a slippery label. If Reynolds wasn't aware
of this when he started his research, he learned it the hard way while
talking with various postpunk musicians for this book. "A lot of them,
when I mentioned postpunk, didn't quite understand what I meant," he
said in an interview posted on his Web site. "Which is odd, because I
did all this research in the music papers, and that was what people
called it, even then. . . . It's not something I've invented!"
Reynolds loves obscure genre labels. He has coined at least one
("postrock") and in this book he embraces countless others with a
straight face, among them "funk punk," "punk funk," "folk punk,"
"anarcho-punk," "Hi-NRG," "psychobilly," "angst rock," "trad rock,"
"death rock," "death disco," "mutant disco," "Teutonica," "Goth,"
"proto-Goth," "post-Goth," "Oi!" "New Romanticism," "New Rock," "New
Americana," "New Pop," "electropop," "synthpop," "synthpop noir,"
"synthfunk," "avant-funk" and, deep breath, "neopostpunk." Will there
be a quiz?
Strangely, given Reynolds's zeal for taxonomy, a theme running through
his books — which include the authoritative "Generation Ecstasy: Into
the World of Techno and Rave Culture" — is that the most exciting
music releases its listeners from the intellect's hold, delivering
them into a primal state.
A majority of his new book's subjects started out creating punklike
music and went on to develop a sophisticated, dance-oriented sound. As
they matured, they abandoned their amateurish or experimental
beginnings to make polished records meant to sell in great numbers.
That's how it went for Talking Heads, the Fall, Devo, Gang of Four,
Joy Division, Scritti Politti and the B-52's, whose careers are
That's also how it went for the Clash, which made a rude noise in 1977
and sold big in 1982 with a brand of expensively produced pop that
borrowed from funk and reggae. But the Clash doesn't make Reynolds's
postpunk list. Neither do similar acts of the era, like the Jam, the
Police, X, Elvis Costello and Blondie, all of whom began by making raw
music only to end up turning out more sophisticated fare tinged with
soul, funk, reggae, disco, hip-hop or Latin touches.
It's easier for a critic to attack than to praise, but Reynolds takes
more pleasure in expressing passion for the music he loves than in
putting down what doesn't fit his program. The author finds his
perfect subject in the one-named Green, the Marxist leader of Scritti
Politti. The band lived in a collective at first. Then Green had a
breakdown, followed by a vision of himself as a subversive star
disrupting the pop charts from within. He wrote a manifesto laying out
his justifications for what might be called selling out and made his
way into Britain's Top 10 with the 1984 release "Wood Beez (Pray Like
Aretha Franklin)." The hit album that followed spun off a No. 11
single in the United States, "Perfect Way."
Describing Green's lyrics, which sound like the stuff of conventional
love songs on first listen, Reynolds is overwrought: "On closer
inspection, though, they turned out to be pretzels of contradiction,
with an aporia (the poststructuralist term for voids in the fabric of
meaning) lurking in the center of every twist of language, sweet
nothings that could wreck your heart." The windy phrasings bring to
mind the fatal flaw of many pop music critics: because they write
about things not considered high art, they panic and break out the
99-cent locutions. Naturally, Reynolds keeps it real by dropping in
expletives between references to Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida.
"Rip It Up and Start Again" is exhaustive and exhausting in equal
RIP IT UP AND START AGAIN
By Simon Reynolds.
416 pp. Penguin Books. Paper, $16.
Jim Windolf is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.