Book Review: Rip it Up, and Start Again, by Simon Reynold

Simon Reynold’s Portrait of What Came After Punk: Rich With Hard Information and Brainiac Insights

In February of the year 1979 A.D., the great and sublime English post-punk group Wire announced a concert at a London venue known as the Electric Ballroom. The band had thus far made a career out of redefining punk rock, and then redefining their own redefinitions. And so after releasing “154,” their third album in less than three years, they were ready to take it to the next level. And this time it was too far.

In his epic and earthy history of the post-punk years, Simon Reynolds recounts the scene with both sympathy and outrage. That night, “Wire staged an absurdist extravaganza redolent of the Dadaist cabaret revues of 1916-19,” he writes. “Each song in the virtually all-new set was accompanied by a daft spectacle…[Singer Colin] Newman sang “We Meet Under Tables” dressed in a black knee-length veil. [Bassist Graham] Lewis growled “Eels Sang Lino” accompanied and lit by an illuminated goose…The audience…were either baffled or chucked bottles at the stage.

“It was Wire’s last gig for five years.”

Wire’s last stand isn’t the most absurd scene in Rip It Up and Start Again, but it reveals something about Reynolds’ methods. Unlike most historians, regardless of subject, he is neither revisionist nor reverent.

Instead, Reynolds overturns only one traditional belief – he argues that what came after punk was more interesting and more important than the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks, or the Ramones. Then he sets about proving his point with the clear eyes of a journalist, and the passion of a true believer. Reynolds may have been guided by the backstage proverb that one should always try to separate the art from the artist: in Rip It Up, the post-punk music of 1978 to 1984 is a vast expanse of nearly unassailable musical masterpieces, along with complex, inspired, often ridiculous musicians.

The scope of the book, like the range of sounds in the music itself, is overwhelming. By defining post-punk music as “art-rock bands with cool haircuts,” Reynolds is able to include everyone from Johnny Rotten’s second group, Public Image Limited, to the sick synthetic Americans known as Devo, from horrible-noise groups like Throbbing Gristle to Christian arena-rock stars like U2, from the primitivist Pop Group to the Futurist Art of Noise.

Reynolds provocatively suggests that what bound these post-punks together wasn’t just their respective roots in punk, which he critiques as a regressive, back-to-basics movement, but their drive to make progressive, adventurous and conceptual music.

As history, Rip It Up and Start Again is rich with hard information and detail. Reynolds reveals the true identity of long-anonymous San Francisco underground weirdoes the Residents, and quotes Gang of Four drummer Hugo Burnham’s almost criminally self-effacing explanation that his band was like “The Clash without the cowboy outfits.”

In a chapter about synth-pop groups like Soft Cell, Gary Numan  and the Human League, the author excavates the story behind a painstakingly constructed remix album by League producer Martin Rushent:

“By the end of the process,’ Reynolds writes,  “the mastertape of Love and Dancing contained so many splices–2,200 main edits and about 400 further small edits for repetition effects–that it was dangerously close to disintegration.”

Perhaps the most startling revelation in the book concerns Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren’s  post-punk attempts to become a child pornography auteur with a musical “called The Adventures of Melody, Lyric and Tune, which involved three-fifteen-year-old girls and their sexual exploits with adults against the backdrop of various Parisian tourist landmarks.”

As cultural criticism, the book contextualizes stories such as these with barbs of insight about break-dancing, race, and the Reagan and Thatcher “revolutions” of the early eighties. One of his most touching fusions of good critical thinking and common sense comes in Reynolds’ explanation for the success of soft-tone British electronic groups on the American pop charts.

“Since Bowie, if not earlier, there’s a real sense in which England has connoted ‘gay’ in the American rock imagination. Which explains both Anglophobia and Anglophilia: For those alienated from the overbearing heterosexism of mainstream American rock, ‘England’ beckons as an imaginary haven, a utopia of androgeny.”

Unfortunately these moments of analytical clarity are all-too short and sweet: Reynolds throws them out to the reader like handfuls of pixie dust, then steers us back to the narrative business of who did what, to whom, and when. Rip It Up and Start Again teems with what feels like hundreds of fascinating characters, and Reynolds’ organizes their stories (and the book itself) into modular compartments that seem too neat.

If anything, the book would have benefited from more of the author’s brainiac insights and less chatter from the post-punks. (The deep thoughts of the Slits’ Ari Up and Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P-Orridge would be no great loss, for example.)

Such quibbles aside, Rip It Up and Start Again succeeds largely because of Simon Reynolds’ love for this music. Even as he borrows a strategy from post-punk itself by demystifying the musicians who made them, Reynolds’ passion for Second Edition and Meat Puppets II, among many others, is feverish enough to send the most skeptical reader out to the record shop. Music journalism doesn’t get much better than that.

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