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Rip It Up and Start Again - Postpunk 1978-1984 by Simon Reynolds

by Nathan McKinney Rating: Release Date:
Rip It Up and Start Again - Postpunk 1978-1984 by Simon Reynolds
Rip It Up and Start Again - Postpunk 1978-1984 by Simon Reynolds

If you follow indie music, it’s hard to miss the term ‘Post Punk’ getting casually thrown around by record labels and reviewers. It’s evoked whenever a new release has a passing similarity to Post Punk era cornerstone acts such as Joy Division, The Fall, or PiL. To be sure, a growing crop of new artists takes direct inspiration from Post Punk era music, but for the most part, the term itself, remains enigmatic, defying simple explanation.

That’s in part because 'Post Punk’ has never really had one definition. Music history narratives often lump Post Punk in with punk itself, not fully understanding where one ends and the other begins. Frequently, acts that were undoubtedly part of the movement, but lacked even a passing similarity to punk itself are glossed over. Some regard Post Punk as a mere bridge between punk and new wave, which it was, but that portrayal is far too limiting.

Defining ‘Post Punk’ seems to be the thesis for Simon Reynolds' “Rip It Up and Start Again - Post Punk 1978-1984”. And from what I can tell, it’s about the only book out there to do so. Instead of a specific music style, Reynolds describes Post Punk as a music movement of a specific era —and from his viewpoint, Post Punk actually encompassed a vast range of music styles. But what they lacked in musical homogeneity they made up for in a shared ethos.

“By the summer of 1977, punk had become a parody of itself…”, Reynolds begins. The punk movement itself was a retaliation to the overblown, posturing music scene of the seventies. But early on, punk's restrictive template limited its ability to fully realize its purpose. So, if punk set out to shake the etch-a-sketch on the music industry, Post Punk was a redrawing of the map. Bands in the Post Punk era took the ideals of punk to their next logical step, often redefining music itself along the way. And their approaches were as varied as the diverse music scenes that were birthed as a result.  But each effort could be traced back to one thing: redefining authenticity as musicians.

Each chapter stands as an individual essay — essentially, a Behind-the-Music description of a specific Petri dish where new sounds were being explored. Reynolds begins — aptly — with Public Image Ltd.. In many ways, PiL is a perfect poster child for Post Punk. Even as punk itself was just taking off in some corners of the world, punk’s crown prince of sorts was already abandoning it. The popularity of the Sex Pistols was rapidly approaching mainstream, and thus became a sheer antithesis of what it was intended to stand for in the first place. Instead of going with the flow, Johnny Rotten made such a clean break with the punk scene that he even changed his name. While a lot of Post Punk looked more like gradual evolution, PiL was a definitive breaking of the mold. The PiL first chapter actually serves as more of an amuse-bouche for the book, and PiL's story proper is picked up later in the book as a midway point signaling the decline of Post Punk, neatly dividing the Post Punk story into two parts.

"Rip It Up” isn’t exactly an exhaustive bible of the Post Punk era. Instead of attempting to cover everything everywhere, Reynolds chooses to do a deep dive on bands and scenes that seem to highlight the movement at its rawest, name-dropping related acts along the way. In fact, many of the movement's biggest acts might get a mere mention. Even studious music geeks will likely go in expecting to know most of the bands represented, only to be constantly bombarded with obscure band names that have largely been forgotten. As a reader, I found myself constantly stopping to listen to tracks on youtube to give myself some audio perspective. This approach to reading the book tended to obstruct the narrative at times, and it certainly made for a long read, but by doing so I greatly expanded my understanding of Post Punk and the footprint the era actually represents.

In some cases, the music wasn’t designed for a casual ear. Experimental acts like The Pop Group and Throbbing Gristle in particular demand an undivided attention. Other acts like the B-52s and Devo, require a deep catalog dive to understand why they deserve far more than novelty status, (and they do). The name dropping seems to have no end, but doing your due diligence to hear what’s being mentioned will pay off in dividends making this book worth taking the time to savor.

As stories of individual bands progress, a broader picture begins to form. The hallmark of the era is bands that experiment pushing the boundaries of what music even is. Many acts intentionally rejected traditional instruments or at least traditional approaches to learning or playing them. Other acts even defied the concept of a band, choosing instead to consider themselves as artist collectives, touring with projectionists and visual artists as equal participants to the performance. Other acts simply make music that just feels right — with raw gyrating rhythms, bass lines that are impossible to sit still to, and vocals that sound more like primal screams than songs: music from the gut.

Whole genres of music are formed from the Post Punk magma. Industrial, goth, ambient, new wave, no wave, synths and even early hip-hop (discussed here as mutant-disco) make an entrance either directly from or in tandem with the Post Punk movement. Brian Eno makes an appearance at almost every turn, either producing or inspiring many of the acts involved.

Towards the end, as the experimentation begins to wane and the commercialized version of Post Punk begins to take over, Reynolds laments the loss of innocence. Post Punk was the live wire the music industry needed to revitalize itself, and the progress made during those trial and error years rivals the significance of any other movement in modern music, even late 60s psychedelia. And yet many of the vital acts of the time are mostly overshadowed by the big names of the era. To name a few, Rip Rig + Panic, Pere Ubu, Au Pairs, The Monochrome Set, Orange Juice, Marine Girls, Television Personalities, ESG, A Certain Ratio and many, many more are out there waiting to be discovered by new fans. They may not get the airplay they deserve, but they sound as vital now as they did back then, and reading this book was a fantastic way to rediscover them.

Recommended Listening companions:
Rough Trade Shops: Post Punk 01
To the Outside of Everything Boxed Set (Cherry Red)
New York Noise Vols 1-3
Sherwood at the Controls Vol one 1979-84
No Thanks! The 70’s Punk Rebellion (Rhino)
Left of the Dial: Dispatches from the 80’s Underground (Rhino)

A few vital albums I overlooked until I read this book:
Au Pairs - Playing with a different Sex
The Associates - The Affectionate Punch
A Certain Ratio - To Each
The Durutti Column - LC
The Slits - CUT
The Pop Group - Y
Rip Rig + Panic - God
Suicide - Suicide
Tuxedomoon - Half Mute
Pylon - Gyrate Plus
… and many more

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