Start It All Over Again

Seattle Weekly plays Jukebox Jury with rave and post-punk historian Simon Reynolds.

One of the most important music critics not lumped in with old-guard icons like Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs, Simon Reynolds started writing for English music weeklies in the 1980s. His early work, collected in the 1990 anthology Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock, embraced new sounds and challenged orthodoxies that had grown musty in the rock canon. Soon thereafter, his ear for noise and rupture led him to the burgeoning and largely unchronicled world of electronic dance music, which he surveyed in his 1998 hallmark, Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture. Between the two came The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock ‘n’ Roll, a treatise co-authored with Joy Press.

Common to all of Reynolds’ work are the workings of an agitated mind and a rigorous approach to charting the ideas floated among those who spend countless hours considering all that music could mean. To that end, he’s back on book lists once more with Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1977–1984 (Penguin, $16) the first comprehensive history of the era when punk evolved beyond regressive three-chord nihilism. Post-punk trafficked in notions that Reynolds has championed for years—rock bands delving into disco and dub, shadow economies birthed by independent record labels, musicians engaging with politics and critical theory—and his passion is evident as he traces the movement from the gray noise of Public Image Ltd. to the bright swirl of new-wave pop. The Jukebox was conducted in New York, where Reynolds has lived since 1994.

Led Zeppelin: “Good Times Bad Times” (1969) from Led Zeppelin (Atlantic)

Simon Reynolds: Is this early Led Zeppelin? It sounds a bit flower-childy.

Seattle Weekly: At the start of your book you dismantle the punk idea that ’70s rock was all bad. How much were you trying to negotiate a rethink of how “punk” gets talked about?

Reynolds: I wasn’t trying to expand the definition of punk as much as deprivilege it. It’s been so successful as a narrative that the early-’70s prequel to punk, in the most extreme versions of rock history, has been cast as a total wasteland. Then what came after punk is historically considered an aftermath, a diminuendo of energy, because punk was so dramatic in the headlines. I wanted to talk about how some of the most interesting and radical things that came out of punk, as much as they were inspired by it, were a repudiation of punk’s narrow rock and roll reading.

SW: In an article trying to reposition Led Zeppelin in different contexts, Sasha Frere-Jones called this song their “first punk-funk single.”

Reynolds: One of the weird things I realized after I finished the book was that punk’s year-zero effect made people forget what came right before. We write off the ’70s as a waste, and then say punk broke from tradition to embrace funk and disco. But only two years earlier, the Rolling Stones did funk and disco records; Eric Clapton did a Bob Marley cover; the Eagles played with pseudo-reggae rhythms; Robert Palmer played with the Meters. The cultural myopia of the year-zero story benefited the post-punk bands because it made people forget everything. At the time it did seem radical that PiL did disco and Gang of Four did funk, but that was partly an illusion. It was more interesting when the post-punk groups tried because they got it slightly wrong.

Public Image Ltd.: “Death Disco” (aka “Swan Lake”) (1979) from Metal Box (aka Second Edition) (Virgin)

Reynolds: Well!

SW: This track crops up a lot in your book, in which PiL serves as a post-punk bellwether. When did you first hear this?

Reynolds: It must have been on the radio a few times, but I really remember when they went on the TV show Top of the Pops. It was usually a fun show, people dancing and balloons in the studio, and the announcer’s face went pale as he talked about “Death Disco.” It seemed to me then that this pop reality was quaking a bit, and that gave me the idea that pop music could be subversive. It’s a track that scarred me for life, in a good way.

At the time I didn’t know anything about microtonality or harmonics, but I think that was what I was responding to: this stuff that seems to be going on between pitches, smeared and sprayed sounds. They were doing a kind of modal thing with the melodies, and there’s a kind of Celtic/Arabic thing in [John] Lydon’s singing. It was also my first exposure to the whole bass aesthetic, bass being the center of the melody. And a lot of it just carried over from the enormity of the Sex Pistols and Johnny Rotten doing something next that nobody expected. It’s one of the great switches in rock, being in the most important band in the world and then going on this total art trip.

SW: Did you feel betrayed as a kid who was into punk?

Reynolds: I was really into the feeling that punk shouldn’t stay stuck. The two punk characters I glommed onto at the time were the most conceptual ones. Malcolm McLaren comes off badly in the book, and I regret that because of how big a fan I was. I was really into his whole master plan, all the scheming and the Situationist side of what he was carrying on. For a long while I thought the Situationists were a band. I thought, “They sound even more evil than the Sex Pistols! How do I get hold of records by the Situationists?”

Phuture: “Spank Spank” (1988) from Mad on Acid: A Comprehensive History of Acid House Music (Trax)

Reynolds: Is this an acid-house track? Phuture? Something about the hi-hats . . . 

SW: Post-punk’s embrace of disco is usually addressed as a rhetorical move against this cultural monster. But it often goes unsaid how much post-punk influenced what disco itself turned into.

Reynolds: Genesis P-Orridge often brings up that when he went to Chicago and met Derrick Carter, he talked about how he was a huge Throbbing Gristle fan. When I first heard acid house, I went to Chicago to do a piece on this compilation that London Records put out. One of the tracks I liked was the B-side of Phuture’s “Acid Tracks” [“Your Only Friend”]. It starts out, “This is cocaine speaking,” and goes on to say how it’s going to destroy your life. It was fantastic. Everything in the music made me flash on PiL and Cabaret Voltaire.

SW: How radical was bedding down with disco really? How big was it in England?

Reynolds: The idea of dance music has never been quite so lowly in Britain as it has been in America. It was lowly regarded enough to make embracing it a rhetorical move, but not as much an act of treason as it was here. A lot of the post-punk people picked up on black music and funk as this idea of having musically militant sounds that weren’t rock-derived. It’s hard to know how these ideas emerged, but there was a shared climate of ideas.

!!!: “Hello, Is This Thing On?” (2004) from Louden Up Now (Touch and Go)

SW: !!! is a rare new post-punk-inspired band that even tries to engage with politics and antagonism, however messily. Do you hear an ideological void in the new wave of post-punk bands?

Reynolds: I can’t remember a significant lyric from any of these new bands. Except maybe James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem—he writes great lyrics, but they’re mostly about this desire for music to be a galvanizing force that all this wryness and self-consciousness gets in the way of. Post-punk wasn’t just a great sonic period; it also introduced new ways of writing lyrics and explored new forms of delivering them. There’s not a lot of innovation like that going on now. It’s the lack of belief on the part of singers and the people listening that words have that power anymore. I don’t know if I even believe that anymore. But at the time, I did believe that words had this tremendous weight and that pop could make the whole world shake a little. That belief in the power of gestures and words has faded, particularly in white bohemian culture.

Arctic Monkeys: “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor” (2005) from Whatever People Say I Am, That Is What I Am Not (Domino)

Reynolds: [quizzical, until lyrics kick in] Ahh, Arctic Monkeys. I love this record. It’s fantastic.

SW: They’re hugely hyped by the English weekly New Musical Express, and you write a lot about the interaction between the music press and the post-punk movement. How do you think the nature of British music-press hype has changed?

Reynolds: It’s complicated. NME is no longer like it was at all when I was a kid. At that point, NME saw itself as a magazine about all music, not just indie rock. They would have Bob Marley on the cover, a big piece on Michael Jackson. There was a sense of journalistic responsibility, like The New York Times or something. I feel like if the NME of then was around today, they would have had Dizzee Rascal on the cover. They would have a cover story on crunk and the whole Girls Aloud phenomenon, all this stuff that’s happening now. Usually now it’s rubbish. It’s unfortunate with the Arctic Monkeys because they are actually really good, and that’s going to just reinforce the NME being so narrowcast.

SW: The level of discourse in music-writing then seems so much higher.

Reynolds: That element appealed to a minority of the readership, but quite a lot of that minority was musicians. I was surprised when I interviewed musicians for the book and they’d say, “Oh yeah, Paul Morley was gospel. We’d read him every week.” But the core music-press readership is always looking for a four-man guitar band from Britain that reflects back their lives to them in a slightly heroic way. The Clash did that, Joy Division in a more existential way, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Smiths, Stone Roses, the Libertines, Arctic Monkeys. It’s the same all the way through. That is precisely what someone like Ian Penman at the time would have critiqued. When readers wanted Echo & the Bunnymen, he was writing about Grace Jones and the idea of artifice.

Hyper-On Experience: “Assention” (1992) from 12-inch single (Moving Shadow)

Reynolds: [immediately] Hyper-On Experience.

SW: A big part of your reputation rests on what you have written about rave culture. Did you recognize analogues between post-punk and rave at the time?

Reynolds: I didn’t think of post-punk parallels so much as punk ones. When I started getting into it, the music was getting really aggressive and hard. The leading club for hardcore was called Rage, which told you something. There was a punk aspect to the idea of sampling, as well. It really did feel like larceny. They were stealing things that were in the charts that week and just ripping out the parts they wanted.

When I started to think of post-punk was when it went dark side. Then it was just obviously avant-garde, this sick, mind-bending, sensually deranging music. I talked about being scarred by “Death Disco,” but when rave shifted toward the dark side, that was one of the biggest head-swerve moves ever. To be on [Ecstasy] in some room where songs are going on about death . . . you’re very vulnerable on E, and the music started taking on all these strange fucked-up rhythms and weird creepy sounds. That was a major head-fuck.

SW: Your writing about rave culture drew on a lot of academic critical theory. How much of that stemmed from post-punk?

Reynolds: I got really into critical theory after, but I started picking up on it because of post-punk critics. The main theory guys were Ian Penman and Barney Hoskyns, who were au fait with all the French stuff: Derrida, Barthes, Kristeva, Bataille. By the time I had assimilated it, music had changed, so I started adopting it for this neo-psychedelic music—My Bloody Valentine, A.R. Kane, all these groups that were in some ways the opposite of post-punk. I was trying to react against post-punk at that point, espousing this quite apolitical, escapist music. By the time of rave I had read Deleuze and Guattari, and it all just seemed to genuinely be there in the music, at the heart of how it operated. The idea of rhizomatic networks applied to the world of white labels and pirate radio and record shops serving as hubs. And also the dementia involved. Deleuze and Guattari came out of the idea that normal life screws you up and that madness is a sane response to our civilization.

In Rip It Up, I only used theory to explicate the bands who were using it. A lot of these concepts in the past have genuinely helped me come up with new ways of thinking. But I think, in other ways, I’ve often used theory as a sort of rubber stamp for something I could have just left in my own words. It’s funny—for the first time in my life, people are calling my writing unpretentious.

Gang of Four: “Why Theory?” (2005) from Return the Gift (V2)

Reynolds: Segue. This is very much about Antonio Gramsci. “Each day seems like a natural fact”—that’s a paraphrase of Gramsci, who talked about how you have to use theory to question everything that happens in your life. Everything that seems natural and immutable and common sense should be dismantled, or at least questioned.

SW: In a piece about this album—for which Gang of Four rerecorded their own songs—you talked about the idea of “anachronesis.”

Reynolds: [laughs] I think that might be another ugly coinage of mine. The simplest expression of anachronesis is Lenny Kravitz, a prime example of music in this limbo where it’s referring back to the past but it’s not there, and [it’s] not in the present, either. There are so many things like that today, like Steve Martin pointlessly remaking Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther. It’s a really unpleasant sensation. Things under the sway of anachronesis are just nothing. You might as well be dead.

SW: You were hard on Gang of Four in that article. Was it dispiriting to come to terms with what happened to a lot of the post-punk bands past their prime?

Reynolds: There were a lot of dissonant moments. With all pop-music stories, if you follow the story long enough it gets to be ignominious. My attitude was at least they tried to do something interesting, even if they failed. It’s difficult, because on one hand you can say they didn’t really change anything. The record industry is the same as it ever is. The conglomerates are still there. Politics didn’t go their way. But it was the striving more than the failure of it that was more important. The striving is worth something in itself. There’s a certain value, a sort of a quickening of the mind, these cultures produce. The fact that nothing changes, in some ways, is irrelevant.