Post Punk 1978-1984
Does this count as history? I was born shortly after this book finishes, so I’m inclined to go with ‘yes’ on that. And as another blog on wordpress says If It Happened Yesterday, It’s History. Simon Reynolds, previously the author of Energy Flash (a history of Rave) and the inventor of the term Post-Rock, takes us on a fast and very entertaining trip through new music from the first stirrings of Public Image Limited in the late seventies to the downfall of Frankie Goes To Hollywood in the mid eighties.
The book is divided into two rough halves – Post Punk and New Pop (a term coined by the influential music writer Paul Morley, who features heavily in this book). Back in 1977 punk had taken off and the music industry was in transition, there was a do it yourself, anything goes kind of attitude. But at the same time there wasn’t, punk became as musically rigid and conservative as its predecessors – possibly more so, given the huge influence of Art Rockers like Bowie, Roxy Music or Can. Some of these punk musicians looked for an escape, a way to mix their love of reggae, disco or experimental music into the format. Hence the likes of Public Image Limited, Magazine or Pere Ubu formed as edgier spin offs from previous bands. Others like Gang of Four or The Pop Group looked for ways to add a more rigorous political slant to their music. Joy Division and The Fall added a more northern slant to things with their poetic front-men. Talking Heads and Wire had a more arty approach, heavily in debt to Eno. In the end most of these early mainstream-ish bands didn’t last long at their peak (apart from The Fall) but they burned brightly and they produced some of the best records ever made.
But that was just the popular end of this new movement – there were also odd cliques that were yet to trouble the charts. The DIY indie bands and John Peel types had sprung up with attempts to combine the ideals of amateurism with music – with fairly mixed results. There were also experiments from Throbbing Gristle or Cabaret Voltaire with industrial electronics. The USA also weighed in with its own strange and artistic scenes – No Wave in New York and the freaked out Residents and Flipper in San Francisco. It’s a motley crew of bands and sounds and in a way it is quite artificial to lump it together like this in one volume. Reynolds would probably admit that the only thing the bands have in common is being around at the same time and arguably a certain desire to do something new.
New Pop and New Rock
I wasn’t really familiar with the term New Pop – but it seems like one of those terms that may have only really caught on with journalists. The music covered here isn’t quite as exciting as the first half of the book, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad reading. I am a fan of 2-Tone, and there’s something to be said for parts of american Hardcore punk, some of the early goth stuff and a few of the Liverpudlian neo-psycedelic bands, but much of the rest is pure pop or synth stuff that isn’t really to my taste. They do make good stories though. Malcolm McLaren’s manipulative experiments with Adam Ant, Bow Wow Wow and his own rap career are simultaneously fascinating and horrifying. The idealistic beginning and descent into commercial pop of the Human League or ABC makes a good story. There are low points here though – a chapter on arty New York disco that is entirely composed of interview quotes was drab to read and came across as lazy.
Another problem with the book for me probably comes down to musical differences. There are so many talented or interesting musicians to cover and it feels like Reynolds occasionally spends far too much time with some (Scritti Politti and The Associates seem particularly favoured) while just dismissing others in a mere paragraph even while emphasizing their importance or longevity (The Birthday Party, Madness and Depeche Mode all suffer from this). It also leans heavily on the intellectualizing of pop music and journalism being An Important Thing – with people like Paul Morley or Barney Hoskyns popping up again and again. This fits with an era where bands often did have grand plans and intellectual/pretentious ideals, but it does mean that the story is told with a particular slant.
There are a few narratives or themes running throughout this book – the compromises between artistic freedom and popular success, the desire to break away from the conventional style, and the balance between ideals and art. These become more heavy handed and blatant in the second half as success becomes socially acceptable, but they’re there in the first half as well. Different bands cope with these in different ways – John Lydon distancing himself, then moving back towards pop. Gang of Four or the Pop Group trying to run a strict politically sound band, but ending up as dry and humourless. Numerous bands ending up by a dictatorial leader (Talking Heads, The Fall …). In the end, few bands actually succeeded at balancing these for long but even the mis-steps are fascinating.
Ultimately what I really want from music journalism is something that can inspire me to listen to the subject. It’s why I love Julian Cope’s writing – the sheer enthusiasm that can make you give a second go to a band that you don’t particularly rate. Simon Reynolds concludes the book by praising the era for passing on to him an ambition and expectation for what music can be – that it can set out to radically change things and it can succeed. He communicates this well throughout the book with its focus on idealistic groups and manifesto toting bands, that ultimately failed in their aims but managed to briefly reinvent music in their own image. And for me, it even made me give another go to the Human League – so it must be good writing.