The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


Several versions of Simon Reynolds' RIP IT UP AND START AGAIN: POSTPUNK 1978–1984 circulate around. The UK version is long--almost 600 pages, with a chronology of releases and band foundings--and the US version is significantly shorter. But as far as I can tell, there are versions within versions and a couple editions of each. Having finished the longest version I could get my hands on (the second paperback edition), I can say that I don't quite understand why it needed to be as long as it was. The book traces "postpunk" from, as its title makes clear, 1978 to 1984. Because Reynolds is a rock critic, he's got to set forth some arbitrary landmarks and boundaries, and so his book begins with the breakup of the Sex Pistols (duh) and the founding of PiL (his first interesting choice, but not a very daring one) and ends with Frankie Goes to Hollywood, which is a very British choice. I don't think anyone in the US saw Frankie as following in a postpunk line, but Reynolds makes a pretty convincing argument that they did come from that stock. The book isn't as good of a read as I hoped, although the research is great. Three dozen or more stories about bands getting together in England, orienting themselves to punk rock, and either succeeding or disappearing gets pretty repetitive. It was fascinating to read about how the Human League, which have become essentially synonymous with silly 1980s synth rock and big hair, actually came from the projects of Sheffield, England with a very well-developed political project, a kind of Chumbawamba. (But for all of his understanding of English sociopolitical life in the late 1970s, it is amazing that Reynolds calls Cleveland the heart of the US steel industry.)

As far as I can tell, Reynolds' most important act of critical judgment was in deciding what to exclude and what to include and what to count as the main gene line of "postpunk." Unlike what an American-oriented critic would do, Reynolds puts synthesizer music at the very center of the postpunk family tree, sprouting from PiL's early records. Because of this, a lot of music that I never considered "postpunk" in any but a chronological sense is at the heart of Reynolds' story: the Human League, for instance, are key players here. Reynolds excludes from his story hardcore and the early 1980s punk revival, seeing them as irrelevant. It's an interesting story, very indebted to the post-Velvet Underground cult of artiness. But I don't think he mentions the Jam at all, and Elvis Costello is outside of his purview. Were they too derivative of pub rock? Dunno.


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