Saturday, July 4, 2009

Punk and its aftermath: John Robb and Simon Reynolds

Two recent books try to capture the excitement and cultural flux of punk and its aftermath. Perhaps it's no surprise that the book that was written by a former punk and that allows other participants to speak about the music and the times is by far the more successful of the two.

John Robb was co-creator of the 1977-era fanzine The Rox, co-founder of the Blackpool band The Membranes and later a writer for the now-defunct Sounds magazine. His Punk Rock: An Oral History (Ebury Press, 2006) involved interviews with more than a hundred musicians, filmmakers, photographers, fanzine writers, and artists associated with what Robb calls first- and second-wave punk.

Robb and his sources take an expansive view of the movement. So the first hundred pages or so are devoted to punk precursors; the names you might expect are mentioned (Iggy & the Stooges, New York Dolls, the David Bowie of Ziggy Stardust, T. Rex, Roxy Music) but also some surprises; the pub rock scene also gets its due. And developments from 1980-84 are summed up in 50 pages at the end--mostly stories of commercial failure, personal friction and band break-ups.

The heart of the book, though, and what makes it especially worth reading, is the period between the formation of the Pistols and the Damned in 1975, and what Robb terms the peak of the second wave in 1979. One thing that becomes clear is how important fashion was to the British scene: looking right was more important than how you played. This book also acknowledges the hugely influential political punk of the anarchist band Crass, the pros and cons of the DIY aesthetic (back when recordings were physical objects, pressing, marketing and distributing them was an expensive and time-consuming process), and how issues of gender and age played out in the punk scene.

As Robb writes in his introduction, "I just wanted the story direct from the people who were there...and not the rubbish theories that were added on afterwards" (p. 2). It's not entirely possible to avoid retrospection, as all of the interviews were conducted at least 20 years after the events they describe, and some of the stories retold here are clearly well-worn. But in the main the interviewees are surprisingly frank about their experiences, and have interesting stories to tell. And Robb mainly avoids a tone of sentimental reminiscence; for him punk isn't about a particular sound, but about an endlessly renewing culture of resistance.

Rip it Up & Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 by Simon Reynolds (Penguin, 2006) is a retelling of punk's aftermath: bands like PiL, Gang of Four, Joy Division, Wire. The early sections of the book covering those bands are fascinating, perhaps because the music was (and is) so exciting.

But it quickly becomes apparent that there are two key problems with Reynolds' approach. The first is his restrictive view of punk. While I might have thought of Talking Heads or Devo as "new wave" rather than punk, I'm pretty sure that I never heard the term "post-punk" until much later. PiL, Gang of Four, Joy Division and Wire were all punk as far as I was concerned. Of course their music didn't sound identical to the Sex Pistols, but there was definitely an emotional continuity. For Reynolds punk begins with the release of the Ramones' debut album in April 1976 and ends with the release of Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks in late October 1977. Dang--I guess one reason punks took so much speed was to try to get their albums out before the deadline. Everything that comes later is (according to Reynolds) necessarily post-punk.

So Reynolds ignores bands that don't fit into this neat periodization. X-Ray Spex (debut album released in December 1977 or January 1978) isn't even mentioned (!); neither is Joan Jett (debut album 1980); neither is Patti Smith (a pre-post-punk, I guess she didn't realize she should've stopped releasing albums in 1976). The Raincoats and the Slits are both labelled post-punk, even though their first recordings are extremely raw and thrashy. The Au Pairs get a single paragraph, and the term "punk-funk" (which was so common back then that the Village Voice started printing it "p*nk-f*nk" because they thought it was becoming a cliché) isn't mentioned.

On the other hand, The Clash is pigeonholed (and dismissed) as punk, even though their second album Give 'Em Enough Rope--the first released in the U.S.--has songs that cross the five-minute mark, and they got more and more experimental over the double album London Calling, the "Black Market Clash" EP and the triple album Sandinista! Even their first album includes a great cover of Junior Murvin's reggae classic "Police & Thieves." (I guess the idea that a group could be both punk and post-punk explodes Reynolds' fixed categories.) The Buzzcocks get only a couple paragraphs, even though they released records until 1980 and worked with Joy Division's producer. Killing Joke gets a couple of paragraphs in a chapter on Goth (although the band helped originate elements of the Goth look, their first album was a punk-heavy metal fusion). You might remember bands like Elvis Costello & the Attractions or The Psychedelic Furs; as far as Rip It Up is concerned, though, they never existed.

As you might gather from the above, the first part of the book is a somewhat cursory survey of mostly British bands (plus Pere Ubu, Talking Heads and Devo) from the late 1970s. Whole books could be written about many of these bands; Reynolds gives a couple short chapters to PiL, but the rest of the groups get a few pages at most. I wondered why he was rushing through what would seem to be his main material. And here is where the second problem with the book became all too apparent: Reynolds was saving room for the 175 pages he devotes to "New Pop."

You'd think that Reynolds would give some attention to the LA punk scene and American hardcore. But since they were commercially negligible (we constantly hear about chart positions and Top of the Pops appearances of the British bands) they don't count in Reynolds' universe. Instead, he focusses on the artistically negligible "New Pop" bands like Adam & the Antz, Duran Duran and (egad!) Frankie Goes to Hollywood. These were bands that deliberately developed a sound "like punk never happened" (to quote the title of a 1982 book about Culture Club); they're post-punk only in the sense that they happened chronologically after punk. (Again, his terminology seems retrospective; at the time these bands were called "New Romantics.")

I can see how Reynolds gets there: many of the personnel associated with these bands had started out as punk scenesters. Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols, became the manager of Bow Wow Wow, a band led by sixteen-year-old Anabelle Lwin that layered pop-punk guitars over so-called Burundi beats. Most of the original Bow Wow Wow had been Adam Ant's punkish backup group before he went on to form another, poppier version with ex-Banshee Marco Pirroni (who is also featured in Robb's book). After Ian Curtis' suicide, three-fourths of Joy Division became three-fourths of New Order. The Human League started out as a Cabaret Voltaire-inspired electronic noise band sharing a record label with the Mekons and Gang of Four, only to shift into the far more commercial dance-music market along with other synth-pop bands like A Flock of Seagulls and Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark.

I can remember going to the Roxie in New York in 1981 and hearing the Specials' "Ghost Town," Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" and Killing Joke's "Change" bumping up against one another, and sounding pretty good--apocalyptic dance music. But devoting pages of analysis to the pop vacuities of Visage? Haircut 100? Wham!? There's a far more interesting book on this period waiting to be written; I only wish Reynolds had followed his own advice, ripped it up and started again.

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