Released this spring in the U.S., author Simon Reynolds' bold and elegant Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk Music 1978-1984 (Penguin) is bursting with stories, tales, and specific information about hundreds of bands in the U.K., Europe, and U.S. It's a hefty slice of rock 'n' roll history cut from a specific part of the rock underground — a scene filled with art students, kids on the dole, disillusioned misfits, and musical geniuses.
Picking up where British author Jon Savage's award-winning punk-rock history lesson England's Dreaming leaves off in the late '70s, Rip It Up and Start Again is a densely-packed, thorough exploration of the curious, experimental, not-so-mainstream music directly inspired and influenced by the original punk movement.
"I grew up with that era of music," says Reynolds. "I was a teenager when all these bands were active. It was a bit more mainstream in Britain than it was in America. But in Britain, some of these groups — bands like The Slits, Adam & The Ants before they got famous, The Specials — would have hits and be on the radio just a bit. On one BBC station, a DJ named John Peel would regularly play a lot of these bands, and that influences other DJs who looked up to him. They'd play really weird, minimalist compositions by Laurie Anderson and others, so it was a bit different."
Reynolds, 42, was born in London and began writing about music and pop culture in the mid-'80s as a student at Oxford. In 1986, he joined the British weekly music magazine Melody Maker as a staff writer and worked there until 1990. A collection of features and editorials from his writing were collected in Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock (Serpent's Tail, 1990).
The author moved to Manhattan permanently at the end of 1994 and continued writing about musically-related characters and topics, contributing to such periodicals as The New York Times, Village Voice, Spin, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, The Observer, Artforum, and others. In '95, he and co-author Joy Press (now his wife) released The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion & Rock 'n' Roll (Serpent's Tail/Harvard University Press). Reynolds followed-up in '98 with Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture (Picador).
Reynolds carefully untangles the connections between such icons as Joy Division, The Specials, Scritti Politti, The Fall, Gang of Four, Talking Heads, Human League, and Devo, among many others. The book touches on the technical innovations in musical gear and video, illustrating how things came into the early MTV "music video" age. Much is made over the rise of synth-pop, neo-romantics, and so-called "new wave" acts (as the Yanks tend to refer to them). He examines the emphasis many acts placed on imagery, style, and modernistic lyrical themes.
"That whole period felt like a unified period to me ... and also reflected a bit of my music history," Reynolds says. "When I started writing, I started with my own personal history. It was sort of where my expectations in music have come from. I expect things to move really fast and change."
Whereas Johnny Rotten howled "No future!" with the Sex Pistols, many of the "postpunk" bands featured in these pages felt compelled and almost desperate to assert that there was indeed a future — and they had to build it themselves.
Any attempt to cover such wide variety of the music and cultural happenings — in the U.K. and otherwise — would surely end up a bit tangled and uneven. Depending on the reader's perspective, any effort like Reynolds' could come off as unbalanced (too many pages dedicated to so-and-so and not enough spent on so-and-so, etc.). However, Rip it Up zigzags so enthusiastically from one subgenre and scene to the other, it doesn't matter; the reader is ultimately inspired to make a special trip to that local record shop with the cool "new wave" bin armed with a lengthy list of "postpunk" discs to investigate.