Sunday, August 5, 2012
Simon Reynolds' "Totally Wired: Postpunk Interviews & Overviews": Review
Tony Wilson of Factory Records early on defines what set punk apart from post-punk. He riffs off of Joy Division-New Order's Bernard Sumner and distinguishes the "F[---] you" of the former movement's music with its anger but its limitations aesthetically and ideologically, with the "I'm f[---]ed" of what followed. I agree with David Thomas of Pere Ubu: rock music represents the culmination of modernist art, and however avant-garde such music as his band created sounded to many, it was mainstream. That is, it spoke to everyday issues and real people, made not by the likes of Mick Jagger singing in his fifties about teenaged girls. Also, such groups as Pere Ubu had ambitions far outstripping those of the manufactured Sex Pistols and their ilk. Thomas insists he wanted to "create something worthy of William Faulkner and Herman Melville," and it's hard to fault him when you read his prickly, intelligent reflections.
I was impressed by the quality of those interviewed, and the in-depth knowledge of their interviewer. I learned a lot from PiL's Jah Wobble and Suicide's Alan Vega, but I also appreciated the thoughts of the late (more than one person included has died not long after) John Peel as elder statesman, and ZTT Records "aesthetician" Paul Morley as much as those who actually made the music that others promoted and played. Groups that for me stayed on the fringe, such as Cabaret Voltaire's Richard H. Kirk, Swell Maps + Jacobites' Nikki Sudden, Josef K's Paul Haig, and the Associates' Alan Rankine, kept my attention due to their articulate accounts of how provincial scenes and local friendships spurred many to follow the lead set down by London and New York. A strength of this anthology is that Sheffield and Glasgow, Bristol and Cardiff, Cleveland and Leeds earn as much if not more attention than the usual metropolitan voices and labels.
As Reynolds comments, the trio of music papers weekly in England mattered, since in the provinces, records were discovered as if hidden treasures imported and hoarded and worn out, and word of mouth carried songs and ideas into the workplace, the classroom, the pub, the tearoom. Before the net, outside of nearly all radio, with hardly any record stores or alternative networks nationwide, the shock of the new and the tension with tradition spread slowly, by conversations, record-playing and Penguin paperbacks. Week by week, within a few months or years, these transformative possibilities percolated into the minds and through the instruments and lyrics of those who were scattered, bored, and desperate for renewal.
The power of these years lingers. Even those whose music I have little or no interest in proved very eloquent and well worth hearing about their own experiences, such as Edwyn Collins of Orange Juice, Phil Oakey of The Human League, Green Gartside of/as (a telling transition as Reynolds shows, from the socialist, squatter Rough Trade collective of late-70s post-punk to the capitalist pop of the ZTT, New Romantic, MTV neon dancefloor) Scritti Politti. Also, juxtaposing, say, two members of Devo, Mancunian Wilson and Liverpudlian Bill Drummond, transplanted New Yorkers David Byrne, James Chance and Lydia Lunch, or The Fall + Blue Orchids' Martin Bramah with Ludus' Linder Sterling and JD + NO's Steven Morris make for great counterpoints that tease out connections and reverberations about how local scenes and bands (r)evolved.
Reading how Oakey looked at increasingly meticulous (and pre-computer, very exacting) production as a leader of his band vs. how his producer Martin Rushent did proves instructive. So many of these individuals were self-taught, crafting their sounds and words in near-isolation, and learning from a few other outliers how their instruments worked, how songs grew, and how DIY could jumpstart a whole new system, for a while, of record distribution, community pride, and heady talent.
My quibble, although I admit I'm a glutton for this genre, is that I wish Reynolds had taken the opportunity to restore the other missing "Rip" material from the British original printing. Goth and industrial music, and especially Howard Devoto & Subway Sect's long-lasting impacts are heard only at a distance by those interviewed. Devoto and Vic Godard merited their own spotlight. Maybe the publisher here's at fault, but given the reactions of disappointed fans stateside (like me) to what we were sold as "Rip," I'd hoped for all the missing material to have been restored in this follow-up.
Also, some of the overviews added, as in the John Lydon review of his "No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs," sound (as did "Rip" at times) too term-paper-ish, even if Reynolds gets around to some provocative comments on the singer's abandonment of PiL's vision to cash in on "filthy lucre" and the "flogging the dead horse" (my phrases, borrowed not from the book) of Pistols' reunion tours. I wondered, if he added these largely previously published articles to his collection, why he could not have appended the excised material from the "director's cut" (his phrase for some pieces) of "Rip"'s British original.
Even if the second half of the book, the New Romantic-dance stage, interests me far less as music than as movement, Reynolds provides a fine testimony to what he admits is an overlooked generation. Much as I as with anyone interviewed admire the music of their predecessors, this revision and re-examination of previous music and modern trends provides too a welcome antidote to endlessly self-satisfied books on the Sixties, I agree. Those of us who came of age later (he's two years younger than me) deserve our pop culture moment.
(P.S. I've read "Rip It Up" only in its US edition, 200 pages shorter. I suspect that the US "Totally Wired" may also differ slightly from its British predecessor in content. Like those import vs. US Beatles LPs?)
(P.P.S. Posted to Lunch.com & Amazon US 4-26-11. Reynolds has "Rip" hype" and "Rip" footnotes; his "Totally" blog confirms my suspicion, but only his SST chapter was restored to the US edition.)