Monday, May 10, 2021

Seminal books of seminal music – a review of Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984

What is Post-Punk? 

When put on the spot, even an avowed fan of the genre may struggle to give a definitive answer or one which would do justice to such a dynamic and rebellious movement. In Rip It Up and Start Again Simon Reynolds takes a daring leap right into the heart of the question, defining Post-Punk as a genre and an era of unprecedented creativity, gutsiness, abundance, and, ultimately, a gradual, torturous downfall. 

Accessible to even those of us who find music theory challenging, this book systematically explains the technological and theoretical elements of Post-Punk, from the development of synthesisers to the basics of bass lines, all whilst conveying that same exuberant atmosphere that accompanied all the music-making.

As with all genesis stories, this book takes a primarily chronological approach. It tracks the development of Post-Punk from its inception in the grotty dwellings of John Lydon – previously Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols now reincarnated as the impresario of Public Image Ltd – to its inevitable decline at the hands of New Pop and the gargantuan grip of the major record labels. 

Although the narrative strives to maintain its linearity for the sake of progression, the chapters themselves examine clusters of bands that share a similar sensibility, sound, or location. As such, we are frequently taken backward and forwards across the Atlantic, as well as up and down the UK – a testament to the dynamism of the genre and the ubiquity of the forces driving its development.

It is a pleasure to read through the bite-sized yet thorough narratives of individual bands, an experience that can be enhanced even further with the help of your music streaming platform of choice. Although some generous soul has, in fact, created a Spotify playlist of tracks featured in the book, it is only a springboard for further exploration, a tantalising taste of the enormous whole that is Post-Punk. I, for one, have derived endless enjoyment from listening along with the book’s narrative, learning about – and appreciating anew – some old favourites, while also discovering some hidden gems and new frontiers.

The main strength of this book is the way it manages to maintain a delicate balance between delivering crowd-pleasing, anecdotal snapshots of the subculture at hand, whilst preserving the analytical, academic sensibility that is the root of this work. Rip It Up and Start Again is not a biography, nor is it a textbook or an overview - it is an engaging piece of humane investigative journalism, one that gets right under the skin of the people that pioneered and drove the genre. 

Simultaneously, and importantly, this work also successfully conveys the state of public opinion and engagement at the time of Post-Punk’s heyday. This is all due to the author’s own genuine excitement and love for the subject, his nostalgic yet critical look at a time when he claims he felt most alive.

In his introduction to the book, Simon Reynolds states that “young people have a biological right to be excited about the times in which they are living”. As I write this in March of 2021, excitement seems to be the furthest thing from my mind. Yet what resonates with me is the question that Reynolds associates with the crux of the Post-Punk movement; “Where to now?”.

In response to this, Rip It Up and Start Again captures how the desire for experimentation, discovery, and subversion drove countless young musicians, entrepreneurs, and general listeners to demand – and subsequently create – a sound and attitude that represents them.

Currently, we are experiencing a Post-Punk revival in the guise of Post-Punk 2K. Bands such as Black Country, New Road; Squid; Dry Cleaning; Legss; BODEGA; Porridge Radio; shame; Molchat Doma, and countless others have been churning out defiant, introspective, and experimental music that speaks to worries and desires of our age. As with Post-Punk of the 70s and 80s, these bands are not confined to one scene or one culture but share a similar disposition and methods of expression – a shared desire and drive for a bigger, better sound for a bigger, better future; a future where we will be unafraid to ask, “Where to now?”.

Liza Kupreeva


Image: Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984: Simon Reynolds: 9780143036722: Books

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