The Book Club

The Messy History of Postpunk


First, let me congratulate you. Rip It Up and Start Again is a superb book. In fact, I’m tempted to pound the table here; I can’t imagine a better book on rock ’n’ roll, full stop. Why? Well, first of all, you manage the difficult task of balancing the voice and interests of the fan with those of the scholar. The book is suffused with your deep affection for this music, for this period in music, and for the people who made a quiet but extraordinary revolution in pop-music consciousness; and yet you combine this with a tempered, layered, richly textured history. This is a fan’s note and a serious social document. As someone who has tried to write about rock as social history, I feel like Clapton after he saw Hendrix play: Take my guitar (word processor) away! Kudos; henceforth, let Rip It Up be the model for the form.

Let me briefly describe the book. Rip It Up covers the postpunk years in Britain and America. Now, for your average rock monumentalist, pop history goes Elvis, Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Ramones, Pistols, Clash, [blank space], Nirvana. The Rock Snob, often an anti-monumentalist, would fill in, oh, you pick: Nick Drake, Roxy Music, the Bowie of Low and Heroes, Television, the Stooges. The first terrific feature of Rip It Up is how well it combines the impulse to cherish the obscure with the impulse to see a band as a Moment in History. As you convincingly argue,

In retrospect, as a distinct pop-cultural epoch, 1978-1982 rivals that fabled stretch between 1963 and 1967 commonly known as the sixties. The postpunk era makes a fair match for the sixties in terms of the sheer amount of great music created, the spirit of adventure and idealism that infused it, and the way that the music seemed inextricably connected to the political and social turbulence of its era.

The Ramones

Now some specifics. Punk rock, you argue, burned hard, burned fast, and burned out quick: The Ramones debuted in ‘76, their hopped-up, rootsy, retro-garage sound hopped quickly across the pond, the Pistols and the Clash hit big, and by the summer of 1977, the whole thing was already a wearisome cliché. In 1978, the Pistols “auto-destructed,” as you put it, and the Clash (this is me now) turned into an FM-friendly classic rock band. (I would say, to their credit; and would love to hear what you think of the London Calling period.)

What happened next is often called, loosely, postpunk but has never before received either its proper respect or a comprehensive survey; it now has both. As you point out, this period is enormously influential. A quick list of bands that were postpunk, or had roots in postpunk, would include the Talking Heads, U2, Gang of Four, Devo, the B-52s, Joy Division, the Cure, Public Image Ltd., Echo & the Bunnymen, the Specials, the Human League. (Listen to the Specials,International Jet Set,” 1980.) If I trace out the influence correctly, and in its broadest terms, postpunk’s first contribution to pop was its refusal to hew to the old guitar-based formulas of rock ’n’ roll. The ‘80s synth sound comes out of postpunk, as does an angular, choppy, anti-blues style of guitar-playing that now dominates rock ’n’ roll (cf Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, the Libertines). You describe the new sound beautifully, so let me let you:

Rather than rama-lama riffing or bluesy chords, the postpunk pantheon of guitar innovators favored angularity, a clean and brittle spikiness. They shunned solos, apart from brief bursts of lead integrated with more rhythm-oriented playing.

The sound was self-consciously new; the attitude, meanwhile, was very anti-hippie, anti-’60s, anti-peace and love (as punk had been), but also anti-’70s druggy malaise. So, what was it? You nail it precisely: “The entire postpunk period looks like an attempt to replay virtually every major modernist theme and technique via the medium of pop music.” Bands borrowed attitudes and words and gestures from absurdism, dada, Brecht, Bauhaus, and Duchamp. But before the reader gets too put off and concludes postpunk was simply the maunderings of overwrought teens, let’s recall that postpunk had two faces. It was, on the one hand, a catalog of all the outré stances of the 20th-century avant-garde. But having cast off the self-serious ‘60s, it could also be blissfully fun. I love the title of the book, which comes from one of the best singles in the history of postpunk:Rip It Up,” by Orange Juice. Orange Juice is an almost totally unknown quantity in the States, but they were brilliant: fun, witty, bouncy, weird Glaswegians, sort of a cross between the Velvets and the Rev. Al Green, whose memory has been scandalously ill-preserved. I hope you talk more about OJ, and why you chose—other than how obviously apropos their song title is to your subject matter—them as the headliner, in some sense, of the book. And so, a question. Do you ever feel with postpunk that the pranksterism and tendency to gesture eclipsed the actual music? For example, the anti-music aesthetic of Lydia Lunch and the various No Wavers—the group of New York-based here-today, gone-tomorrow scenester bands that included Suicide, Mars, and DNA—struck me as grotesquely precious. (Listen to Mars,Helen Forsdale,” 1978.) Has this held up well, as anything more than a standard-issue romance with the gutter? Another way of putting it is: The pattern in pop music has been pretty consistent. The major labels get stuck repeating a formula, for which they laugh all the way to the bank. In the shadows of that repetition, a host of small, independent labels start signing local acts who are flying totally off-radar—and something new, exciting, and fresh is allowed to grow. Once the big labels get a hold of it, they formula-ize it, throw it onto the radio, and sunlight disinfects away all of its strangest flavors. Here is my question: Does the apprehension of the mainstream always ruin a band? Isn’t London Calling a kind of classic? And didn’t it get there because suddenly the Clash were hungry to be monumental? Not just to sneer in the shadows at the Beatles and the Stones but to eclipse them? And, conversely: When the majors finally come along and ruin the party, doesn’t the onus to find something new become so intense that a lot of nonsense gets taken too seriously? (I’m thinking now of Brian Eno panting after the No Wave vibe.) Anyhow, cheers, Simon; you have written a great book, and I look forward to our exchange.

And finally: If you don’t mind me asking you to summarize it, what was the spirit of the age? What was it about that precise moment? Diverse as they are, the artists you write about do seem united—none have crawled out of the dreariest nadir of the ‘70s, but all hint at something liberating (the ‘80s?) lying on the horizon. Besides arriving a little late on the scene, what is it about a band like the Smiths, or the Replacements, that keeps them out of the category?