25 Mar 2020
Full on lockdown has finally given me the chance to finish Simon Reynold’s mammoth volume on post-punk, Rip It Up and Start Again. I’ve already mentioned the book twice on this blog (#1, #2), and for good reason: it’s an extraordinarily fun and informative read.
Despite being journalistic in style, committed to and bound by the sheer actualities of what happened, Rip It Up and Start Again reads like a loosely-arranged novel, with recurrent characters, motifs, and themes perpetually cropping up, disappearing, and then re-appearing in other contexts. Indeed, it reminds me of anthology TV series such as Easy or High Maintenance: always grounded in one lifeworld – in this case, the post-punk milieu – but always entering (and exiting) it from different perspectives, different bands, different periods, thereby allowing the singular consistency alongside the sheer complexity and multiplicity of the lifeworld to be expressed. It’s precisely this mode of composition that makes Rip It Up such a joy to read: it faithfully expresses post-punk not as some historical artefact bound by chronology and stuck in the past, but as an almost timeless countercultural milieu, sensibility or organism that one can tap into and channel in the here and now. The stories and anecdotes regaled in the book aren’t just thrilling because they express something that, unbelievably, happened (see below for a list of just some of these), but also because they express a potentiality in the present, a set of resources and practices to be simulated and put in motion. In short, the book doesn’t just make you want to read more about bands: it makes you want to start a band yourself.
The book functions through its 26 chapters which simultaneously possess a singularity (each focuses on a particular “scene”, for example late 70s New York No Wave, the rise of British indie labels such as Rough Trade, or the antics of producer Malcom McLaren) while expressing a larger whole (the aforementioned post-punk milieu). Contained within these chapters are some remarkable anecdotes and stories that, as argued above, really fire up one’s imagination, jolt one into laughter, disgust, or disbelief (sometimes all at once). They’re wonderful little nuggets, charged with a countercultural libidinal energy.
At 537 pages*, though, the book is a hefty volume, and it’d be a shame for its countercultural libidinal potential to be blocked because of that. So, both as a tribute to the book and as a way of extending its countercultural archive, here I’m going to retell and recap my favourite anecdotes, characters, and themes from the book in digested form. Hopefully this imparts just a slither of the post-punk energy onto you, dear reader, or even better, it will get you to read the book yourself…
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Brechtian alienation, or, pissing off audiences
A recurring theme throughout the book, expressed by countless bands cited within it, is the notion of intentionally challenging audiences, rather than catering to their most common and predictable desires. Against the backdrop of the contemporary cultural climate that shuns confrontation and antagonism, constantly opting for the “safe” over the “risky” or “experimental”, reading how countless post-punk and punk bands challenged – and sometimes outright abused – their audiences was hugely refreshing (and often funny). Unlike postmodernist PR, which today is so ingrained that you’re as likely to hear vacuous spiel about “markets” and “target audiences” from freelance YouTubers and writers as from an actual marketing executive, the (post-)punk mentality is fundamentally elitist: strictly opposed to the lowest common denominator, a.k.a. “common sense”. From this viewpoint the function of (post-)punk was not simply to cater to common pre-existing tastes but to confrontationally jolt and shove people into new terrain; to create new, more complex tastes through a kind of creative destruction. (For more on this, see my last post on Pop and nihilation, inspired by k-punk.)
(Post-)punk’s modernist criticality and confrontation was the motor throughout the period covered in Rip It Up that fuelled the dizzying array of sonic, musical and aesthetic innovations that was central to that period’s constant sense of excitement, confidence, and buzz. It also resulted in some amusing anecdotes and stories that act as little glimpses into the radical forms music and art can take. Below are how just some bands covered in the book approached the issue of challenging their audiences:
James Chance and the Contortions: Like other New York No Wave groups, gigs by the Contortions had a strong performance-art element, dedicated to involving audiences in them and thereby turning them into “happenings”. This was partly driven by sensationalism and desire to grab press attention, and partly impelled by an avant-garde urge to deconstruct the performer/audience dichotomy. As Reynolds documents:
Chance … turned gigs into happenings by attacking the audience: jostling, slapping, legendarily grabbing a girl by the hair at one show and biting another woman ‘on the tit’ (or so he claimed in an interview). ‘James was like a Jackson Pollock painting, such an explosive personality,’ says Adele Bertei, Contortions’ keyboard player. ‘And he had a strong masochistic streak. So he’d jump into the crowd and start kissing some girl. The boyfriend would push him off and a fist-fight would ensue. Our bassist George Scott and me would leap offstage and get into the mêlée. Then we’d all get back on to the stage with blood running down our faces – James being the worse for wear always because he’d get the brunt of it; plus he’s so tiny.’
Lydia Lunch: Lunch played the role of self-described dictator of no wave band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, recalling in the book how she would “literally beat [the other band members] with coat hangers if they made any mistakes at a gig. We rehearsed ad nauseam and were pretty fucking tight. It’s pretty fascist sounding, and I was the fucking dictator.” This demeanor was matched when performing live:*
Onstage, Lunch remained rigid, disdaining to engage with the audience through eye contact or banter, maintaining an unbridgeable moat of alienation between performer and spectators. James Chance was an early member of Teenage Jesus, but Lunch kicked him out for having too much contact with the audience: ‘I didn’t think TJ should mingle with the audience, even if to attack them. Don’t touch those bastards, let ‘em just sit there in horror!’ (p. 62, italics added)
Alternative TV: Mark Perry, founder of ATV, had also founded influential punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue, and acted as one of punk’s early ideologues, but soon found its commitment to DIY to be a constriction on musical progress. ATV, therefore, sought to push the punk boat out, with their debut LP acting as a pioneering blend of punk and reggae. By their second album in 1978, this sonic experimentation had escalated further: the album incorporated spoken-word elements, clarinets, free-jazz influences, and an almost complete lack of guitar. Reynolds recounts how this experimental transformation caused difficulty for ATV’s fanbase, the core of which were punks:
Determined to practise onstage what [the second album] had preached on vinyl, Perry decided there would be no rehearsals, ‘just this spontaneous improv thing’. Rock conventions got turned on their heads whenever possible: a guitarist was given the job of playing drums; Perry sawed away discordantly on a violin; and Anno, the singer from hippy festival band Here and Now, joined the group onstage, despite being pregnant. But Alternative TV still had a hardcore of punk fans, and they reacted violently. ‘In Portsmouth, the crowd wanted to kill us! I can laugh now, but back then I was so passionate about it, I got furious with them. I was yelling, “You thick bastards! That’s not what the punk spirit is about, just giving you what you want!”’ Everything came to a head – Perry’s head, to be precise – in Derby when a hurled bottle knocked him unconscious.(p.80, italics added)
Cabaret Voltaire: “In June 1977, all three members of Cabaret Voltaire joined Marsh, Adi Newton, Glenn Gregory, Martyn Ware and 2.3’s drummer Hayden Boyes-Weston for one gig only as the punk-spoof supergroup The Studs. ‘It was an anarchic raw event,’ recalls Newton. ‘One of our helpers had a bag of pigs’ ears which were liberally thrown at the audience.’ After chaotic improvised versions of The Kingsmen’s ‘Louie Louie’, Lou Reed’s ‘Vicious’ and Iggy Pop’s ‘Cock in my Pocket’, plus a bizarre version of the Dr Who theme, the band left the stage to howls of abuse.” (p.158)
Throbbing Gristle: Genesis P-Orridge, founder of TG, frequently underlined that the band were anti-music:
P-Orridge and crew were sceptical about punk’s credentials as radical music – it was too rock, too musical. Speaking in the famous ‘New Musick’ November 1977 issue of Sounds, P-Orridge declared that Sniffin’ Glue’s exhortation ‘Here’s three chords, now start a band’ conceded far too much to traditional musicality. ‘It starts with chords. They’re saying “Be like everyone else, you gotta learn to play”. You can start with no chords. Why not just say, “Form a band and it doesn’t matter what it sounds like or whether you even make a noise, if you just stand there silent for an hour, just do what you want.”’ […] At one early gig – the Nag’s Head, High Wycombe, February 1977 – P-Orridge poured scorn on the jeering punks in the audience: ‘You can’t have anarchy and have music.’ During the cacophonous performance, Cosey bared her tits and P-Orridge poured fake blood over his head. Then he invited half a dozen kids from the audience onstage and handed them instruments. (p.230)
This was, of course, evident in TG’s music: cold, metallic, an assault on the senses. Reynolds details in Chapter 12 how TG’s basement became, in P-Orridge’s words, a “chaotic research lab”, where a full range of sonic effects were explored and experimented with: high and low frequencies, distortion and extreme volume, with P-Orridge and bandmate [Carter] acting as the guinea pigs. The band’s goal, Reynold’s writes, was to be as visceral as possible, creating “a total body music, immersive and assaultive. They jettisoned songs, melody and groove in favour of the pure, overwhelming force of sound itself” (p. 228). This was, naturally, reflected in their approach to live performances:
TG’s gigs were sadistic assaults on the audience. TG pursued a ‘metabolic music’ that directly impacted on the nervous system. They were fascinated by military research into the use of infrasound as a non-lethal weapon, with certain frequencies triggering vomiting, epileptic seizures, and even involuntary defecation. ‘People … think music’s just for the ears, they forget it goes into every surface of the body, the pores, the cells, it affects the blood vessels,’ declared P-Orridge. The effects of volume, ultra-high and sub-bass frequencies and sheer repetition induced altered states in the band, too. P-Orridge recalled his whole body shaking and trembling; sometimes he’d reach the point where he was talking in tongues, a mere vessel for forces from ‘beyond’. TG also used lighting as a retinal barrage – convulsive strobes, high-power halogen lamps aimed into the audience’s faces. (p.235)
Flipper: The San Francisco band added a “frat-party riotousness” to punk’s audience confrontation, writes Reynolds, noting how at one gig their bassist, Bruce Loose, pelted the audience with three weeks’ worth of soiled nappies from his newborn son. He recalls: “The audience tended to throw them right back at the band. Steve got a dirty diaper in the face. The band thanked me a lot for that bright idea!” (p. 259)
Josef K: The Scottish post-punk band were defiantly anti-rockist, opposing laddishness or sexism, doing very little drugs, and being proud bibliophiles, mining Kafka, Camus and Dostoevsky for lyrics and inspiration. This puritanical approach meant that traditional rock approaches to live music and audience participation were thrown out the window: for example, encores were strictly banned on the grounds of being too patronising, recalls guitarist Malcom Ross:
‘The roadies would came on to pack up the guitars, but if you clapped loud enough the band would come on again. That was the kind of ritual that Postcard [the band’s label] wanted to change.’ [Vocalist Paul] Haig also refused to indulge the audience with banter or pleasantries. ‘Instead, Paul taped intros to the songs that we’d play over the PA,’ says Ross. ‘We were into all these Brechtian alienation techniques.’ Haig recalls being barely able to bring himself to utter the word ‘gig’ because it was too disgustingly rock ‘n’ roll: ‘I preferred to say “concert”, but you couldn’t really say that when you were playing just a wee venue.’ (p.352)
The Banshees: As Reynolds details in Chapter 22, the early 80s revival of Goth was significantly inspired by the elegance, decadence, and elitism of glam, while charging it with a certain punk negativity and angst. Mixing elitism and antagonism, this led to a distinct inequality between audience and artist:
The Banshees believed in maintaining an enigmatic distance from the audience – both offstage (‘That whole concept of The Clash letting their fans stay in their hotel rooms …’ chuckles Severin, ‘I mean, no! We’d let them stay out in the rain’) and in performance. ‘There’s something magical about a stage,’ muses Severin. ‘You think of all your favourite people, like The Doors, and you can’t imagine them being the blokes next door. The stage is their church. That’s what appealed about the intelligent side of glam – the fact that there was some kind of theatre going on, a drama was being presented.’ (p.427)
Stevo: The notorious producer to-be started out as a DJ with a taste for the avant-garde, and thereby a remarkably non-DJ attitude towards pleasing the crowd:
Raised in Suffolk, but often mistaken for a working-class east London boy, Stevo was a fan of all kinds of weird music. Dismissing punk as ‘just rock ‘n’ roll played badly … not that revolutionary’, he looked to more avant-garde or electronic outfits – TG, Cabaret Voltaire, The Residents, Chrome, Metaboliste. He started out as a DJ, playing exactly this kind of non-crowd-pleasing material. ‘I was more interested in terrorizing the dance floor. I used to go out just to fuck the audience’s heads,’ he says. (p.477)
Visionary (and egotistical) producers
Producers, and not just bands, emerge as central players in the post-punk milieu covered by Rip It Up. Reynolds often describes them as “Svengalis”, and for good reason: clearly high on a mixture of egotism, pop-cultural buzz and some kind of narcotics, the antics many of these producers got up to over the period Reynolds covers is genuinely shocking, and often deeply problematic. However, it does point to a sense of vision and purpose of notable individuals in the music industry that is refreshing, and clearly absent today (although it clearly gets directed towards some incredibly twisted ends).
Malcolm McLaren is the main character of this type who appears again and again throughout the book, originally as the Sex Pistols’ hype-obsessed, egomaniac manager. Like many of post-punks key players, McLaren was a product of various art schools, himself deeply attracted to the Situationist movement and a fan of, for instance, Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto. McLaren thrived on provocation, which naturally drew him to punk and the Pistols. After a fiery split from them (which eventually ended in McLaren losing all legal control and rights to the band), McLaren attempted to manage The Slits, seeing them as the female Pistols. This small episode gives just a telling glimpse into McLaren’s maniacal (and sexist) visions as a producer, as Reynolds recounts:
Legend has it his managerial come-on was: ‘I want to work with you because you’re girls and you play music. I hate music and I hate girls. I thrive on hate.’ But instead of thinking up outrageous ideas worthy of Solanas or Sid Vicious, McLaren’s masterplan was wildly sexist and degrading. After attacking the rock industry, he wanted to infiltrate the disco movement. At first, he tried to get The Slits to sign to the cheesy German disco label Hansa. Then, when Island moved to sign the band and invited McLaren to make a movie around them, he came up with a screenplay that envisioned The Slits as an all-girl rock band who go to Mexico only to find themselves effectively sold into slavery and ultimately turned into porno-disco stars. (p.81)
Down and out in 1979, having lost control of the Pistols, McLaren ended up soundtracking some softcore porn films, leading him to team up with a pair of French screenwriters to write a “softcore rock ‘n’ roll costume musical for kids”, which involved three fifteen year old girls and their sexual exploits with adults around Paris. When this unsurprisingly failed to find any backers, being outright paedophilic, McLaren ended up managing – or rather, controlling – a band called Bow Wow Wow. Again, the despicable paedophilic themes re-emerged: McLaren got a then 14 year old Anglo-Burmese girl, Annabella Lwin, to be the band’s singer, and then unsuccessfully tried to get the rest of the band – all adult men – to sleep with her. Like all McLaren’s bands, they were his project: Bow Wow Wow were to be McLaren’s rebellion against drab, sexless and puritanical post-punk (e.g. Gang of Four or Public Image Ltd.) by making overtly stylish, seductive, and ostentatious music. Rather than bemoan mass unemployment, McLaren was insistent on framing it as a liberation, rather than affliction, which was reflected in the Bow Wow Wow single “W.O.R.K (N.O Nah NO! NO! My Daddy Don’t)”. Indeed as Reynolds notes, McLaren’s advice to the unemployed was:
‘Be a pirate. Wear gold and look like you don’t need a job.’ Gold and sunshine were linked in his mind as un-English – the quintessence of spiritual extravagance. (p.310)
McLaren was obsessively forward-thinking, always looking for the next new trend to exploit. Indeed, some of his antics pre-figured the contemporary state of music consumption and production. McLaren, for instance, was interested in the notion of making music more disposable – something to pick up and put back down again (much like our current age of online streaming). The result was Bow Wow Wow’s debut mini-album, Your Cassette Pet – a cassette only album release at the cheap price of £1.99 in a flip-pack carton similar to a cigarette packet:
McLaren wanted music to become much more disposable, something kids casually picked up at their local cornershop as they breezed through on roller-skates – mere software to pop into their portable cassette players and boomboxes. Traditional record shops, already ailing because of falling sales, would disappear. (p.311)
Another Svengali manager/producer-type who stands out in Reynolds’ account is a character called simply Stevo, manager of Soft Cell and head of Some Bizarre Records. A larger-than-life character trying to turn the music industry inside out from a fringe space in-between alternative and mainstream, Stevo’s slogans were “use the industry before it uses you” and “conform to deform”. Stevo developed various systems for dealing with the big labels: he would sign avant-garde bands to Some Bizarre, financing the production of their albums, and then license it to bigger labels to make use of their distribution muscle. The result of this was a band as experimental as Psychic TV (another Genesis P-Orridge outfit) securing a contract with major label CBS. And this was all done with Stevo’s own eccentric flair:
Stevo used his larger-and-louder-than-life persona and surreal mind games to throw industry executives off-balance. He became notorious for his eccentric negotiation techniques. In one deal, he peremptorily summoned Maurice Oberstein, the supremo of CBS, to Trafalgar Square for the final contract signing; in another, he insisted the deluxe office chair used by WEA’s managing director be included as a bonus gift. When ‘wooing’ the major labels for a Psychic TV deal, he sent nine-inch brass dildo statuettes to all of the big companies, etched with the slogan ‘Psychic TV Fuck The Record Industry’. (p.480)
Poster for Made In Sheffield, a film on the Sheffield post-punk scene
Mooching off the Fordist state: Meatwhistle
While there’s no doubt Rip It Up is a remarkably energising, life-giving book, there’s also an inescapable and underlying sense of grief and mourning to it. Because, as Reynolds notes in the conclusion, the sheer energy and radicalism of the post-punk milieu had exhausted itself by 1985, and never seemed to properly return in itself. This is, no doubt, related to the drastic political and economic changes that occurred over the period from the mid-70s to the mid-80s in the form of the birth of neoliberalism via Thatcher and Reagan. Although Reynolds never makes this point explicitly, its clear that the pre-1979 political consensus gave far more affordances to artists and musicians and facilitated a far greater range and distribution of artistic experimentation and expression.
This fact often crops up in small moments at the margins of Rip It Up’s central story, almost in the form of off-hand remarks: for instance, at one point Reynolds discusses post-punk producer James Thirlwell and how he started his own label Self Immolation using the sick pay from his day job at a Virgin Megastore which he saved while in hospital after his lung collapsed. Now consider if such a situation had happened today: that job at the record store most likely wouldn’t have existed, the sick pay at the other job would’ve been far less generous, and the result would have been, of course, less chance to experiment and set up your own label.
There is one example that makes this particularly acute, explored by Reynolds in Chapter 9, which covers the Sheffield post-punk scene: Meatwhistle. Meatwhistle was a local youth theatre project founded in 1972 and funded by the city council, who gave the organisers, bohemian playwright/actor Chris Wilkinson and his wife Veronica, an entire disused grammar school to play with. Subsequently, Meatwhistle became a local experimental performance space for artistically-minded teenagers, and helped give rise to a number of future post-punk greats, The Human League and Heaven 17 amongst them. Ian Craig Marsh, a founding member of The Human League, recalls the sheer openness and creativity of the space:
‘From ‘72 onwards, Meatwhistle got a lot more experimental and creative, as all the disaffected juveniles in Sheffield started congregating there,’ says Marsh. ‘Bands were rehearsing at Meatwhistle because there were loads of spare rooms. Generally speaking, everyone was free to do what the fuck they wanted. If the council had kept a close eye on the place, seen some of the stuff going on – like people smoking dope – it’d have been shut down instantly.’ There was a strong element of everybody colluding, says Marsh, to pull the wool over the authorities’ eyes, get away with as much as possible. […]
Each Sunday, the Meatwhistle crew put on a show. ‘Everyone who wanted to get up and do a half-hour slot would get the chance, whether it was a band or a comedy sketch or a play,’ recalls Marsh. ‘There’d be a big meal which everyone would cook together. There was that communal vibe – sort of semi-hippy but with an edge.’ (p.153)
Again, reading this, one is struck by awe and inspiration – the communal, creative vibe basically bleeds off the pages – but also grief: what local council in Britain would do this now? Even ostensibly radical Labour councils run by Momentum-aligned politicians, such as Lewisham or Southwark, are awful nowadays, openly engaging in social cleansing and gentrification, comfortably in the pocket of property develops and actively closing down any Meatwhistle-esque space that may appear (I am thinking here of the Old Tidemill Garden in Deptford, for one).
Rip It Up’s joys and potentialities therefore open onto, and logically result in, a field of political action. Reviving punk for the current age means not simply taking up a radical aesthetics of confronting audiences but also a radical politics, an engagement and confrontation with capital, the state and their arms. Punk is a politics, not just an aesthetic. The two are immediately implicated in one another, immanent in one another.
*Throughout this post I’m referring to the 2019 “Faber Social” reprint, not the 2005 original pressing.