I just finished reading Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984. Books about music often leave me cold. As someone once said ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,’ or something like that (the quote’s been attributed to John Lennon, Elvis Costello and Frank Zappa, to my knowledge – anyone know the true source?)
Rip it Up is an exception. The book covers the immediate years after ‘punk rock’ had revolutionised the music scene. What happened next, between the years 1978 to 1984, is described by Reynolds in his introduction as:
‘…a distinct pop cultural epoch that rivals those fabled years between 1963 and 1967 commonly known as 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 the times.’
The book then goes on to celebrate the glittering shards of extraordinary creativity that exploded out of the punk revolution, through a dizzying array of genres, sub-genres and maverick approaches to the creativity and business of pop and rock music.
Reynolds traces the lines that connect such diverse acts as the spacious avant-garde dub style of Public Image Ltd, the shocking performance art meance of Throbbing Gristle, the lushly orchestrated mainstream pop of ABC, the gothic ponderousness of Joy Division and the edgy neo-funk of Gang of Four, to name just a few of the incredibly diverse musical styles described within these pages. That they all share a common source in the punk rock revolution is testament to the impact of this remarkable period in music history.
The aftermath of punk
What struck me most is how each of these very different acts took the spirit of punk (the anti-establishment stance, the do it yourself ethos, the ‘anti-rock’ aesthetic) and did something completely new with it.
Above all the imperative to push forward into new musical and cultural terrain was punk’s greatest legacy. I was just becoming aware of pop music myself during this period, and remember the spirit of the time vividly. The idea of ‘looking forward’ was taken for granted in the postpunk era. It’s something that has definitely been lost since, as Reynolds convincingly argues:
‘…the reason why the main body of this book concludes in 1984 is that independent culture’s shift from futurism to retro really hardened decisively in that year. The desire to “rip it up and start again” that had driven first post-punk and then New Pop still existed. But for the first time that impulse took the form of looking to the past.’
I’d always blamed the ’90s for that shift, when bands like Oasis, Blur and the whole Britpop movement very consciously styled themselves on ’60s and ’70s looks and sounds, but Reynolds perceptively sees the shift happening with bands like The Smiths, R.E.M. and the Jesus and Mary Chain in the mid-’80s. (And you could even make a case that the seeds of this were sown by the ’60s revivalism of the likes of the Specials and the Jam during the postpunk period.)
Postpunk Spotify playlists
The period covered by the book is so richly diverse that it was impossible for anyone but a music journalist at the time to indulge in more than a fraction of the postpunk music scene.
Now, though, we have Spotify, which I found myself constantly referring to whilst reading the book. I therefore created a couple of playlists to cover all the music discussed, which I’ve organised to correspond to the two main parts of the book:
You can link to them above, or play them from the embedded playlists at the bottom of this post.
I’ve listed the albums and tracks in the order that they appear in the book, to make it easier for the reader to synchronise their listening.
There are a few albums and songs I couldn’t find on Spotify (e.g. no early Pere Ubu, no This Heat, no Odyshape by the Raincoats, no relevant Throbbing Gristle or Psychic TV). Where possible I’ve included some representative track or tracks from later periods that give a flavour of the acts.
You will find some greyed out tracks – these belong to my personal collection and can’t be uploaded to Spotify unless you own them, so you’ll have to download them from iTunes or buy the CDs if you want to hear those.
I have to confess to taking one liberty in compiling these playlists. The one thing I felt missing from the book (and this is a personal thing) was the scant attention given to the Jam.
For some reason Reynolds only affords the Jam the briefest of mentions, and only credits one song of theirs (Start).
Now the Jam was ‘my band’ in the years this book covers, especially from 1978 to 1982, when I bought every vinyl release of theirs, saw them play live and followed every move they made. I was a Jam fanboy.
I feel sure, then, that they should qualify for more space in this book, as they came right out of the punk movement and were one of the most successful bands of those years in terms of commercial and critical acclaim. I’ve therefore taken the liberty of ‘correcting’ this by including the Setting Sons and Sound Affects albums in the playlist – I hope Simon Reynolds will forgive me.
Please let me know if you have any suggestions for improving these playlists and I’ll amend them accordingly.
Anyway, if you’re at all interested in popular music I urge you to read this book, and I hope you’ll find that the accompanying playlists enhance your enjoyment.