Perfect Sound Forever

Simon Reynolds

interview by Wilson Neate
Part 1 of 2
(February 2006)

Simon Reynolds is among the most engaging and astute British music writers to emerge over the last two decades. His work has been an object lesson in taking popular music seriously, in how to write intelligently about something so intimately linked with visceral enjoyment. Whether he's dealing with Ghost Box, grime or Gang of Four, Reynolds always captures the immediacy of the sonic experience and communicates the pleasures of the musical text. At the same time, his wide-ranging work has often theorized that experience accessibly, contextualizing it as a site of intersecting historical forces (such as race, class, gender and sexuality). Few other contemporary music critics combine these two apparently divergent approaches in such a seamless, readable or illuminating fashion.

Reynolds first started writing about music in the Oxford-based pop journal, Monitor, which he co-founded in 1984. In 1986, he joined the late Melody Maker, one of the Big Three British inkies (along with the New Musical Express and Sounds). His first book, Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock (Serpent's Tail, 1990), compiled articles and interviews written during his time at Melody Maker.

Reynolds went freelance in 1990. Since then, his work has appeared in newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic (The New York Times, The Village Voice, Spin, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, The Observer, Artforum, The Wire, Mojo, Uncut, among others) and he has published three more books. Written with Joy Press, The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock 'n' Roll (Harvard University Press, 1995/Serpent's Tail, 1995) provided a psychoanalytical reading of notions of masculinity and femininity in rock, from the Rolling Stones to riot grrrl. Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture (Little, Brown, 1998) -- published in the UK as Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture (Picador, 1998) -- offered a landmark account of the rave scene and the rhizomatic realm of electronic dance musics.

Reynolds' latest publication, Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984 (Viking Penguin, 2006) -- the first book-length account of post-punk -- maps the continuities and discontinuities among the movement's sounds and sites, from Sheffield to Manchester to New York to San Francisco and beyond. Reviewing Rip It Up for The Guardian, Andrew Mueller said: "Anyone who claims to have read five better books about pop is mad, or a liar."

PSF: Do you think you could have written Rip It Up and Start Again ten years ago?

SIMON REYNOLDS: I've been giving various accounts of how I came to write the book -- and they're all true -- but the other day I came across something on an old disk I was going through, looking for old stories of mine. I found a proposal I had for a book from around 1991 or 1992 and it wasn't the same as the post-punk book but, in a way, it included the post-punk book. It was a book about all the different ideas of punk and how punk spread in all these different directions. There would have been goth, there would have been post-punk, anarcho-punk, Oi!, people like the KLF and the schemer bands, Malcolm McLaren, Sigue Sigue Sputnik and so on. So it would have been a bigger time span. I think it would have gone up to and included grunge. The idea was the "punk diaspora," but a big chunk of it was post-punk and that was one of the reasons I was interested in it. But ultimately I ended up doing a different book. I guess I came up with a bunch of proposals at the same time.

Around the time I first started writing, I used to do a fanzine called Monitor and in the last issue of it, I wrote an article about punk. It was 1986 and it was the anniversary of punk. It was ten years on and I was looking at where we were now, what had happened to all that energy. I wrote a piece about how punk was far from being something that had left and was nowhere to be found; its traces were everywhere and a huge amount of stuff going on in Britain at that time was shaped by some idea of punk -- whether it was goth, or even the Pogues, a lot of things had some relation to punk. The piece was basically saying, far from being something that's gone away and that we should mourn, punk's something that's oppressing us and that we need to break free from as a self-perpetuating thing.

So this idea of the punk diaspora, all these different interpretations of punk, is something that's been on my mind for a while but the specific focus on post-punk came about towards the end of the '90's. I started listening to those records again and thinking what an interesting time it was. I had been so involved in the dance music thing and the rave culture but then it got very uninteresting and lost all its edge. I started feeling kind of adrift -- wondering how I got there, how I ended up in this dance culture. It got very safe. It was all about clubs and quite pleasant-sounding house music and I was trying to work out, where did I first get the idea that dance music could be dangerous?

I thought of post-punk because a lot of the ideas around post-punk were punk-funk, avant-funk or dance music with a darkness to it, and, in fact, when acid house first came along it reminded me a lot of Cabaret Voltaire, DAF and all those sort of groups. There were certain tracks that even reminded me of specific songs by PiL. So it's that sort of idea of dance music as being more than just fun, having some kind of edge to it; that really goes back to the post-punk days. I'd been through the whole rave thing and that was very exciting and I followed the logic of it through to where I was just going to clubs that weren't really very edgy and the music was very "nice," just pleasant textures, and I began to wonder -- how did I get here?

Also, around the same time a lot of people were bored with the same stuff and that was when you had the first people coming through referring back to post-punk. Andy Weatherall did a very early compilation of mid-'80's post-punk/industrial dance stuff -- it was called Nine O'Clock Drop. He was one of the very first people. He's probably the same age as me. He was probably someone who had been into post-punk music and then got into dance music through the Hacienda, working with Primal Scream, having one foot in rock and one foot in dance. And I think for him and me and other people I know, we started thinking back to when dance music seemed edgy and subversive -- more than just for blowing off steam on a Saturday night.

PSF: One of your reasons for writing Rip It Up had to do with reassessing whether it had been worth devoting all this time and energy to music and "taking music seriously." What made you want to write about music originally, as opposed to, say, literature or film?

SR: At the time, obviously, music was the most potent area of culture. I mean, you're talking about punk rock. This is the sort of thing that gives you an over-estimation of the power of music that will never leave you. There are still people out there who do web sites. There's this blog called greengalloway -- he's a guy who was involved in the anarcho-punk scene. For the last month he's been scanning in all these old fanzines from that time. He must be older than me and he's trying to work through all these things that meant so much to him, trying to interpret what it meant and what was going on. At that time, rock music was obviously the burning-hot center of anything exciting in culture and so that's what I wanted to write about.

Also, there are ways of explaining it and rationalizing it. For example, it's a very democratic art form compared with film. With music, it's much easier to have an impact with less resources. Even now, there are still people who make records that have an impact just with a few hundred or a few thousand dollars' outlay on equipment. They can make a record that will be a hit or get them discovered or take them to some place. So there's that democratic aspect. I enjoy film, literature and the other arts, but there's something about music... At that particular time in history, it was really meshed with a whole load of other things. It was still coming out of the '60's, when music was a prism through which everything was seen. It meshed with everything. It connected to politics, it connected to all the other arts and artists wanted a piece of it, whether it was Yoko Ono or whoever.

Music was the place to be, it was the thing that gave a bit extra to whatever you were doing and you wanted to have some connection to it. I think that was still the case when I was growing up. Music was definitely both the center of everything and what took you to other things and connected you to other things. For instance, there were certain kinds of authors; I mean, you couldn't say J.G. Ballard was a rock 'n' roll author but he had this particular connection with music. I was actually into Ballard before I got into music. I was really into science fiction. That's an obvious connection -- or Burroughs and music. But, to me, music was the only thing really worth being excited about.

PSF: It seems that a lot of British music writers eventually go on to write about other things.

SR: Some of them do. I think in the British music press, there's a feeling that you were supposed to do it for a few years and then move on, or you were considered a bit sad if you were still writing about it when you got older -- whereas in the United States, I don't think there's quite the same stigma. Certainly someone like Julie Burchill would have been very pleased with the fact that she'd left the NME within a few years and went on to write about "proper" stuff. It's weird, even though I've just said that music was so important and celebrated, it also had a sort of lower status in another way, which I suppose is also part of its appeal -- not being quite recuperated by high culture. The South Bank Show would do a show maybe three times a year on Talking Heads, or someone like that who they considered worthy, but the bulk of rock music is also somehow renegade; it's almost like its own parallel system of culture. It wasn't so much that it was infiltrating and being accepted as high culture -- it had its own hierarchies within it. It's like a whole alternate universe of culture.

Another appeal of music, I suppose -- and this wasn't my motivation -- is that you could excel at being a rock critic fairly easily. I mean, there's a lot of great rock writing but as a field in which to make your name, it's probably easier to break into than film criticism or literary criticism.

PSF: What are the main differences between writing about music when you started in the mid-'80's and now, two decades on?

SR: The main thing is the amount of space you have has shrunk a lot. It hasn't affected me too much, although I do have to contend with shrinking spaces -- but I mean for young people just starting out. When I started out there was this great thing of the weekly music papers. There were three of them and each one had a lot of space. They had to fill up the gig section, so almost anyone who was half-decent could get a break, because the people who were established writers there, the staffers, wouldn't want to go off to some godforsaken gig in Harlesden. So that's where the younger writers got their break, by going off to these gigs and reviewing horrible bands. It seems like it's probably harder now to break into.

It's hard for me to say now because I'm in a different position from where I started, I'm at a different place in my career. Because I was on a music paper, I felt more part of a conversation than I do now and it was often an antagonistic conversation. I was fighting with people on my paper and also with people on other papers and it was on a week-by-week basis. So now, even though there are all the blogs and everything, I feel a bit more disconnected. There's a lot of interesting writing but it's scattered across this huge spread of stuff and it's quite hard to convene a conversation. It also seems like journalism's gotten a lot more consumer-oriented: it's more about whether something's worth buying. The music's seen as units of usefulness and pleasure rather than units of meaning or units of connection to a bigger formation of something. I get the sense that younger people have a more use-oriented view of music: it's something they're going to use and dispose of. But that may just be prejudice.

PSF: Your work has often shown a strong interest in critical theory. What does bringing theory to your writing enable you to do?

SR: Well, this book's probably the least theoretical one I've done. When I started writing it, partly I started getting a bit bored with theory and I hadn't really been keeping up with the latest developments, I must admit. I'm not even sure if there have been any. The sense I get is that there was this golden age of critical theory in the '80's and it was maybe still going on in the early '90's but it's kind of dipped down a bit. There are still a few people like Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek and these figures, but certainly the people I was into -- Julia Kristeva's got this trail of less and less alluring seeming books. It's the same with all of them really. A lot of the people that I was excited by originally have dropped off my radar a bit. But also, with this book, I was thinking that there never seemed to be a moment where using an idea from Deleuze and Guattari would particularly illuminate what I was writing about with post-punk. The only time theory really came up was when I was referring to the theory the musicians were influenced by, whether it was Gramsci or the Situationists: mostly the Marxist thinkers. With Green [Gartside] and Scritti Politti, there was the stuff to do with Derrida but I was only explaining how that influenced what he did, rather than using it as an analytical tool for the music. It just never came up. I'd say that in some ways I've almost got that out of my system.

I think a lot of the time in the past I used to use theory to bolster what I could have just said in my own words. It was almost like a rubber stamp, getting some authority to rubber stamp what I was saying. There are a few examples where I think certain ideas from Deleuze and Guattari were really useful in understanding rave culture and how it works, and there are certain other psychoanalytical theories that are useful with regard to understanding how rock works and what's going in rock (the economy of desire, repulsion and so forth). But in this book, it just didn't seem to be that useful. In some ways, the best theorists about music are people like Eno or critics like Joe Carducci, a great theorist of rock. People like that are still useful to me. When I was writing about 2-Tone, Dick Hebdige's work on subculture seemed useful to a degree but with Rip It Up I feel like I've got theory out of my system in a way. I'm not sure if I'll go back to it.

In my general writing, I suppose I've come back to Marxist concepts quite a bit. It doesn't really apply so much in Rip It Up but when I write about hip-hop or things like that, it seems that those are really useful concepts to understand: commodity fetishism, false consciousness and concepts like that, which have probably been problematized by other people but they seem very applicable to hip-hop.

PSF: Another reason you give for writing Rip It Up is that post-punk has been neglected by popular narratives of rock history. Why do you think that is?

SR: It's too diffuse, too rich in a way, too varied. It doesn't have the simple shock impact of punk and punk's imagery -- the Queen with a safety pin through her nose, Johnny Rotten's face -- or the obvious political impact it had, with "God Save the Queen" being banned, the Pistols on the Bill Grundy show and so on. There aren't so many examples of that with post-punk. It's less neglected now; it's had a lot of attention. In the bloggy world and the world of music criticism, webzines and among people who are hardcore rock critics and music fans and hipsters who go to Other Music (NYC record store), it's obvious that post-punk is a very known thing. But in a lot of the reviews, the book got in more general places, there was still this kind of "Oh, I'd never thought anyone would ever write about this and I didn't even really know this was a this; I didn't even know it was a thing."

PSF: You've mentioned elsewhere that even some of the artists you interviewed for the book weren't immediately clear as to what you meant by post-punk.

SR: Yes, which is weird because post-punk was a totally common term at the time. It was being used from 1978 onwards as a gesture of something. But I did a piece for eMusic on post-punk -- an intro explaining what it was, along with ten post-punk classics that you can download. I said, it's not really a genre, it's more a field of possibility. It's like an open space and all these different genres came out of it: industrial, goth, all these things. Punk had this relatively defined musical sound and an attitude and a philosophy. It had a history and certain events that happened and deaths and all that kind of stuff. And that's why there have been hundreds of books on punk and this is the first one on post-punk.

So, going into it, I did feel like it had been neglected and in some ways I had to rhetorically "do down" punk a bit in order to elevate post-punk. I'm a fan of punk up to a point. There are a lot of great punk records that I love but I did feel that I had to push it down a little and raise post-punk up a bit. The other thing with post-punk is that it's harder to define; I chose 1984 as the cut-off point but you could say it goes on and on and is still with us. I mean, people like Depeche Mode are still around and Nine Inch Nails could be seen as a post-punk band in some ways.

PSF: In Rip It Up, you mention how, when you got into post-punk, you never listened to older music. Thinking of the Pop Group, some of the No Wave bands, Throbbing Gristle and PiL's Metal Box, for example, this stuff was quite challenging for kids who hadn't heard more complex rock music that preceded it. How did you know how to listen to and enjoy it?

SR: There are certain groups from that time that I didn't listen to or that I never came across that I probably would have found a tough listen, like Throbbing Gristle maybe. I don't think I ever heard any of their stuff, somehow, because I don't think John Peel used to play it. It's weird, though, because the Scritti Politti stuff has got odd time signatures and the melodies are fragmented, but there's still this pretty, melodic sensibility in there that comes out and there's a plaintiveness to it. I didn't find too much difficulty with Scritti.

PiL was like a big stumbling block for a lot of people but also it was Johnny so you made that effort. For instance, I only recently realized that the side with "Theme" on is the first side of the record. I always thought the album was easier to listen to because I always played the second side. "Theme" is this incredible atonal dirge and it was a real statement for them to make it the first track of the album. I'm not sure where I got the idea that the sides were the other way around. I must have just happily started on the second side, which is much easier to get into. But it was Johnny Rotten so you made a bit of extra effort. But I think the Slits are pretty engaging fairly instantly and Gang of Four are quite stern in some ways but there's a real rhythm thing going there and it's catchy in its own kind of way. The Pop Group stuff was quite hard. It was quite free. I wasn't that huge a fan of the Pop Group at that time. I think I only had that single, "In the Beginning There Was Rhythm," with the Slits on one side and the Pop Group on the other side with "Where There's a Will."

There was a challenging side to post-punk. Some of it could be willfully difficult, willfully strange and a bit too dour but I didn't have much of a problem with the best of it. I really enjoyed it. It wasn't an effort for me to listen to it. It wasn't a pose. This is the stuff I was really into. I would listen to Metal Box over and over. I took it into school once. We had a day when people brought in their favorite records to play for the music teacher. I tried to explain why I thought it was important. I was just recycling what I'd read in the music press -- "well it's very influenced by reggae and it's very influenced by funk" -- and then I asked the teacher whether he thought it was any good or not and he said he'd have to listen to it some more. He was a classical music teacher who believed that pop music had some things going for it but he would always bring up "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" by the Beatles and say, "That's not good. 'Do It in the Road'? I'm not into that nonsense!" Other songs, though, like "Yesterday" -- he probably thought that was a good song. Another boy brought in Bob Marley but he didn't have any explanation for why he thought it was good. It was just, "Here's another song; here's another one; and this is also good; and this is another Bob Marley song."

Of the bands that were my absolute core bands at that time, the only one I could see why people would find it difficult, because the singing is quite weird, is PiL. The Slits are exuberant, very catchy and tuneful. Talking Heads, I think, is just beautiful music. And so many brilliant musical, musicianly touches. Gang of Four, Slits, PiL, Talking Heads and then Joy Division, and maybe the Fall, were the core bands I was into, partly because I didn't have very much money. Another band I was listening to was the Stranglers, who don't really count as post-punk for some reason. I had them on tape. And Ian Dury. I was massively into Ian Dury. In some ways that was my preparation for the idea of funk: disco as being interesting and cool, because the Blockheads were really shit-hot musicians.

See part 2 of our Simon Reynolds interview

Also see Simon's tour of post-punk roots

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER