Perfect Sound Forever

Simon Reynolds

Joy Press and SR

interview by Wilson Neate
Part 2 of 2

PSF: Life was remarkably grim and boring in late-'70's Britain. Do you think there's a sort of inverse relationship: there was an immense rush of post-punk creativity to fill that void, compared with today, when there's an overload of entertainment and information and music isn't perhaps quite as vital?

SR: I think there are definitely a lot of entertainment options now, whereas there were so few back then and you had to make your own entertainment and excitement all the time. You would just grab onto these things. It wasn't just me, I've spoken to lots of people, like the guys in Orange Juice, for instance. They were just obsessed with the music press. The music papers would arrive on a Wednesday, probably a Thursday in Scotland, a Wednesday where I lived, and they'd just read them from cover to cover. It was like a little kind of capsule of some world where all the excitement and all the ideas were. And then there was John Peel beaming this stuff out to you and every so often, there would be a gig. I would have to go to Aylesbury, which was the nearest place I could see a gig. There was very little on TV. There were only three channels, I think, and a little bit of pop music now and then. You were starved for the music and you were just starved generally for stimulus. So I would get it all from books and the music press and I listened the radio. Those were my lifelines.

It seems that there are a lot of entertainment options now and also you can listen to the music from the past very easily, so I feel you can get by today with yesterday's excitement. It seems like cheating somehow -- to be all buzzed up on post-punk or it could be the Incredible String Band, because all these folky bands are into that stuff, aren't they? You can be all buzzed up on this stuff that's from another time but it's cheating. Between me and my friends, we had tapes of the Beatles and the Stones and so on, but we didn't use it that way. It was also more recent then. But yes, it does seem that there's an advantage to cultural scarcity, in a sense. It makes people hungry, it makes them more inclined to make their own excitement.

PSF: Rip It Up emphasizes post-punk's resistant quality. You underscore how unique that period was in British culture and how Thatcherism was, ironically, beneficial for the arts in Britain. It's hard to imagine this happening again. Is oppositionality still possible, beyond simplistic protest singing?

SR: It's so hard to say. As much as I say there was all this oppositional energy in music then, it all ultimately failed. It didn't change anything and it didn't last, so maybe the folk memory of the failures is part of what disinclines people from doing it now. I think that you do get people who try and register dissent in music: Godspeed You! Black Emperor tried a bit and even Radio 4 tried. I saw Radio 4 support Gang of Four and they did this political stuff and it came across as kind of crass and ineffectual. But then the Gang of Four songs, with these lyrics that are really old, still seemed really incisive. It was as if they were describing current realities when they were singing "Natural's Not in It" -- "coercion of the senses" and so on. It just seemed to fit with modern mass media and modern advertising better somehow. But it doesn't seem that there's anyone around now who's developed a knack for it. People are too smart maybe, too knowing maybe.

There was a little thing in New York last year that was kind of touching called Downtown for Democracy. I think it's still going. They had a whole bunch of little events and there were all these avant-garde people who normally wouldn't bother much with politics and they were just so fed up and upset by what was going on in this country that they organized some events. James Chance played. Excepter played and it was really funny. They did what they'd normally do -- which is total abstract noise -- and this girl singer was dressed all in white and she was rolling on the floor, she had these white jeans and this white top that were getting all dirty, and she was screaming, totally abstract, no words. But one of the band's followers or hangers-on was just standing through the whole performance with a placard saying "THIS IS PROTEST MUSIC." And there was something really touching about it but it was just so, not ineffectual, but just marginalized somehow. It was more just to raise a bit of money and they were going to send people out to Ohio to get the vote out.

But as much as I find the post-punk period so inspiring, I do sometimes wonder if it was all just a delusion or a waste of energy. Maybe they should have just got involved in politics more. Some of them were, of course: Scritti Politti were members of the Communist Party and they were always putting on bands and benefits and stuff like that. All those bands did lots of benefits. I remember thinking at the time, if Gang of Four got on Top of the Pops and did one of their songs, it would really make a difference and people's minds would be changed. But it's hard to explain it, it's weird to try to recover that mindset when you actually thought that songs made a difference. As time went on, though, it was something that seemed less and less plausible. By the time of Billy Bragg, some people of my generation would still say, "Great! The Protest Singer -- shouting down power!" And then people like me would think, well, this is just like preaching to the converted and it's pointless.

For a long time, I was one of those people who thought, oh, there's no point in doing a protest song. There's always a dilemma. There's something like Robert Wyatt's "Shipbuilding" and that's one way of doing it. That's a very clever song but possibly too subtle. Or you do it the other way, the Tom Robinson way or the Billy Bragg way -- I'm probably being a bit mean to Billy Bragg. His songs are probably relatively subtle. He's not like a crass protest singer, his songs are quite smart. But it is that model of a Phil Ochs sort of thing.

I still don't know what I believe about protest songs, whether they work or not. There are certain songs that are so powerful that you just think, how could anyone hear them and not be changed by them? And it's not even the obvious ones: I often bring up UB40's "The Earth Dies Screaming." But maybe everyone who heard it and really listened to it was already anti-nuclear anyway. It's hard to say whether people are ever changed by music or whether they just look for what reflects where they're already at.

PSF: A striking aspect of Rip It Up is your knack for writing about music you're hyper-familiar with and yet evoking it in such fresh ways. Was it hard to go back to something you were so passionate about and deeply immersed in and to come at it anew?

SR: I didn't really have that problem. The main problem was that some of this music was so special to me that I felt I wasn't conveying what was so good about it. I felt that I had to come up with something that really captures what's great about it and, a lot of the time, I'm not sure that I did. I mean, I tried as best I could. Actually, it relates to this whole thing we were talking about before with Scritti Politti -- a lot of what's good about them has nothing to do with Green's theories, or politics, or anything like that. In a weird way, what's great about Green is what's great about Paul McCartney, or any great melodist. And that's something that's impossible to talk about, or at least very hard to talk about. In some ways I had the same problems that I always have writing about music. There are various ruses you can employ: you can do imagistic stuff, instead of just using adjectives you can try to personify the music, so the music does something or it's an action or it's a machine -- something that isn't just a string of adjectives. I think in this book, I did less of that than I've done in any other book, less purely musical description, because there was so much other stuff to deal with, so many other parameters. But I'm glad you said I managed to convey some of what it sounds like.

I'm not sure there was anything uniquely difficult about post-punk as regards the descriptive process. All music is equally hard to write about, really, if you think about it. In some ways, maybe in post-punk, with there being all these other things to write about, it let me off the hook a bit. There was just less space to write about the materiality of the music. Certain bands, though, I felt really intimidated to write about -- like Joy Division. They're an important band to me (although they're not as high up as they are for a lot of people) but the intimidation in that respect was "how do you write about a band that's been written about so brilliantly by other people and yet there's still this irreducible mystery about them?" There's this thing at the core of Joy Division that even the very best writers have never really tapped. So I felt a little nervous writing about them. And the Fall too, in a way. The Fall are kind of a mysterious band. So there wasn't too much of a problem of being over-familiar with the music. It was more that I was worrying that I wasn't doing justice to it.

PSF: When you went back and listened to the music you cover in the book, did any of it seem less compelling than you had remembered it? Was there anything that actually sounded better?

SR: Most of the stuff that I thought was really great originally still sounded really good. I don't think there was anything that I suddenly thought was rubbish. There were quite a lot of groups that I wasn't a particular fan of, but that I really grew to like a lot and respect. Depeche Mode was one band that I thought was really good. Throbbing Gristle was a band I had never really listened to at the time and I did grow to like them quite a bit. Cabaret Voltaire, I got really deeply into. I wanted to have everything by them. Every little solo offshoot. Richard H. Kirk's solo albums. Stephen Mallinder's solo album. All these demo tapes they had. Theirs is such an original sound, so strange. There really was nothing like it beforehand. But I don't think there was anything I suddenly thought, oh, this was rubbish -- or certainly nothing that I had respected before.

PSF: In Rip It Up you debunk some of the grand narratives of punk -- particularly the notion that what came before '76/'77 was crap. One way you do that is to situate post-punk as part of the continuum of '70's art-rock. Could you talk a little about post-punk's relationship to the art-rock tradition in Britain?

SR: There was this whole music culture before punk, especially in Britain, that had a bunch of things that parallel it with post-punk. One was that it had this peculiar Englishness but also, contradicting Englishness, or running in an interesting mesh with it, was the idea that it was steeped in black music. An obvious example would be Robert Wyatt. He was totally into jazz, Thelonious Monk, Roland Kirk, all these people, to the point where he says he doesn't really have anything to do with rock and he's never made a rock song in his life. So he's totally projecting towards black American music of a particular kind, but he's incredibly English: there's his English humor, his whimsy and his singing. I think that somewhere I call it "true English soul." It's the closest there's ever been to an English soul voice -- not like, say, Paul Young, not someone trying to sound black -- someone soulful, but English.

So I think there was that pre-punk culture of bands like Soft Machine. The whole Canterbury scene, I think, is a kind of precursor to some of post-punk, and it also has direct links to a group like This Heat. Charles Hayward from This Heat was part of Quiet Sun, which was Phil Manzanera's band, and I think he played in several other groups at that time.

So there's this sort of avant-rock sound before punk -- with unusual time signatures, a bit willfully difficult but with whimsy added as well. And the thing that links it all is John Peel, really. That was what he played before punk, and that's what he went back to after punk in a lot of ways: willfully eccentric groups like (And the) Native Hipsters, Family Fodder, all those English eccentrics. There's also the political thing. Green was really into the Canterbury stuff like Hatfield and the North but he was also into Henry Cow, who were very political and quite didactic. I guess that before punk there was all this kind of stuff that was coming out of rock but trying to push beyond rock and there was the same impulse in post-punk. Also important is the Eno end of things. Eno was such an important figure before punk and then, during punk, his star definitely declined a bit but then he creeps back in post-punk and becomes a central figure again. That seems interesting. But there are very important differences as well. Pre-punk, it was a lot more laid back and non-militant, a bit willfully lackadaisical and stoned, that kind of stuff.

Let me bring up the black music thing again. Post-punk is all about this play between Englishness, well maybe not Englishness but British bohemia, and the black musics that were the kind of source musics: reggae, a bit of jazz and funk, for instance. That seems like an interesting parallel between what was going on before punk and what was going on after punk. And then, in the middle, you have punk, which is very non-black, very anti-fusion, anti-dance.

PSF: Do you think it's possible to use class as one of the ways of characterizing the difference between punk and post-punk?

SR: I think punk rock itself was not so much of a working-class movement as everyone has made out. I always go on about this liminal class in Britain, this lower-middle class/upper-working class zone. That area is where a lot of music energy comes from. Maybe it's something about the precariousness of that zone that gives people their impetus or their drive to escape mediocrity. I don't know exactly what Siouxsie Sioux's class background was but she was from Chislehurst and she doesn't seem like she's from a proletarian background. You listen to her voice and she seems like she's from this petit bourgeois suburban background. Glen Matlock was middle class. A lot of people in the heart of punk were pretty middle class.

I guess post-punk gets more student-y, more squatland. I think that, by all accounts, punk seems to have been an alliance across the classes and then it restratified a bit. In the book I talk about punk rock being a fragile unity or a fragile coalition of working class and middle class, and then it starts to separate again. Obviously, though, it's not clear-cut. Someone like Mark Perry, I think, is from a working-class background, although he was a bank clerk; he wasn't a laborer or anything like that. He was a skilled clerical worker. But he went from being pure punk rock-ish to being really experimental. And before punk rock, he was into Zappa and really arty rock -- rock at its most pretentious. A paradigmatic example is John Lydon with his Third Ear Band and Peter Hammill records. Some people have said that prog rock had a big working-class following in Britain, supposedly in places like Liverpool. I think the idea that prog rock was just the gentrification of rock is mistaken.

PSF: A striking aspect of the post-punk era was the development of the music press as what you've called an "autonomous cultural zone" and the emergence of writers who were almost as important as the music itself. Of that generation, who captured your imagination?

SR: The first one of all was Julie Burchill in the NME because her writing was so vehement, quite vitriolic and aggressive and so confident and sweeping in its judgments. That excited me. One of the reasons it was an autonomous zone, in more structural terms, was that a lot of the writers, the precursors of the people I was into, were all recruited from the '60's underground press. It was literally like an autonomous cultural zone: they were imported into this more mainstream magazine culture where they could make a living, just through benign neglect by IPC and whoever owned Sounds then. They could still keep doing a bit of this underground press thing within this big company. And then the people came along who weren't out of the '60s underground press, but they read the writers who were, so that was their starting point.

After Burchill, it would have been Paul Morley and Ian Penman, the most striking stylists. I didn't appreciate them so much at the time because I wasn't familiar with the previous era of the NME but they were reacting against the underground press-era guys like Charles Shaar Murray and Nick Kent. Those guys were still very much of the '60's and the idea of "revolution"; they were still very much making sly little references to smoking pot in their articles, a nudge-nudge wink-wink sort of thing. It was still that kind of '60's groovy, sex & drugs & rock & roll mindset and the newer writers were reacting against that. There was a more puritanical worldview that was more exciting, or more modern: more cold and pure and appropriate to post-punk music. And then there was Dave McCullough in Sounds and Barney Hoskyns, who was a really good writer. He was rebelling against the Morley thing. He had his whole kind of rock-romantic approach. He was a bit like Nick Kent reincarnated, with post-structuralist theory among his arsenal of weapons.

It was all very intoxicating. On a week-by-week basis, you could follow it and they'd be fighting amongst each other, dissing each other and taking each other's ideas and running with them. So, in a way, it spoiled me for life because I thought that was what rock writing would be like and I always wanted to be in the heart of something like that. There have been a few times when I have felt like that. When I was on the Melody Maker, it was a bit like that and then also in the early days of the blogs -- people would be picking up others' ideas or having little wars. I always thought I would be in a context where there was that combative edge. That was what I liked and I always assumed that, in that sort of environment, the combativeness would be understood as a form of, not amiability, but respect. You fight with someone, you argue with someone, de facto you respect them, because you're bothered enough to get worked up by what they've said.

So that's what I'm always chasing: that feeling of being in the heart of a very argumentative culture and also the sense that argument is actually worth something, that something might be at stake -- it's not just people wanking off. That's what the earlier music writers left me with because it really did feel like they were discussing important stuff, that it was momentous and consequential. People still have lots of ideas and argue about things, but creeping around the back of everyone's minds is the idea that maybe it isn't going anywhere right now. It's like the elephant in the room.

PSF: Much has been made of the post-punk revival. Of the current bands that are influenced by post-punk, do you think any are doing anything more than clever pastiche?

SR: The extent to which they remind me of post-punk is the extent to which they aren't doing anything new, so it's difficult to say. There are bands who are doing new things but they only have a very tangential relationship to post-punk. Gang Gang Dance, for instance, occasionally do something that sounds a little bit No Wave-y but you couldn't really say they were a post-punk influenced band in the way that the Rapture or Franz Ferdinand are. In the book, I'm quite kind to the recent bands who are explicitly identified with post-punk and I say they probably see that period as unfinished business and as having sonic potential that you can do new things with. In truth, though, not many of them have done anything really that new.

I mean, I enjoy Franz Ferdinand's records quite a bit, but on the new album, the best track is the one that sounds the least like post-punk. I can't really think of anyone who's done something truly amazing. They often seem to be drawing on quite a narrow spectrum: that angular sound. Wire and Gang of Four seem to be the most pillaged sources. It seems that there are so many records from that time that newer bands could rip off but that don't get ripped off, like the Raincoats. The pillaging could be a bit more widespread and broader.

PSF: Post-punk was a good time for women in rock. Do you think any of the traction women gained in music during that period was lost or squandered afterwards?

SR: Well, not forever, but there did seem to be an immediate slip back with the New Pop stuff. Most of the women were suddenly singers or backing singers and you didn't get female drummers or bassists so much, maybe not until the grunge era. I think post-punk made it more possible for there to be female instrumentalists because in a lot of the mid-'80's alternative bands, there were women playing keyboards or, say, there was the woman drummer in the Go-Betweens, or there was Throwing Muses who had a female bassist and two female guitarists. It was like the advances of post-punk stayed within alternative music and then grunge, to an extent, with Hole, Veruca Salt, Liz Phair, although I don't know if you'd call Liz Phair a grunge performer really, but that whole alt-rock explosion. And then with riot grrrl it was the first time there was an explicit point being made about femaleness, with all-female bands. That was a big thing again, for the first time in a long while. But I don't think it went away completely.

PSF: In Rip It Up, you compare the '60's and the post-punk era -- in terms of both the broader social and political landscape and the intersections of a resistant political culture with an innovative musical landscape. Do you think the musical legacy of post-punk is as strong as the legacy of the innovations in music of the '60's?

SR: Well, obviously not in the maths sense but that was my rhetorical pitch, really. It was an authentic expression of frustration, as someone sick of the baby boomers retelling their stories over and over again -- as we see with the massive Martin Scorsese documentary on Bob Dylan. Or even something like Peter Guralnick's book on Sam Cooke. It's not even the first book on Sam Cooke and it's 750 pages long, which is longer than my book on a whole era of music and 40 bands. Maybe Sam Cooke was that important a figure, but can he be so much more important than hundreds and hundreds of bands and an eight-year span of music history? I don't know but it does seem like the '60's still has this hugely privileged status.

At the same time, though, I see post-punk in some ways as a continuation of the '60's -- that idea is there in the book a bit, but it's more and more on my mind. Punk and post-punk are part of the idea of youth as vanguard that was illustrated in the '60's, although obviously, there's an internecine war within that vanguard with the generation before. But it's all one thing: the whole idea of music as this incredibly serious thing, records as statements, records as something you tell the time by, zeitgeist stuff, seriousness, the lack of irony, the non-retro-ness. It's all one block of time and I always feel that the '60's start to end in the '80's.

More and more, I see that the '80's is when the post-punk vanguard either sells out or goes totally marginal and also when the original '60's people start selling out. You look at what Peter Gabriel did in the '80's -- he completely abandons all that proggy, dressing-up-in-costumes stuff and does this slick soul. Or Steve Winwood. He remakes himself as a modern soul singer. It's as if he's going back to being what he was originally: a Mod, imitating black people. So, it's as if the mid-'80's is the time when all that ends. Obviously, it's not as neat as that because you have alternative rock and you have grunge and you have the echoes of, or the return of, rebellion -- the return of punk as grunge, for instance. You have rave, which has an almost postmodern echo of the '60's -- the summer of love, and all that sort of thing.

So, these things never go away completely and there's always squatland and there are always people trying to live outside of society. There's still bohemia. Nothing is as clear-cut as that, but in the book I wanted to boost post-punk and claim too much for it and the way to do that was to set it against the '60's. Nevertheless, I think post-punk has more in common with the '60's than music today has with post-punk. Post-punk still had a tremendous seriousness, a tremendous conviction that music had power or that it could change the world. And it was pre-irony, it was pre-retro culture. But, of course, it's complicated. Pop time is very complicated. You can divide it up in all these different ways. It's not like irony and retro rule everything now. There are still people who are very passionate about music and who are totally unironic and probably believe it has all this power to do things, but they seem more and more marginalized.

Also see Simon's tour of post-punk roots

And see our unpublished excerpt from Reynolds' earlier book Generation Ecstacy

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER