Simon Reynolds writes about music like a cross between a die-hard fan and an open-headed academic, sitting him decidedly on the fence between the pit and the podium. From this spot, he’s able to write both enthusiastically and critically. His books, Bring the Noise (faber & faber, 2007), Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 (Penguin, 2006), and Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture (Routledge, 1999), cover the major movements of the of underground music over the past thirty years and provide a crash course in the underpinnings of today’s mix of repurposed technology and styles, recycled beats and sounds, and the attitudes and energy driving it all.
Alex Burns: What prompted you to make the rise-fall arc of John Lydon and Public Image Ltd’s “careering” central to Rip It Up And Start Again? What lessons could emerging artists learn from how PIL handled its contract negotiations with Virgin Records and the “fault lines” between Lydon, Jah Wobble, and Keith Levene?
Simon Reynolds: PiL were probably my favourite postpunk band, certainly the one that had the most impact on me. But beyond the personal inclination, it just seemed to be objectively the key narrative in terms of explaining how punk turned into postpunk, and then how postpunk eventually fell into disarray. You had the central figure of the era, Johnny Rotten, the punk saviour, the man everyone was looking towards, completely confounding expectations and going on this total art trip with PiL. You had all the incredibly influential rhetoric that Lydon, Wobble and Levene put out there about rock being dead and “obsolete”, rock as something that should be “cancelled”, “a disease” is one word they used to describe it. And PiL’s diagnosis of punk’s failure on a musical level, that it had been the last gasp of traditional rock. A lot of people followed Lydon’s lead. But the saga of how it all went wrong for PiL is classic, because the irony is that this band opposed to all things “rock” were undone by all the archetypal rock’n’roll bullshit of drugs, ego, money disputes, mismanagement (they didn’t have one, basically… indeed they could probably have used a proper manager, but Lydon had been scared off that because of his experiences with Malcolm McLaren). It would make a great VH1 Behind the Music story, actually. They also came unstuck in a way that was emblematic of postpunk in general, which is reaching a kind of dead end with experimentation and deconstruction, with their third album Flowers of Romance. That came out just at the point at which postpunk turned to new pop, the more optimistic and accessible music of Orange Juice, ABC, etc etc.
In terms of the contract, I’m not sure they actually had that great arrangement with Virgin. A manager would have been handy in that respect. I think they were indulged by Virgin, given lots of studio time, but then again Virgin probably charged them for using the Manor and the other top of the line studios. Virgin supported Lydon because they could see he was obviously the most important front man to come out of Britain since Bowie. But they also tried to persuade him to reform the Pistols at one point: Branson played him the demos by the Professionals, the band that Paul Cook and Steve Jones formed, and said “isn’t this great Johnny? How about reforming the band?”. There was a hope that he would revert to doing more accessible music and become a superstar. Which is what Lydon actually tried to do eventually, but still under the PiL brand.
AB: You wrote about the “dark side of paranoid psychology”, “totalitarian undercurrent,” and “music as a means to an end” of Throbbing Gristle and Genesis P-Orridge’s first mission. How significant is Throbbing Gristle’s re-emergence and what new alienations could this new mission evoke?
SR: I’m not sure what it signifies beyond the fact that the band members felt like doing it and that at this point in history the climate for them doing that is more welcoming than it has been for a while. Also, they are probably keen to reaffirm their place in history, which is totally understandable. I was a bit surprised how little impact their return to the scene had– I thought it would be a much bigger deal, if only because it’s such a great story for magazines. But I guess this sometimes happens, especially when a band has been so groundbreaking, they suffer a little bit when they return to a music world that they’ve changed. Because everyone’s like, big deal. I thought the album was really good myself.
AB: Your analysis of music and political subcultures highlights a “lifecycle” (i.e., experimentation, discovery, a golden or “heroic” age, entropy, and reemergence or revival). What can other analysts and critics learn from this approach? What are the possibilities and limits of a “lifecycle” model?
SR: It’s hardly an original way of looking at cultural movements! But if it is a cliché, it’s one of those “cliché because it’s true” situations I think. In my experience, music genres or scenes seem to coalesce out this long-ish period of germination, disparate things gradually come together; there’s some kind of spark or flash-over moment when it all converges and reaches fruition, the momentum gets going, the sound evolves and quite quickly reaches maturity; after this “prime” period, things start disintegrating, the center will not hold, all kinds of tangents and offshoot genres split away while a purist faction try to freeze the sound at what they consider is the golden moment. All the energy ebbs away leaving a lot of people feeling disillusioned and burned ‘cos they believed so fiercely in it. Then the sound or scene is filed away in the archives where it might be excavated by some future generation.
In some ways the emergent phase in the most interesting phase, because often what’s going on around the proto-scene is a period of general disparateness and entropy, no clear direction in music culture. And those periods often are actually quite rich, especially when you look back at them with hindsight, and you wonder what the people trying to launch the new thing were complaining about! Like with punk: it took about five years to get off the ground, people like Lester Bangs were using the term “punk” to signify te need for some kind of pomposity-removing revolution, the people reclaiming rock from the bloated superstar elite, he was doing that from about 1970 onwards; there were various false starts, like with the Stooges, or pub rock in the UK. Then finally it all takes off with Patti Smith, Ramones, then the Pistols and Clash. But you look at the early Seventies music scene that they were so fed up with, and it seems–compared to now–jam-packed with exciting things. All quite disparate maybe, but still… what on earth were they so depressed for? But it’s also interesting to look at the emergent phase of the movement-to-be, all the lost bands like the Electric Eels in Cleveland, proto-punk outfits here there and everywhere that are isolated and at odds with the general tenor of things, bands that could either be ahead of their time or behind-of-their-time, it’s not at all clear. And gradually they all find each other, and BOOM!.
Roy Christopher: Your brand of para-academia puts you on the fence between journalist and scholar. Do you find this vantage point to be more of a boon or a burden?
SR: I can’t write from any other place! Well, that’s not quite true: I can and have done more standard music writing. I do quite a lot of fairly straightforward record reviewing, and have in the past done newspaper-type profiles and reporting, still do it now and then. But the mode that I naturally fall into, if left to my own devices, is somewhere between theory and journalism. I find it a good place to be in terms of the work produced, because pure academic work doesn’t have much place for enthusiasm, or for a flamboyant prose style. And there’s all that slog to do with footnotes and talking about your methodology and your theoretical framework, all that protocol. Academic work on music also suffers from its slow turnaround, it always seems to be dealing with stuff that’s from years and years ago. I like the rapid-response nature of journalism. On the other hand, I like to have an extra dimension or two to work with than just the basic consumer guidance level of responding to a record or profiling a band. Larger resonances to do with society or culture beyond music.
So I would say definitely it’s a boon in terms of the work produced, as discrete pieces of writing. In terms of work on the macro level of a career, I think the scope for doing this kind of theory-informed music writing has definitely shrunk significantly. Theory is much less of a cool or sexy thing than it was in the 1980s when I started. But it’s also to do with shrinking space, smaller word-counts, and the decline of spaces like the alternative weekly in America and the weekly music press in Britain. Those were havens for pretentious music writing, but with the exceptions of art magazines and places like the Wire, most music magazines and newspapers now seem to have an orientation toward the layperson. You can’t assume too much esoteric knowledge of music. But above all, it’s the shrinking of space that’s key. If a review or piece is being pared to essentials, the first thing that goes is the extraneous theory, the references to thinkers outside the world of pop music.
Personally I haven’t felt this as a source of anguish that much, because I’ve gradually lost interest in doing the critically theory-infused approach, through not finding much in that world very exciting in the last ten years or so. There was a time when going into St Mark’s Books in downtown New York, or its London equivalents like Compendium, would get my pulse racing with excitement. But not for a long while. So you won’t find too many name-drops of philosophers in my writing these days. I still have my favourites, but they’re old ones, and for whatever reason they seem to have less applicability to the music I like. I also feel like I’ve reached the point where I’m on my own trip, as a thinker about music; I don’t need to fuel up on other bodies of thought so much.
RC: What are you working on next?
SR: I just finished an expanded/updated version of Energy Flash (a.k.a. Generation Ecstasy), with stuff on the last decade of electronic dance culture, and that is due out in early 2008, timed for the 10th anniversary of the book and the 20th anniversary of rave. Right now I’m about to embark on the companion volume to Rip It Up and Start Again, which will include interview transcripts, essays, and a discography-with-commentary dealing with all the esoteric postpunk music I couldn’t cover in the original book. That should be out in 2009. I’m also drawing up plans for my next book proper, but for now I’ll have to keep that under wraps.