Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 is an ambitious and well-researched, though ultimately flawed, attempt at defining and chronicling the postpunk movement. Like post-Entertainment Gang of Four, the material is solid and engaging, but leaves you thinking it could have been so much better.
There are many things to like about this book, and these keep Reynolds’ study from being just another also-ran entry in the growing number of books examining the punk and postpunk eras. Reynolds’ enthusiasm and love of the postpunk music he discusses is apparent, and for the most part he tempers his enthusiasm and doesn’t fall into the trap of claiming everything from this era was without fault (though his over-the-top praise of Scritti Politti borders on the obsessive, wearing-blinders type of praise usually espoused by a band’s family members).
This enthusiasm lends a certain pace to the book that makes it very readable. Reynolds paints great pictures of the various musicians, freaks, con artists, suits, and lackeys that dotted the postpunk landscape, and rarely does the book get bogged down in extraneous details. (It should be noted that the U.S. version reviewed here is an abridged version of the U.K. edition).
The greatest strength of this book is how Reynolds convincingly places postpunk music in its broader historical, social, political, and economic contexts. Of course, some of this is easy; it doesn’t take much effort to show how Joy Division’s utterly humorless and bleak music was influenced by the band’s shithole hometown of Manchester (not to mention Ian Curtis’ fractured psyche). Though it can be a slippery slope (and borderline pretentious) to argue that a raucous noise band was somehow influenced by high art, Reynolds makes a strong case for exactly that, in the cases of Pere Ubu, The Pop Group, and Gang of Four. In these ways, the book reads like equal parts social history and music history, and the end result is that the reader is left with a greater understanding of how these outside forces influenced the music of the postpunk years.
But enough of this Simon Reynolds Admiration society. Now it’s time to turn on the Nasty switch. There are just simply too many gaps in Reynolds’ study that prevent it from ranking as the definitive word on the postpunk era.
One glaring shortcoming is the key bands and movements that are summarily ignored or given short treatment, especially on the American side of the pond. The early 1980s American hardcore scene, both on the East and West coasts, is given scant attention. Likewise, pre-vortex-of-suck R.E.M. is not even addressed; Reynolds instead inexplicably focuses on the B-52s when discussing the Athens music scene. Finally, the crush-all-others-like-grapes band Mission of Burma is given a truly appalling Cliffs Notes treatment. While it is impossible to mention every band or movement in a relatively short book, Reynolds’ omissions of such areas in favor of chapters devoted to less-important bands (like Soft Cell and Human League) seems curious at best.