Christgau vs. the Contortions: Reynolds’s Stirring Postpunk History


Did post-punk happen before there was even much punk to be post about? The tipping point might have come as early as July 1977—three months before the release of Never Mind the Bollocks—when John Lydon appeared on a London radio program entitled “The Punk and His Music.” The Sex Pistols’ snarling delinquent revealed himself to be a thoughtful aesthete with discerning tastes that ran from reggae to prog rock—influences that would come to the fore in Lydon’s next project, Public Image Ltd., the first band surveyed in Simon Reynolds’s exhilarating topography of an outrageously fecund musical era.

Picking up the pop-historical baton from Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming, Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978–1984 proposes that the movement turned away from the reactionary cul-de-sac that preceded it even while recognizing punk as “a chance to make a break with tradition.” That is to say, punk ripped it up, and post-punk started again. (The book’s title comes from a song by Scottish romantics Orange Juice.) Punk’s raw three-chord basics led the way for the “clean and brittle spikiness” of post-punk guitar, a “compact, scrawny style” that left room for reggae and dub, synth soundscapes and in-studio effects, and prime-mover bass. Late in Rip It Up, this mélange begins to shape-shift into “New Pop,” a “shiny, accessible, and ambitious” streamline of post-punk that roughly dovetailed with the ascendance of MTV—which in its content-hungry early days relied heavily on London’s already fully operational music-promo industry.

Artistically as well as geographically, Rip It Up is all over the map, and brims with flavorsome trivia and anecdotes: The story of Malcolm McLaren’s aborted children’s magazine Playkids is not for the faint of heart, and the Voice‘s own Robert Christgau scuffles with James Chance of the Contortions on page 146 (Xgau wins). The book coheres in the bands’ natural affinities—most had art-school pedigrees, many were stocked with science-fiction geeks, and post-industrial blight from Cleveland to Sheffield provides seamless back projection—and in the burbling, crystal-clear flow of Reynolds’s writing: a perfect alchemy of lightly worn erudition and focused enthusiasm.

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