Simon Reynolds: Postpunk 1978-1984
Almost didn’t get into this one–oversold a few weeks ago I heard. Must-read peanut butter blogger Mike Powell and I admitted to ourselves we really just wanted to see James Chance, who had teased us with TV Party simulacra and a skronky cameo in Downtown 81. Happy to hear him talk too but you know.
The panel was of/for/by shoptalkers, the weird catch-22 being that you couldn’t have really followed the dialogue entirely if you hadn’t read Reynolds’s inquiry into post-punk and new pop, Rip It Up & Start Again, but if you had read the book, some of the panel’s bigger points were rehash, and Reynolds discussed them far more eloquently and far less flippantly in his pages.
But we came for flip. We were there to see Orange Juice drummer Steven Daly taking swipes at the Strokes and remembering NME stories about CBGBs and the New York post-punks, Blondie and Talking Heads and Television, and being so angry he couldn’t actually hear them–New York for him was a “locus of the imagination.” We came for James Chance recalling a time he was mugged: He was walking around downtown in the early 80s and had a dollar bill sticking out of his coat jacket pocket, and somebody yoinked it right out. UK Post-punk journalist Vivien Goldman wondered aloud whether one day the music industry will regress back to medieval times, democratized to the return point of regional heroes, town bards, etc.. When Reynolds said the no-wave band Mars was the most punishing of the scene, China Burg, the lead singer of Mars who last night was going by another name last night I think, said, as if after the fact, “We weren’t looking for followers.”
Since the book does tease out differences between the UK and the US at the time, we got some of that too, specifically in regards to race relations. While Daly spoke fondly of Northern Soul’s reception or how “reggae records could be top ten hits,” Burg recalled Bob Marley getting booed off the stage at Max’s Kansas City. There were boundaries, is how Chance put it; beyond racially they extended through genre, where Chance had trouble fitting into the avant-jazz loft scenes in Soho because jazz musicians refused to play with rock musicians. Tit for tat, UK’s Goldman said the avant scene was much more welcoming by comparison, less jazzcentric and more “whimsical.”
A strong but gentle host, Reynolds kept the speakers concise and moved them to share time, but in the end these are all people I would assume who do better expressing themselves musically than verbally. Otherwise we wouldn’t have seen Green Day skewered or heard the phrase “geography is destiny” or other half-rockisms about when and where the music died (George Michael apparently built his career on “rock and dole.”) “We need a general societal collapse,” said Chance at one point, on something of a rant about New York’s lack of creativity, high of cost of living, the usual. But then he said “Creativity is not democratic.” Hey, he did write “Contort Yourself.”