If "postpunk" lasted from 1978 to 1984, as Simon Reynolds suggests in the subtitle of Rip It Up and Start Again, this of course raises a question: What (and when) exactly was punk? The razor-thin definition of punk, from 1976 to 1977, implicit in Reynolds's concept of postpunk is the British one, which hardly holds true for the rest of the world. What is usually called punk in the United States, France, and Germany, in terms of the transformation and revaluation of subcultural values, taste, and worldview, is the very thing that Reynolds sees as the subject of his book. Consider the United States: According to Reynolds's definition, it had only one punk band, the Ramones.
The British version of the book, published in 2005, contained chapters on Black Flag, the Minutemen, and the developments around the California label SST. Why were these phenomena, which were so decisive for US music history, cut out of the American version? Perhaps the answer is that it would be impossible to convince any American reader that Black Flag was postpunk: What then would punk be? From the British perspective, the Minutemen—in my view perhaps the greatest thing ever produced by US pop music—were already second-generation postpunk, for they developed their music by engaging with British bands like Wire and Gang of Four, which in Reynolds's account are central to postpunk. But in the United States, the Minutemen were a punk band, later than the Ramones but first generation when it came to punk as a lifestyle and worldview that touched the American subcultures outside of New York.
What happened in the United Kingdom after the end of the first punk generation was as heterogeneous as it was far-reaching; Reynolds is right to see this period as neglected by history, despite its richness in terms of art and art politics. These UK efforts extended in vastly different directions, from conceptual approaches that saw punk primarily as a reduction of musical language, to openly political attempts that sought to expand on the enormous social impact of punk.
The musical influences and traditions that postpunk musicians referred to and drew on were also quite disparate: from rehabilitated disco to dub and P-funk, from free jazz to a Warholian revaluation of the superficiality of popular culture, from minimalism to tropicalism, from a reawakened belief in expression and intensity in the use of instruments and voice to a technophilic apologia for the pose (as a counter to rock's expressivity and ideology of authenticity). And it is true that there was nothing intrinsic linking all of this, except that punk's successful gesture of negation left behind a tabula rasa that in principle could be filled or inscribed with anything able to present a smart or hip discourse of legitimation. To this extent, all these developments indeed have nothing to with one another except their common emergence in the wake of punk. The word postpunk thus has its justification as an overarching term.
Reynolds has often demonstrated his ability to crystallize issues and relevant episodes from the nameless flow of musical history, especially with The Sex Revolts (cowritten with Joy Press), his eye-opening standard work on the sexism of rock culture, and Generation Ecstasy, his study of rave culture. Here as well, he has succeeded in labeling a central and indeed underexposed moment in the history of pop and subcultures, and in expanding on this labeling in countless details and narratives. But what is lacking in Rip It Up and Start Again—and in the more general engagement with the era to which we owe the predecessors of techno, the birth of a global rap movement, the emergence of independent labels, the recognition of dilettantism as an artistic heuristic, and new extremisms and irreconcilables—is any truly conclusive argument, any attempt to order and evaluate these developments.
Particularly when it comes to the political aspects of the era, I would have preferred analyses and positions to the often-suggestive indecision of Reynolds's account, analyses of phenomena ranging from Britain's classically liberal-left Rock Against Racism movement, the scene around Green Gartside and Scritti Politti (influenced first by Gramsci and later by French deconstruction), party communism as represented by the postpunk hero Robert Wyatt, and the intellectual left-wing radicalism of Gang of Four, to the more heartfelt maximalism of outrage from the Pop Group, as well as to bands like Joy Division and Throbbing Gristle, which flirted with all things abject and forbidden, and the explicitly and unregenerate neofascists like Boyd Rice. In addition, there was an unprecedented rise in feminist and queer articulation in pop music, and of course the attempt to realize these activities using alternative distribution networks. Reynolds mentions these phenomena but doesn't account for them structurally. Instead, his book is organized using the good old career narrative—chronologically presenting and discussing the work of each individual band or artist before moving on to the next one.
In terms of the issues and questions it addresses, this rock positivism unfortunately defuses something of the explosiveness of the book, a book otherwise worthy of recommendation because it leaves out almost nothing worth mentioning in musical terms. Indeed, it rather deals all too extensively with sufficiently familiar phenomena like U2 and Echo and the
Bunnymen. Only one thing is left out entirely: Postpunk also marked the end of the era in which legitimate subcultural music could emerge only from the United States or the United Kingdom. Until then, all other local music attempts remained bizarre solitary movements or were coded as folkloristic or regionalist. Postpunk, by contrast, took place in Brazil and Australia, in Germany and France, in Italy and the Soviet Union, in Argentina and Sweden. The combination of a total cultural tabula rasa (punk) and the political-economic pragmatic perspective of independent labels served as a form of global empowerment: It would surely be interesting to trace its rise and fall. Unfortunately, Reynolds too rarely takes leave of lining up record releases like a string of pearls and hardly dares to formulate any overarching cultural or political diagnoses.
Diedrich Diederichsen is a writer based in Berlin.
Translated from German by Brian Currid.