May 10th, 2005

Rip It Up And Start Again – The Panel

Thoughts on April 26’s panel, in honour of the publishing of Simon Reynolds’s post-punk study Rip It Up And Start Again at the hospitable but smoky Boogaloos bar in Highgate.

– Shane McGowan was present, though “present” in the sense that the late Jeremy Bentham, deviser of the panopticon who had his body stuffed after he died, was “present” at the meetings his corpse subsequently attended. He was sitting at the bar, alone, in his brothel creepers, hair dyed jet black as if to exacerbate his embalmed air, fingering some CD compilation absently, swigging from a large cup of coffee. There was also a bottle of wine in attendance, however. He looked not so much a parody of himself as a waxwork of himself. I saw McGowan on the Frank Skinner Show a few months ago, in which he sent out an implicit call for his ex-partner to come back to him. He has that Shaun Ryder, fortysomething going on eightysomething air about him. It was hard, as I stood at that bar at his side to feel anything but a sort of sympathy; indeed, I almost leant over and whispered, “Sorry for reviewing your album over the phone that time, mate.”

– Prior to the main event, the big screen showed a selection of post-punk videos, some of which are on a new DVD collection issued by the LTM label. It occurs to me that much of the air of meticulousness, of intensity exuded by many of the post-punk players isn’t so much that they’re seized by the angst of the times but that as not-natural musicians, they’re having to concentrate and strain every sinew simply to keep time, rhythm and pace, even when playing relatively rudimentary riffs. This is by no means a put-down; it’s something I find profoundly endearing and thrilling, watching New Order’s Steven Morris, for instance, 100% physically engaged in pumping out the high tempo, looping, percussive riff on “Everything’s Gone Green”. I know I’d have had to as well, even after months of tuition.

That spectacle of non-musicianly effort, (of people in it for other reasons than the idea of being in a band and the ideas you can thereby disseminate), having to work hard, has gone nowadays with the advent of computer technology. This enables the non-musician to be able to shove together and overlay blocks of noise to create soundscapes unimagined by even the most pseudo-symphonic of Seventies prog rockers with all their banks of keyboards. But that spectacle of effort does signify a compulsive commitment that is other and better than the casual, stoner posturing or mock-effortlessness that has prevailed before and since.

– The panel. It wasn’t really so much of a point/counterpoint debate as no one was present to suggest that post-punk was an awful idea, an eggheaded betrayal of the spirit of the Adverts and the Boomtown Rats. With SR as chair, it comprised Richard Boon, punk indie label pioneer and Pistols tour manager, Gina Birch of The Raincoats, Paul Morley and Jon King, lead singer of The Gang Of Four, who replaced Magazine’s Howard Devoto, indisposed due to a family illness. Simon’s opening remarks stressed the idea of “pretentiousness”, in a deliberately non-pejorative sense, which he felt characterised the early Eighties era.

I was a little surprised that the idea seemed to take most of the panel by surprise. Anti-anti-pretentiousness is one of Simon’s founding ideas, one which he and I shared back in the early Eighties at Oxford. As much as anything (certainly as far as I was concerned) it was a reaction against the studied anti-intellectualism which is such a dismaying facet of university life back then, which was as far from May 1968 as you can imagine. I naively expected to find active and buzzing This Heat Appreciation Societies at Oxford before I came up; instead, I found red jeans and Dire Straits.

Anyway, the panel. Gina Birch didn’t really sparkle, didn’t really seem to come with many prepared thoughts, though she does have the eminent excuse of presently being a mother of two young children. She also pointed out the unexplained irony of how and why Simon Le Bon, who professes to have been inspired to make music by artists like Joni Mitchell, was first inspired to put pen to paper by the sight of a waitress’s arse in some Brummy caff.

Richard Boon was as I’d expected. It seems to be a characteristic of what you might call the Triassic Punk Generation; like Malcolm McClaren, like John Lydon, he speaks very – slowly, at Mogadon pace, as if sarcastically spelling things out to a perceived imbecile, and seems just a little too pleased with his radical but antique ideas. Still, of course, respect to him for having been there and done it without the advantage of precedent.

With Morley and Jon King, however, the pace quickens dramatically. These are the Jurassic generation and no one talks quicker, or harder than them. The talking heads of other generations, other paces, are vert slow, very heavy-eyelidded, semi-stoned, in the late Eighties/Nineties as well as the Sixties. But the Jurassics, forged in the late Seventies/early Eighties are as wide-eyed, pop-eyed, ideas-driven and fluent now, as back then. The energy doesn’t abate with age.

It’s a facet I’ve noticed from interviewing people from those times – Colin Newman, Mark Stewart, Mark E Smith The Human League, even UB40, big gabbers all. As a music press reader, I imagined that all interviews with bands would be conducted at this ideologically high octane level. However, by the time I came into my own, I got J Mascis.

– Jon King was an extremely able substitute for Devoto. Although he took part in the recent Gang Of Four reunion, unlike guitarist Andy Gill, he’s not stayed in the world of music and works in some media consultancy capacity in his pop after-life. He handles the assembled audience with the absolute confidence of a seasoned power-point presenter; thoughts never trail away (a weakness of yours truly, for instance, when making spoken word presentations). One of his most telling, though oft-told anecdotes, is of of the weaselly censorship the GoF were subjected to when almost appearing on TOTP, over a line about the “rubbers in his pocket”. This, in the era of Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell”.

Appalled by such candid, un-nudge-nudge demystification, the TOTP guy suggested they change it to “the rubbish in his pocket”. Of course, this rendered the lyric nonsensical but the TOTP censor hoped that because “rubbish” sounds almost like “rubber” it would be hardly any concession at all. It’s the insult to the intelligence, at a time when intelligence was set at an unprecedented premium in left-field rock, that’s as telling as the repression.

Simon asked, with a hint of gentle teasing, why a band like GoF, whose raison d’etre was acerbic deconstruction of capitalist processes, should have signed to a label like EMI. King replied that his experience of the new crop of indie labels was that they were often run by crooks rather than idealists, and that, given the choice he’d rather go for “late” rather than “early” capitalism.

– Paul Morley was magnificent. He’s reinvented himself as a ubiquitous but always valued media figure. I’m not alone in thinking I can take or leave his stylised, circumlocutory prose style. I prefer to hear the guy speak, and speak with a caustic lucidity that puts the pitiful wannabe TV pundits on those 100 Best Ringtone-type shows to shame.

As ever, he wasn’t only aware of the issue but the issues surrounding the issue. He was quick to clamp inverted commas on the phrase “I remember”. He was nicely self-deprecating about the ideological mania he brought to his work in the early Eighties, how hugely important pop matters were, how appalled he was by inertia and cliche. He told a story of interviewing Mick Jagger in about 1979 or 1980, how he’d practically hammered on Jagger’s chest, loudly impressing on him just how really, really important it was that The Stones split, right now, that they just stop, because they were so irrelevant. Morley related that Jagger later commented, “Yeah, I ‘ad the NME in here last week, they seemed really wound up.”

Morley seemed visibly moved that the dialectical merry-go-round had come around full circle to grant post-punk and the critique that was bound up with it, rather than banally spectating – and that the appreciation had come from someone like Reynolds, who arrived just a few years after the event.

Once or twice little ironies were tripped over; Morley castigated fellow NMEer Tony Parsons for having praised Dr Feelgood to the skies, while his fellow panellist Jon King stated within minutes of him that they’d filched their jerky guitar style from Wilko Johnson. Mostly, however, he spoke with pith and undiminished passion about the joy of an era in which groups “actually read books”, in which something cerebral but quicksilver was in the air, a skinny, worming new spirit which he and the likes of Penman just about had by the tail, while fellow journos bumbled on prosaically.

Such times to have been in – but, like the late Sixties, another golden, 4Real age, the real excitement seems to have derived from an utterly deluded and unjustified (p)optimism. Morley was mesmerised by the glitter he found in new pop, even Dollar, which suggested that the movement of (post) punk from left to infield wasn’t just one of commercial expediency, that it would have the power to effect a wider social metamorphosis, introduce an altogether new brightness and lightness of being, in which ideas, elusiveness and allusiveness would dance before the populace in lieu of the old dullards, crusted over like fossils with outmoded ideas. After ABC and Scritti on TOTP, things could only get cleverer, the bar could only get higher. Things felt that good. The feeling, the thinking could only spread. New pop, new thing.

Of course, this no more happened than did the Sixties counterculture stop a war. Post-punk’s transitional/transformative moments were brief and few; Scritti, ABC, The Associates, Simple Minds, real all-that-Heaven-allows stuff. But then they slipped back, or in the case of Simple Minds, pitched right over the top into stadium rock bombast. When Reynolds and I arrived on the scene, one of the many things we found ourselves doing was survey the congealed, washed-up remains of post-punk’s propulsive thrust, pour scorn like salt on slugs on creatures we’d venerated in our youth but who simply couldn’t live in the new dialectical conditions of the late Eighties – Siouxsie, Lydon, Scritti’s Green among them. That, or lambast the chancer who’d taken advantage of punk’s entryism for straightforwardly commercially expedient ends, their spiky hair a flag of convenience.

Maybe I/we wouldn’t have been so harsh if we’d foreseen just how precipitous and irreversible a decline has taken place since the mid-Eighties. In 1981 you had Grace Jones; today, you have Jennifer Lopez. Corporatisation and devolution have occurred, hand in hand squeezing out the leftside margins of ambiguity, romantic (as opposed to commercial) ambition. Few coming through no even think to think the way a Morley or a Fry did, not even the post-punk imitators, not really, not quite. No one believes platters matter in quite that way. People talk about a ‘dumbing down’ but in the way it’s different. Intelligence levels don’t shift from day today, nor does talent inexplicably dry up from one era to the next. It’s just that nowadays, reality has taken a grip. No one would be dumb enough that the excitement pop or rock music can generate has magical, society-changing properties, any more so than can the buzz of a few lagers. Kids were fooled once, fooled twice; won’t get fooled again. But oh, to be fooled again . . . .

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