Saturday, February 21, 2015

Simon Reynolds - Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 (2005)

[The UK cover.]

Title: Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984
Author: Simon Reynolds
Publisher: Faber and Faber (UK), Penguin (US)
Year: 2005 (UK), 2006 (US)

The Post-Punk Universe

When I first heard about Rip It Up and Start Again in 2006, I knew this was a book for people like me. I'd been interested in post-punk bands for a few years by that point, mostly by virtue of alternative-oriented family members and friends. Bands like The Cure, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Joy Division, Echo & the Bunnymen, Depeche Mode, and Bauhaus existed in some sort of hidden substratum of my suburban, Midwestern environment, where these once-popular British bands had become obscure and mysterious, yet on the verge of revitalization and reissue campaigns. The book came at just the right moment as a wave of nostalgia for this kind of music was cresting.

Oddly, though, the book barely spends any time at all on most of the aforementioned bands. In fact, if you really study the author, it becomes apparent that he doesn't even really like The Cure or the Banshees, and I'm not sure about Depeche Mode and Bauhaus, either. So what exactly is covered by the book?

The answer to that question partially depends on what edition of the book you have, or better stated, if it was printed in the UK or the US. For some reason, the US edition is substantially shorter. Three chapters are completely removed, at least two others are substantially trimmed, the illustrations are missing, and the timeline, appendix, and bibliography are cut. If that's not enough, the cover was changed (for the worse) and the chapter sequence was reordered. The only thing that the US version has over the UK version is that the Mutant Disco chapter was rewritten from an oral history into an actual narrative – although the rewritten version has since been included in Reynolds' follow-up book, Totally Wired.

I originally read the US version, and only afterwards realized I'd missed the complete story. In 2006, the days before widespread digital streaming, I had no choice but to take notes and scour record stores to find the music described. Recently, I finally took the time to read the original, complete UK version. It ended up being a very different experience, primarily because I had the benefit of Spotify and YouTube to listen to the wide array of music covered by the book. Now my curiosity is peaked again about many bands I'd overlooked the first time or never got around to – or that weren't covered in the US edition. (Seriously, among others, Subway Sect, Magazine, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, and The Teardrop Explodes were all absent!)

[The US cover.]

Additional Material

The other thing I did differently this time was that I also read the online footnotes and discographies. They are welcome addenda and actually serve as excellent reading on their own. Both are less well edited and sometimes lack a degree of clarity or finesse, but they also provide a less structured place for additional details and elements that weren't given space in the primary text. Many artists and songs are only mentioned in these extra sections, and while there might not be many gems there, there is plenty for specialists to get excited about. In particular, the Postpunk Esoterica includes small but important sections about the diverse international post-punk scene.

The final subheading of the Esoterica is particularly interesting, an issue that perhaps should not be left to the very, very end to introduce: "Post-Punk or not Post-Punk". This is where Reynolds tries to distinguish New Wave from New Pop and post-punk. He does admit that the lines are blurred and there is room to argue. He even (finally!) gives space to several "borderline cases": XTC, Elvis Costello, The Police, Blondie, and The Psychedelic Furs, among others. I would argue some of these, but his stance is that those bands are too straight-pop or straight-rock and not actually notably influenced by punk. Since most of the book encourages the notion that post-punk is more about a set of ideas and ideals than any specific sound, it is notable that the author ultimately provides some (relatively) strict delineation in this section.

Post-Punk Heroes and Villains

One of Rip It Up's biggest selling points is just how many bands are featured. Reynolds does a great job of grouping artists together and discussing movements that might not have even been clearly defined as they happened. This also provides space for a few words about many smaller, easily overlooked bands. However, if one band steals the show, it's Public Image Limited. What better poster child for post-punk could there be than the biggest poster child of punk? John Lydon's post-Pistols band are given the entirety of two chapters, whereas no other band have the honor of even one complete chapter in their name. PiL's rise from punk's ashes, their opening of the floodgates, their brave new world of sound – they represent the ascent of post-punk like no other story. The band's disintegration and the wearing down of their spirit after just a few albums similarly echoes post-punk's fall from grace.

[Public Image Limited's "Flowers of Romance" (1981).]

If two bands take the spotlight of the book, the second is Scritti Politti. Most listeners would probably think of them as an icon of new wave blandness, and until the release of the Early compilation in 2005, there was nothing in print to dispel the notion. Their earliest singles and EPs are the work of a lo-fi, independent, punk band trying to break out of any preconceived boxes – all the while spreading the holy word of Marxism. After years of squatted housing and grueling tours, central figure Green Gartside fell ill and later emerged with the idea of making newfangled pop music with subversive undertones. While he certainly succeeded in some sense, he also made music that sounds rather terrible unless you only focus on the words. But Scritti's bold change of direction is a bellwether for a larger movement, carefully documented in Rip It Up, of the conversion from independent and non-commercial post-punk into slicker, mainstream-oriented, major-label New Pop – or what is now broadly called New Wave. (See also Orange Juice, whom I briefly discussed in a recent, related post.)

[Scritti Politti's 4 A Sides EP (1979).]

Throughout the book, Reynolds rarely directly criticizes bands. It makes for a great read, because the book reads like a documentary, and the author comes across as very equitable but also very excited about every artist he mentions. Nonetheless, Reynolds does occasionally critique musicians when they deserve it (Gang of Four's occasionally contradictory masculinity, Siouxsie & the Banshees' questionable antics in their early days, et cetera). Furthermore, in related materials (such as the footnotes and discographies), the author is much more open about his honest opinions. For example, he appears to have a confusing distaste for goth bands in general, and he oddly downplays Au Pairs in favor of Gang of Four and Delta 5. While these opinions might be frustrating for a fan like me, it doesn't really tarnish the primary text.

If there is one band that gets consistently maligned throughout the book and the accompanying texts, it's The Clash. Tom Robinson Band come in second, and perhaps Crass would be third. This seems to be in part because these bands overtly espoused political ideology in their music and image. Reynolds believes that this constitutes preaching, and apparently many bands of the time preferred to be more subtle. (The Pop Group would be a rather extreme exception.) I still don't understand why such deliberate politicism constitutes a fault, especially when U2's brand of preaching is not criticized at all.

[The back of The Clash's "The Call Up" b/w "Stop the World".]

In fact, the Clash are something of a specter paralleling the post-punk timeline. They haunt the book from start to finish – PiL's guitarist, Keith Levene, was an early member of The Clash, and the rest of the band consistently incorporated many of the same elements that post-punk absorbed, particularly with the adoption of dub and reggae influences. It would seem that The Clash's only substantial crime was a pseudo-macho guitar hero aesthetic, which, with hindsight, just seems like a gimmick or charade. In the narrative of the book, the Clash are the representative "other", always doing whatever post-punks wanted to avoid, despite that in truth they had more in common than in opposition.

[The Clash's "Hitsville UK" (1981), featuring prominent indie labels. I think I see "In the Beginning There Was Rhythm" on Y Records, but with The Slits' name crossed out!]

Conclusion

I think I have Rip It Up and Start Again to blame for my affection for bands like Pere Ubu and Magazine, The Slits and The Pop Group, Wire and PiL, The Fall and Gang of Four, Young Marble Giants and The Raincoats. The scope of the book is perfect – it is broad, yet just detailed enough that the reader gets some reference points and recommendations of good songs and albums. So many bands are covered that the reader is almost certain to find something new and compelling.

However, I also think I can blame the book for why it took me so long to ever appreciate The Clash. I guess every story is supposed to have a villain, but that might be the only major thing that bothered me about the book. For a work that is so inclusive at face value, it is odd to have such notable exclusions and enemies. I suppose the line had to be drawn somewhere, so this doesn't amount to any great criticism – and if that's the only thing I can think of that I didn't like about the book, then I have to admit that Reynolds achieved just about everything he could have wanted to.

Scores:
UK edition: A
US edition: B

References and Further Reading:
AllMusic's review of Scritti Politti's Early, further explaining their divided history
Forgotten Moments from Post-Punk History, a related post inspired by Rip It Up

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Chameleons - John Peel Sessions reissue (1990/2014)

In my last review of a Chameleons reissue, I lamented that the John Peel Sessions had not been given the remaster/reissue treatment. For years, my only copy was on cassette! Well, my dreams have been answered and that band are now selling a new version of the album on their official web store. I will discuss two issues in this review: first, the relative merits of the album in general, and second, the relative quality of the new reissue.

Artist: The Chameleons
Album: John Peel Sessions
Release Date: November 1990 (original), December 2014 (reissue)
Label: Strange Fruit (original), Blue Apple (reissue)
Producer: Tony Wilson (tracks 1-4), Barry Andrews (tracks 5-8), Dale Griffin (tracks 9-12)

Tracklisting:
01. The Fan and the Bellows
02. Here Today
03. Looking Inwardly
04. Things I Wish I'd Said
05. Don't Fall
06. Nostalgia
07. Second Skin
08. Perfumed Garden
09. Dust to Dust (Return of the Roughnecks)
10. One Flesh
11. Intrigue in Tangiers
12. P.S. Goodbye

[The original cover.]

The Original Album

Peel sessions have quite the revered status in the alternative music canon. While these radio sessions are not actually live, they are usually much closer to the sound of a band playing on stage than standard studio albums, and they benefit from the exquisite quality bestowed by the BBC studios. This means that any given band's sound will be a bit rawer, a bit more direct, and yet captured such that the fidelity is far beyond your average live recording. Many bands have claimed that their studio albums failed to accurate represent the power of their live performances, but their Peel sessions often got much closer. One could certainly make such an argument for the Chameleons.

Although the Chameleons' earliest demos and studio recordings show a rock-oriented, riff-heavy approach, hints of their later ethereality and spaciousness were present as early as their December 1981 session with Steve Lillywhite, particularly in the recording of "Nostalgia". Their debut album, Script of the Bridge (1983) was fairly split between the two sounds, but by the time of What Does Anything Mean? Basically (1985), they had clearly declared a preference for shimmering guitars, endless delay effects, and beauteous walls of sound instead of a direct guitar onslaught.

The John Peel Sessions recordings show the band covering much of the same ground as these two albums, but leaning in the direction of a more "live" sound, with fewer overdubs and less complex effects. This is not to say these versions have no subtlety or depth; rather, the complicated guitar interplay is shown off all the more clearly when the two main interlocking parts of Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding are highlighted without many adornments. These takes manage an excellent middle ground between the rough, unsophisticated live albums and the ornately arranged studio albums, and to top it off, the audio quality is practically unmatched.

The other selling point of this album is that many of these takes were recorded one or two years before the "final" studio versions, and as such contain many differences from those versions. The most obvious is that the first session, comprising the first four tracks, was recorded with original drummer Brian Schofield, and his style is noticeably different than later drummer John Lever's. Furthermore, several songs ("Perfumed Garden", "Return of the Roughnecks", "Intrigue in Tangiers", "P.S. Goodbye") feature almost entirely different sets of lyrics (and in the first two cases, even variations in the titles). Almost all of the songs feature some variation in the lyrics; in "Looking Inwardly", Mark Burgess shouts, "I don't need these lyrics!", and in "Nostalgia", it sounds like he sings, "Absorbing your worst".

Some tracks are presented in alternate arrangements: "Nostalgia" is quite different, resembling the 7" edit but lacking even the third verse (and the piano part); "Second Skin" is noticeably faster and shorter than other versions; "Intrigue in Tangiers" is shorter and less developed in the final sections; and "P.S. Goodbye" is notably half the song it would later become, with a simpler arrangement and without the third verse and extended coda. Other tracks have more subtle differences; "The Fan and the Bellows" has fewer guitar overdubs and "Don't Fall" has fewer vocal overdubs, but "One Flesh" features more prominent, reverberant drums.

[The reissue cover.]

The Reissue

The new version of the album features no additional tracks (when will the radio sessions from Here Today... Gone Tomorrow get reissued?), but it is nonetheless worthwhile to have the album in print again. The most obvious change is perhaps the artwork (see above), which has been retooled by Reg Smithies. Much as was the case with Script of the Bridge and What Does Anything Mean? Basically, the changes are not vast but manage to be a slight downgrade. Why change a good thing?

The next most obvious change might be the liner notes – they are revised from the original, in particular excising any mention of Alistair Lewthwaite, who provided keyboards on the second session (tracks 5-8). They also cut the original essay by Mark Hodkinson and the inner sleeve photograph (both still available on the official website), although the lack of the essay is probably fine, what with the annoying opinions ("Nostalgia" was "never a personal favorite") and inaccuracies (Yoko Ono was indeed at her husband's side when he died). In place of these items is a collage of photographs of the band in their heyday, supplied by Dave Fielding. It is pleasant but unremarkable.

Of course, the primary reason for the reissue is that it was remastered. Well, much like with the Why Call It Anything reissue, the remastering is fairly insignificant. It seems to simply be moderate compression and amplification. It is not egregious or disruptive, but it also adds nothing to the original, and in fact might even lose something in terms of dynamic range. Most listeners will probably not be able to discern a difference if they were to merely increase the volume on the original just a touch.

Conclusion

I've always found the John Peel Sessions to be a nearly essential part of the Chameleons canon, rising above most of the various live albums and outtake/demo compilations. I might prefer the band at their more ethereal and reverberant, but I think these versions tell a fascinating alternate history. The quality is superb and this collection is a generally more interesting listen than most of the actually live recordings. The alteration of the cover and liner notes might be annoying, but represents no great loss. Similarly, the remastering may be unspectacular, but it is also unobtrusive. It's still a great album and worth a listen.

Scores:
Original album: A
2014 reissue: A-

P.S. See discogs for more details of the packaging and liner notes.

P.P.S. No, I haven't bought the 2014 Abbey Road remastering of Script of the Bridge. I'm still happy with my 2008 reissue with the bonus disc.

P.P.P.S. I still haven't seen a reappearance of the rare early version of "Here Today" released on the Your Secret's Safe with Us compilation in 1982. The audio quality is noticeably inferior to both the earlier Peel session version as well as the later Script of the Bridge version, but the drums are different than both versions. (Perhaps it was recorded with interim drummer Martin Jackson?) Otherwise it isn't particularly notable.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Forgotten Moments from Post-Punk History

I recently re-read Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984 by Simon Reynolds (see full review here) and along the way I stumbled across a few songs that I would like to call out for their special qualities.

First off is the first single by Pete Shelley, "Homosapien", released in 1981 shortly after the breakup of Buzzcocks. With Martin Rushent continuing his role as producer, the two developed a sound not unlike what Rushent would help create with the Human League on their massively successful Dare immediately thereafter. Coming from such a prominent punk band, I imagine that the synthetic sound that Shelley presented with "Homosapien" was a bit of a shock – but the single was nonetheless a modest hit. In addition to the retro-futuristic video, Shelley's lyrics and delivery reveal an unabashed gayness previously left subdued. Naturally, the BBC banned it. Watch the video here or below:




I think Buzzcocks are fine, but I generally find original singer Howard Devoto's second band, Magazine, far more interesting. Buzzcocks experienced their own degree of growth, but the trappings of punk restrained them whereas Magazine expanded tremendously. When I first heard "Homosapien", I was impressed that Shelley too had grown tired with punk's limitations.

Second is "The Devil Lives in My Husband's Body" by Pulsallama, which is probably a prime example of what some might call a "novelty single". The band consisted or a large coterie of women favoring voices, percussion, and a counterprofessional style. The song is apparently one of only two singles ever produced by the band. While the song itself is already a treasure, the video takes it to the next level. It concerns a woman who becomes increasingly worried about her husband's behavior, which appears to be related to Tourette syndrome. Watch it here or below:




Third up is a delightful slice of New Pop from Orange Juice. "Rip It Up" saw the band moving from their earliest incarnation as a slightly awkward but well-intentioned indie band on Postcard Records to a better produced, more commercial, major-label project with a revamped lineup. While much of their material still comes off as quaint, their biggest single (and the namesake of Reynolds' book) is still a charmer. However, the band proved that they hadn't entirely abandoned their indie/post-punk leanings when they appeared on Top of the Pops in 1983 to mime to the song. First of all, Jim Thirlwell of Foetus suddenly shows up to pretend to play the sax solo, but then singer Edwyn Collins just starts colliding with him! Also, don't forget the song's unsubtle references to Buzzcock's "Boredom" – and what is with the dancing women tearing up bits of paper!? See it all here or below:




Lastly, I give you an early example of sampling, featuring none other than a real sound bite of then-president Ronald Reagan (up for re-election at the time) saying, "We begin bombing in five minutes", referring to Russia. It was a joke that was not broadcast and only recorded incidentally, but when it leaked, many considered it to be in poor taste. Among the disenchanted, Jerry Harrison (of Talking Heads) and Bootsy Collins (of Parliament-Funkadelic) hooked up with producer Daniel Lazerus to create "Five Minutes" as a form of protest. To get the song out before election day, they had to rush-release it on an independent label, and for some reason they used the one-off name of Bonzo Goes to Washington for their partnership. Listen here or below:




And as a final bonus, check out this awesome flyer for the first Human League concert in 1978:


(Originally seen here on Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again footnotes blog.)