The problem with popular culture is its popularity: if lots of people like something, it is by no means a guarantee that it is going to be any good. And the music that I loved as a teenager went, quite often, out of its way to be unpopular. What I liked in the years covered by Simon Reynolds’s book was, basically, everything that John Peel played (except, very guiltily, the reggae). The songs would cover such subjects as alienation, capitalist exploitation, misery, mal de siècle, totalitarianism, murder, suicide, the nuclear threat (quite a lot about that, obliquely or directly), every conceivable degree of angst, and a hundred other subjects whose lyrics were either too vague or distorted for their message to be clear – although one could be fairly confident that they were not about girls or fast cars, unless the girl concerned was Myra Hindley or Eva Braun. There were even a few about Northern Ireland for good measure.
Paradoxically, I was not alone: hundreds of thousands of people my age listened to Peel and read the New Musical Express, and, for a while, Sounds, which in print more or less endorsed Peel’s tastes – and, in the words of its unusually gifted critics, gave a voice to our own tastes, or gave good reasons for changing them. But the music of Public Image Ltd, the Gang of Four, Joy Division, The Raincoats, and innumerable other bands with names either sinister or bizarre or pretentious or any combination of the three, was in no way designed or intended to ingratiate itself with the mass of the record-buying populace. It was avant-garde, open to any musical possibilities that suggested themselves (within the limitations of the bands’ musical abilities, of which, anyway, they often made a virtue, if virtue is the word), united only in the sense that it was very often cerebral, concocted by brainy young men and women interested as much in disturbing the audience, or making them think, as in making a pop song.
But – or rather so – the genre (so multifarious that only the broadest use of the term is possible) resisted overt absorption into the national cultural life, which was a pity. Sales were respectable in many cases – quite respectable by today’s standards – but top 10 hits were rare and besides, outrageous success was for most not a priority. Simply being played on Peel was enough. When bands like Devo or Magazine got the chance to approach the mainstream via Top of the Pops, they would deliberately sabotage their chances with alienating mannerisms. They would not be asked back. “Stifled by acceptance” is one of the very many telling phrases Reynolds uses.
A lot of that music was rather good, and even if some of it wasn’t, the ideas behind it were very much worth airing. If you liked electric guitars but hated heavy metal and had even a hazy notion of what Derrida was about, it was a marvellous time. There were collisions, naturally. When The Ramones went on tour with Talking Heads, an unlikely combination in retrospect, the former were, as Reynolds puts it, “freaked out” that the latter read books on the coach, rather than do what bands are meant to do.
In 2001, Reynolds, in a piece for Uncut, wet his finger, stuck it in the air, and cautiously suggested that a revival of the independent music of 1978-1984 might be a possibility. He accepted the unlikeliness of the proposition: retro culture, happy to pillage anything it can be affectionately ironic about, could not cope with that period’s seriousness, let alone its sheer eclecticism.
And yet it has come back, first, in 2002, in the homage to Manchester’s extraordinary contribution to the scene in 24 Hour Party People , and then, two years later, in the shape of Franz Ferdinand, a group of clever young men who have obviously been listening to quite a few of the bands honoured in Reynolds’s book, and yet whose album, more than a year after its release, is still at number 35 in the Amazon charts, and has sold more than 2m copies. Even Franz Ferdinand’s cagey interview technique (“everything you do should have an air of subversiveness to it”, they carefully tell the Sunday Times reporter) pays homage to the attitudes of that era.
As Greil Marcus pointed out, and Reynolds acknowledges, the Situationists and Futurists may have provided the template, but the modern catalyst, though not the presiding genius which he might have wanted to be, was John Lydon; and to his enduring credit he did it twice, first by turning the Sex Pistols into a much more interesting beast than Malcolm Maclaren ever wanted them to be, and then by using his position to effect an aural and conceptual assault on conventional rock by forming PiL, which might not strictly have been at the very forefront of the avant-garde but which was as close to it as dammit.
Lydon may have been genuinely working class in a way in which other independent bands of a more political bent could only have dreamed, but he and Levine and Wobble, at their peak, used the studio as an instrument which would have satisfied the most rigorous conceptual artist.
For this, as Reynolds’s book amply demonstrates, was a fusion of art and music, or, more accurately perhaps, the co-opting of an artistic sensibility into the production of rock music – to the extent that “rock” itself became a dirty word, or the basis for the supreme insult: “rockist”. With this went a strong anti-corporatist streak, and when Buzzcocks (no “The”, please note) released their self-financed and distributed Spiral Scratch EP in 1977, bands were alerted to a new way of getting their music out. Reynolds makes even the business deals sound interesting.
With the bands themselves under the influence of so many ideas, it is hardly surprising that this book is, too. But commandingly so. In more than 500 pages Reynolds dissects the careers, and marks the connections and correspondences between, in my very rough estimate, at least 200 bands; and while in one sense I feel supremely qualified to review this, having a sizeable proportion of them in my own record collection and, moreover, having been to quite a few of the gigs he mentions, his scope is so vast that no one but the most ardent and committed fanatic is going to be able to check off every single one on their own personal list.
Whether this will appeal to a more general readership is another matter. The book certainly gripped me, and, apart from the chapter dealing with the New York scene – a rather indigestible collection of quotes from the major players – is unimprovable. With so much ground to cover, so many stories to tell and, moreover, so many contradictions to resolve (take, for instance, Green Gartside’s provocatively radical decision to turn his group Scritti Politti from a weird, experimental noise factory to a hit-making machine), it is a wonder he has managed to produce so coherent, illuminating and readable a work as this.
An influence, undoubtedly, is the rock press of the time. If people learned one thing from it, it was that good writing was a reliable indicator of good taste. You would assent to give propositions room, whatever your personal reservations, if the prose was good. And Reynolds’s prose is very good indeed. He follows in the line of descent from Lester Bangs to Greil Marcus to Ben Thompson: startlingly thoughtful, gracefully illuminating, in command of an anarchic subject because the will, the knowledge and the technique conspire to place some kind of order on the unorderable. I had never expected there to be a book on this subject; had I done so, I would never have dared hope it could be as good as this. But then, now that Reynolds has reilluminated the period for us, shown us how fascinating and rewarding it was, I begin to suspect that, properly done, it could hardly have failed to be as good as it is. And this is very properly done indeed. You might even like it if you don’t care for the music it chronicles.