June 15th, 2005


Rip it up and start again!

Over the last month or so I've been reading Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up And Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-84 (thanks, Suzy, for the advance copy!). I've just been dipping in, reading a chapter here and a chapter there. This is the music and the era of my pop induction, my pop indoctrination, so of course I'm interested. But I have the strange impression that Simon's book—exhaustively researched, wise in its conclusions—"reads itself". It doesn't demand cognition as much as recognition. "Ah yes, I remember them! And yes, they did go downhill after that record!" I have the impression that everything here is redundant information, stuff I read in the NME years ago.

But the film is a saddening bore, for I wrote it ten times or more
It's about to be writ again, as I ask you to focus on
Sailors, fighting in the dancehall...

I know this story too well, partly because (as in the chapter on Postcard Records and the Scottish scene) it's my story. The music of 1978-84 (and writings about it) is the Old Testament of my music career, full of Deuteronomy-like proscriptions, commandments, specifications, family trees, lore and law. My reservation about Simon's book is not to do with its treatment of that now-distant period, but the place it occupies in the landscape of now. It's part of the museumization of pop music. I see it heralding endless post-punk articles in Mojo magazine, or filling the Other Music newsletter with ever-longer lists of re-releases on (God bless 'em!) LTM. "Rip it up and start again" is a great description of the attitude behind the music Simon's dealing with, but it certainly isn't a good slogan for the effect the book will have on today's music scene. "Frame it and let's live through the whole bloody thing again" would be more accurate. And that's exactly the problem with pop music now: we're crushed under the weight of the past, and of our excessive respect for it. Pop music used to be an ugly, messy, unfinished place with lots of space for growth (a kind of Berlin), now it's all been cleaned up, it's tidy, it's documented, it's the Louvre, it's Paris, it feels finished.

As a musician I don't feel that, of course. But I couldn't do what Simon does: I couldn't write about pop music. My own "rip it up and start again" gesture in the past year has been to start writing about design, a field I don't know that much about, to be honest. But it's interesting for me for that very reason. I don't immediately know how I feel about any given designer's work (and I've just spent the morning interviewing a designer I'd never previously heard of, Alex Rich in Tokyo, for ID magazine in New York). When I read articles about design I don't immediately recognize where the political faultlines are running: I don't immediately think "Oh, this is a neo-functionalist position like the one X took in his 1986 book..." or "This guy's an interventionst like Y..." But above all I don't feel like design is so paralysed by the glories of its past that it's stuck in retro re-issue mode, issuing endless peans to "classic" designers, publishing magazines that deal only with the design of past decades. It may just be my unfamiliarity with the subject that makes me say this (and this might relate to my reluctance to learn Japanese: I like being baffled, because it stops me being bored) but in design, everything feels like it's still to play for. Ripping up restarts daily.