Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Catching Up on Music History

I met Simon Reynolds at the Pop Conference in Seattle back in 2007, where we were both presenters (on different panels). We ended up seated next to each other on the last day of the conference for the "Future of Thinking About Music for a Living" roundtable discussion. He was a pleasant enough guy and it was cool to meet him, but even with that personal connection and the fact that his book Rip It Up and Start Again is clearly right in my wheelhouse, I had not read the book before now.

Well, I take that back. After that roundtable, I recall having quite a bit of time to kill before my flight home that afternoon, so I wandered around downtown Seattle and found a bookstore to hole up in. While there, I read the chapter
in Rip It Up on Pere Ubu and Devo and the Northeast Ohio influence on postpunk, along with perusing some of the 33 1/3 books that were written by some of my fellow panelists and others I’d met that weekend.

But this has been a fun year of filling embarrassingly huge holes in my personal music history knowledge. I finally got around to reading the incredible oral history of punk, Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. I also picked up I Swear I Was There: The Gig that Changed the World by David Nolan, another oral history that attempts to piece together who actually attended and the band genealogy that sprung out of the two Sex Pistol shows at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester. And now, Rip It Up.

I can’t play a lick and Tracy would kill me if I attempted to carry a tune, but I love music. I love all kinds of music, but classic punk that bleeds into postpunk and alternative (what we called “college radio” back in the day) holds special sway over me from both a nostalgic perspective and an objective stance. There is a rich history to this branch of the rock and roll tree, and it’s great to have it chronicled so precisely. And Rip It Up is precise. If you’re looking for the loose and laid-back approach of Please Kill Me, this isn’t it.

Topically, Rip It Up is the perfect sequel to Please Kill Me. But Rip It Up takes a decidedly more academic, music journalistic bent in its approach, tone, and delivery. And this is not a complaint, because Reynolds is good at what he does. The book is a deep-dive into what punk begat, tracing the evolution from its beginnings with PiL rising from the fevered brain of Johnny Lydon after the dissolution of the Sex Pistols, spiraling out to synthpop, MTV, Goth, and beyond. Reynolds breaks things down chapter-by-chapter, with each one focusing on a specific sub-group or geographic location or set of similar artists within the larger postpunk movement.

2009 seems to have turned into The Year Adam Got Up-to-Speed on All the Music Reading Essentials He Previously Overlooked. If you’re digging on this topic, you should definitely check out Synth Britannia (in which Reynolds is the only non-musician talking head). And if you enjoyed 2002’s 24 Hour Party People, Anton Corbijn’s beautiful Ian Curtis biopic, Control, is a must see.

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