In January 1978, the Sex Pistols, then and now the most famous punk band in the world, split up. Johnny Rotten, the band’s singer, most unstable musical element, and most adored and reviled member, had had enough. For the next nine months he largely disappeared from view, except for a promise to the music press that he would return with a new band who would be ‘anti-music of any kind’. That autumn, Rotten unveiled his new enterprise: Public Image Ltd, or PiL for short. Starting with its name, inspired by Muriel Spark’s novel The Public Image, PiL was intended to be a step away from the rock tradition, which punk, for all its reforming impatience and vaguely revolutionary sentiments, had still belonged to. PiL were going to be not just a band, but a ‘communications company’: a film-maker and accountant were members, along with Rotten – now using his more sober real name, John Lydon – and three other musicians. In October, PiL released their first product, a single called, with corporate thoroughness, ‘Public Image’. It was a streamlined, surging noise that hadn’t been heard before, and reached number nine in the charts, impressive even in the volatile British Top 40 of the late 1970s.
PiL quickly tired of their initial sound – which U2 and other later, bigger bands would spend their careers calming down and refining – and started trying out several others. Their first album, also called Public Image, came out within weeks: it slowed their music down to a trudge, then sped it up into skittering disco, took away the guitars, then turned them up unprecedentedly loud, made Lydon sound like a drowning man one minute, a Smurf the next. ‘The idea,’ according to Keith Levene, PiL’s brittle-looking and sounding guitarist, ‘was to break through conditioning.’ The following year, they produced a second album, Metal Box. It came packaged as a circular film canister, stamped with the PiL logo and just wider than a conventional vinyl LP, containing three records for the listener to prise out – almost impossible to do without scratching them – and play in any order. The songs, when you got to them, were even stranger than before: long stretches of circling rhythm, Levene’s guitar like breaking glass, deep throbs of bass and blips and hums of synthesiser, and Lydon wailing opaque but suggestive lines about the war in Northern Ireland and the ‘bland, planned idle luxury’ of British suburbia.
In the 1979 end-of-year issue of the New Musical Express, then a key annual event for serious young men and women, Metal Box came second in the critics’ poll (the much more palatable Talking Heads came first). PiL, still in their early twenties, talked confidently about greater breakthroughs to come. ‘I’m not going to play anything that’s ever been played before,’ Levene would tell visitors to PiL’s headquarters in Chelsea. PiL were going to work with film and video, design their own instruments, and invent a portable recording studio the size of a briefcase. In fact, they produced very little. There was one more album, Flowers of Romance, that sounded so sparse and alien it was difficult to decide – and still is – whether it was a dead end or a whole new rock language. There was a PiL concert in New York at which the musicians played hidden behind a giant video screen as a conceptual gesture, provoking a riot among dissatisfied customers. And then, in mid-1983, Levene was sacked by Lydon. PiL turned into an intermittently successful, more or less conventional rock band. Lydon started calling himself Johnny Rotten again, and turned himself into an intermittently successful, more or less conventional media pantomime villain. He was last widely noticed swearing a lot and then walking out of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me out of Here.
The rise and fall of PiL, recounted by Simon Reynolds with great vividness and detail, is the archetypal story of the tumultuous pop music era of the late 1970s and early 1980s, known rather bloodlessly since as post-punk. Until recently, the PiL story was one of the few about post-punk that even keen students of rock history could be guaranteed to know. For while punk has long been seen as a great cultural turning point, with its photogenic protagonists and their seemingly bold assault on the derided mid-1970s status quo, and has generated a literature to match, the more diffuse and ambitious musical movement that succeeded it in Britain and America has been neglected. In the mid-1980s, when I started reading the NME, post-punk seemed to have already been forgotten by music journalists, who in the way of the British music press had quickly moved on to other pop fashions. By the late 1980s, enough time had elapsed for post-punk to be no longer considered a total embarrassment, and some of the movement’s impressively austere-sounding names – Gang of Four, Magazine, Josef K – were mentioned occasionally as influences on younger musicians. But these post-punk bands remained cults at best. Their music was angular and difficult; many of them had recorded very little; most of them had split up within a year or two of forming. If anything, post-punk was regarded as a cautionary tale about the limits of what could be achieved by pop musicians with avant-garde ambitions. Reynolds sees it as the opposite. Post-punk, he argues, was ‘way more interesting’ than punk, musically, politically and intellectually. More than that, post-punk
rivals those fabled years between 1963 and 1967 commonly known as the ‘Sixties’ … in terms of the sheer amount of great music created, the spirit of adventure and idealism … and the way that the music seemed inextricably connected to the political and social turbulence of the times. There was a similar mood … of anticipation and anxiety, a mania for all things new and futuristic coupled with fear of what the future had in store.
These are brave claims. Writing about the history of pop music, like pop music itself, has its steadily accumulating conventions, and perhaps the most entrenched is the idea that pop is set on a new course roughly once a decade by a great upheaval: Elvis in the 1950s, the Beatles in the 1960s, punk in the 1970s, acid house in the late 1980s, digital R&B in the late 1990s. Reynolds’s account of post-punk challenges this pattern, not just by questioning punk’s importance, but by suggesting that changes in pop music are not nearly so neat and episodic: ‘Part of this book’s argument’ is that ‘revolutionary movements in pop culture have their widest impact after the “moment” has allegedly passed, when ideas spread from the metropolitan bohemian elites and hipster cliques that originally “own” them, and reach the suburbs and the regions.’
This is a lot for a pop critic to cover. Yet Reynolds is an unusual one. He is not old by the increasingly middle-aged standards of the profession – when he first fell for PiL in 1978 he was in his early teens ‘in a Hertfordshire commuter town’ – but he has been writing ambitiously about pop in books and music papers and magazines for twenty years. His preoccupations have always been the same: first, describing how songs actually sound, a task most pop critics attempt as little as possible, given the difficulty and the risk of sounding pretentious; and second, describing how pop changes through the interplay of talent, technology and social context. Sometimes he can sound a little donnish. As a student at Oxford in the mid-1980s, he set up a precocious journal called Monitor that looked at pop music partly through the lens of literary theory. However, Reynolds is too fond of slang and adjectives, and too broad in his musical tastes, to let his writing get too dry. This long book is full of odd stories as well as erudition. It is also surprisingly timely. When he had the idea of writing it, four years ago, post-punk was still an esoteric taste. Nowadays, it is probably the most fashionable pop music there is. Seemingly all the successful new guitar bands of recent years, from Franz Ferdinand to the Rapture to Interpol, have based their look and sound on it, right down to the exact jerkiness of their guitar riffs and the close fit of their tucked-in shirts. Veterans of the movement such as Gang of Four have reformed; forgotten extremists such as the Pop Group are having their few recordings hurriedly reissued.
Yet for all this activity, mysteries about post-punk remain: about where this great ferment came from, and why it ended so quickly; about the relationship between the movement and the rapidly changing Britain and America of the late 1970s and early 1980s; and about whether anything like post-punk will ever happen in pop music again. It was an unlikely artistic coalition from the beginning. Despite its name, the movement had some of its roots in the period before punk. During the first half of the 1970s, pop music was famously dominated by glossy, bombastic genres like prog rock, but in pop such historical generalisations are rarely the whole story. In Britain, with its tradition of bands forming at art school and a music press impressed by bold gestures, there remained room for a pop avant-garde. Brian Eno, one of its central figures, was doing some teaching at Watford Art College when he began getting lifts back into London with one of the other tutors. Sometimes there would be a further passenger, a student called Colin Newman. As they drove, the three of them would talk, and Newman’s sense of himself was gradually transformed: ‘I was no longer just a rather poor student but a friend and an equal – an artist sitting in a car with other artists. I could babble on about my ideas.’
In 1976, while punk was still in its early stages, Newman and three others formed a band called Wire. The bassist, Graham Lewis, ‘a fashion graduate doing freelance design for London boutiques’, tells Reynolds they chose the name for its ‘graphic quality’. At first, such signs of ambition beyond the usual rock moves – Wire also liked to stand still onstage, like mannequins – were missed. Wire’s short, dense songs were misinterpreted as standard punk rants. But as their tunes grew longer and stranger during 1977 and 1978, people began to realise Wire belonged to another tribe. A baffled NME reviewer, presented with a Wire LP partly inspired by a Radio Four programme about a holly-chewing bug called the serpentine miner, decided they were hippies. This was not quite true: Wire’s sound was too steely and their hair was too short. Yet something of the wholefood era lived on in post-punk. The movement’s politics were the counterculture’s restless mixture of left-wing and entrepreneurial thinking. Rough Trade, the pioneering independent record label that put out much of post-punk’s best music, was based in Ladbroke Grove, then an inner London suburb of squats and lingering 1960s atmospheres. The label was partly run as a collective, with equal pay, a tea-making rota and ‘constant meetings’. On the other side of the capital, Throbbing Gristle, one of post-punk’s darker entities – ‘Slug Bait’ and ‘Discipline’ were typical song titles – lived in a commune in Hackney whose sexual and other experiments were not for the faint-hearted.
Elsewhere, the more benign influence of early 1970s feminism was apparent in post-punk: all-female or mostly female bands such as the Slits and the Raincoats broke with the pop convention that women should be passive and decorative singers who required male assistance rather than self-contained and innovative musicians. Yet the movement wasn’t made up only of worldly grown-ups such as the Raincoats’ Ana da Silva, who was 27 when they formed, had a doctorate and had written a thesis on Bob Dylan. It also contained excited teenagers. Mark Stewart was a 6’7’’ white boy from Bristol who loved black music. In 1978, aged 17, he and four others formed the Pop Group. The conceptual cockiness of their name hinted at the scale of their ambitions. They intended to fuse the most avant-garde elements of reggae, jazz, funk and guitar rock. Previous attempts to combine even a couple of these genres had defeated everyone except very rare, much more experienced talents such as Miles Davis and Captain Beefheart, but the Pop Group were undeterred: not only did they plan to create a new music, they planned to use it to carry the most challenging political lyrics. The music press, which was going through a highbrow phase almost unimaginable today, could not have invented a more perfect prospect. That September, without having released a record, the Pop Group appeared on the cover of the NME. With their pale sweaty cheekbones and possessed stares, they already looked like stars from some alternative pop universe. The only problem was the music: when it emerged the following year, their first album, called Y, was a mess, alternately frantic and meandering, with only two or three songs in which all the shrieks and clangs added up to something. The NME called Y ‘a brave failure’. A year and one more album later, the Pop Group disbanded.
Reynolds tells such stories of impossible hopes and subsequent cul-de-sacs colourfully and thoroughly. He describes the way busy, incestuous post-punk scenes flowered and died in British and American cities between 1977 and 1980, not just in the usual bohemian centres such as London and San Francisco, but in emptying industrial towns like Sheffield and Akron, Ohio, a rubber-manufacturing city which briefly became so hip that in July 1978 the British music paper Sounds (now defunct) organised a competition to win a trip there. Reynolds explains the relationship between post-punk and urban decay with a sociological acuteness beyond most music journalists: ‘There’s something about cities that were once prosperous … bohemia can flourish. There’s the material legacy of former prosperity: handsomely endowed colleges, art schools, museums, galleries; grand houses grown shabby and cheap to rent; derelict warehouses and empty factories, easily repurposed as rehearsal or performance spaces.’
But in his writing about the bands there is an element of repetition; his comprehensiveness – the curse perhaps of too much fluency and knowledge – and the similarity of so many post-punk trajectories make the book feel at times more like something to refer to than to read straight through. And Reynolds never fully explains why the movement faded so quickly during the early 1980s. At the first Futurama festival, a sort of post-punk mini-Woodstock in 1979, the bands were hailed as visionaries; after the second Futurama in 1980, the movement was already being derided by some music journalists as just a lot of gloomy men in very long overcoats. The fickleness of the music press aside, Reynolds hints that the impatience of post-punk was one reason for its demise: bands burned through their stocks of ideas too rapidly. ‘Our problem is that we never wanted to repeat,’ says David Thomas, singer with the early American post-punk group Pere Ubu. ‘That desire … became as much of a trap as trying to repeat formulas the way some bands do.’ Yet Reynolds is too busy working through all his overlapping band biographies to pursue this promising line of thought for long.
He also pays less attention than he might to the idea that post-punk was outflanked by bigger social and political trends. At the end of the 1970s, when most of the post-punk bands started, it was possible for pop musicians (and a lot of other people) to believe that Britain was in terminal crisis, and that the times called for appropriately bleak, iconoclastic music. By 1982 or 1983, with a conspicuous minority of Britons doing well out of Thatcherism – sailing round the country for his book Coasting, Jonathan Raban noted the number of new yachts – the apocalyptic sound and rhetoric of post-punk seemed out of date.
In the second half of the book, Reynolds describes how the movement’s more pragmatic musicians left the genre behind and made more profitable careers in the pop mainstream during the mid-1980s. Synthesiser groups such as Human League, stadium rock bands such as Simple Minds, even Madonna – all are convincingly shown to be inheritors of ideas about how to look and sound, and often of personnel, from the post-punk era. Even a music critic who championed the movement in its heyday, Paul Morley, was able to go from the NME to masterminding the rise of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, who had three successive number one singles in 1984 and in whose sometimes subversive lyrics and clever sleeve notes traces of post-punk experimentalism could still be discerned. As the book widens into a history of much of 1980s pop music, and includes artists who clearly mean less to Reynolds than the post-punk groups, it loses some of its intensity. But it’s not hard to imagine these chapters as a jumping-off point for some future revisionist Reynolds volume about pop under Reagan and Thatcher. And there is one successful 1980s band with post-punk roots which does command his full attention here. In telling its story, the book comes closest to explaining why the movement hit a dead end, how some of its participants were able to find a way out, and at what cost.
Scritti Politti began as an intense but amateurish collective of musicians and non-musicians named after an approximation of the title of a book by Antonio Gramsci. They were based in a London squat, took speed, read philosophy books, talked all night and gradually developed a unique ramshackle sound. Their first record was called ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’. It ebbed and flowed for twice the duration of a normal single, and its lyrics were concerned with a lonely girl, Italian revolutionary politics and the empty rebelliousness of being in a rock band. At a time when post-punk seemed to be opening up new possibilities for pop on an almost monthly basis, this was perhaps the most seductive of all: a pop that was about romance and about the wider world and also cleverly about itself, with a warm current of melody, so often missing from post-punk, keeping the whole thing buoyant and desirable.
But this alchemy was exhausting. ‘We were a sick group,’ remembers Green Gartside, Scritti Politti’s singer and guitarist. ‘I used to read and write a lot, which was the only thing I did apart from being debauched.’ In 1980, two years of relentless self-examination and experiment in Scritti Politti caught up with him: the morning after one of the band’s heavily improvised concerts Gartside suffered a paralysing anxiety attack that put him in hospital. Convalescing, he decided that the band should change direction by dropping their political lyrics and dramatically polishing their sound. Over the next five years, he imposed his will. The Scritti Politti collective became a trio, then Gartside plus orthodox musicians chosen by him. The group’s music became as sweet as Abba’s, the words as stylised and uplifting as Madonna’s. References to Derrida and Lacan and the latest styles of dance music were woven into Scritti Politti’s mid-1980s hit singles, but when you heard the records on the radio as a teenager they were easy to miss. Gartside himself, with his huge Bambi eyes and flicked-back blond hair, had been striking to look at even in his Marxist period; now he appeared on record sleeves photographed in luxury settings and bearing at least a passing resemblance to Princess Diana. ‘Any attempts to tie it to Thatcherism’, he insisted, were ‘nonsense’, but the arc of Scritti Politti’s career was undeniably a political statement.
This year, Rough Trade, one of post-punk’s few survivors, released a compilation of the group’s early recordings. When I bought it – this book will send readers of a certain age hurrying to record shops – I was amazed to see that Gartside had agreed to write the sleeve notes. My surprise lasted as long as his first two sentences: ‘It’s been a long, long time since I heard this stuff. It sounds like some anti-produced labour of negativity, kind of structurally unsound and exposed, by design and default.’ But by the end of the notes he has relented a little: ‘Although this music doesn’t seem equal to conveying the ideas and influences that informed it … I found it evocative of extraordinary times … Hopefully you’ll find it at least – um – interesting. There’s some nice bits, especially the drumming and the bass playing.’
Some original fans of the young Scritti Politti and post-punk generally may have equally mixed feelings, for different reasons, about their undomesticated, once obscure music being tamed and repackaged in compilations. Compressed into an hour, the shocks and stop-start pace of these bands’ careers lose some of their allure. The success of Franz Ferdinand and the other current post-punk revivalists, with their brighter, neater versions of the original sounds – and little of post-punk’s refreshing appetite for other genres such as electronic music – may also erode some of the movement’s cultish appeal and mystery. The same could even be said of this book, with its lists of participants and its countless assessments and its research so conscientious that we learn that David Sylvian, singer with Japan, a band only slightly connected to post-punk, was the son of a ratcatcher. But there aren’t many books about pop music as good as this one, just as there aren’t many pop eras with as much interesting unfinished business as 1978 to 1984. Perhaps one day Johnny Rotten, who has been living in Los Angeles since then, will have a look at Rip It Up and Start Again. PiL could always re-form, and break one more punk taboo. Turn it into a rock opera.