My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was an exhausting book to read, in part, because the author was so exhaustive in his research and, thus, the book is a thorough overview of British, and to a lesser extent, American post-punk rock. It’s also a strangely intellectual book, and at times, it felt like I was reading a modern history textbook.
Early on, Reynolds discusses the demise of punk and the (odd) opinion that The Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind the Bollocks” actually signaled the end of punk — not the height of its glory. He shows post-punk to be distinct from punk and New Wave, among others. The post-punk bands that followed punk wanted to continue the revolution that it began but failed to fulfill. There was a sense of existing to negate the corporate hit-making machinery and ideology of 70s-era prog and commercial rock, or at least until New Pop and New Wave came along and flailed against such post-punk rebellion by emulating the most listener-friendly pop forms. These early post-punk bands began exploring other forms of music, such as experimentation with art rock, electronics, dub, reggae, funk, and even disco. Some of these early post-punk bands wanted to make a wall of noise and often the bands were made up of a collective as opposed to trained musicians. Often, the traditional instruments (guitars, drums, etc.) were completely ignored for synths and tapes, as well as other assorted unknown instruments. If there were even concerts, film and theater often played large roles. Audience participation was often encouraged.
The book is divided into two halves: one is pure post-punk and the second is “new pop and new rock.” As a result, it read like two distinctly different books. The first chapter is about PIL (Public Image Limited), Johnny Rotten’s band he formed after ditching the Sex Pistols. According to Reynolds, PIL was the start of the post-punk movement. However, numerous other bands formed and began playing, such as Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, Devo, Gang of Four, Wire, Pere Ubu, Throbbing Gristle, and tons of bands I’ve never heard of. The second half begins with The Specials, before moving on to ska and Bow Wow Wow, as well as the New Romantics, such as Adam Ant. The author goes further into groups like Gary Numan, Haircut 100, ABC, Duran Duran, and pretty much ties it all together with Madonna, of all people, at the end of the book. It’s a very exhaustive look at hundreds of bands and many scenes throughout the UK and America. And that kind of presents a bit of a problem. The chronology of the book’s chapters runs back and forth as different scenes and genres are covered, which was occasionally confusing. Everything was thrown into the mix together — the bands, band missions, various genres, record stores, record labels, clubs, new types of technology — everything. It was nearly overwhelming.
One of the major problems of the book was its tendency of the chapters to follow a pattern that got a little old fairly soon. Reynolds first discusses a specific post-punk hot spot, often geographically (such as Manchester, Liverpool, NYC, San Francisco, etc.). He then discusses the best band, or several bands, from that scene before mentioning virtually every band possible from that same scene or hot spot. Like I said, it gets a little old….
Another major problem I had with the book was its insistence that this second British invasion was the most important musical movement since the first, citing hundreds of bands, most of whom I’ve never even heard of, and I’d wager many other people never have either. Among the bands Reynolds discusses are The Pop Group, New Age Steppers, Delta 5, The Future, Teenage Jesus, This Heat, Tuxedomoon, Factrix, A Certain Ratio, and so many more. Many of these bands he discusses as so very relevant never even released an album, and those that did usually just released an EP or one debut album that sold something like 5,000 copies and they were never heard from again. I fail to understand why so many of these, frankly, unimportant bands were deemed worthy of inclusion.
The book, and many of the bands in it, pay homage to some that came before them, such as Captain Beefheart, Roxy, Bowie, Eno, etc, and that’s cool. It’s really not a bad read and I learned a lot. I just think a lot of it was unnecessary and I question the author’s intentions. Did he just want to expand the book’s pages to charge more? I also could have done with a little less (band) name dropping and more detail on some of the more significant bands. However, it was good to see personal favs like Bauhaus, The Cure, Sisters of Mercy, and Skinny Puppy mentioned. I’d recommend this book for any 70s music fan and many music enthusiasts, but it’s a bit of a cautious recommendation. I think you have to wade through a lot of crap to get to the good stuff, and that’s a bit of a pity — but it’s ultimately worth it.
About Scott C. Holstad
Scott Holstad is the poetry editor for Ray’s Road Review.