Thursday, April 20, 2006


Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 was one of my favourite books of last year (despite the somewhat lukewarm first response I recorded at Tangents), but I was slightly confused to learn that a revised US edition had been published. Not that Americans wouldn't be interested in what happened after J. Lydon asked whether they'd ever had the feeling they'd been cheated; simply that I didn't really understand why they should need any rewrites.

The focus of the original is on the British scene, encompassing the likes of Joy Division, Gang of Four, ABC and Scritti Politti, but there's plenty of space for Talking Heads and Devo as well. When I first heard about the new version, I presumed that Reynolds had been asked to bulk up the Stateside quota. Not so, as Diedrich Diederichsen explains in Bookforum (and I must add that I haven't seen the new edition, so I'm only going on his review). Apparently, the new version actually cuts back on American content, removing material about the SST label, Black Flag and the Minutemen. According the Diederichsen, this is because these bands are considered by American fans to be 'punk'. Therefore, without entering some sordid backstage area of quantum theory, they cannot at the same time be considered 'postpunk'. So they're out.

Let's get this right. Reynolds has had to rewrite his text, not because it contains subject matter or language that will be unfamiliar to American readers, but because his analysis, context and frames of reference will not coincide with theirs. This is doubly strange: wasn't the whole point of punk/postpunk (wherever you put the dividing line) to shake consumers out of their complacent doze, as they stumbled from the aftermath of Watergate, the oil crisis and the three-day week into the maw of Reagan/Thatcherism, to a soundtrack of Peter Frampton and REO Speedwagon? But surely a rigid adherence to the notion that Black Flag is punk, and not even giving shelf space to a book that suggests otherwise, isn't that different from an unblinking conviction that Nixon (or Oliver North or Jonathan Aitken or Dick Cheney) is not a crook, and anyone who suggests otherwise is a Communist?

It's easy to make simplistic generalisations about the blinkered insularity of Americans, and everyone's got a friend of a friend who met some hick who thought Wales was a suburb of Rome. Several years ago, I worked on the North American edition of the Guinness Book of Records, which involved going through the text and excising all references to metric units of measurement. Feet and pounds and Fahrenheit were already there, incidentally; but I was informed by the head of the American office that if we left the metric conversions in as well, "it'll confuse them". Now we've got the bizarre situation where whole scenes of nominally British-set films have to be reshot for the North American versions, so as not to befuddle cineplexers with the notion that word usage might shift a little as it crosses the pond. Thus, Bridget Jones's legendary "big pants" become "panties" for transatlantic consumption. Bridget Jones would never say "panties". Tough. She does now. And why, in the Tim Burton movie, did the very English Charlie announced that he wanted to take his family "on vacation"?

Of course, this doesn't really matter when it concerns the back catalogue of Minor Threat, or what Renée Zellweger wears on her nether regions. And it's equally insignificant when a Boston newspaper publishes a list of the "unsexiest men in the world" (my emphasis) and includes such globally identifiable icons as Gilbert Gottfried, Randy Johnson and Alan Colmes (???) in the top 10.

But when the most powerful nation in the history of the planet simply can't conceive that another country might not want to embrace an off-the-peg rewrite of the American constitution and a Starbucks on every street, because they do things differently over there, it's a problem.


patroclus said...

Ahh, you see, if I were a feminist, I'd have a right go at the kind ot rigid, logical, undoubtedly male mind that invented the notion of the musical genre. Because once you've got a rigid, logical classification system, you immediately have things that don't fit, and the whole thing is instantly shot to pieces. Flexible taxonomies are in for the Noughties, I hear. Maybe someone should inform S. Reynolds.

tom l said...

is it the 'male' mind or just the 'right brain' thing? oops, more labels.

as an ignorant american who was around at the time but was mostly stoned off his ass and listening to reggae, it seemed to me that by the time "punk" got to america it was already "post-punk" in britain. our kids are still jamming baby pins in their faces because nobody told us it was over!

Spinsterella said...

Couldn't they just add a basic glossary?

Or footnotes?

Anyhow, more importantly, I have a long-held delusion that if Henry Rollins ever met me, he'd REALLY like to go out with me. I don't know why.

Tim Footman said...

Patroclus: I do see your point about genres. Funnily enough, in the Tangents review, I suggested that Reynolds wasn't prescriptive enough, and his idea of postpunk was anything within the timeframe that he liked. Now it seems that (under the baleful influence of his US pubs) he's gone to the opposite extreme. I love your idea of flexible taxonomies, and I want to appropriate it as the name of a new conceptual post-rock band, but (if only for administrative convenience) we do need categories sometimes. We just don't need to get into the near-autistic rigidity of American radio. What the fuck is "urban" music anyway?

I've invited Mr Reynolds to comment, but haven't heard back yet. Be fair, he's got a book to plug.

Pigeon Weather: Any American who was listening to reggae in the early '80s can't be ignorant (provided it wasn't, say, UB40). I think the problem is that America pretty much invented punk (New York Dolls, Ramones, Dictators, etc) but only the Brits got it. When we shipped it back to you guys, it was such half-assed chancers as Billy Idol that cleaned up. By about 1985, most Brits had the idea that US punk was all wraparound shades and those lame bands that appear in naff "niteclub" scenes in John Hughes movies. And now we’ve got Green Day. Erm… thanks…

Spin: You'd have thought so. But there’s this received wisdom going round in media circles that American consumers have gnat-like attention spans, plus a fear of the unknown… which in turn accounts for the lack of foreign news in mainstream US media. As someone said (Martin Amis? Help me out here…), "Visit America and watch your own country disappear before your eyes."

Billy said...

Musical categories suck! When I open my record shop (ideas for names gratefully received) I'll have no categories at all.

It's always independent record shops that have the worst breakdown of categories: "ska-revival-post-folk-lo-fi-emo-punk-rock" and so on.

Also, I know American consumers aren't all stupid with a low attention span. Problem is a lot of people, like you say, in the media think they are. Someone should stick their neck out and produce a complicated book for the American market. It'd go down a storm!

patroclus said...

I think I had some kind of epiphany when I created a new "indie gospel blues" tag in iTunes the other day, and then though "what *is* the point of that? Nothing else is *ever* going to go in that category."


Mind you, that sounds great.

And I'd definitely buy (download) a record (ing) by Flexible Taxonomies. Is Jim O'Rourke involved?

The Curve said...

Where will it end? Next, they won't even bother asking the original author to adapt the text; they will just employ some jobbing team of writers to make it more palatable for American consumers á la television. You wait.

Betty said...

I've got Rip It Up And Start Again in the pile of books waiting to be read. Mind you, most of the music it focuses on - Joy Division, PIL, Talking Heads etc. - was pretty much what I listened to between the ages of 16-20, so I'm not sure I would be able to glean anything new from it and it would probably be of more interest to someone younger that me.

The music of that era was fairly diverse and there wasn't really any kind of neat classification of it along the lines of postpunk. If anything it would be seen in a negative way as weird, arty or pretentious by people who thought that most of the bands were hippies who'd strayed away from the punk ideal. In 1979, rock 'n' roll was supposed to be on its last legs and all the arty hippy bands were to blame, apparently.

Now the late 1970's is seen as a golden age for music by young bands who're making a lot more money than the bands who influenced them ever did.

Erm ... sorry. Completely pointless comment. Just reminiscing. That's what old people do.

Tim Footman said...

Jim O'Rourke plays marimba and theremin on the new Flexible Taxonomies album, but most of it is Brian Eno playing the theme from Minder on a kazoo.

Curve - that's happened already. I've got the US edition of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time and they've imported "American" spelling ("gray", "pajamas") but not, oddly, word usage (so the main character wears trousers, not pants). And, of course, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone became The Sorcerer's Stone in the US because the publishers thought "philosophy" would scare off the punters.

Betty - I've just started a book called Not Abba by Dave Haslam, which takes a new look at the music and culture of the 70s - more bombs and strikes and hoolies, less of the white-flared campery.

Billy said...

indie gospel blues = The Make-Up

(well, sort of)