Rising from the Ashes of Punk
I’m guilty. I’m guilty of subscribing to the punk idea of being anti- minded, of choosing to rage against the machine and destroy it without lending any thought as to how to deal with the aftermath. Answering the question “Now, what?” is a basic responsibility and for a while, I wasn’t capable of doing that. Well, I was a stupid teenager then and in a sense, punk was just another stupid, angst-filled teen. Influential, too. I credit Simon Reynolds for pointing out punk’s caveat of indulgent self-destruction and nearsightedness.
“The very prefix ‘post-’ implied faith in a future that punk said didn’t exist.”
Yes, he’s referring to postpunk, which is the heart of his articulations, analyses and narratives in Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984. Despite my leafing through the opening pages, I’m writing about it this early to jumpstart my awareness. The musical style has played an essential part in my taste and partially in the music I make so the topic deserves due attention. Bands like Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Talking Heads have always fascinated me, given that their sophistication and lyrical rumination (whether inward or outward) were so divorced from the preceding genre.
Reynolds complained that this period has been unfairly overlooked by music historians and I’ll have to take his stand on the issue. I think it’s about time people killed the presumption that postpunk consisted of only the dark and the moody, although I can understand where the bias is coming from. Several bands in the era were instigated by students from art school. These blokes were all about the highbrow and the esoteric. Band names were taken from surrealist artists, while lyrical styles were influenced by the likes of Kafka and Dostoyevsky. But then postpunk deserves more appreciation than it has been receiving. It actually drew from a wealth of sources, like African and Cuban percussions and ska. It may be a genre of dark hues, but it boasts of flag-worthy colors.
Postpunk descended from minimalism and art rock, which punk formerly choke-held and publicly stoned in its reign. Reynolds maintains that the period of postpunk can actually rival the 60s in terms of its innovation and cultural contribution. Sadly, people tend to, well, not see it this way. Maybe the general perception (or lack thereof) remains so because of a lack of understanding – or excess of overlooking – take your pick.
I myself have yet to dive into this pool of knowledge and history. I “get” the genre but only on a competent listener’s level. I say so given the self-claim that I’m a perceptive listener, which is a requirement for musicianship. I get that Ian Curtis’ drift was bleak, thoughtful and hurting, with songs like “Digital” and “Eternal” following him to the grave. I knew that Siouxsie and the Banshees were dazzling (confusing at times), not just because of the music but because of the fantasy in the poetry and eyeliner.
I’m still getting to know the genre better and like a true student, I’m hitting the books again. Rip It Up is the first of Reynolds’ two books on postpunk, the second being Totally Wired: Postpunk Interviews and Overviews. I’ll deal with the latter later. Rip It Up has been named Book of the Year by NME in 2006. Let’s see if it’s worth the badge. From what I’ve read, I reckon that it is.