Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978–1984

Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978–1984



The Pequod Review:

Simon Reynolds's excellent book Rip It Up and Start Again profiles the post-punk era — specifically the period after Sid Vicious's overdose (which ended the Sex Pistols) when an astonishingly diverse collection of American and British bands would emerge. Reynolds structures each chapter of his book around a band or collection of bands — Talking Heads, Devo, Joy Division, The Fall, etc. — and while he satisfactorily covers their biographical details, Reynolds's real strength is in his musical insights. Here is his profile of Talking Heads:

Talking Heads' rhythm section, [Tina] Weymouth and [Chris] Frantz, steeped themselves in funk and disco. Weymouth told Sounds that the couple jostled over the hi-fi controls — she boosting the bass, Frantz turning up the treble to hear the hi-hat patterns. Weymouth developed a style of playing bass using her thumb that was roughly equivalent to the slap-bass technique pioneered by Larry Graham from Sly and the Family Stone. "It gives an incredible piston action, like fuel-injection-fed," Weymouth explained. Byrne, meanwhile, had started to believe that the production techniques in black dance music (disco's extended remixes, the sumptuous layering, and thick textures from everyone from the Jacksons to Parliament-Funkadelic) constituted a bigger music revolution than punk. "When you started getting people doing the early remixes -- stretching the song out, chopping it up -- it was great," he recalls. "And it was all happening in the dance world, it wasn't happening in the rock world at all."


Weymouth's bass became the band's second melodic voice after Byrne's singing. "It's an enormous temptation to play lead parts and melodies, especially as I play in approximately the same range as the human voice," Weymouth told Melody Maker in 1977. "I always tend to fill in the middle tones, because if I played very low bass there'd be this huge gap like the Grand Canyon between my bass and David's guitar."

Later he covers David Byrne's and Brian Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts:

Speaking to Musician in 1979, Eno talked about the three areas he and Byrne planned to weave together: disco funk, Arabic music from North Africa, and West African polyrhythms. "Things sound really messy and it's a kind of mess I've never had on anything before," he enthused. "It's a sort of jungle sound." Soon a fourth element entered the picture: found voices. Eno and Byrne became fascinated with American radio's menagerie of evangelist preachers, right-wing pundits, callers phoning in to live talk radio shows. Radio, it seemed to Eno, was America's seething id, its political unconscious. "In Britain or Europe, the presenters are picked for their qualities of calmness and obvious rationality," he told the Guardian. "Here you get the nuttiest people in charge of the airwaves." Tuning in to the born-again fundamentalists, they soon noticed "a contradiction" at the heart of the ranting and raving, says Byrne. "Some of it was declamatory finger waving, but with a lot of the preaching there was this ecstatic element. The performance was saying the opposite of what the text was saying. The words were all 'thou shalt not' but the delivery itself was completely sexual. I thought, 'Great, the conflict is embodied right there.'" Similarly, the fervor of Baptist and Pentecostal congregations struck Byrne as "very similar to wild rock concerts or disco, the communal feeling where everyone gets swept up."

Collecting radio voices for their polyrhythmic collages, Eno and Byrne found themselves most attracted to the born-again Christian preachers because of their rocking-and-a-rolling speech patterns, midway between conversation and incantation. When people speak passionately they speak in melodies," Eno told the East Village Eye. Eventually they asked themselves why the fundamentalists sounded better than the regular announcers, and concluded it was because they transmitted "a sense of energy and commitment to some belief or other" -- a fervor that felt weirdly alluring against the bland backdrop of anomie and drift that was Carter's America...

Musically, Bush of Ghosts took the techniques first broached in "Drugs" and "I Zimbra" to the next level. In search of ultravivid and ear-baffling timbres, Eno and Byrne drastically extended the sonic range of conventional instruments through processing and effects. Inspired as much by Steve Reich's cellular compositions as by African drum choirs, they explored a kind of maxi-minimalism, in which a multitude of instruments each played very simple parts but inter-locked to form a complex, ever shifting mesh of textured rhythm. Two new approaches also informed the album: a "Fourth World" mix of the acoustic and the high-tech (so that hand percussion and the noise of wood mingled with state-of-the-art digital delays and synths), and a sensurround ambience that Eno called the "psychedelic wash."

The book's later sections (on more commercially-oriented bands like Human League and U2) are not quite as strong, but this is still a dense and literate profile of the post-punk era.