StopSmiling

Buy + Browse Back Issues

ONLINE EXCLUSIVES

eMailing List

  • Name
  • Email
EMAIL STORY PRINT STORY

Post Punk and Postpunk: The Pixies and Everybody Else in the World

Received Fictions and Other Persiflage

EMAIL STORY PRINT STORY

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Fool the World: The Oral History of a Band Called the Pixies
Josh Frank and Caryn Ganz
St. Martin?s/Griffin

Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984
Simon Reynolds
Penguin Books

The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene 1974-1984
Marvin J. Taylor, ed.
Princeton University Press

Reviews by Pat Sisson, Yo-Ma Ma and Steve Finbow

*****

Fool the World: The Oral History of a Band Called the Pixies
Josh Frank and Caryn Ganz
St. Martin?s/Griffin

Reviewed by Pat Sisson

?H?sker D?, Peter, Paul and Mary? Please no chops.? Printed in an ad in a Boston alt-weekly, this obscure phrase brought Ohio-bred DIY rocker Kim Deal into the orbit of Charles Thompson and Joey Santiago and foreshadowed the charming but psychopathic pop of their band, the Pixies. It's one of many trivial nuggets that litter authors Josh Frank and Caryn Ganz's straightforward oral history of one of alternative rock's unexpected architects. Written with the fervor of a fanzine, Fool the World: The Oral History of a Band Called the Pixies does the history part right, seamlessly integrating dozens of breathless conversations with the mismatched musicians and key bystanders. But within the rock-band bios genre, one known for lurid details and insider accounts, Fool the World falls a bit short on thrills.

Granted, it's not the fault of the authors. For a band that made music as willfully weird as the Pixies, stuffed with biblical references and piercing screams, the general impression of the group offered in the book is of a hard-working, polite bunch of kids. Tour managers and recording engineers loved their work ethic and enthusiasm. One of the most serious tales of ?substance abuse? revolves around the consumption of Jolt Cola during early sessions for their first full-scale recording, The Purple Tape. And for all the faults laid at singer/songwriter Black Francis' feet ? someone self-involved and cold, who summarily broke up the band with an impersonal fax ? he comes across as a young firebrand who followed his muse, even if it meant breaking up the band. As is befitting of an indie icon, the Pixies? story isn?t the stereotypical tale of womanizing, drug-fueled frenzies and early deaths, but rather one of offbeat, impassioned music fans dedicated to honing their songs and their craft.

That doesn?t mean the story is lacking, just that it?s different, and this book gives it the right treatment. Well-researched and wide-reaching, it chronicles the Pixies and explains the context in which they became critical darlings. Like the band's music, the book is a seemingly smooth piece of work that suddenly emits flashes of insight. (Unlike the band's career, it's a little long.) Frank refers to himself as a rock dramatist, and the story proceeds as such, with a wide cast of characters tracing the whole arc of the Pixies story. Ganz and Frank do the reader a service by letting the subject?s own words tell the story, stripping away the worshipful hyperbole used by many rock writers. It doesn?t hurt the narrative flow. Interviewees relate warning signs of the eventual clash of egos between Kim Deal and Black Francis throughout the book, building to a satisfying climax. Fool the World doesn?t have the Behind the Music-style fireworks to attract a huge audience, but it captures the bizarre ride of the Pixies so well that its merits speak for themselves.

*****

Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984
Simon Reynolds
Penguin Books

Reviewed by Yo-Ma Ma

The genius of Punk rock was originally about individuals with scant-to-nil musical training triumphing over technical limitations through sheer passion and belief in oneself against all odds. In time, Punk managed to replace one set of well-worn clich?s (mawkish songwriting, masturbatory noodlings, overwrought production values) with another set of clich?s (cheap cynicism, same-ish song structures, a uniformity of appearance and attitude as dreary and conservative as any denim-wearing metalhead?s). Sure, the Clash could rail against the evils of ?turning rebellion into money,? and they might even occasionally have got off a cogent lyrical point or two about, say, America?s sponsorship of right-wing dictatorships; but the tried-and-true verse-chorus-verse practice to which they and their legion of imitators adhered ad infinitum weren?t about to blow anyone?s minds ? minds, that is, that were worth blowing in the first place.

For a brief period following the end of Punk?s first wave, however, there were musicians who continued to propagate radical agendas ? be they political (as in left-wing anti-imperialism) or social (read: sexual) ? but at the same time wanted to play music that was as conceptually rich and forward-looking as the ideas percolating in their noggins. Rather than improvise within the form like seasoned jazz musicians, they would improvise with the forms themselves. (Or, as Genesis P?Orridge, frontman for Throbbing Gristle, put it, ?The future of music lies in non-musicians.?) We nowadays refer to the myriad of bands who came up during that period ? 1978 to 1984 ? as Postpunk; and, after reading Simon Reynolds?s recent account of that period, Rip It Up and Start Again, it?s mind-boggling to conceive, especially in today?s glum environment, how a period like that could have been allowed to occur, where such music not only could exist, but flourish commercially.

Reynolds credits a lack of imagination on the part of the music industry ? not to mention their wide-eyed panic at the swan dive music sales took during that period ? as having allowed this state of affairs to obtain for as long as it did. As commercially dismal as its first-wave prospects turned out to be, Punk?s legacy did extend beyond Mohawks and Doc Martins. Postpunk gave us such bands as Joy Division, Public Image Ltd., the Gang of Four, Devo, Pere Ubu, the Specials, Cabaret Voltaire, and Mission of Burma, to name but a few ? bands who were inspired to varying degrees by the first wave, and who in turn continue to inspire followers of their own.

Getting away from the business end of things for the moment, Reynolds also discusses the impact of Dub on the musical aesthetic of many of Postpunk?s key players, particularly the band Public Image Ltd. and producer Martin Hannett. The influence of Dub ? a fascinating example of what happens when largely pre-technological cultures (in this case Caribbean) are given modern technologies with which to make music (in particular, roots reggae) and, since their imaginations haven?t accrued the technological preconceptions of an industrial culture long accustomed to such gizmos, their visions hampered by what has already been done before, end up producing startling musical forms ? is one that few writers touch upon in their own writings about musicians of this period. Hannett, the celebrated producer of Joy Division, was a Dub fanatic who thought that Punk, for all its revolutionary energies, was sonically reactionary by comparison because of its refusal to treat the recording studio as anything other than yet another venue for Punk rockers to revel in the transient Moment. Considering the bloated monstrosities that had hitherto come slithering out of the studios of ELO and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, the disdain was understandable. But wasn?t Never Mind the Bollocks, Here?s the Sex Pistols, the seminal album of the Punk period, very much the product of professional studio polish ? the antithesis of anarchy? Surely there was another creative approach waiting to be explored; and Hannett, credited by Factory Records employer Tony Wilson as having been able to ?see sound, shape it, and rebuild it? ? and who was also, not coincidentally, a gargantuan pothead ? arguably found it with Joy Division.

The most entertaining aspect of Reynolds?s history is the wealth of irony in each anecdote he relates, providing proof that no cultural narrative, however artfully constructed, is without its contradictions, which often deserve narratives of their own. It took protracted production-room power-plays with the members of Joy Division in order for Hannett to midwife the distinctive sound of Unknown Pleasures, the band?s debut album. One reads with fascinated horror such tactics of Hannett?s as forcing drummer Steve Morris to dismantle his kit because of a perceived rattling sound, and having Morris record each part of it as a separate instrument (the bass-drum, the snare, the high hats), to avoid bleed-through of sound in the mix. ?The natural way to play drums is all at the same time,? Morris reports, audibly smarting at the memory. ?So I?d end up with my legs black and blue because I?d be tapping on them quietly to do the other bits of the kit that he wasn?t recording.? Hannett saw the studio as an instrument in itself, with its own capacity to manipulate space ? and with it the space between listener?s ears: rather than rush up on the listener like a pack of sozzled football hooligans, the sound as Hannett conceived it would advance stealthily from all corners like a detachment of crafty ninjas: as well thought-out as a government coup. Initially, Morris, singer Ian Curtis, bassist Peter Hook, and guitarist Bernard Sumner were displeased to hear the results of Hannett?s tamperings: had they their way, their version would have been more indicative of the sonic assault (and the inevitable bleed-through) of their live shows ? that is, more traditionally Punk rock. Today, the surviving members (Curtis hung himself in 1980) seem to have come to appreciate the attention to the minutest detail that Hannett brought to the mix ? the level of attention that seems possible only after you?ve stayed up for days on end listening to King Tubby while stoned on primo Ganj.

The chapters on Public Image Ltd. are rife with possibilities both explored and unattended. Following the demise of the Pistols in January 1978, vocalist John Lydon (n?e Johnny Rotten) formed Public Image Ltd. with guitarist Keith Levene and bassist Jah Wobble. The former individual was a professionally accomplished musician whose improvisatory approach to his instrument deliberately courted wrong notes and flubs; the latter had scant experience with his prior to picking it up. All three shared a love of reggae and what would later be known as world music.* You can hear those influences throughout the first three PiL albums (First Issue, Metal Box and Flowers of Romance). What?s particularly intriguing was the unfulfilled promise of PiL as a groundling communications corporation, as opposed to a mere rock band. That was what the members were selling it as in early press conferences, anyway: they spoke of the band eventually branching out into film, videos, graphics, and even designing music technology (recording devices, keyboards). This is seen by Reynolds as a continuation of the Punk project of the demystification of the record business: rather than butt their skulls against the walls of RCA like any good punk, PiL would seek to co-opt that which would co-opt them. An amusing conceit, but one that as yet hasn?t been realized in all its possibilities. Having already fulfilled at least one criterion of pre-industrial cultural practice (staying up for days on end listening to King Tubby while stoned on the finest hash), Lydon, et al. certainly had the imagination to come up with revolutionary ideas; what they lacked was the ambition and industry to make them reality. After a fact, PiL did become a corporation ? that is, a parody of a corporation: one that practiced indolence and sloth where most businesses stress discipline and goal setting. One can say it achieved 100% of its goals, only not in the commonly accepted definition of the word ?achieve.? Eventually Virgin, the band?s label, decided that it had cut Lydon as much slack as it ever would, and PiL?s days of wanton experimentation on the label?s dime effectively came to an end. Perhaps too conveniently, Reynolds identifies this particular moment (tail end of ?83) as the moment that Postpunk?s commercial and cultural influence came crashing back to earth. (Whereas we haven?t heard much of Levene or Wobble in the intervening years, Lydon has chosen to bank on his one saleable attribute ? his brief stint with the Pistols ? and has since proven himself to be as big a whore as the figures he?s derided in his lyrics.)

These are the most intriguing figures in Reynolds?s book, but they aren?t the only ones: he writes with equal assurance about Throbbing Gristle?s Burroughsian para-aesthetics (they really did seem to want to collapse governments ? nations, if at all possible), the New York No Wave scene, Brian Eno?s collaboration with the Talking Heads (Eno comes off as a bit of a manipulator in the classic Hannett mode in Reynolds?s telling), the 2-Tone ska revival (seen by Reynolds as ?one of the few examples in pop history of a revival that is not inferior to the music it?s reviving,? but rather ?may actually be better than the original sixties ska?), and the failures and successes of Malcolm McLaren (which, after awhile, begin to seem like one and the same). Occasionally he will catch you squelching spontaneous laughter, as when he mentions how in tune with the zeitgeist McLaren was when he suggested that the best thing for the English to do to weather the Thatcher years was to pretend that they were rich ? ?making the British Isles Mediterranean,? in Reynolds?s words ? and then identifies the bands who picked up on this and scored massive hits off it, such as ?Club Tropicana? by Wham! Just when you thought you could never listen to ?Rio? without laughing anyway, along comes Reynolds with an observation that gives the whole Duran Duran mise en sc?ne an added proletarian twist. It is to laugh.

* Another irony: Malcolm McLaren, the manager of the Sex Pistols, was, like Lydon, a world-music aficionado. But for their mutual distrust, the two might have made much of their shared love and branched the Pistols out beyond Never Mind the Bollocks. Oh well: history is as much a record of things that don?t happen as those that do.

*****

The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene 1974-1984
Marvin J. Taylor, ed.
Princeton University Press

Reviewed by Steve Finbow

First, let me get this off my chest. I am not mentioned in this book. I looked in the index, and between ?film/tape collaborations? and ?Finley, Karen,? no Finbow appears. Not that I should be included. I first visited New York in 1986. I did not live in New York until 1988. Along with the Surrealists? Paris of the 1920s and the Beats? New York of the 1940s and 50s, I have always wanted to be involved in this era.

Artists included in this book have shaped my life: Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine, the Ramones, Kathy Acker, Spalding Gray, and Mark Leyner to name but a few. I have even met some of them (Richard Hell, Lydia Lunch, Johnny Thunders, Jerry Nolan, Philip Glass, Rene Ricard, and Robert Wilson) and hung out or worked in a number of places mentioned (The Kitchen, CBGBs, Nuyorican Poets? Caf?, Puffys, La Mama, St Mark?s Bookshop and St Mark?s Poetry Project).

Enough with the name-dropping. And the schmoozing. On with the book review.

Because of the above, I read this book (and looked at the pictures) with a sense of nostalgia: for the years of the birth of punk/new wave/no wave; for minimalism in music from Steve Reich to The Ramones; for Keith Haring ? I still have a flyer for his Pop Shop on Lafayette Street stuck in an old metal Filofax; and for Kathy Acker?s Blood and Guts in High School, which I bought in 1984 and carried around until it became kipper-coloured, dog-eared and finally fell apart in some soggy hovel. Then nostalgia tinged with regret. Regret that the book ? a catalogue for the travelling Downtown Show ? feels like it is attempting to impart more importance on what was in reality a very fluid and disparate group of artists, or to pigeonhole artists who were against the very concept of the museum.

The book, made up of essays by academics on art, music, theatre, and film, interspersed with short pieces by people involved in the scene, anaesthetizes the power and exuberance of the period. Richard Hell and Lydia Lunch, in their short contributions, seem to be saying, ?Yeah, it was a good time, let?s move on.? Quite a few of the artists have done just that and become part of mainstream culture ? Jim Jarmusch, Debbie Harry, Cindy Sherman, even Eric Bogosian. Despite the wonderful illustrations, the book, like the so-called Downtown movement itself, has no coherence. The essays vary in tone from the academic to the anecdotal. The contributors cannot decide on whether Downtown was modernist or postmodernist, whether it prefigured postmodernism or invented postmodernism ? a grandiose and erroneous claim either way.

(An aside: as I was reading this sentence on page 46, ?Watching the Heartbreakers kick the shit out of James Chance...? the music playing on shuffle mode on my iTunes was Chinese Rocks by Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers and this was followed by James Chance and the Contortions? King Heroin ? spooky.)

Errors and sloppy research added to my disappointment. Marvin J. Taylor states in his introduction, ?This self-made and self-promoted sound led many to link punk and its fellow traveller, new wave, to postmodern theory but too often only in superficial ways.? Has he never read Greil Marcus?s Lipstick Traces? Alan Vega?s Suicide surprisingly, do not get a mention until page 94 ? and that?s by Lydia Lunch. The essayists attempt to see Downtown in isolation ? there are obvious links: Dada ? Pop Art ? Downtown; Cabaret Voltaire ? The Factory ? The Kitchen; Arthur Craven ? Spalding Gray ? Jonathan Ames; the Velvet Underground ? Television ? The Strokes; La R?volution Surr?aliste ? Just Another Asshole ? McSweeney?s; John Heartfield ? David Wojnarowicz ? Banksy. The constant attempts to interpret the Downtown scene using postmodern theory grates and the writing sometimes breaks down: ?Documenting Downtown is.? A sentence fit for Ron Silliman?s theory of the New Sentence, and not unlike Gertrude Stein?s ?Roast potatoes for.? Taylor also attempts to assert that in the summer of 2002, while reading Richard Hell?s archived journals, he found ?the smoking gun? linking punk to the late-nineteenth century avant-garde. Well, if he owned a copy of Patti Smith?s 1974 album Horses, he may have seen the connection ? Patti/Rimbaud ? earlier.

After a specious statement in his essay on the Downtown music scene that the Velvet Underground caused ?barely a ripple?, Bernard Gendron fails to link the minimalist composer Terry Riley with John Cale. Their 1971 collaborative album Church of Anthrax influenced Downtown?s crossover music scene, a scene that also saw Blondie working with Fab Five Freddy and (again, not mentioned) Chris Stein co-producing the backing tracks for the 1982 film Wild Style featuring Downtown luminaries such as Patti Astor and Glenn O?Brien and rappers/dancers/graffiti artists Grandmaster Flash, the Rock Steady Crew and Lee Quinones.

The book would have benefited from an essay on Downtown?s women artists, including Kathy Acker, Nan Goldin, Jenny Holzer, Laurie Anderson, Lynne Tillman, and Martha Wilson. There was room for expansion ? Carlo McCormick quotes Edit deAk (?We?ve been taking your shit for so long, now we?re selling it back to you at highly inflated prices?) but does not elaborate on the influence of that ethos on punk, or vice versa (Johnny Rotten?s quote, ?Ever get the feeling you?ve been cheated??) After all, Malcolm McClaren also managed the New York Dolls. Nor does it mention the influence of punk slogans ?Fuck art let?s dance? on Jenny Holzer?s artwork or Downtown slogans such as ?Dress up, have fun.? The interstitial pieces by people involved in the Downtown scene are more interesting (and better written) than the essays. Maybe an oral history would have been a better idea.

The book, despite its inconsistencies, has whetted my appetite for the period. Right now, I?m listening to Television?s Little Johnny Jewel, that?ll be followed by Psycho Killer by the Talking Heads, and then the Ramones? Beat on the Brat, I?m going to download Jean-Michel Basquiat jpegs for my iBook?s wallpaper, and I might use Keith Haring?s Radiant Child as a screensaver. Then I?m going to go down the pub to read Kathy Acker?s Great Expectations. Fuck art, let?s drink.


EMAIL STORY PRINT STORY

© 2010 Stop Smiling Media, LLC. All rights reserved.       // Site created by: FreshForm Interactive