Simon Reynolds’s collection of interviews and essays, Totally Wired, sheds further light on the author’s definitive book on post-punk, 2006’s Rip It Up and Start Again. In its best chapters, Totally Wired is so conversational and discursive that it’s possible to get lost in all the interconnections, gossip, and reminiscences without having read Rip It Up first. The irony here, of course, is that Reynolds—now in Los Angeles after nearly two decades in New York (and, full disclosure, a friend)—has railed at length against rock history’s tendency to “auto-cannibilise its own necrotic myth-flesh.”
Why does this sequel (or, really, more like an bonus disc of outtakes) escape that taint? Mainly because Reynolds’s doesn’t define post-punk as a particular musical style (as in the gigabytes of Gang of Four and Joy Division rip-off bands clogging Pitchfork readers’ hard drives), but as a time period, spanning 1978 to 1984. That era was notable for the crop of musicians who explored the territory that punk had opened up, translating its agitation and aggression into something less beholden to three-chord rock. Self-awareness and experimentation were hallmarks of the period, and recent bands like the LCD Soundsystem and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are still learning from those lessons.
That self-awareness works in Totally Wired’s favor; most of the thirty-two interviewees here conceived of their work as critically as Reynolds examines it, and even better, many are still willing to argue about it. Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill says their song “Capital (It Fails Us Now)” was “definitely coming from the Benny Hill end of Marxism,” insisting that the band’s stance was “very much not from a theoretical point of view.” (Gill also provides the most succinct sum-up of Gang of Four’s abrasive stance ever: “We were against warmth.”) Orange Juice’s Edwyn Collins mocks the personal-is-political tenor of the times, needling Green Gartside singer of Marxist squatters-turned-wracked guitar band Scritti Politti (who later, improbably, became glossy pop stars): “They’d be talking about things that I just thought were insane. ‘Is it cool to have penetrative sex?’ Stuff like that!” Gartside, a Welsh son of Tories and author of “Perfect Way,” the most hyper-theoretical US hit ever, provides as much of a backbone to Reynolds’s book as anyone this side of John Lydon. Gartside describes his days in squats and the dawning of the idea that Scritti Politti could be pop stars, bursting into laughter when Reynolds reminds him of his semi-rapped vocal on a 1982 B-side called “Jacques Derrida.”
Toward the end of the book, Reynolds expresses an understandable dissatisfaction with post-punk redux: “By definition, if they are harking back to post-punk, they are betraying post-punk, whose spirit was not to hark back!” But Reynolds’s two books have made gazing back at the era (musically or otherwise) seem too relevant and vital to pass up. In the same essay that Reynolds railed against “necrotic myth-flesh,” he also lauded “rock lit [that] . . . transmits the present-tense heat of obsession.” That intensity may be difficult to recapture musically, but it’s found throughout Totally Wired.
Michaelangelo Matos is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.