Everybody I know who loves great music books adored the post-punk Bible Rip It Up and Start Again by Simon Reynolds when it came out a few years ago. It simply captured a complex era which keeps inspiring bands and writers since the first flames of punk rock were lit beneath the asses of dance and art music.
Fans in the UK have been able to enjoy Totally Wired, Reynolds’ sumptuously detailed collection of superbly edifying conversations with those artists which made up the spine and meat of Rip It Up for a couple of years. American publisher Soft Skull has brought out the collection in the States recently, and a big surprise is the well-thought out and challenging overviews of the 1978-1984 musical period in the back of the book. This includes “John Lydon and Public Image Ltd.: two Biographies,” “Joy Division: Two Movies,” “One, Eno, Arto: Non-Musicians and the Emergence of ‘Concept Rock,” “The Blasting Concept: Los Angeles, SST, and ‘Progressive Punk,’” and even more pungent-modern goodness. Martin Rushent is here, too, the inspiration behind his spare textures as scrupulously examined as the jag-grooves and emotional shrapnel of Metal Box are fondly captured personally, commercially, and culturally.
Grew up through all of it over in England, craving the vibe and buying all the obscure 45s and underground tapes and rare bootlegs he could get his hands on, and now living in Los Angeles, Reynolds is as skilled an essayist as he is an interviewer. That’s saying a lot of someone who chats with Cabaret Voltaire’s Richard H. Kirk and basically captures everything you need to know about how avant-garde and DIY aesthetics became the energy which shot out the spark of punk but laid something even deeper. (Seriously, buy this book if only for the Kirk chat alone, which discusses the science fiction books read, the homemade instruments made, and the Nazis one always had to fight in the marginalist underground. And oh yeah, the joyous unity of creation in poverty and struggle and enjoying the deep thrills of making history with your friends.)
Not only is Totally Wired a quite necessary companion piece to Rip It Up, it may be among the most holy rock write relics you’ll have in your collection when you retire to your music/book library to bliss out and get nervous to your reissues’ reissues of Gang Of Four, Joy Division, The Associates, Josef K, Lydia Lunch, Pere Ubu, Ludus, Husker Du, Orange Juice -- and so many others that somehow keep an immortal loop on the ultimate pop cool.
Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock (Voyageur Press) pretty much just reviewed itself with its title, but let me add that Andrew Earles (Pitchfork, Spin, Alternative Press, The Onion, et al) uses a very straightforward narrative to show how Bob Mould, Grant Hart, and Greg Norton filled otherwise darkened Reagan-era hearts with rock hopes. And that’s rock beyond “hardcore” -- Husker Du could never be pegged down, from their caustic first seven inch (“Status” b/w “Amusement”) to the everlasting SST release for their marriage of psychedelic and punk with the “Eight Miles High” cover and the double LP apex of their creative spillage, Zen Arcade; from the UK and Europe-storming Flip Your Wig into the occasional acoustic fringes on Candy Apple Grey, and the second and final full-on rock awesomeness of the underrated Warner Brothers release, Warehouse Songs And Stories.
Just looking at the genres of the various compilations which claimed the early American band’s songs, which include hardcore, alternative rock, DIY hard rock, acid punk, and more, including a kiss from the emo scene of the mid-late 90s which realized Husker Du’s ability to morph personal outrage with total guitar-frenzied ferociousness. Husker Du were one of those bands everybody could love as privately in public as they wanted to. It was heresy to not embrace the band’s ability to carry the rock message from basement show to club blow-out, and place the records proudly between your Bob Dylans and your imports of The Fall. No other rock band captures their hometown Minneapolis with all its boldness, bitterness, and bravery of being between coasts -- except for that (less serious, more accessible, just as damaged) other one, The Replacements. Their recent oral history doesn’t geek out on the actual music like Husker Du etc. does. (Um, Mr. Earles, I have a book idea for you ...)
Yet somehow this focus on the strain of remaining aspirant but poor due to never-ending inter-band passive aggressive primal scream relational therapy and label mishaps never bogs down with the eventual tragedy of breaking up. Earles keeps it thrumming like a song off of New Day Rising, brotherly fits and professional fears just part of the whole melting mind trip of assaulting the nation with bottled-up rage and creating an utterly new pop music aesthetic. There are little dark secrets dove into (though many lurk near the foreground), but somehow all the recording and road stories seem fresh and fun to read even after going over this same period for the material in magazines like Magnet, etc. This biography is a perfect gift for 80s underground music fans, Bob and Grant fanatics, and those younger folk who want to know what it was like when barefoot, buzzed, iconoclastic punk boys first ripped open a vein and let their inner poetry flow into feedback and tightly controlled sonic freak outs.
Was-there scene and show promoter and loved all of it author Steven Blush’s hunky, slobby, unique 2001 primer on all things American Hardcore: A Tribal History might be a better place to begin to understand 80s loud fast rules punk milieus than a bio on a single band. Why the reissue is even more important: It has been re-released with crucial updates in each chapter, 25 fresh interviews, and the extremely timely and topical addition of a chunk on the development of spirituality out of the country-wide American post-punk scene, “Destroy Babylon.” Thank God Feral House has taken up the cause to keep this generously giving awesome lap-crusher in print.
Through the 90s, Blush himself published one of my very favorite magazines of all times, Seconds, which was always based on outstanding interviews with all kinds of musicians, artists, and subversive world-changers who mostly tapped their energies from growing up in the days of “living in darkness.” Blush was one us who made noise for friends and foes and narcs who somehow showed up at the backs of shows; saw how people developed networks of music news and touring information and political movements and personal soap operas through word of mouth by bands traveling the nation and beyond, letters sent between group house correspondents, the detail-documenting of fanzine publishers, and the very occasional stories in more mainstream press; and though its certainly his own voice in American Hardcore, it’s trustable. Kicking off with “My War 2010,” a contemporary clarion call, “Los Angeles: How Could Hell Be Any Worse?”, “DKs & SF: California Uber Alles,” “Minor Threat & DC: Flex Your Head,” “Tex-Ass,” and more are reprinted with redux, giving weeks of pit-memory pain and pleasure.
Blush does his best trying to remain objective about he said-they freaked wars like the (*yawn* at this point) Bad Brains versus Big Boys/The Dicks feud, but even in that is an example of the microcosm of the energies out of control in the period. This is 1980-86, and yes the book is just as energizing as the movie with the same name -- but better, with the added depth about religion, and the excellent new ending which summarizes everything quite differently than what you’d expect. And sure, Seattle needs a few more pages in Third Edition (I’m game!) but this is still a surefire replacement for the first in your own collection, as you donate the first testament to that awkward kid you know who books free-for-all noise miasmas at a non-venue, and plays drums with a photo of Jay Reatard puking taped to his lone cymbal, which will probably end up smashing all his teeth out when stumbled over by the bass “player” at a show he himself booked.
Women Of The Underground: Music by San Francisco poet and journalist Zora von Burden was put out by longtime indie publisher Manic D Press late last summer, and should not be overlooked here for a few reasons, ascendant in importance: That’s a whole lot of men talking about music above there (with the exception of Reynolds’ exceptional balance in Totally Wired), but there have always been a lot of women involved in post-punk, part of which is the resilient and nuanced Goth scene and more artistic forms than straight ahead bashing and wailing; women too have done their more than fair share of bashing and wailing to tons of hardcore fans and followers of other underground genres; von Burden has captured stories of creation through salvation and suffering as noble and terrifying as any in Reynolds’ own volume.
Women of the Underground: Music is indispensable, a 20 women-hero interview marathon starting with an enchanting chat with rockabilly giant Wanda Jackson (who still sways like Kali and kicks it hard live, her feisty and soulful records ringing true for the past several decades and long into the future). The book then continues showing the harsh realities of writing and/or playing and touring your own brand of beyond-all-boundaries music-based outrage (the breakdown of Butthole Surfers’ psyche-goddess Teresa Nervosa; the remaining triumph of Lydia Lunch and Nina Hagen, who both give extraordinary insights here); the added struggle of racial prejudice Pauline Black of the Selecter rose against; the hilarious adventures of Deanna Ashley in Frightwig, who with her other band-mates successfully mocked and baited cocky sexists in the independent music scene not starting with The Mentors’ moronic El Duce (but certainly hitting a zenith with how they tormented him); the parochial woes and blisses of the world of Ana de Silva of The Raincoats and Cosey Fanni Tutti (Chris & Cosey, and of course without her Throbbing Gristle would have been far less the sum of its parts).
I have always wanted to hear more directly from certain musicians, such as the raw memoirs of Kembra Pfahler (The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black); Adele Bertei (The Contortions); and Jarboe (Swans). These are ladies who have dealt with the darkest realm of the underground, and have tons of great practical advice, spiritual counsel, and incredible anecdotes to share. Of special note is the long-overdue props given to bassist Patricia Morrison of The Gun Club and the Sisters of Mercy: Just think of that death rock-doomed love pop CV, kids.
Just like the new, B&W, compact, affordable trade paperback release of Patti Smith’s utterly essential autobiography Just Kids, Women of the Underground ignites and long-toasts creativity, slap-dazzle confounds passed along notions and expectations of about what life lived in the middle of music-making madness can be like, and will probably encourage every single person who reads it to find their voice, either as a musician or a writer (or a sound person, or a booking agent, or any other role which helps pull a scene together and gets lost voices out there). I would buy it if you’ve just read Just Kids; and I would buy both for any young women (or men, Jesus!) you want to help inspire that way this holiday season.