Scribes Sounding Off: Simon Reynolds, Now And Again

Rip It Up and Start Again author Simon Reynolds’ recently had a “greatest hits” anthology of his own, Bring The Noise, which put together a massive collection of his career of exchanges with rock, post-punk, and hip-hop artists, and his adroit reviews for many UK and American publications. Almost ironically, he follows that two-decade chronicle of passionate, mindful, enthusiastic music scene participation with a critical study of fandom itself: Retromania, about a “pop age gone loco for retro.”

To start from the book’s final sentence, “I still believe the future is out there.” I trust that he means that from reading everything that came before, and seeing how his own viewpoints remained active and engaged over so many years as a music journalist. This new book of essays is not a curmudgeonly attempt to cast judgment on those who dabble in the looks and sounds of previous generations, but the results of a running dialogue Reynolds has had with culturally-wily artists and forward-thinking critics such as Billy Childish, Ariel Pink, Michaelangelo Matos, and Andy Battaglia, among many others.

It’s something that’s always on the minds of scene vets when they go to see a reunion concert (or even a new band in a fond-of genre) and are confronted with teeming mobs of teens dressed exactly like they were over three decades ago; it’s the narrative of spending a decade in the post-punk trenches of the 80s and waking up in the bell-bottom, Black Oak Arkansas-sounding post-boom grunge years. It’s a topic critics could spend too much time with — why doesn’t all of this past simply go away, or usefully transmutate into something more substantial or at least more new, like rave once did? — but most are pushed along by market demands to actually assess the efforts from the ever-ridiculous time loop (and avoid the cantankerous “Remember When?” tirades doing no one any good).

The only thing that kept me from being weary of Retromania was if it was going to be one guy’s rant about the museum-death of vital ideas and the endless re-enactments of pop music’s recurring passion plays — OK, scratch that, I would have quickly bought a Reynolds book-length venting about the necessity to cut it all off and plant an alien seed. (I mean, this is the guy who wrote Rip It Up and Blissed Out, it would have at least been fun getting all cranky over coffee with him.) So I may not be objectively trustable, and I am probably as old as your dad. But Retromania is not that: It’s stuffed full of lively interviews, with characters who are informative and ambivalent, puzzling and occasionally precisely spot on. As in the chapter of people participating in “Sampling, Hauntology, and Mash-Ups,” anent subcultures that are extremely encouraging and enlightening, and has me out looking for collage-music of textural pleasure and/or cultural uniqueness. That section alone is truly superb, touching on The Groove Robbers, Johnny Trunk and Trunk Records, “Memoradelia,” and Ghost Box: All mixed-together aesthetics perhaps a bit too abstract for the average pop fan, but still provocative for those who try to follow the subterranean trail beneath modern indie.

Yes, the lines of international hipster genealogy are traced, but Reynolds’ personal responses to the New York Dolls’ Frankenstein rock, the pros and cons of those “play the whole album” concerts from old favorites, disappearing down Internet worm-holes as time travel, and especially how refreshing the future seemed before the Bush era, are all wonderful fodder for discussion with friends/colleagues. (This would probably be my non-fiction ook Club suggested tome of the year, honestly.) A lot of things we’ve all been thinking about are channelled through Reynolds’ own experiences and those of the forward-thinking comrades he engages with; and if some of the material is contemporarily too-familiar (record collecting rock, “The Twilight of Music as an Object”), other bits still need to be reheated (“Punk’s Reactionary Roots,” “Nostalgia for Giant Steps and Final Frontiers”). We needed this book, and we needed a writer as great as Reynolds to write it for us.

Meanwhile, don’t miss that book I wrote earlier about: No, not Rip It Up and Start Again (I assume you already have that one… right, KEXP listener? Oh, you must) but the 2011 American edition of Bring The Noise: 20 Years of Writing About Hip Rock and Hip-Hop. Two inches thick with prophetic reviews (like the one for Sub Pop 200, or on the Pixies, which starts, “The hollering is all”), the history of rap dialectics (“Rap Videos and the ‘One White Dude’,” “B-Boys on E: Hip-Hop Discovers Ecstasy”), and some really uncomfortable chapters to think about (“The Disappearing Voice of Reggae,” “When Will Hip-Hop Hurry Up And Die?” — hmm, that final assertion seems like quite the bridge to Retromania) make this a must-own along with the above.

Personally, my tastes are pleased by the basics being built from his earliest fanzine observations: Wrangling with the UK adoration of soul through skinheads and funk fans (Redskins, Zapp, two early live reviews); luscious unpacking of Husker Du’s final album (for Warner Bros., and what that meant); and his erudite eulogy for Morrissey and that first band he had, until the Stone Roses comes along and he really starts living in the future. Then the spine and muscles and organs of this book becomes the fully-skinned body of Retromania; its skin still pricked by the latest song or sound, its soul jacked on a new beat.

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