17 January 2009

TOTALLY WIRED

The first essential music book of the year has (almost) arrived. Having already caused a minor stir with "Rip It Up", his definitive guide to the post-punk era, Simon Reynolds follows-up with the essential companion: "Totally Wired: Post-Punk Interviews & Overviews" (Faber & Faber trade paperback).

As the title suggests, the main bulk of the book comprises in-depth interviews with some of the key figures in the scene, culled from the copious and exhaustive interview tapes used to research the first book, which never fail to be anything less than fascinating. Simon talks to many central characters, like Jah Wobble (PiL), Ari Up (The Slits), Green Gartside (Skritti Politti), Andy Gill (Gang Of Four), David Byrne (Talking Heads), not forgetting a few of my own personal heroes like Alan Vega (Suicide), Richard H. Kirk (Cabaret Voltaire), Phil Oakey (Human League) and Mark Stewart (The Pop Group). It was also a surprise and pleasure to see a few of the 'backroom boys' getting some attention, seeing things from the perspective of producers Martin Rushent, Trevor Horn and UK dub pioneer Dennis Bovell (of course Martin Hannett is no longer with us, but we peek into his working methods care of Factory boss Tony Wilson and Joy Division's Steven Morris). The late John Peel and writer/critic Paul Morley also feature.

Among the many highlights: Simon wrestling (figuratively!) with 'difficult' interviewee David Thomas (Pere Ubu) - a man with some frankly bizarre opinions and theories about music - and Devo's Gerry Casale describing in harrowing detail his eye-witness account of the National Guard shooting students at a demonstration at Kent State University in the early '70s. It's also interesting to note the recurring themes - almost everyone involved seemed to have come from an Art School background, almost everyone was a voracious reader (Penguin paperbacks were as de rigueur as records and trench coats!) and people like Bowie, Eno, krautrock and The Velvet Underground crop-up regularly as formative influences.

The 'Overviews' section contains a selection of previously published reviews and articles that touch on aspects of the post-punk milieu, the most essential of which must surely be "Mutant Disco And Punk Funk", the 'non-oral history version' of the 'NYC No Wave' chapter of Rip It Up that only appeared in the US edition originally (and incidentally, No Wavers James Chance and Lydia Lunch also get the full interview treatment). Finally, Simon Reynolds himself is interviewed, discussing definitions, inspirations and personal experiences/observations from the era, which is fascinating in its own right. I was particularly taken by his lucid invocation of the levels of boredom experienced by young people in the late '70s, deprived of so much of the music and media stimuli that we take for granted today everytime we log-on, and hence explaining the pivotal role of the music press during that time, which was still very tangible when I started reading the inkies in the mid-80s. Overall you really begin to appreciate the unique circumstances of the period that, as far as I can see, will never be repeated, and which gave birth to such a crucial swell of vibrant music and culture.

Totally Wired will be available from 5th February (pre-order at Amazon). Simon Reynolds will be in the UK to promote the book from 13th February, including a special event at The Roundhouse in Camden at 8pm on Sunday 15th, where he will be in conversation with a few post-punk legends.

In the meantime, keep an eye on Simon's new Totally Wired blog for updates and additional info.

11 comments:

  1. "I was particularly taken by his lucid invocation of the levels of boredom experienced by young people in the late '70s..." Yeah, well I think he's wrong, actually - speaking as someone who was actually there - it wasn't anything like that. This is one of those consensus cliches that are always rolled out about the 70s - about the boredom, the drabness, blahblahblah...sorry, but it was actually an incredibly vibrant and interesting time to live through. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

    "...deprived of so much of the music and media stimuli that we take for granted today everytime we log-on..." Hmmmm: not so sure what we've got is parcticularly great in many respects whatsoever...the connectivity with folks such as yourself, the ability to forge linkages - that's all good...the internet has enabled me to earn a living; yeah, great, fine, etc...but I don't see much to celebrate in the post-millennial mediadrone - the idea that more is better somehow strikes me as a fallacy...

    "and hence explaining the pivotal role of the music press during that time, which was still very tangible when I started reading the inkies in the mid-80s." yeah, the music press was pivotal at one point; almost incredible to think that now...it died round about that period imo - mid/late 80s it somehow became semi-irrelevent around about then. This was ages before the internet...I think Rave dealt it a blow...but the terrible state of the UK Indie music scene was probably an added factor...

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  2. kek, with regard to your first and third points, i have to pass judgement, cos i was really too young to know what was going down. the 70s were certainly an exciting time for me, but mainly cos of the Six Million Dollar Man, Space 1999 and Marvel Comics.

    On your second point, I agree in principle. I take quality over quantity any day. The internet provides such a huge recourse but 95% of it is crap and annoying. If I could just have the other 5% in a nice handy tabloid-style music weekly I'd be happy.

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  3. " If I could just have the other 5% in a nice handy tabloid-style music weekly I'd be happy." - elegantly put, Nick.

    My first point - which I didn't express very clearly - is summed up by the inherent Groan Factor I feel when the same 1970's stock footage of the dustbinmen's strike, three-day week, power outages, etc is wheeled out for every TV documentary on Prog, Punk, etc along with the same wearisome voice-over comments about how dreary life was back then...as if the UK was actually more physically colder and starker somehow, as if it's inner life was somehow derived from or defined by a few minutes of footage...my problem with all this is that it has actually become some sort of consensual 'truth' that is constantly wheeled out by the media...but the reality of the 70s (or any other decade) is far more complex than that.

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  4. I was talking to my wife about all this earlier...and I really don't remember the concept of boredom existing, because we were always doing stuff. Everyone we knew was doing stuff. I remember being lonely or sad on occasions and not getting laid - typical teenage/twentysomething preoccupations - but I don't ever remember being bored. Boredom came later; boredom comes with too much choice...choice (or, rather) the illusion of choice) stifles the imagination and slows the blood.

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  5. Looking forward to this, curious about what and by whom I might hear something that surprises me.

    Having been merely conceived in the '70s, I have to defer even to experience with Space 1999. It sounds like a hard time to be bored--but then my guess is it depended a lot (more than today) on who you knew and where you were. Musically, the 1970s are far and away my favorite decade. But I obviously have no experiential way of knowing how much of all that I love about it could feasibly have impacted an individual life during the decade; and how much my ability to reap the rewards of the decade depends on the fact that I'm able to look back from the inherent high-vantage-point of hindsight. And while the first seven or so years of my musical journey pre-dated the internet as a try-before-you-buy smorgasbord, I can't also help wondering how much hindsight is enabled to a high degree today by the internet.

    As for 95% of everything sucking--don't you figure that was always the case? The internet didn't cause it to suck, did it? It simply made it easier to be aware of just how much mediocrity exists out there. I guess I view it with the inverse attitude: I can easily imagine what it would've been like if, as a person from a provincial, small city, my access were limited only to what I could easily find via major media outlets--where surely we can agree the suckage rate is well above even 95% (especially if you live in hinterland USA as I often did). So I see the internet (as well as education and the ability to have lived and traveled more broadly) as helping me access a much higher portion of the 5% that isn't bad. Sure, there's more effort in filtering through the internet to find it than a noble "tabloid style weekly" could provide. But it would be hard for me to imagine that without the ability to "hear for myself" that the internet enables, that I could ever really trust even the most enlightened musical journalists. So isn't it democratization of access?

    Thanks for linking to my blog, btw (Musicophilia). Hope you didn't feel you had to, just cause I'd linked to you. I thought I was already linked to you--fixing that now.

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  6. well i said i agreed 'in principle'. i was reared in my teens on the music weeklies and still believe in the power and integrity of great journalism, i just wish there was something out there on the music stands today i could still believe in, but as Simon explains in the book, the infrastructure just ain't there anymore.

    So now we sift through endless opinions and debates from over-opinionated amateurs (like myself!) and spend hours previewing tracks online before committing ourselves to a purchase. hard to believe that, in the pre-net age I used to buy maybe 2 or 3 records a month from the local highstreet retailer (without being entirely sure what they might sound like beforehand), take them home and really listen to them intently, growing to love (or hate) them over a longer period of time. whereas now its all about skimming over the surface of a vast digital megastore, just trying to keep up and surpress the fear that you might be missing something. i've managed to break out of that cycle to a large extent, slowed my intake right down. there's only so much you can deal with.

    but with regard to 'democratizaion of access' of course you're right, that's a good thing. i think maybe i'm just one of those people who functions better on limited options. too much choice just confuses and demotivates me, lol!

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  7. Actually, the idea of a truly indispensible, somehow authoritative but not merely canonical mag would be great--but such a thing has never existed in my time/experience; and even if it did, I would only perceive it as such because it reinforced my own proclivities, right? (For example, The Wire seems often to match many of my tastes based on hearing what they cover, but I've never really been tempted to actually read/buy an issue). I loved the Blogariddims series and things like that--like good magazines (if not weekly and "comprehensive") except I don't have to put up with anybody's hype-talk and belabored metaphors ; )

    We all find ways to narrow the "bandwidth" of our listening. I guess I do it by just pretty much ignoring the never-ending flood of the present-day. Not because I don't think there's plenty quality to be found, but just because I have no hope of having much better odds than simple chance at finding the 5% worth hearing. Whereas despite its massive relative quantity, "the rest of recorded musical history" has at least got advocates who've based their attachments on something besides "keeping up," and I've got some sort of framework to slot things into (besides just that I tend to dig the music more, the only thing that really matters to me).

    I end up reading a lot about the shallowness of listening in the (post)modern day; remembrances of the simpler days of our youth faced with only those one or two records a month that we knew inside and out. And both sound legitimate enough to me, sure. But the truth is as my framework grew, and my ability to hear continually expanded (as yet it doesn't feel like it's contracted) over years--I'm honestly not sure that for most music my appreciation would really benefit from a return to the listening-to-an-album-front-to-back-ten-times way of listening. For the most amazing records, I'm going to end up doing that (though maybe not straight away). For plenty of good music--I guess I don't need that to know it's good. If I'm really honest with myself, I've been acquiring music in "large quantities" since well before the internet and mp3 blogs, and I still buy almost everything I download that I like. I've always had a sort of "building a library," "saving for the long winter ahead" mentality--call it a hording mentality if you want. But it's meant that I've come to prefer the slow-burn appreciation that unfurls over return listens now and again across years to the intense-early-love-affair approach of my initial listening. I like owning records I've heard only enough to know I want to keep them, to be surprised by months or years later. Matos has been posting on "slow listening movement," reducing consumption, etc. But for me, I guess acquiring large amounts of good music creates a perhaps counter-intuitive even-slower-listening movement.

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  8. i don't think there's ever really been a single truly indispensible mag - it was a combination of NME, Melody Maker and Sounds which were all rivalling for our attention. i guess some kids stuck with one but i generally bought them on the strength of content in any given week, but perhaps with a vague sense of loyalty to MM, which lasted until around the early '90s. then the glossy dance music monthlies started...and i also admit going through a phase of reading classic rock mags like Mojo a bit later on. 'But i was so much older then, I'm younger than that now'.The Wire is the only mag i would ever be tempted to buy now, though tbh most of it is actually too specialist even for me!

    yes there's a always a hoarding aspect with music collecting, and i went through that during my mp3 'honeymoon' period. now i have a massive digital library which i hardly ever listen to. but you're right about being surprised by things 'months or years later'. i still get that with my vinyl collection now, pulling out things that i hadn't really given my full attention to before and hearing them fresh and new again. at the end of the day there's no right or wrong way to consume music, but i feel i need to be pretty strict with myself in terms of taste and how much time i devote to exploring things, just to stay sane.

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  9. Just to be clear, I horde stuff I pay for. I treat mp3s as utterly disposable previews. But I'm trying to coax out a defense of mp3s-as-all-you-need at my blog on a post about the ethics of mp3 blogs. . . If mp3s "counted" to me then, yes, I think I'd feel utterly overwhelmed by the potential deluge. . .

    Back around 'Rip It Up' and before that the shoddy-but-useful 'Post-Punk Diary' I got a little jealous of the feeling of a fecund-its-all-happening-now scene, and moreso the idea of magazines (NME, MM, Sounds, et al) that really got it. Unfortunately when I was 18, all we had was a nascent Pitchforkmedia.com pimping Mogwai albums. . .

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  10. yes i've been following the comments at your blog, though its not really something i want to get into again - i've done that whole soul-searching debate in my head and with others ages ago. i was someone who comsumed and pimped free MP3s, which brought me a lot of attention (good and bad). tbh i never really got the issues straightened out in my own mind, so withdrawing from the whole file-sharing thing became the only 'safe' thing to do. now the only mp3s i listen to are the ones sent to me by artists/labels and i keep them all to myself!
    but i think you've got the right kind of attitude and approach for it, so keep going (unless your conscience tells you otherwise ;-)

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  11. Anonymous2:15 AM

    I was fortunate enough to be of an age of awareness in the 70's and especially the 80's regarding music and culture. In the US at that time, unless you lived in a major city, there were not too may resources for music information--Creem Magazine was the only true essential US magazine, followed closely by Trouser Press. But I really became a devoted follower of NME in 1978, until 1984, when I thought the quality and adventurous nature of the bands covered went way downhill. But by then there was The Face, and then later in the US B Side, and a little earlier Maximum Rock and Roll. What you were interested in had more of a focus in various magazines.

    I think Simon's books accurately reflect the way music was perceived and consumed by someone who was adventurous and open to new styles and subcultures. But I think that there has become a journalistic shorthand that may not be as inclusive of the times as it deserves.I hated a lot of 70's music, but now , I have been exposed to a lot that I didn't know about, and I really like a lot of it--that is the purpose of good music writing ( like it used to be the purpose of good music radio)---

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