11 January 2006


Well, Simon's "Rip It Up And Start Again" definitely deserves it's place as NME's book of the year. I've nearly finished it, but I've been taking my time. A book like this must not be rushed, it's should be savoured like a fine wine. I like the way, in his introduction, Simon readily admits that he missed the original punk explosion through a combination of his tender years and provincial location. I took a very similar approach in my 'Spirals Tribe' acid house post - I'm surprised he didn't accuse me of plagurism! I was even younger than Simon in '77 and didn't even have older siblings to hip me to punk. Funnily enough, it was my dad who got excited about it first - he connected the rebellious energy to his own rock 'n' roll epiphany in the late '50s. My mum's best mate had a son who was quite a bit older than me, and he got into punk very early on - he had the spikey hair and everything. On occasion he'd play me some very strange records, but of course I still didn't understand the significance of it all. To be honest, I've never been interested in straight ahead punk rock, and instinctively detested that whole rabble-rousing "Oi!" band agit-prop that came later. I guess it was the chart-bound synthetic aftershocks of punk that first attracted me - I can still remember the first time I saw Tubeway Army performing "Our Friends Electric?", Human League doing "Rock & Roll" and Ultravox debuting their first hit "Sleepwalk" on Top Of The Pops to this day. I also have a clear memory of hearing Depeche Mode's "New Life" on the radio for the first time, and being totally mesmerised by it. Clearly, there was something very new and strange afoot. But it wasn't until the mid-to-late '80s that I began to explore the dark underbelly of postpunk, following the clues I read in music mags, hunting down the records in secondhand shops, etc. It's hard to remember in this internet/e-bay/filesharing era, that researching and collecting older records was a major fucking task back then. Just crate digging at local stores and record fairs, I think it took me about three years to track down a copy of The Normal's seminal "T.V.O.D./Warm Leatherette" single, and it cost me about £6, which was serious money for a 7 inch back then (I could probably secure a purchase or grab the files off Soulseek in a matter of moments now), but it was always a thoroughly rewarding, if somewhat solitary, pastime.

So much amazing music came out of that whole postpunk period ('78-'84), and Simon's book has had me dusting-off old elpees and CDs that haven't been near the hi-fi for eons, as well as pricking my interest for some of the acts who's back catalogue I still haven't explored. But the main focus of Postpunk for me is it's indisputable status as the cradle of Guttertech. That unstable period directly in the wake of the original Punk explosion was a time when the more 'FWD' -thinking kids, having finally got access to some cheap technology, used that glorious window of opportunity to project a whole new set of possibilitiess, building their own future, at street level, where before electronics were almost exclusively the domain of bloated prog-rockers and state-funded academics. Of course, Kraftwerk, Moroder, Derbyshire and sundry other pioneers need to be given their dues for shaping the course of 'our' music , but the idea that electronics could liberate those without musical training, a record deal or access to expensive studios, working with total creative autonomy and spawning an actual movement, first came into existence during those heady days of the late 1970's.

Long-term readers might remember that I actually started a series on 'Post-Punk Icons' back in 2004, specifically to try to highlight some of the great Guttertech music that arose from that period. Subsequently I was swept up in a tide of exciting new music and the series never got past the first installment! I might try and pick up the thread this year, but anyone who enjoyed my post on the late, great Robert Rental should make sure to check the comments that have appeared since then, in particular the touching personal recollections from 'Fire', who actually knew Rental (or 'Rab' as he calls him) and spent time hanging-out at his home studio. There's also a comment from Dougal, hinting that a tape of Rental's 1979 home demos was in existence. For some reason I never got around to e-mailing him, but since then the tape has surfaced on Soulseek. It's a fascinating document of the time that completely lays waste to his collaborator Thomas Leer's claim that Rental preferred writing 'songs'. The demo tape is almost entirely ambient/experimental in nature, with only one track featuring a blurred vocal buried in the mix. The opening 11 minute piece sounds like early Cluster - an uncompromising dronescape that builds in intensity until it becomes a jagged wall of feedback-delay. Other pieces reveal a more melodic approach, some almost in the same space as Aphex Twin's early 'Selected Ambient Works', others putting me strangely in mind of Boards Of Canada. Perhaps it's the effect of all the tape compression and overdubbing. Don't forget that an intrinsic part of BoC's sound is the desire to replicate the particular sonic characteristics of their own early home demos. There's something about the effect of sound degradation via analogue tape that has a particular taste all of it's own. When you hear a digitally degraded low quality MP3, the effect isn't particularly pleasant, yet tape can produce a degrading effect that can actually be musically meaningful. The woozy 'lag' effect of extreme tape degradation can imbue a recording with a deep sense of historic weight, like a grainy half-remembered childhood memory. Incidentally, how much of that is down to the fact that I was a child in the '70s? Would a teenager today, who was born in, say, 1990 get the same kind of sensation? As K-Punk so eloquently illustrates in his recent post, you can't fucking replicate the seventies, maaaan. We grew up in an analogue world: the solid-state-generated signals our young minds absorbed were impure, slightly smudged and particle-flecked, and that'll always tint our perception of today's hi-gloss digital era. We know we can never return to that time and we know that nostalgia and revivalism is ultimately worthless. Visual stimuli is often curiously lacking in psychic 'punch', yet music (or perhaps I should say certain types of sound) have an almost supernatural ability to trigger 'Madeleine' flashbacks to buried feelings and sensations. No matter how fleeting and indecipherable those sensations are, any sound source that has the ability to conjure them must always be cherished.

But I digress...listening to Rental's demos is like gingerly flicking through the pages of some forgotten, yellowing, personal scrapbook. The tape hiss is admittedly pretty fierce (I wonder how many generations of copying it went through, dubbed-off and passed from one fan to another over the course of 25 years, before it was ripped?) yet the creativity and emotional impact shines through the ferric fuzz, giving us yet more proof that Rental was one of the greats of his generation.

(from "Mental Detentions" cassette, side b, track 1, 1979)

Although he only gets a brief mention in Simon's book, there is some additional unused material on Rental in the 'Postpunk Esoterica' file available at Simon's 'Rip It Up' site, though I take issue with Simon's statement that Rental's career 'dwindled'. It suggests that he floundered despite his best efforts, but as far as I can tell Rental deliberately abdicated - dropped out of the music scene to pursue some other personal destiny. One can only speculate on what might've been...

(Watch out for more postpunk guttertech classics in the coming weeks...hopefully!)