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Simon Reynolds interview: Pop, politics, hip-hop and postpunk

Music critic Simon Reynolds spoke to Anindya Bhattacharyya about Bring The Noise, his new book on rock and hip-hop

Issue No. 2053

Jamie Reid

Jamie Reid's 1977 cover for the Sex Pistols' single God Save The Queen. You can see the original artwork and much more at Panic Attack! Art In The Punk Years, an exhibition at the Barbican art gallery in central London running until September 2007.


Simon Reynolds is the author of Rip It Up And Start Again, a critically acclaimed history of the 'postpunk' music scene that emerged out of the punk rock explosion of the mid 1970s and continued for the next decade or so, taking the energy of punk but blending it with radical politics and experimental musical techniques.

This month sees the release of the sequel to Rip It Up that focuses on what happened next – in particular, the rise of hip-hop and indie rock. Bring The Noise – named after Public Enemy's 1987 single – is a collection of Reynolds' articles and reviews from 1986 onwards, while he was working as a music journalist on Melody Maker, Spin and other publications.

The publication of Bring The Noise coincides with the 30th anniversary of the release of another iconic single, one that arguably defined the sound and attitude of punk rock and set the scene for Reynolds' two books.

On 27 May 1977, the Sex Pistols released God Save The Queen – a blistering attack on the royal family timed to coincide with the queen's silver jubilee celebrations. It was swiftly banned by the BBC, and the charts were rigged to prevent it from being acknowledged as that week's number one.

I asked Simon what he thought of the single's impact today, 30 years on. 'It's hard for me to think objectively about the Sex Pistols' music because it meant so much to me at the time,' he says.

'It was really my entry in the whole world of rock and taking music seriously. The music still has this incredible power. And beyond that, there's a virulence to songs like Anarchy In The UK and Bodies that still scalds.

'God Save The Queen is great, though it's not my favourite Sex Pistols tune – there's something almost too perfectly anthemic about it. The lyrics are fantastic though – 'god save your mad parade', 'flowers in the dustbin', 'there's no future in England's dreaming'.'

Mythology

Part of the significance of the song is the mythology that now surrounds it. Looking back it seems like a high point of 'rebel pop', when a cultural movement on the ground managed to took on the establishment and transformed music and popular culture.

'The myth of the song seems to be the truth about it,' says Simon. 'It was one of the last times, possibly the last time, that a song could send shockwaves through an entire society. It was an injection of energy and conviction that took almost a decade to dissipate.

'Especially in the five to ten years after its release, the degree of impact that God Save The Queen had became a benchmark by which everything that followed was measured. You were either aspiring to that, or somehow failing that.

'Even bands like Frankie Goes To Hollywood were an attempt to create an 'event' on that scale and with that degree of controversy and polarisation. And all the seriousness of postpunk – the moral urgency of the debates over what path to follow, how best to apply our good intentions – really comes from that moment. It's almost a burden: how do we live up to this?'

The impact of singles such as God Save The Queen opened up a sometimes uneasy alliance between pop music and left wing politics that would last for the next decade or so. Rock Against Racism harnessed the energy of the new bands and used it to campaign against the fascist National Front, which was gaining ground in the late 1970s.

'I've never quite worked out where I stand on the vexed question of politics and pop,' says Simon. 'Instances of politicised pop that actually work as pop – as good music and as something that's popular, in the charts – seem quite rare.

'In a certain harsh light, Rip It Up And Start Again could be seen as the story of a bunch of different bands who tried to make politics and pop work together but failed. From Gang Of Four to Scritti Politti, it's a litany of failure!

'But the failure doesn't matter to me, it's more that they tried. The ideas and the idealism they had served a purpose in the sense of creating a kind of cultural quickening. The argumentativeness of postpunk culture was what inspired me – that and the amazing music.'

But by the mid-1980s, postpunk had run out of steam and Thatcherism was in full stride. 'What happened around then was that postpunk turned into indie rock. The defining groups of the time – The Jesus And Mary Chain, The Smiths, REM – were largely based around the sounds of the 1960s.

'And they were drawing almost entirely on white rock sources, whereas postpunk and new pop had always been about engaging with contemporary black music. So indie rock became a retro culture, something that had an impotent and exiled relationship to mainstream pop, which was dominated by black musical values of soulfulness and danceability.'

Underground

But black dance music itself saw a revolution in the mid-1980s – the rise of hip-hop, which forms the other key thread in Bring The Noise. 'Obviously rap had existed for a while and was bubbling as an underground force on both sides of the Atlantic,' says Simon.

'But I distinctly remember from the time that rap was still something of a fad as far as most people were concerned. Then suddenly in 1986 it resurges. You get the Def Jam crew – LL Cool J, Run DMC, Beastie Boys – that make it a mainstream phenomenon, but also a host of other figures like Mantronix, Schoolly D, Eric B & Rakim, Salt N Pepa.

'The music was also evolving from its early days into being an artform defined by sampling and looped beats. So 1986 is when it really becomes clear that this rap thing is going to stay – and is actually going to be the most crucial sound of the 1980s.'

A recurring theme in Bring The Noise is the search for music that combines a radical political edge with musical experimentalism and popular appeal. 'That would be ultimate ideal, but it's one that's virtually non-existent in the history of music!' says Simon.

'Public Enemy was a group that was sonically radical, politically provocative and really popular – but who else has there been? So in practice I will settle for just on of the three on their own. And even sometimes none of those things.

'I suppose I would make a distinction between politicised music and political music. There's a sense in which all music is political, in that there's stuff going on it by which you can tell the times. Pop music that is conservative or escapist in its values is just as much a political statement as overtly radical music – but it's a force for anti-change!

'And the most interesting music is the stuff full of contradictions, stuff that leaves you conflicted. Which is why hip hop is endlessly fascinating to think about politically, for what it tells you about society and culture. It's just that what you find there may be quite depressing or confusing. It might not necessarily lead you to positive, uplifting conclusions.'

One key contradiction Reynolds points out is the casual misogyny and sexism that pervades much of rock and hip-hop, both mainstream and underground. There's a memorable confessional passage in Bring The Noise where Reynolds describes his shock at discovering that the lyrics to TOK's dancehall smash Chi Chi Man were violently homophobic.

'I must have in my collection so much music that has reprehensible attitudes or offensive, so I'm not sure exactly why this one example got to me,' says Simon. 'It was something about loving it so intensely for such a long period before finding out what the chorus actually meant, and really being taken aback.

'Also the song is so exuberant and joyous, that to find out what actually animated the glee and joie de vivre in the song was horrible. It was one of those tunes and rhythms that really get under your skin and follow you around in your life.'

But Simon notes that it's by no means unusual for the most intense art to promote a thoroughly reactionary political ideas. 'Some of my favourite writers have really conservative or dodgy or just confused politics. Not just the obvious ones like Celine or Wyndham Lewis, but also Vladimir Nabokov with his aristocratic nostalgia for pre-Soviet Russia and his strange loathing for Freud.

Abjection

'I'm really interested in the idea that reactionary, curmudgeonly, jaundiced-eye type writers have access to certain powers artistically through their misanthropy, their sense of abjection. Often the funniest writers have a poisonous sense of self-loathing and disgust for humanity.

'And then there's another story to do with pop music, which is that a lot of its energies are capitalistic. By that I don't mean that they're simply a product of capitalistic conditioning, but rather that the energies that pulse inside pop are the same as those that animate capitalism.

'They help to explain why capitalism exists and why it is so hard to eradicate. The idea of individualism, competition, the fantasy of being self-made, your own master – these are seductive fantasies that have an appeal that shouldn't be underestimated. That's why the American ideology is so popular, because so many think 'I'll play the game and I'll win'.'

It could be argued that this right wing ideology has won the day in pop music. Hip-hop's early political promise seems to have waned today, and Reynolds' political concerns seem curiously out of place in the anything-goes new digital culture of MySpace.

Nevertheless, Simon remains hopeful that things will change. 'I dream of a day not too far off when the current 'anti-political' stance seems laughably old-fashioned, a throwback to the days when no one cared and nothing mattered.

'I thought I could see it on the horizon as far back as 1998 – I remember telling a colleague on Spin magazine that the New Earnestness was coming. But it hasn't arrived, not really, not yet.'

Simon Reynolds' new book Bring The Noise is published by Faber & Faber, priced £16.99. It is available from Bookmarks, together with his earlier book Rip It Up And Start Again – phone 020 7637 1848 or go to » www.bookmarks.uk.com.

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Reviews
Tue 29 May 2007, 18:53 BST
Issue No. 2053
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