Totally Wired: Post-punk Interviews and Overviews by Simon Reynolds

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Totally Wired: Post-punk Interviews and Overviews by Simon Reynolds

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Category: Entertainment
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: 32 interviews with various musicians and personalities from the cutting edge of the early 80s, including Jah Wobble, David Byrne, Green Gartside, John Peel and Paul Morley, plus reflections on the era's key musical icons, including Public Image Ltd, Joy Division, and the New Romantics.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 464 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Faber & Faber
ISBN: 978-0571235490

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Reynolds established himself as one of the leading chroniclers of the British early 1980s music scene with his Rip It Up and Start Again. In a sense, this book is basically a companion to that volume, though it can be read independently, without having first tried the other – as this present reviewer has done.

About three-quarters is taken up with interviews with thirty two of the main British individuals involved. They constitute a comprehensive cross-section, including Jah Wobble (Public Image Ltd), Phil Oakey (Human League), Andy Gill (Gang of Four), David Byrne (Talking Heads, who are American though he was born in Scotland), DJ John Peel, and producers Martin Rushent and Trevor Horn (also briefly of Buggles and Yes). The rest is a selection of commentaries on various themes covering the period, including John Lydon and Public Image Ltd, Joy Division, Mutant Disco and Punk-Funk, London Glam City, and A Final Interview by the author with himself, which is a novel way of writing a foreword – even if it does appear at the end of the book.

I expect those of us who cared passionately about rock music while growing up with it at any time between the 1950s and the 1980s all have different perceptions of what it meant. In my view, the post-punk era seemed rather earnest, verging on the colourless at times. Pop (rock was a dirty word by then) seemed too keen to prove itself more mature (without being arty), more worthy, more politically valid. Naturally some of that was in reaction to the change of government in 1979. For others, including the author and most of his interviewees, it was a golden age. One of the latter, Alan Rankine of the Associates, is quoted as calling 1973-4 a period of just genuine muck, the most self-indulgent racket you ever heard. I can give him a trunkful of reasons to disagree, but that's his opinion. The number of dramatis personae who recall the heyday of Slade and T. Rex with affection probably take that verdict with a pinch of salt too.

Cabaret Voltaire, The Swell Maps, Joy Division, Kraftwerk, Orange Juice, and the Factory and Rough Trade labels are all cited as the driving forces, though the poppier, cheerier Altered Images and Haircut 100 get namechecked briefly as well. The Sex Pistols, Stranglers and Clash feature prominently, although oddly there's no mention for Squeeze (whose songwriters and front men Chris Difford and Glen Tilbrook were arguably the Lennon and McCartney of their day) or the Boomtown Rats (who soon became regarded as a joke but made excellent singles for their first three years or so). Interestingly, Brian Eno and Yoko Ono are hailed as among the most influential names on the scene for their pioneering avant-garde work in the preceding years. So Yoko's extended screaming improvisations over John Lennon's feedback guitar had admirers after all.

All credit to Reynolds for being objective enough to point out that even he doesn't think it was all wonderful. In particular he has some interesting judgments to make on John Lydon, whom he reminds us ended up a property-owning aristocrat like Mick Jagger and others whom he so publicly despised at first, not to say a decrepit, self-parodic rock'n'roll monarch.

This book is pretty thorough in its coverage. At times the odd note of pretension creeps in, but it's hard not to be impressed by Reynolds's enthusiasm and attention to detail. Even if you share his passion for the early 80s, you might find the book a little rich to take in all at one go. Should that be the case, it will be a good volume to dip into and keep as a work of reference. The comprehensive index makes sure it will serve the latter function as well as being a very worthwhile read on the subject.

Our thanks to Faber & Faber for sending Bookbag a copy for review.

If you enjoyed this, why not also try an insight into Joy Division, one of the key groups of the era, Touching From A Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division by Deborah Curtis; an overview of rock music from the last half-decade or so, Black Vinyl, White Powder by Simon Napier-Bell, which fits the era into the bigger picture; or for a rather less serious, more pick'n'mix kind of read, Hang the DJ: An Authentic Book of Music Lists edited by Angus Cargill.

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