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The Book I Read: Rip It Up and Start Again

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on November 13, 2007

You know the scene, very humdrum

There’s something to be said for Anglophilia. I think most burgeoning music obsessives go through the phase at least once, when they discover that there’s a musical canon out there that MTV and Rolling Stone might not necessarily be telling them about, and they maybe over-inflate the appeal and importance of it in consequence. God knows the effect reading through Q and NME best-of lists and hearing Blur’s Parklife for the first time had on me when I was in high school, and five years from now, some other kid is gonna have the same reaction discovering Franz Ferdinand and the Arctic Monkeys. It’s natural, and it’s probably important–to realize there’s a whole separate music culture across the pond, and that the bands that the US deemed worthy of making it through (The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, EMF) only tell half the story.

Of course, it’s also sort of fleeting. Eventually you come to realize that the Brits don’t have all the answers, and then maybe you spend the next few months listening to The Beach Boys and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Personally, a lot of the UK shit that absolutely killed me midway through my teen years doesn’t connect with me at all anymore–part of the appeal of UK music to a teen is that it seems exotic and different at a time when you want to think of yourself as exotic and different, and once differenciating yourself from the crowd becomes less of a priority in your life, the music not only loses that appeal, it becomes alienating, as it reminds you of that often regrettable time in your life. It’s a comedown, but I think it’s probably necessary too–unless you want to do the ex-patriot thing, or just spend your life jetsetting to Manchester every free weekend, you’re pretty much stuck with US culture for good, so it’s best to make the most of it.

All of this is a really long-winded way of explaining why Rip It Up and Start Again didn’t appeal to me nearly as much as I thought it would. It’s been out for a good two years now, and when I first heard it announced, I was thrilled–Simon Reynolds’ previous history of modern electronic music, Generation Ecstasy, is one of my favorite perennial music reads, and I always thought the post-punk era was one of the most fertile periods in music history. So a Simon Reynolds book about the post-punk era? Sold.

Except, well, not really sold. Only available as a UK import, Rip It Up always had price tags in the $30s, and given that I could probably get two or three CDs for that much, I could never really justify that purchase to myself. But having recently come in to some money, it was one of the first purchases I made–finally, I had the final piece in my post-punk genre book collection, to stack alongside Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Our Band Could Be Your Life, and Britpop!, and could read the great stories behind all the post-punk bands that I loved so much.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, I quickly became to the realization that there weren’t nearly as many post-punk bands that I loved, or even liked that much at all, than I thought they were. Reynolds is a great writer, and if anyone could make me care about bands like Pere Ubu, Gang of Four, Cabaret Voltaire and the No New York bunch, it’d be him, but that’s a big fuckin’ if–so many of the bands covered in Rip It Up seem like groups that were more about concept and performance than actual music, and in the midle of reading Simon rhapsodize about how creative these guys’ approach to music was, I kept thinking to myself “well, yeah…but the songs kind of suck.” Even the chapters on the bands I do like–PiL, Wire, Human League, The Fall, Talking Heads–seem vaguely unsatisfying, like Reynolds is too concerned with crafting mini-narratives out of these bands’ careers and placing thim in post-punk perspective to actually make you feel why the music is any good.

Which brings me to the other main problem with Rip It Up–there’s not really a story to be told here. Britpop!, which I previously mentioned, is one of my all-time favorite music books because it practically reads like a novel–the bands discussed make up a cohesive scene, which has a fairly easily traced story, a fairly compact sense of geography, and a fairly unified sound to go with it. Plus, it had a charismatic enough (and overlapping enough) cast of characters to make you root for and against them as you would a story’s heroes and villains (the roles of which, of course, depend on the reader).

The material covered in Rip It Up, however, is all over the place, in just about every way possible–chronologically, geographically, stylistically, even ideologically. Consequently, the book can’t really sustain any sort of narrative, and the chapters, mostly broken down by band or scene, feel largely episodic, contributing little to a larger sense of movement. Do Throbbing Gristle and Mission of Burma really belong to the same story? The B-52s and The Art of Noise? The whole thing ends up coming off like an overambitious mix-tape, made with educational intentions but stuffed with a few too many “well, I can’t include X without also including Y” choices to really teach much of anything.

But to go back to my original point, this article is as much a review of myself as it is of the book. Because four years ago, I very well might’ve adored Rip it Up–the stories of bands and artists I had nothing in common with, musically or personally, would’ve seemed cool and new instead of boring and alienating, and it probably even would’ve been able to make me convince myself that Gang of Four’s Entertainment! really was the classic album critics swear that it is (it isn’t). I dunno if my disappointment with it means that I’m a more discerning reader now, or that now I’m just dead inside, but I have to acknowledge that my honeymoon period with post-punk–and UK culture in general–is now completely over.

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The Book I Read: Jaime Clarke’s Don’t You Forget About Me

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 1, 2007

Tell me your droubles and doubts
Giving me everything, inside and out

I sort of had to buy this book–advertized as “Contemporary Writers on the Films of John Hughes”–when I saw that it existed. Not that I’m the biggest John Hughes fan, though I’ll of course watch The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and especially Ferris Bueller’s Day Off whenever they’re on TV. But it was just sort of fascinating to me that someone deemed an unabashadly populist film figure like John Hughes as worthy of an entire book–it’d be like finding a book on the singles catalogue of Duran Duran, or an episode-by-episode guide to Saved By the Bell. Seemed like obligatory reading to me.

And it’s pretty interesting stuff. Set up by author in alphabetical order (meaning that the only really famous author of the bunch, Moon Unit Zappa, is wisely given the final essay), Don’t You Forget About Me contains 20 essays detailing the way the films John Hughes wrote, produced and/or directed in the 1980s (sorry Curly Sue fans, didn’t see it mentioned once) reflected, shaped, or utterly transformed the authors’ lives. Every essay is presented very much in the first person, and none of the essays contain much in the ways of scene-by-scene breakdowns or cinematography and editing analyses–the book is as much a tribute to obsessive, youthful fandom (and really just youth in general–first loves, teen angst, sexuality, rebellion, the whole bit) as it is to Hughes himself.

And almost as much, it’s a tribute to Hughes’ muse, Brat Pack Queen Molly Ringwald. The DYFAM writers alternately felt they were exactly like Molly Ringwald, prayed they could be more like Molly Ringwald, wished they could be less like Molly Ringwald, wanted to find a girl like Molly Ringwald, hated Molly Ringwald for not choosing Duckie, or just wished life could be more like a Molly Ringwald movie. Of course, it’s not really Molly Ringwald, it’s Samantha Baker, Claire Standish and Andie Walsh that these writers were so obsessed with, but that’s a point that barely comes up over the course of Don’t You Forget About Me–these movies were such an integral part of these writers’ lives that their fictionality is practically irrelevant.

But that’s not to say Ringwald is the only recepient of the odes in DYFAM. Matthew Broderick’s Ferris Bueller gets a couple (and Alan Ruck’s Cameron Frye deservedly gets at least one as well), and Ally Sheedy’s Allison Reynolds from The Breakfast Club, Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and Ilan Mitchell-Smith’s Wyatt from Weird Science, Andrew McCarthy’s Blaine from Pretty in Pink (unsurprisingly, one of the more bitter essays), Michael Schoeffling’s Jake Ryan from Sixteen Candles (more an ultimate 80s one-hit wonder than Nena or Taco) and even Mary Stuart Masterson’s Watts from Some Kind of Wonderful all get their dues as well. It’s the ultimate tribute to Hughes’ writing and directing that even aside from Ringwald’s three-year golden touch, he still helped craft such a wide array of unforgettable, paradigm-creating characters.

It sort of puts the current state of youth cinema into perspective. The closest thing to a Brat Pack of today might be the Frat Pack of Anchorman, Old School, Wedding Crashers and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and while those movies are probably much funnier, it’s hard to imagine anyone writing an essay on the life-changing characters of John and Jeremy, or how some girl grew up wanting to marry Will Ferrell, or anything like that. And the teen movies today that are getting made–sure, there are still some great ones, but do they have that feeling of a unified culture, of a we’re-all-in-this-together, us against them (teens vs. adults) mentality, or of a branching off point for music, fashion and all other forms of popular culture? It’s telling that a movie like Napoleon Dynamite would choose just to recycle 80s hits for its supposedly contemporary soundtrack–there really just aren’t any OMDs or Thompson Twins around to soundtrack that emotional climax scene anymore.
It’s obvious from this book that no one has forgotten about John Hughes. Too bad we didn’t learn more from him while he was around, though.

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