Our friends at Soft Skull sent this book to us while Insomnia was still transitioning to WordPress. This great read came out about 3 weeks ago, but it was such a blast we wanted to include it in our Sleepless Book Club write-ups.
Simon Reynold’s acclaimed first volume of post-punk memory sifting – Rip it Up and Start Again – went a long way toward exploring and explaining the various flowerings that bloomed from the bruised and bloodied blossom that was ’70′s punk rock. If you thought one volume of exhaustive, evocative reconstructing of the period would suffice you would be wrong, and Reynolds proves this point with Totally Wired: Postpunk Interviews and Overviews. The project is a bookend to the first volume and it completes an impressive cartography of that time and that music.
Totally Wired is largely an oral biography; the story of a place, a time and a music told by the people who listened to it, created it and lived through it. Serving up 32 interviews with everyone from David Byrne to Jah Wobble to (one of Insomnia’s great heroes) James Chance, Totally’ (Along with Rip’) must certainly qualify Reynolds as the definitive chronicler of the period. The later chapters of the book practically constitute a project unto themselves, allowing Totally’ to deliver an even clearer, deeper explanation of just what came after punk.
The interviews begin with Ari Up, the lead singer of The Slits. The delightful miss Up is a fantastic storyteller and her remembrances of being the only dread-headed white girl step-dancing at Reggae parties are spellbinding – as are her recollections of a time when Punks, Rastas, Sticksmen, John Travolta disco-sadists and neo-Teddy Boys all collided on the street and on the stage as a new music attempted to rise from the ashes of punk.
Factory Records co-founder Tony Wilson is just as enthusiastic on the page as he was during the heyday of the Manchester music scene or as his on-screen persona (played by Steve Coogan) in 24 Hour Party People (Wilson died shortly after his interview). Wilson’s chat with Reynolds is hilarious, but sweet and filled with been-there-done-that witticisms. Asked about what made Manchester music special, Wilson replies:
…Manchester is a great immigrant city…Dave Ambrose, a great A&R man, said that Manchester kids have the best record collections. That’s true. When he said that, I flashed onto a Hulme squat in the mid-eighties. Ranged against the wall would be 300 records: an entire collection of samba records, a load of German noise bands, the entire Parliament Funkadelic…
James Chance, the book’s great hero (at least according to everyone at Insomnia), speaks at length about his humble Midwestern, American roots and his complete lack of technique as an alto sax player. Reynolds gives us the clearest picture yet of Chance, one of the most important artists-after-punk. Chance’s recollections fill in the blanks regarding the rise of post-punk in New York and the recording of Brian Eno’s seminal No New York compilation. Until a proper James Chance bio is written, Reynolds tete-a-tete is the next-best-thing.
This video features Chance with his band James White and the Blacks. This group fell somewhere between No Wave and “mutant disco”. They’re seen here performing in the film Downtown ’81 which stars a young Jean-Michel Basquiat and serves as a great musical snapshot of New York-after-the-’70′s:
The last sections of the book include a delightful handful of essays that find Reynolds reviewing the 2 films about New Order and Ian Curtis (24 Hour Party People and Control) and parsing through the complex mysteries of Public Image Limited. However, the book’s stellar section is “Ono, Eno, Arto”. It’s the best piece we’ve ever read about the way that the plastic arts have interacted with rock music from the 1960′s, through punk and beyond. It’s the kind of hipper-than-thou talking-point that many people speak on, but few get right. A complex and nuanced subject, Reynolds makes it look easy, properly drawing an arc from former-art-students-turned-earnest-rockers like Pete Townshend to artists-as-dilettante-musicians like Jean-Michel Basquiat. Along the way he sheds light on Brian Eno’s visual-conceptualizing of music and his creative heights on the thermal currents that rose from the empty space that punk left behind.
Reynolds writing is consistently entertaining and insightful. His interviews invite you into intimate conversations and his essays are the rarest kinds of beasts – always engaging, but never self-important. He has illuminated the period after punk so thoroughly that every scholar that follows will have to begin their journeys in his footsteps. One gets the feeling that Reynolds owns the place, but he’s cool enough to let the rest of us squat for a bit if we’d like.
Totally Wired: Postpunk Interviews and Overviews was published by Soft Skull Press on August 17, 2010.
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Joe Nolan <3