02/28/2006: "rip it up and start again!"
Big, big congrats and respect to Simon Reynolds, author of the mighty book Rip it Up and Start Again, which celebrates its long-awaited U.S. release this week. I spent a very happy year of my life working on the book as his research assistant. It was rough going at times--my least favorite part of the job was definitely the tedious task of transcribing interviews--but it was one of the best learning experiences of my life, and a huge part of the reason why I made the
mistake decision to jump headfirst into music journalism. If you're in New York City, swing by Mo Pitkins tonight for what promises to be a legendary post-punk panel discussion celebrating Rip it Up and Start Again, featuring Simon along with Vivien Goldman (Flying Lizards!), China Burg (one of the few people in the world who can legitimately say that she's "from Mars," because she is!), James Chance (Contortions!), Steven Daly (Orange Juice!) And in the book's honor here are my top five greatest experiences working for Simon on his book...
Working for Simon: Top 5 Great Experiences
1. Getting to interview and hang out with Blixa Bargeld in his awesome house in San Francisco. I've been a pretty big Neubauten fan since about age 17 (I have the requisite torn black Neubauten t-shirt and sullen expression to prove it) and it was a truly mindblowing experience. We spent an entire afternoon talking in his kitchen and drinking sake; the interview lasted three hours (!) and went incredibly well (though I was supremely nervous at first--who wouldn't be?!)
2. Getting the making of Pink Flag, 154, and Chairs Missing explained to me in great detail by a man who should know--Mike Thorne, Wire's producer for those three classic records and a wonderful person besides. I love Wire more than I've loved pretty much any band, ever, and to sit with Mike in his studio was a dream. Top moment: playing "Map Ref 41 N 93 W" on his studio monitors and having him share his memories of recording the song, while it was playing. Magic. The best part was seeing the big grin on Mike's face when Colin Newman says, right before the chorus, "Chorus!" ("I forgot about that bit!") The interview went very well but ended when someone famous (Siouxsie, I think?) called the studio. Trivia: Mike also produced "Tainted Love" for Marc Almond and "Voices Carry" for 'Til Tuesday!
3. Interviewing Monte Cazazza in Berkeley. Monte is a wonderful and mysteriously underrated musician and performance artist. He was an early friend of Genesis P-Orridge and a co-conspirator on legendary early Throbbing Gristle misadventures, including the infamous 'infrasound experiments' in Hackney. He graced the cover of Re/Search early on, and formed one of the most intriguing parts of the Industrial Culture handbook that Re/Search put out later, which was a hugely influential text for me (the interview began with the line "Tell us your earliest acts of mayhem..."). He also happened to coin the term "industrial music" with an offhanded crack about "industrial music for industrial people." Cool dude with cool shoes (bright red Converse all-stars.)
4. Going to London and spending a week trawling my friend Mark Sinker's fabulous archives of post-punk-era magazines, papers, zines, and ephemera. Trivia: Mark was the guitarist in a short-lived post-punk band called the Jazz Insects. I convinced Mark, with a lot of arm-twisting and wheedling, to let me listen to their record (released over 25 years ago). I liked it! Mark does these great scratchy Keith Levene-y guitar textures while a dude intones hilariously moody Simon Topping-esque vocals... Bonus trivia: One of Mark's band mates was Matt Black from Coldcut.
5. Transcribing the Martin Rushent interview tape. OK, so transcribing tapes formed a major and decidedly unglamorous part of my job, and I hated doing it at times, especially during the Manchester chapter (have you ever tried transcribing Mancunian accents? Fuckin' torture!) But the painful process of transcribing dozens upon dozens of hours of scratchy cassettes, mostly by hand (though we got a transcription machine much, much later on, towards the end) meant that I ended up with a photographic memory about key events and details in post-punk. I was already a post-punk geek before I started working for Simon, but all the transcribing really deepened and refined the geekitude. I learned more about music production from transcribing the Martin Rushent tape than from anything I've ever read. Martin Rushent was of course the genius producer for the Human League and the brains behind the whole enterprise in a way. My favorite part of the tape, which I listened to over and over, was him explaining the exacting and awesomely painstaking process of putting together the League Unlimited Orchestra 'Love and Dancing' LP, which is a total classic for the remix of "Love Action" alone and a massive feat of remixing. Truly awesome to think how all those edits--hundreds of them--were done by hand, mostly with a ruler and a tape splicer. You never think about how records like "Don't You Want Me" were made because they're such perfect pop records; when you hear them, you only think about the song and nothing else--not the people behind it, not the making of the song, not the process, nothing about the logistics. That's one of the marks of a timeless pop song--a song that sounds like it always existed, as if it emerged fully formed out of nothing, with no human intervention whatsoever. Songs that perfect demand--and receive--total immersion, and he helped engineer that immersion. Fascinating to learn how.
And last but not least...
6. Working for Simon, which was an honor through and through. A real inspiration, a fabulous writer and dedicated researcher, and a great mentor and friend besides. Go buy the book! Makes a great gift, conversation piece, stocking stuffer...