Another time

Rip It Up And Start Again: post-punk (1978-1984)

Simon Reynolds <em>Faber & Faber, 577pp, £16.99</

The song titles tell their own story. "Contort Yourself"; "Prole Art Threat"; "We Are All Prostitutes". The post-punk music of the late 1970s and early 1980s - angular, agitated, insurgent - was born of discontented winters, burning inner cities, endless dole queues, the prospect of mutually assured destruction. In "Anarchy in the UK", Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols had sung of there being "no fut-ure". His new band PiL, along with the likes of Joy Division, Gang of Four and Cabaret Voltaire, mapped out other exhilaratingly bleak landscapes and fashioned elliptical threnodies to the former industrial towns from which they hailed.

Post-punk propo-sed a scorched-earth response towards rock history - another fine song title was Subway Sect's "We Oppose All Rock'n'Roll" - and the three-chord thrash of so much punk music was felt to be not a break from this, but a conservative continuation of it. Instead, post-punk offered a new dislocation dance that rejected pop's urge to affirm in favour of demystification, radical (self-)questioning and the deconstruction of gender stereotypes. Scritti Politti's singer-theoretician Green, high on hegemony and the latest Euro-theory translations, wrote a song called "Jacques Derrida" in which he rapped: "Desire is so voracious/I want her to eat your nation state."

It all seems like another time. And for many years, it was. It is possible to overstate post-punk's earnestness, though impossible to deny it entirely, and long before the end of Margaret Thatcher's first term in power, many bands had shifted from a protest-and-survive stance to a more entryist approach that embraced the slick-and-polish production techniques of mainstream pop. Despite a loyal underground of enthusiasts, post-punk was spurned by DJs and taste-makers who saw in it only a dourness and duty that needed to be - and they were - replaced by the E'd-up euphoria of post-1988 club culture.

Prominent among those who clung to the optimism and spirit of that anything-goes futurism of the post-punk era is Simon Reynolds, who for two decades has been widely recognised as one of the best music critics on the planet, not least for his books The Sex Revolts (with his wife, Joy Press) and Energy Flash, which brim with passion and intellect, and are written in whip-smart, neologism-rich, theoretically supple prose.

Rip It Up And Start Again, its title coming from a wonderful song by Orange Juice, is Reynolds's most strait-laced book to date, a chronological history of a movement that, he argues, rivalled the 1960s in terms of the great music it helped to birth. It's a deliberate, though by no means total, self-erasure: the material is so rich, the key characters so eloquent and idiosyncratic, the ferment of ideas that underpinned the music so compelling, as to make his usual brand of audio-ecriture superfluous.

It was ideas that were pivotal to post-punk. The likes of Green, Mark E Smith and Jah Wobble were furious readers and autodidacts. Bands such as Wire, Gang of Four and the Mekons were art-school graduates, the last two from Leeds, where they fell deeply in thrall to the Marxist scholar T J Clark and Art and Language-inspired conceptualism. The Human League's single "The Dignity of Labour" came with a free flexidisc, at the end of which the lead singer "Phil Oakey makes a brief statement about the concept EP's theme: individualism versus collectivism". The lesson for today's bands is clear: get yourself a decent bibliography.

Another lesson, one ignored by the recent crop of bands such as Bloc Party and Interpol which have styled their vocals and their haircuts on the 1978-84 period, is that guitar groups do well to keep an ear on the sounds coming out of dance music. It's no surprise that those post-punk bands which did - A Certain Ratio, Talking Heads, all of those associated with New York's Mutant Disco scene - still sound contemporary. In Bristol, the Pop Group, led by Mark Stewart, was a heroic, tumbledown assemblage of free jazz, dub reggae and mad funk fans that played so many benefit gigs, the band ended up broke and had to hold one for themselves.

Rip It Up is not only an alternative history of the 1970s and the early 1980s. In its paean to radical bands such as the Slits and its reminder of how The Beat donated royalties from their protest hit "Stand Down Margaret" to CND, it offers an inspiring and utopian manifesto for future pop. Always deft of phrase and critically unpredictable (he makes a compelling case for Bow Wow Wow), Reynolds also works in some fantastic anecdotes, such as the one from Gina Birch of the Raincoats who recalls: "The squat we used to live in was not pretty. People would say, 'We're making a post-Holocaust film. Can we shoot in your house?'"

Reynolds beautifully evokes post-punk's subculture - the importance of band badges, the patronage of DJs such as John Peel, the role of shops such as Rough Trade, which distributed fanzines scribbled in bedrooms (though not before it had policed them for ideological content), and the swarm of tiny, DIY labels such as Fuck Off Records, whose cassette-only roster included Danny and the Dressmakers, responsible for "Going Down the Sperm Bank Four Quid a Wank".

Post-punk, as the quite brilliant Rip It Up And Start Again shows, was as much about process as it was about product, about community rather than commerce. It helped nurture the subcultural spaces and networks that would sustain independent music for the next decade. Does anyone really think that the same thing could ever be true of the Futureheads?

Sukhdev Sandhu is the author of London Calling: how black and Asian writers imagined a city (Perennial, £9.99)