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     Volume 4 Issue 45 | May 6, 2005 |

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Book Review

Fans for the Memory

Nicholas Lezard

The problem with popular culture is its popularity: if lotsof people like something, it is by no means a guarantee that it is going to be any good. The music that I loved as a teenager went, quite often, out of its way to be unpopular. What I liked in the years covered by Simon Reynolds's book was, basically, everything that John Peel played (except, very guiltily, the reggae). The songs would cover such subjects as alienation, capitalist exploitation, misery, mal de siècle, totalitarianism, murder, suicide, the nuclear threat (quite a lot about that, obliquely or directly), every conceivable degree of angst, and a hundred other subjects whose lyrics were either too vague or distorted for their message to be clear - although one could be fairly confident that they were not about girls or fast cars, unless the girl concerned was Myra Hindley or Eva Braun. There were even a few about Northern Ireland for good measure.

Paradoxically, I was not alone: hundreds of thousands of people my age listened to Peel and read the New Musical Express, and, for a while, Sounds, which in print more or less endorsed Peel's tastes - and, in the words of its unusually gifted critics, gave a voice to our own tastes, or gave good reasons for changing them. But the music of Public Image Ltd, the Gang of Four, Joy Division, The Raincoats, and innumerable other bands with names either sinister or bizarre or pretentious or any combination of the three, was in no way designed or intended to ingratiate itself with the mass of the record-buying populace. It was avant-garde, open to any musical possibilities that suggested themselves (within the limitations of the bands' musical abilities, of which, anyway, they often made a virtue, if virtue is the word), united only in the sense that it was very often cerebral, concocted by brainy young men and women interested as much in disturbing the audience, or making them think, as in making a pop song.

A lot of that music was rather good, and even if some of it wasn't, the ideas behind it were very much worth airing. If you liked electric guitars but hated heavy metal and had even a hazy notion of what Derrida was about, it was a marvellous time. There were collisions, naturally. When The Ramones went on tour with Talking Heads, an unlikely combination in retrospect, the former were, as Reynolds puts it, "freaked out" that the latter read books on the coach, rather than do what bands are meant to do.

In 2001, Reynolds, in a piece for Uncut, wet his finger, stuck it in the air, and cautiously suggested that a revival of the independent music of 1978-1984 might be a possibility. He accepted the unlikeliness of the proposition: retro culture, happy to pillage anything it can be affectionately ironic about, could not cope with that period's seriousness, let alone its sheer eclecticism.

And yet it has come back, first, in 2002, in the homage to Manchester's extraordinary contribution to the scene in 24 Hour Party People , and then, two years later, in the shape of Franz Ferdinand, a group of clever young men who have obviously been listening to quite a few of the bands honoured in Reynolds's book, and yet whose album, more than a year after its release, is still at number 35 in the Amazon charts, and has sold more than 2m copies. Even Franz Ferdinand's cagey interview technique ("everything you do should have an air of subversiveness to it", they carefully tell the Sunday Times reporter) pays homage to the attitudes of that era.

As Greil Marcus pointed out, and Reynolds acknowledges, the Situationists and Futurists may have provided the template, but the modern catalyst, though not the presiding genius which he might have wanted to be, was John Lydon; and to his enduring credit he did it twice, first by turning the Sex Pistols into a much more interesting beast than Malcolm Maclaren ever wanted them to be, and then by using his position to effect an aural and conceptual assault on conventional rock by forming PiL, which might not strictly have been at the very forefront of the avant-garde but which was as close to it as dammit.

An influence, undoubtedly, is the rock press of the time. If people learned one thing from it, it was that good writing was a reliable indicator of good taste. You would assent to give propositions room, whatever your personal reservations, if the prose was good. And Reynolds's prose is very good indeed. He follows in the line of descent from Lester Bangs to Greil Marcus to Ben Thompson: startlingly thoughtful, gracefully illuminating, in command of an anarchic subject because the will, the knowledge and the technique conspire to place some kind of order on the unorderable. I had never expected there to be a book on this subject; had I done so, I would never have dared hope it could be as good as this. But then, now that Reynolds has reilluminated the period for us, shown us how fascinating and rewarding it was, I begin to suspect that, properly done, it could hardly have failed to be as good as it is. And this is very properly done indeed. You might even like it if you don't care for the music it chronicles.

This review was first published in the Guardian

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