The history of postpunk rock gets a microscopic examination by a keen-eyed English observer.

The history of postpunk rock gets a microscopic examination by a keen-eyed English observer.

British critic Reynolds, who picked apart the development of house music, techno and the U.K. rave scene in Generation Ecstasy (1998), applies his methodology to the multitude of styles and sounds collectively known as "postpunk." The rubric is somewhat misleading, since several of the significant bands Reynolds writes about—Pere Ubu, Devo, Talking Heads—either predated or worked concurrently with the punk explosion of the mid- and late-'70s. But Reynolds's concern is not with chronology but with sensibility—the first half of his book addresses revolutionary bands whose art school–derived musical eclecticism ran contrary to the orthodoxy of conventional punk. He compellingly explores the breakaway sounds and styles of acts as diverse as Public Image Ltd. (the postpunk unit fronted by the Sex Pistols' John Lydon), Gang of Four, Joy Division and the Pop Group. His smart, densely researched accounts of these bands and their scenes are sometimes marred by a weakness for artists whose intellectual rigor outweighed their musical worth. Sadly, this work is really two books in one, and Reynolds utterly loses his thread, and his head, when he abandons the more challenging postpunk sounds of the era to address the style-driven rise of new pop and synth-pop. Wearing his national chauvinism on his sleeve, he makes a slim connection between the pathfinding efforts of postpunk visionaries and the selling-out/buying-in ethos of such commercial acts as Gary Numan, the Human League and ABC, many of whom benefited from the early-'80s explosion of MTV. The latter half of Reynolds's book suffers from a lack of focus, excessive Anglophilia and the strain of justifying the ascent of some decidedly lesser talents. Readers who savor the first 200 pages will likely continue patiently through its wearying finale.

A compelling read, swamped in the end by the new wave of '80s rock.

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