Discover more from Herb Sundays
Herb Sundays 32: Simon Reynolds
The acclaimed writer and music journalist assembles a pleasure-focused mix of "...music that demanded, that still demands, to be played again and again."
Here’s Simon Reynolds on his Herb Sundays playlist:
Over time, I seem to have settled into a fairly moronic metric when it comes to music: if I can remember anything about it after playing it, and if I have any desire to hear it again, then it must be good. All the other stuff - interpreting, contextualizing, speculating, poeticizing etc - that goes into writing about music is a separate stage from that crude initial assessment, and as much as all of that enriches and expands the enjoyment, it can never override the basic thoughtless reaction. You can't argue yourself into ecstasy. This playlist is a bunch of pieces I have played over and over and over, whether it's a recent discovery (as with the Morricone theme, encountered a few months ago when watching A Fistful of Dynamite) or something beloved from the past that somehow got mislaid along the way, you and it fell out of touch for decades, but then suddenly it's back in your life (as with "My Old Man" and Ian Dury generally). Most of these songs and tracks are things I've never had the opportunity to write about - except maybe a few tossed-off thoughts on a blog accompanying a YouTube clip. There's no real through-line to this motley selection, except that they are all bits of music I became totally fixated on - music that demanded, that still demands, to be played again and again. It's a wondrous sensation, and you can't count on a regular supply of it, so when that happens I've learned to go with it.
I became aware of Reynolds when his 1998 book Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture (named for the Joey Beltram strobe techno classic) arrived at a Border's bookstore in Michigan under the slightly more zeitgeist-y title Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture. The book dovetailed perfectly with the electronica boom which had sent artists like Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, and Goldie into major print media and some degree of MTV awareness.
Reynolds has written a number of incredible books that chart out an alternative music almanac, through a British lens-including Blissed Out: Raptures of Rock (1990), Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past (2010), Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-first Century (2016), and perhaps my favorite, Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978–1984 (2005) which had the emotional effect on me that Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life (2001) had on countless others. Equally important to Reynolds' reputation has been his work as a music journalist for outlets such as Wire, Details (it was incredible), and The Guardian.
I've known Simon as an acquaintance and for 20 years when Ghostly made it into his consciousness and I was psyched when we found out way into the updated version (in the electroclash chapter) of Energy Flash and on his excellent blissblog: ("The Ghostly International comp is the most all-the-way-through enjoyable thing I've heard in this neo-electro/Eighties synthpop vein since the Interdimensional Transmissions's From Beyond several years ago.”)
The charges against Reynolds: his hyperbole, his love of creating new genre names, etc. are the reasons I’ve always loved his work. He always takes it there. And why not? The music he often covers has so often been discarded as faddish, that I've often felt he's one of a few writers who understood its actual greatness. He also understands the “20-year connection arc” and how things click together better than most:
One way of thinking of Maxinquaye is as Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure remodeled as an accounting of the costs of the UK’s recreational drug culture. Tricky makes his own travails with alcohol, ganja, and other “cheap thrills” emblematic of a generation able to find its provisional utopias only through self-poisoning. (Artfroum, 1995)
Simon’s ability is to know where music and culture fit on time's arc, or in his parlance the hardcore continuum: the micromovements of electronic music has followed over decades, where everything is a chain reaction that can take us back to the source.
Reynolds has made his way through his own musical archaeology with a specific lens as both a rockist and a raver, but not afraid to incise either persona when needed. Ultimately, for all his love of underground culture, Reynolds is a musical populist: He wants you to have a good time. The work he’s done on aberrant music genres (electronic, shoegaze, post-punk) have been meaningful for me. While others have written these off as antisocial or nihilistic, Reynolds gives them an ecclesiastical light.
The startling thing for me, and the most enduring aspect of Reynolds’ view, is that he believes, or in fact, knows, that good music is supposed to be a little dumb. Instead of focusing on hyper-literality, the vapor space of Reynoldsland is that everything that is good is fleeting and that truly ecstatic music is all about pleasure: Gained, thwarted, or just simply lost.
The idea of musical pleasure, the uncorking of a long week, of dislocating oneself is also tied into labor. The labor of dancers and creators, scenes and promoters, machines and minds. It makes sense that Reynolds was also a friend and co-conspirator of the late Mark Fisher.
The danger of restorative nostalgia lies in its belief that the mutilated 'wholeness' of the body politic can be repaired. But the reflective nostalgic understands deep down that loss is irrecoverable: Time wounds all wholes. To exist in Time is to suffer through an endless exile, a successive severing from those precious few moments of feeling at home in the world. ― Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past
His Creative Class cutdown of mid 00's minimal techno is also astute:
Also, if you work on a computer it's very easy to bunk off at frequent intervals, play truant into the web world, exactly as I am doing right now. At the same time, because their media or design jobs often involve aesthetics or some form of cultural information-gathering or semiotic interpretation, or networking, there is a sense that they are seldom completely at leisure. Work and leisure, the workspace and the homespace become blurred. Especially if you are a freelancer and can manage your own time. Because of all these factors, the whole explosive tension-release, living-for-the-weekend economy of energy that underpins the more tribal-vibal forms of dance culture is absent in minimal. It is much more about a plateau state of pleasure and pleasantness--the music coming through the speakers at the club not being that different from what you're playing all day through your computer speakers.
The weekend is not the redemption of a week of drudgery, because the work isn't actually drudgery, but stimulating.
Let's leave off with some shards of a 1993 Aphex Twin interview. It is perfect Reynolds in that it relates to work/play, pain/pleasure, and how the good stuff tends to come from this tension:
Sometimes, James will make a tune in an almost somnambulistic state. “When I'm in the studio, my eyes get tired from looking at monitors, and sometimes I'll finish a track with my eyes shut, cos I know where all the dials are. I can do a track by touch."
But, even at his best, he appears to spend his creative life flitting between what neurologists call ‘hypnagogic’ and ‘hypnopompic’ states. Hypnagogic is the half-awake imagery (but not the surreal visions) you get in the classic R.E.M. dream-state.
Hypnopompic is My Bloody Valentine's "when you're awake you're still in a dream" feel, that early morning sensation of dis-reality when you haven't fully surfaced from the dream-depths.
In fact, there's quite a parallel between the Aphex vibe and MBV's dreampop. When they were recording Isn't Anything, MBV could only afford a week of studio time and so, to make the most of it, they slept only one and a half hours a night. At the time, I speculated that they'd invented a natural form of psychedelia.
Enjoy this mix and thanks for reading.