Simon Reynolds last featured in Cherwell way back in 1983 when, along with fellow students and future colleagues David Stubbs and Paul Oldfield, he launched Margin, a polemical poster-magazine: "We stuck it on notice boards, laundry walls, all over the place. It made a few waves. We did a mini version of one issue, about the size of a postcard and virtually illegible at that size, and we went around sticking them inside toilet rolls and inside people’s loaves of sliced bread: the idea was kinda "Margin–we’re everywhere! Insidiously eroding your ability to carry on!"
Since then, he’s established himself as one of the world’s leading music writers by championing emergent sub-cultures and rewriting the official histories of pop and rock. Reynolds’ last book, Rip It Up and Start Again, was a comprehensive account of the post-punk and New Pop movements of the early ‘80s, the era that shaped his own "idea of the activist critic who makes things happen and shakes things up." His own career began when the narrative of Rip It Up ended, and it’s this passionate commitment to music that forms the core of his new book, Bring the Noise: 20 Years of Writing about Hip-Rock and Hip-Hop, a fascinating composite of anthology and memoir. Reynolds’ appeal is easy to get. There’s the state of permanent delinquency that you might associate with John Peel – an uninhibited enthusiasm that’s plugged into some pretty strong convictions about how music should sound but always open to the shock of the new. And that current stays live throughout the book. What’s remarkable is Reynolds’ far-sighted ability to capture wildly inventive movements like jungle, post-rock and grime in their infancy and to evolve a set of terms and phrases to describe them.
But he’s equally fascinated by the backdrop to music. He hints at this public dimension in an interview with Radiohead around the release of ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’, describing the "relentless bleakness" of the records as "an alienation that is never entirely private…one might describe it as ‘the political is personal’". And Thom Yorke’s alienation is something that all engaged listeners should be able to appreciate, particularly as the visceral, life-changing potential of music is steadily diluted by iPods and MTV. Reynolds stresses that "skimming through loads of downloads on your computer in a desultory fashion doesn’t seem as impressive as being a participant in a subculture, where’s there an element of strenuousness, whether it’s going to a rave and having an adventure – sometimes a misadventure, when the rave is busted – or being a fanatical metal fan and going to cramped, sweaty gigs, and doing things like moshing and crowdsurfing."
For Reynolds, the last big musical escapade began with the "surge of rhythmic invention and freakadelic production in hip hop and R&B" at the turn of this decade. "You had highpoints of commercially massive yet pretty bizarre-sounding music like Missy’s Get UR Freak On, Kelis’ Milkshake, the early Destiny’s Child hits, too many to mention…and then for me the next stage was grime, where the producers were melding all those Dirty South, crunky ideas with noises and rhythms from the rave tradition, from hardcore techno and jungle." But "grime was pretty much barred from pop" and though the scene is far from exhausted, there’s a reason why only Dizzee has dented the popular consciousness. Mostly because the grime scene is largely sustained by mix-tapes, white label 7"s and live sessions from Rinse FM, it demands precisely the sense of adventure that Reynolds would argue is largely missing today. Such trends reflect damaging new divisions in society. He suggests that "perhaps the experiential gulf between street rap and white indie-rock types has grown so big that it’s discouraging people from trying to take on ideas from hip-hop or grime." Perhaps. But in the book, he sounds a more despairing note; "not many people actually want to hear what the voice of the streets has to say: partly because it ain’t pretty, and partly, because most people honestly don’t give much of a fuck".
Crikey! That comes from an article called 2005: The Year Black Pop and White Pop Stopped Talking. If Reynolds has a story to tell in this book, it’s the fate of this musical dialogue between black and white, hip-hop and hip-rock. He argues that, "historically the entire story of rock and pop wouldn’t exist without this white romance with black music, and that is especially pronounced in terms of British pop, from The Beatles and The Stones onwards." But it isn’t as if this conversation is entirely one sided. Just as rock benefits from mimicking, revising or misinterpreting the innovations of dub, funk, rap, jazz and the blues, these black cultural movements often look to punk, indie, metal and grunge as effective mouthpieces for generational discontent. So in an interview with Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Reynolds draws attention to the Brooklyn collective’s debt to rock for its combustible energy while, over a decade later, he fantasises about how 2-step and R&B might be saved from their reactionary obsession with material wealth by "the return with a vengeance of rock bohemianism" that might restore the "whole package" of "rhythm, melody, lyrics, compelling persona."
At times, I can’t help but worry that Reynolds thinks of this black-white exchange as a purely formal principle of pop innovation. By focusing on the music, doesn’t he neglect broader problems in society and culture? Take a look at his Roots N Future essay on white bohemia’s alternate fascination and disappointment with reggae. Here, he critiques Joe Strummer’s earnest and simplistic identification with the insurrectionary content of Jamaican music but also finds the hipster’s obsession with dub-as-studio-science lacking because of its weightless detachment from the music’s Caribbean home. Spurning the tired critical orthodoxy that pitches rock as a politically virile cry of protest, (think Strummer but think Dylan and Springsteen too), he sketches a sophisticated notion of individual taste and creativity that’s sensitive to broader developments in society and nourished by the hope for change. Which brings us back to that phrase: ‘the political is personal’.
But Bring the Noise can’t be reduced to a slogan. This collection is just one instalment in a life-long involvement with rock and pop that seethes with thought and possibility. He admits to a sense of irresolution: "I have no answers; I’m just intrigued and concerned by the possibility that this relationship between black music and white music has become unglued somehow." Yet despite the bleak portents, the book is far from sombre. You only need read Simon Reynolds on Morrissey or Scritti Politti, Dizzee Rascal’s debut or Dancehall, to realise that his disappointment stems from a sincere affection for the delirious enthusiasm that music at its most original and unpredictable can inspire.