Notes from the Underground


As I get older, I get more and more worried about the general sense of university as the best days of your life. I mean, Oxford has exceeded my expectations by yards, and yet I still sometimes get that itchy sense that my life just isn’t as good as how I want to be able to say it was, in twenty years time. And talking to Simon Reynolds, that feeling is back with bells on. He’s one of the most interesting music journalists Britain has, and yet he went to university in a town which (let’s face it) lacks the kind of interest in its music scene which would spark the fascination of a twenty-something who had ‘the absolute fixed notion I was going to be a music journalist’.

‘Music on a national level, and the music papers, above all the NME inspired me to want to do music journalism’

From asking about his experiences, Oxford seems a bit more glistening. I start by questioning him about the music scene when he was here. He lists the Oxford Apollo (now the New Theatre), and a slightly more exciting-sounding ‘discotheque called Scamps’. But even with a few exciting names popping up – The Smiths, for example, or Elvis Costello – Reynolds notes that it wasn’t the music scene in Oxford that really got him into music journalism, but rather ‘music on a national level, and the music papers, above all the NME, that inspired me to want to do music journalism’.

But it isn’t the music scene that I’m envious of, even if being able to roll off – as he can – that I had seen The Fall ‘at their absolute most fierce, dense, discordant, impenetrable’. It’s rather the general sense that he gives of his time here, how his major influences were his friends; ‘a bunch of misfit, intellectual types’, which included a best friend who was ‘doing a dissertation that involved Derrida and deconstruction’, and another who was a ‘full-on feminist’. It seems for Reynolds, Oxford’s main impact on his life was that it provided the opportunity for making friends and having fun and, as he puts it, ‘the adventure of being a young adult away from home for the first time, and all the socialising and just doing things like staying up all night talking’.

But from a man as astute and eloquent as Reynolds, it’s hard to believe that if it wasn’t the History degree (he was at Brasenose in the early 80s) which gave him his way with words, he must have been ‘staying up all night talking’ about something pretty interesting.

He was also influenced by books, he concedes, but mainly ‘those I would read in my spare time’, mainly ‘a lot of French critical theory – Foucault, Barthes, etc – and also subcultural theory and academic work on pop culture’. Talking about his work later he says that ‘post-structuralism and the French critical crew had a big influence on me’. His main regret reflects a similar tendency for diversity and intellectual curiosity; he wishes that he ‘had taken advantage of stuff at Oxford, like going to lectures that weren’t on my course’.

Reynolds also avoided the traditional journalistic channels in Oxford, though not – as he notes – as an act of ‘defiance’, and instead published his first fanzine while here. This was a production called Margin that they attempted to start as a full zine but became a ‘wall poster that was in every college and all over town’. This developed after he graduated (though still in Oxford) into another called Monitor, which he took to London.

‘Independent production in the music industry generates a lot of crap and just middling stuff’

Having had this experience, I ask him how he considers independent production more generally. For him, independent production gave the chance to create something with ‘a really potent hit of what you’re about’, and gives you something different, ‘as opposed to being dispersed amid a sea of other text’. However, despite this positivity, he seems a lot less enthusiastic about the idea of independent production in the music industry. ‘It’s good,’ he concedes, but it ‘generates a lot of crap and just middling stuff’, with a ‘ratio that is better than the non-independent production by not that much’.

It seems that he is objecting not to the concept of independent production – something which should be appreciated for its role as ‘an outlet for a lot of weirdo perspectives that would otherwise not get out there’ – rather the idea that independent is equivalent to interesting or original.

‘The interesting zone in music is where the underground breaks into the mainstream’

And it is originality which he seems most enthusiastic about – in both of his chosen fields, music and journalism. A desire for newness infects his unprecedented style of his serious zine (‘it looked so unlike any other fanzine at the time… which was our intent’) to his current opinions on music. The ‘interesting zone’ in music is where ‘the underground breaks into the mainstream’, incidents such as ‘The Smiths getting on to Top of the Pops and gatecrashing the happy-happy vapidity of it all’, ‘rap busting onto MTV’ or the unexpected success of grime.It is where the rebellion of the underground infiltrates and impacts on the commercial world where music gets really interesting.

In his journalism, the same emphasis on difference breaking and changing the tendencies of the mainstream is equally apparent. I ask him about the influence of the internet on his work – widely recognised as the biggest change in the way we write and read since, perhaps, the printing press – and he doesn’t seem that bothered by it; ‘I haven’t noticed it much myself’, he says, except the newness of the ‘sense that opinions have a definite sell-by date’. This is perhaps because of the originality of his work, even where he writes online content, such as his recent blogs for the Guardian, it is often ‘really, really long’, and in this he may be ‘unconsciously bucking the trend for brevity and the twitter-length opinion’.

Reynolds is refreshingly un-snobbish for a music writer, referring, for example, to the most indulgent creators and consumers of underground music as ‘closer to the snooty end of the mainstream’ than they think; ‘a kind of hip snobbery and self-distinction through acts of discerning consumption’. Like his descriptions of his time at Oxford, Reynolds seems more concerned about making his portraits of music accessible, while retaining the qualities of desirability and enviability on which the underground culture so heavily and exclusively relies.


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