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Beyond Rip It Up: Towards A New Definition Of Post Punk?
Alex Ogg , October 1st, 2009 06:49

Alex Ogg visits Leeds University to assess the academic response to the developing debate around post-punk and finds a little too much consensus

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The post-punk conference hosted by Leeds' Performance and Cultural Industries Unit took place over a day in early September, with Paul Morley, pioneer and proud rehabiliator of the first person address in journalism, as keynote speaker. Elsewhere, after an introduction by organisers Philip Kiszely and Alice Bayliss, we explored Birmingham sociology, enjoyed a feminist perspective on Breaking Glass, and eyeballed an impressive display of punk-era graphic design while cogitating on accounts of The Fall and Throbbing Gristle. Lucy O'Brien spoke about studying at this very campus to the agit-prop feminist soundtrack of the Delta 5, amid curfews for female students with the Yorkshire Ripper still at large. And I waffled about independent labels to the unbridled joy of my publisher. John Cooper Clarke was a highly appropriate choice to provide an evening's entertainment for the saddle-sore.

Morley, toting a thick wad of A4, flipped through random thoughts and notes from published articles, including the occasional set-piece such as his breathless sermon denouncing the Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand. Their perceived mimicry was contrasted to the militant artistic separatism of the Gang of Four, Josef K and Monochrome Set. Are these reactionary replicants indeed such empty vessels, traducing the rich stylistic traditions of the class of '78 into rote formulae, as Morley suggests? I can think of several more deserving targets. Regardless, it's good to see the old boy work up a froth, and he's prescient in recognising how quickly journalism becomes the cement of history, fixing perception until that necessary moment when the revisionary coat of paint is required. And sometimes over-liberally applied.

Dave Haslam, author and former Hacienda DJ, contrasted the way the civic elders of Manchester and Birmingham have curated their respective cultural achievements. He cites The Prefects and March 1977 as the moment post-punk took root in Brum (which I would protest, chronologically and thematically). He's at his best exploring the connections that led Birmingham's punk generation through to new romanticism. Which, again, is now also seen as a post-punk trope. Dave Rimmer's excellent history of the New Romantics, it should be remembered, bore the title Like Punk Never Happened. Everything's getting pretty blurry.

This highlights a central problem with the elephant in the room and dominant text underpinning the conference: Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up And Start Again is a near ubiquitous reference point. His re-branding of the era conveniently provides near limitless subject matter and intellectual elbow room. To his credit, Reynolds was honest enough in announcing his solipsism, in so far as Rip It Up addresses those elements of post-punk that appeal to him. I would imagine he would be surprised to find his broader concept of post-punk has become doctrinal — at least where it collides with existing chauvinisms.

There's a parable here about the way some artists and writers ducked in and out of the punk frame as fashion dictated, and the same thing seems to be occurring with post-punk. Soon, doubtless, we shall have a fresh backlash and convoluted tautological expressions such as pre-post-punk. But we're still not hearing enough about the enduring influence of those grubby Potteries herberts Discharge, nor on unheralded brands such as UB40 or XTC, or the cow-punk scene, or the tape-traders. See also: the 'unfashionable' end of goth (in which space the unacknowledged UK Decay were as important a bridge between the punk and goth communities as the Banshees). An aside here; one of the speakers was adamant that she was a 'positive punk' — a tiny historical anachronism of a genre — and never a 'goth', proving that these definitions and their baggage still resonate down the years.

The problem is not with what Reynolds left out of Rip It Up . . ., but, paradoxically, that too much was left in. ZTT was a jolly wheeze, but that was surely a pop moment. And at the other end of various spectra, not least sonic, didn't Throbbing Gristle pre-date the Pistols? 'Post-punk' seems a hopelessly inadequate umbrella term to encompass both. The confusion extends beyond Blighty. Television and Talking Heads — both Reynolds favourites — were part of America's indigenous original punk scene that foreshadowed (and, depending on your reading of the runes, and your prejudices, inspired) the Pistols.

So why does post-punk work so well as a brand when its content remains amorphous? Reynolds himself defined it as "less a genre of music than a space of possibility". Yet we can't lose sight of the fact that the Latin qualifier means after, subsequent or later. Some limitation on duration is also necessary, though application can't be merely calendar-defined. We have to respond to the term with some reference to musical discipline and its entanglement with punk itself. Is there a compelling argument for digesting the period 78-82 as a single musico-sociological unit? I know not of such a beast. Unless you deconstruct the repeated message broadcast from 1978 onwards that punk was 'dead' and that a new dawn was implicit from that point. But punk wasn't dead. Some of its most critical interventions still lay ahead.

Yes, it's true that punk's impact may have been mythologised and perhaps that required redress. But punk as a music is defined in much narrower terms now than it was during the 76-79 period. To see it as some form of bill of limitations (or as 'retarded', as Reynolds at one point suggests) is inaccurate. He states that punk "proved a rejuvenating shot in the arm to the established record industry that the punks had hoped to overthrow". The emphasis on this 'failure' undersells the very real success of the independent music culture that grew like weeds in the rubble and without which no-one would ever have heard of the Delta 5 — if indeed they would ever have picked up instruments in the first place.

This cherry-picking of the more progressive voices from the punk era unfairly diminishes the parental culture's diversity and vitality. Contemporaneously — and even though each had a complicated narrative engagement with the term — Wire, The Slits, The Fall, ATV etc were consumed as punk. They can only be understood as post-punk retrospectively. You could barely read a music-related article between 1977 and 1979 that didn't mention 'punk' — often as a kind of barometer. I'm prepared to be gainsayed, but I would guess you would struggle to find more than a few dozen references to 'post-punk' in the same period. It's hard to think of many other musical sub-genres that were named — or conceptualised — after the event.

Punk begat vast dissonance and fragmentation. There are no means by which the wealth of music thus engendered in the period 78-84 (to use Reynolds' own parameters) can be adequately unified. It was all too untidy (and thrilling, as Reynolds conveys well). On the basis of reactions here, post-punk has become a little akin to the Human League's 'Black Hit Of Space', sucking everything into its orbit. Let's look again at some of the musical subjects this conference tackled: Throbbing Gristle, Orange Juice, Hazel O'Connor, the Fleshtones, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Mission of Burma. It would make for an interesting mix tape. But you can't imagine too many fans of each artist ever gathering in the same room.

Anyway, we retire to the pub. The Fenton, no less, where the cologne of post-punk's history has impregnated the walls, to borrow a Cooper-Clarke-ism. It's here that Green Gartside and the Mekons and Gang of Four supped and scrapped (with the National Front). So, did today's events move the debate forward? Answers on a thesis.

Discussions about establishing a new academic periodical covering punk and post-punk emerged post-conference. If you are interested in contributing, please drop a line to Dr Philip Kiszely (p.kiszely@leeds.ac.uk)

Alex Ogg's excellent study of UK independent labels Independence Days is out now.

Jon Doran
Oct 1, 2009 8:32pm

Shut up.

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jonny mugwump
Oct 1, 2009 9:15pm

really wonderful piece alex

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Jon Doran
Oct 2, 2009 8:21pm

No, really, shut up Alex. It's all already been said &, frankly, it's been said better. (Stifles yawn, fucks off.)

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Alex Ogg
Oct 3, 2009 10:22am

In reply to Jon Doran:

Is this just idle trolling? If this has been said before (or better), I'd be genuinely interested in a citation or a reference.

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Jon Doran
Oct 3, 2009 11:33pm

Sorry, "really wonderful piece, Alex". Love, Mum. x

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John Doran
Oct 4, 2009 11:13am

Typical cunt. Hiding behind a made up name. You're the one who keeps on posting angry, vaguely misogynistic comments elsewhere aren't you?

Why don't you either stop trolling or go somewhere else?

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Alex Ogg
Oct 4, 2009 11:37am

In reply to John Doran:

There was an open invitation there for him to reply with some argument or substance, but no surprise it was declined. Nothing in the locker, I guess.

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Jon Doran
Oct 4, 2009 6:16pm

Wipe the spittle off your beard(s), crawl out of Simon Reynolds' arse FFS. You both know you'd REALLY rather be writing about The Cult...

And I've never been "vaguely" misogynistic in my life btw.

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Alex Ogg
Oct 4, 2009 7:13pm

In reply to Jon Doran:

"Crawl out of Simon Reynolds' arse"?
You actually didn't read the article, did you?

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John Doran
Oct 4, 2009 9:30pm

Ha ha ha! What a fucking cretin.

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Craig Coward
Oct 5, 2009 8:15am

How far back do you want to go to define post-punk? It took UK bands nearly 3 years to catch up with Pere Ubu's first two singles.

"Rip it up" is a fine book but Alex is right, there's a far broader church out there.

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Philip Kiszely
Oct 5, 2009 8:58am

Alex's article is excellent, and points up some of the problems in trying to address such a broad musical spectrum (and in coming to terms with a complex and multi-faceted 'post-' genre - which isn't really a genre at all.) One key aim of the conference was to set up interaction and debate between industry, journalism and the academy. In this sense, I think the event was successful, and I think we are now in a position to organise follow up events which will extend further the connections we've made. And the aspects of post-punk that were covered were often done so excellently. John Robb, for example, talked entertainingly and with authority on how the Reynolds version of post-punk is a misleadingly linear narrative. Another real aim for me was to explore how the post-punk aesthetic translated or translates to other media and modes of practice. We tackled film quite nicely in the form of Claire Monk's paper on Breaking Glass, and we also premiered the Fleshtones documentary, 'Pardon us for living but the graveyard is full." There's plenty of interest and debate here, so let's see where we can go with it...

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Jon Doran
Oct 5, 2009 9:47am

In reply to John Doran:

Yesyesyes, two decades of twilight stock replenishment & a diet of placenta & chips have left me a bitter & hollow shell of a "man" (etc)...

The fact that you obviously wouldn't need to be assessing "the academic response to the developing debate around post-punk" if you'd not been beaten to writing about the genuine article in the first place (by far more - historically - qualified writers than yourselves) appears to have conveniently passed you by... UNSURPRISINGLY. My Simon Reynolds comment stands: are you seriously suggesting you'd be writing about any of this stuff now if Reynolds hadn't provided the catalyst? It's easy enough to start picking Rip It Up & Start Again apart with half a decade's hindsight but, face it, it's superior to anything you're likely to come up with between you, right?
Frustratingly (but somewhat inevitably), "Post-punk" has been bastardised into an impossibly vague, retrospective catch-all to enable jaded, failed tabloid journos (like yourselves) to tie the mediocre soundtracks of their youth (i.e. The Cult in your case, fatty) in with whatever repackaged & "carefully annotated" musical zeitgeist (ha!) Rough Trade are offloading onto gullible, concept-driven, idea-free web "hipsters" (like, erm, yourselves) this week / month. In your rush to stick your over-theoretical oar in you've ruined it for the rest of us by churning out paragraph after turgid paragraph of ego-stroking academic wank - sit down & shut up, FFS.
(Nods off, falls out of chair, vomits on an old issue of Bang magazine, etc).
P.S. You can bar me now, you hairy prick.

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John Doran
Oct 5, 2009 11:32am

Ah, Dominic Passantino? That fucking wingnut from the Plan B message board who thinks the CIA is poisoning his water supply? The guy from Portsmouth who attacked his neighbour with a samurai sword before sending me death threats from a pyschiatric institution for a year? Or any of those passive aggressive wankers who have been like a boil on my arse for the last seven years after bad reviews? That guy from OTF who started stalking me? (To be fair, it reads a bit too dimwitted for Passantino, he's just objectionable - not stupid like you appear to be.) You could be one of hundreds of wankers really.

I'll leave Alex to deal with your shifting goal posts on the post punk thing.

As for me: yeah, I'm cuddly dude. Everytime I make your mum hit the high notes she gives me a cheese and coleslaw sandwich.

The idea that I've only just discovered post punk music now is pretty hilarious. I'm 38-years-old. I really like Reynolds' book. I really like both of them. I've said so many times in print. But I think he'd be the last person to say 'That's it! There doesn't need to be any more discussion now! I've nailed it! Everyone move on!' I've been a fan of Joy Division/The Fall/Magazine/PiL etc for 25 years or more. It's hardly like these bands are really obscure.

Failed tabloid journo: well if by failed you mean, I've earned a living at being a writer for the last 13 years, then I guess you're right.

You keep on mentioning The Cult like you've discovered that I'm a paedophile or something. I like The Cult. (Or to be precise, I like 'Electric' by The Cult.) So what?

Hipster: You need to make your mind up what I am. I'm either some sad old failure who hasn't got a clue or some spoilt young hipster who gets everything through the circles he moves in. Which is it man?

At the end of the day, the problem here seems to be that you're some kind of bitter, angry onanist who wants to upset people but doesn't really have the ammunition to do it.

Like I said, you could either try and raise your game or just leaving.

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Alex Ogg
Oct 5, 2009 1:04pm

Well, at least you’ve put forward an argument, albeit an unconvincing and needlessly abusive one. Your Reynolds comment stands? It doesn’t so much stand as tilt, wobble and fall on its head. So I am simultaneously guilty of crawling up Reynolds’ arse and ‘picking apart’ Rip It Up? Please reconcile. Of course it’s a valid topic for discussion. See your statement that ‘post-punk has been bastardised into an impossibly vague, retrospective catch-all’. That’s exactly what I think I said. You cite your own frustration at this fact. Ditto.

Yes, I would be writing about this ‘stuff’, and have done for years, whether Rip It Up existed or nay. Elsewhere I don’t have a beard, I’m not a fan of the Cult, and the thought of myself as a ‘hipster’ actually produced involuntary laughter.

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John Tatlock
Oct 5, 2009 6:03pm

This thread is really something. I'm getting a "You Like The Cult, Fatty" T-shirt knocked up. Truly Dorothy Parker-esque stuff.

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Craig Dunbar
Oct 5, 2009 7:17pm

Now I went to this excellent event and I really enjoyed Mr. Ogg's write up but i think his thrust that the event continued the narrowing of the post punk definition set by Simon Reynolds would have been negated if he had sen John Robb's impassioned speech on the subject which, for me, was one of the key parts of the whole event. I think its a bit unfair to criticize the main thrust of the vent without taking in all the debates but thanks for the write up Alex and thanks to Phil for putting on such a great event...

Oh, and I like The Cult as well...

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Alex Ogg
Oct 5, 2009 10:18pm

In reply to Craig Dunbar:

Craig, point taken. I was speaking elsewhere so missed John's interview. I wasn't down on the event - quite the reverse, I enjoyed it - just trying to relate it to my own reaction to Reynolds etc.

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JC Carroll
Mar 6, 2010 5:28pm

Never Have I seen such a Diverse Group of Musicians/groups Lumped together and defined as a Movement.... Punk was Punk... Post Punk was university Punk... Intellectualised and re-packaged...thin tie... you must remember that... nme et al killed off punk and replaced it with Ska in 1980 then killed that off and replaced it with New Romantic... in 1981... they in turn were killed off in 1982/3 by synth Pop and by the mid Eighties the Face had called an end to that and declared trip hop and Rap to be the future...those bands that are mentioned in the Article are obscurist icons because they existed just for a few people that read about them and even fewer that bought their records they belong to an age where the more obscure your favourite band was. the more clever you seemed... this was the intellectualisation and eleteism of post punk...

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ian
Dec 18, 2010 4:52am

When I read the Reynold's book I had a similar sense that he was trying too hard to separate "punk" and "post-punk", terms vague enough to deserve their quotations. I did an Amazon review for the book voicing my objections. I'll post it here because if I had seen your article behorehand it may have saved me from overwriting:

"As a general point I like the book and would recommend it. It's well written, although some of Reynold's ideas get repetitive. He is at times uncritical about the bands he discusses and has a tendency to overvalue unconventionality as a virtue in itself, the result of trying too hard to intellectualize the subject. But the book is informative about the bands he chooses to write about and the overall point about the richness of the music of this era is one I agree with.

However in a book that purports to be a comprehensive survey of the music of this era, there are some strange omissions. Bands such as the Clash, Blondie, the Police, the Jam, etc., all of which contributed to the "postpunk" music of this era, are essentially ignored. What is presented is instead an incomplete history. But in writing a history of a subject, be it a musical history or otherwise, an author does not just get a free pass in omitting key details. Rather the author must be held to account for these omissions and the good faith of the author questioned. In reading this book, it is therefore helpful to be aware that you are getting an incomplete story.

Which raises the question of why these omissions occurred. My initial suspicion, and one I still think is valid in part, is that Reynolds simply liked certain bands above others. This results in the standard fanboy favoritism that music writers seem prone to of crediting the bands they like while neglecting bands that they don't. Anyone familiar with Clinton Heylin's book on the US punk scene will recognize the symptoms.

Yet there seems also to be a deeper aspect to these omissions. Reynold's thesis after all is that while "punk" was allegedly backward-looking and negative, "postpunk" was forward looking and constructive. He wants to draw a sharp line between them. Yet the history of first wave "punk" bands, none of which embraced the label that the media was imposing upon them, belies such a simplistic view. Bands such as the Clash, Blondie, the Jam, etc., while starting out in varying degrees in a back to basics mode, quickly branched out to a wider spectrum of music, incorporating the same diverse elements that Reynolds identifies with "postpunk". The same could be said for a band Reynolds does discuss, the Talking Heads, although Reynolds insists that the Talking Heads were supposedly misfits in the NYC punk scene. (The degree to which Reynolds attempts to revisionistically remove supposedly "postpunk" bands like the Talking Heads and Suicide from the NYC punk scene to promote the supposed punk/postpunk distinction goes so far that when he discusses an early article about the NYC punk scene by James Wolcott that describes what that author perceives as a conservative impulse in the scene [specifically the attempt to reestablish rock as a communal activity and not as Reynolds implies a hidebound fidelity to rock traditionalism; later Reynolds without seeing the contradiction quotes Ana Magnuson lamenting the loss of a similar communal sense in the supposedly progressive NYC post-CBCBs scene], Reynolds falsely pretends that the article does not apply to the Talking Heads even though Walcott definitely includes them in his description and even quotes members of the Talking Heads in his article). Even the distinction that Reynolds starts his book with, the supposed distinction between the "punk" Sex Pistols and John Lydon's next band, the "postpunk" Public Image, Ltd., elides over the point that Lydon began formulating the music that became Public Image, Ltd. while the key lyricist for the supposedly regressive Sex Pistols. So too, didn't bands identified with postpunk, like Joy Division, start with a much more basic, "punk" sound? (The debt that many of the bands surveyed owe to punk is something they acknowledge outright on numerous occasions throughout the narrative).

What is presented here therefore is not so much a history but a history written to support a specific partisan view. This view is a revisionist history that seeks to downplay punk as Reynolds defines it while building up the "postpunk" bands that allegedly follow (and that coincidentally Reynolds just happens to like). This alternative history is that punk, narrowly defined, magically ended in 1978 with the demise of the Sex Pistols, and that the postpunk bands then "started over" from scratch. The purpose here is to deny "punk" any credit for what follows. Rather, as seen by Reynolds misrepresentation of the Wolcott article in what was the skeptical Village Voice, Reynolds is all too keen on equating punk with nostalgia. Yet putting aside that all music, including "postpunk", is derivative to some degree and therefore necessarily looks back (for example, postpunk bands did not exactly invent funk or dub or disco), wasn't the process by which the first wave punk bands sought to return to rock's essential roots and away from the mainstream (the alleged "looking back"), a necessary springboard to moving forward? Wasn't the experimentalism that emerged into music in the late 70s/early 80s the direct consequence of that initial act of wiping the slate clean and returning to fundamentals (the energy, rebelliousness and immediacy of early rock and roll) represented by punk? That bands that were at the forefront of "punk", those discussed and those ignored, would go on to experiment with funk, ska, disco, electronic music and so forth seems conclusive.

The point is that punk in its origins was not merely negative, and the break from the mainstream reflected by the first wave "punk" bands, far from a negative and backward looking act, was actually a creative and constructive action, setting the stage for subsequent innovation which they themselves participated in. In trying to malign punk to bolster the importance of "postpunk"-just to give a sense of his motivations, while bands like the Clash and Blondie don't even make the index of the book, Reynolds seriously quotes that "noted authority" Nancy Spungen as to punk rock's alleged "true" meaning-Reynolds cannot refrain from distorting the early history of punk rock, artificially separating bands like the Talking Heads and Suicide from their punk association by ahistorically labeling them as "postpunk" while ignoring the Bohemian and experimental aspects of many of punks early practitioners. A particularly amusing example of this occurs in the chapter about No Wave where Reynolds discusses the disco leanings of some of the No Wave bands as a supposedly radical break from the earlier CBGBs bands, a potentially interesting theory if Blondie had not already recorded the Disco Song (later the hardly obscure Heart of Glass) in 1975! Just to focus on the NYC scene, the NYC punk scene was very diverse-again "punk" was a media invented label just as "postpunk" is-spanning bands as varied as the Dead Boys, the Talking Heads, Blondie, Patti Smith, Suicide, etc., and is resistant to overly glib efforts at generalization. What Reynolds refuses to acknowledge or cannot comprehend in his need to finely classify the music of the period was how organically interrelated "punk" and "postpunk" were, especially in NYC, to the point that distinguishing the two isn't meaningful or realistic and becomes a completely academic exercise. (An earlier book about the scene, Art After Midnight by Steven Hager, establishes this very effectively). Bands like the Contortions could not have existed without the independent rock scene that the first wave "punk" bands created and the independent, creative spirit they instilled it with at the onset. In fact those bands Reynolds identifies as postpunk were an extension of what those first wave bands started and would also continue, to the point that "postpunk" is on many levels a misnomer. Rather than a fractured scene, punk and postpunk, so-called, represented a single progression, interacting seamlessly in places like the Mudd Club, Hurrahs, TV Party, and yes, CBGBs, and the distinction that Reynolds wants the reader to perceive in writing off "punk" as he understands it (he seems to equate it to its hardcore variant) is not accurate. In actuality the supposedly simple demarcation between punk and what followed is not so easy to draw, and the omission of a number of bands gets less difficult to explain when it's recognized that these omitted bands, if included and seriously discussed, would play havoc with the thesis of the entire book. In that sense this history is not merely incomplete, but is substantially less thoughtful and honest than it should have been. By over-selling his argument while ignoring details that would complicate the narrative he wants to promote, Reynolds hurts his own credibility.

Finally, just to note an admittedly nitpicking point, Reynolds speculates that Madonna may have been inspired to use the phrase "Material Girl" from a statement by Ari Up of the Slits. Actually Madonna didn't write "Material Girl"; it was written by Peter Brown and Robert Rans. Whether they were inspired by the Slits I can't say. But trivial in isolation or not, it hints at a general carelessness with details that, as I've noted, can also be seen in his presentation of the larger themes of the book."

As I said, I liked the book, but when the subject is discussed people rely on it too much and perhaps uncritically.

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