Sep 212011

I like some bands that get lumped under the “post-punk” banner, including at least three in particular that I object to frequently falling under that banner: Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd, and Joy Division. There’s a good chance that what I’m about to say is a case of me talking out my ass, at least in terms of the chronology of the term post-punk. I honestly don’t remember it being thrown around when I was a teenager getting into punk rock in the late-’70s/early-’80s. Do you? Do you actually remember that term carrying any weight in 1981, or is this a term that was, as I suspect and feel the blood rushing to my temples whenever I think about it, introduced years after the fact?

Maybe it was already in use in the then-legendary and completely annoying British music press at that time, but in the small world of US underground music fans, I don’t recall the term being applied to second-wave and lesser punk bands at the time. There were “No Wave” bands and other subgenres, but I remember them all being considered part of the broader punk (and New Wave) spectrum.

Life was simple then. There were fewer critical ghettos to annoy me.

To be clear, although I many I find many bands categorized these days as post-punk boring, subpar, and even dispicable, what really gets my goat is not the musical genre, if it even exists as anything distinct from the often second-rate danceable punk it often was in its time, is what I feel is the term’s function over the last 15 to 20 years as an excuse for a lot of bands that can’t (and in most cases, I suspect, it’s not a matter of “don’t”) play that well or do anything that original. The term often seems to be pulled out to point to a band’s “experimental” tendencies when it could be argued the band’s poor musicianship and awkward songwriting style makes them a modern-day version of the “charming” Shaggs.

Even more annoying, if you can imagine me getting any more deeply annoyed, is my feeling that the genre term is used as a catch-all for people who want to be different but don’t really know where they’re headed with their allegiance to that genre name. I wonder if people who use this term feel like they missed the boat on punk rock in its time and are trying to draw a new dividing line, so they can feel they were there first.

How does post-punk not fit into the punk rock ethos? Punk was a movement defined by an ethos more than a sound. It was meant to accommodate what would follow 2 years after its appearance, wasn’t it? I don’t recall original punk rock bullies roaming the streets, threatening to kick the shit out of the so-called post-punk bands. I feel what’s called “post-punk” comfortably falls within punk and New Wave, but that would mean an entire generation was a little late to the party. To feel better about themselves, I suspect third-generation punks from the late-’80s, when I remember this term gaining traction, came up with some artificial “new” genre and drove their flag in it. This is what most annoys me about the term. There are too many rinky-dink empires in the world, not just in music.

Can anyone actually define the qualities of “post-punk” versus “punk” rock? Can anyone explain why anyone felt the need to apply this term, possibly retroactively, to bands that flowed directly out of the punk era? Does this “post-punk” genre serve any purposes I haven’t touched on?

I look forward to some education, including this companion post from Townswoman ladymisskirroyale, who embraces the genre and maybe even the use of the term that is used to characterize it.


  17 Responses to “CON: “Post-Punk,” Rock’s Most Arbitrary Genre?”

  1. Happiness Stan

    Hello Mr M, I certainly don’t remember anyone using post punk at the time, the music papers (although I never heard a real person use the term) picked up on “new wave”, mainly because Sire (I think) released an sampler with a young man spitting on the cover containing American punk music on called “New Wave” which retailed for about the cost of a bag of chips and the bands on it didn’t sound like the Sex Pistols but were still nice and loud (apart from Talking Heads, who just sounded bonkers). Not post-punk, though, definitely a neologism.

    Outside of London we were too weedy to chase anyone down the street, although we ourselves continued to be pursued by bikers well into the early 80s, presumably because they recognised us as easy prey. We ended up getting on quite well with hippies because they were of a similar level of weediness and quite liked us despite our being terribly rude about the music they liked, and eventually we turned into each other.

  2. tonyola

    I have a wonderfully simple test for Punk vs. Post-Punk….

    If it bores and annoys me, it’s Punk.
    If it doesn’t, it’s Post-Punk.

    There. See how easy that was?

  3. misterioso

    God knows I try, I really try, to pay no attention to these small-minded exercises in pigeon-holing. Is This Year’s Model punk, post-punk, pre-post-punk, new wave, or punk power pop? Is John Wesley Harding folk, folk rock, post-folk rock, country folk rock, country rock, neo-hillbillly folk rock, or proto-alt-country? If not, then why? And, likewise, where?

    But, hey, let’s play along.

    I have no recollection of the phrase in real time. I think it is a much later construct devised by people who need to create categories.

    I have almost no interest in most of the bands that get lumped in under it. I always more or less liked Gang of Four but my interest never extended beyond one record. Mission of Burma? Good band. PIL? No thanks. Joy Division and all it spawned? Not happening. Are Talking Heads “post-punk”? I still like ’em.

    The most damning thing I could find on the subject was this assessment of one of Mod’s sacred pigs: “Pere Ubu were post-punk before punk even existed.” That is to say: They were making this kind of shitty music before it was profitable or popular to do so.

    That’s about the most bad attitude I can summon up first thing in the morning. I’m smiling inside, though.

  4. Tonyola –

    I would go another (the other) way

    If Johnny Ramone would like it, it was Punk

    If Johnny Ramones would hate it, it’s post-punk

    I have no love for any of the bands that have been listed as post-punk (Pere Ubu, Joy Division, PIL,Mission of Burma, Gang Of Four)

    They are all bands that college kids in the mid-80’s listened to I suspect. These are bands that Ric from The Young Ones likes along with Echo and The Bunnymen? jk

    I think post-punk is a sub-genre of Alternative, which isn’t really a genre either.

  5. shawnkilroy

    i love Punk, Post Punk, & New Wave music.
    Post Punk is pretty friggin arbitrary.
    but not as arbitrary as…..
    Garage Rock

  6. I can’t recall when the term began to be thrown around. I don’t remember anyone using it much in late 70s or early 80s.

    I think it’s usually meant to describe bands who, after the first wave of punk, had a punk aura (leftist politics, hard edge) without a back to basics punk rock sound and fast pace. Ubu, Gang of Four, Joy Division, PIL, Burma change the sound of both punk and earlier rock in various off-kilter ways. Though my own thought has always been how some of them sound quite a bit like Captain Beefheart with the blues elements removed.

    Like “alternative,” which followed it, it’s a remarkably general term, and may be no more than a way of lumping together all the non-mainstream rock bands that were influenced by punk without sounding like a conventional punk band. And of course one of the things about punk, for all its political critique etc, was how quickly it became a musical straitjacket .

  7. ladymisskirroyale

    Ocham’s Razor of Rock!

  8. BigSteve

    I think the R.E.M. news fits into this discussion. They were definitely not punk. The fact that their first EP came out in 82, just as the post-punk era was supposedly ending, must make them the first post-post-punk band.

  9. misterioso

    That’s post-punk proto-alternative pre-grunge.

  10. OK — did all punk rock automatically become Hardcore Punk at some point (Minutemen, Dead Kennedys) and when Husker Du went a bit melodic — were they the first Post-Hardcore-Punk band? Or was that The Replacements on Let It Be?

  11. The kings of jangle pop are also post-punk? I’m more confused than ever.

  12. Happiness Stan

    Hi MWall, agree with all of your post, very interesting observation about Beefheart – in the context of my earlier post, John Peel would play the good Captain at any opportunity, whole albums in their entirety without interruption if the fancy took him – and his show was the only national conduit for the music described as post punk here at the time. Even the TV shows which are now celebrated for kicking off the movement like So It Goes were regional and weren’t accessible to most of the UK – Bill Grundy’s interview with the Pistols was only broadcast in the London area, those of us who lived outside about a twenty miles radius from London saw the papers the next morning and wondered what on earth they were talking about. Even in the 80s when The Tube started on the first night of Channel 4 we had to find a friend with cable TV as most of the country couldn’t receive it terrestrially.

  13. cliff sovinsanity

    I always thought that post-punk represented bands between 79-82 that were aggressive, progressive and angular. Post-punk was mainly a UK thing, with Ubu, Feelies and Burma the few American bands. What distinguished them from the punks was the lack of 4/4 rock and roll/blues/reggae based riffs. And, I thought New Wave represented essentially what the name says. A whole crop of new bands taking over the airwaves from the dinosaur bands of the 60’s and 70’s. That would include Punk, Post-Punk, New Romantics, The Power Pop bands, synth-bands, even Tom Petty and The Cars.

  14. ladymisskirroyale

    And hence my confusion in Michael Azzerad’s “Our Band Could Be Your Life” in that Beat Happening is listed as Punk.

  15. jeangray

    I first read the term Post-Punk in the pages of Rolling Stone, and that was in reference to Siouxsie & the Banshees. In RS’s inagural version of the Encyclopedia of R’n’R (1983) the term was used liberally.

    As I understood it, it refers to band that took the intial Punk blueprint & put some new twist on it, with basically no consensus on what that new twist could be. A kind of anything goes mentality.

    This all pre-dates Alternative, which was originally called College Rock. Anyone else remember that???

  16. I can’t call Sorry Ma . . . or Stink jangle pop.

  17. Sigh, college rock — but if you coin the term — you are giving yourself kind of a short shelf life. I was a “College Music Journal” later CMJ subscriber for many years and still have stacks of those promo CDs laying around somewhere.

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