Everyone has their decade and judging by recent RTH threads, the 1960s topped many people’s lists for the Best Era of Rock. And although I appreciate the music of the 1960s, a large part of my heart is saved for the ’80s. Much of this connection reflects my personal experiences growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, followed by the watershed experience of receiving my first copy of the Trouser Press Record Guide. But as I’ve become older, I continue to listen to and think about a lot of this music.
So I offer this bridge to our fellow Townspersons who may sneer and consider the 1980s an era of ridiculous fashion and over-the-top musical groups. But it didn’t necessarily start out that way. I paraphrase the mighty Simon Reynolds in his stellar history, Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978–1984, that 1978–1982 rivaled the years 1963–1967 in the amount of amazing music, the spirit of adventure and idealism, and the way the music was connected to the social and political events of the era.
Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present the Post Punk Years:
But first, a few words about Punk music.
I’m not really sure what it is. I’ve sought a clear, concise definition and have become increasingly confused by the British and American music writers’ examples. But for the purpose of my further discussion, I would like to offer these signposts of Punk: a stripped down sound, a return to the basics (of chord structure, of instruments, of Do It Yourself), a confrontational response to the world, and in the words of Reynolds, “a destructive response to boredom.” 1976 could be considered Punk’s Year Zero, and many writers point to the Sex Pistols’ Manchester show of February of that year as particularly iconic. It inspired a slew of bands to make their own music. But it also encouraged other musicians to break out of the Punk mold and create their own forward-thinking music. As Johnny Rotten famously said, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” The man changed his name, his group, and his music. Post-Punk was born.
Post-Punk: Music for and by those who felt that the revolution wasn’t over. It included movements such as the Tribal Revival (The Slits, The Pop Group), the Sheffield futuristic synth sounds (Cabaret Voltaire, The Human League), No Wave New York (Teenage Jesus, Sonic Youth), the San Francisco Freak Scene (Flipper, The Residents), Industrial Devolution (Throbbing Gristle), Militant Entertainment (Gang of Four, The Mekons), the Manchester scene (The Fall, Joy Division), the Art scene (Talking Heads, Wire), AND the figureheads of Post-Punk, Public Image Ltd. (You know how taxonomic music writers like to get.) And I don’t know who originally came up with the Post-Punk label. But in interviews with the musicians, producers and record label personnel, themes were apparent. These artists took Punk and ran with it. Rather than keeping with the same sort of message, these musicians took the spark of Punk as the catalyst to continue the DIY ethos but added a commitment to change, an earnest belief that “music can transform the world,” and “a set of open ended imperatives including innovation and “willful oddness.” As Reynolds pointed out, “The ‘Post’ doesn’t signify you’ve jettisoned those preceding ideas but rather you’ve complexify them, exploring the gaps, and interrogating hidden assumptions.” They took the starter of Punk and added in reggae, ska, female musicians (not just singers), funk, brass, disco, Latin and African percussion. A whole lotta rhythm. Some of the bands were organized for socio-political reasons (the overt political ideology of Gang of Four and Scritti Politti) or to demonstrate sexual political beliefs (women could be musicians, not just singers).
Then came the other styles: the New Pop, Ska Revival, New Rock, Punk Funk, and Goth movements. In America, this whole lot seemed to have been packaged as the all-encompassing New Wave (cue the checkered tie), but truly, those years of 1978–1982 were, by whatever name you called them, a revolt against the Old Wave of a “golden era of rock.”
I love so many of these bands and have a special fondness to those that feature a heavy bass track or some interesting synthesizer sounds. And in interviews (especially in Reynold’s companion volume, Totally Wired: Post-punk Interviews and Overviews, the musicians are interesting (sometimes complete assholes) and appear to truly have a vision that they are trying to get across. If we want to make a band that combines some Vic Goddard vocals and add disco guitars, why not? Shall we mimic the sounds of the post-industrial landscape with some rare, new synthesizers – nice if you can get them to work. What happens to Punk when we downplay the guitar and instead focus on congas and other percussion instruments?
Post-Punk may be a hackneyed, vague term created by some retro-focused music writers. (The movement is alternately spelled Post Punk, Postpunk, Post-Punk, and Post-punk.) But the bands of that period had a vision. As Allen Ravenstine of Pere Ubu once said, “The Sex Pistols sang ‘No Future,’ but there IS a future, and we’re trying to build one.” That sound and that ethos continue to appeal to me. And hopefully to you, too.
For an opposing view from the Bad Attitude Club, click here.
Hello Ladymissk, good piece, very much my era, which just to be obtuse scans the decade from 77 to about 87. I find there’s very little British “first wave” punk that I can still listen to with any pleasure, while the bands that came out of watching the Pistols and the Clash in 1976, the Slits, X-Ray Spex, Buzzcocks, The Fall all made (and in the case of The Fall continue to make) some fantastic records. On the other hand I remember buying “Y” by the Pop Group and hating it so much that I took it back to the shop and exchanged it for Totale’s Turns, a decision I never regretted. The Slits before they went “tribal” were an awesome force of nature, especially live, but very much punk with a capital P at the time.
I remember ‘Punk’ (as in British punk) being extremely tribal (and I was a purist among purists – I was so much older then I’m younger than that now…) and it was a lot easier to define what was NOT punk than what was, most of the bands you’ve got down as post-punk were definitely embraced by punks at the time as ‘being punk’ for no other reason than because they were not Boney M or Olivia Newton John.
In our minds there was always a very clear defining line between bands who were copying the Sex Pistols, Clash and Damned (The Lurkers, Sham 69, Chelsea etc) and those who were trying to take it to another place (just about all the bands in your piece), even if they themselves ended up not being able to move on from the place they started from.
I’d make the case that in the UK the post punk thing would either not have happened or not have been noticed if not for John Peel’s show.
I can remember the frustration of listening to Radios One, Caroline and Luxembourg for the occasional Jam or Clash song, wading through hours of auditory treacle – bloody Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, bloody Hotel California by the bloody Eagles, bloody Electric bloody Light bloody Orchestra…
JP would programme the stuff which made us want to jump up and down with hours of arty New York stuff, Dr Feelgood and the best of the Pub Rock scene, play old Jimmy Reed stuff along with sessions by Viv Stanshall and Ivor Cutler, and to the end of his tragically shortly curtailed days never quite lost the urge to throw in the odd bit of progressive twiddly noodling (Steve Hillage et al). It was no wonder that a lot of us soon moved on from the three chord riffy shouty stuff and the lines blurred incredibly quickly, and it is all too easy to forget just how important John Peel was to just about every musical genre from the late 60s until his death.
It’s a minor quibble, but as someone who only discovered the concept of “getting out more” when I started going to see these bands at the time, (and probably need to revisit the concept now), I’ve never been comfortable with the lumping in of Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle with the punk/new wave/post punk thing – they’d both been going for a few years before punk happened and always seemed quite a distance removed from the ‘movement’ at the time. Any other view feels like revisionism, but probably nothing to lose sleep about.
The book looks interesting, think I’ll check it out.
Thank you, HS. I must admit that although I read up on this time period in lots of references, my primary source was Simon Reynolds. It is infuriating that the years do seem to change according to the definition and the writer. As for CV and TB, several writers mentioned that some of the bands who now get called Post Punk had started making music earlier but hit their stride around this time period.
It’s also interesting to hear your musical experiences of the era. Although I grew up in the US, I went to visit my English relatives regularly, so my experience of these bands was watered down by my lack of exposure, or when I heard them in England, through Top of the Pops (so I just considered it Pop music). I did buy a Visage album in 1982 (but I also bought Jean Michel Jarre). I WISH I could have heard John Peel’s shows – what an experience! Simon Reynolds talks a lot about how his show was something that alleviated the boredom of growing up in England in the late 70’s/early 80’s (along with the music press and TOTP) and how it was so much to look forward to.
ladymiss, although I feel naught but negativity towards almost everything about which you exude positivity in this post (which I read after Mod’s Con thread where I commented), I liked reading it, kind of like how I enjoy tonyola’s passionate defenses of prog. In a weird way it is good to know there are people who care deeply about stuff I basically detest. (This, you see, is how I manage to congratulate myself for being open-minded while remaining close-minded.)
Happiness Stan: “On the other hand I remember buying “Y” by the Pop Group and hating it so much that I took it back to the shop and exchanged it….”
I had the same experience. It was like a step too far.
I considered voting for the 1980’s but then I knew I would have to defend it, and my 80’s tastes are WAY more mainstream,
The 1980’s had the 1980-1984 golden era when Top 40, good songs, interesting new bands and variety of styles from all over the world lived together. Of course this was also the MTV era, and MTV brought some bizzare acts into the mainstream.
I was a rock and roll guy, but I had more non-rock records then than any other era.
Prince, Culture Club, XTC, The Police, Hall & Oates,The Cars, ZZ Top, MJ, Bowie, Queen, Tina Turner, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Devo, Blondie, Run DMC, Quiet Riot, AC/DC, Duran Duran, INXS, Men At Work, Talking Heads Cindy Lauper, U2, Springsteen, Petty all lived in the same Top 40 house and ate at the same table. Later they all put on the biggest worldwide music celebration of all time, Live Aid.
That has never happened before or since.
The next wave of 80’s holds up poorly. The Lynn drum and sequencers that worked so well in dance music were clunky and kitchy in the hands of the older rock bands that were trying to keep up with their new peers. For every “So” or “90210” there were a handful of gated drum disasters.
That first wave though may get my vote if we were splitting decades in half.
Reynold’s call of the end of Post Punk in 1984 is somewhat arbitrary and is discussed more in depth in his latest book, “Retromania.” His take is that the Post Punk bands were all very earnest, but as they became poppier and more widely accepted by the masses, they became more ironic. The Embrace of Irony was the end of this glorious era, and, by his extension, much of the music that came later.
Mr. Royale has already read “Retromania” and assures me that it would measure at least 7.0 for the RTH Bad Attitude Club Richter Scale.
Regarding the history of the term Wikipedia offers this:
The term “post punk” was used in 1977 by Sounds to describe Siouxsie and the Banshees. In 1980 critic Greil Marcus referred to “Britain’s postpunk pop avant-garde” in a July 24, 1980 Rolling Stone article. He applied the phrase to such bands as Gang of Four, The Raincoats, and Essential Logic, which he wrote were “sparked by a tension, humor, and sense of paradox plainly unique in present-day pop music.”
I think it’s similar to the way the term ‘punk rock’ was first used in print in 1971, but it didn’t really catch on until much later, and it was gradually re-defined over time.
Hi Big Steve, I tried to listen to Y again recently to see if it really was as terrible as I remembered, and if anything it was even worse!
On a similar theme, a few years back I saw someone young enough to be my son walking around with a leather jacket with the Crass logo painted on the back, and thought to myself “you wouldn’t be wearing that if you’d ever experienced them live…” Even today I shudder at the thought of the crush to get out of Hastings Pier Ballroom into the bar during the opening bars of their first song.
Re your next post, Greil Marcus 1980 sounds about right, he was a good writer but I always thought a lot of his stuff ended up in print because he liked the look and sounds of the words rather than because he expected anyone to really understand what he was talking about. If Sounds said it in 77 they would have been being sniffy about it, they were always a biker paper at heart and hated punk.
When the Gang of Four opened for Siouxsie and the Banshees in 1978 (again on Hastings Pier, they replaced the non-showing Nico at no notice) they were amazing, but appeared completely humourless. And am I the only person in the whole universe who fails to see the appeal of the Raincoats? I have tried to listen to them periodically for over thirty years to see if I’ve finally caught up with their zeitgeist, but each time they seem as inaccessible as ever.
I think you’re right, because I don’t recall post-punk being used at all in the 80s.
GREAT description of Greil Marcus’ writing! And you are not alone in your thoughts on the Raincoats.
One of the first times I ever heard the term “post-punk” was to describe Stiff Little Fingers, to which I said “huh?”
Of course, this might explain a lot about Mod’s difficulties with the band.
No, Stiff Little Fingers simply tries too hard with the exception of maybe 3 tremendous songs off their first album and one good one on the sophomore lp.
I’ll comment here because the mention of Siouxie and the Banshees was my main example for how hard it is to make the cut-off between punk and post punk. Siouxie and her crew were there for all the early Pistols shows. They had to be punk. Yet they didn’t play 3 chord bash-em-outs like the “punk” bands. I love a lot of the post-punk bands since I learned my rock around that time period, but post-punk isn’t a definable genre. Can you say “I generally like post punk” when it includes both Psychic TV and X? There’s too much space there.
Punk locked into hardcore (and maybe pop-punk). I can work with that the same as I can work with blues rock or jazz fusion as a genre. For a big genre of everything indebted to the original punk movement, I prefer Alternative. A meaningless term but better than post punk in my estimation.
What happened with Siouxsie and the Banshees happened to a lot of groups that started off as punk – they got better. They played lots of gigs, practiced, learned to really play their instruments, and generally moved beyond the bangin’ and yellin’ stage. Their musical ambitions grew along with their ability, and the songs became more sophisticated.
too right, they were always a great band waiting to happen, but they were helped a good deal on the way when they lost their drummer and guitarist at the start of the Join Hands tour and replaced them at a moment’s notice with Budgie (who had already developed a drumming style less akin to banging a dustbin very hard with a hammer than the first one they had) and Robert Smith from the Cure, who were supporting them on the tour, and was already an innovative and proficient guitarist.
Both Budgie and Smith came out of what’s being called ‘post punk’ on here, and the result was Kaleidoscope, which is a very different and more sophisticated beast to the clanging and thumping of Join Hands.
By the time the tour reached Brighton (where I saw them) they were already a far tighter and more confident beast than they’d been on the Scream tour a year earlier. I didn’t really buy into the goth thing, but have always had huge respect for them.