Walking a Thin Line: Punk-Inspired Formal Experiments from the Mainstream
Where Springsteen and Young found frustration given voice and a continuation of rock’s spirit, and the pop/new wave crossover class of 1980 sought reinvention through imitation, others found rich territory to explore in punk’s questioning of rock and pop orthodoxy. It wasn’t about the answers that punk provided, but the questions it posed. If rock can sound like this, what else can it sound like? As Lindsey Buckingham explains in a 2006 interview in Uncut, “Although punk had a fairly huge impact on me, its influence on Tusk wasn’t so much on the music but more that it gave me a little room to deprogram and reaffirm things.”
Fleetwood Mac released Rumours in 1977, the very year in which Springsteen purportedly found himself incapable of ignoring the Pistols. While the marvelously unconventional aspects of Rumours have probably been understated over the years in light of its massive success, its combination of studio slickness and heartbreak still provide a fairly sharp contrast to the inspired amateurism and political concerns of punk. When it came time to record the follow-up, Lindsey Buckingham resolved to acknowledge the cultural sea change and not re-make Rumours. As he explains in the Uncut interview, “I was inspired by the honesty, integrity and sensibility of bands like The Clash and Gang Of Four.”
Buckingham rethought the sound of his songwriting from the ground up, favoring abrasive textures and unique arrangements over standard pop formulae. He followed through with unorthodox recording techniques, kneeling and singing into a mic taped to the floor, using Kleenex boxes as drums. As Buckingham admits, the influence of punk probably wasn’t strongly reflected in the sound of Tusk, but the furious thud of “What Makes You Think You’re the One” and even the massed harmonies on “Walk a Thin Line” also don’t sound anything like Brian Wilson, his other stated inspiration for his studio experimentation. Buckingham’s tracks are about as idiosyncratic as pop music gets, the structures turned inside out, with rhythmic skeletons exposed and the percussive strum of strings often given priority over the chords being played on them.
Lindsey Buckingham recording at home during the Tusk sessions
Fleetwood Mac - “What Makes You Think You’re the One (Tusk Tour Rehearsals)”
Ultimately, Buckingham’s urge to take the band into experimental pop territory on Tusk was tempered with more traditional, if strong, songwriting contributions from Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie. The compromise ultimately works in the album’s favor, lending it a delightfully varied, if schizophrenic, appeal. Ironically, while Buckingham’s initial inspiration may have been derived from punk, and his decision to record some of his tracks at home exemplified a D.I.Y. ethic of sorts, the recording process was long and costly, with Tusk assuming a decidedly un-punk designation: the most expensive album ever made at the time.
Like Buckingham, Peter Gabriel also felt the punk bug in the late ‘70s, but responded only obliquely at first. The first indication came on his 1978 self-titled second album produced by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, who was similarly scaling back on prog rock excess. Gabriel’s album, conceived by Fripp as a companion piece to his own album Exposure and Daryl Hall’s Fripp-produced solo debut Sacred Songs (not released until 1980), retains some ornate moments, but is considerably more restrained than his Genesis work and his first solo album. The tellingly-titled “D.I.Y.” also gives some indication that he was keeping up.
Gabriel would take things further on his third album, also self-titled, released in 1980. As with Buckingham, Ronstadt, Cooper, and others, the musically accomplished Gabriel would have sounded ridiculous attempting to approximate the Ramones or the Clash. In Spencer Bright’s authorized Gabriel biography, Gabriel admits to being won over by Johnny Rotten’s provocative nature at the early shows he attended, but not being impressed by the Sex Pistols’ music as such. By 1980, however, there were more punk and postpunk musical styles to draw inspiration from, many of which could complement Gabriel’s high-concept compositions. As Simon Reynolds mentions somewhat derisively in his online liner notes to Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, “Peter Gabriel III is faux-postpunk from its lyrical vibes of paranoia and nervous tension right through to the singer’s banning of cymbals and hi-hats from the sessions in order to achieve that stark, ‘modern’ drum sound as heard on records by Joy Division, The Comsat Angels, and Random Hold.”
Peter Gabriel - “Intruder”
“Faux-postpunk” though it may be, the sound of Gabriel’s third album seems intrinsically tied to the mental patients, amnesiacs, and assassins in the songs. If much of Gabriel’s subsequent work would increasingly emphasize world music and an emerging interest in pop and soul styles, his third album is a career highlight that nonetheless feels natural in his discography. The postpunk influence doesn’t come across as superficial bandwagoning in the same way that the Gary Numan appropriations of 1980 do, so much as a well-considered application of new sounds. Gabriel also got explicit and tacit endorsement from punk and postpunk names, with the Jam’s Paul Weller contributing guitar to “And Through the Wire” and producer Nick Launey modeling the drum sound on Public Image Ltd’s Flowers of Romance after Hugh Padgham’s groundbreaking work on Gabriel’s album.
Released in 1979, Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English may be the quintessential example of a mainstream artist finding inspiration in punk without relying extensively on it for formal cues. After enjoying early chart success in the ‘60s and attracting ongoing media attention for her relationship with Mick Jagger, Faithfull had largely fallen off the musical map in the early ‘70s. Hooked variously on heroin and cocaine, occasionally homeless, and vocally unrecognizable as the clear-voiced ingénue who sang “As Tears Go By” in 1964, Faithfull had attempted several folk- and country-inspired comebacks throughout the ‘70s, but nothing stuck. By 1976, she’d begun running with London’s young punks, sharing a dealer in common with Sid Vicious and marrying Ben Brierly, bassist for the Vibrators. “It was punk nerve that fed right into the rage of Broken English,” she writes in her autobiography.
Musically speaking, Broken English shares some qualities with Grace Jones’s Warm Leatherette, including major contributions from guitarist/songwriter Barry Reynolds and a smooth exterior tinged with clean synths and understated reggae grooves. But while Jones’s album is essentially a pop album that allies itself with punk through canny cover choices and in contrast with her own past in disco, Faithfull’s is a postpunk-inspired sonic reinvention that’s as unnervingly confrontational as Never Mind the Bollocks…. The skillfully chosen set of Faithfull collaborations and covers highlight her mature rasp, as do the arrangements.
The synth line that drives her version of Shel Silverstein’s “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” embodies the soulless suburban setting as Faithfull finds a sort of dignity in the titular housewife’s deteriorating mental state where others (including Dr. Hook and Lee Hazlewood) had only managed pity. In Faithfull’s hands, it functions as a feminist-informed critique of contemporary living that a Raincoats or Gang of Four fan could get behind.
Marianne Faithfull - “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”
Nearly all of the songs on Broken English have some shared lyrical or musical virtue common with punk and postpunk, from the political disaffection and relentless synths (courtesy of no less than Steve Winwood) of the title track to the stark bass throb of her take on John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero”. But if anything situates Broken English as punk-derived, it’s Faithfull’s brutal delivery of Heathcote Williams’ poem, “Why’d Ya Do It”. In what’s possibly the most harrowing domestic dispute ever embodied in popular music, Faithfull plays both roles in a an infidelity spat with such mean-spiritedness and disdain that cheater, cheated upon, and mistress (not present) are all reduced to their respective sexual organs, acted upon and discarded in turn. In its bodily disgust, it’s akin to the Sex Pistols’ “Bodies”, with marital discord standing in for abortion.
In Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, Simon Reynolds discusses a 1980 article by then-disillusioned punk journalist Julie Burchill that sets up a dichotomy: rock fans can either adopt a tunnel vision that accepts only a narrow array of vital artists (to Burchill’s mind, the Sex Pistols and Tamla Motown) or buy into the myth of “rock’s rich tapestry”, a “dead at heart” metanarrative that allows us to conveniently roll punk up into a larger tradition or even ignore it entirely. Reynolds suggests that institutions like the Rock’n'Roll Hall of Fame reflect our acceptance of rock’s rich tapestry, a history “with the battle lines erased”.
Isn’t this how history always works, though? Whether it’s just a matter of time or the effect of storytellers like Springsteen looking for the narrative hook, we like it when the past hangs together coherently. But more to the point, even if reflection and revisionism have granted continuity to what may have once appeared as distinct breaks, the battle lines were regularly crossed even at the time. This wasn’t limited to the chart successes of Parallel Lines, Combat Rock, and the postpunk-originating New Pop acts that Reynolds documents in the second half of Rip It Up and Start Again (in which he does mention Jones’s turn from disco to postpunk). The new guard didn’t dethrone the rock and pop establishment, but it did challenge it, as Springsteen suggested in his speech. The response may have been stubborn conservatism in some cases, but it was also the punk-energized mainstream rock of Darkness on the Edge of Town and Rust Never Sleeps, the absorption of punk and postpunk styles on Warm Leatherette and Mad Love, and the punk and postpunk-inspired formal experimentation on Tusk and Broken English.