The B-52’s (1979)
The B-52’s are one of those bands that conjure a different image depending on the decade you recognize them from, and the further along you get, the more likely you are to see them as a novelty more than anything else. In their formative years, though, they were an innovative force in American post-punk, a scene that wasn’t quite as well equipped with ambitious superstars and widespread cultural infrastructure as their UK contemporaries.
Coming out of Athens, Georgia—far from punk hubs like New York, California, and even the Midwest—the B-52’s made shockwaves early on with music that was informed by the New York punk boom but still didn’t conform with any particular regional sound. With a unique perspective on the movement that remained more-or-less remote, they would go on to embody the transition from punk’s destructive tendencies to new wave’s arty poptimism.
Their self-titled debut, in particular, was the perfect marriage of the utilitarian funk of early post-punk and the kitschy technicolor qualities of early new wave. The album is a relentless back-and-forth between the two, the piercing punk-fusion of “52 Girls” and “6060-842” rubbing up against goofy, winsome romps like “Rock Lobster” and their cover of Petula Clark’s “Downtown”. Over time, the band would push the scales almost entirely in favor of the latter style (ten years after their first album, “Love Shack” would come to define them in the mainstream), but their effect on the self-seriousness of late ‘70s post-punk was indelible. This is, after all, how the genre would live on through the neon ‘80s and emerge again in the technologically egalitarian new millennium: weaved between the rosy charm of synthpop, new wave, and electropop, and invigorated with radiant positivity, catchy hooks, and good humor. The dark clouds summoned by many of the movement’s greats would pass over time; post-punk’s more subversive effects on pop music, on the other hand, would abide for decades.
Hex Enduction Hour (1982)
There should be no qualms about calling the Fall the single most prolific classic post-punk band, seeing as Mark E. Smith and company released about a dozen studio albums before the end of the ‘80s and have continued at about the same pace up to today, with each record being more or less worthy in its particular way. In the case of Hex Enduction Hour, their fourth album and first unimpeachable classic, it was a triumph of form; recorded in non-traditional studio spaces and featuring two drummers in the lineup for the first time, the album is meant to sound unsettling and alien above all.
Songs like “The Classical” took post-punk’s minimalism and multiplied it over itself: background vocals crawl around Smith’s leads, rabid patterns on the tom-toms played by one drummer muscle their way through the more standard beats played by another, and the dueling guitar noise seems to reproduce the longer it goes. “Fortress / Deer Park”, meanwhile, balances on the fabric of traditional punk, led by crisp guitars that cut through with a repeatable set of chords through which Smith rears his drawling speech, but it all devolves into a wall of guitar static and relentless drumming that speaks to the band’s affection for chaos. “Hip Priest”, one of the album’s greatest outliers, is more open and ragged with its spontaneous feel, suffocated by lo-fi production that seems like a surefire Guided by Voices launch point. All of this cacophony at once, fixed together with Smith’s latent and subtle sense of melody, made Hex Enduction Hour one of the most rhythmically complex records of its decade, but even more, it gave the Fall its mainstream identity, placing the band in the proper UK album charts for the first time, but certainly not the last.
Crazy Rhythms (1980)
Crazy Rhythms is one of those records that sits at the intersection of so many different styles—at the genesis of college rock and jangle pop, the apex of melodic post-punk, and even the earliest materialization of what would branch off into post-hardcore and emo a decade later—that it’s impossible to know where it belongs in the context of its release. The Feelies, with their infectious choruses, frantic guitar work, and convulsive energy, were in many ways most stylistically similar to the dB’s, Let’s Active, and other contemporaneous power pop groups, but their extended expeditions through noisy interludes, prolonged, repetitive compositions, and love of furiously propulsive grooves landed them much closer to the domain of post-punk than the melodically-focused guitar pop of the early ‘80s.
It’s exactly this singular combination that earned the Feelies—and their debut especially—their immense following. At just two-minutes-long and with more hook than verse, “Fa Cé-La” is dazzling, concise pop, but just two tracks later there’s the seven-minute “Forces at Work”, which wears listeners down with over a minute long intro of near silence before breaking into a grinding exchange of drums and guitars that almost never changes throughout the song, acting instead as a bed for freewheeling guitar solos and wispy vocal melodies. The album maintains an active balance between that heady, drifting brand of post-punk and a more succinct pop immediacy in a way no band has since accomplished. Everything from the Stooges to Can to Wire was routed directly into Crazy Rhythms, and everything from R.E.M. to Weezer to Parquet Courts came out.
Siouxsie and the Banshees
Siouxsie Sioux remains one of the few quintessential, perennial figures of post-punk, and for a good reason. When one examines the handful of classic and deeply influential albums her most famous band released during its tenure, one finds that the Banshees’ longevity and consistency are entirely a result of Siouxsie’s singular taste and talent. From her controversial moniker to the downright reprehensible fetishization of Nazi imagery she took to early in her career (an unfortunate facet of the provocative aesthetic adopted by far too many punk bands of the era), she helped shape the dubious politics and outsider fashion that would define contemporary and future rock movements, and with her dramatic and powerful voice that continues to see imitators decades later, she violently upended the prevailing sensibilities of English post-punk at the time which, for a large part, relied upon ironic, half-apathetic vocalizations rather than “authentic”, dynamic singing.
Fans argue over which album in the band’s vast and enduring discography can claim total superiority, with Kaleidoscope, Hyæna and Juju in particular vying for the top spot, and in many respects, it’s a toss-up. Kaleidoscope‘s buoyant songwriting and Hyæna‘s densely layered pop textures are unassailable, but it’s Juju, with its proto-gothic dirges, lively, transformative guitar work, and fully-realized art-rock sound, that had the most profound effect on the post-punk world. Lead single “Spellbound” in particular stands as one of the great relics of the period with a wholly unique sound uncharacteristic of the reputation the Banshees often (unfairly) receive as bearers of the “standard” post-punk sound; no one else could emulate that propulsive pace, that chiming guitar picking, and, of course, Siouxsie herself, with a simultaneously fiery and euphonious voice, pushing everything into the stratosphere.
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Mission of Burma
Signals, Calls, and Marches (1981)
Plenty of bands could claim to be the missing link between hardcore punk (which evolved in tandem with post-punk during the early ‘80s) and the next generation of alternative rock—Hüsker Dü, Minutemen, the Replacements—but Mission of Burma fired the initial shots with their first EP Signals, Calls, and Marches, a release that sat deeper in the middle of the highly complicated alt-rock/indie rock/post-punk web than any of them.
Listening to the EP, the transformation is clearly audible. “This Is Not a Photograph” and “Fame and Fortune” have the straightforward construction of standard punk, but are far too slow, sentimental, and melodic to be anything near hardcore, while “Outlaw” and “Red” have the hard-to-master discordant, danceable energy of Gang of Four and other post-punk stalwarts, but with a far more personal face. It was the single “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver”, though, that had the greatest impact on the era of rock to come; poetic and intimate lyrics combined with an explosive chorus for massive emotional impact, and a style that switched from contemplative college rock in the verses to heavy punk in the choruses to classic post-punk funk in the interlude together formed a wholly original “kitchen sink” methodology that would go on to inform the immense versatility of the coming alternative rock dynasty of the late ‘80s and ‘90s.
That Mission of Burma would go on to actually improve upon their debut to a significant degree goes to show how powerful a force they were at the time. Of course, Hüsker Dü, Minutemen, and the Replacements would all make highly influential albums, but all of them were eclipsed by Mission of Burma at their peak.
// Notes from the Road
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