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This Heat (1979)
Noise was essential to the punk playbook in the ‘80s, but it took a few forward-thinking masterminds for it to eventually become so fundamental to the basic songwriting process. London’s This Heat weren’t quite at the forefront of the post-punk noise paradigm, which in 1979 would have been closer to the explosion of the no wave circus across the Atlantic in New York City, but they were certainly one of the most inventive with the tools it offered, from feedback and static to the heavy atmosphere of silence. This Heat is the first of two full-length albums from the band, and while both have become required listening for those interested in the period, their self-titled is arguably more cerebrally electrifying, if not much more bizarre and, ultimately, divisive.
Because it is so sublimely liberated from convention, This Heat, perhaps more than any album from the era, verges on the indescribable, but this is largely a result of its mercurial approach to style and tone. “Horizontal Hold” is utterly belligerent, cascading from swatch to swatch of pins-and-needles bedlam rendered through extensive tape-editing likely inspired by the experimental works of Can, while ethereal lo-fi elegies like “Not Waving” and “Music Like Escaping Gas” land on the opposite end of the spectrum; it’s hard to know which is more avant-garde. “24 Track Loop”, though, is the record’s inimitable peak, taking that fractured tape experimentation and giving it some real industrial funk flair. Both it and the rest of This Heat remain absolutely singular works, even within a disparate crowd of experimental rock and electronic forerunners.
Beat Rhythm News (1979)
Lara Logic’s brief stint with X-Ray Spex, one of England’s most distinctive early punk talents, had an enduring effect on her follow-up project, Essential Logic, which retained the former’s off-kilter saxophone lines and wild pop melodies and barricaded them in the meaty dance rhythms and dynamic basslines that were coming to the fore of the movement. The band’s sole studio album, Beat Rhythm News, had the connecting tissue that referenced Logic’s murky past in England’s punk colonization, but it was made new through the latest trends that would eventually lead to another movement she would help develop: dance-punk.
The album sets off with an explosion of funky anarchy in “Quality Crayon Wax O.K.”, combining overlaid vocal harmonies, playful time signature shifts, and a rhythm section that alternates between punk-driven momentum and disco- and reggae-tinged elasticity for a song that immediately canonized Essential Logic as one of the most rhythmically interesting artists in a genre that already deeply valued rhythmic intricacy. They further showcased their punk fury in “Collecting Dust” and “Wake Up” and developed a greater taste for abstract dance music with “Albert” and “Popcorn Boy (Waddle Ya Do?)”. But it was songs like “The Order Form” that really separated Essential Logic from the broader punk wave, switching through contemplative, romantic, and buoyant strands without missing a step— somewhat in the vein of progressive rock but without the pretensions and with more swing. Taken as a whole, Beat Rhythm News resonated with vigorous individualism, and eventually it became an intelligent and fluid benchmark for any band willing to dabble in both punk and dance music at the same time.
The Cure, despite being one of the bands most commonly associated with the post-punk label, expanded way beyond those horizons quite quickly during their adolescence. A vast majority of their most highly appreciated work (1989’s Disintegration in particular; Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and The Head on the Door to a lesser extent) came well after their precarious post-punk beginnings, when their sound had drastically evolved to be more dulcet and pop-oriented. Up to that point, they had been a far darker and less approachable band, limited to the mournful fringes of post-punk’s conventional architecture.
Pornography is the masterpiece of the first stage of their career, stark and ominous in ways they would slowly leave behind for more sentimental textures. Post-punk was still coursing through their veins in ‘82; the drums feel mechanical and industrial, the guitars jagged and cacophonous, and Robert Smith’s melodies more sinister than gothic-romantic. Pornography, like Echo & the Bunnymen’s Porcupine, showed a band reaching the peak of their youthful exuberance before entering an age of artistic maturity that would justifiably push their popularity into another realm entirely. But the thrusting forward charge of “The Hanging Gardens”, the cavernous gloom of “One Hundred Years”, and wonky dirges like “Cold” and “Siamese Twins” would remain the pinnacle of the band’s sound for many fans. Separated from the initially cold reaction it received upon release, we can now see exactly how critical Pornography was in the expansion of goth rock and, by extension, the cultural reach of post-punk as a whole.
Come Away with ESG (1983)
For how dance-centric post-punk became over its short lifespan, that quality was always more of a side-effect from the inspiration of club music and electronic—disco, reggae, dub, motorik krautrock—than a primary intention of the art. There were plenty of exceptions, especially as the decade wore on and political and intellectual priorities waned in favor of the possibilities afforded by the commercial retention of new wave and synthpop, but no artists were as gifted with adapting funk to the movement as ESG. After 1983, all funky rock music was chasing after Come Away with ESG, an album danceable enough to claim R&B and funk influence and serve as an underground influence on the burgeoning hip-hop form, all while staying true to the minimalist rock foundations that spawned punk and post-punk.
The record’s popularity has only been further cultivated since release, especially in the new millennium as bands like LCD Soundsystem and the Rapture brought ESG’s funk into the hands of modern indie heads and trendsetting hipsters. ESG were the shapers of the specific color of post-punk that would prevail three decades later: the looping, toe-tapping basslines, the tertiary cowbell, agogo, and vibraslap rhythms, the spoken hooks, guitar as percussive texture, etc. Classic highlights “The Beat”, “My Love for You”, and “Moody (Spaced Out)” are liable to carve out a permanent place in your head mere moments after listening, going some way to explaining how the album maintained such an essential connection between post-punk and that early hip-hop sound that was all hooks and steady beats. But even without historical context, Come Away with ESG is an effortlessly infectious and easy listen helped by its distinctive sound that has now been proven timeless.
Real Life (1978)
The Buzzcocks were already one of the UK punk scene’s more forward-looking bands when frontman Howard Devoto left to found Magazine, a band he would use to sidestep the straightforward aims of punk for a more progressive sound and experimental sensibility. The Buzzcocks’ 1977 Spiral Scratch EP (the band’s only release with Devoto) made shockwaves as the first self-released punk record in the UK (something the Buzzcocks’ more explosive contemporaries the Sex Pistols couldn’t claim), a show of independence from the establishment that would help further develop the punk movement’s egalitarian framework. Devoto would continue in that individualist spirit with Magazine’s debut.
If nothing else, Real Life was integral in establishing the ambitions of what would become known as post-punk. Devoto took no time in transitioning away from the punk conventions he was familiar with: the record is characterized by its heavy use of piano and synthesizers, drawn-out intros, and dense mood building, among its many other quirks. At times, the album straddles progressive or even glam rock, luxuriating in atmosphere and melodicism rather than hammering through with the raw urgency of a band like the Buzzcocks, yet it remains inextricably tied to that legacy. The album’s only single, “Shot by Both Sides”, wouldn’t take much augmentation to properly fit on a Buzzcock’s release, and indeed, it, along with “The Light Pours Out of Me”, was co-written by Devoto’s former bandmate and the Buzzcocks’ new frontman Pete Shelley. If any one album could lay claim to being the missing link between real UK punk and the immense growth and expansion that was just beginning to take place, it’s unquestionably Real Life.
// Notes from the Road
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