Post-Punk Britain 1977-1981

Moving Away From the Pulsebeat: Post-Punk Britain 1977-1981

This gargantuan post-punk collection has legends like Joy Division and the Cure, but it’s the lesser-knowns who provide the many unexpected thrills.

Moving Away From the Pulsebeat: Post-Punk Britain 1977-1981
Various Artists
Cherry Red
29 March 2024

If “post-punk” seems an all-too-literal name for a musical movement, maybe that is because it wasn’t a musical movement at all. Even as a time frame, “post-punk” can be a misleading term.

Much of the music on the mammoth but somehow not exhaustive 105-track Moving Away From the Pulsebeat: Post-Punk Britain 1977-1981  was concurrent with the heyday of punk in the UK. Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, punk’s pop-culture apex, wasn’t released until late October 1977. The world’s biggest punk band, the Clash, were releasing records with their classic lineup as late as 1982. Of course, the Clash had long moved well beyond punk orthodoxy by that time, and that is precisely the point.

One of the greatest misconceptions about punk is that it embraced non-conformity. In theory, it rejected a lot of concepts most people in the West conformed to—the moneyed Establishment and consumerism, for example—but if punk didn’t come with its own stylistic and ideological template, it didn’t take very long for one to develop. If there was any ethos behind “post-punk”, it was in escaping from punk’s straightjacket. “Para-punk” would be a more accurate term.

The authors of the essay that accompanies Moving Away From the Pulsebeat don’t get caught up in too much explaining. “Less shouting, more intelligence” is how they put it, and that is as accurate a catch-all as any. If “intelligence” seems like a rather cold, dispassionate way to describe popular music, it is a fitting one in this case. If a person were to jot down one-word impressions of these songs, “jagged”, “angular”, and “menacing” would show up repeatedly. Still, the breadth and scope of the music contained here, in just a four-year span, are quite impressive.

A matter of housekeeping: Most of the major, enduring names of the time are included here: Joy Division, New Order, the Cure, XTC, Echo & The Bunnymen, Siouxsie & The Banshees, the Psychedelic Furs, the Clash themselves. It is easier to mention the few notable omissions, such as Wire, the Sound, Felt, and the Go-Betweens. The latter were Australian, not British—but the title says “Britain“, not “British”; The Birthday Party, included here, were Australian, too. If they made an impression in the UK, they’re game.

The real fun of Moving Away From the Pulsebeat and the service it provides is in the many there-and-gone bands that make up the majority of the collection. Yes, some tracks are lesser versions of the more well-known names. The theatrical female vocals and edgy guitar of Flowers’ “The Ballad of Miss Demeanour” clearly apes Siouxie & The Banshees. But many of the lesser-known tracks are gems in their own right. pragVEC’s “Existential” indulges in trippy, Hendrix-like riffage and French vocals. The herky-jerky “Touch and Go” from the Outsiders, featuring future Sound man Adrian Borland, comes across like the world’s most nervous glam band. The Diagram Brothers’ pulsing, claustrophobic “There Is No Shower” invents math rock without knowing it. Hints of what will become shoegaze or dreampop can be found in the sweeping guitars and breathy vocals of Modern Eon’s “Waiting For the Cavalry”, while Sad Lovers and Giants’ “Colourless Dream” is as flanged-out and danceable as New Order themselves.

Early tracks from the legacy acts offer some revelations as well. The splintered guitar and panic-stricken synth of the The’s “Black and White” sound more like Wire, whose members produced it, than anyone else. Dead Or Alive’s chilling, melodramatic “I’m Falling” has Pete Burns’ demonstrative vocals—sounding like a goth Billy Idol—but none of the polished synth-pop of their future chart hits. There’s also Neneh Cherry on vocals on Rip Rig And Panic’s skronked-out, Burundi beat-driven “Go, Go, Go!”.

The collection is named after a track from the Buzzcocks, a massively influential band who were no strangers to fast tempos, sharp guitar licks, and post-adolescent angst. Their “Moving Away From the Pulsebeat” has all those elements. It also has a punishingly relentless Bo Diddley rhythm, and its taut, repetitive structure and probing guitar solos recall 1970s krautrock.

This is all to say nothing of the innovative amalgams of dub, funk, and electronic music that pepper the tracklist, especially as it moves out of the 1970s. Throughout, the informative track-by-track liner notes act as a guide.

The Sex Pistols may not appear on Moving Away From the Pulsebeat, but their frontman does. Within a couple of short years, Johnny Rotten had become John Lydon and traded the thrillingly pubescent exploits of the Pistols for the equally thrilling cinematic dubscapes and social commentary of Public Image Ltd and their seminal Metal Box. That transformation, if anything, is what the music we now call post-punk was all about.

RATING 9 / 10