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Post-Punk: The Cerebral Genre

The punk spirit would likely have died but for the theoretical questions post-punk forced bands into answering.

The fragmentation of punk rock into multiple sub-genres after 1977 brought clarity to some of its more murky or paradoxical features. Drawn to its street rebel, rabble-rousing outbursts, the media often overlooked or downplayed the artistic foundations of punk; enticed by the working-class urban slang of key punk groups, the media also ignored the central involvement and participation of middle-class suburbanites, particularly college students. Those bands from this silent majority with a more conservative musical bent and with ambitions for mainstream success gravitated into the industry-sanctioned New Wave orbit; however, those unwilling to compromise to the expectations of the music business and its major labels hunkered down into an independent enclave that came to be known as post-punk.

As the dust cleared on the 1976 punk explosion, many observed that beneath its bluster and noise the songs were quite conventional in form and structure, drawing from established genres (’50s rock ‘n’ roll; ’60s garage and mod; ’70s pub rock). Hopes that the initial sparks would lead to an endless series of shock waves were dashed as most 1977 punks settled for merely playing permutations of Ramonic patterns. Those restless to move beyond became the post-punk vanguard, a group of pioneering contrarians that acted on the belief that “radical content demands radical form” (Simon Reynolds, Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, Penguin, 2005, p.3).

Like 76 punk, post-punk was reactive in nature, and thus was inevitable and necessary for punk’s survival. Without it, punk would have eaten itself; with it punk was able to develop and diversify beyond its initial confines. As such, post-punk not only tells the story of what came after punk, but also of the punk past it rejected. This ambivalence sometimes verged on antagonism as bands ventured down musical paths once considered forbidden by punk’s arbiters of taste. Disco, funk, and prog rock were no longer enemy genres in 1978, as bands like the Gang of Four, Public Image Limited, and The Cure slyly revealed themselves to be not only post-punk but also somewhat anti-punk.

“Post-punk” served as an umbrella term for bands as stylistically dissimilar as Joy Division, The Fall, Echo and the Bunnymen, Orange Juice, Pere Ubu, and Sonic Youth. It essentially served as a Rorschach test for any band that even loosely suggested a punk attitude but wanted to use it for new musical explorations. As such, post-punk was more interested in the future than the past, in theoretical possibilities than practiced precedents, and in deconstructing rather than reconstructing musical forms and methods. Some would argue that the results amount to the most cerebral genre—or movement—in the history of “rock” music. Its primary historian, Simon Reynolds, certainly thinks so. He favorably compares British post-punk from 1978 to 1984 with the Invasion bands of 1963 to 1967; both had quality in quantity, an innovative mindset, and a progressive idealism as social as it was musical. Both counter-cultures simultaneously engaged and escaped their respective historical turmoil, and they each embodied both the hopes and anxieties of their times and generations.

Common to both periods, also, was an intellectual cross-pollination with other art movements. Just as Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism provided the colors, brushstrokes, and tones of the ’60s counter-culture, so French post-structuralism and Gramscian cultural theories (in)directly informed post-punk. Deconstruction and counter-hegemony became buzzwords for bands like the Gang of Four, who used familiar tools—vocals, guitar, bass, drums—then systematically de-familiarized their usage in order to show how rock music had been as well as how it could be. The Pop Group, too, used Brechtian defamiliarization techniques, building broken buildings of sound onto sturdy rhythm foundations in order to provoke us into recognizing—and freeing ourselves from—the “common sense” that molds our expectations of rock songwriting.

Another word-de-jour, “rockism”, gained currency alongside racism, sexism, and classicism. To be charged with rockism was not always unrelated to these other isms, either, as pandering to traditional rock conventions of (back)stage behavior, lyricism, and musicianship often equated with acting in sexist ways. Post-punk bands aimed to undermine endemic rockism by avoiding well-worn industry models of conduct and operating beyond standardized rock clichés. Some took stern stances against using sex symbolism for self-promotion or picking up groupies on the road; some made financial sacrifices in the name of ideological purity by refusing to mime their songs on corporate outlets like Top of the Pops; some even refused to play encores when performing live, considering them just another tired ritual of rock narcissism. Debates raged between and within bands—and in the pages of the music press—as to what constituted rockism and what did not.

Such hand-wringing, as Reynolds observes, was, “Aiming to break the trance of rock-business-as-normal and jolt the listener into awareness” (p.8). For those still living in the trenches of old school rock (and punk), the self-flagellations, self-censorship, and holier-than-thou Puritanism that pervaded some post-punk factions seemed remote from the unapologetic drugs and other decadent antics they were accustomed to. Nevertheless, the seeds of post-punk’s political correctness, cultural inquisitions, and anti-establishment mind-sets had been sown by punk; these new bands were just configuring how, beyond the rhetoric, their values and theories might be put into practice.

At the core of post-punk was the principle of DIY, which permeated all aspects of the genre, creating the apparition of an infrastructure or coalition. Committed to a “do it yourself” process, post-punk rejected the customary interventions of the broader industry. However, there is a social correlative, too, as many of these bands retreated not only into their own unattended musical bunkers but to cultural ones as well. As happened during the ’60s counter-culture, this one sought to simultaneously escape from society while offering a critique of it. By opting out of Thatcherism and Reaganism, with their attendant tenets of exclusionism, elitism, and corporatism, post-punk attempted to do the impossible: create an autonomous alternative reality based on socialist ethics within a micro-capitalist, self-contained economy. Post-punk, loosely united by neo-hippy communitarian values, wanted to do it themselves for themselves.

Operated by intellectuals rather than businessmen, indie labels (and their bands) also had common cause with writers in the music press, too, who were constantly craving product that qualified as art rather than just pop music. So, as the mainstream press increasingly turned to New Wave and turned a blind eye to punk and post-punk, an inner circle formed out of which the music press intelligentsia began to operate, not as objective journalists, but as cheer-leaders for the underground music. For Scritti Politti it helped that one of their insiders was NME scribe, Ian Penman. In the late ’70s he used his column spaces to promote his friends, infusing his prose with Scritti-sanctioned rhetoric pilfered from the likes of Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes. Other writers at the big three, NME, Sounds, and Melody Maker, followed suit, dedicating disproportionate space to the new post-punkers, allowing them in interviews to pontificate at length about myriad aesthetic do’s and don’t’s. Though novel and educational, it’s hardly surprising that their jargon led to diminishing sales for the likes of the NME thereafter.

In the UK, at least, the music press became a major force in determining national music tastes. Its writers translated, dumbed down, or jazzed up the esoteric theories floating around in the rarefied air of post-punk. I recall how my studies in critical theory began when reading a live review of Theatre of Hate in the NME in 1978, which largely consisted of a semiotic study of the significance of the lead singer’s ears. The writer of that piece was Paul Morley, an ex-fanzine writer who went on to be a mastermind behind Art of Noise, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and ZZT Records.

Hired to be their Manchester correspondent by the NME, Morley and others captured the post-punk diaspora. Whereas 76 punk—thanks to centralized industry forces—had been a scene largely located in metropolitan New York, London, and Los Angeles, post-punk signaled that the punk virus had spread everywhere, creating new strains in new manifestations. Regional writers in the UK introduced listeners to the Manchester scene (Magazine, Joy Division, The Fall), the Sheffield Scene (Cabaret Voltaire, The Human League, ABC), the Liverpool scene (Echo and the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes, Wah Heat), and even the Norwich scene (The Higsons, The Farmers Boys, Screen 3). Comparable decentralization was echoed later in the US, too, where New York and L.A. competed with the Minneapolis (The Replacements, Hüsker Dü) and Athens, Georgia (R.E.M, The B-52’s) scenes. US indie labels, likewise, became renowned for their places of operation as regional specialists, Dischord bringing notoriety to Washington, SST to South L.A., and Touch and Go to Chicago bands, just as Factory had to Manchester, Zoo to Liverpool, and Postcard to Glasgow bands.

Historians recognize post-punk as a mostly British phenomenon, and revivalists today often cite names like Joy Division, the Gang of Four, and the Cure when characterizing the genre. However, this ignores its wider reach, those mutations from punk that reached all around the world at the close of the ’70s. Germany, Japan, and Australia were all key sites for significant developments, the latter boasting influential innovators like The Birthday Party, The Go-Betweens, and The Triffids. In the US, although post-punk was an underground phenomenon, as punk had been, its influence proved far-reaching on alternative and college rock in the ’80s, up to and beyond the Seattle grunge explosion.

Despite the world-wide dissemination of the post-punk spirit, most of the key bands emanated from the UK. Three of these, the Gang of Four, The Mekons, and Delta 5, were associated with the Fine Arts program at Leeds University. A typically no-nonsense working-class Yorkshire city with more than its fair share of National Front/British Movement members, Leeds was an unlikely—and sometimes dangerous—place to propagate left-wing political ideas. Named after the top leaders of China’s Cultural Revolution Group during the ’70s, the Gang of Four were the reluctant leaders of the Leeds collective. Steered by the notion that “punk is dead, long live punk”, the band inserted the Dionysian energy and abandon of punk into a rigid, structured musical environment where emotions were mixed and matched with intellectual rationalism.

Like the post-punk No Wavers in the US, the Gang of Four picked up the same instruments used in most punk (and rock), but deconstructed their roles by inverting their conventional usage. Punk’s wall of sound had been created by each band member playing ferociously in lockstep, but the Gang of Four established space for each musical component to operate next to or against each other, enabling each player/sound to be highlighted in the service of the collective construction.

Previous ’70s genres like dub reggae, funk, and disco had operated similarly, and these styles were all integral to the Gang sound, though often given a make-over punk treatment. Chuck Berry-style chugging guitar had provided the foundation for most 76 punk songs, but Andy Gill dispensed with such rhythmic monotony and consistency, cutting up his sound into a series of frictional, serrated slashes periodically interrupted by drones of feedback noise. For him, too, solos were verboten, though anti-solos were not. The band’s drums were equally post-punk in nature. Whereas Keith Moon-style exclamatory drum rolls had punk-tuated the emotive style preferred by Rat Scabies, John Maher, and Rick Buckler, Hugo Burnham introduced a more tribal approach around the floor tom; his playing was clinical and precise, his beats cold and metronomic, made more soulless and less demonstrative by the deliberate avoidance of any polyrhythmic intricacies or cymbal crashes that might designate conventional rock(ist) showmanship.

Through it all ran Dave Allen’s minimalist bass-lines, which somehow sounded funky without the funk, groovy without the groove. This minimize-to-maximize methodology was integral to the lyrics, too, which were delivered with instructional urgency by Jon King. Punk lyrics had often revolved around protest slogans, but King reduced even their emotional and rhetorical excesses to clipped aphorisms about various facets of personal politics and consumer fetishism. “The problem of pleasure / What to do for leisure,” King muses in “Natural’s Not In It”. “At home he feels like a tourist” and “I love a man in a uniform,” he deadpans in these titular songs.

Not all post-punk theories and ideas emanated from academia, though. Well read, self-educated, and driven by the desire to innovate, Ian Curtis of Joy Division, Mark E. Smith of The Fall, and John Lydon of Public Image Limited were organic intellectual trailblazers of the era. Lydon began his separation from the confines of punk by revoking his “master’s” name, Rotten, and by naming his band, not to designate the “sexy assassins” Malcolm McLaren had envisioned with the Sex Pistols, but to (ironically) represent a business entity operating within a market-manipulated corporate world. Without playing a note the band had demystified the romantic fronts of both punk and the music industry.

The notes they went on to play, moreover, were equally disorienting, bearing little relation to the Pistols punk sound Rotten fans were expecting and—some—hoping for. Built around the kind of deep dub bass lines popular within the darker quarters of post-punk, Public Image Limited splashed their low-end backdrop with Banshees-like sheets of high-end guitar (from Keith Levine) and hysterical wailing from the born-again Lydon. Titles suggested bitterness about the recent past (“Low Life”, “Attack”) and refutations of punk’s style rule book (“Death Disco”, “Poptones”), while their decision to package Metal Box by putting its three discs in a metal film canister was the prank design equivalent of Factory Records using sandpaper for the sleeve of Durutti Column’s debut release (so that it would scratch up any other records next to it). Post-punk may have been all about breaking away from punk’s settlements, but it still deployed its forefather’s combative and provocative attitudes—if in more creative and formal ways.

Although post-punk had faded or mutated into New Pop by 1984, its cerebral qualities lingered, developed in less esoteric ways by a number of alternative bands on both sides of the Atlantic. The Smiths and Jesus and Mary Chain, as well as REM and the Replacements, were notable inheritors of post-punk’s clever ways and its punk-rooted contrarian spirit. An elusive movement by virtue of its diversity of sounds and styles, post-punk is also under-estimated in influence and under-rated in achievements. The punk aesthetic would likely have been provided few openings for future manifestations but for the theoretical questions it forced bands into answering.