When Britain Went Postal: a Post-Punk Survey
The Big Bang
Few would have predicted that the Sex Pistols’ first gigin November 1975, at the Saint Martin’s School of Art in central Londonwould be the start of an explosion of music. Not many even knew it was happening. That soon changed. Punk would create a space that other bands rushed to fill. Inspired by the DIY ethos and the rejection of the notion that pop music had to be a 30-minute conceptual track on the lives of elves, punk was just grab an instrument and form a band.
Some simply aped the style of the Pistols, but by 1978, many felt that had been done to death, and so they took off in different directions, moving away from 1-2-3 beats and buzz-saw guitar sounds into diverse styles. The industry, with its need for labels, would eventually lump those diverse styles into a vat called post-punk; I knew it simply as musicmusic that, in my opinion, is some of the most innovative and exciting ever created. It would take an entire issue of Stereophile to do it justice; barring that (it seems some hi-fi equipment needs reviewing!), restrictions need to be made. This article will survey only British bands formed, or records released, during 1978-1980. Even so, my personal selection of artists and albums is contrary and open for debatejust like the music. (The whatabout question will be raised of bands included or left outeg, should Siouxsie and the Banshees be in, or were they actually punkand as always we encourage your letters.)
Indeed, what exactly was post-punk? Did it have a certain musical style? Well, yes and no, but then, as Margaret Atwood has said, “Genres aren’t closed boxes. Stuff flows back and forth across the borders all the time.” I’m guessing she wasn’t pondering whether the Banshees were punk, postpunk, or goth, but the principle is the same.
I’m not the same as when I began
After the Sex Pistols imploded, John Lydon formed Public Image Ltd, usually rendered as PiL, with Jah Wobble (né John Wardle) and ex-Clash guitarist Keith Levene, and rebooted music for the second time. The basis of their music was Wobble’s booming reggae/funk bass playing and Levene’s sheet-metal guitar sound, intermeshing with Lydon’s vocals (now with slightly less sneer and more howl). Into the mix went dub and Can-influenced experimental music. If PiL’s debut single, “Public Image,” was recognizable to Pistols fans, then Metal Box, their second album and their masterpiece, was totally alien. When it was released in 1979, jaws dropped. Minds opened. The album’s bravado and power to break down barriers are breathtaking. Labels can be attached, but they mean little: There’s disco in “Graveyard,” but we’re not talking Chic here. Synths are used, such as in “Careering,” reflecting the influence of Krautrock, but it’s certainly not the synth-pop to come. (About which: Bands such as Human League could have been included in this survey but aren’t.)
Even its packaging was different: three 12-inch discs in a round metal container. Many of the albums of this period had well-dressed sleeves; Metal Box is a design classicas long as you don’t mind being unable to store it on a shelf or, indeed, get the albums out of the box with anything like ease.
The Slits supported the Clash on their 1977 White Riot tour. Cut, their debutreleased the same year as Metal Boxis one of the most underrated albums of all time. Prior to recording it, the band pretty much had a raw sound, but Cut is a marvelous collection of catchy and witty tunes. Having chosen dub musician Dennis Bovell as their producer, the Slits molded their sound around a reggae beat with Tessa Pollitt’s bass and Ari Up’s unique, almost tribal singing. Viv Albertine’s scratchy guitar style would be an inspiration to many who followedas would the fact that here was a band of intelligent women playing exciting music.
Manchester band Buzzcocks were also on that tour. Their co-founder, Howard Devoto, left soon after, disliking the restrictions of punk, to form Magazine. (He, like so many here, was influenced by David Bowie (footnote 1).) Don’t compartmentalize: Magazine’s first two albums are wonderful, putting two fingers up to punk orthodoxy, yet sounding almost prog in places (possibly the greatest sin any punk could commit). For me, their best album is their third, The Correct Use of Soap (1980). Soap is Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life through the prism of a workingclass northern Brit, touched by punk, widely read, and not afraid to show it (a set of characteristics that is itself very Bowie-like and a common theme here).
Another band from that tour is Vic Godard and Subway Sect. Godard, like Devoto, saw punk as freedom not to follow rules. There’s a story that one time they were looking for a drummer and Bernie Rhodes, who managed them along with the Clash, said he didn’t care who they got as long as he didn’t have long hair. The first candidate with long hair got the job. Godard and Subway Sect’s 1980 album What’s the Matter Boy is a classic, which makes it criminal that it is not currently available. (Why are certain albums endlessly rereleased when so much stuff has been left by the wayside?) Get this album somehow; it’s what Lonnie Donegan would have sounded like if he’d read Sartre and crooned.
Wire formed in 1976, so perhaps should be considered punk, but their second album, Chairs Missing (1978), would have an enormous impact on other bands to come. In a matter of months, they went from minimalism to songs with synths. Anyway, I love it, and this is my list.
Outside the trains don’t run on time
Consciously or not, we’re all shaped by our environments. Musicians are no different. Britain during this period was experiencing a severe economic downturn, and the Labour government of 1978 was fighting trade unions to limit wages. Dissatisfaction led to an upsurge of the far right. It wasn’t just the weather that was gray: In ’79, Margaret Thatcher became prime minister and went on the offensive.
Lydon said to sing about what matters. Gang of Four did just that. Their music was given its shape by Andy Gill’s jagged, sparse guitar against lyrics mixing political comment, a touch of artsy pretention, and a good dose of Yorkshire wit. It was a combination used by many: serious about their music and politics, but then again, not too serious. After all, the punk ethos of not playing the rock star hadn’t yet disappeared. So in “Anthrax,” from their first album, Entertainment!, Gill compares love to the disease: “something I don’t want to catch.” The album is considered a classic, appearing regularly on best-ever lists. So should Songs of the Free (1982). “I Love a Man in Uniform” gloriously combines economic reasons for joining the military with over-thetop sexual innuendo. The BBC didn’t see the joke and banned it during the Falklands War.
Footnote 1: In 1977, RCA ran an ad campaign: “There’s old wave, there’s new wave, and there’s David Bowie.” It perfectly sums up the genius of the man, and his appeal to younger musicians.
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