Well, this is it—post-punk’s chart moment. My absolutely favorite thing about popular music is that nobody has any idea what they are doing. In the late 70s, a bunch of British label guys raised in the 60s saw punk/new wave coming and, just as they would 15 years later with grunge, threw money at anything that looked the part (spandex pants or a safety pin attached for this version of the cake rush). So XTC ended up on Virgin, where the hits don’t ever really come and, then, against type, after years of spinning out anxious fishing reels of tin foil guitar and carousel organ, Partridge and Moulding turned out to be, of all things, an actual Lennon/McCartney-level songwriting team. The band was also at an insane pitch of musicianship for their third album, sort of untutored rock chamber music, able to sound like they were playing backwards on “That Is The Way,” even when they weren’t. The rub for bandleader Partridge is that the tall and handsome first mate Moulding wrote the big single, “Making Plans For Nigel,” but heads know that “Nigel” wouldn’t have been what it is without Partridge rearranging the drum parts and leaving it all in the walk-in freezer of his mind. Why, out of nowhere, did XTC become a chart band? While also being completely of no crew? Too suburban and nerdy for the punks and too white for the dance crowd, XTC simply never did anything right but they did it all perfectly. 12 out of 10, this one.
Punk was the alarm clock, ending the pop music sleepwalk and complicating the habit of going along for the ride. No argument here—that chair through the window in 1976 was necessary. But what happened next? In many cases, as with the Sex Pistols and the Clash and the Damned, punk turned out to be rock and roll revved up and returned to its original role as unruly dance music. Punk added elements of tone and content, sure, but it was not the antithesis of rock music. Punk was rock music recharged by simplicity and free-floating animus.
So the guitar bands woke up and then what? This is where we get to post-punk, a decent peak for the guitar band. Hip-hop had not transformed popular music fully, and digital tools were years away. Guitar music was in a beautiful interregnum between shifts. There were all these punks standing around, waiting for the next thing. They had taught themselves to play but wanted to do more than pogo and play barre chords. The post-punks had more room for women and dance music and all the weirdos who felt excluded from the vague fascist stomp of punk, liberatory or not. Punk didn’t feel like freedom for everyone, but post-punk kinda did.
At the level of catalog, post-punk is heavenly stuff. If you had to run away and hide under a tarp with Unknown Pleasures, Entertainment!, Killing Joke, The Scream, and 154, you’d be good for years. The no! of punk was much smaller than the what if? of the post-punk bands. Joy Division started as Stooges fans but then Peter Hook decided to play so high on the neck of his bass it didn’t even sound like a bass and Bernard Sumner refused to play barre chords and Stephen Morris took every beat apart and put it back together with parts missing. And Ian Curtis was his own genre, better than most of the people he imitated. Gang of Four took Dr. Feelgood and James Brown and ran them through a Xerox machine and then traced the shapes and swapped instruments. Siouxsie and the Banshees decided they were in four different bands but didn’t tell each other. Wire pulled off a coup by using the same basic tools as punkety punk bands but managed to sound like the coldest, sweetest, hardest pop band out there when they weren’t sounding like a broken geiger counter. The Smiths, often classed elsewhere, definitely belong here. Where did they get the idea to play short songs voiced like African guitar rock with a soap opera actor moaning over the top? Very post-something.
Post-punk was as much a phase as it was anything else. Nobody probably ever said “I’m in a post-punk band” in 1982. (That most likely didn’t happen until 2012.) So a band like XTC, which went through a half dozen stages and ultimately made its bones as a band driven by two pop songwriters, went through some deliciously tortured experiments with drums and wires and sounds and made records that would never have sounded the same twenty years later. Or a week later. What kind of music is “Making Plans For Nigel”? Negative reggae? Backwards rock?
Some bands actually embodied this make your own style approach forever. The Fall are somehow a completely rock rock band while being nothing of the sort. Is that the spirit of the age? Mark E. Smith has no corollary or imitator worth mentioning. The Fall songs all go on slightly too long or have a sound that doesn’t quite fit. The idea that a sound could maybe not lead anywhere at all, not to popularity, not to collaboration, but only back to itself, was central to the post-punk moment.
If a term like “post-punk,” applied from the outside, unlike jungle or hardcore, terms introduced by the artists, is going to mean anything, it helps to focus on the time frame (where the post- points to) and structural signposts. What post-punk came to mean, by the nineties, is the presence of trebly, percussive guitar parts and a rhythm section that played something other than a straight back beat. The singer is a little shouty. If you can find a record store, and they have a section named post-punk, that will be what you find.
But the most post- bands of all didn’t sound like that. If you want to clear out your preconceived notions, look to three bands: Public Image Ltd., The Raincoats, and Killing Joke. PiL were coming out of the most famous punk band of all time, your Sex Pistols. And their first single, “Public Image,” was an A+ rock song, absolutely a prime example of guitar music with words you can understand, a vehicle for John Lydon to complain about everybody looking at him after asking everybody to look at him. Their second album, though, was more upsetting to rock fellas than anything the Pistols ever did. Second Edition is over-discussed and overrated and isn’t much more than a bunch of jam sessions edited into reasonable shape. It’s also insanely important and mostly great.
Three things happen that make Second Edition so much a thing that people can’t stop talking about. One, Jah Wobble’s bass is louder than everything else. The Clash were lifting reggae, but PiL were lifting reggae strategies without playing it. Lydon, as complex a figure as rock has ever produced, had an early gimlet eye on appropriation and had no intention of playing cod reggae, while also knowing exactly what had to be done. Second, the songs are not in any recognizable verse/chorus shape. Things happen for a while and then they stop, which would be the format of dance music for the next twenty or thirty years. Third, it just sounds strange as hell. Keith Levene’s guitar seems to be pointed into a corner and EQ’d with no clear goal. Irritation? Lydon is, slightly counter-intuitively, the star of the show. His singing on “Poptones” alone is a whole new world. Someone has dragged him into the forest to shoot him in the head? But he’s still alive? Is the music playing on the cassette PiL or Depeche Mode? But ha—that wasn’t the absolutely most post-punk ass album ever. No!
For my imaginary money, Flowers of Romance is not necessarily the best post-punk album (we don’t do that kind of thing around here) but holy frappuccino, it is definitely one of the most intransigent albums ever put out on Warner Brothers’ dime, and that includes all the Beefheart. You’d think that the band would suffer without Wobble—on the contrary. Without bass, the band somehow rose up into stratospherically beautiful wrongness. Hell, there’s barely any guitar. This is drumming and yelling, as far from Chuck Berry as you can get before you’re just trying to break your lease. Drummer Martin Atkins tries to pound his set into the fourth dimension and Lydon sings as if he is trying to raise the dead in three time zones. Most of the music doesn’t even qualify as songs or rock or really anything that anybody would ever play intentionally or sell tickets to. It’s a loopy bag of rebar and someone will ask you to take it off if you put it on. Also—if you wanted another name for post-punk, you could do worse than Martin Atkins.
Some of that refusenik chaos was also in The Pop Group and Rip, Rig + Panic, two different bands that were comrades to dub and jazz without ever really fitting in. That lunging, unembarrassed quality was one of the best aspects of post-punk—you couldn’t really do it wrong, and that spirit was valuable. On the other side of the earth, Nick Cave and The Birthday Party channeled all of this unsupervised energy and recorded some of the best un-rock rock ever, all of the contempt and tongue-on-battery house arrest masochism with none of the normal. Release the bats? Honey, they’re long gone!
At the other end, post-punk had room for gentleness and quiet, and some attributes that would eventually be recycled into the twee side of American indie. The first time around, though, this was unbiddable weirdness. The Raincoats were like ghosts wandering the streets of London, scaring the shit out of anybody looking for a copy of Smash Hits. Listening to the violin on “Shouting Out Loud”—nothing reassuring about these women and their energy. And where post-punk met the wider world was in dance music, which was about to transform Manchester, the seat of much post-punk. The first song that made clear that this was the future was The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette” (1978), which was as avant-garde as it was danceable. The band that became infinitely bigger after what seemed like a career ending was New Order, more or less a dance band from day one until the present.
The record to close with, to make the loop, is my favorite album in this entire clump. (OK, so I lied.) Killing Joke’s 1980 debut is, song for song, one of the most consequential albums ever released. “Requiem”? An entire genre of scary synth rock that probably had a hand in half the goth out there. “Change”? A dance single that by his own admission, inspired a chunk of James Murphy’s work in LCD Soundsystem. “The Wait”? Inspiration for at least a third of Metallica’s sound, and they won’t tell you any different. (Look up their cover on Garage Days Revisited.) There were dance remixes of Killing Joke songs from day one, as well as dub versions. The original disco punks, Killing Joke have never been made redundant and their work suggests, again and again, that the investigations of the post-punk era will remain relevant long beyond that moment.
This is it for pleasure and power. Not sure how many debut albums have ever done as much as this one. In the course of forty minutes, these guys co-created LCD Soundsystem, Metallica, and a half-dozen genres nobody has ever expanded on. Dance music, dub, metal, noise, goth—literally everything good is in here. (If you really squint, you might see some jazz in the corners, possibly a blues change here or there.) It is genuinely shocking how much these guys had figured out in 1980. Jaz, Geordie, Youth, and Paul Ferguson: the Led Zeppelin of their moment, exactly ten years later. Synthesists of the highest order.
Context doesn’t always matter—albums have to live in the world they find themselves in. Today is today. That said, come back to 1984 with me. John Peel has been playing the first Smiths single, “This Charming Man,” and for all we know, there’s a new Afropop band from Manchester out there, and they’ve got this chatty, deep-voiced singer. Then the first album comes, and it’s both confusing and vacuum-sealed: the music tracks the words so closely. The band follows an invisible wire and the singer seems to be reciting dialogue from some unpublished play about children in peril. There is no excess—some of the songs only give you one or two bars before the singing starts. Hatful of Hollow collects all of the singles from that time, when there seemed to be a new Smiths track every week. You get all the best stuff from the debut, plus wondrous things like “How Soon Is Now?” which makes tremolo its own drum beat and constitutes a genre of one: dance anthems about shyness that make you want to dance with other people immediately. If you’re still on the fence about Morrissey, listen to this just for Johnny Marr’s guitar playing, an ecstatic tangle of highlife and lounge jazz and country that somehow still gets called rock. Hatful joins the tradition of albums like Singles Going Steady and Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy, compilations of singles that make perfect albums, which in turn prove that you don’t really need albums.
The dancefloor dub chaos is most intense on this album, the rare instance of a British group equalling an American style. Funk is the base stratum here, though it’s dissolved and set on fire repeatedly. Mark Stewart comes out of the era as one of the most actually frightening vocalists, about neck and neck with Nick Cave in his Birthday Party era. This is nine paintballs set on fire and thrown against the wall of Tower Records. “When you’re stealing from a nation of killers, do I trust myself?”
Gareth Sager and Bruce Smith popped out of the Pop Group like lil kernels and decided to make a group that flew so far away from that calling them even post-punk now feels off. Along with bassist Sean Oliver and pianist Mark Springer, and most famously, singer Neneh Cherry, Rip, Rig + Panic began somewhere near Defunkt and then sprawled out into something much less coherent than funk and not really as theme-based as jazz. It’s very rumbly and friendly and squeaky, not unlike Neneh’s dad, Don, working in Sweden with large collective ensembles. It has aged beautifully.
Where it all began, fine, but what was it? What Newman, Gotobed, Lewis and Gilbert did was pick up the rough branches of punk and immediately refuse to do anything obvious with them. Simple chords, easily understood words, and yet none of it seemed like rock or was reassuring or fun in any known sense. It was like some sub rosa sect had busted open the jukebox and learned all the hits of the Sixties and substituted discarded short stories for the existing lyrics. Pink Flag hasn’t aged half a day. Is Wire the most awake band ever, or just the most unsentimental?
You are indeed crazy for this one, gang. Why was post-punk a useful moment? Because you could actually turn your band inside out and nobody would look at you funny. Guitarist John McGeoch busts out of McKay’s shadow here with a shower of acoustic guitars on “Christine,” which is their most melodic single at this point. But there isn’t some kind of pop-friendly program afoot. Much of the album is restrained, almost spindly. “Tenant”? Spooky dub rock! “Happy House”? A hit, for sure, and the beginning of something that gives the idea of goth some psychological heft. They began to be actually, viscerally terrifying when they needed to be.
Four young men met in and around Leeds University in the late 1970s. They liked Wilko Johnson out of Dr. Feelgood and Jimi Hendrix and James Brown. They had thoughts about alienation and consumerism, and a working knowledge of the Situationists. It seems like the time to form a band, but what kind of band? Should a singer talk about feelings or theories? What are electric instruments for? Why is music amplified? Why do songs have so many notes? Why would four people go into a room and play together? Entertainment! answers those questions by turning a rock band into a collective of four with equal roles and no stars: voice, guitar, bass, and drums. Somehow the band that lived to demystify created a machine that erases time and defies analysis. These songs posit that living and thinking and wanting and dancing are all the same thing.
The energy here is unbridled, and the lack of control has aged pretty well. Jim Walker’s drumming only shows up on this one album, and it’s well powerful. Less known than the follow-up, Metal Box/Second Edition, this is where the ideas all run into each other. Jah Wobble puts his bass further into the mix than any other rock, and Keith Levene used all the same distortion and chorus as anyone hired to play in Banshees, with much less intention or stability. “Public Image” was more or less the template for U2, except with a singer who wanted to reject anyone who might love him.
A perfect and unexpected way into post-punk and The Fall because this is the album where Mark’s love of dance music comes into focus. And what was the real post-punk? Dance music, and New Order went there straight away. Ah, you think he’s a grouch, this Mark fella, and then there he is very sincerely getting into the Manchester sound on “Telephone Thing,” an absolutely top five Fall tune. Don’t @ me! “Bill Is Dead” is one of Mark’s softer moments, while “Arms Control Poseur’” (a B-side, technically) is one of the rare moments where Smith bothers to insult an American politician. Great Craig Leon sheen—could have had about five more like this, tbh.
The t-shirt, the starting point, the challenge, the goof. There is so much mythos around this album it feels a bit like the smoke monster on Lost—widely discussed, rarely seen. I can’t speak to the people who find this album sad or this music depressing, as I’ve been listening to this since the day it came out and it’s always sounded hyper-charged and infinitely clever, more than a bit touched by god. The way the band arranged the bass and guitar and drum parts like some kind of bit-mapped version of Delacroix. The basslines sound symphonic, and the guitar lines sound like vibraphone parts yanked out of a Blue Note album. Stephen Morris plays every drum part like his eyes are closed and he’s never actually heard rock music but he thinks he knows how it should feel. Ian is an Iggy fan, intoning all of his weird ideas about love and society and isolation, and getting religion half the time. This is a rave-up, x-rayed. A true formal gem, every one of these songs a roadmap for ways into and out of rock.
It’s worth pointing out that, of the post-punk cohort, the Bunnymen may have been secretly the most traditional. Crocodiles is a Yardbirds album cranked up and stripped back, most songs under three minutes. Ian McCullough was the most baldly emotional of his gang, and the Bunnymen always charged straight ahead. The new Mods, and wickedly tight songwriters.
Is this the hardest punk album of all time, or the hardest post-punk album of all time? Three friends living in squats (at least some of the time), the Raincoats took the DIY part of punk and left the rest. Their cover of “Lola” is ostensibly the Kinks, but four women singing “I’m not the world’s most passionate guy” does a number on identity. Eliminating the violence and aggression of punk means these four self-taught people made an album that has aged beautifully. Kurt Cobain loved it so much he wrote the liner notes for the first of many reissues. (It’s worth Googling those for the story of Kurt meeting Ana da Silva and going full fanboy.)
So the last great band of the 20th century came out of the box fully formed and only John Peel really noticed? Our Mark E. Smith is wandering around taking magic mushrooms and boiling cigar butts and making the jukebox fight back. This version had Karl Burns on drums, maybe a little less coherent than he would later be, but still plenty rumbustious. Martin Bramah didn’t last long in the band, which does not obviate his nutty and springy parts. Considering the range of approaches in the post-punk era, it helps to remember that this music isn’t particularly aggressive or weird. The Fall take little scraps of known rock and then just loop them while Smith tells us what he’s been thinking about. They sort of cycle on in the background, grinding away while he reads his latest notions out. It goes on like this until the end.
With actual Don Cherry along for the ride, this is the band’s most open-ended and appealingly shambolic album. No idea if this would please them but this album loops nicely as a kind of oil paint background, all good vibes and messy, chanty improvisation. The music is indeterminate but benevolent, a sort of detente between a Belgian bar band and the dayroom of an outpatient clinic. A very important link in the chain of bands (including the Velvets and Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Black Dice) that want to improvise around one or two chords. There are almost no straight backbeats–it’s all a bit more like drunken Bow Wow Wow on the backline. Neneh Cherry sings words, sometimes. Mark Springer’s classical chops on piano come through in really delightful ways, perfectly out of place.