FORGET ABOUT THE NOSTALGIA-MONGERING AND KITSCH REVIVALISM – THE POST-PUNK PERIOD OF 1979-81 WAS AN ASTONISHINGLY FERTILE TIME FOR BRITISH MUSIC, WHEN INDIE LABELS FLOURISHED AND ALTERNATIVE BANDS MADE EXCITING CONNECTIONS BETWEEN ROCK, DUB AND FUNK, TWENTY YEARS AFTER THE ERA-DEFINING NME CASSETTE, C81, SIMON REYNOLDS WONDERS WHAT HAPPENED TO THE EARLY EIGHTIES SPIRIT OF EXPLORATION AND INVENTION
FOR FIVE years now, people have been trying to kickstart ‘the Eighties revival’. And what ‘Eighties’ refers to, of course, is eyeliner-boys playing one-finger synth, daft haircuts, etc. All stuff that’s easy to look back on with amused affection: safe. But what about the moment just before this ‘Eighties’ – the post-punk years of 1981, 1980, 1979? Who’s really up to confronting the intellectual ardour and uncompromising militancy of this earlier Eighties: The Pop Group, Gang Of Four, This Heat, Cabaret Voltaire, early Scritti? Our irony-enfeebled constitutions would surely collapse on contact with the sheer solemn seriousness of it all.
Perhaps this earnest revolutionary zeal is why post-punk has suffered serious neglect from retro culture, which has pillaged damn-near everything else. But there are signs of a resurgence: Chicks On Speed covering songs by Delta 5 and The Normal; avant-funk compilations like Weatherall’s Nine O’Clock Drop; 23 Skidoo reissues; this year’s Rough Trade Shops – 25 Years, a celebration of the record store that spawned the independent label/distribution empire; Messthetics, a CD compilation series of long-lost DIY singles; new post-punk-influenced bands like Life Without Buildings; rumours of Primal Scream pursuing a Throbbing Gristle/DAF direction…Maybe the time is ripe to reopen the memory banks.
Punk seemed to be ‘over’ almost before it began. For many early participants, the death knell came in late 1977 with Never Mind The Bollocks – however incendiary its contents, ultimately just a hard rock album. If you wanted to locate the beginnings of post-punk, you could go back even earlier than Bollocks, though – to Johnny Rotten’s show on Capital Radio in the summer of 1977, during which he played records by Beefheart, Peter Hammill, Can, plus contemporary roots reggae artists. This was the lead Pistol blowing the carefully constructed thug monster image. Malcolm McLaren was horrified, Rotten recalled, because it showed that “I couldn’t be half as…moronic, violent, destructive…as they wanted to promote me.”
Capital Radio began the process of persona-demolition that culminated in ‘Public Image’ the song and Public Image Limited the band. A repudiation of Bollocks‘ mod/NY Dolls/glam rock’n’roll, PiL was what Lydon had always wanted the Pistols to be: a studio-oriented non-band influenced by dub and Krautrock.
Lydon’s hipster checklist on Capital Radio effectively offered a programme for the completion of punk’s failed musical revolution. At the close of 1977, defunct music weekly Sounds‘ two-part feature, titled “New Musick”, heralded the first wave of post-punk bands that used Lydon-style influences as a springboard into the future: dub, Krautrock, The Velvet Underground, Eno/Bowie, electronics, disco rhythms. “Punk had become a cliche and we wanted to continue that sense of discovery and total science-fiction alienation,” says Jon Savage, one of the New Musick writers.
The two UK groups whose response was swiftest to the post-punk challenge were Alternative TV and The Pop Group. “Punk had brought in the DIY ethos but it didn’t take the musical progress far enough,” says Mark Perry, lead singer of ATV. Their-second album, Vibing Up The Senile Man, released early 1979, seriously upped the stakes. “It still shocks me how we had the bollocks to do Vibing…,” Perry laughs. “There’s free jazz influences – I was into the Art Ensemble of Chicago.”
The modus operandi was like PiL’s Flowers Of Romance two years early: untutored musicians using all kinds of non-rock acoustic instruments, creating raw sonic material to mess with, using the studio as an instrument.
The Pop Group approached this kind of sonic action-painting, but their funk base gave listeners something to grip onto. “Just before punk, we were like the Bristol funk army,” says singer Mark Stewart. “We’d go dancing to import records by T-Connection, Fatback Band – heavy bassline funk. Later I discovered that all across the UK, there’d been similar kids who were into funk and wearing Fifties clothes as a reaction against prog rock.”
As well as funk’s groove power, The Pop Group brought in dub’s disorienting FX and out-jazz’s freeform pyrotechnique. Intellectual influences included Wilhelm Reich’s creed of libido liberation, Situationism’s revolt against boredom, and Beat poets like Ginsberg. The result, on songs like ‘Thief Of Fire’, was Dionysian protest, a conflagration of sound and imagery that dissolved divisions between politics, poetry, mysticism and desire.
Signing with major label offshoot Radar, The Pop Group debuted with the single ‘She Is Beyond Good And Evil’, an exhilarating mess of disco-style walking bass, slashing punk-funk guitar and Stewart’s love-stricken caterwaul. It was about “love as a revolutionary force”, says Stewart: desire as a catalyst for Utopian hope. The line “Western values mean nothing to her” – like the images of savages in war paint on the cover of the debut album Y – expressed The Pop Group’s cult of all things primal, their yearning for a lost instinctual power enfeebled by civilisation.
Sensing a kindred wild spirit in Mark Perry, The Pop Group invited ATV to tour the UK with them. “We practised what we preached on Vibing…,” says Perry. “No rehearsing, just this freeform spontaneous thing.” Expectations frustrated, audiences reacted violently.
Total freedom meant dealing with another aspect of punk’s stillborn revolution: the need for artist-driven independent labels and an alternative distribution network. Mark Perry ran Step Forward, the indie that put out The Fall’s early records. “Just think what powerful repercussions there’d have been if The Clash had gone the indie route, rather than signed to CBS,” Perry sighs wistfully. “Instead, punk just ended up rejuvenating the record industry.”
“The disappointing thing for me was the Pistols and Clash signing to majors,” concurs Geoff Travis, founder of Rough Trade. Like many indie labels then and now, Rough Trade began as a record shop. Located in Ladbroke Grove, the original Rough Trade opened in February 1976 and became a magnet for the local punk community. In many ways, though, Rough Trade bridged the gap between the old hippie culture and punk. The business was run as a cooperative: everyone had equal say and equal pay. These sort of communal values were still part of mid-Seventies radical culture: Time Out, for instance, operated as a collective. “Growing up Jewish, I’d also had first-hand experience of kibbutz in Israel,” says Travis.
Like other shops-turned-labels, Rough Trade’s retail sense of what was selling developed into an A&R instinct. The label debuted in early 1978 with Metal Urbain’s ‘Paris Marquis’. But it was ROUGH 3 that really tapped the post-punk Zeitgeist: Cabaret Voltaire’s Extended Play EP. The same egalitarianism that informed the running of Rough Trade governed deals with artists: contracts were for one record at a time, profits split 50/50 after studio and promotional costs (fronted by Rough Trade) were made back.
Rough Trade was just one of the first wave of post-punk indies, alongside New Hormones, Industrial, Small Wonder, Fast Produce and Cherry Red. But it became the movement’s unofficial leader, enabling other people to set up labels by advancing them money, even providing them with a base of operations. “I was really close to Rough Trade,” says Daniel Miller, founder of Mute. “I didn’t have an office, so they let me do my record mail-outs from their premises.”
Even more vital was Rough Trade’s efforts to build an independent distribution network in alliance with regional retail/label/distribution outfits like Probe, Revolver and Red Rhino. Without effective distribution, the do-it-yourself ethos was just shouting into the void. Nationwide independent distribution held out the possibility of genuine communication: reaching a scattered audience of like-minds, recouping your costs, carrying on.
Bands self-releasing their own records was the next stage in the movement’s evolution. The Desperate Bicycles were the earliest evangelists for do-it-yourself/release-it-yourself, chanting “it was easy, it was cheap – go and do it” at the end of their 1977 debut single ‘Smokescreen’. A scrappy legion of groups responded to their call-to-amps.
Another post-punk player inspired by The Desperate Bicycles was Daniel Miller. “I don’t know if I ever heard their records, I just got infected by the energy they put across in this Melody Maker article about how easy it was to make a record.” Buying a second-hand synth, Miller recorded ‘T.V.O.D.’ and ‘Warm Leatherette’, the two sides of his debut single as The Normal. With its JG Ballard-influenced lyrics and harsh all-electronic sounds, the single upped the stakes in post-punk’s assault on trad rock.
“Back then people hated synths with a vengeance,” recalls Miller. Non-reliance on past rock traditions became Mute’s A&R hallmark. The label began almost unintentionally, with demo tapes turning up unsolicited. “Before I knew it I was running a record company, with no business grounding whatsoever. Punk encouraged people like me, Geoff Travis, Tony Wilson – not obvious record company people – to make their dreams come true.”
“The idea of the independent movement was so new and exciting then,” says Travis. “People would rush out and buy anything that was part of it. This is what people forget: the records used to sell. Anything halfway decent shifted from 6,000 to 10,000.” The Normal’s single sold over 30,000.
Demystification was the slogan of the day. “It was self-empowerment through not letting yourself be bamboozled any more,” says Travis. “People exert control through mystification. Engineers can be like that in the studio. I’d got no studio experience at all, but I produced ‘Nag Nag Nag’ by Cabaret Voltaire and co-produced stuff by The Raincoats, The Fall. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but at that point in history, you had the confidence to just go ahead.”
‘Leave The Capitol’, exhorted a track on Slates, The Fall’s 198110-inch mini LP. Fellow Mancunians The Passage sneered “too many peacocks…they must be very dull in London”. Post-punk was a time when the provinces rose up against the metropolitan monopoly over music. Any week back then the independent chart would invariably feature a couple of regional compilations: the Manchester Music Collective’s Unzipping The Abstract, Rockburgh’s Hicks From The Sticks, Sheffield’s Bouquet Of Steel…
In Sounds‘ “New Musick” feature, Jon Savage had heralded “fresh energy from regional centres”. “I was very excited going around the UK, unearthing all these weirdo bedroom cases. If I want to hark back to that time, Cabaret Voltaire’s ‘The Set Up’ really does it. Don’t forget how awful the urban landscape was then – Sheffield seemed like a bombsite, 30 years after the War’s end.”
Cabaret Voltaire were pure DIY: no manager, their own eight-track studio. The group started as a pre-punk experimental trio using tape loops. Their 1975 debut gig, at a Sheffield University disco, triggered a riot. Ironically, their sound gradually got more disco-like, while never exactly amounting to party fuel. Richard H Kirk’s harshly-treated guitars sounded wraith-like and Stephen Mallinder’s bass lurked like an abject, pulsing thing. Dub permeated the mix but the echo was curiously dry and hollow: Rasta’s dread without Zion’s redemption. The mood of clammy-palmed, Control-Is-Watching paranoia was straight out of Burroughs, Ballard and Alan Pakula movies like The Parallax View.
Along with fellow Sheffield outfit Clock DVA, Cabaret Voltaire created the stereotype of post-punk as bleak and grey – qualities that seemed to seep into the records from the city’s post-industrial landscape. Manchester gave Steel City a run for its money in the ‘grim ‘oop North’ stakes. Joy Division’s story is thrice-told, but there was more to Manchester than Ian Curtis’ band of merry men. There-was The Fall, with a coruscating sound that Mark E Smith dubbed “country’n’Northern”: rockabilly sluiced through White Light, White Heat, sulphate-snarled lyrics as vivid and impenetrable as hieroglyphs, the singer’s objects of scorn usually remaining unclear.
Seemingly permanently ensconced in the independent charts with albums like Pindrop, The Passage was a vehicle for classically-trained Dick Witts’ doomily grandiose arrangements and lofty polemics about religion and other weighty themes. Other Manc post-punk notables included Ludus, Manicured Noise, Section 25 and The Blue Orchids – an offshoot of The Fall whose classic The Greatest Hit LP was an acid-mystic protest against Thatcherite money worship.
Of all the era’s Manchester groups, perhaps the most intriguing was A Certain Ratio – as much for the idea of ACR as for the music itself, which was only realized in flashes. The concept was disco noir; even more than The Pop Group and The Cabs, ACR inspired the avant-funk genre of 23 Skidoo, 400 Blows et al. In ACR’s case, the concept was given flesh and force by the febrile fatback drumming of Donald Johnson. “ACR were part of what I always think of as a dope and Red Stripe crowd, shebeen heads,” says Dave Haslam, author of Manchester; England – The Story Of The Pop Cult City. “They had a bizarre sense of fashion – close-cropped hair, baggy khaki shorts an extreme reaction against hippy untidiness or punk anarchy, going instead for a neat, mod sensibility.”
Up in Scotland, another bunch of post-punk groups deployed discipline to fight rockist slackness. Josef K wore sharp monochrome Oxfam suits. “We were quite puritanical.” guitarist Malcolm Ross said. “We didn’t like sexism or laddishness. I was interested in the original mod movement and that was one of the influences in wearing suits…I wanted some kind of dignity.”
Following the Subway Sect model of guitar pop stripped of rock’n’roll cliche. Josef K refused to indulge the audience with stage banter, encores, or autographs. “The whole anti-rock thing was a reaction to the mouldy old shoe.” says singer Paul Haig, who cites Tom Verlaine. Lou Reed and David Byrne as influences on Josef K’s spiky guitar sound.
North of the border, anti-rockism was very much in the air: The Associates’ Billy Mackenzie declared that he’d “always hated the rock thing” and pledged his allegiance to disco and film soundtracks. The Fire Engines played 15-minute sets and released a mini album of “background music for action people” called Lubricate Your Living Room. Orange Juice fused The Velvet Underground with Chic and projected an image of fey naivete (“Worldliness must keep apart from me” sang Edwyn Collins). “Alan Horne [founder of the Postcard label] had a vision for Orange Juice all along, to turn them into a great pop band.” says Haig. “He never liked Josef K. We were far too abrasive and dark.”
The concept of “rockism” was coined by Pete Wylie, which was ironic because Wah! Heat were one of the most traditionally rockin’ outfits of the, era. This was typical of Liverpool’s post-punk scene: with the exception of the dub-and-disco-influenced Pink Military, there was little experimentalism. Wah!, Echo And The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes shared a taste for the epic and their retro leanings prompted journalists to reach tentatively for the word psychedelic’: still a dubious concept, given its proximity to hippiedom. Wylie, Ian McCulloch and Julian Cope were also the most brazenly rock-star in demeanour, not concealing their ambition. Yet in many ways the Bunnymen were an exemplary post-punk band – their sound, monochrome and minimal on the first two albums, was rooted in Television’s blues-less blueprint. The Bunnymen were also synonymous with the same sombre audience mobilised by Joy Division: overcoat-clad and angst-wracked young men.
All through 1979-81 the weekly music papers competed to discover new city-based scenes – the next Manchester or Sheffield. Strange and wonderful records were emerging from all over the country, though. “You’d get records sent in by these stroppy lads from tiny towns in Lincolnshire, places you had to look up on the map,” says John Peel, whose late-night Radio One show gave national exposure to DIY culture’s inspired one-offs. “One thing I liked was that a lot of these bands were almost entirely without ambition. Their goal was often just to put out the one single.”
‘John Peel band’ was almost the name of a genre back then – home studio eccentrics who caught the DJ’s ear and, in a brief reign of glory, got late night Radio One’s equivalent of being plavlisted: groups like Family Fodder. Fatal Microbes. (And The) Native Hipsters (whose 1980 single ‘There Goes Concorde Again’, a captivating collision of twee whimsy and genuinely alien eeriness, like a Scunthorpe Residents, got to No 5 in the indie charts thanks to Peel).
A few ‘John Peel records’ even trickled down, via Mike Read and Kid Jensen’s evening shows, into daytime Radio One and became pop hits: Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ (No 2, winter 1981), Pigbag’s ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag’, (No 2, spring 1982).
Peel’s unflagging support of post-punk’s uncommercial vanguard was all the more crucial because it was the only way many people had access to this music. Radio had not been deregulated yet; pop programming on TV was scarce and staid. Apart from Peel, the only other nationally accessible media by which you could find out about post-punk was the weekly music press.
As with Peel, it’s hard to grasp the crucial role played by the music papers in the years following punk. For most of the 1978-81 period, the NME sold over 200,000 copies; the combined circulation of NME, Sounds and Melody Maker was in excess of 500,000. There were hardly any rival sources of information – no monthlies, scant coverage in newspapers. Punk had mobilised a huge audience looking for the way forward and ready to be guided by the inkies.
In another sense, bands and journalists were in the same business. Post-punk was nothing if not a critique of rock’n’roll, a meta-music. Songs were often mini-manifestos addressing punk’s failure or music’s purpose: TV Personalities’ ‘Part Time Punks’, Scritti Politti’s ‘Messthetics’, The Prefects’ ‘Going Through The Motions’. On Subway Sect’s ‘Rock and Roll, Even’, Vic Godard sang, “We oppose all rock’n’roll/It’s held you for so long…Afraid to take the stroll/Off the course of 20 years/And out of rock and roll.”
The Leeds scene – Gang Of Four, The Mekons, Delta 5 and its Birmingham satellite, The Au Pairs – took this self-reflexively critical approach to rock furthest. Gang Of Four’s debut single, ‘Love like Anthrax’, challenged the pop institution of the love song, while Entertainment!, the title of their debut LP, was an implicit question and spur-to-thought.
A big influence on this demystificatory approach to pop culture and emotional life was feminism and the concept of ‘personal politics’. “Its easy to forget just how militantly pre-Loaded this culture was,” recalls Ian Penman, one of NME‘s main post-punk writers. “You went out with girls who wore little scissors-insignia earrings” – signifying castration – “and they meant it!” In post-punk terms, this translated into lopping off the cock in cock-rock. Although it had encouraged un-typical girls like The Slits to get up and do it, punk had quickly, in the words of Jon Savage, “become very blokeish”.
Post-punk’s belief that ‘the personal is political’ led to an intense scrutiny of private conduct and public discourse alike for ideological soundness – the kind of vigilance about lifestyle politics widely denigrated today as ‘political correctness’. Rough Trade refused to distribute the first Nurse With Wound album because they felt the cover’s S&M imagery was degrading to women. “Rough Trade would actually tell fanzine editors, ‘We will read your zine and if there’s anything racist or sexist in there, we’ll return it,'” recalls Tony Fletcher, editor of Jamming.
“There was an element of politicisation to relationships,” recalls Gang Of Four drummer Hugo Burnham. “The women in our social circle were much healthier in terms of the male/female power dynamic. At the same time, it didn’t mean we didn’t try to get laid at every opportunity. There was nothing puritanical about Gang Of Four!”
Gang Of Four created the template for a new rock that was aggressive but not macho. “It was bringing together guitar rock’s hardness with the groove of black music,” says guitarist Andy Gill. One bond that united the group’s members was, surprisingly, a love of Free’s supple, stripped-down blues-rock. “I loved Free but you were completely aware of the idiocy of the lyrics. It was a question of taking the bits you loved and leaving the rest. Or deliberately taking those rock’n’roll cliches and turning them inside out.”
Some cliches were sonic. “Instead of guitar solos, we had anti-solos – gaps,” says Gill. Certain traditional guitar effects (wah-wah, fuzz-tone, distortion) were eliminated. The band’s very sound was abrasively different: Gill favoured the brittle, clean sound of transistor amplifiers rather than the ‘warm’ sound of valve amps (which every guitarist today prefers).
Entertainment! was cold emotionally, too, the Marx-influenced lyrics slicing through the mystifications of love, ‘capitalist democracy’ and rock’n’roll itself. ‘Damaged Goods’ and ‘Contract’ used the language of commerce to analyse affairs of the heart. ‘Love Like Anthrax’ shocked with the unsentimental imagery of heartbreak as feeling “like a beetle on its back”. While Jon King sang the lover’s blues through one speaker, Gill recited a statement through the other channel that questioned why love was a privileged subject in rock: a stereophonic Brecht effect.
What made the consciousness-raising efforts of agit-funkers like Gang Of Four more than merely academic was the surrounding political context. An economically depressed industrial town, Leeds was a stronghold for resurgent far right politics: the National Front, the British Movement, the League of St George, were all active there. Friction between the post-punk vanguard and the Oi!-punk-loving skinheads was aggravated by typical town-versus-gown hostility. “Skinheads would turn up to the gigs and start fights,” says Gill. “Our favourite pub, The Fenton, was where all the lefties, artists and fags hung out, and one night about 20 NF thugs came in and smashed the place up. It was like a Wild West saloon fight.”
In the art department of Leeds Polytechnic, an embryonic version of Scritti Politti was gestating. By the time they moved down to London, Scritti had developed Gang Of Four’s critique of rock into an ultra-rigorous interrogation of every aspect of the music’s form, content and procedures.
Along with Marxist philosophers like Gramsci (Scritti singer/guitarist Green Gartside had been a young communist), a key influence was the American journal Art/Language, whose texts were ‘signed’ as a collective. Scritti similarly styled themselves as a sort of music/theory commune. Surrounding the group’s musical core – Green, drummer Tom Morley and bassist Nial Jinks – was a floating pool of associates numbering anywhere from 15 to 40. Ian Penman was a member of what Green dubbed the “odd conglomerate”, hanging out at their Camden squat, composing a Scritti Politti communiqué, sometimes performing onstage with them. “Occasionally with Scritti I would get up and, well, rap, I guess you would have to call it these days,” Penman recalls. “Cut up a Lenin text and cross-reference it with Lee Perry’s ‘Bafflin’ Smoke Signals’…You have to understand, we took a LOT of speed back then!”
There’s a photo of the Carol Street squat’s filthy front room on the cover of Scritti’s 1979 EP, 4 A Sides: every available surface strewn with books, pamphlets, overflowing ashtrays, beer bottles. You can almost smell the lifestyle-theory-addled, sulphate-fuelled conversations going on ’til the crack of dawn, punctuated by visits to ‘blues’ (illegal reggae parties) or five-groups-on-the-same-bill post-punk gigs at the Lyceum.
Named after a Gramsci book, Scritti were heavily influenced by his concept of ‘hegemony’: the notion that the ruling class maintains its thrall over the rest of society through propagating ‘common sense’ ideas of what is natural, crystallised in notions like ‘a fair profit’. ‘Question everything’ was already a mantra/motto for post-punk groups; Scritti took this to the limit. Even the word ‘rock’ was ideologically suspect: Green preferred the term “beat music”. Musically, the result was brittle, self-deconstructing songs like ‘OPEC-Imac’ and ‘Bibbly-O-Tek’, whose fractures couldn’t conceal Green’s melodic genius and the sweet plaintiveness of his high, Robert Wyatt-like voice. Live, Scritti would make up songs on the spot as part of their commitment to breaking with rock’s stale routines.
At the extreme, this impulse to question all aspects of ‘the rock process’ and of everyday social existence could resemble a Maoist self-criticism tribunal, where party members accused themselves of counter-revolutionary tendencies. “It was all tunnelled through Green’s absolutely monomaniacal insistence on what was correct” says Penman. “I remember having a serious confrontation with Green about tidiness…I couldn’t understand how anyone could conceive, let alone organise, a new society from the squalor that was 1 Carol St…And he mounted a massive ideological justification for untidiness: ‘Cleanliness is next to bourgeois hegemony’.”
Operating in a similar soundzone to early Scritti, This Heat started before punk. Initially influenced by the angry free jazz of the Sixties and the tape-loop sound collages of musique concrete, the group were way out on a limb, according to drummer/vocalist Charles Hayward, until punk arrived to provide a climate for their “desire to commit violence to accepted notions of music”.
This Heat’s motor-impulse was pure post-punk: a desire to wake up listeners to a painfully sharp consciousness of the world’s evils. “That’s why our music wasn’t psychedelic and drifty, why it was so hard-edged and angular – we had no interest in making people stoned with our sounds,” says Hayward. ‘Sleep’ from 1981’s Deceit – virtually a concept album about nuclear destruction – imagines power lulling people into complacent apathy: “A life cocooned in a routine of food…Softness is a thing called comfort.”
This fierce sobriety was projected through the group’s image – Deceit‘s back cover shows the band looking almost pre-War with their ties, jackets, short haircuts and stern frowns. “We liked going to jumble sales – I got bus conductor jackets and handfuls of ties for 20p. It was a look related to the idea of pulling yourself together, fighting back against these bastards who were ruining the world.”
It’s hard to recapture the atmosphere in 1979/1980, that looming sense that something appalling was about to happen: Thatcher’s election, the resurgence of fascist violence, mass unemployment, talk of a police state taking shape…The Cold War was at a renewed pitch of frostiness and Britain was increasingly perceived as little more than a launching pad for American missiles. Post-punk musicians fought back with protest songs and benefit gigs galore for CND and the various Rock Against…campaigns.
Roots reggae provided post-punk artists with a language of armagideon and sufferation to express their sense of internal exile in Babylon, UK. “Rasta offered a ready-made cosmology that meshed the political, the spiritual and the apocalyptic and it helped you define your enemies,” says reggae journalist Vivien Goldman.
There were contradictions in being ‘white Rasta’; the latter’s Old Testament moralism clashed with Western liberalism. “With the roots worldview, the logic was often questionable, but the feeling of uplift was undeniable,” says Mark Stewart of The Pop Group. “Going to sound systems and witnessing that yearning for a better world, that questioning of the system, it made my hairs stand up on end.”
In the winter of 1979/80, post-punk was cresting at a peak of creativity with a series of classic albums that fused experimental reach with relative accessibility. In the NME‘s end-of-1979 writers’ poll, the Top Five included Talking Heads’ Fear Of Music, Public Image Limited’s Metal Box, Unknown Pleasures and Entertainment!; albums by The Slits, Raincoats, Swell Maps, The Fall, Pere Ubu and Wire featured prominently further down. But, almost by definition, peaks precede plummets. Post-punk engineered its own downfall, with visionary albums like Unknown Pleasures and Metal Box inevitably inspiring a rash of copyists.
Released in November 1979, Metal Box was the realisation of PiL’s big talk of anti-rockism – not just sonically, with its ‘death disco’ rhythms and radically anti-traditional guitarwork, but in terms of its packaging. A tin canister containing three 12-inch singles, Metal Box successfully deconstructed ‘the Album’ by encouraging the listener to listen to tracks in any order, while the 12 inches’ superior sound quality plugged listeners into the spacious, bass-intensified aesthetics of dub and funk.
The problem of following up this landmark paralysed PiL. “Keith Levene had this thing of ‘I’m not going to play anything that’s ever been played before’,” recalls Vivien Goldman. “Talk about hubris!” Metal Box had seen Levene dabbling increasingly with synths, and soon he was talking about abandoning guitar altogether. But 1980 was swallowed up with severe creative constipation. Paris Au Printemps – that most rockist of things, a live album – was released as a stopgap.
But although the yawning gap between what PiL preached (not being a band but a communications corporation, with grand plans to produce movie soundtracks, video albums, etc) and the fuck-all they actually achieved was becoming starkly apparent, they remained the media’s sacred cow. So when Flowers Of Romance finally came out in April 1981, it was routinely hailed as another revolution.
Drugs played their part in PiL’s downfall. “I spent a fair bit of time in the Lydon bunker at that time and it really was Last Days Of Berlin stuff,” recalls Penman. “Shadowy unnamed geezers wrapping up parcels of speed the size of DeLillo’s Underworld.”
The great dissensions that convulsed UK rock culture all through the 1979-1981 period (post-punk vanguard versus Oi! versus ska/2 Tone) represented a struggle over punk’s demographic spoils: the vast reservoirs of idealism and energy mobilised during 1976-77. In 1981, as the PiL-style vanguard got more abstruse, basic punk rock surged massively in several flavours: Oi!, anarcho, US hardcore. The indie charts were flooded with new names like Vice Squad, Zounds, GBH, Discharge, Anti-Pasti, Chron-Gen, Flux Of Pink Indians.
If the ‘punk’s not dead’ resurgence horrified most music journalists, they were almost as dismayed by the emergence of a post-PiL/Joy Division/Banshees orthodoxy of doom’n’gloom: groups like Killing Joke, Bauhaus, The Cure. By 1980, Futurama, the Leeds two-day post-punk festival that had debuted in September 1979, was starting to be perceived as a sort of angst-rock Castle Donington, its flocks of overcoat-clad, grim-faced boys as uniform as the denim hordes that followed Iron Maiden.
In January 1981, Rough Trade and NME teamed up to celebrate the first five years of the indie revolution with the cassette compilation C81, an absolute snip at £1.50 for 24 tracks and a line-up including Pere Ubu, Cabaret Voltaire, Subway Sect, The Raincoats and Robert Wyatt. Thirty thousand people sent off for it.
Yet despite this success, C81 was in many ways post-punk’s swansong. Several of the featured artists had already broken ranks and were talking up ‘pop’ as the way ahead. Orange Juice, Aztec Camera and Josef K represented Postcard, with founder Alan Horne ranting in NME about the defeatist “hippie attitude” of the “brown rice independents” and declared “music should always aim for the widest possible market”. C81 opened with the gorgeous lover’s rock of Scritti’s ‘The “Sweetest Girl”‘: Green trading in ultra-cerebral difficulty for the ‘new pop’ creed of accessibility, ambition and shiny surfaces.
By mid-1981, UK rock culture decisively shifted towards new pop’s strategy of ‘entryism’ – using the major label system rather than building an alternative. This was one of the great trans-valuations in British rock history, in some ways even more drastic than the revolution of 1977 (which was at least partly couched as a return to lost rock’n’roll values). You can see the onset of the new value system by the words that crept into reviews and interviews, voiced by critics and musicians alike: “preaching to the converted”, “dull and worthy”, relentless imagery of stagnation and wallowing in misery. Sonic mannerisms that had seemed charmingly quirky or inspiringly amateur now indicated a deplorable dearth of ambition.
Scritti’s Green presented his conversion to pop as a return to health. On tour with Gang Of Four, Green collapsed with what was either a heart problem or a massive anxiety attack Spending most of 1980 recuperating in Wales, he wrote a book’s worth of notes to his band, theorising a new soul-funk direction for Scritti’s music, and re-emerged bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with songs like ‘Faithless’.
In the magazine interviews that followed, Green repudiated Scritti’s collectivist ideals and disclosed that it was he who’d run the show musically all along. He publicly criticised his label Rough Trade for frittering their money on “silly music” (meaning Pere Ubu and Red Krayola) instead of focusing their-efforts on getting Scritti into the charts. And he scorned the idea of DIY and anyone-can-do-it.
Other artists and critics agreed with Green that it was time for a return to quality control, the hierarchy of gifted stars over talentless non-entities. If ambition was now a virtue, there was nothing to stop artists embracing the major label star system. Scritti, Cabaret Voltaire, DAF, even Throbbing Gristle (now called Psychic TV) all signed with majors.
Post-punk’s demystification and agit-prop was suddenly out of fashion. The Pop Group approach – 1979’s ‘We Are All Prostitutes’ single and 1980’s For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? album – was panned as a self-flagellating guilt-trip, a new puritanism. Perhaps people had just got tired of hearing the bad news. There was an inevitable swing back to glamour, escapism, fun.
Both ‘new pop’ and the proto-goth tendency of groups like Bauhaus represented a return to mystique, romance, the irrational. The “overwhelming sobriety” (Greil Marcus) of bands like Gang Of Four – “a sobriety that excludes not laughter but romanticism” – had been a necessary purge of cliché-encrusted rock tradition. But demystification kinda took the mystery out of everything. And whether it was ABC’s ambivalent embrace of love’s lexicon, or goth’s patchouli’n’Crowley, 1982 saw the return of that old (black) magic again.
Post-punk, says Penman, was “post-everything, really…except, oddly, sincerity. Everyone was brittle with it.” New pop and goth abandoned this core quest for the authentic and revived glam’s dream of self-reinvention. Along with the belief in authenticity, another casualty was post-punk’s modernist confidence that you could make an absolute break with the past. With huge swathes of potential influence strictly off-limits (almost all of the Sixties and early Seventies), post-punk groups constructed distinctive sounds for themselves out of what was left: Velvets, Beefheart, Krautrock, contemporary sounds like disco and dub.
By contrast, new pop was properly postmodern, jumbling up Sixties Motown, Seventies glam, Eighties synth-pop; goth mashed up The Doors, T-Rex, Alice Cooper’s guignol shock-rock. Soon came the deluge of retro culture and ‘record collection rock’ that holds sway to this day, with its cancers of irony and reference points.
When trying to pinpoint what was so painfully exciting about this three-year phase of British music, 1979/80/81, I always circle back to the idea that, as great as the music sounded, what really counted was that pop wasn’t a compartmentalised category set off from the rest of reality; music was about more than other music. For instance, knowing that PiL loved Can doesn’t really tell you much about Metal Box. Is this because the post-punkers had so much else on their minds – inputs and obsessions from politics to film to literature?
Sometimes, inevitably, this meant the intensity was embedded less in the music itself than the surrounding conversation. This might be post-punk’s cardinal flaw, the reason for its ‘failure’ – the ‘all mouth, no trousers’ syndrome echoed by such inheritors of post-punk’s excessive ambition as Huggy Bear and the Manic Street Preachers.
Nowadays, you have the opposite problem: bands where the sonic substance might be undeniable, but there’s no Great Idea behind the enterprise (so what is it really worth?). In the post-punk period, there was so much cultural electricity in the air that even the era’s unrealised experiments and failed pretentiousness seem more suggestive, more cherishable, than today’s perfected product.
© Simon Reynolds, Uncut, December 2001