When Britain Went Postal: a Post-Punk Survey

The Big Bang
Few would have predicted that the Sex Pistols' first gig—in November 1975, at the Saint Martin's School of Art in central London—would 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 music—music 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 debate—just like the music. (The whatabout question will be raised of bands included or left out—eg, should Siouxsie and the Banshees be in, or were they actually punk—and 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 classic—as 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.

320punk.slits

The Slits supported the Clash on their 1977 White Riot tour. Cut, their debut—released the same year as Metal Box—is 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 followed—as would the fact that here was a band of intelligent women playing exciting music.

320punk.buzzcocks

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).

320punk.magazinecorrect

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.

320punk.wirechairmissing

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.

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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.
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
brians's picture

more stereophile readers need to wreck their expensive speakers listening to the fall. “I closed my eyes and immediately the walls of the room melted away to a much larger space. Mark E. Smith sounded amazingly real and present taking a piss all over my hand-woven Afghan rug. Gobsmacking!

Valboo's picture

Not including Siouxsie and the Banshees is lazy journalism at best. so there isn't any need to read your article apart looking at the sleeves present. One suggestion though, the post should be renamed as "I have talked about only the bands I like and the ones I don't are not post-punk to me".
One wonder why you don't give the same treatment for Buzzcocks or the Slits and for the record, Buzzcocks is a punk, there's anything slightly post-punk with them because the production on the records is one dimensional, there isn't any research about the space, echo, distance. For journalists who don't have the background to talk about a genre, one may suggest to read Clinton Heylin's "BaBylon's burning" or Simon Goddard who considered the Banshees' debut album as one of the three albums that laid the foundations of dark angular post-punk along with Magazine's and PiL's. Maybe reading articles on the "Mojo" magazine website won't be a luxuary either.

davip's picture

...uninformed at best. Including Buzzcocks in a piece on post-punk is as silly as leaving The Stranglers and Cardiacs out of that piece. Genres may or may not be fluid, but this is a selection of little merit when it excludes such bands. This reviewer would do his readers a better service by forgetting pigeonholing and considering the best of the UK punk and post-punk music -- to include the two foregoing artists, plus The Ruts and The Members.

You could rewrite this whole piece just be listening to 'On Land and In the Sea' by Cardiacs first. In fact, you should.

Jim Austin's picture

you'll see that the Buzzcocks really aren't intended to be on the list. They are merely the band Devoto was in before Magazine. This was made confusing by a formatting error: Buzzcocks were bolded and shouldn't have been. I have now removed the boldface.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

funambulistic's picture

While I love articles like this because music/movements as such are near and dear to my heart (as was Ken's article on EDM, BTW) and am elated Stereophile would even post something like this, leaving Siouxsie & the Banshees off of the list (granted, they were mentioned twice in passing) is just... well, wrong.

Also, not to put too fine a point on it (thought writing this certainly qualifies as such) Siouxsie Sioux and her cohorts were about as Punk as punk can be (the act of forming a band on the spot to fill a vacated festival slot and having Sid himself on drums speaks volumes) at first. Its was upon the release of their first album that the term "Post Punk" was first applied. Only later was the "Goth" descriptive loosely applied (more by fans than anything else) and were never really part of the "New Wave " scene aside from pioneering some of the sounds.

But I get it - this is Phil's list, not mine or anyone else's on this particular site!

supamark's picture

Siousie Souix and her Banshee crew are more known as New Wave/(proto-)goth than post punk. Considering the bands that got album covers posted were lesser known bands (vs. bands like Joy Division or Echo and the Bunnymen) I'm thinking part of the point of the article is to inform about the less well known bands.

I will agree about one thing - putting the Buzzcocks on the list is a bit of a headscratcher. Cabaret Voltaire would have been a much better mention (and I'd say a much bigger whiff than Siouxie), even though they were mainly known for their industrial and dance music output.

Valboo's picture

More known by whom, are you American, from which generation ? I've always heard/read they were post-punk; all the music historians Clinton Heylin, Mojo Magazine, Simon Goddard, The Times present them as one of the pioneers of post-punk. You must not be one of their listeners and have a record of them to misspell Siouxsie's name in such a mess at every sentence.

Jim Austin's picture

>>I will agree about one thing - putting the Buzzcocks on the list is a bit of a headscratcher

If you read carefully, you'll see that Buzzcocks really were not intended to be listed as post-punk. They're just the punk band Devoto was in before Magazine. I've altered the formatting to make this more clear.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

funambulistic's picture

I actually did read the article and understood the intent. Love that Buzzcocks cover though! Actually their compilation Singles Going Steady has one of my favorite album cover photos of all time: simple and to the point - four lads in the studio making simple and to the point music!

Jim Austin's picture

I always loved A Different Kind of Tension. Slightly pretentious, nihilistic lyrics appealed to the teenage me--and still do!

It's the aim of existence
To offer resistance
To the flow of time.

Everything is, and
That is why it is
Will be the line.

I've got all the answers!

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

ssorg's picture

reading this and feeling bummed out because I'm skipping out on seeing Wire tonight in NYC out of coronapanic.

Great music... love Metal Box and Flower of Romance.

downunderman's picture

If so, an honorary UK post punk band might include Pere Ubu

rskuras's picture

....have always been personal favorites, and it's refreshing to see that they are stilling getting positive feedback after all these years. Seems like in the past they took a backseat to other 70s-80s bands that sold more units, but over the last decade or so they have come into their own and are getting the recognition they deserve. Ian and Will still tour all the time and I have seen them for maybe the last five years in a row. Even flew to London a couple years ago to catch a show at the Royal St. Albert Hall. I saw Calexico recently and they covered "Bring on the Dancing Horses".

kg1973's picture

Good list. Although The Normal probably don't merit to be on your list, they did release one of the best Post-Punk singles of the "genre" - "Warm Leatherette"

Also, not sure if your list was exclusive to the UK but Nick Cave and The Birthday Party probably could have been included.

johnnythunder's picture

from Tony Wilson of Factory Records. Punk was "F You!" to society and Post-punk was usually an "I'm F-d" as in an existential howl and sadder look inward. Darker, introspective and more angular even when married with dance rhythms. Branching into synths and drum machines vs. the largely standard hard rock and roll make-up of original punk itself. Punk is about speed. Post punk/goth is mood. Goth is perhaps the purest extension direct line spin off from post punk like WIRE (their first Pink Flag is undiluted post punk. Their second Chairs Missing starts getting darker and gothier in outlook.) SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES - def angular post punk. THE CURE - poppy post punk that heads into Goth. All early goth like SISTERS OF MERCY owes everything to JOY DIVISION perhaps the most influential and greatest band of that era both lyrically and musically. DAVID BOWIE'S influence LOOMS LARGE here - his LOW and Iggy Pop's THE IDIOT echo profoundly into goth and post punk. BAUHAUS - grab the darkness by the throat and mix the ambi-sexual glam elements from Bowie and T Rex. Howard Devoto's and Colin Newman's solo records both angular and moody. No one has mentioned THE CHAMELEONS who really are a mix of so many post-punk tendancies. THE DAMNED - morph seamlessly from punk to gothy poppy punk (but never with the genius of the first few records and singles.) Gosh, lots of thought starters here...feel free to add thoughts about this amazing genre of music.

Graham Luke's picture

I think it was at the Roxy club where I went to see the Slits with Tessa Pollitt's sister Kate and her friend Jane.
The band played Typical Girls twice to the delight of the crowd; having grown up with The Stones and The Doors, I had never seen anything like it.
After the gig, we visited the dressing-room where I cowered near the back wall, totally intimidated by Ari Up's massive energy and personality.
Her mum Nora was there. Nora went on to marry one John Lydon.
I am so pleased you mentioned the Slits, Phil. My younger brother was playing the drums with Flesh For Lulu at the time and they were quite awesome live too.

AaronGarrett's picture

I thought this was great, especially including the Au Pairs. I do agree that a lot of this isn't really post-punk, it's the people who started bands right after the Sex Pistols. I think of post-punk as Pil, Joy DIvision and a lot of (great) American stuff like Mission of Burma.But its complicated to make it linear because Pere Ubu are a sort of simultaneous phenomenon as is Throbbing Gristle, and many others.

I agree with the above poster that everyone should play the Fall on their fancy systems. Hex Enduction Hour is the finest album IMHO since Tago Mago.

FattyAcid's picture

Please see this site for the most in-depth analysis on the term post-punk out there:

http://www.sweetpeareview.com/sweets11.html

Kempff's picture

A Trip to Marineville definitely belongs here -- it's one of the greats.

And Scritti Politti are mentioned in a footnote but not in the article itself. Their early stuff, especially the sublime "Skank Bloc Bologna," is about as Post-Punk as it gets.

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