It didn’t last long but it made a noise that still echoes today. After disco and punk started waning in the late ’70s, and before new romantic and synth-pop started ruling the airwaves in the early ’80s, a clutch of unaligned British bands were pushing musical boundaries. They called it post-punk.
Along with Joy Division, Public Image Ltd, the Fall and Siouxsie and the Banshees, two bands that are always name-checked in the post-punk pantheon are Wire and Gang of Four. Both are still a going concern, both are still releasing albums and both will tour Australia soon.
The most difficult thing about discussing post-punk with bands from the post-punk era is the fact that many of them deny post-punk existed.
“Is that punks that you got in the post?” jokes Wire frontman Colin Newman when asked for his definition. “But seriously, I think it’s really ill-defined what post-punk is. The people who were called post-punk were not sitting around in the post-punk hangout saying, ‘Hey guys, let’s invent post-punk and take over the world’.”
Maybe not, but there’s a fair case to be made that post-punk has had a much bigger influence on modern rock music than punk itself. It’s hard to imagine the Strokes, Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party existing without it. Kurt Cobain once claimed that Nirvana started out as a Gang of Four rip-off. Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Futureheads were such fans that both groups hired the band’s guitarist Andy Gill to produce their debut albums. Wire’s influence has been acknowledged by everyone from R.E.M. to Blur.
So, what exactly was this thing called post-punk?
“Post-punk is less a set of musical parameters and more a set of imperatives, towards innovation, constant change, experimentation and confronting the listener,” says English music writer Simon Reynolds, who published Rip It Up and Start Again, the definitive book on the subject, in 2005. “There’s also a kind of anti-rock ‘n’ roll, anti-tradition thing going on, a desire to jettison as much of the past as possible and create sounds without precedent.”
Ironically, for a movement with the word punk in its title, not many of the post-punk bands were fans of punk. “British punk rock itself was not that interesting or that good musically,” Newman says. “But the space that punk created allowed a bunch of other people to come through who made music that didn’t really sound anything like punk.”
Gill, who co-founded Gang of Four in Leeds in 1977, feels the same way. “Punk was this great explosion of energy, but musically, it didn’t really excite me,” he says. “But clearly what all these bands that came afterwards were doing, including Gang of Four, couldn’t have happened quite the same way without punk. It was an opening of the door.”
For Gill and his band, it was funk, ska and dub reggae that provided musical inspiration, along with the intense energy and direct attack of London pub rockers/punk precursors Dr Feelgood.
Newman says the initial impetus for Wire was that “we didn’t like music that was long and boring, so our reaction was to make music that was short and less boring. And no solos … not that anybody could play solos anyway.”
What the two bands had in common was an aesthetic. They emphasised minimalism and severity in their sound and looked to past cultural movements such as dada, surrealism and situationism to comment on everything from consumerism to politics to human relationships.
The original post-punk bands may have little desire to be seen as members of the post-punk club, but Gill is finally at peace with the label. “Gang of Four were called quite a few things at the time, some printable and some not,” he says. “If someone called us punk, we’d say, ‘no, that’s wrong’. If people called us new wave, it set our teeth on edge, because it grouped us in with Huey Lewis and the News. I think in the end we just threw our arms up in the air and gave up on what we were meant to be.
“Looking back, I suppose the term post-punk is as good as any. It’s literally what came after punk. And we did.”
Wire play the Oxford Art Factory on February 20; Gang of Four play the Metro Theatre on March 20.
via The long shadow.