Friday, 3 May 2013

Post-mortem: An introduction to post-punk Pt. 1

On the website of hotly-tipped London band Savages, a manifesto of sorts has been posted, stating that the band 'is not trying to give you something you didn't have already, it is calling within yourself something you buried ages you the urge to experience your life differently, your girlfriends, your husbands, your jobs, your erotic life and the place music occupies in your life.'

That 'something' buried could be the movement of post-punk, exhumed and reanimated once again by Savages, the latest revivalists of a genre seemingly immune from death. As four women, Savages have inevitably been pigeonholed as a feminist appropriation of the post-punk sound, and indeed, although it's never overtly politicised, their music does seek to carve out provocative new areas of expression for women (violence and abuse, sexual fulfilment) within what has typically been a male-dominated scene.

But on a broader level, post-punk has always been geared towards this objective of redefining the parameters of popular music and the life of the populace. Following hot on the heels of the punk explosion, an eruption driven by undirected anger and apathy, which quickly congealed into an increasingly conservative, borderline fascist slew of homogenous three-chord rock songs, the post-punk acts would distance themselves by adopting much more intellectual and deconstructionist personas.

To mark the release of Savages' debut album, Silence Yourself, and for those yet to start exploring this fertile genre, here are eleven key songs from the formative post-punk period charting its restless and dynamic mutations:

1. Heartbeat - Wire, Chairs Missing 1978

Many cite John Lydon's (formerly Johnny Rotten) Public Image Ltd as the first post-punk band, but Wire would seem to make a better case for the title. Before the Sex Pistols had imploded, they were already making wildly inventive, abstract rock. Their overriding interest in the way simple, even primitive forms of effects-heavy guitar music can be twisted into strange, otherworldly shapes, almost like aural sculpture, is a very definitive trait of post-punk, and it's nowhere more apparent than in this brilliantly conceived track from their sophomore album.     

2. Public Image - Public Image Ltd, Public Image: First Issue Dec 1978

But we mustn't forget Public Image Ltd. It's a shame that John Lydon is best known to the public for the Sex Pistols, when his second band, and labour of love, PiL marks the more visionary and innovative period in his career. Their first single, Public Image, is cited by many other post-punk luminaries as the song that inspired them to start writing radically new music. Although the influence of punk is still very apparent in Lydon's keening delivery and bitter, confrontational lyrics, there are hints of the post-punk sounds to come in the expansive, echoing drumming and propulsive guitar riff. PiL would go on to write much more avant-garde and bleak stuff on their second album, Metal Box, and even experiment with the material, consumerist aspects of music delivery by releasing their vinyl record inside a (you guessed it) metallic container, but they were never more exciting than on their very first cut.

3. Natural's Not In It - Gang Of Four, Entertainment! Sep 1979

Leeds university graduates Gang of Four demonstrated just how wide-ranging and unashamedly smart the post-punk sphere could be. Incorporating elements of black music into their sound, particularly the writhing bass and guitar of funk, and merging them with distorted, fragmented squalls of feedback and vocalist Jon King's near-hysterical (and very, very white) voice, they helped give birth to the schizophrenic new sub-genre of dance-punk. The danceability of many of their tracks sits intriguingly at odds with the political content, the band filtering the usual topics of love, sex, and good times through their Marxism-informed viewpoint in order to expose the hollowness and superficiality of late 20th century life.

4. Transmission - Joy Division Nov 1979 

For many, Joy Division are the defining post-punk group and one of the greatest bands in British music history. In their early days, they were a fairly unremarkable act, their wings clipped by their unaccomplished musicianship. But under the musical guidance of producer Martin Hannett, they soared. More so than anyone else in the history of post-punk so far, Hannett emphasised space in the band's recordings. On a typical Joy Division song, the instruments - the metronomic drumming, the sparse, ringing guitar - and Ian Curtis' ageless voice sound as if they're performing miles apart from one another, brilliantly conveying Curtis' lyrical preoccupations of isolation, helplessness and despair. For me, the single Transmission is the pinnacle of this extraordinary band's unique magic.

5. Arabian Knights - Siouxsie and the Banshees, Ju Ju July 1981

Described by The Guardian as a 'pop marvel', the single Arabian Knights perhaps marks the moment at which post-punk began to flirt outrageously with the mainstream. The pounding drums and high-pitched guitars place the song squarely within the post-punk camp, but there's a much more pronounced adherence to the conventions of pop music, especially the huge singalong chorus. And then there's Siouxsie Sioux herself, one of the first pivotal female figures in post-punk history. Her flamboyantly macabre, theatrical dress sense and androgynous, operatic vocals would prove hugely influential on both the Goth and new wave movements. This is pretty much a perfect song.

6. Paper Hats - This Heat, Deceit 1981

If post-punk was drifting towards the dancefloor, it was also disappearing into ever-more obscure side alleys. Recorded in a cold storage facility by three multi-instrumentalists, the Deceit album is perhaps the most challenging, stark and uncompromising record in post-punk. There are almost no concessions to popular taste at all, with most of the tracks violently smashing together different musical styles and employing sudden, wrenching changes in tempo and rhythm. Evoking the contemporary threat of nuclear war and the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the album effectively conveys the turmoil and mounting dread of 20th century history, and is an undeniably difficult, but rewarding listen. Paper Hats, with its visceral force and mesmerising, krautrock-influenced ending, is the standout track.