Sunday, 5 May 2013

Post-mortem: An introduction to post-punk Pt.2

7. Moody (Spaced Out) - ESG, Come Away With ESG 1983

Crossing the Atlantic, we find that the post-punk scene has been just as vibrant up until now in the more cosmopolitan centres of the United States, particularly New York. Less inclined towards the highbrow experimentation rife in the UK, bands such as Blondie, Devo, and later REM would soften post-punk's angular excesses by incorporating influences from disco, glam rock, and folk, and go on to achieve, in some cases, enormous commercial success.

On the other hand, before giving way to a more mainstream sensibility, Talking Heads (under the aegis of the great forerunner of post-punk, Brian Eno) would become the definitive art rock band by annexing the musical landscapes of North and South Africa in order to beef up songwriter David Byrne's jittery poems of global anxiety and alienation. Less happily, they also unintentionally perpetuated other artists' bad habit of smothering exotic instrumentation over their own records in a lazy attempt at earning broadsheet credibility.

But I've picked a song by ESG, because they're a mostly overlooked act from the same period, who unselfconsciously contributed to the same profound shift in American post-punk towards music that was first and foremost fun. The Scroggins sisters, an African-American family living in the South Bronx, formed ESG in the late 70s and used the minimalist sound of post-punk, coupled with the polyrhythms similarly explored by Talking Heads, to make a brand new type of dance music. The jumpy, jovial nature of their songs vividly evoke a downtown New York neighbourhood on a hot summer's day (or night) - the carefree children, spraying fire hydrants, and sexual pheromones in the air. Without ESG, it's fair to say that there wouldn't have been the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

8. How Soon Is Now? - The Smiths, Meat is Murder Jan 1985

'I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does.' So goes Morrissey's typically piercing refrain on one of The Smith's most enduring songs. If Ian Curtis was post-punk's first great frontman, an exposed nerve of devastatingly unguarded and almost otherworldly vulnerability, then Morrissey (full name Steven Patrick Morrissey) was the second. Unlike Curtis, he represented a more relatable figure, even if many of us would seek to deny the Morrissey that lives inside us all: the loneliness we can conceal with barbed remarks and affectation, and the moments when the dam breaks and we burst forth in embarrassing emotional candour. Although their sound would for the most part quickly leave many of the more readily identifiable traits of post-punk behind, on 'How Soon Is Now?' The Smith's wrote a quintessential example of the genre. Johnny Marr's unstable, careering guitar always puts me in mind of the drunken stumble home after a night out through early morning city streets, with Morrissey as that little voice in your head running over the evening, its furtive gains and disappointments. 'So you go and you stand on your own, and you leave on your own, and you go home and you cry, and you want to die.' Amen to that.

9. I Am Damo Suzuki - The Fall, This Nation's Saving Grace Sep 1985

The hubris of the title of The Fall's ninth album is typical of its frontman and only consistent member, Mark E Smith. Ever since the Manchester band's insolent swagger onto the musical radar in 1976, Smith had used the thrilling and relentless, repetition-heavy assaults of the music as a podium from which to vent his own misanthropic ego, and rail hilariously against perceived idiocies of society, fashion, and the state. Smith is still soldiering on, with 30 studio albums under his belt, and a trail of jettisoned band line-ups in his wake, but This Nation's Saving Grace will probably always remain his finest hour, laden as it is with infectious riffs and manic yet controlled energy. The late, great head of Factory Records, Tony Wilson, once called Smith 'attitude personified' and it's a label nowhere better illustrated than on 'I Am Damo Suzuki', where his distinctively venomous voice is reinforced by the sinister guitar and pounding, tribal drums, seemingly ringing a death knell for the whole of Britain. It is awe-inspiring, and like all of The Fall's 80s work at least, well worth surrendering to.

10. The Sprawl - Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation 1988

Back in the States, the more avant-garde impulses within post-punk had evolved into noise rock, which kept the deconstructive possibilities opened up by its precedents, whilst amplifying the potential for ear-bleeding forays into dissonance, atonality and mercilessly loud performances. Hearkening back to the pioneering work of Wire, outfits like Big Black, Swans and Sonic Youth disregarded stale traditions of songwriting in favour of digging into the abstract textures of noise that could be created with the standard rock band set-up. Sonic Youth would go on to achieve the most lasting impact and success within this movement. These art-school brats' interrogation of consumerism and gender politics, and brittle, intellectual persona would have a huge influence on the emerging genres of alternative and indie rock. Their double album opus, Daydream Nation, from which 'The Sprawl' is taken, is now often regarded as one of the keystones in late 20th century music, marking the moment when rock music turned in upon itself and unravelled its own inner workings.

11. Pictures of You - The Cure, Disintegration 1989

Fittingly, this whistle-stop tour of post-punk ends with its ascendancy to the mainstream and the globally successful. As a band estimated to have sold approximately 27 million albums, The Cure demonstrate that post-punk's vibrant re-envisioning of popular music, and more complex engagements with emotional material, were never meant just for art circles, but for everyone.

In the early noughties, a brief post-punk revival saw bands like Franz Ferdinand and Interpol suddenly exposing this forgotten golden age to the light of day. The movement didn't last long: too immersed in the past, it died from a lack of fresh creative oxygen. Perhaps Savages can revive it for longer this time, but to do so they must remember that post-punk was never so much about a particular, well-worn sound as a fearless, undying belief in the paramount importance of daring concepts and innovative ideas.