The Essential: Post-Punk
Inspired by punk’s energy, but frustrated with the movement’s inability to expand beyond rock’s traditional three-chord clichés, the post-punk bands we cover here were committed to exploring new sonic territories. Gary Tipp goes on a voyage of discovery…
Punk may have kicked down the door on the excesses of the mainstream-rock establishment, but it was the creative torrent of music that followed in the movement’s wake that just might be its greatest legacy.
Post-punk is the retrospective term used to define this glorious outburst, and while the spirit of punk undoubtedly lived on in the music that was made after it fizzled out, the new bands were imbued with the fresh spirit of adventure and experimentalism to discover new avenues and create original sounds – ultimately, to finish off the work that punk had started.
Part of the job description was to keep twisting the knife into the body of rock’s stricken dinosaurs. But while punk’s strength lay in its embracing of a DIY attitude that confidently proclaimed anybody could start a band, where it disappointed was its innate inability to go beyond rock’s clichéd three-chord fundamentals. With its fondness for 50s music and rock ’n’ roll, in many ways, punk was happy to peer over its shoulder into the past for inspiration. The music the post-punks created may at times be challenging, but to their credit, there was never any looking back. Post-punk artists experimented freely within a variety of sonic territories, including dub, funk, krautrock, electronica, free jazz and even disco. They also gleaned ideas from art, literature, philosophy and politics.
The post-punk vanguard was led by a bunch of old punks anyway. John Lydon left the Sex Pistols’ circus to form PiL; Wire went from angry punks to art-rockers over the course of two albums; while Howard Devoto left the Buzzcocks to form Magazine when the punk scene had barely begun; many trailblazing bands, such as The Slits, Gang Of Four, The Pop Group, Joy Division and Siouxsie And The Banshees wouldn’t have formed at all, had it not been for punk.
These bands were followed closely by a second generation and, subsequently, the development of post-punk sub-genres: with new groups nailing colours to movements as diverse as goth (The Cure), industrial (Throbbing Gristle), avant-funk (A Certain Ratio), neo-psychedelia (Echo & The Bunnymen), No Wave (James Chance & The Contortions) and many others.
With this natural proliferation, post-punk could be defined just as easily as an era rather than a specific genre in itself.
For this countdown, we’ve selected 40 albums that span from 1977 through to 1983, when the scene began to fracture beyond any meaningful recognition; but not before the path had been laid for the New Pop movement and the indie/alt-rock scenes to follow. These days, bands are still labelled as post-punk. However, this loose definition has come to mean, in the main, bands with angular, choppy guitars that have listened to Gang Of Four’s seminal Entertainment one too many times.
Q: Are We Not Men?
A: We Are Devo!
The Ohio oddballs’ first and best album was produced by Brian Eno at Conny Plank’s Studio in Cologne with additional co-production from David Bowie. Pressed on various colours of vinyl on release (yellow, blue, red, green, pink, purple, grey and orange), it features all the early hits, including Jocko Homo and the severely deconstructed (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.
Beat Rhythm News
Essential Logic (1979)
Lora Logic was the squawking sax player in X-Ray Spex before a clash of egos sent her packing. She re-emerged with a group of her own and was promptly signed to Rough Trade, home of the band’s only album. Later, Logic turned her back on music and joined a Hare Krishna sect with former bandmate Poly Styrene.
Legendary US post-punk band Pylon formed at the University Of Georgia and were one of the earliest acts on the Athens scene that later produced the B-52’s and an indebted R.E.M. The band’s rhythmic take on the spare, angular pop coming out of the UK earned them a great live reputation and spawned a danceable debut that had a huge influence on what was to follow.
What’s The Matter Boy?
Vic Godard & Subway Sect (1980)
On the scene from the very start, Subway Sect were on the bill at the legendary 100 Club Punk Festival in 1976, along with the Pistols and The Clash. Line-up changes meant the debut album didn’t appear until 1980 and, by then, the ever-contrary Vic Godard had dropped punk for an inspired collection of 50s beat.
Swell Maps (1979)
Formed by brothers Epic Soundtracks and Nikki Sudden (aka Kevin and Adrian Godfrey), punk’s DIY spirit was alive and kicking on Swell Maps’ shambolically discordant debut. Also present was the pure essence of experimentation, with Can providing a sonic touchstone. The brothers also cited children’s TV show Stingray as an important influence.
Girls At Our Best! (1981)
Girls At Our Best! emerged from the Leeds punk scene in 1979 and the band’s one and only LP, Pleasure, is an effervescent post-punk pop delight. Aside from the well-crafted pop songs, much of the group’s appeal came from singer Judy Evans’ piping vocals that provided a distinctive counterpoint to the rumble and thrash behind her.
Killing Joke (1980)
Dave Grohl’s favourite band, Killing Joke were possessed of a harder edge than the other post-punk acts of the era. No less innovative, no less arty, Killing Joke’s urgent in-your-face metal sound and intense vocals were to prove hugely influential on generations of grunge to come. These days, frontman Jaz Coleman is an award-winning classical composer.
The Monochrome Set (1982)
The Monochrome Set were the jokers in post-punk’s pack and provided an archly cheery antidote to the genre’s gravitational pull towards the sombre and serious. Eligible Bachelors is a witty, bright and breezy collection of sophisticated retro-pop songs and includes impossibly catchy favourites The Jet Set Junta and Fun For All The Family. Joy Division, they were not.
Empires And Dance
Simple Minds (1980)
Before the stadium tours and brat-pack movie soundtracks Simple Minds were industrious post-punks searching for fresh directions. Empires And Dance and, specifically lead 45, I Travel, saw them look towards Europe and an electro-dance sound not a million miles off of Giorgio Moroder. It was a far cry from Jim Kerr’s first band, the none-more-punky Johnny And The Self Abusers.
Josef K (1981)
Named after Franz Kafka’s persecuted protagonist, the existential Scots only managed one studio album in their short-lived, seemingly angst-ridden lifespan. Released on the legendary Postcard label, The Only Fun In Town’s scratchily radiant guitars and yelping vocals deliver a deceptively melodic, enjoyable and stupidly influential collection of tinny white-boy post-punk funk.
The Associates (1982)
For their major-label debut, The Associates created a lush mix of post-punk modernism and arty synth-pop. United by a love of Bowie, Billy MacKenzie’s soaring vocals and oblique lyrics were the perfect foil for Alan Rankine’s florid sonic experimentation. Sulk even yielded a couple of chart hits, including the jangling piano of the wonderful Party Fears Two.
The Durutti Column (1980)
A spell as guitarist in Manchester punk-group Ed Banger And The Nosebleeds wasn’t exactly the ideal showcase for Vini Reilly’s experimental jazz-classical playing style. In contrast, The Durutti Column were the perfect platform for his singular talent. The first press of the album came complete with the Situation-inspired sandpaper sleeve and a flexidisc.
The Birthday Party (1982)
Named after the Harold Pinter play, Aussie post-punks The Birthday Party dealt largely in carnage, chaos and comedy of the darkest hue. With Nick Cave’s demonic vocals competing to be heard above a menacing and feral swamp of primitive rhythm and blues, Junkyard proved to be the band’s crowning glory.
Edinburgh’s Scars are the great long-lost band of post-punk and Author! Author! one of its buried treasures. Fêted as the Next (Fairly) Big Thing and a John Peel favourite, the Scots disappeared as quickly as they arrived, in a puff of conflicting egos – leaving behind them nothing more than the glam-art statement of their glorious debut album.
The Cure (1980)
With the inclusion of three strong early 45s (Killing An Arab, Jumping Someone Else’s Train and the lachrymose title track), The Cure’s 1980 American vinyl debut was to all intents a repackaged and superior version of the band’s first UK LP (Three Imaginary Boys). It was finally afforded a UK release in 1983.
From The Lion’s Mouth
The Sound (1981)
Caught in the shadow of Joy Division and label-mates Echo & The Bunnymen, post-punk nearly-men The Sound never managed to catch a big break. Why exactly remains a mystery, as the band’s second album, From The Lion’s Mouth, is a matchless collection of hooky, atmospheric neo-pop songs.
A Certain Ratio (1982)
Taking their name from a Brian Eno lyric (The True Wheel), Manchester post-punk outfit A Certain Ratio would fill the floors of indie discos with their mutated art-dance rhythms. With elements of jazz, disco, slap-bass funk and even samba, Sextet is their finest moment – with the classic track Knife Slits Water its percussive centrepiece.
Scritti Politti (1982)
The sophisticated blue-eyed post-punk of Songs To Remember was a far cry from the band’s scruffy, low-key punk origins. Yet if ever there was someone to take you on such a journey, it was the fiercely intelligent Green Gartside, a man with the ability to chat with Jacques Derrida and pray like Aretha Franklin.
Au Pairs (1981)
With its bitingly acerbic take on sexuality, gender and politics, the Au Pairs’ powerful debut album is a largely forgotten post-punk classic. Hailing from Birmingham, the band took their sonic signals from Gang Of Four and X-Ray Spex, but the politics were all their own. Standout tracks include It’s Obvious and David Bowie cover Repetition.
The Raincoats (1981)
The Raincoats’ steadfast rejection of what had come before saw the band rail against the usual song structures and, as a consequence, Odyshape is a liberated jumble of free-form arrangements. This stance also meant not pandering to rock’s traditional guitar–bass–drums axis, and all sorts of instrumental exotica, including the balophone and shruti box, appear.
Orange Juice (1982)
Turned off by punk’s macho posturing, Orange Juice, led by Edwyn Collins, were a fey and sardonic bunch with a clutch of neat influences (The Byrds, Chic, The Velvet Underground) and a cool stash of charity-shop sunglasses. The dolphin-friendly debut near enough marks the birth of indie and remains a pure and ramshackle joy.
Throbbing Gristle (1979)
The nihilistic synth-shockers reined in the industrial-noise excesses of previous albums and replaced them with the fractured strains of nastily mutated electro-pop. Stealing an album title from Level 42, the sleeve presents a normcore version of the band posing close to the edge of the notorious Beachy Head suicide spot.
This Heat (1981)
Occupying the strange hinterland where prog rock meets post-punk, This Heat created a distinctive breed of industrial electronica. Deceit, the band’s second and final album, is now regarded as a post-punk classic, though very few people bought it at the time. The band occupied a disused refrigerated storeroom at an abandoned meat-pie factory to record the album.
The Teardrop Explodes (1980)
Arch Drood in waiting, Julian Cope was the lysergic lynchpin of one of the key groups to arise from Liverpool’s neo-psychedelia scene of the late 70s. Augmented by a horn section and loaded with killer pop songs, their mountainous debut is an off-kilter slice of post-punk heaven. Bold and brassy hit single Reward appeared on reissued versions of the album.
Mission of Burma (1982)
Boston’s preppy-punksters were huge anglophiles, and the band’s abrasive experimentalism owes a sonic debt to Wire and early PIL. Vs., MOB’s first studio album, was an intelligent combination of extreme noise and alluring melody. Sadly, their career was nipped in the bud by guitarist Roger Miller’s severe problems with tinnitus, exacerbated by the ridiculous volume of their live shows.
Echo & The Bunnymen (1980)
The sparse neo-psychedelic sound of the Bunnymen’s debut album established them as the cool poster boys of the UK post-punk scene. Ian McCulloch’s masterly Morrison-esque vocals and Will Sergeant’s inventive guitar combine to deliver a statement of grand intent. This was the starting point for 80s indie rock: sadly, some group called U2 stole the template and ran off with it.
Cabaret Voltaire (1981)
With a blanket of industrial white noise and cut-up tape experiments, the first two Cabaret Voltaire albums broke new ground, but were fragåmented affairs. Drenched in a pervading sense of paranoia and unease, the missing sense of cohesion was added to studio album number three – and Red Mecca remains the Cabs’ early defining statement.
The Modern Dance
Pere Ubu (1978)
Pere Ubu’s own singular brand of post-punk gleefully mixed garage rock with arty experimentation to produce a glorious avant-garde racket. The first track, Non-alignment Pact, opens with a disconcerting high-pitch screech before morphing into something akin to an early Chuck Berry 45, and it is this artful, genre-warping subversion that renders the album a thing of wonder.
Siouxsie and the Banshees (1978)
Following on from non-album track Hong Kong Garden, The Scream is a landmark album in the history of post-punk. With a collection of songs inspired by the heavyweight literary touchstones of William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard, the Banshees’ atmospheric debut was a million miles away from the deliberate artlessness of punk.
The Fall (1980)
Mark E Smith, the hip priest of Prestwich, was always far too sharp and gobby to be limited by punk’s confines. Backed by the band’s trademark fractured ‘country ’n’ northern’ sound, Grotesque provides the ideal canvas for Smith and his witheringly caustic wit to put the boot into all he surveys. It was the band’s third album and first masterpiece.
The restless Howard Devoto left the Buzzcocks to form Magazine before punk had really begun. The post-punk early adopters were responsible for one of the genre’s defining 45s, Shot By Both Sides, before their debut album hit the racks. With echoes of early Roxy Music, Real Life possessed a fully realised intellectual depth and swagger.
The Pop Group (1979)
The Pop Group took punk’s raw energy and bunged it into a blender along with dub, free-jazz, funk and tribal rhythms. The result was served up on debut Y, a landmark of post-punk at its most experimental, challenging and primal. Needless to say, the album sold sod all, and the band were dropped swiftly by their record label.
Debut album Pink Flag witnessed the skinny art-school boys masquerading as angry punks; but for the follow-up, Chairs Missing, the façade was dropped and the band’s inventiveness was allowed to flourish. The resulting work is a trailblazing slice of post-punk genius, with a couple of Wire’s poppier moments, I Am The Fly and Outdoor Miner, leaping joyously to the fore.
The Slits (1979)
The Slits were part of punk’s inner coterie, mates with the Pistols and The Clash, but that didn’t mean they wanted to sound like them. Drawn naturally to reggae-inflected rhythms, the band teamed up with dub producer Dennis Bovell to create the compelling and utterly distinctive Cut. Avant-garde then, it’s still ahead of its time.
Talking Heads (1979)
Bursting with big ideas and fresh directions, the Brian Eno co-produced third album is a post-punk classic. From the African rhythms of opener I Zimbra to the trippy puzzlement of closer Drugs, the band’s horizons are broadened and the possibilities endless. Those days touring Europe supporting the Ramones must’ve seemed a long time ago.
Young Marble Giants (1980)
Young Marble Giants’ spare, simplistic sound was the antithesis of punk’s amplified aggression, and the Cardiff trio’s one and only album is a truly distinctive work of haunting, magical genius. It remains one of post-punk’s true masterpieces. Kurt Cobain was a fan and labelled it one of the five most influential records he had ever heard.
A pioneering post-punk masterpiece, Television’s debut album couldn’t have been further removed from New York’s 1-2-3-4 punk scene of the day. Central to the piece was the intricate guitar interplay between Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, particularly on the monumental 9.58 title track. Its sway over future generations of alt-rock bands is beyond measure.
Gang Of Four (1979)
Adhering strictly to a manifesto of ‘no corny lyrics, no obvious melodies and no change of key’, Gang Of Four were the quintessential UK post-punk band. Fiercely anti-rock, the angular punk-funk on debut album Entertainment! was a calculated rejection of what had gone before. It remains the perfect post-punk artefact.
With its challenging cocktail of Can-inspired krautrock, heavy dub basslines and experimental chaos, PIL’s second album stretched post-punk’s boundaries into unforgiving and previously unexplored sonic territory. John Lydon later claimed the album was largely improvised on the fly, because all the money for studio production had been spent on the metal canister that housed the record.
Joy Division (1979)
Joy Division were inspired to form after seeing the Sex Pistols, but the band’s sound quickly evolved away from their punk roots. Unknown Pleasures, their astonishing debut, is post-punk’s superlative moment, with maverick producer Martin Hannett creating the perfect sonic landscape for Ian Curtis’ elegiac songs. Peter Saville’s iconic duotone sleeve rounds off the job nicely.
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