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Over the Wall – #1

March 31, 2009

The first edition of the other Tuesday column! This one is a survey of post-punk, ’78-88, and is a written supplement to a radio show I did for a couple of years. Each edition will be a look at certain bands or sounds and how they fit into the era. This first edition, however, is a sort of primer for the column, just some thoughts on the period and how I’m approaching it.

Edition #1 – Attempt at a Definition: Punk and What Came After.

To begin, some words about an era and the focus of this column. Let’s look at the term post-punk before we go any further. It’s a broad term, when taken into consideration, that includes many different, often unrelated, groups making music in different parts of the world. It is a term which, itself, contains numerous sub-classifications, relating to artists that had nothing apparent to do with one another. Trying to define when and what post-punk was and what it meant is difficult because we’re dealing with a period in music that saw a remarkable amount of change and innovation, in a number of streams. Is post-punk simply new wave? Partially, vice-versa, yes. It also incorporates several other cultural currents though, and cannot be reduced to any one particular place, or set of bands or sounds. Nor can it be construed as a genre-identifier, as is sometimes the way it’s seen today, used to describe certain sounds that hearken back to the beginning of the ’80s, as though post-punk was a genre back then, rather than something much larger.

So, where to begin?

How about the first Ramones album. That’s where a whole lot of people began in 1975-76. It’s a vital record, for a number of reasons, and, along with the effects of Malcolm McLaren’s cultural provocation in England, it comprises, to a great extent, the formula of what, by 1977, was known as punk. This is a simplification, of course, but the story of punk has been told a million times already, and is not really our focus here anyway, so let’s simply say that by 1978, punk had happened, its influence had spread like wildfire, but the initial burst was dissipating. What came next, in one direction, was commodification and parroting. In the other direction, innovation.

The shift:

Punk, although rooted in artistic theory and practice, has often been construed as a decidedly non-artistic current, concerned more with action, spectacle, and reaction than with stated artistic pursuit. Stagnation came quickly as punk’s reputation grew, however, as what was and was not punk became increasingly definable by a set of signifiers, established by both media and participants. Experimentation, as it happened, was not one of those signifiers. So came about a shift in consciousness, after which perceived notions of punk purity and artistic pursuit became increasingly separate. The gate that was flung open in 1976 could never be closed again, but by (and since) 1978, some artists and audiences were content simply to stand at the threshold of said gate, uncertain, unconcerned, of where music after punk could go. Others, though, soon realised there was more to it than a couple of chord changes, lock-step and fuck you, and wanted to go further. Punk had succeeded in a liberating of pop culture, in changing the nature of participation. Punk’s gift was revaluation. Its curse, though, was narrowness.

So what, if anything, then, do the disparate genres that comprise the post-punk landscape have in relation to one another? Above all else, the same cultural explosion as a starting point. Punk was an encounter with art, a great revaluation of sensibilities and notions of the functioning, role, and execution of pop music, after which, everything was changed. But the issue became what to do with it. And that is what this column will be looking at.

The forks:

So why the chosen dating of this column? What particular significance does the decade between 1978-1988 have? Simply, that this decade contains the primary expression of post-punk, as framed by two important forks in the path of pop music. The first of these being the aforementioned shift in consciousness regarding punk and its application, and the other is a shift in the musical landscape toward the end of the eighties. One effect thereof being the surfacing of theretofore underground music into the mainstream. This, of course, finds its eventual apex in the year that punk broke, and the emergence of alternative as a mainstream phenomenon. The other direction of this late-eighties shift was the further expression of post-punk sentiment in what came to be known as post-hardcore and post-rock. These are matters for another time (they could, in fact, be whole columns unto themselves), but they signify, more or less, the evolution of the initial post-punk wave into other forms and point to a new course emerging. Just for a bit of perspective: Daydream Nation came out in 1988, along with Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden; as did the first Fugazi record and the first recording by Nirvana.

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So, this is the primer by which the column will be starting from. Future editions will be focused on certain bands, or particular styles or sounds. But for some further information, check out:

Don Letts’ 2005 documentary Punk: Attitude. A documentary primarily concerned with punk, but one that gives a bit more attention to what happened after 1977, both in Europe and America, featuring a number of noteworthy figures in interview.

Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 (Penguin, 2006). Simon Reynolds’ survey of the era, an essential text for anyone interested in this subject. Covers both America and Europe, with great information about numerous bands.

Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Underground 1981-1991 (Little, Brown & Company, 2002). Michael Azzerad’s survey of American indie through 13 definitive bands between the eras of hardcore and grunge. Good insight on the American perspective throughout the eighties.

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