Punks in the Post

A 9-volume, 12-hour investigation, ever further into the post-punk era.

Post-punk is not a single sound. The telescoping view of history has a tendency to be reductive, but in truth it was one the most unruly and fertile periods of creativity in rock history. We certainly haven't seen anything like it since.

As it's often told, punk rock happened as a blast of anarchy. When you really look at its content, the rebellion was mostly attitudinal. The music was rudimentary garage rock. Templates that had been around since the 60s were now played badly, by ugly blokes, with shitty voices. It's fashion was transgressive, but also conformist. There was a way to dress punk. There were loads of other rules: what you could play, and how; who you could associate with; what politics to hold and how to express them.

At the height of their hype, the Sex Pistols mounted an abortive tour of the UK. It's said that 10 bands sprang up in the wake of every show they managed to play. Just as quickly as they so rudely took the world of rock by storm, the Sex Pistols disappeared ignobly. They released a solitary, compromised record on a major label . Afterwards, they toured the US, where they imploded like any dinosaur act you care to mention: in a pile of drugs and unchecked ego.

I'm too young and too American to say what effect this had on the scene back home, but you have to imagine a strong sense of disillusionment. By the time all those bands, inspired by the Sex Pistols, could string 3 chords together, their idols were denuded. The dual forces of market and tradtion proved too powerful to overcome. The response was swift and startling.

What came next was unhinged, unstructured and unsanctioned. This is the era where what we understand as an independent label today was born. For the first time in modern pop history, the fashion got away of the the gatekeepers of the marketplace. This is where the rules of what was cool, let alone what a pop song or rock music could even be, got thrown out the window.

There seems to be no unifying quality in post-punk other than striving beyond your own limits and imposed constraints. From this era of experimentation was born what we know as new wave, goth, dance punk, and industrial and a fistful of other well-known sub-genres. None of them were known by those names at the time. Only after scenes coalesced around these artists, years later, would they began to get cleaved off from their post-punk origins.

Take Bauhaus, now known as the godfathers of goth. Goth wasn't a thing in 1978. Listen to Bela Lugosi's Dead again: it's a strikingly bizarre song. It has a beating heart of dub reggae. A gigantic bass riff in the foreground and echoing rimshots from the drums prop up reverbed vocals moaning over tuneless guitar scrapings. Structurally, it's a mantra—doing away with the verse-chorus-verse format almost entirely. It drones on, seemingly forever. By the time goth was a proper style, this sort of foundation shaking would be tantamount to heresy

Another reason to assess post-punk as an era rather than a sound is it's worldwide reach—less a scene and more a zeitgeist. There are post-punk era bands from communist Poland that fit in perfectly with the UK progenitors. There's post-punk entries from Ohio, Japan and Australia. 

This also means that the scene is astoundingly deep. Sure, the top-shelf bands—Gang of Four, the Slits, Joy Division, the Fall—still reign supreme, but if you dig down to the 4th and 5th tier or beyond, you still find great songs—even bands whose entire catalogs are worth obsessing over.

This series of podcasts grew to be far longer and far more important to me than originally intended. It traces back to the very beginning of my podcasting, when I was recycling mix-cd's. It maps my discovering more about post-punk than I'd known of or heard before. So it charts, from beginning to end, my growing skills as a compiler, editor and curator, as well as my knowledge, depth and access to an ever deeper well of obscure music.

There were a few ground rules to each episode: 
I didn't want to repeat any bands (with two exceptions, I'll get to later). I would allow individuals to reappear, as long as they were in different bands. So many of the post-punk artists were prolific collaborators. The Pop Group, for example, released a small amount of material under that name, but each member of the band went on to piles of other projects, all of which helped steer and shape the scene.

Every episode would include The Fall and Sonic Youth. These were the reigning, continually operating titans of the original era. Both continued to reach ever further, even after decades of envelope pushing.

As the series was coming to a close I wanted to dedicate one episode all to female led groups. Even though there's no shortage of stories belying a wealth of discrimination or sexism within the scene, the post-punk era still managed to be a massive stride forward for feminist rock. It included more female led bands than just about any time before it. Scant few of them were just hood ornaments: they led their bands, and the groups themselves often featured female instrumentalists (still a rarity in late-70s rock).

Agonizing over the final episode, I wanted it to act as a proper capstone to the project, the rules for it only multiplied. Every song on the mix had to include a musician or group who had appeared previously in the series. Except, it couldn't be just a different track from the same album that had appeared before. I wanted to give equal time to the touchstones of post-punk as well as the painfully obscure. I wanted an emphasis on out-of-print and hard-to-find tracks. Lastly the Sonic Youth and Fall entries had to be covers. (Perversely, I found a bootleg of a Peel Session, where Sonic Youth covered the Fall).

In total, this became the largest, most focused single project I've ever completed. All told it spanned 7 years of researching, digging and assembling. The final episode still stands as the greatest compilation I have ever managed to make.

As you burrow into this series, follow me deeper into one of the greatest rabbit holes of rock to yet come about. I hope you take some time to check out some—if not all—of it. As you do, marvel at how unchecked and unfettered post-punk really was.