POSTPUNK THEN AND NOW: TOTALLY WIRED SPIN-OFF PIECE
director's cut, Arena, March 2009
by Simon Reynolds
Every decade has its retro twin. The Seventies looked back wistfully to the Fifties. By the Eighties the focus of revivalism had shifted to the 1960s. And in the past decade it's been the turn of the 1980s themselves to enter the retro spotlight, with young groups pillaging ideas and imagery from New Romanticism's foppish synth-pop and from postpunk's angst and angularity.
Yes, there's a pattern here, a recurring twenty year interval, but there's more going on: each decade relates to its precursor era through the "opposites attract" syndrome, with the earlier epoch supplying whatever the present lacks.
So in the early Seventies, when rock had matured and grown pompous, become riddled with complexity and addled by subtlety, there emerged a hunger for the teenage kicks and raw energy of Fifties rock 'n' roll, the innocence of a time when pop was organized around jukebox 45s and pulsating pelvies rather than concept albums and pensively furrowed brows. Hence glam 'n' glitter's invocations of rock 'n'roll, hence movies and TV shows like Grease and Happy Days, hence even punk, whose its chief ideologist Malcolm McLaren started out flogging crepe jackets and brothel creeperd to Teddy Boy revivalists and whose #2 icon Sid Vicious scored his biggest hits posthumously with Eddie Cochran covers.
In the Eighties, similarly, the rock underground rejected the slick synthetic pop synonomous with yuppie materialism and embraced the bohemia and bliss of the 1960s, a semi-conscious dissident gesture against Thatcher-Reagan, who abhorred that decade and tried to roll back its gains. Hence the Jesus and Mary Chain's resurrection of Velvet Underground noise, hence TheSmiths and REM borrowing of the Byrds's jangly guitars, hence the nouveau psychedelia of My Bloody Valentine and acid house.
But hang on a minute: if the Eighties were so barren, why on earth would the coolest bands of the Noughties even look there for inspiration like they've been doing for most of this decade? In truth, today's sharp sound-operators aren't interested in Eighties mainstream fare--Madonna, Springsteen, Pet Shop Boys, U2, not even Prince. It's a different Eighties, an earlier Eighties, that enthralls them: the postpunk period, whose prime phase of ambition and daring was concentrated in the five year stretch from 1979 to 1983. This Other Eighties spawned artists as singular as Talking Heads, Joy Division, Human League, The Specials, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Devo, plus genres as fertile and enduring as synthpop, industrial, and Goth.
The romance that the postpunk Eighties holds for today's young musicians makes perfect sense. After all, we've been living through a pop era of unparalleled and almost unrelieved vapidity, the UK charts dominated equally by assembly-line idol-pop and its supposed "alternative", an indie-rock whose modesty of ambition and plainness of sound betray everything that "independent music" ever represented.
In comparison, the early Eighties must seem like a lost golden age of innovation and heroic pretentiousness. Catalysed into existence by punk, those bands felt a moral imperative to be as interesting as they could possibly be, and accordingly ransacked ideas from not just the esoteric crevices of left-field music history but from modernist literature and art (especially Futurism and Dada), cinema and radical theater, philosophy and political theory. It was an art-into-pop movement, even with those groups, like the Fall or Joy Division, who didn't actually go to art school, as so many postpunks had. But the word "pop" was equally important as "art": inspired by the sociocultural shock waves that rippled outwards from the chart-topping impact of the Sex Pistols, these groups also wanted to reach as many people as possible. They weren't interested in sequestering themselves in some experimentalist backwater; they wanted to shake up the state of pop. And a surprising number of postpunks pulled it off. All kinds of really improbable people became stars, oddballs who didn't look like obvious hit parade material, who in some cases (Kevin Rowland, Edwyn Collins) could barely sing.
So many bright minds and sharp concepts buzzed through the highly competitive corridors of postpunk culture that you could get a contact high from reading the NME in those days. The very tempo of the time had a speedy sensation: that's why I borrowed The Fall song title "Totally Wired" for my new book of postpunk interviews and overviews. So it's totally understandable why the idealism and ideas-ism of that time would be inspirational to aspiring young bands in the Noughties.
But there's an in-built contradiction to harking back to postpunk that most of the first wave of these bands--Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, Futurehead, Interpol, et al--stumbled over, namely that Postpunk Principle #1 is "Thou Shalt Not Hark Back". Adamantly opposed to nostalgia, postpunk was utterly committed to the modernist ethos. So the extent to which a contemporary group actually sounds like a specific postpunk ancestor--Franz with their discernible debts to Scots outfits Orange Juice and Josef K, The Rapture emulating Gang of Four's guitar sound--is a measure of their failure to live up to what postpunk stood for.
Who gets it right, then? Various enclaves of musical activity today seem to me to resurrect the spirit, rather than substance, of the postpunk era. One key hallmark of that period was the bands's passionate engagement with the cutting edges of contemporary black music--in those days dub reggae, funk, disco--and their attempts to assimilate and mutate its innovations in rhythm and production, mood and expression. That often entailed a willingness to embrace the potential of the latest technology: in those days, drum machines and synthesizers, but also the new studio arts of dub versioning and remixing.
In New York and Brooklyn right now there is a vibrant milieu of bands who are idiosyncratic but share a common approach, what you might call "ecstatic/experimental": their music has a tribal, ritualistic, literally entrancing feel, colliding folky and world-music influences with electronic textures and programmed rhythms influenced by techno. Animal Collective are the godfathers of this scene, but equally worthy of your attention are High Places, a male/female duo who weave child-like vocals through their delicate clatter of undulating percussion, and Gang Gang Dance, whose remarkable Saint Dymphna album featured high in many critics polls at the close of 2008.
In some ways Gang Gang Dance are successors to No Wave, downtown Manhattan's postpunk scene of the late Seventies. Two of the group even live in the same area, the Lower East Side, where groups like the Contortions and Teenage Jesus dwelled back in the day (although it's now far less scuzzy and dangerous, of course). No Wave's ranks were full of artistic polymaths: from painters like Basquiat to film directors-to-be like Jarmusch, just about every creative in town had a band. Likewise Gang Gang Dance's Liz Bougatsos and Brian DeGraw are both accomplished visual artists, while the group actually performed in the 2008 Biennial at the Whitney Museum. Apart from the occasional eruption of weird noise and Bougatsos's unconventional approach to singing, Gang Gang Dance don’t really resemble the fabulously uncompromising No Wave outfits, though. Their future-primitive sound teems with off-kilter but intoxicating rhythms, ornamental flourishes and an aura of exoticism that's hard to source in specific ethno-musical sources. They recall, without precisely sounding like, the "4th World" fantasia of David Byrne/Brian Eno's My Life In the Bush of Ghosts and David Sylvian/ Ryuichi Sakomoto's "Bamboo Houses".
But what really echoes the postpunk mindset is Gang Gang Dance's keen interest in the latest black dance rhythms. On Dymphna they've clearly been listening to grime and dubstep, and overtly signal their respect by featuring MC-ing from London pirate radio veteran Tinchy Strider on one track. This is truer to what Liquid Liquid and ESG did back in the day than those Noughties neo-postpunk outfits who went back to that specific Eighties punk-funk sound rather than coming up with a brand-new hybrid using ideas from modern hip hop or dancehall reggae.
Few people would connect Gang Gang Dance and Vampire Weekend, another New York/Brooklyn band who did splendidly in the end-of-year polls. But to me they are just as much about reactivating postpunk principles. In their music you hear intermittent echoes of that era: the clean guitar lines and transparent structures of early Talking Heads, The Beat's rhythmic exuberance, the just-brushed freshness of Orange Juice. But more telling is their open-eared curiosity about the world beyond the convention-hardened borders of indie rock, from hip hop to West African guitarpop to reggaeton, all of which is absorbed and mutated in their music in an unforced, natural-feeling, and wonderfully refreshing manner.
Another postpunk hallmark is Vampire Weekend's emphasis on control, both aesthetic (they produced their own album, ultimately electing to put out their demos) and in business terms (unusually, they own their recordings). There's a consciousness and attention to detail about every aspect of what they do, from the music and lyrics to the record design and the band's self-presentation that seems very much in the postpunk tradition, and this conceptual approach has resulted in accusations of calculation and cold-blooded detachment being hurled their way just like David Byrne received back in the day. But they're just being true to their well-read, cosmopolitan, historically-savvy Ivy League selves. Originally launched in part as an investigation of the preppy aesthetic, Vampire Weekend's founding principles included the edict that no member of the band would ever appear onstage or in photographs wearing a T-shirt! That rejection of indie-slacker scruffiness recalls the "we oppose all rock'n'roll" stance of postpunk outfits like Subway Sect.
Lest you surmise that postpunk's inheritors are all clustered in one city on the North East coast of America, I'll conclude with some praise for the U.K. British postpunk was partly defined by its special feeling for reggae, with groups like the Pop Group and Public Image Ltd drawing on its heavy roots rhythms , disorienting dub production, and apocalyptic aura of spiritual militancy. Today the legacy of British bohemia's veneration for Jamaica lives on with dubstep. If the core scene is largely concerned with "bangers", tunes with the bass-weight to mash up the dancefloor, the more art-minded periphery of dubstep has unleashed a series of albums that work wonderfully well as home-listening: Burial's self-titled debut and Mercury-nominated sequel Untrue, The Bug's London Zoo, and Dusk + Blackdown's Margins Music. All four are records about London that evoke its tension and dread while simultaneously celebrating the capital as a hub city in what the theorist Paul Gilroy called "The Black Atlantic", a port metropolis enriched by the criss-crossing musical traffic between America, the Caribbean, and the U.K.
The Bug is Kevin Martin, a veteran musical extremist old enough to have had his life changed by Public Image Ltd's Metal Box. Anointed the Best Album of 2008 by The Wire magazine, London Zoo combines that postpunk tradition of headfuck dub--the lineage from from PiL to Massive Attack via Adrian Sherwood's On U Sound System--with contemporary dancehall riddims and guest vocals from an assortment of ragga and grime MCs.
Like London Zoo, Dusk + Blackdown's debut album is an essay about London as a dark city and a black city. Blackdown is the sonic alter-ego of Martin Clark, a well-respected journalist whose beat is the city's pirate radio culture, while the title Margins Music refers to the less well-known zones of the metropolis, those ethnic and working class enclaves poorly served by the London Underground but which are the well-springs of London underground music.
Dusk + Blackdown work with a larger canvas and more sensuous sound-palette than The Bug, taking in not just the perennial Jamaican influence but the many other immigrant flavours that enrich the capital, infusing their music with samples from the Indian sub-continent, Africa, and the Far East. I doubt that postpunk means much to Dusk + Blackdown, who are products of Nineties rave culture if anything. But with its "Fourth World" merger of computerized rhythms and exotic folk instrumentation, its unabashed conceptualism and hybrid ambition, Margins Music strikes me as very much in the postpunk spirit: it's a modern-day equivalent to 23 Skidoo's Urban Gamelan… My Life In the (Shepherd's) Bush of Ghosts.
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