A Post-Punk Primer

Eight essential debuts from extremely influential bands

by Will Vunderink, editor

Midway through the 1970s, the Beatles had come and gone, the once-mighty—yet criminally underrated—Kinks had begun their downward slide into inane concept albums, and the huge tide of sixties folk music had abated. Classic rock and disco reigned while punk’s popularity skyrocketed, and many people were (understandably) disillusioned by these facts. Classic rock could be grand and ambitious but also undeniably masturbatory (see: Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin), disco was polished and soulless (see: any disco group), and while punk was a breath of fresh air to some, it was too simplistic in both message and musical content to be meaningful to most. In the midst of all of this, a new movement in music—not entirely cohesive in nature, and not easily definable (it wasn’t even given a name until 1980)—emerged.

Beginning in 1977 and flourishing until 1984, post-punk was a denial of classic rock and disco and a reworking of punk ideals. It took the defiant attitude of punk music and married it to more introspective and experimental songwriting, placed more emphasis on the drums and bass, and presented a new approach to guitar playing. Rather than a clearly delineated genre, post-punk represents a transition—it was an experimental, highly creative movement that went in many directions and ultimately made possible the defining genre of the eighties and nineties: alternative rock.

I’ve picked out eight innovative post-punk debut albums for discussion in this article, some adhering more to the quintessential characteristics of the genre than others, to represent the wide spectrum of post-punk. It has influenced a huge amount of the music made since the mid-eighties, and anyone who has listened to anything even remotely resembling rock, indie, or alternative in the last twenty-five years owes it to themselves to hear these albums and become familiar with these bands.

TelevisionMarquee Moon (Feb. 1977)

Many critics and fans regard this as the first real post-punk record. Television came out of New York’s punk scene, centered on the infamous, now-closed venue CBGB’s, alongside Talking Heads, Blondie, and the Ramones. Call them what you will—punk, art-rock, post-punk, or alternative—their music signaled the beginning of a major shift from the classic rock of the seventies toward a new medium. Their long, complex songs borrowed somewhat from the swagger of classic rock, but their unique guitar lines and solos and their compositions’ technicality led the way for post-punk. And, holy shit, listen to those lines…If you have any respect for the electric guitar—forget that,  if you know what the electric guitar is—you need to hear this album.

Talking Heads Talking Heads: 77 (Sept. 1977)

While anyone could accurately refer to the music from Talking Heads’ early period as art-punk or new wave, it’s impossible to say that their first two albums didn’t have a major effect on post-punk. Quirkier than Television (or any other band on this list, for that matter), the music on Talking Heads’ first album is more stripped down than their later work, but full to the brim with melodic ideas and clean, staccato guitar riffs. Unlike the drawn-out melodies and sinuous guitar lines running through Television’s extended compositions, here Talking Heads are almost spastic in their composition, though always held in check by simple, four-on-the-floor drumming and assertive yet restrained bass lines. Used primarily to keep time in most classic rock, the rhythm section became absolutely essential for post-punk. Talking Heads understood its importance, and that understanding informed a large amount of the music that emerged in the following years. Though their best album didn’t come until 1980, with Remain In Light, this unique, audacious debut deservedly made a lasting impact on the music world.

Wire Pink Flag (Dec. 1977)

Wire’s first album sounds a lot more like the music we generally think of as “punk” than the rest of the albums covered here. The songs are shorter (with six of them clocking in at under a minute), the guitars are messy and overdriven, the chord progressions and melodies are simple, and the singer sounds like a properly snotty, devil-may-care punk-rock Brit. Some of these songs are straight up pop and some of them are raucous punk workouts; the best—the reasons for Wire’s lasting influence and importance—are both. Their next two albums toned down the punk in favor of cleaner guitars and more experimental composition and instrumentation, arguably only getting better; Wire’s first three albums (released ’77, ’78, and ’79) are three of the most vital albums of the era.

Joy DivisionUnknown Pleasures (June 1979)

Joy Division’s minimalist post-punk was just as much about atmosphere as it was about actual songs; that they and Talking Heads fall under the same category shows how hard it is to pin down exactly what post-punk is. They slowed down the tempo from their punk-rock early days to churn out dark, brooding, introspective, minimalist and seriously depressing songs that placed them among the most influential bands ever. Unknown Pleasures established Joy Division as a force at the end of the seventies, and the suicide of singer Ian Curtis in 1980 only added to the strange mystique and cultish status of the band; their second and final album, Closer, and their biggest single, “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” were released after Curtis’s death. (The remaining members of Joy Division went on to form the ridiculously popular and exceedingly danceable hit-making machine known as New Order.)  Joy Division’s moody atmospherics were the main catalyst for the gothic rock scene that emerged in the eighties (The Cure, Bauhaus, Dead Can Dance) and their music influenced many of the “alternative” bands of the era (U2, R.E.M.) as well. You can hear the band’s influence perhaps too overtly today in the modern bastardized post-punk of bands like Interpol and Editors, demonstrating the lasting allure of Joy Division’s dark minimalism.

Gang of FourEntertainment! (Sept. 1979)

Gang of Four’s debut, though it wasn’t released until 1979, stands as the quintessential, genre-defining album for post-punk. This British band took the raw energy of punk and mixed it with pissed-off, socially-conscious lyrics about war, Marxist theory, capitalism, greed, class issues and sex, removed any concept of the chord-based song (which ruled classic rock and, more basically, punk music), turned up the mutant-funk bass, and morphed the guitar into a grating, minimalist riffmaker. Even more than for Talking Heads, the rhythm section rules this music: it’s seriously funky, forceful, and epileptically danceable. Also, anyone who talks about “angular” guitar-playing is talking about the legacy of this album; Andy Gill is by no account a great guitarist, and certainly not a technical or suave player but, good lord, does he play with conviction. His simple, aggressive lines cut like a knife. Like Television, Gang of Four never topped their debut. But when a debut is this distinctive and revolutionary, that’s not such a bad thing.

Echo & the BunnymenCrocodiles (July 1980)

Echo & the Bunnymen, though not as raw as Gang of Four or Wire and not as dark as Joy Division, found a happy medium between these extremes on their debut. “Happy” may be a misleading word, though; this album plays like a dark, surreal dream sequence. But unlike the agonizingly deep pits of sorrow that Joy Division laid onto tape, the music on Crocodiles is life-affirming in that it’s all just a dream, not a state of being. Echo & the Bunnymen could be brooding and moody, but they also had an ear for pop; each album they released in the eighties produced at least two brilliant, polished singles. And unlike any other band on this list, the Bunnymen’s singer, Ian McCulloch, is downright bombastic—confident in a way none of these other leading men were. The band released a very solid string of albums through 1987, and all are worth a listen.

The SmithsThe Smiths (Feb. 1984)

Many people express a certain sort of disbelief when I say the Smiths are one of my favorite bands, which basically boils down to the idea that the Smiths were a group of soft, hopeless romantics—the guys who could never get the girls and, instead of doing anything about it, moped. This is, to a limited extent, true; plenty of Morrissey’s lyrics are about love, lust, or a lack thereof, but they’re filled with sexual ambiguity, sarcasm and cynicism, too. He’s winking at us in more ways than one when he sings lines like these, from “Pretty Girls Make Graves”: She wants it now, and she will not wait / But she’s too rough and I’m too delicate / Then, on the sand another man, he takes her hand / A smile lights up her stupid face and, well, it would / I’ve lost my faith in womanhood. But besides the lyrics, what makes the Smiths a great and important band is their guitar work. Johnny Marr practically overflows their songs with nimble, impressively melodic guitar lines that interact beautifully with Andy Rourke’s prominent bass lines. Many of these are fairly simple, chord-based songs, but you wouldn’t know it from the way Marr weaves melodies, complex arpeggios, and flourishes through their verses and choruses. His playing is a refutation of everything that punk stood for. The Smiths is not their best album—that would be a tossup between 1985’s Meat Is Murder and 1986’s The Queen Is Dead—but it’s an extremely solid debut that contains some of their best songs.

The Jesus & Mary ChainPsychocandy (Nov. 1985)

The Jesus & Mary Chain’s ethos (at least on their debut album) was far more punk than most of the bands on this list, but nobody would call them a punk band. Their approach was to write childishly simple songs—three or four chords, verse-chorus-verse-chorus, etc.—with catchy, sixties-pop-influenced melodies, and then cover everything with a grating, aggressive blanket of noise and excessive reverb. The electric guitars are hardly recognizable as such; they’re more white-noise buzz saws than melodic instruments. Many consider Psychocandy to be one of the first shoegaze albums, presaging the late-eighties and early-nineties movement led by bands like My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Slowdive that favored woozy, effects-laden guitars and airy vocals. Psychocandy is a landmark in record production—nobody had dared to make an album that sounded like this before—and one of the most important albums of all time.

 

In the interest of brevity and of presenting a wide range of post-punk music I’ve left out some very important bands—the Fall, Public Image Limited, Essential Logic, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Pere Ubu, Mission of Burma—that were fundamental to the genre’s growth. And since post-punk’s heyday, certain bands have continued the genre and pushed it in new directions without simply aping it; Minutemen, Drive Like Jehu, the Dismemberment Plan, Fugazi, Love Is All, and Les Savy Fav all come to mind. If you like any of the bands mentioned in this article, I’d recommend getting familiar with (as in: listening nonstop to) the rest as well. The genre is alive and well, producing some of the most interesting music today, and its rich history comprises some of the most influential and respected music of the 20th century.

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3 Comments

Filed under Generation, Review

3 responses to “A Post-Punk Primer

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  3. Fignuts

    The Smiths are a pop band (and a good one), shoulda went with The Fall instead, the best post-punk band imo (though they kind of transcended it too).

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