Ten albums to get your post punk obsession started.
Let me ask you a question. What do you get when you combine the punk concepts of giving things a go and expressing your ideas with a greater amount of experimentation? The answer would be post punk. The belief that this genre only took place in the wake of the Punk movement would be a mistake however. The bands under this category did not form after Johnny Rotten uttered ‘Ever got the feeling you have been cheated?’ Many of them were formed at the same time as the more recognised punk bands and developed alongside them.
There was a sense that it had holed itself into a corner though. The attitude and confrontational style that it had employed to counteract the tedium of seventies arena bands was needed at the beginning but more and more wanted to broaden the feel of it. Post punk aimed to add shading to the dayglo canvas. The influences that had been pushed aside and rejected by punk, was beginning to be used more. Art became less of a forbidden concept as bands incorporated a sonic and emotional sensitivity into their music. Guitars were less buzz-saw and more jerky, bass-lines drew in funk and dance influences and vocalists had more texture. That is not to say that they lacked passion or anger like the other punks. They just presented it in a different way.
The period from 1978 to around 1984 saw the movement at its best. It allowed for the development and inspiration for the indie, alternative, britpop movements that followed in its wake. It can still make itself heard in many new bands today. With all of this in mind, here is my choice for the top ten albums of post punk. This is not in order though.
1. Gang of Four – Entertainment!
It is a love album. If your idea of love involves relationships being a contract that forces people out of obligation to be with each other, the emotion being portrayed like a contagious disease, the need to find something permanent in an oppressive world and being able to return a partner to where they came from in exchange for a refund. Not quite The Bee Gees. The band, named after a break away section of the Chinese communist party, displayed a fierce political grounding.
If the band had delivered these set of ideals over a plodding backdrop, they would have been a mere footnote in history. Thankfully, thank was not the case. A love of trans-Atlantic punk and funk elements combined to make an album that was as invigorating for the mind as it was for the feet. Jon King put himself straight into confessional lyrics that were repeated over themselves, Andy Gill fought against his instinct to transit guitar lines that were anti-blues, Dave Allen dropped bass lines that were catchy and tough and Hugo Burnham’s snare tops off the feel perfectly.
The band had formed over a bond of early seventies blues bands like Free and tougher latter day pre-punk bands such as Dr. Feelgood and Eddie and the Hot Rods. This when combined with bands from across the water, made them such an invigorating prospect. The Leeds quartet held back, neither in their lyrics, nor their live shows. This was demonstrated by some blistering John Peel sessions.
Follow up album, ‘Solid Gold’, was equally as abrasive. The band saw the begin of a change in their makeup which eventually led to their dissolution. Their reunion in the early naughties for festival dates helped bring about a new legion of fans. They had been brought in by the likes of Franz Ferdinand borrowing their sound. Today, Gill still continues under the band’s name.
2. Killing Joke – Killing Joke
It is actually difficult to listen to this album now in today’s musical world. The band have been so copied and replicated, that they almost seem like a tribute act to another band. Bands have done cover versions that fans might perceive to be originals of theirs. And when asked as to the self-titled Killing Joke album, some might point to the 2003 version, famous for containing David Grohl. So important was their influence.
It doesn’t sound like any other band that you would know on first listening. The band members were living in a squat at the time and doing a heroic amount of narcotics. It certainly sounds like a collecting jamming away in some dingy squat at times. There is no fat on this album though. Some of the tracks might be slightly weaker than others but there is nothing unnecessary on them. It addressed the concerns that the young band were dealing with at the time. Politics, death, pollution and exile were all taken into the mix. The art-work took in protesters at Bloody Sunday after all.
So what does it sound like? It combines a cold, grinding metallic feel with that of a background of a tribal beat. It has been variously described as being one of the first industrial albums, along with the nascent crust movement. Geordie’s guitar is choppy and straight to the point, Youth’s bass sums up their dub inspirations, Paul Ferguson’s drumming is primitive in the best sense and Jez Coleman spits apocalyptical vocals over it all. Its melding of metal and punk may have been an accident but it certainly inspired an entire generation after that. It is a group with much to say for themselves. ‘Requiem’, ‘Wardance’ and ‘Complications’ remain to be songs that are of beyond compare.
For some it was too much. Bassist, Youth, was sacked after ingesting too much acid and having somewhat of a breakdown to be replaced by Paul Raven. The band continued on with its erratic path for the next two decades. The death of Raven saw the reunion with Youth, who had gotten his live back on track and become an accomplished producer in the meantime. Since their second self-titled album, the band have been on an incredible run of form and are as strong as ever. Still a band that should be on most people’s bucket list.
3. Wire – Pink Flag
Wire are an example of a band who formed around the same time as most of the class of 77. And indeed this, their debut, came out in that same year. When most would last seen that they contained 21 tracks in the space of just over half an hour. But they sounded nothing like the bands of that era. And very few bands have sounded exactly the same since then. Even at that stage they were recognisable but unlike anything that came before them.
Normally punk fans were used to a blitzkrieg of sound but it was ramped up here. If fans seeing the brevity of their songs, they were sorely mistaken. They may have had short tracks but they were all about unpredictably. If a lyric or riff did not have to be repeated, it wasn’t. This sometimes accounted for fairly sudden climaxes of the songs. The minimalist arrangements allowed for interplay between the arrangements. This was especially between the instruments.
The album can be considered a classic by all who bought it but this has been ramped up by those who have claimed inspiration by it. The likes of R.E.M, Minutemen and Henry Rollins have all covered songs on this, whilst bands from the britpop era like Elastica have borrowed heavily from its sound. But just when the listener begins to get accustomed to the sonic brevity, then the band slows things up. The Ramones it is not, Melancholy is felt on tracks like ‘Fragile’ and ‘Mannequin’ for instance.
The band may have done better albums than this in terms of ‘Chairs Missing’ and ‘154’ but this remains a highpoint. Their break-up may have been messy and complicated but albums released in recent years have received extremely positive reception. Well worth checking out.
4. Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
The punk credentials of this four-piece cannot be mistaken. They were in the audience when The Sex Pistols played the free trade hall in 1976. But were considered to be outsiders in the competitive Manchester punk scene. This was until they got involved with Anthony Wilson. The TV host had been suitably impressed by their incendiary live shows and wanted to help them out. The album that came out of this relationship with Wilson and Martin Hannett, his in-house producer, became legendary.
But initially, the band were puzzled and let down by what they heard. The power of their live shows had been stripped back considerably and the sound was completely different. What the band later realised was that it was the first time that they had heard each other parts, and the vocals were distinguishable from the previously heavy sound. The band had never been inside of a studio before, so Hannet was enabled to perform all of his tricks. Backward recording, sound effects and separation of the music was all incorporated. It was not an album that initially performed well. Copies were littered all over Factory Records.
It sounded like little that came before it. And very few have come close to it since. There is a darkness to the album that is almost alien-like. The Peter Saville designed art-work, of pulses disappearing into space, comes through in the music generated within. There is a sense of emerging and dissolving into the darkness. It might be tempting to say that the band were mere puppets for Hannett to play with at his will. It was an equal relationship. If they had not been so good, the album would not have made such an impact. Bernard Sumner’s guitars are powerful and inspiring, Stephen Morris’s drumming is skeletal and raw and Peter Hook’s basslines are both warm and foreboding. It is all held together by the dark vocals of Ian Curtis. His jerky, spasmodic style was a reflection of his on-stage performances. ‘Shadowplay’, ‘Insight’, ‘Disorder’ and ‘She’s Lost Control’ hint at the troubles he was experiencing in his own mind.
The band followed this up with the equally Gothically beautiful ‘Closer’. And then it all came to an end. On the eve of an American tour, Curtis took his own life. His band-mates decided to continue, forming as New Order. They developed in a more electronic sound and found worldwide fame. The lessons learned by their first offering remains an inspiration to other outfits of a darker nature.
5. Public Image Ltd – Metal Box
As some of the newer bands felt constrained by the rules of punk, some did those who set it off. The pressures of being constantly scrutinised, and considered the corrupter of morals, led him to becoming disillusioned with the entire movement. Being instructed to be outrageous just for the sake of it, felt hollow and fake. The lack of support from management and band-mates, resulted in him quitting. He decided to explore the krautrock and dub influences that he listened to.
The men he turned to for this mission were long-term friends Keith Levine and Jah Wobble. Both were relatively inexperienced with being in a group but Lydon encouraged their spontaneity. Their debut, ‘First Issue’, had surprised many expecting a Pistols version 2.0. But now the pressure was on. The band was full of ideas and determined to go further. They had broken the expectations on them and now they set about to break the boundaries of rock. Experimentation and improvisation was now the name of the game.
And many of the tunes were all about that. The band went into studio without any written songs but plenty of ideas. Their musical telepathy allowed them to catch the feel of what the others were trying to get at. It made for a doggedly awkward listen. Beginning the album with an eleven minute dirge of an opener in ‘Albatross’, the band set out to test the audience. Throughout the band invokes jazz, along with their dub and Can influences. ‘Swan Lake’ was written for Lydon’s dying mother, ‘Pop Tones’ was about the story in the Daily Mirror of a girl kidnapped and ‘Careering’ concerns a gunman from Northern Ireland playing the role of a businessman. The anger and bite was clearly still in Lydon when developing these lyrics and in their delivery. They used a variety of session drummers but none lasted too long.
This marked the end of Wobble and it was not long before Levene joined him. Lydon remained and used a variety of different players to create music of his own fancy. The mid-eighties was more commercial rock, whilst the early nineties saw him embrace the dance music. For a band, and an album, that was so racked with tensions, despair and narcotics, the band created a piece that remains a high-point.
6. Mission of Burma – Vs
It was not just in the UK that bands begun to move away from the punk template. Mission of Burma found themselves in an awkward position from the moment they were founded. They were heavily influenced by the likes of Wire and P.I.L, but were competing against the emerging American Hardcore movement containing bands such as Black Flag, Fear and Bad Brains. They were not heavy enough to take on them but also but poppy enough to gain the attention enjoyed by Talking Heads and Blondie. They decided to go in their own path.
This allowed them to take elements of both, without being beholden to either. The experimental side of their nature was further emphasised by the increasing influence of sound engineer, Martin Scope. He built in loops and tape manipulations á la Stockhausen to complement their live shows and eventually became integral in shaping their feel. Whilst E.P ‘Signals, Calls and Marches’ had gained a lot of local attention, they were to step it up considerably here. The mould was broken and they decided to take it further.
The sound is of a band being recorded as they played. For all of their artful playfulness on tracks like ‘Trem Two’ and ‘Einstein’s Day’, they were capable of hammering out numbers like ‘That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate’ with commendable authority. This was a clear demonstration of their creative Yin and Yang. The artistic Television and Pere Ubu on one side and the primitive and thuggish Stooges on the other. This is helped by a band on top form. Roger Miller guitar work soars and peak across the track, no-more so on ‘Weather box’. Vocalist Clint Conley’s passionate vocals are strained to their max on songs like ‘Train’, whilst his low throbbing bass work chugs away. Peter Prescott’s drumming seems to follow its own path and Scope loops layers tracks over themselves.
The band then hit the skids. Miller quit due to tinnitus caused by their live shows. The rest of the band followed suit. In their absence, they became the blueprint for many of the alternative rock bands that followed in their wake such as Minutemen and Husker Du. They reformed without Scope in the early 2000’s and have continued to play and record challenging and interesting music since then.
7. Magazine – Real Life
Yet another example of one of the punk originals escaping his past to bring about something completely new. Howard Devoto had begun his journey as a member of Mancunian outfit, The Buzzcocks. The ‘Spiral Scratch’ E.P which had been recorded as the first ever independent release, saw him write all the material alongside Pete Shelly. This marked his swan-song, however, and he left shortly afterwards. The stand-out track on that release ‘Boredom’, was believed to express frustration felt by young British youth in a stagnant society. He was believed to alluding to the restrictions that punk was already beginning to impose upon themselves.
It was interesting to note who he selected to join him in his next band. John McGeoch and Barry Adamson were in art college, Martin Jackson was previously in power-pop effort The Feelies and David Formula played in several sixties bands. Like many bands of that era, cited inspiration came from Bowie, Iggy Pop and Roxy Music. It was the later glacial stage of ‘The Idiot’, ‘Low’ and ‘For Your Pleasure’ however. This helped provide the step-off point for many of the post-punk bands that followed them. The underlying energy is kept under wraps and run through arrangements that were unpredictable and dynamic.
They could not have more different to their contemporaries. The music is infused with a personal melodrama and angst. It was dark and affected. They used synths where many would have been paranoid of the associations with progressive rock. Formula’s keys switches between assault and flightiness on tracks like ‘Parade’, McKeogh’s guitar is sharp and direct on my favourite ‘The Light Pours Out of Me’, Adamson is a rock throughout and Jackson provides many highlights, not least on his intro on ‘Burst’. Devoto is not upstaged by his colleagues though. His vocals are half speak half sing. They range from a croon to a startled yelp at different stages. Single ‘Shot on Both Sides’, which borrowed from his past, may have been their known anthem but it is actually upstaged on many occasions.
The slightly more commercial ‘The Correct Use of Soap’, continued on with the bands record with producing intriguing music. Having lost members along the way to the likes of Visage, The Banshees, The Durutti Column and The Birthday Party, they decided to call it a day. They reformed in 2008, but without McKeogh who had died of cancer a few years previously. It is an album that refuses to date and continues to throw up surprises.
8. Wipers – Youth of America
As punk movements sprang up around Detroit, Cleveland, New York and Los Angeles, it is perhaps the more regional areas that deserved a greater examination. The Portland, Oregon scene that sprung up in the late seventies was one of these. Being off the grid, added to their sense of alienation, boredom and frustration. Those in larger cities could understand but not quite appreciate. One of those was Wipers.
Greg Sage had set up the band as a recording project originally. The idea of becoming a commercial entity was strictly off his radar. The intent was to release fifteen albums over ten years and to never engage with the media or any sort of publicity. This was designed to make the listener strive to engage deeper with the music involved. This was compromised early on when their debut album, ‘Is This Real?’, was re-recorded in a professional studio. It gained a keen interest on local radio and the band gathered a keen following through their live shows. The band themselves were not particularly happy with it however. There is nothing especially wrong with it. But it fails to really stand out from the crowd. The loud and fast nature of their songs are well put together and contain interesting ideas but that’s about it.
Their follow-up sought to go against the prevailing faster trend. It involved long, drawn-out guitar anthems which owed more to krautrock and psych rock. It is the sound of a band discovering the potential of the studio by pushing the limits as far as they could take them. This is not to say that the band were rejecting the movement that spawned them. They still retain a rock sensibility within it all. More about punk than actually punk itself. The vocal delivery is aggressive and bitter but as if distant and remote sounding. Sage’s guitar actually sounds wrong. Like flicking between late night radio stations and listening beneath the crackle. Brad Naish on drums is simple and distant as if separated from the mic and Brad Davidson’s Bass just layers on the noise and claustrophobia. It’s title track verges on for over ten minutes but there is highlights throughout.
It is easy to say that this album showed the way forward for the forthcoming grunge movement. Certainly they, and the U-Men, inspired the likes of Green River and Melvins. They were cited as being an inspiration by Kurt Cobain, along with The Raincoats. It pointed the way forward for American alternative rock. The band continued on after it experiencing commercial highs and lows but have remained inactive since the late nineties. Always going their own way, each member have went on to be successful in their own right.
9. The Pop Group – How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?
If the seventies had experienced a degree of strife and problems, then the eighties started just as bad. The UK had begun the reign of Margaret Thatcher and was wracked with strikes and riots, The US was in the middle of the fall-out of the Iran crisis which led to the presidency of Ronald Regan, The Soviet Union was embroiled in a conflict with Afghanistan and Northern Ireland continued with it’s bloody political strife. When you had as much backdrop as this, it is perhaps no wonder some of the music came out so angry and tense.
Formed in Bristol, the band were inspired by the energy of the punk movement but rejected its musical conservatisim. They were driven by funk, radical politics and avant-garde. Obvious comparisons were made with bands such as Gang of Four and Killing Joke, but they went further in their attack. Subtle, they were not. Critical acclaim followed the release of debut album, ‘Y’, and single ‘We are All Prostitutes Now’. The band were playing at demonstrations for a variety of causes, from nuclear disarmament to Aid for Cambodia. And it is the latter cause which provided the name to their new album.
It remains a difficult listen that flummoxed many when they first heard it. They claimed the band was obsessed with making music to the detriment of the listener. Whilst other groups were becoming more stream-lined and commercial, they were even more strident. Mark Stewart’s vocals are agitated, bitter, and wild delivering slogans that would have been expected on a picket line. Gareth Sager’s sax squalls and adds weirdness, whilst his combination with John Waddington makes for a guitar driven version of James Brown. The deliberately low-end production saw bassist Dan Catsis and drummer Bruce Smith hold up a gloopy, throbbing beat. From the angry ‘Forces of Oppression’ and ‘Feed the Hungry’ to the positively funky ‘Communicate’ and ‘Rob the Bank’, the band do not let up. All of this and the involvement of the Last Poets? It made for a heady mix.
It seems a waste that they fell out not long after due to legal disputes and internal problems. The general world of rock may have breathed a sigh of relief. Various members went off to play in other bands such as The Slits. The re-release of this, and their debut album, coincided with their reunion. This year’s ‘Honeymoon on Mars’, saw them as delightfully prickly and awkward as ever.
10. Television – Marquee Moon
When asked where punk began, there are many differing opinions. Some would point towards London’s Marquee Club with the fledgling Sex Pistols. Others would mention the first appearance of The Ramones in C.B.G.B’S. More would cite the release of ‘Raw Power’ and the thuggish beat of The Stooges. These are coming at punk from the sound that they perceive it to be. U.K punk had a fairly divergent selection of bands but many coming from a similar sound set. Bands who played shows there who did not adhere to their sensibilities often received negative responses. Suicide, Patti Smith and The Voidoids had missiles and abuse thrown in their direction.
What they did not appreciate was that punk in the U.S developed along a different path to their cross-channel cousins. It was more of approach from an artistic viewpoint. More about the attitude than the sound. This is how bands such as Wayne Country, Talking Heads, The Flaming Groovies and The Dictators were all able to develop around the same time. You could be loud and brash or experimentational and challenging. Television formed in the early seventies when teenage friends Richard Hell and Richard Verlaine came together after moving from home-town of Delaware. They recruited drummer Billy Ficca and hustler Richard Lloyd. On their pestering, Hilly Kristal, was encouraged to let them play there. This helped opened the way for other bands to make their names. Fed up with Hell’s strictly amateur approach to playing music, and his on-stage antics, Fred Smith was brought in to replace him. He took his attitude and songs to the embryonic Heartbreakers and then The Voidoids. Building up a firm following and critical acclaim live, they went on to record their debut.
The power chords of other punk efforts are cast off. Instead, rock is weaved in with jazz and melodies that play around with counter melodies. Lyrics contain references to pastoral and urban imagery, scenes from lower Manhatten, themes of adolescence and French poetry. Verlaine and Lloyd match solo for solo during moments that reach almost dizzying heights. The ballet which they play together was further helped by being recorded live by their engineer. This sense of improvisation allowed them compose several tracks in studio. It certainly wasn’t just a guitar album. Every member are able to lock into each other’s pieces. This is particularly surprising considering the lack of swing or groove in it. The vocals may have been off-putting to some but suits the themes covered. Even for those who initially resisted the album, find themselves slowly mesmerised. The centre-piece of the title track, the nod to their garage rock roots on ‘Friction’ and ‘Prove It’ and the delicate ballad of ‘Guiding Light’.
Follow-up, ‘Adventure’, suffered in comparison. It was more of a softer and less aggressive album. Put on hold whilst Lloyd was hospitalised due to contracting hepatitis due to drug use, it failed to properly capitalise on the momentum which had been built up. It is not a bad album, but failed to reach the heights of what had gone before it. The band went their own way shortly afterwards to pursue solo careers. They reunited in the early nineties to release a self-titled album and have had sporadic festival and live dates in recent years.