40 years ago it was 1980. An excellent year for beautifully dark music.
Closer by Joy Division remains a key album to this very day. Released in July of 1980, it explored a depth into the human condition which had rarely been touched upon in such a way. Themes of loss, depression, anxiety, and suffering were laid out for all to see in the lyrics, while the music possessed a haunting quality to it. Not as urgent and overwhelming as their debut but austere and melancholic in its nature. Space for the vocals to make their intended impact with an intense hook. It came out in tragic circumstances as well, following the suicide of Ian Curtis. A funeral like mood enveloped the entire album and is still regarded as being one of the darkest albums ever.
Yet it was not alone in that regard. The start of the decade was marked by intense unrest across the world. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, a war between Iran and Iraq, tensions in the Falklands, strikes in Gdansk, continuing troubles in Northern Ireland and strife in the UK under the Thatcher government. There was an air of uncertainty and disquiet which existed at all levels. Industrial areas were beginning to feel the effects as plants were closed and unemployment began to rise. Manufactured pop was never going to be the soundtrack to such times and a wave of bands followed in the steps of Joy Division by reflecting this air of bleakness.
Dead Kennedys – Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables
The debut of seminal LA outfit, Dead Kennedys, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, was seen as one of the most important American punk albums to come out. The Bay Area contained many bands who were highly considered like The Germs, X, and The Avengers but Dead Kennedys managed to get ahead of the pack. Their name certainly gained attention, Jello Biafra’s sarcastic and confrontational stage presence made many take notice, but it was their musical and lyrical aspects that ensured their legacy.
Many of their contemporaries were musically enthusiastic, rather than adapt players. East Bay Ray had been involved in a number of bands previously. His eery surf-rock guitar rock gave the songs an added air of menace and threat. He was backed up with a strong rhythm section in the guise of Klaus Fluoride and Ted who provided a muscular presence. Even the album artwork referenced an air of danger with a photo from the White City riots and police cars on fire. But it was the lyrics which were most startling. ‘Holidays in Cambodia’ referenced the murders of Pol Pot, ‘California Uber Alles’ imagined a new Reich under California governor Jerry Brown, ‘Forward to Death’ is the sole ambition of having nothing positive in your life, ‘Kill the Poor’ would be quite worrying if anyone took it seriously and ‘Viva Las Vegas’ is a twisted reimagining of the Elvis staple.
It was the perfect package of spite, anger and sarcasm with a country which was getting increasingly militaristic and right-wing. As events around them became more absurd, you could not help but react against it. One can be extremely dark yet extremely funny at the same time. The band continued to push buttons and test public decency with future releases before breaking up in the mid-eighties. They reconvened and continue touring albeit without Jello.
Bauhaus – In the Flat Field
Punk allowed those who came in their wake a clean slate to work from regarding the music they wished to play. And a myriad of different genres grew up in subsequent years. One of the movements that arose was that of goth rock. It saw a darker arrangement of style, melodies of melancholic nature, lyrics that alluded towards themes of morbidity, tragedy and existentialism and use of synths in many cases. Bands incorporating this style did exist already like The Damned, Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees. But it was bands who came after them who took it further. Bauhaus from Northampton and within a few weeks of coming together had recorded the immortal ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’. Its slow, gloomy basslines, jagged guitar lines and theatrical lyrics became a starting point for many.
They went into the studio and recorded their debut album shortly afterwards. The band possessed a clear vision of what they wanted so opted to self-produce it. But it was released to almost universal indifference and often outright scorn. Critics hated the slow and disjointed nature of it and tracks they felt went nowhere. They certainly went overboard in their condemnation of it, but it is not an easy listen to first time around. The production style is on the flat nature, but it suits the nature of the music. That is sparse in terms of its playing with little flashes of colour. ‘In the Flat Field’, ‘God in an Alcove’, ‘Stigmata Martyr’ and ‘Saint Vitus Dance’ all contain a band who were setting forth a statement. The exact meaning was slightly confused but they were at least trying to say something.
They changed from 4AD to their parent label, Beggars Banquet, due to budgetary reasons. Keyboards and other instruments were employed as they sought to make their next albums more diverse sounding. A cover of ‘Ziggy Stardust’ was a big success for them. This reflected Peter Murphy’s love of David Bowie. The album came from ‘The Sky’s Gone Out’ became their biggest seller. It seemed as if the band were on the up. Pneumonia stopped Murphy from contributing towards much of their fourth album’ Burning From the Inside’. Daniel Ash and David Haskins became the driving force behind it, adding their vocals on several of the tracks. It yielded another hit in ‘She’s in Parties’. They decided to break up shortly after this as creative tensions struck the band. They have come back on a few occasions since. In the Flat Field remains an arthouse classic and a dark signpost for what was to come.
The Cramps – Songs The Lord Taught Us
Having a dark sensibility and aesthetic does not always equate with a gloomy musical style or being downbeat. Bands like the Damned, The Misfits and Birthday Party always played around with the shock aspects that many felt uneasy with. More B-Movie stuff than the inner anguishes of the human condition. Horror punk became a genre in its own right. Some chose a different path. Lux Interior and Poison Ivy met in Sacramento the early 70’s and bonded over a shared artistic sensibility and devotion to collecting records. They married shortly after. Theirs was a lifelong bond. It took early rock ’n’ roll, garage rock, surf rock glam and early punk. With a big dash of Screaming Jay Hawkins. They moved to New York just as punk was beginning to kick off. They signed with IRS Records and found themselves on tour with The Police.
Alex Chilton of Big Star had produced a few of their early singles and it was he who got them down to Memphis for their debut album. It was a massive tongue in cheek reference to many of their main influences who they covered on this. Albeit in their own unique style and humour. Jimmy Stewart, The Sonics, Little Willie John and Johnny Burnette all got a huge slap of paint and made their own. There was plenty of original material to complement those too. ‘Garbageman’, ‘TV Set, and ‘Zombie Dance’ contained a massive amount of sci-fi/horror references, a big slap of double-entendres and loads of camp style. The music may have been relatively simple in terms of playing (dual guitars, little to no bass and standard drumming) but it was done fast, wild and with a great deal of fun. It failed to really trouble the mainstream charts but did well in the indie version.
For most of the rest of their spell, countless albums were released. Especially live ones. Line-ups seemed to be a never-ending switch of members with Lux and Poison remaining. Occasional mainstream exposure occurred but they were content to not play up to industry expectations or change their style. The sudden death of Lux in 2009 saw the end of the band as Ivy refused to go on without him. They might have coined the phrase psychobilly but always denied this was what their music was. They merely aimed to play old-time rock in their own particular way. It saw many take their influence and build a career around it. The Meteors, Guana Batz, Demented Are Go and Reverend Horton Heat certainly attributes their success to them.
Bruce Springsteen – The River
It would be remiss to say that the challenging and forthright music was only being produced by those in the post-punk bracket. Economic hardship and troubled times affected people at all levels. The blue-collar workers in many areas as the traditional manufacturing sectors saw massive downturns in fortune. Glam and progressive rock may have given some an opportunity to give them a different outlet, while hard rock and heavy metal was a chance to unleash some steam. Sometimes you just want to have your daily life represented though. Bruce Springsteen was initially tagged with a ‘new Bob Dylan’ tag when rising through the Greenwich Village scene. He went against expectation with rapid-fire lyrics, engaging characters, and long compositions when many expected acoustic songs. He and the E-Street Band struggled at the beginning and was better known for others making hits of his songs. The release of Born to Run, with a series of acclaimed shows, proved to be the catalyst and a new star was found. Despite the fervour evoked in the live performances, his studio work had started to become more sombre and the song-writing carefully drafted.
The writing process was certainly not easy when it came to The River. A 10-12 track album had been put together, but it was felt he should make it a double album to truly capture all he wanted to say and give the subjects and themes more fleshed out. It was coming together during a recession in the US, so their struggles were in his mind. These characters had been in his mindset for Darkness on the Edge of Town and he wished to explore them even more. He was beginning to tackle human relationships more and all that pertains to it. A double album was also a reflection of his lengthening live performances. What was interesting to note from this album was the degree of contrasts. Big fun rock numbers could lie alongside the more serious ones. Life is not all good times for everyone, and he was unafraid to show that. Lyrically and mood-wise, its title song, ‘Drive All Night’, ‘The Price You Pay’ and ‘Wreck on the Highway’ for instance is one of the darkest he had written to date. ‘Hungry Heart’ became a classic rock staple but essentially about loss and yearning. Enough of upbeat numbers exits as a counterpoint but the listener can grasp the development of Springsteen as a writer. The recording leaned towards a live sound to get that energy and feeling akin to his concerts.
The mood was further explored through Nebraska and its raw, naked emotions. Born in the USA made him an MTV star but the title track from that album has been appropriated by many misguided people seeking to exploit the American dream. His catalogue of work during this period in the ’80s would have been enough for musicians to coast through the rest of their career. Bruce instead used his position to champion the downtrodden and outcasts of society. Whether that was the continuing prejudice of AIDS patients, the homeless or transgender rights. The ’90s were somewhat of a barren spell creativity wise, but he then went upon a series of career highlights. The Rising in the wake of 9/11, and Devils and Dust about the fears of a soldier going to Iraq. He lost many who were closest to him including Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons from The E-Street Band. He still found the drive to continue though. There are few left in the world who could or are willing to, change up their concert setlist as much as he is. It is a testament to someone can relate to his audience and the people he is writing about.
Peter Gabriel – Peter Gabriel 3: Melt
The punk scene was expected by many to have a meteor effect on the bands who ruled the roost until that point. Especially those who were associated with the progressive rock movement. The era of dinosaurs was said to be over and done with. No more could we expect to hear about bands, or members of bands, who filled their set with tracks of over half an hour, released albums pertaining to obscure concepts, virtuosos that performed lengthy and complicated solos and wore outrageous costumes on stage. This was, of course, not the case. Some bands changed their style, others went solo and many continued as they were. Certain musicians became highly sought after and cutting edge during this period. Peter Gabriel had been associated with the lengthy workouts that Genesis performed in his time there and some of the stage gear employed to represent the music. He left following the challenging recording of Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. He embarked on a solo career with a series of self-titled albums which were only identifiable through the different artwork.
Gabriel had a growing interest in the sounds of world music and the sonic capabilities of drum machines and other sonic experimentation. A request to Phil Collins and Jerry Marotta to not use cymbals helped create the gated reverb sound which became ubiquitous throughout the ’80s. He was also becoming more politically charged. But this made Atlantic, his American label, uneasy and they dropped him. It was released another label to Atlantic’s loss. The bone of contention was the anti-apartheid song concerning the murder of Steve Biko in South Africa. It contained phrases in the language Xhosa over a sparse track and described how his death came about. It was the only overtly protest track but ‘Games Without Frontiers’ was an anti-war number, albeit named after a popular TV show. Others like ‘No Self Control’, ‘I Don’t Remember’ and ‘Lead a Normal Life’ concerned the effects of someone going through depression and how people try and manage it. Melt as it became to be known to fans set him apart as a singer who was prepared to take risks. The contribution of mavericks such as Robert Fripp, Kate Bush and David Gregory emphasised this. His writing had become more overt and direct compared to much of the hidden symbolism and theatrics with his previous band.
He continued to seek out some of the best musicians to work with throughout his career. A fourth S/T album yielded the hit ‘Shock the Monkey’ but he then decided to perform something of a shift. He began to focus on more straightforward songs, and this led to the development of So. It became the biggest selling album of his career and announced him as a major act. The album generated a number of best-selling singles as well. He provided the soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ which saw him a Grammy. Us was another critically acclaimed album which contained a high focus on human relationships and the breakdown of his first marriage. Film work and other projects kept him busy for a while before the release of Up. An approach was made for a Genesis reunion but was turned down. His last few albums have seen him interpreting the work of other artists and their interpretation of his. He also reworked his own catalogue to work with an orchestra. He remains an interesting and challenging artist, who is not content to rest on his laurels. The humanitarian work, and his continued support of WOMAD, marks him as a true genius.
Magazine – The Correct Use of Soap
Punk created the opportunity for many bands and individuals. They were attracted by the chance to create something of their own. Rather than wait for something to happen, you go out and do it yourself. The adrenaline rush it provoked was another interesting prospect. For all the freedom it allowed, some that it made a straight jacket for itself. Bands were obliged to follow the template of short, fast songs, primitive or relatively simplistic chord patterns, have the correct prescribed list of influences and streamlined instruments. This was all well and good, but some wanted more. Once the initial surge of dissipated, a vacuum appeared for others to take advantage. Post-punk was initially the phrase but became a genre in its own right. Essentially the energy of punk but with art-rock or progressive tendencies. Howard Devoto had been a founding member of The Buzzcocks but left shortly before their first album. He wished to create a less traditional rock band and Magazine came about. Two highly regarded albums were released, with ‘Still Life’ gathering particular mentions.
For The Correct Use of Soap, the band decided to change things up a bit. They recruited Martin Hannett of Joy Division fame to produce and aimed to return to their roots. The rhythms were noticeably faster and the riffs contained more of an edge. The band were aiming to provide a certain degree of accessibility, but still retaining an edge. Post-punk was noted for its sense of nervous energy. To the point of paranoia. It is claimed that an impending sense of apocalypse dominated the mindset of the album. The threats of nuclear war loomed large with many. The album’s title refers to the conditional need to maintain a perfect state of appearance and cleanliness. Only it can guarantee love and happiness. Physical disintegration must be avoided. ‘Because You’re Frightened’, ‘Metamorphosis’, its title track and ‘Model Worker’ all allude to this. Meanwhile, ‘Under the Floorboards’ references Fyodor Dostoyevsky classic 1866 Russian novel Crime and Punishment. A unique version of Sly Stone’s ‘Thank You’ is a welcome detour and done in their own style. Much of the elegance is granted towards Deveto but John McGeoch shines throughout. The rhythm section is tight and John Formula’s keyboards add a much-needed splash of colour.
Despite continued praise, McGeoch left after this album due to his frustration over lack of sales. He jumped ship to Siouxsie and the Banshees. One more album was released before the band called it quits. They all went in different directions to pursue individual interests. In 2009, they reformed after the death of McGeoch and received critical acclaim for performances of The Correct Use of Soap in full. The last album to date was released called No Thyself. The band and this album continues to gather praise for its mature content. Despite having its roots in punk and new wave, they were willing to incorporate elements of avant-garde and pop sensibilities. Deveto remains highly influential as one who helped bring about the punk and post-punk movements. A dark message can often be hidden under sugary hooks.
The Cure – Seventeen Seconds
For new bands coming up in the period in the late seventies, it often was a case of trial and error before they came with any sort of definite sound. With the divergent sounds, and different genres cropping up, it could be somewhat of a baffling process. For those willing to experiment, it provided a whole range of possibilities. Some were able to soak up all of these like a dishcloth. Take on elements of what appeals to you and take on what best matches you. In some instances, it might be bands you tour with or look up to. One case was that of The Cure. They came together when quite young and found it difficult to settle on a firm direction. The temptation to convert them into a covers band was flatly refused as they were set on being original. A few singles brought them to the attention of the likes of John Peel, despite misguided racism accusations for ‘Killing an Arab’. Their debut album, Three Imaginary Boys, was a bit of a case of stumbling around in the dark. They were very inexperienced in the studio and it showed. ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ stood out though. A tour with Siouxsie and the Banshees showed them a lot. Robert Smith double-jobbed and it revealed the power of the music being played. A path towards their defining sound.
There was somewhat of a power struggle when Seventeen Seconds was being approached. Some wanted to follow in the lead of bands like XTC, but Smith’s ‘Banshees part 2’ argument won out. Most of the lyrics and music had been written before going into the studio, so the band were able to lay down the tracks with relative ease. The lack of funds may have had something to do with this as well. Sessions went into long hours to get it completed in times. ‘The Final Sound’ had to be cut down in length because they were unable to record it again after a tape ran out. The hunger was there even if the pressure was on. It was a relatively straight forward formula with plaintive and wailing vocals over the sparse musical arrangements. With a whole heap of reverb on top. The drum sound was set up like this deliberately. The emphasis was on the mood it was creating and that was pretty introspective and dark. The addition of synths helped flesh out these patterns. They were still able to put together a melody with hooks as shown with ‘A Forest’ and ‘Play For Today’. Critically it was praised and castigated in equal measures for the same reasons. It set out a benchmark for the band and gothic rock going forward.
They further delved into the sense of murky minimalism in subsequent albums like Faith and Pornography before a change was undertaken. Smith felt that they were stuck in some sort of ghoulish rut and he was undergoing a bout of mental stress due to events in his life. It all added up to make him somewhat of a tyrant in his words. He re-joined the Banshees for a period before getting back in the saddle. A series of pop-tinged singles like ‘Lovecats’, ‘Let’s Go to Bed’ and ‘The Walk’ played with expectations of what the band was about. It helped to reinvent their image too. It showed the band were not content to remain in a box creativity wise and dabbled in the areas of psychedelia, ecstatic pop and moody atmospherics again. They were seeing massive success and doing it in their own way. Smith might have remained the sole original member, with a series of line-up alterations, but they were still able to keep producing the goods. The ’90s and ’00s were somewhat of a mixed bag in terms of commercial success, but they keep on going strong. 4.13 Dream was their last album to date but are scheduled to go back into the studio again soon.
They like all the artists covered here strove to go against convention and reflect the spirit of the year. Challenging, uncertain and often harrowing. They set forward to break new ground in the development of themselves and in doing so, helped create a new standard. It is a testament that 40 years on, they still sound fresh.