Recently, boys and girls, we learned all about the early punk rock movement and how it revolutionized rock music in the mid seventies. Another important genre from this time period is known as post-punk, post from the Latin for “after” and punk from the Indo-Iranian for “bad haircut.” However, in a stunning bit of originality, post-punk did not come about after punk but rather at the same time. This would be what I think of as Confusion #1. Confusion #2 could be stated roughly as: Post-punk is not a single particular style. Hence, it’s a difficult music to pin down or summarize. Yet here I go.
My vision of post-punk is as a weird and challenging music with angular lines and dark subject matter. The vocalists often sing with reedy, quavering voices exploring all known vocal registers (and some that have yet to be discovered). The music can be extremely repetitious and filled with odd time signatures. Artsy and experimental sum it up pretty well.
Post-punk poster children Joy Division featured a dark, brooding sound, lyrics filled with abject hopelessness, and driving synthesizers. One of their best known songs, Love Will Tear Us Apart, is a bit atypical in its musical cheerfulness (although lyrical depression still abounds) and infectious poppiness, but it stands out as one of the anthems of post-punk. Following the death of the lead singer, Joy Division morphed into New Order, a band which bridged the gap from post-punk to synth pop.
When Devo hit the scene in the late 70’s they were a weird bunch, dressed in radiation suits and creating surreal videos at a time when MTV had yet to be birthed. Their first album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, is filled with odd rhythms, occasionally frightening caterwauling, strange topics, and a reliance on synthesizers rather than the traditional instrumentation of a rock band. Over the decades the band moved towards the mainstream and today Mark Mothersbaugh, an original member of Devo, is one of the hardest working men in showbiz, writing soundtracks for movies, TV shows and children’s cartoons.
The first video I ever witnessed on MTV was Don’t You Want Me by The Human League. The band had already released some impressive albums in the UK, but it was the 1981 release of Dare that finally brought attention to this talented group in the US. While their first two releases are filled with oddities, Dare is simply a pop gem of synthesizer-based music. Some songs brood, others infectiously bring a need for quasi-legal dance moves. The Very Best of the Human League focuses on their accessible music, largely ignoring their first two albums of challenging yet rewarding songs.
Mission of Burma, a little-known Boston band, made some of the greatest music of the early 80’s. Pounding toms, complicated song structures, fury-fueled enthusiasm and generally riveting music caused MOB to outshine their contemporaries. There is a raw intensity to the band’s sound, a musical teetering-on-the-edge between amazingly excellent music and potentially vicious wipe outs. Vs. invites repeated listenings, and in three decades its magic has yet to abate.
It pains me not to gush on and on about Talking Heads Remain in Light, an album filled with booming funk riffs, R&B/soul covers and strange tales of alienation; or Pere Ubu’s Dub Housing which features perhaps the strangest vocals you’ll ever find, mixed with some beautifully sloppy instrumental playing; or Johnny Rotten’s foray into post-punk with PIL, a group as far-removed from The Sex Pistols as possible; or the incredible guitar work found in Television’s Marquee Moon. Not to mention the bass-ment singing of Nick Cave or infectious quirky grooves of The Feelies. But sadly, room does not permit to speak of every amazing group out there.
So do some research and listen to a variety of bands. You might hate some and love others, or at the very least learn something about rock history. As they say in the business world, it’s a win-win situation.