Post-Punk for Ninnies

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Labels are funny things.

I’m not a big fan of rigid music classification. Most music slides between genres and most genres are not composed of one simple set of characteristics.

Post-punk is an umbrella that covers an insane variety of styles. The word implies that the music emerged after punk, but in reality it developed alongside of (and sometimes before!) punk rock. It’s similar to punk in seeking to break away from what mainstream rock had become by the mid-1970s, but its methods differ.

Like punk, there is a DIY attitude that anyone can play in a post-punk band. Conversely, there is also a highly artistic aesthetic steeped in experimental music which attracted highly accomplished musicians. Insane variety. Some of the characteristics that one tends to find in post-punk are: seemingly endless repetition of bass lines or short melodies, monotone singing, a funky feel in one of the instruments, sudden shifts to entirely unexpected places, sloppiness, angular lines. The music is not easily approachable, in fact it’s very in-your-face and can take some patience to absorb. Most of all, post-punk is not any one thing.

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One can see the variety of post-punk styles in our library’s holdings. Talking Heads are fairly mainstream in much of their music, but their early albums were quite different from late 70s rock. Not so very weird, but not heavy like punk, not inane like Wings (sorry Wings fans!). Often strange vocals, some unexpected turns, and just the right touch of quirkiness. Joy Division, on the other hand, incorporated synthesizers along with doom and gloom. Their signature song, Love Will Tear Us Apart, blends lovely music, melancholic singing, and lyrics focused on an inevitable sad outcome of love. Pere Ubu is simply weird, a non-stop assault on sanity. David Thomas, the lead singer, obviously studied vocal techniques with a tea kettle in a helium factory, and the songs challenge reality as we know it. Well worth a spin.

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Of course, many other post-punk groups can be found at EPL.

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The Seattle music scene included many talented post-punk bands, including The U-Men and The Beakers. The U-Men formed in 1981 and stayed active throughout the 80s. Carrying on the legacy of early local rock they brought a soupçon of punk, rockabilly and general weirdness to the foundation laid by The Sonics and other 60s garage bands. Their music is difficult to describe, a bit of The Cramps enmeshed in art punk or embryonic grunge filtered through an improbability blender. Best just to listen.

The Beakers formed in 1980 and existed for only 12 months, but their music exerted influence on local, national and international bands alike. As a local performer I’m always excited to open for a big-name band, and these guys opened for the likes of Gang of Four, Delta 5, XTC and Captain Beefheart! Wikipedia describes their music using adjectives such as perpendicular, yelpy, funk-influenced and dissonant. These four words form a good starting point for understanding post-punk. After the band split up, former members were also crucial in creating a system for distributing the music of independent northwest artists. Tremendous impact for a short-lived group!

So saddle up and give some post-punk a chance. It might take a few listens, a reassessment of expectations, but the music is unique and often moving. Take the immortal words or Talking Heads with you as you move into this challenging musical world:

It’s not cool to have so many problems
But don’t expect me to explain your indecisions
Go talk to your analyst, isn’t that what they’re paid for?

 

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