Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before…

An article written around a year ago which compares post-punk and its recent revival

British post-punk is fragmenting. The movement which seemed so dynamic and coherent when it began has unravelled in a spiral of diverging paths – commercial crossover, artistic frustration, eclectic obscurantism and digital fetishes. After four years of dominating the alternative music scene, post-punk is dying. It’s 2009. It’s also 1982. The sense of déjà vu, or rather déjà entendu, is palpable.

Post-Punk Primer

The 1976-77 punk explosion fermented a slew of copycat three-chord bands, but by 1978 a diverse cohort of highly literate, musically-experimental pioneers had begun to emerge. PiL, Wire, Gang Of Four, Joy Division, Magazine and The Cure, among many, many others, heralded a creative period which in the history of rock music is unmatched.

In similar fashion the New Rock Revolution™ of Strokes and Libertines vintage finally dragged guitar music out of its millennial closet. Again, once the dust settled and the garage-rock subsided, a succession of thoughtful, wry, spiky groups arrived: Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, the Futureheads, Maximo Park, the Young Knives, and most recently, Foals.

There are also more personal links between the two generations of British post-punk acts. Andy Gill has produced tracks for the Futureheads, and also for the Young Knives who in 2005 supported the reformed Gang Of Four. Franz Ferdinand have covered ‘Get Up And Use Me’ by Fire Engines, one of the ‘holy trinity’ of Scottish post-punk acts (the others being Josef K and Orange Juice); Fire Engines then covered ‘Jacqueline’ in return.

The original post-punk movement arguably peaked between September 1979 and July 1980, an extraordinary period which saw the releases of 154 (Wire), Entertainment! (Gang Of Four), Metal Box (PiL), Seventeen Seconds (The Cure), The Correct Use Of Soap (Magazine), and culminated with Closer (Joy Division). There then followed a rapid disintegration as the glossy vapidity of New Pop acts Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet conquered the charts – many ‘serious’ acts turned towards dance music, most notably New Order.

The recent revival has been less pervasive but lasted longer, arguably reaching its zenith with the 2005 releases of Silent Alarm (Bloc Party), A Certain Trigger (Maximo Park), and You Could Have It So Much Better (Franz Ferdinand). The dominance of a fairly unified sound soon began to dissipate and by looking at the two post-punk eras side by side, it is easy to find clues and precedents for the dissolution of the recent movement.

Lightening up? Gang Of Four & Bloc Party

Radical politics, allusions to critical theory, icy guitar lines and thundering percussion all characterised the sonic juggernauts that produced Entertainment! (1979) and Silent Alarm (2005). Simon Reynolds describes Gang Of Four’s music as “hard without being macho”, which applies equally well to the early work of Bloc Party. Both groups hit the ground running, with highly acclaimed EPs Damaged Goods (1978) and Bloc Party (2004) followed by widely-lauded debut albums.

Superficially, both Gang Of Four and Bloc Party seemed to tone down their political stance in favour of more personal lyrics, and moved from the awkward, unsettling sounds of their early material towards polished dance music (see ‘Flux’ and ‘I Love A Man In A Uniform’). The lure of American success was instrumental in seeing a move towards a more overtly disco sound for Gang of Four, who by Songs Of The Free (1982) were sporting big suits and sunglasses and miming their way through alarming chatshow appearances.

Bloc Party have been careful to deny the political content of early songs, which rings rather hollow for a band who were previously called Union; if neither ‘Helicopter’ nor ‘The Price Of Gas’ is about the war in Iraq, they simply have the wrong lyrics. If the ideological coyness – particularly of Kele Okereke – is in fact due to careful marketing, it should also be credited with preparing the band for their mainstream success, which would have been difficult had they stuck with the dark, edgy sound of ‘She’s Hearing Voices’ or ‘Banquet’.

Over the course of the frustrating A Weekend In The City (2007) and the more consistent Intimacy (2008), Bloc Party’s sound shifted almost completely towards dance music, which in combination with blander lyrics left them, like Gang Of Four, open to charges of the consumerist commodification which they used to sing about.

Smart Boys Bored Easily: Wire & Franz Ferdinand

Yes, Franz are massive, and no, Wire never garnered more than a fringe following, but there are plenty of similarities between these two post-punk trajectories. Wire spent their formative months belting out Ramonesy thrashes as part of the original 1976 London punk explosion; Franz spent their musical apprenticeships in various bands as part of another insular but fertile scene, the Glasgow of the late nineties. They were each the most successful of their peer groups to bring the visual arts into the musical arena. Album covers were not treated as mere packaging but as canvases for powerful statements –in Wire’s case, the artistically-trained band members manipulated photographs by Annette Green; for Franz Ferdinand the inspiration was the constructivist art of Rodchenko and Lissitzsky.

Both Wire and Franz started out playing jerky but fundamentally poppish guitar music before moving into more considered layers of synths and darker soundscapes. Their mutual talent for catchiness is also clear; the first Franz album is bursting with hooks, and Wire were masters of the riff (just ask Elastica). ‘Another The Letter’ from 1978’s Chairs Missing is like ‘This Fire’ on turbo shandies, and it isn’t hard to imagine Alex Kapranos wrapping his arch chops around ‘I Feel Mysterious Today’.

Their third albums – 154 (1979) and Tonight (2009) – are linked by a marked departure from their predecessors, and while it remains to be seen where Franz Ferdinand go next, they have repeatedly hinted at both boredom with indie music and a concurrent desire to explore other styles. Wire went on to embrace Dadaist performance art, alienating any remaining punk fans, and mocked their own past to the extent that they employed a tribute band to support them on tour.

Geeks, Tweeds and Inside-Out Music

At the literary end of the spectrum lie those Ian Curtises who spent their days devouring Penguin Classics, or in Howard Devoto’s case, working in a library. Finding a modern comparison for the peerless Magazine is not easy. Theirs was a unique combination of melodic sensibility and lyrical elegance which has filtered down to contemporary descendents with diverging styles. They were blessed with a divine nerdiness though – “I could have been Raskolnikov / But Mother Nature ripped me off” – and the same bookish concerns are audible in Maximo Park (in ‘Russian Literature’, most transparently), and The Young Knives, whose ‘Coastguard’ quotes T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Paul Smith, in the early days of Maximo Park, would “read” his lyrics from a small notebook, ripping out pages and tossing them to the winds during the anti-song ‘Acrobat’.

Others took the idea of a song to a brutal deconstructed conclusion – Public Image Ltd, Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle spring to mind. The biggest difference between the original post-punk movement and its recent revival is to be found here, with a distinct lack of modern musical extremists. There is not the public appetite for art-as-music necessary to sustain a similar band in the current industry set-up, and while radio stations such as Resonance do their best to support the genuinely innovative, there can be few bands today who have charmed both The Wire and the NME. Foals are probably ploughing the most singular furrow of the contemporary bands discussed here, combining cut-and-paste lyrical forms with complex musical arrangements. But pop turned backwards is (literally) still pop, and both PiL and Foals are as danceable as Abba. Moreso, perhaps.

Farewell Post-Punk

So, the giants of the post-punk revival have moved onto pastures new. Franz Ferdinand are now purveyors of dirty synth-led stomps. Maximo Park are undergoing a curious transition in which they seem to be retaining something of their early Magazine-like sound while incorporating the pop sensibilities of The Cure circa ‘Lovecats’ or ‘Close To Me’. The Futureheads have retreated to the margins, Bloc Party have made the conscious decision to eschew their guitar-based origins, and it remains to be seen whether the Young Knives’ popularity is grounded in their music or their weirdness. While the post-punk revival of 2004-08 didn’t show the breadth or innovation of the original movement – and how could it, as a revival? – it was great to see and hear at first-hand.

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Published in: on May 23, 2010 at 4:45 am  Leave a Comment  

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