Saturday, June 28, 2008

My Post-Punk Shortlist

Heading on from circa '78 into the next five or six years, again from memory as with my previous punk list, what would I trumpet as worth blowing my horn about? This era shows how bands, some of them veterans of punk, others only fans, began to clatter against what turned too soon gobbing, leather, and sneers. They incorporated more electronics, expanded production, and dared to defy unconventional convention of the movement which, according to some within months of its formation around '75-'76, already ossified. The period under study spans the shift of punk into more diverse spin-offs, and ends around the time that "college radio" or "alternative music" started to solidify in America, this leading to further fragmentation here and abroad, and abetted I reckon by MTV and the start of commercial interests taking over what had stumbled on as "indie radio" and "indie labels" in the punk era. We'll begin again in the North of England, wander around Britain, and see if America this round can provide more than one LP that I'd toss gently into the waterproofed Tupperware that floats onto the desert island-- packaged by FedEx c/o Tom Hanks. Unless I uploaded them onto my solar-powered iPod pre-shipwreck.

Anyhow, we find ourselves again at Manchester. "Perverted by Language" from The Fall has a couple of clunkers (what album does not from them?) but the intensity of endless drones such as "Tempo House" or the time-travel narrative of "Wings" or the spartan declamations of "Neighborhood of Infinity" vie with lyrical snippets of a Mark E Smith coming into his own. "A jew on a motorbike" yelped over and over: I leave it to you to decode vs. my own hunch(es). It's the sound of an atonal band beginning to become accessible, to a degree, with Brix Smith joining her husband, but the more pop-oriented, to a degree, sounds of the mid-80s Fall still refused to jell. This LP kept the band prickly, elusive, and gnomic.

That city also gave us The Gang of Four, whose albums I used to be able to hear, but now sound to me as if sealed in a vacuum as tight as Lenin's tomb. They lack The Fall's subtle iconoclasm or the Mekons' knowing braininess, and seem as if created for the Media Studies New School seminar in Rock Criticism & Advanced Theory, guest lecturers Marcus & Frith. The Mekons, true to their own anarchic tendencies, failed to come up with a solid winner in the album stakes until mid-decade and the start of their C&W infatuation.

This leaves four Mancunians who started the whole genre, unwittingly, Joy Division. I need not tell you probably anything you don't already know about "Unknown Pleasures." Problem is, if he'd lived they'd have matured exactly as The Cure or New Order for that matter into respectable while no longer innovative leaders of serious men and somber women. (Allusion buried in previous sentence.) I don't worship every utterance of Ian Curtis, and much of "Closer" bores me, but captured live the band, from what I hear on the concerts preserved on "Heart & Soul" and "Les Baines Douches" while lacking Martin Hannett's fabled icy gloss, makes up for it with stolid drive and heroic guts.

Also credited as early post-punks, Magazine's leader came out of the band Buzzcocks and the city. They made three good post-punk LPs. They integrated slower, atmospheric textures as did Joy Division. They also emphasized dramatic lyrics, spatial dynamics, and a more fluid, much more meditative style of delivery into a punk-descended return to compression, volume, and density. Their début, "Real Life" and number three, "The Correct Use of Soap," both have five or so brilliant songs. I'd place about eight of their songs on the top fifty of this genre. They remain an overlooked band that indirectly "inspired" more famous peers.

Howard Devoto's deliberately preening, self-aggrandizing pacing can be glacial, and I prefer the quicker demands on the music and the vocals to the tectonically slow majesty of much of album #2, "Secondhand Daylight." Yet, Devoto's using the LP as others would a stage. He's not entertaining you. You're listening to his own journey into the center of the night. Céline would approve.

John Leckie, who for me produced some of the era's best albums, rivals Martin Hannett in his command of layer, texture, and depth. Barry Adamson's bass levels and John McGeoch's guitar slash cut into the music as deeply as Devoto's burning resolve to play music as Raskolnikov thought. You might not think Dostoevsky could be set to what you might hear on a daring British radio station around 1980, but one legacy of this time: you could, if lucky.

Over the Pennines, in Liverpool it's Julian Cope trying to make his solo career stick as the drugs take over. The Teardrop Explodes turned "Kilmanjaro" into a post-punk excursion with horns and keyboards and flourish, before these filigrees became de rigeur. "Wilder" has great song titles, but the chemicals already were cooking. There's lots of half-coherent ideas here within the hubris. Therefore, Cope too made interesting misses more than hits, although a compilation such as "Floored Genius" might entice your fancy.

His strategically positioned mate, Ian McCulloch, hit the money shots while Cope's dates with Lady Luck ended in premature anticipation. Echo & the Bunnymen's "Crocodiles" already castigates the sordid Scouse scene. I recommend, perversely, transplanted (we native Californians always notice these blow-ins) San Franciscan Kelley Stoltz' "Crockodials" as a one-man take on this album that plays it song-by-song and arguably matches the original! So, a tribute of cover versions of a post-punk classic will do. For Echo straight, I've read in Simon Reynolds' history of the period, "Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-84" (reviewed by me on Amazon), that Brian Eno and Moby among others worth their salt count the second LP "Heaven Up Here" as among their very short list. I'd suggest #3, "Porcupine," whose cover photo was taken in Iceland (where Killing Joke and The Fall also recorded around 1982!) and the album fits this frozen inscape.

Any record recommending John Webster's plays demands applause! Selections such as "The White Devil" continue the rather po-faced, English-major eagerness of Mac's lyrical style. Mac informs us about Webster as if we'd never heard of him. This is likely, I admit, for most post-punkers, and perhaps only coincidentally I heard this song around the time I had to study Webster in my grad school seminar for Elizabethan & Jacobean Drama. As Siouxsie noted in the Vice interview I quoted yesterday, we do find our reading through our music during this period, all of us exiled in our own monadic introspection, searching for the few others like us, pre-Net, pre-MTV, pre-CMJ, pre-Pitchfork and My Space.

McCulloch howls like some grandson of Lear on a blasted heath. But one who never lets on that he's read Shakespeare, I suppose. I find him compelling in his lyrics for their unintentional claims to originality. He's repeating what every author worth his or her talent ever has, but as Pope mused better than I about the gift of wit, rarely with such memorable phrasing as his predecessors. He rages against God, hates organized religion, anguishes over mortality. It's as if you listen to a tragic hero who writes his own dramatic monologues, unaware of Sophocles or Shaw. There's a purity to his notebook jottings made into cathedrals of sung shadow. He's not in on his own joke, that the weary sentiments he mouths have been cried out for thousands of years by millions of poets, but the hawkish swoops of the melodramatic music matches his sulky snits magnificently. Ian Broudie's production deepens the chasms that open; Pete de Freitas insistent drums, Les Pattinson's steady bass, and Will Sergeant's clanging guitars build into pyramids of jagged immensity, piercing clouds as they do dreams with visions of implacable precision.

As we're talking education, over in Cambridge, it's Robyn Hitchcock, Kimberly Rew (both guys, this being Britain), and the lads in The Soft Boys blending louder guitars and driving backbeats into the freakout lyrical and musical compositions of ten years after, I mean before. They seem as stoned as their predecessors, but somehow in on the joke. A bit too obsessed with bugs, decay, and silly tales for me, but parts of "A Can of Bees" (get it?) and some of the odds and ends on "Invisible Hits" make it worthwhile. Critics fall all over "Underwater Moonlight," but this runs a distant third for me and always has, contrary to those rock geeks. Hitchcock's first solo, which uses in solo conventions much of his band and songs he worked up with them, "Black Snake Diamond Role," also has a few fantastic tunes amidst the usual prattle about insects and metamorphoses and corpses. He's a prat and full of himself, like Michael Stipe or Bono or Sting, but like his more renowned peers, his heart's in more or less the right place, I grudgingly concur. He did make the mistake of dedicating later CDs to his then-paramour as "the most wonderful woman in the whole world," the liner-note equivalent of a tattoo "Winona forever" by Johnny Depp, sans the clever editing.

Into the capital, we see a band once touted along with Echo as the rivals if not betters of U2, The Psychedelic Furs. Less true than the Soft Boys to that adjective, but not without their moments. They're reputed to be in their earliest formation more akin to a harsher, less fluid attack that supposedly exists on record only ghosted in "The Peel Sessions." I tracked this down on import, and I do prefer the rawer versions of some early songs to the (John Leckie produced) first, self-titled LP or the second, "Talk Talk Talk," under the direction of Steve Lillywhite (who'd practically be identified with the genre along with Leckie during the 80s). They also mixed literate observations-- I heard Richard Butler inserted overheard phrases into his lyrics-- with a drier, more detached delivery of sax on top of what started closer to grating, post-punk, processed blocks of sound. Before they became hopelessly tangled with "Pretty in Pink" and a slicker MTV mid-80s look, they had promise.

Wire, that city's survivors of a punk scene they soon deserted in art-school mode for increasingly convoluted, terse, understated as opposed to hammering installation-friendly installments, kept the standard for what post-punk could become. That is, whatever its practitioners damn well pleased, in true punk cred. It's a dive into the id, but without Echo's far more accessible melodies. Here, shards float and threaten to cut. More howls, fewer croons. You might hear this music in your bad dreams, and awake wanting to play such nagging dissonance, freeze-dried into three-minute portions served on a bed of minor chords, again. If so, this is your band.

I found "154" often off-putting at first, then warmed to its chilly entreaties. It's no easy listen, and there's a seven-minute ditty called "Mercy" that'll have you begging for this quality long before its termination. Other songs make it worth the plunge. Mike Thorne's production polishes these surfaces, as he had on "Chairs Missing." If you like one, you'll like the other. But, keep the skip button handy. These are not perfect LPs. They never made a consistently stunning album, but like The Fall or Mekons, in their own more human, fumbling manner, they have fragmented and re-formed and deformed their music for three decades now. Such bands keep my respect for their loyalty to their own stubborn muse.

Fellow first-wave punk creators, Siouxsie & the Banshees, on their fourth LP, "Juju," gave a name to goth rock and a sound to match its brooding, neo-psych, and forbiddingly sketched panoramas of gloom. I liked the psuedo-Arabian and Middle Eastern influences that here and on the follow-up, the lighter "A Kiss in the Dreamhouse," started to enliven the music thanks to John McGeoch's stint with the band as they branched out into a more florid, less brittle, sound. Five songs on "Juju" rank easily among the best of the era. Dramatic, tense, and erotic: "Spellbound," "Into the Light," "Sin in My Heart," and the inevitably titled "Halloween."

The Cure's Robert Smith had filled in as a Banshee guitarist around this period while with The Cure. I admire "The Forest" as the exemplary song of this genre, but its album, "Seventeen Seconds," I played recently and outside of "Play for Today" and "Primary," could not wait for it to end. "Pornography" is another LP that stands as an epitaph of this dark interval in music, but again, it's not an easy listen even for a neurotic pessimist such as yours truly, nor has it ever been. The Cure made an enormous impact on this period's look, mood, and sound, but they work far better as a singles than as an album band.

Same with Killing Joke, a harder, proto-metal bunch that may represent what might have happened if the original Banshees had kept their line-up. The band never made a great LP, but early songs like "The Wait" (covered by Metallica) show what they could rise to given patience. It pounds and yells and demands your full attention. Too many of their songs rampage on thuddlingly, but those on "Fire Dances," which lightened the intensity a bit, managed to better reflect their range.

Outside London, it's over to Cardiff. At last, if ephemerally, the Young Marble Giants staggered into a studio and became the first, and only internationally-known, group to make an impact. They symbolize the DIY artsy ambitions of Rough Trade. "Colossal Youth" maintains a consistency rarely matched by albums of this bedsitter mad genius age. This may be due to the band's extreme limitations of skill, but they work. Lilting voice as if from a slightly imbalanced gal, while a guitar wanders about in semi-schooled jazz style, atop a squiggly bass or overly heavy organ chords. Yet, often light and appealing while harboring menace and despair within a sunny mien. No, I don't understand how this all came together for one album either.

Did Scotland contribute much? Josef K and their coffeehouse pals on the Postcard label were once touted, but to me they remain dull. Skids had great songs thanks to John Leckie's skill in selling them, but they never managed a steadily listenable album, veering wildly between what would become Stuart Adamson's piping guitar signatures in Big Country and Richard Jobson's pre-Morrissey flouncing cod-poetry pressed as if leaves between diary pages into vinyl. They probably collapsed due to "internal differences" before their talents could have coalesced as the band deserved.

Over in Dublin, the well-monikered Virgin Prunes left an equally sensible title, "If I Die, I Die." The pale, tribally-smeared Manichean underbelly of boyish, well-scrubbed U2, these Lypton Village subversive drama queens sounded like The Lost Boys meets performance art. It's primitive, and humbling to think it came from a depressed bunch of schoolkids in what was then a depressed Irish city. There's glimmers of warped beauty as convincing as those later glimpsed by Bjork, Beck, or Radiohead. It's as if world music tripped over a passel of Bowie acolytes.

The album does not cohere, nor could it given the ensemble's fractured line-ups and divergent visions, or nightmares. It refracts what may have been happening in London or L.A., Paris or Manhattan, but as if only imagined from a Northside fanzine's enigmatic aside. It's as if the avant-garde was overheard, one dank garage over from the gallery event. Still, as a sample of what could have been contenders if Artaud ruled the limelight rather than Neil Simon, or if audiences really understood Beckett's tramps, it's worth a search.

I'm unconvinced that U2's post-punk as opposed to Echo or the Furs, but I cannot explain why. I'd hazard that "Boy" could rank with its peers easily on such rarely heard songs as "Electric Co" or "An Cat Dubh" or the second LP's "Tomorrow", but then, I rarely hear the band. I never bothered to play "War" twice, and never upgraded the first three LPs to CD. They took the style and constructed the structures that made post-punk and they have kept pace and set the pace ever since like no other band has worldwide, but for me it's not until "The Unforgettable Fire," for all its forgettable tunes, that Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois found the miasma that matched their shrouded gauzy swirl beneath the banners, the anthems, the stadiums, and the relentless promotion. Sometimes, I wonder that if U2 had been but the level of the Prunes in success, if Ireland today'd still be the level of Latvia.

To me the American post-punk scene's more disparate. The Gun Club with their début "Fire of Love" has a totally half-competent production, one side Chris D, one Tito Larriva I recall. "Miami" the follow-up had its sound mangled by Blondie's Chris Stein. A sample of catholic Pierce's tastes; he'd been president of the fan club for early Blondie ("is a band") as well as a champion of reggae-- this drove him out of the punk scene in L.A. in search of more open-minded bandmates. "Las Vegas Story" probably reflects the toll of substances, but it too possesses a few sweeping triumphs, sort of like Phil Spector on mescaline and tequila, amidst the spoken-word intervals and the Pharaoh Sanders cover I always skip. It's more panoramic, reflecting how with so many post-punks, their ambitions drew them further away from punk orthodoxy, proving the oxymoron of a movement encouraging its audiences to turn musicians, to break down stereotypes, and to turn from being fan club members of Blondie to a band who'd work with their peers to further shake up the 80s doldrums.

But, Gun Club had to begin pushing against the limits of its own competence, or lack. This might have sounded good as a manifesto, but how many fledglings from the nests of the late 70s could fly? And how many flights do we find ourselves wanting to follow today? One of the handful of LPs from then that endure, on Slash, stands as its own gnarled piece of folk-art within a museum of O.C. sneers and Sunset Strip postures. "Fire of Love," from its artlessly garish cover art of a voodoo ritual off early film stills (this was censored when the LP was released on Blondie's vanity label, "Animal") and Judith Bell's back-cover drawings of each song title as a tiny label on a bottle of booze matches the tipsy, horny, heroin-infected, and gin-addled hipshake sway of punks playing the blues with an I-dare-you authenticity the Edge, despite Bono's "Rattle & Hum" plaint, could not master. Primitive is an hackneyed word or praise or blame, but Jack White would have no career if it were not for this crew of Hollywood scenesters who finally got to lay these hungover tracks down.

I don't ever listen to blues, but "Fire" rings true. It's that paradox of Elvis or Dylan, or Jagger or Janis, or Jack White or Matisyahu aping another race's style, yet convincing you that it's no minstrel show. When Jeffrey Lee Pierce od'd (only a matter of time), I felt like many of my-- perhaps slightly older-- peers did when John Lennon or Jerry Garcia died. His lyrics may have been more artless, but they hang more sincere. He's struggling to exorcise his demons, and you hear this ungainly, bottle-blonde, insecure overgrown kid channel his longing and his loneliness and his lust.

Listening to him yowl and moan, it's entertaining in the way that watching a magician perform is. You know deep down it's a stunt, but you toss away disbelief to let your spirit open to the experience. So, you find yourself caught up in the illusion willingly. When Pierce screamed and sighed, Kid Congo Powers and Ward Dotson strummed, you smelt the Delta, the swamp, and the bayou in SoCal somehow.

However, the Gun Club fled L.A. before I turned 21. They gained no respect here even as they sold out halls in Japan or Belgium. Some musicians despite the plaudits of the press or the importunings of the fans, labored without rewards earned by the Bonos and Stipes of this half-decade. Let alone the chart success of sex-punk stalwarts such as Billy Idol or Adam Ant! Don't forget Boy George and Annabelle Lu-Hwin. Forget Howard Jones and Gene Loves Jezebel, please.

Like my wife's faves The Replacements or Husker Du from Minneapolis, or L.A. band "X," certain bands endured through punk and post-punk but you felt they were never a part of the amorphous movement. Similarly, Minutemen also created a sound drawing from Americana and roots music as filtered by punks. The Minutemen added tinges of another music I never play, jazz. There's no one album by these San Pedro "corndogs" I still play regularly, but the two-disc SST release, in 1984, "Double Nickels on the Dime," in its sprawl of minute-long haiku tunes all over the musical map (one Tex-Mex tune, "Corona," featured on "Jackass"), does capture the potential of what my hometown's artists could produce. Meat Puppets also grew from hardcore Phoenicians, Arizona branch, into quondam-Deadheads on "II" and "Up on the Sun" before, as in homage to Jerry's kids, they too succumbed to harder drugs.

The other double-vinyl epic on SST in '84, which I bought the same day as "Double Nickels" and was lucky I had as both LPs on that small label quickly became hard-to-find when SST failed to anticipate critical acclaim and fans word-of-mouth demand, Husker Du with "Zen Arcade," also challenged another musical genre, but one they themselves helped invent but a few years before, hardcore. "Zen" returned to the hoariest of clichés, the double concept album. It ranged from piano instrumentals to searing punk, a fake Hare Krishna chant, and a fifteen-minute, side-four devouring time filler in the spirit of, say, Jethro Tull's side three of their concert that featured "Dharma for One" with drum solo. Bettering such relics from the Age of Aquarius, "Zen" convinced that it made, well, at least as much sense as "Tommy." Unlike The Who's opus, I prefer much more of "Zen's" sung tracks. On "Tommy," I have none of the vocal cuts saved on my iPod, only the instrumentals!

The Huskers also can be credited for, as with Magazine and Buzzcocks and REM and Smiths, loosening up the sexual hang-ups of an often testosterone-overdosed clientele. Lyrics appealed to those left out not only of mainstream rock, but punk's macho and sexist rigidity. As a thin bespectacled lad with a tiny girlfriend barely five feet tall, I can attest to the brutality of the club and concert scene back then in L.A. My distaste today for the typical show may not be blamed only on my sensitive hearing, but my dislike of jostling, smoke, spilled beer, endless profanity shouted my way, moshing, and general idiocy. Call me a prude, but I watched Bob Mould stalk off a UCLA stage and end the Huskers gig when a beer bottle was lobbed his way.

Drugs can indeed be blamed throughout this discography for a lot of brevity. Not the one-minute songs, or short attention spans of audiences, but the leaps from innovation one LP to dreck the next five. Or however many before the label threw you off or you threw yourself off a cliff. One band that-- as with U2 in my estimation-- epitomizes a shift without being a part of it is R.E.M.. They jumped a notch in my regard when I read the other day their three mooted original band names: Cans of Piss, Negro Wives, and my favorite, Twisted Kites. Their "Chronic Town" e.p. was acclaimed by Bob Christgau in a Village Voice I found at the time as "the spiritual side of punk." This stuck with me. If you asked me for the one record that had the impact that for aging boomers "Blonde on Blonde" or "Sgt. Pepper's" might have had, it'd be "Murmur." Still, I am unsure how it aligns with whatever post-punk became.

This fits, however. Just as punk twisted like a flock of kites (if not seagulls) into tangled clumps, so did post-punk into "college" or "indie" or "alternative" rock by the middle of the 80s. And, as with U2, REM led the way towards this redefinition of whatever those of us who liked punk kept listening to half a dozen years later. We were the artsy, the sensitive, the sexually suffering. We might have been wallflowers next to the mosh pit. Some of us wore glasses and made passes at others who did. We could not fit into the leather jacket, we eschewed the dog collar or skinny tie or checkered slacks. Our badges may have changed, and my hair refused to be tamed, but my ears remained open to what the college d.j.'s (of which I was briefly one) and rock critics (ditto for alma mater's paper) directed our waiting way.

Photo: Scanned from someone's collage, early 80s. Note Big Country, U2, Undertones' "Sin of Pride" LP, a flawed psych-soul effort by Derry's finest that has again, four or five great songs amidst other utterly dead on arrival failures. A brave attempt. This is subtitled with a line from Buzzcocks' prescient '78 "Love Bites," already souring at the failure of punk nerve: "Nostalgia for an age yet to come." To think the four (other than those to be Joy Division or those in the ever-mutating Fall) Mancunians never yet saw "I Love the New Millennium" on MTV, and it's not even over yet. Golden Age of a Mis-Spent Youth

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