Post-Punk 101: What Is Post-Punk?

Unless a modern artist is working in r&b, rap, metal, punk revival or vocal pop, it’s likely they're doing something rooted in Post-Punk.

Ian Curtis of Joy Division.
Ian Curtis of Joy Division.    

Observer School of Music

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Music History Department

What Is Post-Punk?

POP 373 S

Fall 2016

Monday & Wednesday 15:10-16:30 at Hannett 302

Instructor: Timothy Sommer

Office Hours: Tuesday & Thursday 12:00-13:00 at Lillywhite 114

& by appointment

Course Description

In order to eviscerate the ELP-isms, Eagle-isms and ELO-isms that had come to personify mainstream rock by the mid-1970s, the initial flowering of the Punk Rock movement (1975 – 1977) needed to present an aggressive, oppositional, adamant brick wall of rhythm guitars and unsubtle arrangements. However, by 1978, the somewhat uniform “wall of sound” that had defined punk’s initial ideation was beginning to crumble, and light was poking through.

Artists were beginning to draw on influences that the initial punk orthodoxy may have rejected; “art” became less of a dirty word, and musicians began to integrate space, emptiness and a sonic and emotional sensitivity into their work. The extensive body of music that emerged from the prime flush of the Post-Punk movement (1978 – 1981) remains some of the most powerful, engaging and creative guitar-based work in the history of the electric rock/pop era.

Course Requirements

Access to a Spotify account and/or a know-it-all older brother, cousin, uncle, or girlfriend/boyfriend of your mother may also be helpful.

Here is your required-listening playlist. Yes, questions concerning this may appear on tests.

Week One: Overview

The Post-Punk era was a time when a new generation of bands informed by punk actually lived up to the potential for creativity and artistic intimacy “promised” by punk. It is also accurate to say that virtually all of the young bands working in guitar-based “alt rock” today are fundamentally influenced by this period.

Unless a modern artist is working in r&b, rap, metal, punk revival or vocal pop, it’s likely they are doing something that’s rooted in Post-Punk. Examples of this include Mogwai, Interpol, The Killers, DIIV, Parquet Courts, Wild Nothing, Deerhunter, Preoccupations, Omni, Sunflower Bean, Mind Spiders, Arcade Fire, Total Control, Eddy Current Suppression Ring, Wolf Parade, Institute, and very many others.

If we were to detail the influence Post-Punk had on credible and successful other acts of the last 35 years, from R.E.M. to U2 to the Strokes, we would be here a very long time indeed. And we don’t want to be here too long; I, for one, have set aside time to sit on the West Quad and smoke American Sprits and think about Mr. Robot while staring at a picture of Patrick McGoohan. No, you may not join me.

Week Two: Timeline


For all intents and purposes, the core era of Post-Punk begins on October 13, 1978, when “Public Image” by Public Image Limited is released. Not only is this the first visible 45 readily identifiable as Post-Punk, it was also deeply influential on the entire movement. In addition, “Public Image” is uniquely significant due to the fact that it was co-created by an icon of punk rock, who was consciously trying to redefine the direction of a culture he had played such a fierce role in establishing.

“Public Image” literally blew a hole in punk’s wall of sound and let in air, light and art; taking cues from Can, reggae and all manners of Krautrock and art rock, it was a song that emphasized what was not there, without sacrificing any of punk’s ability to stun and stagger. This formula would be echoed in everything from Joy Division to the Cure to the Slits (and many others), and especially U2. “Public Image” is a definitive statement of intent and direction for Post-Punk.

The “end date” for this first ecstatic flush of Post-Punk is almost exactly two years later on October 20, 1980, when U2 released their debut album, Boy.

Although U2’s subsequent success has caused some revisionist assessment of their genre characterization, Boy is most definitely a Post-Punk record; by incorporating influences and stylistic tics from some of the movement’s greatest acts (the work of PiL, Wire and Joy Division are all hugely reflected in Boy), U2 mainstreamed the spacious but powerful rock-based blend of ambience, electricity, art-thinking and riff-whacking that had epitomized Post-Punk.

Week Three: Noting the potential inaccuracy of existing source material

The contemporary (1978 – ’82) American music media’s essential ignorance about the depth and importance of Post-Punk means that it remains mysterious and misunderstood.

In our deeply pluralistic modern world, where virtually everything the last century whelped up is only a mouse click away, it’s difficult to recall that circa 1980, Rolling Stone (and other mainstream American journals) was still hoping that if they ignored new British music it might go away. So almost all of the astounding achievements of this movement passed virtually unnoticed by the contemporary American media, unless you were paying particularly close attention to college radio, poorly distributed fanzines, or the English music weeklies.


Week Four: Subject Background/Causation

The causes and conditions that made the ’78 – ’81 Post-Punk explosion possible were absolutely unique.

These exceptional circumstances allowed an enormous diversity to pervade the movement. From the lo-fi YeYe-isms of the Marine Girls or the Mo-dettes to the Pop Group’s deeply intense stop-start nursery noise jazz brilliance, from the genre-bending crunching aural crankiness of This Heat to the loosely-sketched ambient punk of Section 25, from Swell Maps’ electric-socket licking frantic frizz punk to the Brian Wilson-in-pastels goose bump sigh pop of the Raincoats, never before has a relatively small and contained movement encompassed such variety, quality and power.

Specific cultural and economic conditions allowed for this movement to gestate, emerge, expand and ultimately contract. In general terms, these conditions boil down to three factors:

1) The ubiquity of the acceptance of the “idea” of new music in the U.K. (by listeners, musicians, industry and media) in the wake of Punk.

2) The natural desire of the young artists inspired by punk to expand their artistic landscape and integrate previously “unacceptable” influences.

3) An explosion of independent labels, combined with an area (the United Kingdom) small enough to allow these independent labels to make a significant sales and media impact.

These aforementioned elements were potentiated by this: Prior to the arrival of MTV (and the resultant acceptance in the U.S., on a major label and media level, of the previously minimized alternative rock movement), a small period emerged where wild invention and diversity was encouraged and rewarded; i.e., circa 1979, the status quo in British alternative music was diverse and adventurous.

By, say, 1984, when it was clear that certain Post-Punk-rooted acts (like Simple Minds, U2, or the Cure) could achieve a certain degree of American success (whereas others, like Delta 5, Au Pairs, or Essential Logic, probably couldn’t), the environment became less encouraging for these more musically radical acts, and the “idea” of Post-Punk was both mainstreamed and watered down.


Week Five: Socio/Cultural Background

In order to understand the diversity inherent within the relatively short space Post-Punk thrived (and to understand the particular strength of the “outbreak” in the U.K.), it’s important to recognize these four factors:

1) Reggae/dub was far, far more a part of the alternative music culture in the U.K. than it was in the United States, and the “average” musician was likely to have a much greater awareness of the wider (and stranger) corners of Jamaican music. These sounds—the aggressive emptiness of Jacob Miller, the progressive acid-verb bangs of Lee Scratch Perry, the drifting, romantic intensity of Junior Murvin, etcetera—greatly impacted those seeking to step away from punk into a more progressive, more spacious, more psychotronic sound.

2) Many of the musicians forming Post-Punk bands had a much greater awareness of Krautrock and the looser, more fanatical ends of British prog than their American cousins, and these elements were almost universally incorporated into Post-Punk. For instance, Joy Division’s rhythms are literally indistinguishable from Motorik (the rhythmic element synonymous with Krautrock), and the noisy funk of This Heat or Rip, Rig and Panic were deeply impacted by the U.K. prog/art-rock scene epitomized by Gong, Third Ear Band, Here and Now, etcetera.

3) Underpinning all of it—and almost completely absent from the American ideation of Post-Punk—was the influence of Wilko Johnson and Dr. Feelgood. Of course, Johnson had also hugely impacted punk (Paul Weller, Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer and Hugh Cornwall each appropriated his distinctive guitar style), but Johnson’s clean, chopping, trebly burr was also perfectly suited for Post-Punk, and it was especially important to the Leeds-based bands, like Gang of Four, Delta 5 and the Au Pairs.

4) By 1979, the British were far more willing to empower women to become fully engaged members of bands, and very many of the best Post-Punk acts (e.g., the Raincoats, Delta 5, the Passions and the Banshees) prominently featured women. Whereas it’s also true that women played a major role in American Post-Punk (literally all of the circa ’80 – ’82 Lower East Side noise bands had women members), in the United States there was a great gap between women’s participation in Post-Punk (and punk) and the media’s coverage of it. To put it simply, punk rock and Post-Punk didn’t have a women problem, the media covering punk and Post-Punk did. Although this problem also existed in the U.K., it existed to a far greater degree in the U.S. Therefore, in very general terms, the U.K. ideation of Post-Punk has a more “feminine spirit.”

In Week 5, we will also discuss antecedents and/or outliers, i.e. people who arrived at the Post-Punk format earlier than the October 22, 1978 date I have anointed above. For example, Pere Ubu, Suicide, Tin Huey, Devo, Throbbing Gristle, not to mention at least half a dozen German bands, were making music that was Post-Punk in everything but name well before mid-1978.


Week Six: Definition of the Genre, Exclusions

The term Post-Punk has become a bit of a drain-catcher for anything that came out between the Sex Pistols and R.E.M., and unless we effectively draw a line somewhere, we basically have a useless and meaningless nomenclature. Although there is some gray area (detailed below), the following five subsets of alternative music, all coexisting with Post-Punk, need to be excluded from the genre definition in order to have any effective understanding of the Post-Punk movement.

1) All First Generation (i.e., ’76/’77) punk bands (with three very important exceptions). True, there were first-generation punk bands who went on to make music that was distinctly Post-Punk-esque: for instance, Generation X’s third album (which was released as Gen X) is full of space, fish-spiny guitars, and the post-PiL dub influences that were trademarks of the movement; and the Clash’s Sandinista! is such a genre clusterfuck that in many ways it could easily be labeled Post-Punk. Likewise, the Stranglers’ masterpieces, The Raven (1979) and The Gospel According to the Meninblack (1981) are both vastly impressive exercises in progressive, Krautrock-influenced punk; but let’s keep all of these outside the umbrella, because I think the term Post-Punk becomes essentially meaningless if we use it to include very much from the initial punk movement.

(The exceptions are very important indeed: ambient, noisy, arid, provocative, robotic and pastoral Wire are one of the definitive artists of the genre, and made two of its very greatest albums during this time period; The Fall, who utilized a deeply original blend of Beefheart, rockabilly and a childish, speedy take on Krautrock to expand punk’s parameters; and Alternative Television, whose experiments in challenging the expectations of their listeners and marrying punk, art and minimalist hippie jamming predate even the work of PiL.)

2) We must omit most second-generation punk bands; I cannot in good faith call Buzzcocks, Undertones, or Stiff Little Fingers (to name three) Post-Punk. There are two notable exceptions: the Ruts DC, whose experiments in blending chipping, skipping punk with dub resulted in one of the best unknown treasures of the era, Rhythm Collision Vol. 2; and the Skids, whose Celtic-accented post-Roxy art-rock was airy, evocative, anthemic and most definitely Post-Punk.


3) With some reluctance (and for the sake of clarifying the genre definition), we have to eliminate all synth-based bands. This is tricky, because Tubeway Army, early Human League and Heaven 17 are almost definitely Post-Punk in intent and form; but since English synth-pop (as defined by, say, Depeche Mode, OMD and later Human League) is clearly something else entirely, we have to draw this line in the sand. The instructor is willing to consider an exception for Ultravox, who clearly began as a Post-Punk band, before evolving into a classic synth-pop band.

4) Despite the fact that the ska revival bands of the very early 1980s share some very crucial lines of DNA with Post-Punk (the influence of reggae/dub; origins in the attitudinal stance of punk rock; and the pervasive influence of Wilko Johnson and Dr. Feelgood), the ska bands use these pieces toward very different ends, and therefore cannot be classified as Post-Punk. One could make an exception for the second Special’s album, the dry, morbid, deeply artful More Specials, but let’s agree not to make that exception.

5) Finally, let’s eliminate from consideration the post-Beatles hi-depth pop stuff, namely Echo & the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes. Despite being two of the best bands of the era (arguably, the Bunnymen are the best over-emotional guitar pop band of the decade, after R.E.M.), both of these acts evolve from a garage rock/Doors/Walker Brothers/Merseybeat tradition, and therefore from a very different lineage than the Post-Punkers.


Week Seven: U.K. vs. U.S.

To a large degree Post-Punk developed independently in the U.S. and the U.K., and from different roots.

In the U.K. (to greatly oversimplify), the Post-Punk scene was fed by the social and stylistic unity of the punk rock movement, which was in turn artistically influenced by the liberating influences of reggae, Krautrock, English folk, prog rock and American funk (etcetera). But in the United States, Punk Rock was a cult, and not the ubiquitous cultural re-set it was in the U.K.; also, reggae and dub, such a fundamental influence on the British ideation, was far, far less visible.

The American format evolved from very different wellsprings, often evoking Jazz and ‘60s/’70s garage experimentalism (i.e., the Stooges, Sun Ra, the Velvets, Joe Byrd, Thirteenth Floor Elevators, the MC5), though often to similar effect. These groups include Pere Ubu, Tin Huey, James Chance, DNA, or Chrome. It is, however, worth noting that both the U.S. and U.K. forms of the genre share a strong common influence of Eno and the Velvet Underground.

The most lasting and influential of the American Post-Punk acts—specifically Pylon, the Method Actors, the Feelies and Liquid Liquid—very much underline the independent origin and gestation of the pre-1980 American Post-Punk acts. However, some of the (slightly) later ones, like Mission of Burma, Savage Republic, Certain General, and the Neats are a little more clearly influenced by British developments.


Week Eight: The Fading of the Initial Movement, and Summation

By 1983 and ’84, the causes and conditions that had created one of the greatest flurries of electricity, creativity and exploration in rock history had passed.

There were a number of reasons for this, including:

1) The punk movement, which had provided the initial fire glow of energy and ire that had informed Post-Punk, had faded and even been discredited (unless you were “there,” it may be difficult to imagine how marginalized and passé punk culture was considered in the mid-1980s); in many ways, the guitar-based sound of Post-Punk was “lumped in” with punk.

2) The explosion of alternative and indie music in America (and the near-constant visibility of these bands via a healthy touring circuit), e.g. Black Flag, the Replacements, Sonic Youth, R.E.M., alleviated (to a degree) the need to look overseas for the “outsider” thrills the Post-Punk bands had provided.

3) By 1984, MTV had mainstreamed alternative British music to degree unthinkable in 1979. This served to minimize the visibility of British bands that released and performed material that was decidedly more experimental and alternative, while inspiring other Post-Punk bands to move toward the mainstream.

But the palette Post-Punk created not only left some of the greatest rock music ever recorded—it remains with us, as the underlying foundation of virtually all alternative guitar-based rock.

Required Listening and Source Material

  1. Essential Primary Material

The Cure, Faith and Carnage Visors
Dave Gilmour overdoses on morphine and gets put on an ice floe, where he takes a very slow trip to a very sad heaven.

Durutti Column, The Return of the Durutti Column
Imagine Chris Isaak, George Harrison and the Edge in a very big room, each agreeing to play the most beautiful music they’ve ever dreamed of, having received the instruction: “Play jazz but don’t play jazz.”

The Fall, A Part of America Therein
Poets and dog chewing on coffee beans and tearing into the corpse of the roughest, rawest hillbilly rock of the 1950s.

Gang of Four, Entertainment
Your teeth chatter, your limbs flair, you pee on an electric socket and dream of Dr. Feelgood being sodomized by George Clinton.

Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures and Closer
Moaning, gray-eyed burps of rhythm and melody. For all the attention on doomed Ian Curtis, students will note that the real star here is Peter Hook, who literally reinvents the bass as a melodic/rhythmic instrument capable of great emotional power.

Magazine, The Correct Use of Soap
Spacious, self-hating funk with references to Rundgren, Bolan, and Sparks; students will note that this, Orange Juice and Monochrome Set contribute directly the invention of Morrissey.

Monochrome Set, Volume, Contrast, Brilliance…
Deeply strange, deeply spiky band who occasionally sound like a very shy Wire playing Feelies songs, creating needling spits of Shadows-esque melody and identity-searching lyrics.

New Order, Movement

Resonant, Joyous, ringing, triumphant; it’s like pressing your ear to the body of a guitar and hearing the sound of your heart, wishing.

PiL, Metal Box/Second Edition
Throbbing, ecstatically original, dramatic and hypnotic, on their second album PiL create an entirely new landscape out of the most simply-sketched pieces of reggae, rock, world and dance music.

XTC, Drums and Wires
The Beatles, nervous and sideways and risking electrocution.

Wire154 and Chairs Missing
The most satisfying art-rock of its era, condensed and made utterly compelling, luxurious, anxious and taut, and implying endless harmonic spirals.

Slits, Cut
Neither punk nor reggae, but a strange yet welcoming house built out of wood and steel borrowed from both, often so close to disappearing into obscurity but always nailed by intestine-shaking bass and affecting vocals.

The Raincoats, Odyshape
What Pet Sounds would sound like if it had been made by someone who had never actually heard Pet Sounds, but only imagined what it might sound like; too concrete to be ambient, too elegiac to be easily described, it’s a wisp of wind, rain, palm-fronds and city smog, vastly original and vastly necessary.

The Feelies, Crazy Rhythms
When a lot of “What Goes On” isn’t enough. The place where Neu! meets the Modern Lovers, and especially for everyone who wants to know what Arcade Fire would sound like if they refused to be ridiculous.

Method Actors, This Is Still It
Cold and hot bolts of gamelan arpeggios and the best guitar/drum duo band ever.

Pylon, Gyrate and Chomp
A child’s idea of funk without a slap-bass in sight, executed perfectly, by an electric eel of a punk band who somehow evoke the Ramones, Neu!, ESG and R.E.M., all at once, joyous and sexy and driving down your favorite highway.

Orange Juice, The Glasgow School
A deeply satisfying band who are the missing link between the Velvets and the Smiths; somehow it sounds exactly like dreamers strumming on tennis rackets; somehow it becomes one of the great hidden influence of the last 35 years in music.

Young Marble Giants, Colossal Youth
The radical integration of the low-key, low-volume but deeply electrified touch into the clicking ache of Post-Punk resulted in one of the most powerful, subtle, lovable and influential bands of the era.

  1. Strongly Recommended

Many thanks to Cole Hill, Hugo Burnham, Maddy Appelbaum and Johnnie Johnstone for their assistance with this piece.

Post-Punk 101: What Is Post-Punk?