Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Post-Punk: The (Once) Wild Open West

In 1977, punk had basically already been declared dead. This was a strange claim to make, because the best of punk had yet to come (The Clash had not begun to flourish yet), but for whatever reason, the claim was made and essentially accepted. But this left a gaping hole in music at the time. Who now to guide music? Where would it go? This was answered by post-punk first, being particularly framed around the late 1970s to early 1980s, where it experienced the most success.

Punk was a format essentially thriving on (perhaps excessive) simplicity. If the construct was elaborate, it was torn down until it became uncomplicated. This allowed punk to serve as a format for political banter, fully embraced by many. But when punk was declared dead, this left many questions for those who came after. They wanted to remain true to those roots and be uncomplicated, but it was done before and, well, done as a genre. So where to go? A composite look at three bands answers that question. Talking Heads, Television, and Joy Division all together form basically the whole picture of the post-punk movement, with each band taking post-punk in a unique direction. What they all really had in common was their origins: they all loved punk, but when punk had died they all were left with no guide, and each forged their own unique identity to enter rock lore.

Talking Heads came from New York, fueled by the peculiar styling of David Byrne. As with all the groups, they began playing primarily derivatives of rock music, but even then they showed flashes of greatness, from "Psycho Killer" on their debut disc to the grandiose "The Big Country" and the sly reading of Al Green's "Take Me To The River." But with their next disc they began to explore what made them great (and different from the other post-punk groups); their love and therefore application of African polyrhythms led them to their creative peak, culminating in the masterful and essential Remain In Light record.

While Fear of Music represented a great stride forward with regards to generating their "sound," it was not until Remain In Light when it all came together. Drawing heavy influence from African music-making, from the unique polyrhythms to even the way they wrote and constructed the music, Talking Heads, with the guiding hand of Brian Eno, created an entirely new sound. The music was about the composite experience, not just the individual parts, utilizing only one chord throughout the song and let all the rhythms set by the percussion, the bass, the guitars, and even Byrne's voice do the unison. What makes the record so disarming is its restlessness, from Byrne's wandering, stream of consciousness lyrics to the undulating rhythms that drive each track to both everywhere and nowhere at once. Parts weave in and out, interact with each other as they float into the mixes for periods of time before mysteriously fading out. Suffice to say, this was one of the three peaks of post-punk, but to belabor the point on Remain In Light and Talking Heads in general seems to be a disservice.

The other great American post-punk band was simply named Television, hailing once again from New York City. While Talking Heads found their mine of gold through the integration of African polyrhythms, Television found their "sound" through the use of clever guitar interplay. The term "clever guitar interplay," however, really demeans and downplays what they accomplish on their flagship record, Marquee Moon (pictured above).

The album is basically the guitar player's Bible. There is not a note wasted, not a note poorly spent. It essentially made the claim that technicality in guitar playing was, well, merely a technicality. Dismissive of the pervasive "über-playing" of flashy blues players, Television successfully said that a bunch of fast notes played together hardly makes a solo or even a song. Each riff is meticulously planned, with each guitar weaving in and out of each other in perfect unison, complementary yet totally unique. There is a genuine sense of shape and melody with each line that each guitar plays, from the gradual buildup into epic moments on masterwork "Marquee Moon" to the cascading riffs that permeate "Friction."

But because Marquee Moon is the guitar player's Bible does not mean that any of the other qualities are readily discarded. Tom Verlaine is at his most mysterious here, and the geeky (and nifty) interplay between him and his band-mates on tracks such as the rollicking opener "See No Evil" and its follower "Venus" give the record the many little moments that can still shine on an album dominated primarily by the fantastic guitar work presented. Before Television came about, guitar playing was primarily about virtuosity and the ability to be technical, but in one fell swoop, the game was utterly rewritten.

The only Brits to significantly affect post-punk were a quartet of lads from Manchester known as Joy Division. Joy Division encountered a stranger route to success. Originally a rather blasé and not very unique band that played with the typical punk-influence, Joy Division did not come upon their style until they detached themselves from the time-honored tradition of playing at ludicrously fast tempos and slowed down. Only then did Joy Division find their niche and become wholly intense, visceral, and become, well, Joy Division. And what resulted were two of the most essential records in any person's music catalog.

Frankly, I don't wish to elaborate too in depth on each record, but the reason why Joy Division really separated themselves from the rest of the post-punk pack was the emphasis on ambiance and atmosphere, leaving space rather than filling it. While live they displayed none of the "ambiance" parts (instead becoming particularly ragged and aggressive in a live setting), their use of ambiance and atmosphere in the studio essentially defined genres to come. Perhaps primarily attributed to their choice of producer, Martin Hannett, Joy Division were pushed to entirely new levels of art. Combining the unique "cold" production (and if that term does not make sense, listen to the record and within one second of the record beginning you will understand) with the sheer muscle of the band, two masterpieces, Unknown Pleasures and Closer were born.

The only downer point, ever, on Joy Division is that, well, Ian Curtis was a bit of a downer himself. The lyrics are essentially depressing, and without a doubt they forecasted the bitter end that Ian Curtis would face (for those unfamiliar, he committed suicide before Closer was ever released). But Ian Curtis was a lyrical genius endlessly battling the depression that came from crippling epileptic attacks and a failing marriage. His lyrics, as surely as anything, reflect this, but never were his lyrics your typical "depresso" lyric style; never wallowing in self-pity as most often do, he altogether emphasized alienation and a genuine sense of loss that came as real. One can really only imagine what Joy Division would have been capable of if Ian Curtis were still around.


Taken together, Talking Heads, Television, and Joy Division all came to symbolize what post-punk did quite right, though none lasted very long. It would be inherently easy to dismiss each group, perhaps, on their short existences as groups, but to simply call them "flashes in the pan," given the work they did, is a gross oversight and misunderstanding. Perhaps through tragedy or strife, none of the groups (and the genre itself) made it beyond several years. But the relics they left behind, those records, all serve as time-worn monuments to the genre of post-punk that would go on the become a pervasive influence in alternative rock.

No comments:

Post a Comment