I recently started volunteering my time to a radio station. I have a show called ‘The Runout Groove’ that airs every Friday night from 11pm-12am on 91.7 KRTU. I play a lot of “post-punk” music on my show. When I tell people that, they usually get an idea about my show that isn’t accurate, even though they aren’t wrong about what they think post-punk is, paradoxically. So, I thought I’d write an article about what post-punk is. Then I came to my senses. It’d be much easier to just list a bunch of post-punk bands and let the reader figure it out for themselves because post-punk is such a cumbersome, grey area.
Nailing down post-punk is a Sisyphean task that begs for contrary opinions. Post-punk is less a genre than an umbrella term for a whole slew of micro-genres (for lack of a better term). In the same way “rock” can denote any band from the Beatles to Metallica and “metal” can denote any band from Metallica to Mayhem, post-punk isn’t a precise genre. Many “experts” have tried to delineate the parameters of post-punk in expositions that have, in turn, been bashed by other “experts”. It’s not so much that people differ on the definition of post-punk (which they sometimes do), it’s more that they differ in what music post-punk includes. They differ on the parameters.
Post-punk musician John Lyndon
That’s about as much as I can offer the reader on post-punk without contradicting or annoying myself. So, for the rest of the article, I’m just going to list some post-punk bands. The list is by no means a comprehensive list, and obviously some of these bands fit into many other genres. The list begins with some first wave post-punk bands and ends with some modern-day post-punk bands. They’re worth checking out. Pick one or more and give ‘em a listen.
Television, Wire, Talking Heads, Joy Division, Gang of Four, Violent Femmes, The Slits, P.I.L, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Magazine, B-52’s, The Fall, Talk Talk, Pylon, Pere Ubu, X-Ray Spex, Orange Juice, The Cure, A Certain Ratio, The Gun Club, Au Pairs, Psychic TV, Six Finger Satellite, Brainiac, Chain and the Gang, Opus Kink, Viagra Boys, Dry Cleaning, Automatic, Snapped Ankles, Squid, Tropical Fuck Storm, Thee Oh Sees, Bodega, Yard Act, Donzii, Pozi, black midi, Goat Girl
What I’m listening to:
Amanaz – Africa
Thin Lizzy – Vagabonds Of The Western World
Cobra Man – Toxic Planet
Forthcoming vinyl releases of note:
Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers 8/26/22
Aaliyah – Aaliyah 9/16/22
Beyonce – Renaissance 9/16/22
Quintessential post-punk band Joy Division
Post-punk has a definition, but the problem with it is that the definition is so inclusive that very disparate sounds can all huddle under the same umbrella. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the post-punk umbrella isn’t the only umbrella that these micro-genres huddle under. So, when I tell someone that I play a lot of post-punk, and they reply that “dark wave” music (think “goth” stuff with synthesizers) seems to be “in” right now, they’re correct. Dark wave is post-punk, but the two terms are not synonymous or interchangeable. And that’s not necessarily what I play on my show.
There are a lot of articles out there about it that you can read, but, put simply, post-punk is music inspired by punk music, but is less aggressive and more experimental than punk music. The gist is that punk music inspired a movement of musicians who held tight to the spirit of punk music but explored and expanded the musical landscape beyond punk. I’m not going to waste my time or yours trying to define the boundaries that this definition points to. Instead, I’m just going to ramble a little bit more.
Like post-punk music in general, there’s a lot of contention about its origins. Some claim that the first post-punk band was Public Image Limited (or P.I.L. for short). The band was founded by John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten. Lydon was the singer of the quintessential punk band, Sex Pistols, and later went on to form P.I.L., a band which explored music beyond punk. Some claim the first post-punk group is the band Pere Ubu, formed by former members of the band Rocket From The Tombs. Others say it’s Iggy Pop with his album, ‘The Idiot’. So again, no agreement. The fact is, all these bands started playing post-punk music around the same time, along with bands like Joy Division, Television, Gang of Four, Tuxedomoon, Ultravox, and a whole slew of others. Much like any other genre of music, the origin of post-punk was more a process than a sudden happening. And it was all a reaction to punk music. The main thing all these bands had in common was that they liked punk music, but went beyond punk music.
Punk is fast, hard, (usually) anti-establishment, and very often, cynical. It’s also steeped in a very DIY work ethic, forgoing larger labels and the politics of the record industry for authenticity and hard work. Punk is also derivative of rock and roll. It’s harder and faster and has a hefty dose of cynicism and urgency, but it’s rock. It’s punk rock. Post-punk tends to eschew the rock roots of punk in favor of experimenting with other music genres or techniques. So, whereas punk music is rooted in rock, a post-punk song might have elements of dub, disco, electro, jazz, ambient, and so on. Post-punk has a greater musical ambition than punk rock which is precisely why it’s so hard to nail down. The spirit of punk music took on a new form in post-punk in much the same way that punk music began with the spirit of rock and roll.
Tommy Newman is the owner and operator of Southtown Vinyl.
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