The term “post-punk”, like any label that gets attached to art, is both informative and meaningless. For the interest of this article I wish to attach my own flawed definition in order that I may move forward with minimal pedantry.
You are free to disagree with my definition and with who I include in this movement, but know that this is meant to be the beginning of a series of love letters to the music that has accompanied me from adolescence through the present. It is not meant to be a critical analysis. I am neither critic, muso, nor historian. Though my taste in music covers a wide-spectrum, the post-punk movement contains the music with which I have most connected. I see myself reflected in this complicated, difficult, off-center, flawed and even beautiful music (finding the beauty requires a personal investment and that is my favorite form of beauty). A love letter is meant to come from the heart. And it is from my heart that I wish to write. I will begin by providing a bit of context before moving into the love.
To me post-punk refers to a period and style of music which both overlaps with and emerges from first wave punk. The sound embodies the energy and do-it-yourself ethos of punk (anyone is free to have a go regardless of technical ability) with an avant-garde and modernist approach that combines seemingly disparate non-rock influences like funk, reggae, modern classical and free jazz. Where punk was about returning to the basics of rock ‘n roll and giving it back to the people (rejecting the complicated and bullshit mythology of the male rock-god and the hard-rock sounds that were but dull appropriations of good blues music), post-punk was about injecting punk with a large dose of nuance and experimentalism.
One of the key elements of post-punk is its unpredictable and chaotic nature. What first drew me in was the way the sound captured the despair, grief and chaos of my own soul. I will use as an example the Public Image Limited song “Swan Lake” (aka “Death Disco”).
Final in a fade
Watch her slowly die
Saw it in her eyes
Choking on a bed
Flowers rotting dead
Seen it in her eyes
Ending in a day
Silence was a way
Seeing in your eyes
Seeing in your eyes
Seeing in your eyes
I’m seeing through my eyes
Words cannot express
Listen to the way John Lydon wails (not sings) his way through the song. He captures the felt sense of someone going unhinged by watching their mother slowly die of cancer. It is the sound of cold and anguished grief and despair. The sound of someone trying to make sense of their pain and loss. At times it feels like insanity. Pay special attention to Keith Levene’s guitar sound: challenging, scratchy textures that contribute to the despair rather than provide redemption through melody.
Here I refer back to the title of this article. I wish to focus on the rhythm of this song. What I wouldn’t have been able to articulate in my youth (though I’m sure I had a felt sense of it) is that the chaos and despair that rises to the top of the music is anchored by the steady grounded sound of the bass and drums (though the rhythm section of almost any contemporary music is meant to be an anchor, it feels especially salient when the guitars and vocals are flirting with madness).
Listen to the way Jah Wobble’s repetitive (almost funky) bass line keeps everything firmly rooted. If the vocals and the guitars are the sound of a despairing heart, the bass and drums are the sound of a body rooted to ground. From this grounded place John and Keith can enter into their temporary madness without completely disintegrating. And that, my dear reader, is what makes a song like this so exciting: it is the sound of near-disintegration. It takes us right to the limits of our despair while giving us a rope to hold onto for dear life. It speaks of death while being firmly rooted in life.
When once you find this for yourself, you will appreciate the beauty of the song. The way it captures a deeply human experience. And then suddenly, this thing that at first glance was spotty and disheveled, becomes a gorgeous and soulful living organism.
Though post-punk varies greatly in sound, I do believe that a common element is how it relies on its rhythms to create sanity (and sometimes melody), thereby giving the guitars and vocals free rein to travel to unpredictable and challenging places.
I understand that to many it will remain a noisy and difficult song with an unbearable sound. That’s okay. We can’t all fall in love with the same people and things. I merely wish to begin the process of coming out; of bringing to the light of day the reasons I fell, and remain, in love.