About two years ago, one of my best friends asked me to make her a CD of stuff from the 80's. With our shared love of Siouxsie & the Banshees in mind, I spent way longer than planned on growing my post-punk collection and exploring the depths of the stuff I already had. Hope it was worth the wait!
That's Howard Devoto, one of the founding members of the Buzzcocks. After Spiral Scratch came out in 1976, Devoto saw that punk was just a flash in the pan, so he left the band and formed Magazine alongside John McGeoch, who later joined Siouxsie & the Banshees, and a keyboard player named Dave Formula. McGeoch was an insanely talented guitarist in a world where 3-chord punk was the norm (Devoto hired him after watching him play all the lead guitar parts of Television's Marquee Moon front to back). Dave Formula was an unknown entity, and since nobody else in the band knew anything about synths, he had total control over that aspect of their sound. The albums they put out between '78 and '80 were perfect examples of the amazing creativity that blossomed in the aftermath of punk.
Even without any context, post-punk music is great, but part of what makes it so appealing and enduring is that punk's DIY message really caught on in Britain, totally revitalizing the musical landscape. The sleeve for one of Scritti Politti's early EPs wrote out its production costs and the contact info for local record pressing plants. The Desperate Bicycles sang, "it was easy, it was cheap, go and do it!" Lucky for us, truly great bands like the Homosexuals, who still sound years ahead of their time, remain in distribution thanks to labels like Messthetics. At the time, crap keyboards were cheaper than guitars, and if the Shaggs taught us anything, it's that you don't have to be good at your instruments to make good music.
One of the reasons this music sounds so great is because nobody had any idea what they were doing. Case in point: in the early days of Devo, the band couldn't find the keyboards they wanted, so they built their own hardware from scratch. While on stage, sweat would pour down the sleeves of their full-body plastic suits, frying their equipment and causing totally unreproducible sounds. I think that's a great way to illustrate what happened when punk kids started picking up synthesizers.
This compilation isn't meant to be a primer on the DIY movement or the origins of synth-pop (if that's what you're after, watch the BBC's amazing Synth Britannia) -- it's more about what happened when guitar-heavy bands (e.g. the Buzzcocks) started incorporating keyboards (e.g. Magazine), before people really knew how to market pure synth pop a la the Human League and their legion imitators. The chugging glam riff, handclaps, and wobbly square-wave vrrrring during the bridge of "The Machman," the way the guitars chime into the airy synth opening of "Second Skin," the back-to-back wall of John McGeoch awesomeness that is "My Tulpa"/"Head Cut" -- with so many amazing jams to decide among, you understand why this project took so long.
Lately I've been listening to a lot of deep house and techno music, and some of my favorite stuff is being released by a label called Sandwell District. During an interview, the two guys who run the label said that they both draw inspiration from early post-punk, and you can actually trace a line from then to now: Joy Division's guitars were replaced by the opening 4/4 beat of Blue Monday, and guys like Sandwell District are only following that trajectory.
- Men Without Hats - Ban the Game
- Ultravox - Slow Motion
- Positive Noise - Hypnosis
- Joy Division - Isolation
- Pete Shelley - I Generate a Feeling
- Tubeway Army - The Machman
- Simple Minds - Changeling
- The Teardrop Explodes - Ha Ha I'm Drowning
- The Sound - Heartland
- The Chameleons - Second Skin
- Spoons - Nova Heart
- Japan - Quiet Life
- New Order - The Village
- Magazine - My Tulpa
- Siouxsie & the Banshees - Head Cut
- Echo & the Bunnymen - In Bluer Skies
- Ultravox! - Hiroshima Mon Amour