By the end of 1979, basic punk rock had played itself out, at least on the East Coast. The Sex Pistols had broken up, the Ramones were repeating themselves (of course, the Ramones always repeated themselves, that was part of their charm), and the Clash were recording London Calling, a masterpiece for sure, but not really punk rock.
To a great degree, the real punk scene moved west. Black Flag, X, The Germs and other bands picked up the punk baton and ran with it, producing some great music, but also helping calcify punk from an innovative movement into a restrictive genre. But the full blown West Coast scene was still a year or two away. Besides, I wasn't there, I was still back East.
But the innovative spirit did live on, for at least a few more years, and produced a variety of interesting music which would later be lumped together as post-punk. Post-punk was even more loosely defined than the first punk. It included everything from the extremely avante-garde, New York based No Wave movement, which lead to such noise based bands as Sonic Youth, and bouncy electronic bands, like The Cure, Psychedelic Furs and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, which produced much of pop music of the early '80's. (The first OMD I ever heard was a spacey, drawn out, electronic version of The Velvet Underground's “Waiting for the Man,” far removed from their later hits, such as “Electricity” and “So In Love.”)
Much of the first post-punk was punk bands looking to expand musically beyond the restrictions of the genre. The prime example was Public Image Limited, Johnny “Rotten” Lydon's band after the Sex Pistols. The first PiL album did not make much impression on me when it was released, but my roommate Ken bought Metal Box, their second album, and I ended up hearing it a lot.
(If you're making any attempt to keep the chronology straight, Ken was my first post-college roommate. We shared a tiny, two-room apartment in Northampton, MA. I lived in what normally would have been the living room. Luckily, neither of us spent a whole lot of time in the apartment, so we didn't get in each other's way much. In some ways, it was the perfect cliche first apartment after college, right down to the cramped little kitchen with the rusted appliances.)
Anyway, Metal Box was called that because it was first released as three twelve-inch 45's packed in, yes, a metal box styled after a film container. It was rereleased not too much later as a regular (33 1/3 rpm) double album, and then, years later, as a single CD, a progression which strikes me as somehow perfect.
Almost all the songs on Metal Box were superficially similar. All were built on Jah Wobble's sinuous bass lines, Keith Levene's angular, almost atonal guitar slashes, and Lydon's strangled screaming. Intriguing, but very abrasive, and with obviously less commercial potential than punk. At the time, even I could only take it in small doses (say, one side at a time).
With a couple of exceptions (the almost poppy “Poptones” and the ten minute “Albatross”) I never learned to differentiate the songs. It didn't help that there were twelve songs spread over six sides of vinyl. In an almost contradictory way, this made it harder, rather than easier, for me to differentiate the individual tracks. I'd hear them almost randomly. Thinking about it now makes me realize how important the sequence of album was to how I listened to it. I learned the songs in sequence; without that sequence I had to approach each song fresh when I heard it.
Still, when they toured that spring (1980), I went. In fact, a large group of my college friends went to their Boston show (which turned out to be the first show of the tour, therefore their very first U.S. show ever). I think most of us were motivated more by the chance to see Lydon (having missed the only Sex Pistols U.S. tour) than by any interest in his current band. Nonetheless, it turned out to be a very interesting show.
The concert was a total assault on the ears, everything their albums were pushed up to ten. Distorted guitars, unintelligible vocals, just a lot of noise. But it also had far more spontaneity than most concerts I had seen.
At one point, Keith Levene got pissed about something, his guitar, or the monitors, something, and stalked offstage. Lydon quickly followed him, leaving Jah Wobble and the drummer to carry on. Luckily, they, esp. Wobble, were up to the task. He just kept laying down one bass riff after another, and kept the crowd entertained until Levene and Lydon finally came back.
Then there was the encore. At first it didn't look like there would be one. They let the audience applaud for quite a long time, then turned the house lights up. As soon as most of the crowd had reached the exits, they came back and played three more songs. Or rather, played three songs again, as they had used their entire repertoire in the concert. (I do remember one of those repeats was “Poptones.”) Then they wouldn't leave. While the roadies tore down their equipment around them, Levene sat down at his synthesizer and noodled away. Lydon encouraged the audience to throw money, and wandered around picking it up and stuffing it in the pockets of his overlarge suitcoat.
I do remember at some point, in the middle of the concert, after being assaulted by so much noise, indecipherable vocals and indistinguishable “tunes,” thinking “I get it! He's just seeing how much garbage his audience will put up with. The whole band is based on presenting bullshit as art!”
I may well have been right in that assessment (it totally fits with Lydon's attitude), but over the years I have grown to love PiL, especially the version on those first two albums. Levene's guitar playing definitely fits my “original” criteria; I know of no previous guitar player who attacked his instrument in the same way. (I hear a huge influence from Levene in U2's The Edge -- he plays with the same style, just a bit more melodically.) I would rate Jah Wobble as one of the best bassists in all rock music. His basslines really carry Metal Box; they provide much of what melody there is. Unluckily, Wobble left after that album, and Levene after their third album, and I lost interest in the band.
Magazine was another post-punk band which came out of a punk band, in this case the Buzzcocks. The situation was a bit different -- Howard Devoto was the original lead singer for the Buzzcocks, but left after their first EP (“Spiral Scratch” -- a great piece of original punk). The remaining Buzzcocks became one of the masters of pop-punk (“Orgasm Addict,” “Ever Fallen In Love (with someone you shouldn't)?”), while Magazine took a much more progressive tack, based as much on keyboards as guitars, with far more experimental song structures.
I saw Magazine open for the Ramones in August, 1979. What I remember most about the show was that Devoto had mike stand built like a ladder, which he would climb and hang on throughout the show. Also, he looked like a cadaver, extremely skinny, with a sunken face. But he turned that look to his advantage, with a very commanding stage presence. As for the band, in my journal I described them as “a punk Genesis” whatever that might sound like.
One of the most interesting and (eventually) most influential branches of post-punk was the No Wave movement out of New York. No Wave encompassed a number of bands who took the “anyone can play” ethos of punk a couple of steps further, and pushed the music into atonal territory. They made their first splash with an Eno-produced compilation titled No New York. The bands on the album included The Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks (with Lydia Lunch), DNA, and Mars.
I remember my friend Pat (known as”Pat the Punk”) playing me No New York in his dorm room. (Pat was also the person who first played a novelty single called “Rock Lobster” by some band from Georgia.) Pat especially raved about The Contortions. He described the lead singer, James Chance, as basically Iggy with a saxophone. Like Iggy, Chance had an extremely aggressive attitude towards his audience, up to and including picking fights with them.
Like PiL, The Contortions were not easy to get into. Musically, they were even more abrasive and aggressive than PiL. Seriously, they were best described as atonal rockÕnÕroll. Blasts of squawking saxophone over jerky stop-start rhythms, with random slide guitar (courtesy of Pat Place) slicing through it. The first Contortions album, Buy Contortions, was more of the same. Then Chance put out Off White, by James White and the Blacks, which was labeled his “disco” album, but was really straightforward jazz, and was much easier to get into.
Whatever I thought of them musically, when the chance came to see the Contortions, I jumped at it. They played four shows over two nights at Max's Kansas City in January, 1980, and I went to three of them (once you had paid admission to the early show, they would let you back in for the late one, if there was room).
They proved to be very interesting shows. First, the version of the Contortions which played these shows was completely different from that on the records. This was an all-black funk/jazz outfit. Second, the opening acts and the headliners were different versions of the same band. On Friday, the opening band was Defunkt, which was basically the Contortions without Chance. Defunkt was lead by Joseph Bowie on trombone (no relation to David Bowie, but his brother, Lester Bowie, did play on David Bowie's Black Tie, White Noise album in the early '90's). On Saturday, the opening act, billed as The Flaming Demonics, turned out to be the full Contortions, playing an all-instrumental, jazz-oriented set.
This set-up gave them a chance to show some versatility, beyond the constraints of No Wave. In their opening incarnations, they were much more a straight jazz band (although still fairly avante-garde jazz). By watching several sets by (effectively) the same band, I got a much wider perspective on what they were trying to do, which was basically to marry jazz and rock at their respective edges (punk rock and atonal jazz), rather than in the middle, like fusion did. I also got to see them at both their best and their worst.
Musically, they were (as one would expect) different from their records, a lot funkier and a lot less abrasive. Although Chance still squawked and squealed through his saxophone, he impressed me with how well he actually played. He clearly knew what he was doing.
As for the whole aggression thing, there was some of that, but it was also toned down. In Max's, long tables ran up against the stage. In every show Chance would walk out on these tables and interact with the audience, but it never got to fist fights. One night he lay down in people's laps; the other night a group of guys tried to pick a fight, but no one, neither Chance or the audience, followed through.
But even toned down, he was an amazingly intense performer. A tiny, scrawny kid, he put a lot of energy into his stage presence and his sax playing. He also lead the band with a firm, even dictatorial hand. He directed who took solos and when (in the second show Saturday night, he and Bowie seemed to be feuding, and Chance hardly gave Bowie any solos at all). The band didn't so much end songs as cut them off when Chance gave the signal.
The first show Saturday night was the best. The band was at their tightest (far more than Friday's show), and they stretched out on the jams and solos. By the second show that night, they appeared tired and pissed. They played sloppy, and made numerous errors. We were pretty tired ourselves, and pretty sated on Contortions.
Later that year I saw the Bush Tetras, Pat Place's post-Contortions band. They took the original Contortions sound, and went the other direction as Chance, producing a guitar-oriented sound which was solidly in the rock camp.
Pere Ubu was another band which fit into this noise/rock genre, although they can't really be classified as post-punk, since they actually predated the whole punk movement, putting out their first singles in '75, and their first album a year later. That album, The Modern Dance, still stands as one of the best combinations of straight ahead rock 'n' roll with pure noise.
I first saw Pere Ubu in Rochester (of all places) when I was home on vacation one spring. They played a tiny club with labelmates The Suicide Commandos, of note (to me) primarily because their lead guitarist, Chris Osgood, was a Hampshire grad.
Ubu's lead singer, David Thomas, impressed me as an extremely unrock star frontman -- overweight, with bushy hair and glasses, wearing a suit and given to spouting insulting non-sequitors at the audience. As would be expected, I focused on the guitarist, Tom Herman, who played wonderfully noisy slide guitar. I also remember someone producing random noise out of a boxy synthesizer. At that time they were a bit extreme for my taste, but they still fascinated me.
I saw Pere Ubu again in the summer of 1980, in the same Northampton bar as The Bush Tetras, in the midst of all this post-punk. They had gone the other direction. While the punks were experimenting, they had tightened up into a dance band, playing (relatively) accessible reggaeish songs. Although, to tell the truth, I barely remember that concert at all.
There are two other bands I saw that spring which certainly weren't post-punk, yet still fit here stylistically. And which fit in with the direction my musical taste was heading.
One was the jazz great Sun Ra. Sun Ra was one of the most out there musicians in all jazz. He claimed to be from Saturn, and played like he was. He performed with a large band, The Arkestra, and allowed them much room for wide scale improvisation, yet always with one firm foot in the blues. IÕm pretty sure my friend Ken (the same one with the PiL Metal Box) convinced me to go; he had the most extreme taste of my friends (and that is saying a lot).
I'm just going to let me journal describe it: “textures of music/noise, wild solos, tightness and looseness. At times they played atonal noise, at other times it would be tight swing or vocal harmonies.” I enjoyed it, but did admit to getting bored before it was over. I still had a limited appreciation for jazz. (But you can be certain that, even then, I was aware I was earning a lifetime of musical cred just by being there.)
Finally, there was Robert Fripp's League of Gentlemen, another concert I stumbled upon while I was on vacation in Rochester. The concert had only been billed as Robert Fripp, so I went in expecting Frippertronics, his latest thing (as far as I knew). Frippertronics consisted of Fripp, his guitar, and a tape machine. He would play a run on the guitar, record it, play another run over that, recording it too, and so on, until he had built a dense musical piece all by himself. Of course, nowadays we know this as sampling, and everyone from the top pros to kids at open mikes know how to use it. But when Fripp was doing it, it was not only a completely new concept, but, without samplers, much more difficult to pull off. I was fully prepared for that, looking forward to it if only out of curiosity.
What I got was much better -- a punk rock dance band. The band consisted of Fripp on guitar, Barry Andrews (of XTC) on keyboards, Sara Lee, an excellent woman bassist, and some guy named Johnny Too Bad on drums. They played bouncy little instrumental numbers, with Fripp's guitar running all over the place on top of them. It was amazing.
Throughout the show, Fripp encouraged the audience to dance. Rather, he berated them with, “This is a dance band. You're supposed to be dancing.” Of course, the whole time he sat on a stool and barely moved. (But I sure danced.)
The audience was not a punk rock crowd. They were mostly prog rockers, fans of Fripp from King Crimson and Peter Gabriel. I noted that the most common T-shirt was for Genesis. But they loved it anyway. Fripp was doing his bit to accommodate a new musical reality, to incorporate elements of punk, or at least its energy, into what he was doing, and then move beyond it.
As I have maintained, punk started out as wide open musical form, and then got narrow. Post-punk just opened it up again. And it did it at a point when I really needed some musical opening, when my own taste was getting dangerously narrow. For almost three years I had been telling myself that if it wasn't punk, or related to punk, it wasn't worth listening to. Now it was time for me to move on as well.