Christopher Owens again delves into the world of music, this time the post punk scene.
We all know the story with punk and how it influenced people who would never have thought of picking up an instrument/pen/art canvas and gave them an outlet. John Lydon famously talked about there being "no future", but for many who heeded the call of punk, the future was unwritten.
But what post punk did was that it encouraged the same people to go beyond three chords. To think why they were picking those chords. To examine the role of words in their songwriting: were they telling a story or painting a picture. To deconstruct the world that they lived in and rebuild it in their own image.
And while this could be high faulting talk (the first wave came to be in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher came to power, ushering in the "mememe" era), the amount of independent labels, self sufficient bands and underground fanzines showed that it was possible to construct a genuine alternative to the mainstream. Hell, even the biggest band in the world (U2) come from a post punk background, and were arguably the only band of their ilk to retain their roots despite massive success.
Published in 2016, Post Punk: Then and Now is a collection of essays which originated out of lectures, talks and discussions in 2014. Several questions lay at the heart of these discussions: what were the conditions of possibility for art and music-making before the era of neoliberal capitalism? What role did punk play in turning artists to experiment with popular music in the late 1970s and early 1980s? And why does the art and music of these times seem so newly pertinent to our political present, despite the seeming remoteness of its historical moment?
All very interesting and worthy questions to ask. As we all know, movements of any kind (be they social, political or musical) are all reflections of their time. NICRA arguably wouldn't have been possible without the combination of the civil rights movement in America, the emerging university educated nationalist class and the increasing influence of Marxism within the IRA. All three were as important as each other.
Where the book succeeds is discussing the social and historical contexts that led to the rise of the genre, as well as the implications that its re-emergence in the last 15 years has to say about our retro charged culture, as well as interviews with the likes of Lydia Lunch and Green Gartside (Scritti Politti) on their working methods and their thought processes behind their art, as well as looking at the roles that art and fanzines played.
As all three editors state in the introductory lecture, the immediate influence of punk, the state of Britain in the late 70's and the paranoia over the four minute warning drove manys a person. Makes perfect sense to me.
Ellen Willis is then quoted in order to explain how:
she talks of a frustration she felt, an incompatibility between the kind of desires that were articulated and propagated by the counterculture, and mainstream left wing politics...We're haunted by the failure of the left to come to some arrangement with the libertarian energies that came out of music culture. Instead, the right absorbed and converted the energies of the counterculture into its own project of re-individualisation.
Now this is a very interesting point of view for two reasons. Firstly, it means that the post punk period can be defined, historically speaking, as being from 1979 to 1985. From the rise of Thatcher to the consolidation of her reign with the defeat of the miners, that period of post punk where countless people started up record labels based on the British governments Enterprise grant went from being perceived as radical subversives (see "God's Cop" James Anderton raiding record shops in Manchester for copies of 'Penis Envy' by Crass) to being seen as Thatcherite yuppies, out to make a few quid for themselves in the world of dog eat dog.
Secondly, this talk of the mainstream left failing to absorb the energies of the counterculture. Although it's tempting to think of Jeremy Corbyn with Stormzy, or Tony Blair with Noel Gallagher, Willis is driving at the failure to harness the power and influence of these radicals in order to change our governments.
The only example of such a thing we have is Green Party MLA Steven Agnew, who emerged from the Giros scene, and who recently embarrassed himself over comments about a salary cut, so maybe it's best such a failure to link up remains that way.
As you can see, the book really set my imagination on fire. The essays on the movement in places like Poland in the early 80's and Brazil were just as fascinating, not only to see how they flourished in such differing circumstances as Britain, but also to read about how the local music had such an influence on what these bands did, as opposed to the concept of ripping it up and starting again (as articulated by Orange Juice).
The best essay/lecture in the book is 'Going Overground: The Jam between Populism and Popular Modernism.' Here, Mark Fischer examines the career of the Jam and how their appeal and legacy has been hijacked by a bunch of nostalgic, backwards looking types, when the actual music and lyrics are just as challenging as those found in a Killing Joke or Gang of Four LP (with the main difference being the Jam's huge commercial success).
He argues that their signature song, 'Going Underground', was an archetypical response to the rise of Thatcher, and how it also symbolised a retreat into the sidelines for the radical left: I don't like what I see so I'm going to retreat instead of attempting to change anything. It's a potent argument, and expertly articulated.
Overall, this is a book which forces you to rethink your conceptions on music from this period. Those who are already in tune with this subculture will find an awful lot to interest them and argue about. Others may find it too dry and overwhelming for those with no prior knowledge or awareness of post punk. Such people would be advised to persevere, as the concepts are universal enough and the comparisons to our modern world will provide an easy foot hold.
Gavin Butt, Kodwo Eshun, Mark Fisher 2016 Post Punk: Then and Now Repeater ISBN-13: 978-1910924266
Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212