Simon Reynolds' historical tome, Rip it Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984, challenged a long-held cultural presumption: that the UK punk explosion of '77 was underground English music's watershed moment, and that, when Sid Vicious started on the gear, everything went downhill. This idea —so often delivered with a sense of inescapable nostalgia— couldn't be more wrong. Never mind Never Mind the Bollocks: punk was, really, a tiny blip on the radar, a rupture. It was all that grew out of the punk spirit that was great; the post-punk movement far more interesting, challenging, forward-thinking, and revolutionary.
Magazine defined the term post-punk at its essence. In early '77, as the punk uprising was turning from groundswell to phenomenon, Howard Devoto left The Buzzcocks, after just 12 gigs, claiming "I don't like movements." Devoto wanted to escape the stylistic straitjacket of punk-rock, so he formed his own band, Magazine. Their debut LP pushed songs towards 5 minutes, with chiming piano, synthesizer squiggles, blasts of saxophone, and squalling guitar leads that broke out, at times, into actual guitar solos. The slower, into-the-early hours pace gave Devoto the opportunity to try out a laconic, smirking, bizarro-lounge-singer persona, a kind of ironic Scott Walker pose that proved hugely influential on people like Jarvis Cocker and Momus.
Wire began in 1976, but they were never a punk-rock band. They were, of course, too technically proficient, too intellectual, too leery of being part of the scene. Their debut album, 1977's Pink Flag, still plays like a punk record: its erratic, fragmented, minute-long songs built on fuzzed guitar riffs, smashed drums, and barked, boisterous vocals. By their second LP, however, Wire were doing something fare more interesting and intellectual: Chairs Missing's quirky compositions built on uncoiling guitars, smatterings of intricate percussion, and the suddenly-sweet vocals of Colin Newman. Interestingly, it's an experimental album shaking off punk baggage, but it's also an incredibly tuneful work that, sometimes, borders on classic pop.
Unlike their post-punk peers, Joy Division would, over the years, go on to become obscenely famous. You can largely chalk it up to the suicide of singer Ian Curtis, who hanged himself at 23, instantly ascending into the pantheon of rock'n'roll saints. But their records have plenty to do with it, too. The quartet's 1979 debut, Unknown Pleasures, is a pitch-perfect work of hypnotic minimalism, its every note loaded with an existential emptiness that evokes the abstract, of-the-mind terror of the cold war era. Martin Hannett's eerie production employs the guitar/bass/drums deftly, providing a huge, cavernous space for Curtis's moaning baritone to resound throughout. The fact that the effect is ghostly has, of course, only helped their legacy.
Though not nearly as well known as Joy Division, Gang of Four have been far more influential. They loomed over the '80s US underground —inspiring both anti-capitalist heroes (Big Black, Fugazi) and corporate crossovers (REM, the Red Hot Chili Peppers)— gave rise to the disco-punk hipsters of the '00s —!!!, The Rapture, LCD Soundsystem— and summoned veritable tribute acts Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party. Their debut LP, Entertainment!, minted their sound perfectly: Jon King's sarcastic sloganeering; Andy Gill's scratchy, sharp, shrill guitar; Hugo Burnham's metronomic drums; and Dave Allen's boingy, elastic, defiantly funky bass. Wisely, the fiercely-political band delivered their sermons not from on a soap-box, but on the dance-floor.
History remembers John Lydon as Johnny Rotten, the punk provocateur out front of the fun-but-silly Sex Pistols. Yet, mass-nostalgia —with its eternal reverence for the '77 UK punk explosion— has picked Lydon at his least interesting. Post-Pistols, the frontman assembled Public Image Ltd., and merely two years after Never Mind the Bollocks, Lydon presided over a real masterwork, Metal Box. Built on Jah Wobble's dubbed-out bass, the second PIL LP marches out stark, menacing incantations, with Keith Levene scrawling agitated guitar, and Lydon incanting tense, terse poetry. It's, in some ways, the defining post-punk LP: leaving behind the two-minute-shackles of punk's schoolboy sedition and plunging fearlessly into an unknown musical future.
The Slits formed in '76, inspired by 'big brothers' the Sex Pistols and The Clash. Adolescent girls armed with confrontational chutzpah, but no basic musical training, they were very much a punk outfit. Yet, by the time The Slits recorded their debut LP, Cut, they had grown with the times: their marriage of punk spirit, reggae licks, dub production, and ineffable 'otherness' perfectly embodying the shift from punk to post-punk. The band's singer, Ari Up, was its soul; her terrifying voice —all haggard gasps, trilling whoops, and sinuous screams, sung in a mangled German accent— challenging notions of what a woman in a band was allowed to be. Cut is a fun, kooky, endlessly-entertaining LP, but it's also an important historical document
They formed in 1976, but This Heat weren't a punk band at all. In fact, the trio were admittedly influence by prog-rock, a stylistic anathema to most punkers. This Heat weren't live provocateurs, more cerebral studio musicians, schooled in the tape-splicing practices of German krautrock outfits like Can and Faust. The band set up an ad-hoc studio in a disused meat-locker they dubbed Cold Storage, and essentially spent their five-year tenure holed up therein, recording day after day. By the time they issued their second, and final, LP, Deceit, This Heat had become masters of their domain: the record a staggering, challenging, continually-evolving set out of strange loops, shards of guitar, eerie keyboards, and colliding vocal incantations.
Many post-punk acts boast minimal discographies: Joy Division, The Slits, and This Heat all made only two LPs proper; Young Marble Giants one. The Fall? They've made, thus far, nearly 40, presiding over a discography so confusing you need a guide to the best Fall LPs. They begin with Hex Enduction Hour, an album made with that Fall line-up on the brink of collapse. Irascible Fall figurehead Mark E. Smith thought that the fifth Fall LP would be their last, and, though the subsequent 30+ albums have proved him comically wrong, you can hear in Hex a wonderful desperation. Here, the cacophony of two drummers, two guitars, and one haranguing drunken-poet frontman sound like a band striving for transcendence in the face of an imminent demise.