When Britain Went Postal: a Post-Punk Survey Page 2

Au Pairs also liked sarcasm and humor with their politics. Brilliantly named—there were two men and two women in the band—their first album, Playing with a Different Sex (1981), is one of my favorites. Mainly about "gender issues," it touches on other serious matters, such as Britain's involvement in Northern Ireland, but it's hardly dull: It brims with excitement. It's passionate, catchy pop with a singer—Lesley Woods—who possesses a stunning voice. (Woods now works as lawyer representing immigrants.)


Politics, though, needn't be spelled with a capital P; it isn't necessary to shout Marxist slogans. The Fall usually aren't seen as political. Mark E. Smith—singer, songwriter, founder, and basically whole band—would have hated being called that. Then again, Smith was famed for his caustic wit, and things he didn't hate would make a rather short list.


But The Fall was political in that they sang about working-class life. Across 32 studio albums and more changes of personnel than the Trump administration, they produced an impressive body of work. Imagine a rather inebriated man in the corner of the pub, ranting at you. He may have had a few pints, but he is still making sense, making cutting comments but also making you laugh. Add repetitive guitar and you've got The Fall. Recorded in one day, their debut album, Live at the Witch Trials, is a must-listen. It's crude, straightforward—and great.


This was also the time of squatters, and of art school students who fed into the music scene. Inspired by seeing The Slits, guitarist Ana da Silva and bassist Gina Birch formed The Raincoats. Their eponymous 1979 debut was ranked by Kurt Cobain at number 20 in his top 50 albums, ever. It would be about the same in mine. With Vicky Aspinall on violin and guest artist Lora Logic on sax, it still sounds fresh and distinctive today. Logic, briefly a member of X-Ray Spex (fab band, not here because I consider them punk), had her own group, Essential Logic, which is worth checking out: Post-punk did like its puns. The Raincoats would soon move away from recognizable Western rock and into what later would be called world music. Lydon was a fan, saying that they "offered a completely different way of doing things."


That can also be said of The Pop Group. The Pop Group mixed radical politics, dub, and funk, but there was also an element of free jazz. Their debut album, Y (1979), is awesome. True, it takes a few listens to warm up to it—the band's name is deeply ironic—but when you get it you really get it. Maybe not everyone, mind: My partner shudders with dread when I say I'm going to put it on the deck. Members of the band went on to form the group Rip Rig + Panic (named, roughly, after a Roland Kirk album), which further explored the combination of jazz and tribal-influenced music. Rip Rig + Panic was joined on their wonderful (and actually quite accessible) second album, I am Cold (1982), by Don Cherry and his stepdaughter Neneh (footnote 2).

The politics of the time would also spawn the label 2 Tone Records, with fantastic bands such as The Specials. But that's another story.

This is pop?
This was the time of the single, and New Musical Express was the periodical. Each week, we avidly read the singles reviews before heading off first thing Saturday morning to check them out. (Often we'd impatiently wait by the record shop counter whilst the hassled assistant unpacked them.) Independent record companies such as Rough Trade were flourishing, releasing dozens of singles a week. Longevity wasn't necessary. Some groups, like Sheffield band 2.3, had one great single—"All Time Low"—and then disappeared. Others, like The Fire Engines, lasted a bit longer. Many were skinny white boys, with floppy fringes and button-up shirts, clearly inspired by T. Rex and Loaded-era Velvet Underground. Notables included Glasgowbased Orange Juice, who would release a series of truly blinding singles on Postcard Records (tag line: "The Sound of Young Scotland").


Then there was XTC. (Technically, they shouldn't be here, as they were formed, as Star Park, in 1972, but hey, post-punk hated rules, and their first release wasn't until 1978.) With a gifted songwriter in Andy Partridge, who shares Ray Davies's eye for the minutiae of English life (there's an unwritten law that the word "Englishness" must be used whenever discussing XTC), they produced a series of cracking singles. Often (lazily) compared to Talking Heads, they lasted longer and enjoyed more success than many other bands on this list, producing four albums in our self-demarcated period alone. My favorite is Black Sea (1980). Who can resist a cover shot of a band wearing 19th century deep-sea diving suits? Also, the songs are bloody good, the album kicking off with the biting "Respectable Street," an attack on suburbia. Being from that world, I appreciated that.


But it wasn't just boys. Marine Girls (including Tracey Thorn, who would later start Everything But The Girl, with Ben Watt) and Young Marble Giants used minimal instrumentation and lovely vocals to produce gentle, beautiful music. Songs from the Giants such as "Searching for Mr. Right" and "Final Day" are hauntingly brilliant. Check out their debut, Colossal Youth (1980).


No Dark Things
Most people would probably identify post-punk as earnest men in long coats and spiky hair, in rooms without light bulbs, never smiling—bands such as Echo & the Bunnymen, The Cure, Joy Division, and A Certain Ratio (ACR). But even including Joy Division, whose lead singer, Ian Curtis, committed suicide just before the band's first tour, I find this music spiritually uplifting. That includes their album Closer (1980), which perhaps wasn't appreciated as such on its release, coming as it did just months after Curtis's tragic death. The non-album single "Love Will Tear Us Apart," which followed, is one of the greatest singles ever released. Fact. Following Curtis's death, the band re-formed as New Order and in 1981 released Movement: a transitional album between Joy Division and the more danceable classics to follow.

Then and now, Echo & the Bunnymen are personal faves. Dare I say, they're the Liverpool band I listen to most. In the day, Ian McCulloch's singing was often compared to Jim Morrison's; the similarities are there but shouldn't be overstated. The Bunnymen blend pop, post-punk, and psychedelia with grace. Heaven Up Here (1981) for me is pop perfection. Every track is sublime, concerned with melancholy and a sense of loss, but the sheer majesty gives the listener hope. Even the cover is stunning, all members looking meaningfully out over a wet Welsh beach. (Yep, they're wearing overcoats, and it's not sunny.) That being said, I always think of The Cure's Seventeen Seconds (1980), which includes the awesome "A Forest," as a companion to Heaven Up Here, in spite of the former being less anthemic and more dreamy.

Songs to remember
So many great bands, and a fair few missed out. Sharing influences but sounding very different from each other. What they also shared was the desire to depart from the standard rock template. Some shone for a short time; others, like The Cure, remain. Collectively, they created a wealth of stunning music and influenced many bands that followed, some of which became household names—some perhaps sooner than others: I recently went to see Sirocco, a band whose debut album is just out as I write this. Ostensibly, it was to support my 17-year-old nephew, the bassist in the band. Hearing his style, the sharp guitar and the jerky pop, I smiled: This is the music I love.

Footnote 2: Mr. Cherry isn't the only bona fide jazz great involved in this story; Miles Davis appeared on Scritti Politti's 1988 single "Oh Patti (Don't Feel Sorry for Loverboy)."

brians's picture

more stereophile readers need to wreck their expensive speakers listening to the fall. “I closed my eyes and immediately the walls of the room melted away to a much larger space. Mark E. Smith sounded amazingly real and present taking a piss all over my hand-woven Afghan rug. Gobsmacking!

Valboo's picture

Not including Siouxsie and the Banshees is lazy journalism at best. so there isn't any need to read your article apart looking at the sleeves present. One suggestion though, the post should be renamed as "I have talked about only the bands I like and the ones I don't are not post-punk to me".
One wonder why you don't give the same treatment for Buzzcocks or the Slits and for the record, Buzzcocks is a punk, there's anything slightly post-punk with them because the production on the records is one dimensional, there isn't any research about the space, echo, distance. For journalists who don't have the background to talk about a genre, one may suggest to read Clinton Heylin's "BaBylon's burning" or Simon Goddard who considered the Banshees' debut album as one of the three albums that laid the foundations of dark angular post-punk along with Magazine's and PiL's. Maybe reading articles on the "Mojo" magazine website won't be a luxuary either.

davip's picture

...uninformed at best. Including Buzzcocks in a piece on post-punk is as silly as leaving The Stranglers and Cardiacs out of that piece. Genres may or may not be fluid, but this is a selection of little merit when it excludes such bands. This reviewer would do his readers a better service by forgetting pigeonholing and considering the best of the UK punk and post-punk music -- to include the two foregoing artists, plus The Ruts and The Members.

You could rewrite this whole piece just be listening to 'On Land and In the Sea' by Cardiacs first. In fact, you should.

Jim Austin's picture

you'll see that the Buzzcocks really aren't intended to be on the list. They are merely the band Devoto was in before Magazine. This was made confusing by a formatting error: Buzzcocks were bolded and shouldn't have been. I have now removed the boldface.

Jim Austin, Editor

funambulistic's picture

While I love articles like this because music/movements as such are near and dear to my heart (as was Ken's article on EDM, BTW) and am elated Stereophile would even post something like this, leaving Siouxsie & the Banshees off of the list (granted, they were mentioned twice in passing) is just... well, wrong.

Also, not to put too fine a point on it (thought writing this certainly qualifies as such) Siouxsie Sioux and her cohorts were about as Punk as punk can be (the act of forming a band on the spot to fill a vacated festival slot and having Sid himself on drums speaks volumes) at first. Its was upon the release of their first album that the term "Post Punk" was first applied. Only later was the "Goth" descriptive loosely applied (more by fans than anything else) and were never really part of the "New Wave " scene aside from pioneering some of the sounds.

But I get it - this is Phil's list, not mine or anyone else's on this particular site!

supamark's picture

Siousie Souix and her Banshee crew are more known as New Wave/(proto-)goth than post punk. Considering the bands that got album covers posted were lesser known bands (vs. bands like Joy Division or Echo and the Bunnymen) I'm thinking part of the point of the article is to inform about the less well known bands.

I will agree about one thing - putting the Buzzcocks on the list is a bit of a headscratcher. Cabaret Voltaire would have been a much better mention (and I'd say a much bigger whiff than Siouxie), even though they were mainly known for their industrial and dance music output.

Valboo's picture

More known by whom, are you American, from which generation ? I've always heard/read they were post-punk; all the music historians Clinton Heylin, Mojo Magazine, Simon Goddard, The Times present them as one of the pioneers of post-punk. You must not be one of their listeners and have a record of them to misspell Siouxsie's name in such a mess at every sentence.

Jim Austin's picture

>>I will agree about one thing - putting the Buzzcocks on the list is a bit of a headscratcher

If you read carefully, you'll see that Buzzcocks really were not intended to be listed as post-punk. They're just the punk band Devoto was in before Magazine. I've altered the formatting to make this more clear.

Jim Austin, Editor

funambulistic's picture

I actually did read the article and understood the intent. Love that Buzzcocks cover though! Actually their compilation Singles Going Steady has one of my favorite album cover photos of all time: simple and to the point - four lads in the studio making simple and to the point music!

Jim Austin's picture

I always loved A Different Kind of Tension. Slightly pretentious, nihilistic lyrics appealed to the teenage me--and still do!

It's the aim of existence
To offer resistance
To the flow of time.

Everything is, and
That is why it is
Will be the line.

I've got all the answers!

Jim Austin, Editor

ssorg's picture

reading this and feeling bummed out because I'm skipping out on seeing Wire tonight in NYC out of coronapanic.

Great music... love Metal Box and Flower of Romance.

downunderman's picture

If so, an honorary UK post punk band might include Pere Ubu

rskuras's picture

....have always been personal favorites, and it's refreshing to see that they are stilling getting positive feedback after all these years. Seems like in the past they took a backseat to other 70s-80s bands that sold more units, but over the last decade or so they have come into their own and are getting the recognition they deserve. Ian and Will still tour all the time and I have seen them for maybe the last five years in a row. Even flew to London a couple years ago to catch a show at the Royal St. Albert Hall. I saw Calexico recently and they covered "Bring on the Dancing Horses".

kg1973's picture

Good list. Although The Normal probably don't merit to be on your list, they did release one of the best Post-Punk singles of the "genre" - "Warm Leatherette"

Also, not sure if your list was exclusive to the UK but Nick Cave and The Birthday Party probably could have been included.

johnnythunder's picture

from Tony Wilson of Factory Records. Punk was "F You!" to society and Post-punk was usually an "I'm F-d" as in an existential howl and sadder look inward. Darker, introspective and more angular even when married with dance rhythms. Branching into synths and drum machines vs. the largely standard hard rock and roll make-up of original punk itself. Punk is about speed. Post punk/goth is mood. Goth is perhaps the purest extension direct line spin off from post punk like WIRE (their first Pink Flag is undiluted post punk. Their second Chairs Missing starts getting darker and gothier in outlook.) SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES - def angular post punk. THE CURE - poppy post punk that heads into Goth. All early goth like SISTERS OF MERCY owes everything to JOY DIVISION perhaps the most influential and greatest band of that era both lyrically and musically. DAVID BOWIE'S influence LOOMS LARGE here - his LOW and Iggy Pop's THE IDIOT echo profoundly into goth and post punk. BAUHAUS - grab the darkness by the throat and mix the ambi-sexual glam elements from Bowie and T Rex. Howard Devoto's and Colin Newman's solo records both angular and moody. No one has mentioned THE CHAMELEONS who really are a mix of so many post-punk tendancies. THE DAMNED - morph seamlessly from punk to gothy poppy punk (but never with the genius of the first few records and singles.) Gosh, lots of thought starters here...feel free to add thoughts about this amazing genre of music.

Graham Luke's picture

I think it was at the Roxy club where I went to see the Slits with Tessa Pollitt's sister Kate and her friend Jane.
The band played Typical Girls twice to the delight of the crowd; having grown up with The Stones and The Doors, I had never seen anything like it.
After the gig, we visited the dressing-room where I cowered near the back wall, totally intimidated by Ari Up's massive energy and personality.
Her mum Nora was there. Nora went on to marry one John Lydon.
I am so pleased you mentioned the Slits, Phil. My younger brother was playing the drums with Flesh For Lulu at the time and they were quite awesome live too.

AaronGarrett's picture

I thought this was great, especially including the Au Pairs. I do agree that a lot of this isn't really post-punk, it's the people who started bands right after the Sex Pistols. I think of post-punk as Pil, Joy DIvision and a lot of (great) American stuff like Mission of Burma.But its complicated to make it linear because Pere Ubu are a sort of simultaneous phenomenon as is Throbbing Gristle, and many others.

I agree with the above poster that everyone should play the Fall on their fancy systems. Hex Enduction Hour is the finest album IMHO since Tago Mago.

FattyAcid's picture

Please see this site for the most in-depth analysis on the term post-punk out there:


aboates's picture

You are right...that is quite the article!

Kempff's picture

A Trip to Marineville definitely belongs here -- it's one of the greats.

And Scritti Politti are mentioned in a footnote but not in the article itself. Their early stuff, especially the sublime "Skank Bloc Bologna," is about as Post-Punk as it gets.

aboates's picture

Yes, Post-Punk was a bit of an open-ended term...as many of the critic-created labels used to organize bands into genres often are. The term frequently overlapped with New Wave. The term Goth really didn't become commonplace until later...early 90's. In the early/mid 80's Siouxsie and the Banshees were usually referred to as New Wave or Alternative (another lame title). I was a teen during these years and saw many of these bands live. My very first concert was Devo in 1980 on their Freedom of Choice tour. My second concert was Talking Heads in 1983. When I think of Post-Punk bands, my faves would be The Chameleons, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Church, and The Associates. There are so many other bands from this time period that I still love to this day that may or may not fit under the Post-Punk label such as Japan, China Crisis, Prefab Sprout, Depeche Mode, Talk Talk, Fad Gadget, Our Daughters Wedding, Icehouse, Durutti Column...etc etc etc. One other point, in the most recent letters column, someone mentions industrial music and brings up some really cool (and obscure) artists such as Cranioclast(!) I agree that genre would be a cool one to explore as there are tons of artists in that area of experimental/ambient/avant garde that are very interesting. Bands such as :zoviet*france, The Hafler Trio, bernhard gunter, Biosphere...and of course the early champions of ambient Eno, Fripp, David Sylvian, Bill Nelson, Harold Budd...etc etc etc.

aboates's picture

Of course, there are bands out there now that are influenced by the bands/artists from this time period...bands such as Foals, These New Puritans, Interpol, Editors, Preoccupations, I Love You but I've Chosen Darkness, Late of the Pier, The Postal Service, LCD Soundsystem...