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Wreath Lectures

Dance 'Til The Police Come: Post-Punk Politics In 2012
Joe Kennedy , December 14th, 2012 07:44

In our latest Wreath Lecture, Joe Kennedy argues that now the flaccid post punk revival of ten years ago is over, in 2012 artists are making music that embraces the imperative to move forward and reflect troubled times. Header image: artwork for test pressing of Prurient's Bermuda Drain

For something that was feted so widely – and in this context, 'widely' means from The Wire to The Sun – at the time, the post-punk revival of the early 2000s now feels less like an event of substantial significance, a meaningful recapturing of a lost edge, than a fiddling contest on the outskirts of Rome. While there's little doubt that the second wave of rhythm-focused angularity produced some brilliant singles (The Rapture's 'House of Jealous Lovers', Radio 4's 'Dance to the Underground', several by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Franz Ferdinand) and several great albums (most notably by LCD Soundsystem and Liars), it's hard not to look back to when Gang of Four, Joy Division, Wire and No New York were the interviewee's reference points du jour and not think of the third-hand 'taut bass lines' and 'literate lyrics' of The Rakes and Editors. By the end of the decade, James Murphy's encyclopaedic, just-about-acceptably-postmodern production style had been watered down to the generic arpeggiated flatulence of The Whip and Friendly Fires, while the nervy intensity of Pop Group-inspired punk-funk had been indexed by an irritating bass twang employed incessantly by well-known radicals and rebels like Arctic Monkeys and Hard-Fi.

Most galling for those fascinated by the mad variety and apparently relentless proliferation of post-punk was the way that its imitators had deferred to certain elements of its arrangement and lyrical bearing - the Ian Curtis-inspired nods to sombre Mitteleuropa recalling nothing more than Lads on Tour driving tanks on a stag do in Krakow. There was little attempt to recuperate the modernistic imperative to Make it New which had opened up novel musical, aesthetic and political territory in the first place. Listen to PiL's 'Memories', from Second Coming against a revival track which seems to have been significantly influenced by it – The Rapture's 'The Coming of Spring' – and it's the work of Lydon, Levene and Wobble which feels stranger and more difficult. The likes of Murphy, Tim Goldsworthy and, in the UK, Paul Epworth returned to the late 70s and early 80s to borrow sounds, but chose not to imitate the attitude of musicians who committed themselves to difficulty.   

In fact, the revival came across ultimately as a rather crass attempt to refit the sonics of an alienation arising from the collapse of post-war social democracy for the carefree spirit of an economic and technological boom. Indeed, many represented the New York wing of the movement as an attempt to dance through the trauma occasioned by 9/11, a perspective which was somewhat lenient on the failure of DFA-orbit musicians to have much to say on the Bush-Giuliani axis of neoconservatism other than Shut Up and Dance. There was no discernible political focus, and the tendency of first-wave post-punks such as Gang of Four and Scritti Politti to keep up to date with radical developments in aesthetic and sociological theory was replaced by an off-the-shelf performance of bookishness.

A decade later, one can form a narrative about the post-punk revival by positing that, in stark contrast to the risks and sacrifices of their ostensible influences, the artists who constituted it were playing a zero-sum game. Let's face it, at the height of the Blair era, the majority of us were. Even many of those who'd read their Naomi Klein and marched against liberal intervention were fitted with a mental capacitor which meant 'politics' was a question applicable to cruise missiles and Osama Bin Laden, but not to a domestic status quo. In that context, music which offered a facsimile of post-punk's excitement and viscerality without responding to its governing prerogative – to challenge, confuse and (in some cases) appal – was entirely fitting.

2012 was probably the year in which the possibility of a zero-sum game became completely inoperable for just about everyone bar the European and North American elites. In Britain, many who had just about managed to keep their head beneath the parapet since the beginning of the financial crisis began to face the real consequences of austerity. Even those who remained comfortably off were confronted with the realities created by public service cuts, and the spike in public morale the Olympics were supposed to bring about lasted only as long as the Games themselves. Reading the foreign affairs pages showed the strength of far-right extremism not only in bleak Siberian outposts but throughout a number of EasyJet destinations, and if you turned back to the home news you were met by reports of UKIP becoming a serious political force. As in the original moment of post-punk, certainties evaporated: where then it was the Keynesian consensus of the 50s, 60s and early 70s, in 2012 it became increasingly clear that we sat on the cusp of an equally colossal shift, as explored in Alex Niven's Wreath Lecture, published this week.  
This is by no means to say that the year was dominated by capital-'P' 'Political' music, but neither was post-punk in its original incarnation. While Gang of Four and Mark Stewart were explicit (to varying degrees) about their contempt for the social injustices of their era, others – as with the modernist writers and artists who provided inspiration – were more concerned with capturing the anxiety of the historical brink. For Joy Division or John Foxx, this entailed describing a world drained of empathy, its chilly metallic surfaces unresponsive to traditional human feeling; for Mark E Smith and John Lydon, meanwhile, the prevailing worldview was sardonic, surreal and absurdist. This year, so much that was worthwhile in popular and experimental music pushed similar buttons.

A prominent feature of 2012's musical landscape was the way in which various veterans of post-punk and its offshoots produced records which matched the requirements of new political anxieties. Lydon's effort with PiL, This is PiL, was the best he's managed since the early 80s: full of subtle twists on the deaths-head psychedelia of Second Edition, the album cultivated a feeling of helplessness in the face of a menace not entirely identifiable. In its evocation of this mood, it was outdone by Justin Broadrick's JK Flesh incarnation's Post Human, a terrifying piece of aural expressionism haunted by a vision of "the cities in Britain as these darkly-lit places full of alleys and shadows and cut-throats." Killing Joke, like Broadrick alchemists who had historically synthesised the political anxieties of post-punk with the volume and aggressiveness of metal, also contributed to the apocalyptic mood with MMXII, a simpler but no less effective howl at the disorienting experience of societal collapse.

That these artists were producing some of their most thrilling, baffling work since their original era of relevance was telling, as was the fact that none of their music sounded remotely dated or inappropriate to the current situation. Of all the post-punk old-timers, however, it was New Yorkers Swans who captured the tone of incipient chaos most tellingly while pushing their music forward. The Seer is now enshrined as this publication's album of the year; what's surprising about this, for people accustomed to seeing Swans as an 'old' band, is how it seems to have positioned them alongside much younger experimentalists from various genres. The Seer doesn't – as This is PiL and MMXII , for all their many strengths, do – present an impression of old-timers lining up for one more shot at getting it right. Instead, it feels more like a component of a nascent movement of musicians devoted to sketching the ambience of a risky world through recourse to extremes of duration, abrasiveness, atonality and volume. So much of what was rightly celebrated in 2012 seemed designed to subject the listener to these limit experiences, an agenda wildly different from the domesticated, defanged products of the early noughties post-punk revival.

In early July, the Quietus recognised Carter Tutti Void's Transverse, a document of a live collaboration between former Throbbing Gristle members Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti and Factory Floor's Nik Colk Void, as its favourite record of the first half of the year (read the Quietus review here). The line-up which produced this record bridged the gap between those who had participated in the early wave of post-punk invention and those who had been inspired to pursue a similarly obtuse course. Dominated by gruelling repetition, grating frequencies and shreds of Colk's No Wave-y guitar, Transverse seems to rearrange tropes of the musical leftfield from 1977–1985 into a new pattern matching the nagging doubts of 2012. Long durations trap the listener within its brutal logic to the point at which they forget there was ever anything else, a method which replicates the way in which we perceive socio-economic crisis: uncannily reprising the lulling effects of psychedelia, the repetitiveness of austerity's principal features (bail-outs, repressed demonstrations, the reiteration that There is No Alternative) instantiates a kind of acquiescence.        

This time last year, I wrote a Wreath Lecture bemoaning the way in which values of spontaneity had been appropriated by various establishment causes. Transverse, an improvisation which never felt like a carefree jam, was one corrective to this, but there were a number of other artists which appealed to some post-punk's dedication to discipline and organisation through their sonics. Electronic music was politicised by virtue of those artists who worked to a template of unswerving austerity: Vatican Shadow's Kneel Before Religious Icons was notionally techno, but it was techno that felt like a logical conclusion of Joy Division and Swans' harrowed minimalism, music for bedrooms rather than clubs. Similarly, while you could just about imagine dancing to bits of Actress' R.I.P., it also spoke of the loneliness and frustration prompted by political policies which smother sociality.

2012, then, provided a counterpoint to the zero-sum game of the earlier post-punk revival by repoliticising the rhythms, textures and aesthetics of the late 70s and early 80s while finding myriad new ways to deploy them. Music this year genuinely seemed capable of transmitting the idea that it was putting something at stake, and there was swelling resentment against those who traded in the jaunty spontaneity I was moaning about last December. Marilyn Manson famously got himself into trouble for claiming that conservatism leads to more interesting art, but 2012 demonstrates that the anxieties of straightened times do tend to translate well into leftfield music.      

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