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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

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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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Charlie F
Dec 14, 2012 1:26pm

Really enjoyed this article. Definitely echoes a sentiment that's been at the back of my mind for a long time now that says "when will music grow a pair again?". It feels like active radicalism in music has been seen as a bad thing for a very long time now, and that seemed to get washed away the moment I heard The Seer - a real breath of air for a stifled sentiment.

You mention a lot of veteran acts in your piece. I would be interested in hearing about more examples from younger acts though. Is it just the fogeys who've decided to take up the mantle?

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Ben M
Dec 14, 2012 4:01pm

In reply to Charlie F:

I wouldn't hold out much hope for the new radical agenda if "growing a pair" is a prerequisite for take off.

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T Watson
Dec 14, 2012 4:07pm

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Should really be quoting the whole poem, but Yeats' 'The Second Coming' makes a nice accompaniment to this piece, indeed are we currently at the crest of the 40-50 year cycle that seems to bring a revival of Modernist intent? As with Yeats, Eliot, Joyce etc. art seems now more than ever a method of making sense and giving a narrative to a world of increasing terror and uncertainty. Really good piece, I enjoyed it very much.

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Dec 14, 2012 10:10pm

Interesting article, as always with the Quietus, something of substance to chew on. I think the economics of the eras (post-punk vs the revival) are a huge part of it. Here in the States we were enjoying the end of the Clinton administration and the tech bubble (didn't yet know it was about to burst). We were doing pretty good and there wasn't a whole lot to rebel against. I can either take a boring job behind a desk which will pay me comfortably, or I can play music. That had to have been a part of the end product of both eras. As one who actually joined a post-punk band in 2000 (trust me, NONE of you heard of us) it was based entirely on an answer to the rubbish on the radio. Boy bands, teeny bopper girl singers, grunge was still hanging on tho Puddle of Shit was sadly representing and oh yeah, rap rock (if it wasn't for my love of the original post-punk music I might have to argue that Limp Bizkit being in existence drove me to play music..."anything but that complete shit, please, even my terrible playing is preferred"). I recall hearing my lead singer's EP from the mid-90s and thought "there's some early OMD in there, this is good, why isn't this type of music being played anymore?". There are some gems in the early aughts post-punk revival, but it can't touch the original. Not surprising, but the economics certainly played a role. I also look forward to a little more teeth, a little more anger in our arts and music. Hey, remember the last time beards were cool? Yep, early to mid 70s...and what came next? Punk and post-punk. We can only hope...and shave.

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Dan John
Dec 15, 2012 2:34am

I'm remember reading a Simon Reynolds piece on whether 'hard' times are 'good' for music / culture ages ago in FACT. He concluded that you can find examples to support or refute this, with no conclusive relationship ultimately. Maybe 2012 was hugely different and special, but I don't think so.

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Dec 16, 2012 3:20pm

So basically times are bad so we need dark music to reflect that. One thing you're missing is that times have always been hard, and less so now than ever in history. We are less likely to be victims of violence, life spans are increasing around the world, fewer people are living in poverty than ever before, more people are literate and educated, fewer people are starving to death, we've eradicated and killed diseases through vaccination...even AIDS, a death sentence 20 years ago, is now largely manageable...even the poor in modern Western cities are living in luxury undreamt of by most 200 years ago. If you want to see misery you will, but if you look at our situation with a greater perspective you ought to see it's pretty great.
That's not to say that They aren't fighting to destroy the welfare state, and that the environment isn't about to do all this in, and we do need to be vigilant. But life is pretty good, and if you want to see misery you will. But would music reflecting hope and positivity not be a better antidote to troubled times?
Also, there is no correlation between good (or dark, which is what seems to be considered good here) music and hard times. One doesn't need the Oracle Reynolds to see that.

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Dec 16, 2012 6:09pm

In reply to Ryan:

I don't think anyone denies or is unaware that life isn't as hard as it used to be, but the fact is a lot of people still feel hopeless and miserable and the reason for that must be something deeper than lack of perspective and misery for the sake of it.

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Dec 20, 2012 10:53am

In reply to Ryan:

i agree. 100 years ago youd all be scrabling in the dirt for a blighty spud. We have the luxury of complaining now adays.

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Dec 22, 2012 10:28am

you should have a listen to Sonic Boom Six 2012 album "Sonic Boom Six"... political commentary doesn't have to be dark and downbeat

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Dec 27, 2012 3:12pm

looks like the "rambling online music journalist" revival is in full swing

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Dec 27, 2012 3:37pm

dude - PiL never put out an album titled "Second Coming" - that was the Stone Roses. Check your facts - PiL's 1979 release containing "Memories", the track to which you refer, was titled "Metal Box."

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Francis Hoffman
Dec 29, 2012 4:51pm

In reply to douglas:

"Metal Box" was released as "Second Edition" in 1980:

Kennedy mistakenly writes about "Second Coming" once.

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Dec 29, 2012 7:23pm

"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."

I don't think any specific work of art has an *obligation* to be political, and if you want political art you can certainly still find it. DFA acts were dance bands first and foremost that borrowed as much from disco directly as they did through the prism of post-punk; I can't see how you'd go tell Hercules and Love Affair or YAUCHT that they'd let you down by not having more to say about the war on terror.

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