Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Warp Influences / Classics / Remixes

Warp 10+1 Influences
Warp 10+2 Classics
Warp 10+3 Remixes
Spin, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

UK rave started out as that strange thing--a subculture based almost entirely around import records. In 1988-89, British DJs had several years backlog of  feverish house classics to spin,  plus fresh imports from  Chicago, Detroit and New York every week. Homegrown tracks, mostly inferior imitations, couldn't compete. All this changed by early 1990 with a UK explosion of  indie dance labels and the emergence of a distinctively British rave sound  that merged house with elements of hip hop and reggae. Based in the Northern English industrial city Sheffield, Warp was the greatest of these dance independents, and one of the few to survive the era. Released to commemorate the label's tenth anniversary, these three double-CDs showcase the sharp ears and canny self-reinvention skills that have ensured Warp's longevity and continued relevance.

Warp's first phase of cool came as the prime purveyor of  "bleep-and-bass"--a style that owed as much to electro's pocket-calculator melodies and dub reggae's floorquaking sub-bass as it did to acid house's trip-notic compulsion. Much of Classics sound like a direction Kraftwerk could have followed after 1981's Computer World. Sweet Exorcist's "Clonk," for instance, is like Ralf und Florian lost in the K-hole, an inner-spatial  maelstrom of  weird geometry and precise derangement. Ranging from Tricky Disco's cartoon-quirky almost-pop, through the cold urgency of  LFO and Forgemasters, to Nightmares On Wax's proto-darkside disorientation, Classics is a fabulous document of a forgotten era of UK dance culture. Fortuitously, bleep-and-bass sounds fresher than ever today, chiming not just with the electro renaissance within techno (i/F, Ectomorph) but with the dry, drum machine beats, geometric stab-riffs, and chilly-the-most synth-tones audible in recent rap/R&B--Cash Money bounce boys like Juvenile, Ja Rule's "Holla Holla", Timbaland/Missy/Ginuwine.

Influences mostly consists of  sinister acid house from the import-dominated era of Brit-rave. But two inclusions locate the blueprint for early Warp more precisely in that late Eighties phase when twilight electro merged with the harder, tracks-not-songs side of  house. New York outfit Nitro Deluxe's  1987 "Let's Get Brutal" is a vast drumscape underpinned with tectonic shock-waves of sub-bass and topped by a shrill, staccato keyboard vamp made out of a vocal sample played several octaves too high. Kickstarted by the hilarious vocoderized mission statement "we are the original acid house creators/we hate all commercial house masturbators," and motored by a miasmic bassline that recedes into the  mix then swarms back to subsume your consciousness like malevolent fog,  Unique 3's "The Theme"  was actually the first bleep tune; as their old skool name suggests, the group was a North of England B-boy crew turned ravers.

Where Influences works as a superb primer in early house, Remixes intentionally fails to document the post-bleep Warp that most people know-- revered home of Aphex Twin, Black Dog, Autechre and Squarepusher, those godfathers of IDM  (Intelligent Dance Music, or dance music you can't really dance to). Instead, the double-CD  aims to capture the shape-shifting spirit of  the post-rave network (with its one-off collaborations, multiple aliases, and omnivorous eclecticism) by subjecting some of  Warp's finest to remixes from a host of  suspects usual and unusual.  UK post-rockers Four Tet, for instance, take a track from Aphex's Selected Ambient Works Vol II and turn what was originally as lustrous and near-motionless as crystals forming in a solution into a frisky work-out reminiscent of an over-caffeinated Tortoise. 

Highly listenable, the double-CD nonetheless suffers from the cardinal drawback of modern remixology--rather than enhancing the beloved original or locating some latent potential within it, the remixers almost invariably replace it with an all new track containing only a token trace of the ancestor. In that sense, Warp 10+3 Remixes  effectively evokes the present moment in electronica, where too many producers have got so infatuated with technique, they've lost contact with the dancefloor. Whereas Classics captures a lost moment of perfect coexistence between auteurism and popular desire, when experimentalists (like Sweet Exorcist's Richard H. Kirk, formerly of Cabaret Voltaire) briefly got on the good foot.  

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Next Medium-Sized Thing ("Energy Flash" column for Sonicnet, 2000)


"Energy Flash" column, Sonicnet, September 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Like a lot of people, I've been wondering when the Next Big Thing in dance music is going to turn up.  It's long overdue.  At the same time, it's really hard to imagine what it could possibly be.  Every day, it seems more likely that the initial onrush of rave culture carried the music to its furthest stylistic extremes by the mid-Nineties. By 1996, say, drum & bass  had taken rhythmic complexity as far as conceivable or desirable;  gabba had gotten as fast, punishing, and distorted as the human nervous system could cope with;  minimal techno had stripped itself down to the barest bones of  bangin' beats and abrasive textures.  Subsequently, dance culture has advanced not by expanding its boundaries but by developing the territory within those already-reached frontiers. The difference here is akin to the difference between explorers and settlers. So instead of pushing the envelope, you get "internal  hybrids". For instance, the UK micro-genre "nu skool breaks" is a fusion of  Big Beat and drum'n'bass, basically deploying the latter's neurotically intricate production techniques at the former's more dancer-friendly 130 bpm tempo.

All this is why, for the foreseeable future (until someone invents a new technology, or a new drug) we're  going to see a succession of Next Medium-Sized Things, rather than a singular Next Big Thing that installs itself as the leading edge and eclipses everything else that's going on.  One defining characteristic of a NBT is that its novelty is incontestable, even by those who can't stand it. Jungle, for instance, was patently a great leap forwards--nobody had made beats so frantic and chopped-up, nobody had invented a music with an internal split-tempo (basslines running at half the velocity of the sped-up breakbeats). You could hate it, but you couldn't fail to recognize its unprecedented nature.

The hallmark of a Next Medium-Sized Thing, though, is its "plausible deniability" (to adapt a phrase hitherto associated more with IRAN-CONTRA and White House skullduggery).  The innovativeness of  these micro-genres is all a matter of perspective: you have to be immersed in dance culture, or even immersed in the particular parent genre, to perceive the difference and feel the impact. I first noticed this with speed garage back in 1997--the fusion of jungle bass and house beats had massive implications and reverberations in UK clubland, but it was hard to persuade American listeners that it was more than just a slight twist on ye olde house.

Here are a bunch of Next Medium-Sized Thing contenders that people are talking about, followed by what doubters will probably say to dismiss them as hype:

(a/k/a nu-jazz, broken beats---semantic profusion is a hallmark of the Next Medium-Sized Thing; the slighter the claims to novelty, the more names there'll be for the alleged genre)

IG Culture/Likwid Biskit/ New Sector Movements,  Phil Asher, Patrick Forge, Modaji, Bugz in the Attic,  Alex Attias/Mustang/Plutonia, Domu.

People, Visons Inc., Main Squeeze, Laws Of Motion, 2000 Black, Bitasweet.

What is it exactly?
An Afrodelic boogie wonderland land where Alice Coltrane, Airto Moreira & Flora Purim, Rotary Connection and Fela Kuti mingle with 4 Hero, Masters At Work, and Carl Craig. In other words, a fusion of old skool fusion (Seventies stuff) with Nineties fusion (arty drum & bass, deepest house, the jazzier side of Detroit techno) to produce a brand nu skool of fusion. There's so much fusing going on it's getting confusing. Phusion hallmarks include a passion for time-signatures other than  four-to-the-floor, a mix of acoustic/analog/digital textures, and a quality of hand's on feel and fluency to the music even when it's computerized. West London connoisseur shit, dig.

What the sceptics will say:
It's just acid jazz with samplers.


Laylo & Bushwacka!/Matthew B., Mr. C., Nathan Coles, Pure Science, Terry Francis, Charles Webster

Plink Plonk, Pagan, Wiggle, Eye for Sound

What is it exactly?
Like the ungainly name suggests, this micro-genre occupies the not exactly vast sonic hinterland between Detroit techno and Chicago house, juicing up the former's austerity while shunning the latter's vocal element. The result is sleek, shiny, propulsive,  tastefully trippy, and cunningly poised to be just "deep" and  "progressive" enough to keep out the riff-raff (i.e. ravers) while not losing the dancefloor appeal.

What the sceptics will say:
There's always been techno-tinged house and there's always been house-leaning techno -- it's hardly worth starting a movement around.


Stanton Warriors, Donna Dee, Headtop, So Solid Crew, Reservoir Dogs, DJ Dee Kline, Phuturistix, El-B, Second Protocol, Zed Bias

Pulse, So Solid Beatz, Ghost Trax, Mob

What is it exactly?
Provisional name (in circulation while people think of something snappier and more evocative) for a subgenre some believe will soon break off from UK garage, and marked by an even more tangential verging on non-existent relationship to the garage/house continuum. Sheds UK garage's girly vocals, bump'n'flex grooves, and shuffling hi-hats in favor of looped breakbeats, cheeky/cheesy samples in the spirit of hardcore rave and jump-up jungle (ie. soundbites typically referencing weed-smoking or martial arts movies), and stomach-churning bass that often has an early Eighties electro  flavor. 

What the sceptics will say
Isn't this just jungle slowed to 130 b.p.m?
(NB: Breakbeat garage's slowed-down jungle often overlaps uncannily with nu-skool breaks's slowed-down jungle, showing how people increasingly end up occupying  the same "internal hybrid" zone even though coming from different directions).


Anne Savage, Pete Wardman, Lisa Lashes, BK, Rachel Auburn, Lisa Pin-Up, Brainbashers, Fergie, Steve Thomas,  Baby Doc

Tidy Trax, Tinrib, TEC, Nukleuz, Tripoli Trax, Duty Free, Rock Hard, Fever Pitch

What is it exactly?
Both the name and the music it describes have been around for some time, but recently the style has refined itself down to an incredibly narrow strip of sound: a concussive concoction of banging kick-drums, hoover basslines, synth-stabs, and belting diva vocals. Hard house's no frills thrills are increasingly displacing fluffy Euro-trance as the pill-head's favorite soundtrack to nights of XTC--which is why it's getting a lot of press in the dance mags.

What the sceptics will say:
This stuff is the pits. In all decent, discerning company, it should be unmentionable. It doesn't deserve a name at all.

bonus beat - on hard house - from the great Tony Marcus

this was published in a weekly dance magazine whose name I forget but seems to have attempted to ride the absolute boom-time peak of interest in dance culture (where there were about four or five dance-dedicated monthlies and various ex-fanzines also)

that bubble burst soon enough

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Mo Wax compilations

Royaltie$ Overdue
(Mo Wax) 
Melody Maker,1994

by Simon Reynolds

On the evidence of this sampler, the Mo Wax roster is
evenly divided between the brilliant and the bland. The best
stuff here--DJ Shadow, La Funk Mob, DJ Krush--is ambient hip
hop in the vein of Massive Attack and Tricky.  The rest tends
towards a tasteful but insipid composite of 'connoisseur'
musics (fusion, jazz-funk, rare groove), i.e.  precisely what
you'd associate with Straight No Chaser, the 'jazz'-zine that
Mo Wax boss James Lavelle writes for.

Nonetheless, the good parts of this curate's egg of a
comp are very tasty indeed.  The stand-out is DJ Shadow's 12
minute epic "Influx", a panoramic early '70s groovescape
whose sombre strings, lachrymose wah-wah and fusion flute are
like the missing link between The Temptations' "Papa Was a
Rollin' Stone" and Miles Davis' "He Loved Him Madly".
Ghostly shards of liberation rhetoric drift by on the breeze-
-"people's power", "it's only a matter of time", "FREEDOM"--
making "Influx" at once an elegy for the lost ideals of the
'60s and an allegory of today's slippin' into darkness vibe.

The best stuff on "Royalties Overdue" reimagines Miles
Davis circa "In A Silent Way" as a pioneer of ambient to rank
with Eno and King Tubby. The cold-sweat paranoia-funk of DJ
Krush's "Slow Chase" really implodes with a wah-wahed trumpet
solo worthy of Miles' 'lost in inner space' early '70s coke
phase.  (After this, Palm Skin's pointlessly accurate hip hop
cover of "In A Silent Way" can only seem pallid and polite).
Despite their nauseating name, La Funk Mob are smart enough
not to strive to sound like a live band (which is where other
Mo Waxers slip up).  Instead, on "La Doctoresse" and "Motor
Bass Get Phunked Up", this cyberfunk unit use the studio to
situate their piano vamps, horn-parps and percussion licks
throughout a honeycomb of dub-space.

As for the rest, the hashed-out, smooth-grooving fluency
reeks of the kind of self-congratulatory goateed twats who
once thought the sleevenotes on Style Council records were
cool. It's muzak that falls foul of the fallacy that 'mature'
= mellow. The Federation retread rare groove; Monday Michiru
is Sade, basically; DJ Takemura vibes-flavoured kitsch is
worthy of the late unlamented el label (whose Marden Hill
also feature here); Bubbatunes offer Digable Tunes B-sides
for all those who haven't yet figured out that gangsta is
where it's at.  Only RPM's groovy if scarcely groundbreaking
hip hop, reminiscent of Main Source, distinguishes itself.

Treasure the highpoints of "Royaltie$ Overdue", then,
but keep your finger poised on the remote so you can vault
over the troughs.

Headz 2 
(Mo Wax)
Village Voice, 1996 (remixed slightly for Faves of 1996)

by Simon Reynolds 

In the age of compilation gigantism, Headz 2 dramatically ups the ante. Mo 
Wax's latest anthology consists of not one but two separately sold double-CD's  (or two quadruple albums, boxed like Wagner's Parsifal), which contain nearly five-and-a-half hours of music spanning not just trip hop but leading innovators in drum & bass, techno, art-rap and electronica. Before I even saw these dauntingly oversize collections in the stores, I was put off by the air of hubris and self-congratulatory connoisseurship hanging over the project. When I saw them, the deluxe vinyl sets instantly reminded me of those calfskin-bound, gilt-inlaid editions of Dickens (sold through mail-order ads that appeal to "your unstinting pride"), which remain unread on the shelf but testify to an 
interest in being cultured. In Headz case, the word is subcultured. 

Despite their garish abstrakt covers, the vinyl Headz also resemble headstones, 
perhaps because Mo Wax supremo James Lavelle has herein constructed a kind of mausoleum of late '90s "cool". Appropriately, the music itself is sombre and 
subdued, mostly cleaving to the trip hop noir norm: torpid breakbeats, entropic 
sub-bass, dank dub reverb. (When it comes to non-junglistic breakbeats, give me the rowdy, rockist furore of the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and their amyl brethren, any day). The same Mo Wax kiss-of-def that resulted in Luke Vibert's only uninteresting release to date affects contributions from the likes of Danny Breaks, whose abandons his normal hyper-kinaesthetics for the idling headnooding tempo of "Science Fu Beats". (Perking the track up to 45 r.p.m improves this, and several other tracks, considerably). 

Mo Wax belong to what you might call the "good music society", or more 
precisely, they belong to a specific "good music society" which dates back to 
the "eclectic" list of influences on Massive Attack's "Blue Lines" (wherein PiL, 
Mahavishnu Orchestra, Isaac Hayes and Studio One coexisted in smug 
self-congratulation). The sensibility is pure fusion: "it's all music, man", 
"what kind of music don't I like? -- just bad music!". Every area of music has 
it own "good music society", its little cabal of cognoscenti, what Kevin Martin 
calls the "taste police": Junior Boys Own for deep house, Creation (in the late 
Eighties at least) for leather-trousered rock, Grand Royal for white American 
B-boyism. Each maintains a canon of cool, and as with all canons, what is 
excluded is as significant as what is included. What is excluded tends to be 
both the vibrantly vulgar and the genuinely extremist/out-there: neither The 
Sweet nor Stockhausen make it. (Although Pierre Henry, bizarrely, has been 
canonised --as a pioneer of E-Z listening alongside Jean-Jacques Perrey!!!).

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Ananda Project / Chris Brann

(Nite Grooves)
Spin, 2000

by Simon Reynolds

In rock, you get local heroes, bands that are big in their town or region. In dance, you get the opposite. Take Ananda Project's Chris Brann: a god for house hipsters across the globe for his mid-Nineties releases as Wamdue Kids, but I bet he can walk round his hometown Atlanta, Georgia, without a nod.

A slightly pat reference point for Release: Everything But the Girl's Temperamental. "Breaking Down", with its jazzy-guitar flecks and forlorn vocals (courtesy of Heather Johnson, one of five guest singers) even sounds a bit like EBTG. But Brann's coming from the other direction: he's a trackmaster getting songful, rather than singer/songwriters getting their groove on. Release has the pump of club-oriented house, the kind of voluptuously thick kick drums that become a cocooning environmental pulse when heard through a massive sound system. But it also has the intimacy of music for home and headphones. And there can't be many house artists who put a quote from Edith Sitwell in the CD booklet.

"Cascades of Colour" is the stand-out. The plangent gravity of the melody,redolent of Harold Budd & Brian Eno's ambient albums, conjures deliciously mixed emotions---blue joy, sweet sorrow. Gaelle Adisson's multitracked vocals form a counterpoint lattice that sets your nape-hairs tingling. Close behind "Cascades" is the title track, with its "let your spirit free" invocations and pensive piano chords that suddenly roll backwards on themselves, psychedelic guitar-style, to form a seamless, timewarping Moebius Strip. 

Throughout the album, there's a blurry, miasmic quality to Brann's production, the aural equivalent of Vaseline-on-the-lens. The way Brann arranges his drums spatially is like landscape gardening, making you gaze into the distance. On the vocoderized ballad "Expand Your Mind", snares crack like thunder on the mix's horizon, while hi-hats bustle right in your face. The wispy drum'n'bass excursion "Bahia" suggests an affinity with softcore junglists like LTJ Bukem and PFM, a common quest for aquaboogie wonderlands.

As with the Good Looking guys, New Age alarm bells occasionally ring: lots of liquidly chirruping birdsong, a Stevie Nicks-esque lyric about a "daughter of the moon" on the otherwise gorgeous "Falling For You". Mind you, in these despiritualized, money-mad times, maybe we need some of that. The opulence of Brann's sound doesn't connote aspirational "audio couture" (a slogan coined by Moving Shadow just at the point the label, and the drum'n'bass scene, started to undergo gentrification) but what New Agers call "abundance consciousness"--in plain, old-timer's English, counting your blessings. Release is the kind of record that reminds you to feel grateful to be alive. 

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Jon Savage interviewed about the New Wave of New Wave, punk versus ambient, and "the politics of sound"

JON SAVAGE interviewed about the New Wave of New Wave
Melody Maker, spring 1994

by Simon Reynolds

Jon Savage's 'England's Dreaming', the first proper history of punk, is
often cited in interviews and overviews of the New Wave of New Wave.  It seems
to have made the Sex Pistols adventure available to a whole new generation, just at
the point at which the saga was fading from folk memory. So does Savage, a
veteran of the original era as both participant and commentator, take any
credit for the current resurrection?

"Well, S.M.A.S.H. were very excited about 'England's Dreaming', and that
was very flattering. I mean, if you're a writer, that's the ultimate--to be
told that you've inspired someone else. I always intended 'England's Dreaming'
to be a kind of primer, presenting the data and saying 'this is how it's done'.
The idea was not to push myself to the foreground, but to provide all the
sources, the books and records that inspired the original punks.  I don't know
if the book influenced the other bands, just that S.M.A.S.H.  say they were
influenced.  Thank God they're really good!  Hahhahaha! I like S.M.A.S.H. a
lot. They've got good songs, cheekbones, short hair--a classic suburban English
mod band.  Very exciting live--after I saw them live I stayed awake til 3-AM
just buzzing on adrenaline, and that's pretty late for me.  And they have a
song called 'Shame', and that's a very English thing to write about."

Why are we still so obsessed with punk?  Ever since 1978, most Brit-rock
activity has been conceived, and judged, as either a return to, or swerve away
from, punk--as either a resurrection or a 'betrayal'. Punk revivals have almost
been annual occurrences. Why are we still hung up on happenings 16 years time
ago--it's equivalent to the Pistols being obsessed with pre-Beatles pop, Billy
Fury and Adam Faith!  Why is it that British rock culture can't bury punk, break
free of its ancient agenda?

Savage's explanation is that "the years 1976/77 are a bit like
1966/67--years of fantastic compression, too much happening too quickly. It
takes years to unravel all that. And so those moments of breakthrough
and upheaval always cast a long shadow. With punk, it took about 10 years to
work through all that stuff. Beyond that, punk is simply a classic English
archetype--with precursors in Dickens, in Graham Greene's 'Brighton Rock', in
the Angry Young Men, in The Stones and The Who.  And that archetype is so
potent.  The punk movement was very powerful, very ambitious, so it's no wonder
that pop keeps coming back to it. Punk was all to do with sex, which is still a
very charged phenomenon in England; it was about bondage and going into the
nation's subconsiocus to bring out all the violence and filth. There's a huge
gulf between the reality people live and the media edifice that's constructed
over that reality.  The simple fact is that all the things that were talked
about during punk are still there and still need to be talked about.  Nothing's

"It's like with the fashion side of the current interest in punk--in a
sense, people are 'trying on the clothes' to see if they fit, and finding that
they do.  The 'clothes' are all about anger, confrontation, hostility, and they
fit because there is a mood today  similar to '76.  The punks, and the
hippies in their own way too, posed certain questions that haven't been
answered. All great pop movements pose those questions, in slightly different
ways.  Even rave culture is born of frustration, a desire to break out.
England is still a very claustrophobic, class-ridden, static society. And I'd
hate to be 18 now."

Arguably, it's much worse today than in '76.  Not just economically but in
the sense that in the past 16 years all the little spaces of freedom have
contracted--what with the assault on dole culture, the impoverishment of
students, and of course, the forthcoming Criminal Justice Bill with its virtual
outlawing of squatting and its draconian clampdown on raves and warehouse
parties. The government seems determined to extinguish all the bases of an
oppositional popular culture.  Today it's not even a question of 'No Future',
but closer to Hendrix' lament: "ain't no life nowhere".

"If I was 18 today, I'd be incredibly conscious of the hegemony of the
babyboomer generation. Because so much of the commentary on pop is by people
from that generation, and most of them wouldn't give a band like S.M.A.S.H. a
chance, 'cos the attitude is 'we've seen it all before'. And of course that's
totally irrelevant since, as any fule kno, when you're 20 you haven't seen it
all before."

Are there any parallels between 1976 and 1994, in that there's an
apocalyptic vibe--a feeling that something appalling is lurking on the horizon,
the spectre of social collapse, and its corollary, the resurgence of fascism?

"I don't know if that's actually happening, but it is a very teenage thing
to think that. Also--it's like, 'hello, it's 1994, the Millenium is coming'.
Punk was a millenarian movement, absolutely."

One of the interesting things about the New Wave of New Wave is the way
it's resurrected punk's ethics of drug use, ie. speed = good (cos it increases
IQ, self-confidence, aggression), dope and E = bad ('cos they make you mellow,
quiescent and full of love).  Amphetamine is the perfect drug for messianic
fervour and tunnel-visonary crusading zeal, but its downside is paranoia (which
adds to the Millenarian, Doomsday vibe) and, at the extreme, psychotic

"Well, amphetamines are very bad news. I only took it four times during
punk and it made me feel so peculiar.  Whenever a pop movement gets overtly
based around one drug, it gets stupid. Speed is a dangerous drug. Several
friends of mine from the punk era ended up either psychotic or dead, because of
speed and heroin. Then again, if These Animal Men want to talk of burning for
two years then crashing, that's their prerogative. There's a grand tradition
there, a classic rock'n'roll trajectory,--Sid Vicious is the obvious example."

My reservation with these bands is that they're a too literal recreation
of punk. Really, they're like the pub rock bands that paved the way for punk:
back to basics, except that in this case "basics" means Situtationist slogans
and McLaren-like masterplans.  But any real successor to punk would have to go
as far beyond 'nouveau punk' as the Pistols went beyond the white R&B
fundamentalism of Dr Feelgood et al.  Another thing: the NWONW is
Nth-generation whiter-than-white rock, mod filtered through punk filtered
through the Manics. It completely ignores anything that's happened musically
since 1978: black or white, rap or rave.

"From an outside perspective, maybe that whiter-than-white rock can seem a
thin option compared to the wealth of stuff around, whether it's black-derived
or not. But why not make white-boy music? It doesn't make you racist, in

It's interesting the way that ambient techno has provided these bands with
a readymade enemy, the '90s subcultural equivalent of the mid-70s hippies. As a
punk vet whose current favourite music includes Aphex Twin, Richard Kirk,
Seefeel and Biosphere, what does Savage make of the nouveau punk critique of
ambient: that it's just aural sedatives for a defeated, spineless generation?

"I can understand their arguments against ambient.  But I'm not at an age
where I need to define myself by the music I like. I've grown out of that
partisanship, cos I've been lucky enough to have lived within it. But the NWONW
is music that demands that kind of partishanship, and I can easily imagine that
if I was a kid who'd gone to see S.M.A.S.H. I might be inspired to want to
change my life..."

And throw the ambient LP's and Rizlas in the bin? 

"Well, what the punk critique of ambient misses--and it's a fault shared by
all politically-engaged rock--is that there's a politics of sound that's just as
important as explicit politics in lyrics.  And the best ambient is streets ahead
in terms of sound, the way the music makes you feel, the moods and images
it conjures.  When rock gets too puritanically concerned with stripping
down to just the message, you end up with the Tom Robinson Band, who I
always had problems with--great politics, shit music.  But anyway, at my age
I don't have to choose between ambient and punk.  Ideally, the best of both
 worlds would be great--ambient punk!"

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Tektonics and hip-house history

Various Artists


(Om Records)

unpublished review, Spin, 1999? 2000?

At a recent electronica festival I watched queasily as an English DJ played "Planet Rock" on one turntable, scratched feebly on the other, hyped the crowd with repeated hollers of "1, 2, 3, 4, HIT IT!," and then stepped stage-front to perpetrate some lame breakdancin' and backspinnin'. There is something nausea-inducing about the way that Eighties hip hop signifiers became white property (in the form of trip hop and big beat) just a few years after African-Americans moved out and onward. In a similar (if not so problematic) gentrification syndrome, turntablizm has codified old school DJ techniques into a black bohemian virtuoso art, but only when those skillz became near-irrelevant in contemporary street rap.

Which means there's a weird kind of sociocultural logic to Tektonics's alliance of mostly African-American turntablists (Disk, Rob Swift, Craze, J-Rocc) with mostly white Brit old-skool fetishists (Meat Beat Manifesto, Howie B., Freestylers, Propellerheads). The results are entertaining but hardly, pardon the pun, earthshaking. Rather than reverberating like the long-overdue collision of two sonic continental plates that have been kept unnaturally separate, Tektonics cosily recalls bygone happier days when hip hop and rave shared small patches of common ground: the late Eighties DJ collage tracks by Coldcut, M/A/R/R/S, and Bomb the Bass; the mirage/lost dream that was hip-house (Shut Up And Dance, Blapps Posse, Rebel MC), the breakbeat-and-incongruous-soundbite tomfoolery of early jungle.

The story of British rave basically is a series of compulsive attempts to merge house with hip hop, resulting in the sort of hybrids that rarely happen in the New World but thrive in the U.K. (where everything is inevitably decontextualized and therefore open to recombinant mash-up). Not that many of these collaborations achieve anything as seamlessly organic as a hybrid. Photek meets The Scratch Perverts is more like superimposition, or even defacement--the glassy surge of the former's "Water Margin" daubed with scratchadelic scribbles. It's weirdly appropriate (given that Photek's innovation/crime was to replace jungle's B-boy flava with techno's frigid neurosis) and, like graffiti on a subway train, it actually enhances the clinical original. 

J-Boogie meets DJ Imperial's "Brazilelectro" thrillingly renovates the spectral syncussion shiver of Man Parrish's "Hip Hop BeBop" and T. La Rock's "Breaking Bells". But elsewhere the mix-illogical sleights and disruptions feel deja entendu: portentous this-is-a-journey-into-sound type voices (like the smarmy voiceover from a stereo-testing LP declaring "probably the most challenging record you have ever put on your turntable" in Wagon Christ/ DJ Rob Swift's "Never Ending Snorkel"); wikky-wikky flurries that could be from McLaren and the World's Famous Supreme Team's ancient "Buffalo Gals"; overfamiliar breaks, stabs, horn fanfares, and go-go percussion loops welded together in ways that advance on West End Mob only in terms of airless digital precision. 

Fresh ain't the word, in other words.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Post-Punk: Lubricate Your Living Room (Uncut, 2001)

Lubricate Your Living Room: Postpunk
(a.k.a the acorn out of which Rip It Up and Start Again grew)
Uncut, December 2001

by Simon Reynolds

This is the version that ran in the pages of Uncut, for which it was, ha ha, cut down a lot. There is a much longer version, about 19 thousand words, that I deluded myself the magazine would publish in in its entirety. I did put that version on my Blissout website for a few years, and at some point I may post it up here. A surprisingly large amount of the writing and quotes don't overlap with Rip It Up

For five years now, people have been trying to kickstart 'the Eighties revival'. And what 'Eighties' refers to, of course, is eyeliner-boys playing one-finger synth, daft haircuts, etc. All stuff that's easy to look back on with amused affection: safe. But what about the moment just before this 'Eighties' – the post-punk years of 1981, 1980, 1979? Who's really up to confronting the intellectual ardour and uncompromising militancy of this earlier Eighties: The Pop Group, Gang Of Four, This Heat, Cabaret Voltaire, early Scritti? Our irony-enfeebled constitutions would surely collapse on contact with the sheer solemn seriousness of it all.

Perhaps this earnest revolutionary zeal is why post-punk has suffered serious neglect from retro culture, which has pillaged damn-near everything else. But there are signs of a resurgence: Chicks On Speed covering songs by Delta 5 and The Normal; avant-funk compilations like Weatherall's Nine O'Clock Drop; 23 Skidoo reissues; this year's Rough Trade Shops – 25 Years, a celebration of the record store that spawned the independent label/distribution empire; Messthetics, a CD compilation series of long-lost DIY singles; new post-punk-influenced bands like Life Without Buildings; rumours of Primal Scream pursuing a Throbbing Gristle/DAF direction...Maybe the time is ripe to reopen the memory banks.

Punk seemed to be 'over' almost before it began. For many early participants, the death knell came in late 1977 with Never Mind The Bollocks – however incendiary its contents, ultimately just a hard rock album. If you wanted to locate the beginnings of post-punk, you could go back even earlier than Bollocks, though – to Johnny Rotten's show on Capital Radio in the summer of 1977, during which he played records by Beefheart, Peter Hammill, Can, plus contemporary roots reggae artists. This was the lead Pistol blowing the carefully constructed thug monster image. Malcolm McLaren was horrified, Rotten recalled, because it showed that "I couldn't be half as...moronic, violent, they wanted to promote me."

Capital Radio began the process of persona-demolition that culminated in 'Public Image' the song and Public Image Limited the band. A repudiation of Bollocks' mod/NY Dolls/glam rock'n'roll, PiL was what Lydon had always wanted the Pistols to be: a studio-oriented non-band influenced by dub and Krautrock.

Lydon's hipster checklist on Capital Radio effectively offered a programme for the completion of punk's failed musical revolution. At the close of 1977, defunct music weekly Sounds' two-part feature, titled "New Musick", heralded the first wave of post-punk bands that used Lydon-style influences as a springboard into the future: dub, Krautrock, The Velvet Underground, Eno/Bowie, electronics, disco rhythms. "Punk had become a cliche and we wanted to continue that sense of discovery and total science-fiction alienation," says Jon Savage, one of the New Musick writers.

The two UK groups whose response was swiftest to the post-punk challenge were Alternative TV and The Pop Group. "Punk had brought in the DIY ethos but it didn't take the musical progress far enough," says Mark Perry, lead singer of ATV. Their-second album, Vibing Up The Senile Man, released early 1979, seriously upped the stakes. "It still shocks me how we had the bollocks to do Vibing...," Perry laughs. "There's free jazz influences – I was into the Art Ensemble of Chicago."

The modus operandi was like PiL's Flowers Of Romance two years early: untutored musicians using all kinds of non-rock acoustic instruments, creating raw sonic material to mess with, using the studio as an instrument.

The Pop Group approached this kind of sonic action-painting, but their funk base gave listeners something to grip onto. "Just before punk, we were like the Bristol funk army," says singer Mark Stewart. "We'd go dancing to import records by T-Connection, Fatback Band – heavy bassline funk. Later I discovered that all across the UK, there'd been similar kids who were into funk and wearing Fifties clothes as a reaction against prog rock."

As well as funk's groove power, The Pop Group brought in dub's disorienting FX and out-jazz's freeform pyrotechnique. Intellectual influences included Wilhelm Reich's creed of libido liberation, Situationism's revolt against boredom, and Beat poets like Ginsberg. The result, on songs like 'Thief Of Fire', was Dionysian protest, a conflagration of sound and imagery that dissolved divisions between politics, poetry, mysticism and desire.

Signing with major label offshoot Radar, The Pop Group debuted with the single 'She Is Beyond Good And Evil', an exhilarating mess of disco-style walking bass, slashing punk-funk guitar and Stewart's love-stricken caterwaul. It was about "love as a revolutionary force", says Stewart: desire as a catalyst for Utopian hope. The line "Western values mean nothing to her" – like the images of savages in war paint on the cover of the debut album Y – expressed The Pop Group's cult of all things primal, their yearning for a lost instinctual power enfeebled by civilisation.

Sensing a kindred wild spirit in Mark Perry, The Pop Group invited ATV to tour the UK with them. "We practised what we preached on Vibing...," says Perry. "No rehearsing, just this freeform spontaneous thing." Expectations frustrated, audiences reacted violently.

Total freedom meant dealing with another aspect of punk's stillborn revolution: the need for artist-driven independent labels and an alternative distribution network. Mark Perry ran Step Forward, the indie that put out The Fall's early records. "Just think what powerful repercussions there'd have been if The Clash had gone the indie route, rather than signed to CBS," Perry sighs wistfully. "Instead, punk just ended up rejuvenating the record industry."

"The disappointing thing for me was the Pistols and Clash signing to majors," concurs Geoff Travis, founder of Rough Trade. Like many indie labels then and now, Rough Trade began as a record shop. Located in Ladbroke Grove, the original Rough Trade opened in February 1976 and became a magnet for the local punk community. In many ways, though, Rough Trade bridged the gap between the old hippie culture and punk. The business was run as a cooperative: everyone had equal say and equal pay. These sort of communal values were still part of mid-Seventies radical culture: Time Out, for instance, operated as a collective. "Growing up Jewish, I'd also had first-hand experience of kibbutz in Israel," says Travis.

Like other shops-turned-labels, Rough Trade's retail sense of what was selling developed into an A&R instinct. The label debuted in early 1978 with Metal Urbain's 'Paris Marquis'. But it was ROUGH 3 that really tapped the post-punk Zeitgeist: Cabaret Voltaire's Extended Play EP. The same egalitarianism that informed the running of Rough Trade governed deals with artists: contracts were for one record at a time, profits split 50/50 after studio and promotional costs (fronted by Rough Trade) were made back.

Rough Trade was just one of the first wave of post-punk indies, alongside New Hormones, Industrial, Small Wonder, Fast Product and Cherry Red. But it became the movement's unofficial leader, enabling other people to set up labels by advancing them money, even providing them with a base of operations. "I was really close to Rough Trade," says Daniel Miller, founder of Mute. "I didn't have an office, so they let me do my record mail-outs from their premises."

Even more vital was Rough Trade's efforts to build an independent distribution network in alliance with regional retail/label/distribution outfits like Probe, Revolver and Red Rhino. Without effective distribution, the do-it-yourself ethos was just shouting into the void. Nationwide independent distribution held out the possibility of genuine communication: reaching a scattered audience of like-minds, recouping your costs, carrying on.

Bands self-releasing their own records was the next stage in the movement's evolution. The Desperate Bicycles were the earliest evangelists for do-it-yourself/release-it-yourself, chanting "it was easy, it was cheap – go and do it" at the end of their 1977 debut single 'Smokescreen'. A scrappy legion of groups responded to their call-to-amps.

Another post-punk player inspired by The Desperate Bicycles was Daniel Miller. "I don't know if I ever heard their records, I just got infected by the energy they put across in this Melody Maker article about how easy it was to make a record." Buying a second-hand synth, Miller recorded 'T.V.O.D.' and 'Warm Leatherette', the two sides of his debut single as The Normal. With its JG Ballard-influenced lyrics and harsh all-electronic sounds, the single upped the stakes in post-punk's assault on trad rock.

"Back then people hated synths with a vengeance," recalls Miller. Non-reliance on past rock traditions became Mute's A&R hallmark. The label began almost unintentionally, with demo tapes turning up unsolicited. "Before I knew it I was running a record company, with no business grounding whatsoever. Punk encouraged people like me, Geoff Travis, Tony Wilson – not obvious record company people – to make their dreams come true."

"The idea of the independent movement was so new and exciting then," says Travis. "People would rush out and buy anything that was part of it. This is what people forget: the records used to sell. Anything halfway decent shifted from 6,000 to 10,000." The Normal's single sold over 30,000.

Demystification was the slogan of the day. "It was self-empowerment through not letting yourself be bamboozled any more," says Travis. "People exert control through mystification. Engineers can be like that in the studio. I'd got no studio experience at all, but I produced 'Nag Nag Nag' by Cabaret Voltaire and co-produced stuff by The Raincoats, The Fall. I didn't really know what I was doing, but at that point in history, you had the confidence to just go ahead."

'Leave The Capitol', exhorted a track on Slates, The Fall's 198110-inch mini LP. Fellow Mancunians The Passage sneered "too many peacocks...they must be very dull in London". Post-punk was a time when the provinces rose up against the metropolitan monopoly over music. Any week back then the independent chart would invariably feature a couple of regional compilations: the Manchester Music Collective's Unzipping The Abstract, Rockburgh's Hicks From The Sticks, Sheffield's Bouquet Of Steel...

In Sounds' "New Musick" feature, Jon Savage had heralded "fresh energy from regional centres". "I was very excited going around the UK, unearthing all these weirdo bedroom cases. If I want to hark back to that time, Cabaret Voltaire's 'The Set Up' really does it. Don't forget how awful the urban landscape was then – Sheffield seemed like a bombsite, 30 years after the War's end."

Cabaret Voltaire were pure DIY: no manager, their own eight-track studio. The group started as a pre-punk experimental trio using tape loops. Their 1975 debut gig, at a Sheffield University disco, triggered a riot. Ironically, their sound gradually got more disco-like, while never exactly amounting to party fuel. Richard H Kirk's harshly-treated guitars sounded wraith-like and Stephen Mallinder's bass lurked like an abject, pulsing thing. Dub permeated the mix but the echo was curiously dry and hollow: Rasta's dread without Zion's redemption. The mood of clammy-palmed, Control-Is-Watching paranoia was straight out of Burroughs, Ballard and Alan Pakula movies like The Parallax View.

Along with fellow Sheffield outfit Clock DVA, Cabaret Voltaire created the stereotype of post-punk as bleak and grey – qualities that seemed to seep into the records from the city's post-industrial landscape. Manchester gave Steel City a run for its money in the 'grim 'oop North' stakes. Joy Division's story is thrice-told, but there was more to Manchester than Ian Curtis' band of merry men. There-was The Fall, with a coruscating sound that Mark E Smith dubbed "country'n'Northern": rockabilly sluiced through White Light, White Heat, sulphate-snarled lyrics as vivid and impenetrable as hieroglyphs, the singer's objects of scorn usually remaining unclear.

Seemingly permanently ensconced in the independent charts with albums like Pindrop, The Passage was a vehicle for classically-trained Dick Witts' doomily grandiose arrangements and lofty polemics about religion and other weighty themes. Other Manc post-punk notables included Ludus, Manicured Noise, Section 25 and The Blue Orchids – an offshoot of The Fall whose classic The Greatest Hit LP was an acid-mystic protest against Thatcherite money worship.

Of all the era's Manchester groups, perhaps the most intriguing was A Certain Ratio – as much for the idea of ACR as for the music itself, which was only realized in flashes. The concept was disco noir; even more than The Pop Group and The Cabs, ACR inspired the avant-funk genre of 23 Skidoo, 400 Blows et al. In ACR's case, the concept was given flesh and force by the febrile fatback drumming of Donald Johnson. "ACR were part of what I always think of as a dope and Red Stripe crowd, shebeen heads," says Dave Haslam, author of Manchester; England – The Story Of The Pop Cult City. "They had a bizarre sense of fashion – close-cropped hair, baggy khaki shorts an extreme reaction against hippy untidiness or punk anarchy, going instead for a neat, mod sensibility."

Up in Scotland, another bunch of post-punk groups deployed discipline to fight rockist slackness. Josef K wore sharp monochrome Oxfam suits. "We were quite puritanical." guitarist Malcolm Ross said. "We didn't like sexism or laddishness. I was interested in the original mod movement and that was one of the influences in wearing suits...I wanted some kind of dignity."

Following the Subway Sect model of guitar pop stripped of rock'n'roll cliche. Josef K refused to indulge the audience with stage banter, encores, or autographs. "The whole anti-rock thing was a reaction to the mouldy old shoe." says singer Paul Haig, who cites Tom Verlaine. Lou Reed and David Byrne as influences on Josef K's spiky guitar sound.

North of the border, anti-rockism was very much in the air: The Associates' Billy Mackenzie declared that he'd "always hated the rock thing" and pledged his allegiance to disco and film soundtracks. The Fire Engines played 15-minute sets and released a mini album of "background music for action people" called Lubricate Your Living Room. Orange Juice fused The Velvet Underground with Chic and projected an image of fey naivete ("Worldliness must keep apart from me" sang Edwyn Collins). "Alan Horne [founder of the Postcard label] had a vision for Orange Juice all along, to turn them into a great pop band." says Haig. "He never liked Josef K. We were far too abrasive and dark."

The concept of "rockism" was coined by Pete Wylie, which was ironic because Wah! Heat were one of the most traditionally rockin' outfits of the, era. This was typical of Liverpool's post-punk scene: with the exception of the dub-and-disco-influenced Pink Military, there was little experimentalism. Wah!, Echo And The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes shared a taste for the epic and their retro leanings prompted journalists to reach tentatively for the word psychedelic': still a dubious concept, given its proximity to hippiedom. Wylie, Ian McCulloch and Julian Cope were also the most brazenly rock-star in demeanour, not concealing their ambition. Yet in many ways the Bunnymen were an exemplary post-punk band – their sound, monochrome and minimal on the first two albums, was rooted in Television's blues-less blueprint. The Bunnymen were also synonymous with the same sombre audience mobilised by Joy Division: overcoat-clad and angst-wracked young men.

All through 1979-81 the weekly music papers competed to discover new city-based scenes – the next Manchester or Sheffield. Strange and wonderful records were emerging from all over the country, though. "You'd get records sent in by these stroppy lads from tiny towns in Lincolnshire, places you had to look up on the map," says John Peel, whose late-night Radio One show gave national exposure to DIY culture's inspired one-offs. "One thing I liked was that a lot of these bands were almost entirely without ambition. Their goal was often just to put out the one single."

'John Peel band' was almost the name of a genre back then – home studio eccentrics who caught the DJ's ear and, in a brief reign of glory, got late night Radio One's equivalent of being plavlisted: groups like Family Fodder. Fatal Microbes. (And The) Native Hipsters (whose 1980 single 'There Goes Concorde Again', a captivating collision of twee whimsy and genuinely alien eeriness, like a Scunthorpe Residents, got to No 5 in the indie charts thanks to Peel).

A few 'John Peel records' even trickled down, via Mike Read and Kid Jensen's evening shows, into daytime Radio One and became pop hits: Laurie Anderson's 'O Superman' (No 2, winter 1981), Pigbag's 'Papa's Got A Brand New Pigbag', (No 2, spring 1982).

Peel's unflagging support of post-punk's uncommercial vanguard was all the more crucial because it was the only way many people had access to this music. Radio had not been deregulated yet; pop programming on TV was scarce and staid. Apart from Peel, the only other nationally accessible media by which you could find out about post-punk was the weekly music press.

As with Peel, it's hard to grasp the crucial role played by the music papers in the years following punk. For most of the 1978-81 period, the NME sold over 200,000 copies; the combined circulation of NME, Sounds and Melody Maker was in excess of 500,000. There were hardly any rival sources of information – no monthlies, scant coverage in newspapers. Punk had mobilised a huge audience looking for the way forward and ready to be guided by the inkies.

In another sense, bands and journalists were in the same business. Post-punk was nothing if not a critique of rock'n'roll, a meta-music. Songs were often mini-manifestos addressing punk's failure or music's purpose: TV Personalities' 'Part Time Punks', Scritti Politti's 'Messthetics', The Prefects' 'Going Through The Motions'. On Subway Sect's 'Rock and Roll, Even', Vic Godard sang, "We oppose all rock'n'roll/It's held you for so long...Afraid to take the stroll/Off the course of 20 years/And out of rock and roll."

The Leeds scene – Gang Of Four, The Mekons, Delta 5 and its Birmingham satellite, The Au Pairs – took this self-reflexively critical approach to rock furthest. Gang Of Four's debut single, 'Love like Anthrax', challenged the pop institution of the love song, while Entertainment!, the title of their debut LP, was an implicit question and spur-to-thought.

A big influence on this demystificatory approach to pop culture and emotional life was feminism and the concept of 'personal politics'. "Its easy to forget just how militantly pre-Loaded this culture was," recalls Ian Penman, one of NME's main post-punk writers. "You went out with girls who wore little scissors-insignia earrings" – signifying castration – "and they meant it!" In post-punk terms, this translated into lopping off the cock in cock-rock. Although it had encouraged un-typical girls like The Slits to get up and do it, punk had quickly, in the words of Jon Savage, "become very blokeish".

Post-punk's belief that 'the personal is political' led to an intense scrutiny of private conduct and public discourse alike for ideological soundness – the kind of vigilance about lifestyle politics widely denigrated today as 'political correctness'. Rough Trade refused to distribute the first Nurse With Wound album because they felt the cover's S&M imagery was degrading to women. "Rough Trade would actually tell fanzine editors, 'We will read your zine and if there's anything racist or sexist in there, we'll return it,'" recalls Tony Fletcher, editor of Jamming.

"There was an element of politicisation to relationships," recalls Gang Of Four drummer Hugo Burnham. "The women in our social circle were much healthier in terms of the male/female power dynamic. At the same time, it didn't mean we didn't try to get laid at every opportunity. There was nothing puritanical about Gang Of Four!"

Gang Of Four created the template for a new rock that was aggressive but not macho. "It was bringing together guitar rock's hardness with the groove of black music," says guitarist Andy Gill. One bond that united the group's members was, surprisingly, a love of Free's supple, stripped-down blues-rock. "I loved Free but you were completely aware of the idiocy of the lyrics. It was a question of taking the bits you loved and leaving the rest. Or deliberately taking those rock'n'roll cliches and turning them inside out."

Some cliches were sonic. "Instead of guitar solos, we had anti-solos – gaps," says Gill. Certain traditional guitar effects (wah-wah, fuzz-tone, distortion) were eliminated. The band's very sound was abrasively different: Gill favoured the brittle, clean sound of transistor amplifiers rather than the 'warm' sound of valve amps (which every guitarist today prefers).

Entertainment! was cold emotionally, too, the Marx-influenced lyrics slicing through the mystifications of love, 'capitalist democracy' and rock'n'roll itself. 'Damaged Goods' and 'Contract' used the language of commerce to analyse affairs of the heart. 'Love Like Anthrax' shocked with the unsentimental imagery of heartbreak as feeling "like a beetle on its back". While Jon King sang the lover's blues through one speaker, Gill recited a statement through the other channel that questioned why love was a privileged subject in rock: a stereophonic Brecht effect.

What made the consciousness-raising efforts of agit-funkers like Gang Of Four more than merely academic was the surrounding political context. An economically depressed industrial town, Leeds was a stronghold for resurgent far right politics: the National Front, the British Movement, the League of St George, were all active there. Friction between the post-punk vanguard and the Oi!-punk-loving skinheads was aggravated by typical town-versus-gown hostility. "Skinheads would turn up to the gigs and start fights," says Gill. "Our favourite pub, The Fenton, was where all the lefties, artists and fags hung out, and one night about 20 NF thugs came in and smashed the place up. It was like a Wild West saloon fight."

In the art department of Leeds Polytechnic, an embryonic version of Scritti Politti was gestating. By the time they moved down to London, Scritti had developed Gang Of Four's critique of rock into an ultra-rigorous interrogation of every aspect of the music's form, content and procedures.

Along with Marxist philosophers like Gramsci (Scritti singer/guitarist Green Gartside had been a young communist), a key influence was the American journal Art/Language, whose texts were 'signed' as a collective. Scritti similarly styled themselves as a sort of music/theory commune. Surrounding the group's musical core РGreen, drummer Tom Morley and bassist Nial Jinks Рwas a floating pool of associates numbering anywhere from 15 to 40. Ian Penman was a member of what Green dubbed the "odd conglomerate", hanging out at their Camden squat, composing a Scritti Politti communiqu̩, sometimes performing onstage with them. "Occasionally with Scritti I would get up and, well, rap, I guess you would have to call it these days," Penman recalls. "Cut up a Lenin text and cross-reference it with Lee Perry's 'Bafflin' Smoke Signals'...You have to understand, we took a LOT of speed back then!"

There's a photo of the Carol Street squat's filthy front room on the cover of Scritti's 1979 EP, 4 A Sides: every available surface strewn with books, pamphlets, overflowing ashtrays, beer bottles. You can almost smell the lifestyle-theory-addled, sulphate-fuelled conversations going on 'til the crack of dawn, punctuated by visits to 'blues' (illegal reggae parties) or five-groups-on-the-same-bill post-punk gigs at the Lyceum.

Named after a Gramsci book, Scritti were heavily influenced by his concept of 'hegemony': the notion that the ruling class maintains its thrall over the rest of society through propagating 'common sense' ideas of what is natural, crystallised in notions like 'a fair profit'. 'Question everything' was already a mantra/motto for post-punk groups; Scritti took this to the limit. Even the word 'rock' was ideologically suspect: Green preferred the term "beat music". Musically, the result was brittle, self-deconstructing songs like 'OPEC-Imac' and 'Bibbly-O-Tek', whose fractures couldn't conceal Green's melodic genius and the sweet plaintiveness of his high, Robert Wyatt-like voice. Live, Scritti would make up songs on the spot as part of their commitment to breaking with rock's stale routines.

At the extreme, this impulse to question all aspects of 'the rock process' and of everyday social existence could resemble a Maoist self-criticism tribunal, where party members accused themselves of counter-revolutionary tendencies. "It was all tunnelled through Green's absolutely monomaniacal insistence on what was correct" says Penman. "I remember having a serious confrontation with Green about tidiness...I couldn't understand how anyone could conceive, let alone organise, a new society from the squalor that was 1 Carol St...And he mounted a massive ideological justification for untidiness: 'Cleanliness is next to bourgeois hegemony'."

Operating in a similar soundzone to early Scritti, This Heat started before punk. Initially influenced by the angry free jazz of the Sixties and the tape-loop sound collages of musique concrete, the group were way out on a limb, according to drummer/vocalist Charles Hayward, until punk arrived to provide a climate for their "desire to commit violence to accepted notions of music".

This Heat's motor-impulse was pure post-punk: a desire to wake up listeners to a painfully sharp consciousness of the world's evils. "That's why our music wasn't psychedelic and drifty, why it was so hard-edged and angular – we had no interest in making people stoned with our sounds," says Hayward. 'Sleep' from 1981's Deceit – virtually a concept album about nuclear destruction – imagines power lulling people into complacent apathy: "A life cocooned in a routine of food...Softness is a thing called comfort."

This fierce sobriety was projected through the group's image – Deceit's back cover shows the band looking almost pre-War with their ties, jackets, short haircuts and stern frowns. "We liked going to jumble sales – I got bus conductor jackets and handfuls of ties for 20p. It was a look related to the idea of pulling yourself together, fighting back against these bastards who were ruining the world."

It's hard to recapture the atmosphere in 1979/1980, that looming sense that something appalling was about to happen: Thatcher's election, the resurgence of fascist violence, mass unemployment, talk of a police state taking shape...The Cold War was at a renewed pitch of frostiness and Britain was increasingly perceived as little more than a launching pad for American missiles. Post-punk musicians fought back with protest songs and benefit gigs galore for CND and the various Rock Against...campaigns.

Roots reggae provided post-punk artists with a language of armagideon and sufferation to express their sense of internal exile in Babylon, UK. "Rasta offered a ready-made cosmology that meshed the political, the spiritual and the apocalyptic and it helped you define your enemies," says reggae journalist Vivien Goldman.

There were contradictions in being 'white Rasta'; the latter's Old Testament moralism clashed with Western liberalism. "With the roots worldview, the logic was often questionable, but the feeling of uplift was undeniable," says Mark Stewart of The Pop Group. "Going to sound systems and witnessing that yearning for a better world, that questioning of the system, it made my hairs stand up on end."

In the winter of 1979/80, post-punk was cresting at a peak of creativity with a series of classic albums that fused experimental reach with relative accessibility. In the NME's end-of-1979 writers' poll, the Top Five included Talking Heads' Fear Of Music, Public Image Limited's Metal Box, Unknown Pleasures and Entertainment!; albums by The Slits, Raincoats, Swell Maps, The Fall, Pere Ubu and Wire featured prominently further down. But, almost by definition, peaks precede plummets. Post-punk engineered its own downfall, with visionary albums like Unknown Pleasures and Metal Box inevitably inspiring a rash of copyists.

Released in November 1979, Metal Box was the realisation of PiL's big talk of anti-rockism – not just sonically, with its 'death disco' rhythms and radically anti-traditional guitarwork, but in terms of its packaging. A tin canister containing three 12-inch singles, Metal Box successfully deconstructed 'the Album' by encouraging the listener to listen to tracks in any order, while the 12 inches' superior sound quality plugged listeners into the spacious, bass-intensified aesthetics of dub and funk.

The problem of following up this landmark paralysed PiL. "Keith Levene had this thing of 'I'm not going to play anything that's ever been played before'," recalls Vivien Goldman. "Talk about hubris!" Metal Box had seen Levene dabbling increasingly with synths, and soon he was talking about abandoning guitar altogether. But 1980 was swallowed up with severe creative constipation. Paris Au Printemps – that most rockist of things, a live album – was released as a stopgap.

But although the yawning gap between what PiL preached (not being a band but a communications corporation, with grand plans to produce movie soundtracks, video albums, etc) and the fuck-all they actually achieved was becoming starkly apparent, they remained the media's sacred cow. So when Flowers Of Romance finally came out in April 1981, it was routinely hailed as another revolution.

Drugs played their part in PiL's downfall. "I spent a fair bit of time in the Lydon bunker at that time and it really was Last Days Of Berlin stuff," recalls Penman. "Shadowy unnamed geezers wrapping up parcels of speed the size of DeLillo's Underworld."

The great dissensions that convulsed UK rock culture all through the 1979-1981 period (post-punk vanguard versus Oi! versus ska/2 Tone) represented a struggle over punk's demographic spoils: the vast reservoirs of idealism and energy mobilised during 1976-77. In 1981, as the PiL-style vanguard got more abstruse, basic punk rock surged massively in several flavours: Oi!, anarcho, US hardcore. The indie charts were flooded with new names like Vice Squad, Zounds, GBH, Discharge, Anti-Pasti, Chron-Gen, Flux Of Pink Indians.

If the 'punk's not dead' resurgence horrified most music journalists, they were almost as dismayed by the emergence of a post-PiL/Joy Division/Banshees orthodoxy of doom'n'gloom: groups like Killing Joke, Bauhaus, The Cure. By 1980, Futurama, the Leeds two-day post-punk festival that had debuted in September 1979, was starting to be perceived as a sort of angst-rock Castle Donington, its flocks of overcoat-clad, grim-faced boys as uniform as the denim hordes that followed Iron Maiden.

In January 1981, Rough Trade and NME teamed up to celebrate the first five years of the indie revolution with the cassette compilation C81, an absolute snip at £1.50 for 24 tracks and a line-up including Pere Ubu, Cabaret Voltaire, Subway Sect, The Raincoats and Robert Wyatt. Thirty thousand people sent off for it.

Yet despite this success, C81 was in many ways post-punk's swansong. Several of the featured artists had already broken ranks and were talking up 'pop' as the way ahead. Orange Juice, Aztec Camera and Josef K represented Postcard, with founder Alan Horne ranting in NME about the defeatist "hippie attitude" of the "brown rice independents" and declared "music should always aim for the widest possible market". C81 opened with the gorgeous lover's rock of Scritti's 'The "Sweetest Girl"': Green trading in ultra-cerebral difficulty for the 'new pop' creed of accessibility, ambition and shiny surfaces.

By mid-1981, UK rock culture decisively shifted towards new pop's strategy of 'entryism' – using the major label system rather than building an alternative. This was one of the great trans-valuations in British rock history, in some ways even more drastic than the revolution of 1977 (which was at least partly couched as a return to lost rock'n'roll values). You can see the onset of the new value system by the words that crept into reviews and interviews, voiced by critics and musicians alike: "preaching to the converted", "dull and worthy", relentless imagery of stagnation and wallowing in misery. Sonic mannerisms that had seemed charmingly quirky or inspiringly amateur now indicated a deplorable dearth of ambition.

Scritti's Green presented his conversion to pop as a return to health. On tour with Gang Of Four, Green collapsed with what was either a heart problem or a massive anxiety attack Spending most of 1980 recuperating in Wales, he wrote a book's worth of notes to his band, theorising a new soul-funk direction for Scritti's music, and re-emerged bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with songs like 'Faithless'.

In the magazine interviews that followed, Green repudiated Scritti's collectivist ideals and disclosed that it was he who'd run the show musically all along. He publicly criticised his label Rough Trade for frittering their money on "silly music" (meaning Pere Ubu and Red Krayola) instead of focusing their-efforts on getting Scritti into the charts. And he scorned the idea of DIY and anyone-can-do-it.

Other artists and critics agreed with Green that it was time for a return to quality control, the hierarchy of gifted stars over talentless non-entities. If ambition was now a virtue, there was nothing to stop artists embracing the major label star system. Scritti, Cabaret Voltaire, DAF, even Throbbing Gristle (now called Psychic TV) all signed with majors.

Post-punk's demystification and agit-prop was suddenly out of fashion. The Pop Group approach – 1979's 'We Are All Prostitutes' single and 1980's For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? album – was panned as a self-flagellating guilt-trip, a new puritanism. Perhaps people had just got tired of hearing the bad news. There was an inevitable swing back to glamour, escapism, fun.

Both 'new pop' and the proto-goth tendency of groups like Bauhaus represented a return to mystique, romance, the irrational. The "overwhelming sobriety" (Greil Marcus) of bands like Gang Of Four Р"a sobriety that excludes not laughter but romanticism" Рhad been a necessary purge of clich̩-encrusted rock tradition. But demystification kinda took the mystery out of everything. And whether it was ABC's ambivalent embrace of love's lexicon, or goth's patchouli'n'Crowley, 1982 saw the return of that old (black) magic again.

Post-punk, says Penman, was "post-everything, really...except, oddly, sincerity. Everyone was brittle with it." New pop and goth abandoned this core quest for the authentic and revived glam's dream of self-reinvention. Along with the belief in authenticity, another casualty was post-punk's modernist confidence that you could make an absolute break with the past. With huge swathes of potential influence strictly off-limits (almost all of the Sixties and early Seventies), post-punk groups constructed distinctive sounds for themselves out of what was left: Velvets, Beefheart, Krautrock, contemporary sounds like disco and dub.

By contrast, new pop was properly postmodern, jumbling up Sixties Motown, Seventies glam, Eighties synth-pop; goth mashed up The Doors, T-Rex, Alice Cooper's guignol shock-rock. Soon came the deluge of retro culture and 'record collection rock' that holds sway to this day, with its cancers of irony and reference points.

When trying to pinpoint what was so painfully exciting about this three-year phase of British music, 1979/80/81, I always circle back to the idea that, as great as the music sounded, what really counted was that pop wasn't a compartmentalised category set off from the rest of reality; music was about more than other music. For instance, knowing that PiL loved Can doesn't really tell you much about Metal Box. Is this because the post-punkers had so much else on their minds – inputs and obsessions from politics to film to literature?

Sometimes, inevitably, this meant the intensity was embedded less in the music itself than the surrounding conversation. This might be post-punk's cardinal flaw, the reason for its 'failure' – the 'all mouth, no trousers' syndrome echoed by such inheritors of post-punk's excessive ambition as Huggy Bear and the Manic Street Preachers.

Nowadays, you have the opposite problem: bands where the sonic substance might be undeniable, but there's no Great Idea behind the enterprise (so what is it really worth?). In the post-punk period, there was so much cultural electricity in the air that even the era's unrealised experiments and failed pretentiousness seem more suggestive, more cherishable, than today's perfected product.