Wilson Neate, author of Read & Burn: A Book About Wire, interviewed me an aeon ago for Perfect Sound Forever about Rip It Up and Start Again - during which he also did an Invisible Jukebox style test of me using five postpunk records. He recently reblogged the quiz, which originally appeared in Pop Culture Press magazine in 2006
“Careering” – PiL (Metal Box, 1979)
This is one of two songs on what’s perhaps the best side of postpunk ever, although this is lost today because it’s on CD and not in its original format of three 45 rpm 12-inch records. In the US it was released as Second Edition. “Careering” is the second of two songs on the third side – side one of the second record. The first track is “Poptones,” an amazing trance-like, almost psychedelic song, with a looping, gyrating guitar riff and this incredible Jah Wobble bassline. Rotten is singing from the point of view of being abducted and you can’t work out if he’s been murdered or not, or if he’s just lying in the woods, cowering in the foliage, with all his body heat going. And the next track is “Careering,” which has no guitar in it; instead, Keith Levene uses a synthesizer in a really abstract way and the sounds swoop over your head. The song is obliquely about Northern Ireland, at a time when the conflict must have been at its worst and there were people on hunger strike. Lydon talks about people going over the border, bringing weapons and bombs. It’s very oblique but it’s definitely about civil strife in Northern Ireland. It’s Public Image at the peak of their inventiveness. Metal Box is PiL’s masterpiece and this is their best side; this two-song sequence is a real killer.
“Lions After Slumber” – Scritti Politti (Songs to Remember, 1982)
This was originally the B-side of “The Sweetest Girl,” which is when Scritti Politti reinvented themselves as a pop band. “The Sweetest Girl” is – as its title suggests – a very “sweet,” almost cloying pop-reggae song. It’s a beautiful love song, but the sort of love song that actually questions the idea of love songs and problematizes notions of love and possession. And then, on the other side, “Lions After Slumber” is a very strange track. It’s a list song – a list song through the lens of Green’s narcissism. It’s a list of things to do with him: “my languor,” “my greed,” “my elbow,” “my indecision,” “my sex,” “my white chocolate” and so on, all these states of mind, bodily dispositions, little moments, fragments of time, things he owns, his stance. It’s obviously very influenced by post-structuralism and the idea of the self not as a unitary entity, but as a plurality or as a multiplicity, and the idea of there being no essence to someone – just these moments and interactions with things or with people. Despite the fact that it’s about the fragmented self, coming through it all is this very strong, almost feline narcissism. The way Green sings it, you feel he’s like a cat basking in himself, arching his back, really in love with himself. It comes through in this sort of falsetto he sings in. So there’s an interesting tension there between the fragmented self and this absolute self-love conveyed by the vocals. It ties in with the band’s failing really: Scritti Politti ultimately wanted to be a pop group but none of their songs ever really got beyond Green’s psyche. I imagine people bought Scritti’s records and found meanings in them for themselves but it’s all so tied up with Green and his particular anguishes and doubts.
“Houses in Motion” – Talking Heads (Remain in Light, 1980)
This is an interesting song. It was a single in England but it wasn’t a hit. It followed “Once in a Lifetime,” which was a big hit in the UK but not in America. “Houses in Motion” was sequenced on Remain in Light to follow “Once in a Lifetime,” which is about someone who’s suddenly estranged from his routine, his life, his possessions, his family, his wife. He’s estranged from it and it all seems absurd, yet that realization hits him with this sort of a cosmic force. It’s almost like a blinding, mystical epiphany: the idea that you cruise through everything without connecting with reality. And then, immediately, it goes into “Houses in Motion,” which is back inside alienation. It’s based in the same musical ideas as “Once in a Lifetime” but whereas “Once in a Lifetime” is a kind of mystical, oceanic funk, “House in Motion” is a sort of eerie, neurotic funk. The protagonist in the song is back inside neurosis. The key line is: “He’s digging his own grave.” He’s trapped in routine, going round and round, just working for these goals and missing life. So it’s almost as if the two songs are sister songs. In the first one, the guy sees through everything and grasps the oneness of existence, in an almost mystical way. In the second song he’s like a prisoner. He’s blinkered. He’s working for ambition and goals, digging his own grave, going nowhere.
“Sketch for Summer” – The Durutti Column (The Return of the Durutti Column, 1980)
Durutti Column are interesting because, a lot of the time, people think of postpunk as this sort of angular, abrasive music but a lot of lovely, ethereal music was made during that period. I would think of Cocteau Twins as a postpunk group in some ways and Young Marble Giants, for instance, made very pretty, intricate, atmospheric, low-key music.And Durutti Column are a case in point. There’s this intricate, spider web filigree of guitar-playing that’s almost too exquisite at times. I almost feel it’s vulgar how exquisite it is – all these arpeggios. It’s very delicate. There’s nothing abrasive about it. It’s a dream music, a music of reverie, of drift, of fleeting prismatic perceptions. Vini Reilly was a very delicate figure. He was anorexic. He was almost wasting away and so there’s a sense in which you almost feel that the music is an expression of his body, of his fleeting, weak grip on the world. It’s almost as if he’s going to drift away, like his music.
“We Are All Prostitutes” – The Pop Group (Single, 1979)
The Pop Group started out as quite Romantic. They were into the Beat poets and their lyrics were very abstract and imagistic. They were political but in the sense of “impossible politics”: they were into the Situationists, whose famous slogan was “Be Reasonable: Demand the Impossible.” It was that very Romantic idea of politics. Everything was politics, mysticism, poetry; it was all indivisible. Somewhere along the line, though, they got more didactic, a lot more like protest singers, and “We Are All Prostitutes” is the turning point. It’s still a very exciting song today. The music is a burning punk-funk sound. The lyrics are guilt-wracked. It captures a certain aspect of postpunk: the idea that everything’s corrupt and we’re part of a system where everything we do is connected to something evil. The Pop Group agonized over the fact that they were signed to Radar, which was part of a bigger label owned by a conglomerate involved in arms-dealing. That tortured them and they left and formed their own indie label. So that was all part of it – the feeling of being unclean and wanting to be pure. “We Are All Prostitutes” was an almost hysterical rant about consumerism and capitalism as a barbaric religion. It imagines the future when our children will be ashamed of us, stone us, disown us and feel that we’re totally corrupt. It turned a lot of people off, fans who liked the early Romantic, Byronic stuff. The Pop Group were a bit like the Romantic poets, like Blake, Shelley and Byron who were also political. Shelley and Byron were involved in liberation struggles. Byron was involved in the attempt to free Greece from Turkish rule. The Pop Group were into all those guys. But they lost a bit of their Romanticism and became very guilt-haunted. They were flagellating themselves, so guilty and tortured by living in this corrupt Western society. People found that a very black-and-white view of the world, very blinkered and a big turn off. The album For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? was very lecturing. The lyrics were almost like pamphlets given out by some left-winger outside the Tube station. It was very guilt-tripping and they lost a lot of their support but “We Are All Prostitutes” is still a powerful piece of music. In some ways, it’s more focused than their early stuff because their early Romantic phase is quite chaotic musically. But as they got more militant, they actually got more focused and hard-hitting sonically.
Here's a similar - written this time, not spoken - thing I did in 2006 for Largehearted Boy around Rip It Up, this time the number is six....
1/ Sex Pistols, “Bodies” (Never Mind the Bollocks, 1977)
Well, without punk, there’d be no postpunk, right? And it was the Sex Pistols (specifically this song and “Anarchy in the UK”) that first snagged me off whatever path I was on aged fourteen and into the world of taking-music-too-seriously. Mainly, because I’d never heard anything that sounded so deadly serious before. Not so much anti-abortion as a protest against life, “Bodies” is a song that reminds you that a big part of punk’s appeal was its pure wanton evil--destruction for destruction’s sake. Almost orchestral in its grandeur (those huge backing vocal chants), “Bodies” sounds appalling and glorious. In Rip It Up and Start Again, part of my rhetorical pitch is challenging punk’s inflated historical status and bigging up “the aftermath”. This involved criticizing punk rock as a backward step, a return to basic rock’n’roll. Which is true for much of it, but the best punk was actually the distillation of rock into something that hadn’t, actually, been heard before. You go back a few years before Buzzcocks and X-Ray Spex, and really there’s nothing that has that monolithic blam-blam-blam-blam feel, even the heaviest metal or hardest-pounding Stooges had more swing to it. Still, there was a sense in which, once punk had staged this reductionist process, it couldn’t be taken anywhere, it could only be repeated with diminishing returns. Hence postpunk’s drive to expand and experiment.
2/ Public Image Ltd, “Death Disco” (single, 1979)
A protest against death: John Lydon singing (although that word seems inaccurate and inadequate for the harrowing noise unleashed here) about watching the light go out in his mother eyes. As much as the sound of the single, which made the Top 20 in Britain, what was life-changing for many, me included, was the matter/anti-matter collision of “death” and “disco” in the title. Disco, subverted by content too heavy and dark for the brightly lit celebration of the dancefloor; “death” (rock’s seriousness, its grappling with “the human condition”) subverted by disco’s hedonism and levity. Ian Dury & The Blockheads--another of my favorites back then--did something similar, albeit in a more accessible and conventionally musical way: “My Old Man” (on New Boots and Panties) was a poignant reminiscence of Dury’s own dead dad over taut funk, while “Dance of the Screamers” (from Do It Yourself) turned disco into primal scream therapy for the interpersonally challenged.
3/ Talking Heads, “Seen and Not Seen” (Remain In Light, 1980)
I got PiL’s Metal Box for Christmas 1979, and Remain In Light for Xmas the following year. I remember spending Christmas morning lying on the carpet in our living room as close to the speakers as I could get, lost in its jungle of glittering texture-rhythm. “Seen and Not Seen,” the least groove-oriented track, is actually my favorite song on the record, though. Although I didn’t realize this at the time, it’s one that bears a really heavy Eno imprint in terms of its near-ambient atmosphere, the way the synths glint and waver like heat-haze rising over a sun-baked highway. It’s similar to the “4th World” music Eno was making around this time with Jon Hassell. I love the lyric--the story of a man who learns how to change his facial appearance by gradual exercise of will, only to realise that he’s made a terrible mistake halfway through the metamorphosis--and the hesitant cadences of Byrne’s spoken delivery. People typically have a fairly limited idea of what postpunk was about--angular, stark, punk-funk, angsty--but there was a whole other side to the music that was ethereal, dreamy-drifty, and gorgeously textured, and “Seen and Not Seen” is an exquisite example. I wanted to get the track for the Rip It Up compilation, which is coming out this spring and showcases the atmospheric, blissy-eerie side of postpunk, but we couldn’t get the rights.
4/ Scritti Politti, “PAs” (from 4 A Sides EP, 1979)
There was just something really mysterious and intriguing about Scritti Politti. Somehow I’d got wind of the idea of them as this fabulously uncompromising outfit skulking in the margins of the UK postpunk scene and operating at some outer limit of politics-in-pop. I guess that was their reputation, their image, their glamour in a way, and it made them both attractive and vaguely intimidating, like a challenge that you ought to put yourself through. And then when I actually heard Scritti for the first time--it would have been “Bibbly-O-Tek,” also from 4 A Sides, on John Peel’s radio show--I was struck both by how unusual it was (the fractured song-structures, the odd chord-changes) but also how instantly beguiling the song was (the sweetness of Green’s voice, the sheer melodic beauty--which came, I realized many years later, from his childhood love of the Beatles). There was a loveliness that I completely had not expected. And when I got 4 A Sides, and the two other early EPs, I gradually became convinced Green was a pop genius. All this was well before he’d made his big turnabout and decided to go “pop” with “The ‘Sweetest Girl’”. I was such a fan that I nearly wrote him a letter telling him that he should just forget all the Scritti ideology about avoiding musical conventions and just go for it, that pop stardom was his destiny. It was “PAs,” this fantastic funk groove with a gorgeously insinuating and serpentile melody, that really sold me on this idea. This would have been the summer of 1980, when Green actually was holed up in a Welsh cottage ruminating over his musical future. But as much as it was great when he did go pop, first with the lover’s rock reggae of “Sweetest Girl” and then with the electrofunk hits like “Wood Beez,” “Absolute” and “Perfect Way”, part of me wishes he stuck with his original band and just kept on making things like “PAs” for ever.
5/ Tenor Saw, “Ring the Alarm”, 1985
I wanted to include something to register the extent to which postpunk depended for its very being on the amazing black music of the late Seventies and early Eighties--funk and disco, reggae and electro. This tune is from just outside the period Rip It Up covers, but, well, I’ve been listening to it a lot this week, and it seems as good an emblem as any for the massive effect Jamaican music had on UK postpunk. I played it yesterday and had one of those moments. It’s a midtempo skank, sweetly sung, but it hit me with the impact of The Stooges; the tension in the rhythm suddenly had this quality of tectonic violence. The line in this song that always slays me, makes my head spin, is “sweet reggae music ‘pon the attack”. If you think about what the song is actually about, it’s grim--the market struggle of sound system against sound system (“ring the alarm, another sound is dying”). It’s pitiless, Hobbesian, and yet there is such exultation in the song, same as in “War in A Babylon” by Max Romeo, another tune I’ve been playing recently.
6/ La Dusseldorf, “Dusseldorf” (La Dusseldorf, 1976)
Not strictly postpunk; indeed this album--the brainchild of Klaus Dinger of Neu!-- was recorded in 1975, making it pre-punk. But I’m including it A/ because I’ve been listening to it incessantly, and B/ David Bowie cited this album, along with Neu 75, as a huge influence on Low, which in turn was a massive LP for the postpunk bands. La Dusseldorf could therefore be seen as the Source in terms of the Neu Europa vibe that swept through so much postpunk, from Simple Minds’ Empires and Dance to The Associates (“White Car in Germany,” etc). There’s this clear-headed atmosphere of nobility and splendor to “Dusseldorf”, panoramic vistas reeling by as you head at speed into a world that’s cleansed and newborn. You get a tiny foretaste too of the glisten and uplift of early U2 and Echo & The Bunnymen, the postpunk breed of bands I call “glory boys” in Rip It Up. In Neu!, Dinger was one of the great rock drummers, he invented the motorik beat, this amazing combination of caveman primitivism and ever-shifting subtlety, a white version of Amiri Baraka’s “changing same.” One of the cool things about La Dusseldorf is that, in what seems like an act of supreme perversity, Dinger handed over the drum kit to his brother Thomas, who then proved to be just as good as Klaus. The latter, meanwhile, took up guitar and almost out-dazzled Neu! guitarist Michael Rother. I think he was trying to prove a point, that he was the real mastermind in Neu! Lyrically, “Dusseldorf” is wonderfully inane, just a chant of the city’s name, a one-word anthem of civic patriotism; sonically it’s 13 minutes of rolling motorik majesty, something I could happily listen to for fives times that length.