Post-Punk was a response to the, unbeknownst to me, tame sensibilities of Punk Rock. Those who experienced dissatisfaction with punk rock found it too conservative in musical structure and banal in ethos. While still maintaining the general fundamental beliefs of punk rock, the reaction to the genre was political, radical, and took music to another level.
The origin of Post-Punk is traced back to the UK in the mid to late 1970’s. After the UK Punk movement seemed to have peaked, the overall scene appeared to have disseminated over the area, with musicians attempting to push the envelope while searching for a new sound strong enough to be a centralized movement and genre.
Post-Punk formed as a direct result of experimentation: in contrast to the simplistic structure of Punk, musicians that would be dubbed as ‘post-punk’ started to deconstruct and reconstruct Punk. These sounds were much more experimental, and warranted a range of instruments to help contribute to that. Instruments such as the saxophone was used in Post-Punk. Yes, the saxophone was also used in Punk Rock, (see: X Ray Spex) but it was utilized in a much different fashion. It contributed to the experimental effort, and was used in unconventional ways. The guitar has been proven time and time again to be an instrument that has played an essential role in the creation of nearly every genre; post-punk is no exception to this phenomenon. Angular guitar riffs and innovative approaches to the instrument itself gave Post-Punk a familiar and distinguishable sound.
Guitarists like Andy Gill of Gang of Four, a band to release what is recognized to be one of Post-Punk’s first record (Damaged Goods), is recognized to be an essential guitar player when it comes to developing the sound of the band and the genre. His approach is innovative, with guitar solos that are purposely not really much of anything, to quick, sharp rhythms, have helped shape what has become the sound we consider to be Post-Punk.
Rhythm is essential in this genre. Many post-punk bands were inspired greatly by funk and sometimes dub music. Bass has an interesting role in the genre. While the guitar seems to be vomiting out these raw and spastic riffs, the bass guitar sometimes seems to have a mind of its own. It adds to the many layers of a post-punk song by laying out bouncy bass riffs. This is clearly not the case for every single post-punk song, but it can clearly be identified in some of post-punks most distinguishable tracks. Sometimes the bass plays a counter melody to the guitar, sometimes it matches the rhythm of the guitar, sometimes it serves as your standard background instrument not adding much to the song, but at its best, the bass guitar in post-punk provides an unconventional yet irresistible rhythm you will find yourself contorting to.
I find the drums in post-punk to rely heavily on cymbals, followed by snare. The drums maintain the energy initiated by the guitar and is often times matching the rhythm of the instrument as well as certain phrases from the singer. Mostly the drums, like in most music, are controlling the tempo and ensuring the song does not reach a downward spiral. Again, this blueprint for drums in post-punk is not absolute. There are plenty of post-punk songs that rely on the bass drum and toms. The case varies, though I do believe when identifying the specific sound you will notice my initial case to be most applicable.
Most of all, above any other aspect of post-punk, the ideologies behind the genre are most essential to the name, and without any political or social stance, the genre does not exist. Though the approach of punk was caused by an outright disgust of social and political happenings ranging from a worldwide to personal level, people found the actual lyrics and content to be a bit vague and generic, and not really meaning much as a result. Punk began to lack intelligible substance and became more of a novelty than anything. This really outraged those who actually had something to say and weren’t in it for aesthetics.
Post-punk was centered around politics and unconventional ideas that the songwriting format of punk could not satisfy. The genre as a whole was more “artsy” and creatively challenging than punk. Lyric content was more dense and cryptic. As mentioned before, Gang of Four obviously did not hesitate to be upfront when addressing their politics, as you notice the band name.
Musicians like John Lydon, or Johnny Rotten, made the transition from punk with his band The Sex Pistols, to post-punk, with his band Public Image Ltd. You can hear the differences in sound and intention, as they are quite striking. The former is charged by emotion and relies on anger to let the song remain coherent, while the latter is much more dark in sound and in content, with more thought out and dense ideologies.
Songs such as ‘To Hell with Poverty” by Gang of Four encapsulates the genre of Post-Punk, starting with the song title. Being directly political was exactly what Gang of Four aimed to do. With direct lyrics like “In this land right now some are insane, and they’re in charge” alongside ironic language such as “To Hell with poverty, will get drunk on cheap wine…The check will arrive, it’s in the Post again” you have the formula for post-punk song content.
Followed by the lyrics, you have Andy Gill riffing away between only a few chords. The riff is quick and sharp. He has a guitar solo in this song in which he fumbles around the strings, intentionally missing notes to create more noise. The bass adds the element of funk and dance; it is a great complement to the guitar in this song specifically. It provides a groove to the song, while the drums keep the whole piece together. It is not only a post-punk classic, but a favorite of mine. I never knew how quickly I was able to jump out of my seat until I heard this song.