Monday, June 18, 2012

Punk Britannia 3: Post-punk

I realised after the Punk Britannia series ended that my enjoyment of each episode was inversely related to my knowledge of the era under discussion.

The first episode, on pub rock, was great. But all I know about pub rock is that Dr Feelgood were from Canvey and wore flares.

2: Punk was pretty much punk-by-numbers: Grundy, riots, boat trip, jubilee and even an atemporal insertion of winter of discontent clips.

Episode 3 covered what came after punk.  I was too young for punk but exactly the right age for post-punk, being 14 in 1980. This is my manor, in other words. Have they done it justice?

The answer is inevitably 'no'. An hour is too short to try and explain everything that happened between 1978 and 1984 (never sure why post-punk expires in 1984, maybe it was the Clash's fault). The previous episode only had to cover one simple musical style and two years. Post punk is six years plus and encompasses everything from Throbbing Gristle* to Kid Creole and the Coconuts.

So it was never going to work. Instead the larger themes - the reintegration of black music into white rock, feminism and the political turmoil of the era were sketched out (at last a legitimate reason to show those piles of uncollected rubbish) but never filled in. The Gang of Four segment was most telling: instead of talking about the anti-rock song (anti)sentiments of Anthrax, we got a funny story bout Dire Straits.

The main constraint on Punk Britannia apart from time was a bloody-minded parochialism. This was true of the previous episodes too, but the experimentation of post-punk demands some mention of origins, even when they're American or European. The brief seemed to have been to tell some sort of heroic story about British music where we win the punk wars without any help from our allies.

The Ramones did get mentioned twice in Punk, but we somehow got all the way through post-punk without mentioning Talking Heads or the Velvet Underground, which is something of a feat. The self evident dub influences on PiL got checked, but not the equally looming Krautrock sources. PiL was Can + King Tubby.

There were also some rather weird omissions. I was mildly surprised at the complete lack of Scritti Politti, whose journey from scratchy DIY to glossy blue-eyed soul through the medium of impenetrable French philosophy embodies one of the grand narratives of post punk. Perhaps Green just refused to take part, perhaps the producers hated The Word Girl.

The more baffling omission was the redheaded-but-dyed-black stepchild of punk: goth. Goth can trace its ancestry back with some precision to punk (Banshees, Cure, Damned, 'positive punk') and is one of the lasting outcomes, but it didn't make it in.

There is an interesting story to tell with Post-Punk, but that prefix means it can only get considered as part of something else. I'd love to see a Post-Punk Britannia based on Simon Reynolds' excellent Rip it Up and Start Again  - if nothing else it's the story of how an overwhelming futurism and desire for the new, ended creating the (sweeping, epic) template for British stadium rock for the next 25 years; from Echo and the Bunnymen, through U2, to Coldplay. From neophilia to deep conservatism. That would be worth telling.

* Of course Throbbing Gristle like many of the 'post-punk' acts were 'pre-punk' chronologically and musically. But it's post-punk that they got labelled.

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