Every so often, a musical movement comes around that is indicative of the cultural zeitgeist. Be it the counterculture, punk, rave, nu-metal or otherwise, musical movements are often a bi-product or indicator of the present cultural juncture. In contemporary Britain, over the last five years or so, the movement that has totally engulfed our music scene has been post-punk. Or, as it should rightly be called, post-post-post punk.
This wave of bands unironically donning high waisted trousers and old, fusty-looking blazers has found its way into every corner of the music scene. Venues up and down the country are teeming with bands that, if lined up in an identity parade, would leave the most eagle-eyed struggling to make a distinction. However, this goes much further than aesthetic, even if it is the most apparent signifier. This horde of Mark E. Smith mimics not only look the same, but sound the same too.
It’s no coincidence that you have people uploading videos such as ‘how to make a post-punk song’ to YouTube. The irony is that a lot of artists making post-punk today believe that they’re so very different from their peers, whereas, if you take a step back and look at the full spectrum, again, the differences would be minuscule. The power the most recent post-punk revival once had has been negated by mountains of unironic pastiche.
This is only natural, of course, and it is a part of every scene’s shelf life. It happened to punk and grunge, and now it’s happened to post-punk. Life is cyclical, and things get tired, no matter how much symbolic significance they once held. So how did we get here? Just how did we get to the home counties producing multiple Mark E. Smith rip-offs when actually, on paper, they have nothing in common, bar a few angular guitar lines and a semi-comedic style of vocal delivery? To understand this, we have to go right back to the start.
It’s critical to note that post-punk has always been an umbrella term to bunch acts together, undoubtedly a product of the media. Writer Paul Morley even claimed that he “possibly” coined the term. Either way, the origins of the label don’t matter, as it has been used as a clear designator of a loose union of styles for the past five decades.
The first wave of post-punk sprang up gradually in the wake of punk’s implosion in the late ’70s, a time when the spirit of the punk movement was augmented for the future, and by all accounts, in a much more artistically robust way. The days of wanton destruction were over. It was time to rebuild for the future.
Inspired by the DIY ethic and energy of the punk movement, those who became the notable post-punk artists found themselves disillusioned with the old scene, feeling that it had become a parody of itself. Punk had become populist and bitter, so those with the foresight decided to bear what they perceived as the worthwhile elements of punk and move onwards. Rock and roll tropes were abandoned, such as the three-chord, blues-based writing technique. The age of divergence was truly here. “Radical content demands radical form” was the sentiment, and for listeners, that is what they got.
The first wave of post-punk was radical in every sense of the word. This is reflected by the stark difference in sound between the artists placed within its confines. Siouxsie and the Banshees, Wire, Cabaret Voltaire, Joy Division, Talking Heads, Devo, Gang of Four, The Cure, Magazine, The Fall, Bauhaus, the list is endless. Whilst there were plenty of high-waisted trousers to be shared between the artists because of the fashion of the time period, in terms of musical style, there really was a wide array of happenings. Some flirted with what would be known as goth, some were outwardly psychedelic, no wave, industrial, funk, dub and even jazz all made their way into this potpourri of a movement. The thing that actually united them was radicalism.
Aside from radical compositional choices, radical beliefs also made their way into the music. This went way further than the faux-nihilism of the first wave of punk and instilled an actual density in the music, something that endures to this day. There’s a reason why many people remember and still love the aforementioned artists and don’t care as much for many of the punk bands that came and went, seemingly overnight. In a sense, you could view the punk movement as the grunts that opened the gates and post-punk as the heavy artillery that did the real mopping up.
Intersectionality was key. This period saw ideas from art, philosophy, cinema, literature, political thought and critical theory permeate the music, something that had never been done before. Many in the scene were working-class, and many refused the lazy mainstream distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. They didn’t care, this was art made for themselves. Old rules and mores were thrown from the window of the ivory tower, crashing into the burning keep below.
Themes of alienation, repression and modernity were explored in depth, aided by the influence of writers such as J. G. Ballard and William S. Burroughs, as well as the broader ideas of Dada and Guy Debord, such as the latter’s Situationist thought. Putting this intellectual edge into perspective, The Fall were named after the book of the same name by Albert Camus. Named after a work concerned with the fall of man, the ability to comprehend a band’s outlook via their name went one step further than the original wave of punk.
Postmodernism now had its musical manifestation. Totally left-field and anti-corporatist, post-punk was everything that the first wave of punk wanted to be. By the mid-1980s, the scene had metamorphosed into many different ancillary genres, but its work was done. It helped to establish alternative culture as a whole, with independent labels flourishing as well as genres such as goth and industrial. To put it simply, artists such as The Smiths, Killing Joke, Echo and the Bunnymen, and even Gary Numan can all be regarded as post-punk when citing some of its defining factors.
Then we come to the subsequent iterations of post-punk. The influence of the original post-punk bands was so enduring that we got the post-punk revival craze in the 2000s. Again, a loose-knit group of bands were tied together by a one-size-fits-all label. Interpol, Bloc Party, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Strokes, LCD Soundsystem, The Rapture, Franz Ferdinand, The Libertines, Silversun Pickups, TV On the Radio and even groups like Arctic Monkeys were lumped in together.
Whilst there might have been some overlapping musical and aesthetic similarities, today, two decades later, we can still clearly separate the works of these bands. For instance, there are no tangible similarities between Interpol’s masterpiece ‘Obstacle 1’ and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs song ‘Gold Lion’.
Although many other bands from that particular time can also be placed in the ‘landfill indie’ bin, it says a lot about our cultural propensity for looking back on the past, that many of these bands, who had nothing in common with the radical outlook of the original wave of post-punk were somehow tied into its legacy. Yes, some were on indie labels, and spiky guitars ran free, but let’s be honest, the musical similarities between The Libertines and Siouxsie and the Banshees are almost nonexistent. That makes it a question of ethos. Bands like The Libertines, Interpol and Arctic Monkeys, did things in a kind of DIY way. They toured constantly, were signed to independent labels, regardless of how notable the label may be, and cultivated huge fanbases who remain dedicated to their art.
This post-punk revival made a considerable divergence from the original post-punk wave via its commercial significance. The majority of the bands mentioned were all headline acts at festivals, gaining the spotlight on mainstream music radio stations and TV channels, with many of the independents they were/are signed to subsidiaries of more prominent labels. They were all the rage, but they were post-punk in all but name. For Arctic Monkeys’ debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, to spawn two number one singles and become the fastest-selling debut album in British chart history says it all.
Although first-wave bands like The Cure and Talking Heads are commercial juggernauts, the chart performance of the post-punk revival movement eclipsed that of the original scene, with many of its core values forgotten in the process. Bands such as Bloc Party did grapple with complex socio-political and philosophical themes, but they were in the minority. Echoing this train of thought from the time, you could argue that bands like My Chemical Romance were also post-punk revival.
So, what’s the story of the most recent post-punk phase? We know that it has its claws firmly in the past, with many of the original post-punk bands such as The Fall and Bauhaus hailed as gods, but there are a set of more recent bands that really kicked off this contemporary obsession with all things post-punk.
One would argue that it was Danish outfit Iceage who marked the start of the most recent phase with their third album, Plowing Into the Field of Love, released in 2014. Other bands around this time that helped to resow the seed of post-punk were the now-defunct Leeds outfit Eagulls and London heroes, Savages. The minimalist aggression of Jehnny Beth and Co. on Savages’ early output was clinical in establishing post-punk as a phantom that would not completely fade away. If you listen to tracks such as ‘City’s Full’, it’s clear that they were harking back to the first wave, just imbuing it with a more visceral, contemporary edge aided by technology and shared cultural experience. I’d argue that Canadian outfit Ought also had a massive hand in the proliferation of post-punk in the middle of the 2010s, with the release of their sophomore album Sun Coming Down in 2015, which came with modern post-punk classics such as ‘Beautiful Blue Sky’. Frontman Tim Darcy sounded like Mark E. Smith’s long-lost Canadian son, and thus, The Fall, who were always a highly-revered cult band, were now brought more into focus outside of niche circles.
Other bands in this set include the likes of Preoccupations, Protomartyr, Sleaford Mods and Parquet Courts, all of whom pushed the genre back into the spotlight. It was on the back of these bands that other artists were able to find room for relevance, and in some cases, great commercial and cultural success. These bands made post-punk cool again, and against the backdrop of the post-financial crisis world, with the internet dominating music consumption, this was the perfect time for their left-field art and outlook to flourish. Notably, the 2000s was a something of cultural wasteland in terms of music, and this was something of a reaction to the stalemate. Bands like the Vaccines, who dominated alternative music at the start of the 2010s were sitting ducks, even if they still retain a large following.
This was the perfect time for post-punk to return, against a backdrop of hideous geopolitical happenings such as the financial crash of 2008, the ascendence of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote. The bleak outlook shared by the younger generations continues to carry many similarities to that of the late ’70s. There’s a lot to be said for times of social strife producing great art, but that’s a story for a different day.
There’s no wonder, then, that over the past seven years or so, many of the most artistically valued artists have been placed in the post-punk bracket. Aesthetically, musically and politically, a loose alliance has been formed once again. Squid, Dry Cleaning, Shame, Yard Act, Fontaines D.C., IDLES, Working Men’s Club, the list is endless. Other acts such as Black Country, New Road, Black Midi, Sorry, and The Murder Capital are also placed into this category. Whilst many of these acts share a somewhat bleak outlook given their lyrics, they’re post-punk in minor ways, no matter how much fans of The Murder Capital will tell you that they ‘definitely’ sitting atop the post-punk pile. Many of those aforementioned are radical, and others are not at all. It seems to be that aesthetic choices and a loose understanding of post-punk as a minimalist musical genre, in the vein of The Fall and Gang of Four’s music, has culminated in post-punk being used as a label again.
Bands like IDLES, when they broke through with their first two albums Brutalism and Joy as an Act of Resistance, had a genuinely refreshing twist on post-punk. Paying great attention to the more aggressive forms of the genre, their defining quality was their political message, something that was lapped up by consumers who felt the same. However, when it came to the release of their third album, Ultra-Mono, in 2020, the band were criticised for their message being overworn, and in some places, contrived. This is not to single them out, however, because they’re a great band, but what has happened to IDLES with the release of their stellar fourth album, Crawler, is indicative of where we’re headed next. It seems as if the band took the criticism on board, and returned with something luminous. Whilst still the same group, Crawler sees them put themselves out of their comfort zone, with added instrumentation and a lean on the electronic, aided by hip-hop producer Kenny Beats. IDLES knew that post-punk as we know it is now over the hill, and they’ve managed to circumvent its end and enjoy a creative rebirth. Added to this, Ought recently announced their breakup.
In short, people have become tired of the outwardly post-punk music that was fresh a handful of years ago. It is saturated and has now been absorbed by the mainstream music industry, absolving it of its radical edge. I won’t name names, but there are plenty of artificial post-punk bands out there today whose cultural relevance over the next five years will diminish considerably.
So why is there such a fascination with post-punk today, even when its cultural relevance dissipated nearly two years ago? The underlying factor is that it’s all hauntological, as Derrida and Mark Fisher would call it.
It’s a defining paradox inherent to postmodernity that culture consistently recycles retro aesthetics and is incapable of escaping old social forms. Hence why post-punk has had at least three notable revivals. We’re always looking backwards. Our musical and cultural outlook is concerned with the material weight of the past, and so, it gets stuck in the present, losing any sight of the future. We as a society love nostalgia, and it is this pining for a time that was, in reality, worse than our own, which gives the cultural past an undying character. This is deeply ironic, given how many recent post-punk bands have been hailed as ‘pioneers’. The new wave of post-punk might be much ‘cooler’ than the revival bands of the mid-2000s, but in many instances, their significance is equally as questionable.
The new crop of post-punk bands are only so in one way: they are of their time. The original wave was also of its time, but it concerned itself with the future, and here is the marked difference. The new wave of post-punk is obsessed with the past, which is indicative of the society we live in.
Ghosts of the past are everywhere in our society, be it the renewed interest by politicians in Thatcherism, or in Communism of the left, the recent ascendance of post-punk is just a minor indicator of a much wider trend. We see it in pop music. Acts such as Yungblud and Olivia Rodrigo have their creations firmly rooted in the past with grunge and emo, expressive of how widespread this cultural mode is. This also tells us why the ideas of the original post-punk bands have endured. Their ideas are refreshing because of their propensity for ingenuity and progress. We’ll still be talking about bands like IDLES and Squid in the future because they’ve taken the loose post-punk blueprint and moulded it to fit themselves, something that cannot be said for a lot of the other peripheral bands on the scene at the minute.
The most recent wave of post-punk has served its purpose. It’s started a trend of musical radicalism that breathed life into music once again, even if the radicalism is borrowed from a time long departed. Black Midi hark back to the time of King Crimson and mesh it with acid jazz, Working Men’s Club fuse original post-punk musicality with acid house and Fontaines D.C., with their latest single ‘Jackie Down The Line’, have taken a darker turn and can be said to invoke grunge, of all genres. These are the sort of bands we’ll probably remember from this wave, but it all depends on where they head next.
The original post-punk wave was forced to innovate because of how awful everything was around it, giving the music an organic feel that many since have tried and failed to replicate. This is why multiple bands in the current revival will not last because it feels overtly forced. Being aesthetically ‘cool’ has trumped everything. I doubt Mark E. Smith ever entertained the notion of ‘cool’ whilst sinking copious ales before getting up on stage. He wore what he wore, and he sang about whatever the fuck he wanted.
In places, the most recent wave cannot escape the accusations of artificiality because it’s true. Whether it be the hauntological aspect and/or a group of people wanting to get in on the latest trend, ultimately, this is what kills movements, and it has now done it to post-punk. It’s only natural and is part and parcel of our cultural juncture. Sorry, to the many groups who come from affluent backgrounds and genuinely believe your own hype, but you’ll never be Mark E. Smith, regardless of how much you try.
Regardless of the various post-punk bands branching out, we live in the age of complacency. This could not be any further from the original ethos of post-punk. The zeitgeist is shifting, and we patiently await what will come next.