The Pitchfork 500 Post Punk (2) – This Heat to Devo

Post punk became such a powerful musical force thanks to its combination of the original punk ethos – to just do it, goddammit – and adding a sense that music had to be rewritten and experimented with. And from that combination came some startlingly original music. From the strange noise of This Heat to the squawking punk-funk of James Chance and the Contortions, these nine tracks take the startling originality of early post-punk and added all sorts of gubbins (Trust me. I’m typing this whilst listening to the James Chance track and “gubbins” is the only word I can think of).

I’d never heard of This Heat before, so when I first played “24 Track Loop”, I thought, hold on, someone’s just copying Aphex Twin and “Red Mecca” period Cabaret Voltaire. Until I realised that this came three years before that Cabaret Voltaire record and, ooh, 14-odd years before Jolly Mr Aphex’s first release. Quite frankly, it’s bonkers. Clanging metallic drums, odd noises coming out of the mix, echoing hand-claps, it sounds utterly extraordinary and quite unlike anything of the time. The claustrophobia envelops you turning you into a paranoid wreck. And it hasn’t aged one bit. I know bugger all about them, by the way, and for once I’m going to keep it that way. Keep a bit of mystery, you know.

This is the value of a list like the Pitchfork 500 – even if you know your modern music pretty well, there’s still plenty in there to surprise you. This is one of those tracks for me, and I hope you enjoy it too. Well, maybe “enjoy” isn’t quite the right word for it.

From bonkers clanging electronic noise to the joyful, dub-tinged tunes of The Slits. Seemingly more famous now for that album cover, The Slits’ music was a frothy mix of punk, ska, with a bit of funk thrown in. “Typical Girls” was their first single and a great example of what they did; sarky lyrics with far more imagination than you’d have expected from a punk band. Which is why they are called post-punk, I suppose. The song rails against the marketing of an idealised teenage girl, who “Don’t create\Don’t rebel” and the girls who go along with the plan. You can hear The Slits in all those Riot Grrrl bands of the 90’s, but as is so often the case, the original is by far the best.

Cut Album Cover

Next up, The Pop Group. Ah, punk-funk! Gotta love it. Mark Stewart, the man who tried to do for Bristolian what Mark E Smith did for Mancunian. Squawk! Honk! Crash! Ooo-aar! Both The Slits and The Pop Group had the tribal thing going on, clearly audible in this track “She Is Beyond Good And Evil”; though The Pop Group are nowhere near as easy to listen to as The Slits. Anyway, not my (Pig) bag, but fun anyway. A prize to the first person to comment on why I just said that*.

The Clash’s “The Guns of Brixton” is another of their “working class heroes” tunes, though thankfully this time sung by someone not privately educated in the colonies. Helps a bit, that.

Speaking of posh people making loud music, James Chance was a conservatory-trained musician who surrounded himself with people who couldn’t play instruments, as it made them easier to boss around. He was a legendary nutter and a compelling front man – tiny, dressed in a suit, always willing to pick a fight with the crowd. The track “Contort Yourself” bears more than a passing resemblance to a punch up in a musical instrument shop, in a ska-punk-funk-jazz style, and is all the better for it. Squawk! Honk! Crash! A bit like a New Yawk No-Wave version of The Pop Group, really.

Suicide, another bunch of New York No Wave art-rockers, made this unexpectedly lovely song in 1979 and accidentally invented U2. Don’t let that put you off though, it’s great. Suicide were seen as the godfathers of the No Wave movement, not surprising given that they were about 87 at the time. Again, they rather enjoyed a good punch-up with the audience and positively courted violence, revelling in having stuff thrown at them. “I got hit one time in the eye with a wrench!” says Alan Vega, proudly.

It goes almost without saying that drugs were heavily utilised by the No Wavers.

Ah, Cabaret Voltaire. I was an enormous Cabs (see?) fan in the 80’s. Unlike many of their contemporaries, they actually wanted to try and make you dance, if in a somewhat geeky way. Part of the Sheffield scene that also spawned The Human League, they never quite hit the mainstream in the same way but were hugely influential. Cabaret Voltaire assembled their own bits of technology, and put them together in new ways (like putting drums and keyboards through fuzz pedals), to make a unique sound. “Nag Nag Nag” isn’t really representative of their ouvre (heh), as they refined themselves quite quickly after this, for example on 1984’s “Sensoria”, with its freaky video, and on 1981’s “Yashar”, with its middle-Eastern beats. Saying that, this track is a reasonable place to start. And it used to be on Boy George’s answerphone, fact fans.

And next….Throbbing Gristle. From their name (can you guess what it’s slang for?), to their background in performance art which involved some really quite disturbing acts, Genesis P-Orridge’s collection of bizarre individuals (including an ex-porn star and a man who specialised in sexual extremism) were possibly the most shocking band of their era. Their music frankly sucked. Saying that, Peter Christopherson and John Balance did make some good (if also rather disturbing) music as Coil, including some jingles for commercials. No, I didn’t quite believe that either.

And finally, Devo. When I was growing up, Devo were one of those annoying, geeky, whimsical US bands who seemed to exist to solely get on everyone’s nerves. Yes, look, you’re all dressed the same! And geekily! Or like robots! At the time, they just looked and sounded like annoying college boys. But listening to this track “Mongoloid” I went and did some research (yes, I do research these articles, you know), and found that their history was somewhat darker. For one, two of the founder members were involved in the Kent State University shootings, and indeed one of them was close friends of two of the dead students. So their take on it was to either join an armed militia gang or to form a band. Again, they used the new technology of the day to make genuinely odd, new music.

I still don’t think they are very good, though. Oh, and what can I say about this:

(Whilst the “story” part of B&B was always a little lame, some of the comments about the videos were, frankly, genius. This stream of conciousness rant from Beavis ranks amongst the best, over Devo’s biggest hit.)

So, punk-funk, ska-funk-punk, electronica, geek-punk, noise, general oddness, what unites these bands? Well, most of them couldn’t play their instruments that well, so they experimented with sounds, with the instruments, with what constituted music. They removed vital elements (drums, guitars, melody itself) and shaped it into something new. They united completely disparate genres into new, funky, bloody messes. Instead of just picking up a guitar and hitting a couple of chords and shouting, they tried to be totally different to what came before, especially if being different involved shouting. And in some of these songs there are genuinely new, startling ideas. For some of these bands (This Heat, Devo) this would pretty much be their high point; for others (Cabaret Voltaire) would go onto much better things, and for others still (Throbbing Gristle) the music was secondary to being shocking. But, The Clash aside, nothing on here sounds much like anything else.

*There isn’t really a prize.

24 Track Loop by This Heat

Nag Nag Nag by Cabaret Voltaire

The whole list is available here.