Phil Brett riffs on the political meanings of some great post-punk pop groups.
Forty years ago punk exploded into the national conscience, with bands like The Clash, Sex Pistols and The Jam developing a huge following. Much as I love these bands, I want to focus on what followed from that burst of energy, the music which is now called post-punk. Inspired by punk, it was originally lumped in with it, but it was music which drew in a range of influences such as electronic music, reggae, funk, Bowie and jazz. By 1978, musicians wanted to move away from what Andy Gill of the Gang of Four describes as punk, being “slightly faster, slightly worse played heavy metal”. New wave was a term which was also sometimes used, but that conjured up rather insipid radio-friendly versions of punk by session musicians wearing skinny black ties.
Post-punk was I believe, a period of sublime creativity which had the questioning of music and indeed of society at its heart (and often its mind). Much of the mainstream music press has either ignored or downplayed its political aspect. That is a mistake, because not only did the music sometimes contain some pretty unambiguous political views (examples of which will follow), but even when it didn’t, it was indirectly political, similar to the point which Nick Grant makes in his article on Snarky Puppy.
Too often, music history merely looks at individuals as if they live in a social vacuum. In this case pages have been spent debating who was the most important - John Lydon or Malcolm McLaren. Yet, for me that is a secondary issue. More interesting is why, when the biggest audience the Pistols ever played to (as headliners) was 100 people, did they have such an effect? So many people who saw them were inspired to form bands, including some famous names, that in some ways it would be easier to compile a list of individuals who did not form one.
The answer lies in the fact that there was a receptive audience to what the Pistols offered. Late seventies Britain had seen the decline in the militancy of trade unions. Movements such as feminism and anti-racism had made gains but had stalled. The Labour Government of Callaghan had brought in policies which Thatcher gleefully took up. The National Front (NF) was leeching on people’s dissatisfaction and growing in size. Grey Britain was matched by grey plodding rock music. Here then was a milieu which contained elements that would embrace punk and nurture post-punk. A squatting movement had grown up, taking over the empty houses which lay derelict. The hippy 1960s idealism and sense of rebellion lingered, maybe not in its former strident terms, but it was still there. A pub-rock circuit had emerged, desperately trying to provide an alternative to the excesses of Yes et al.
Recently, in a reaction against punk’s emphasis on ‘street cred’, much has been made of the involvement of art school students in punk and post-punk, downplaying the working class. Leaving aside the interesting point as to why punk felt the need to pledge allegiance to ‘the street’, I believe this class denial stems from a snobbish belief that the working class cannot innovate artistically and needs the middle class to do so. The recent obituaries of George Martin, which tried to paint the son of a carpenter and cleaner as some toff who brought culture to four scruffs from Liverpool, and the Lydon/McLaren debate, are examples of this.
But many of the musicians involved in punk and post-punk were working class. Many who listened to it, including myself, were working class. It should be added that art schools at that time allowed access for some of the working class to express creativity, something which present government polices of pricing higher education out of even the lower middle class reach is destroying. Disaffected working class and art school youth wanted something different: the Pistols came along and suggested something.
Punk spat in the face of bourgeois respectability. Why, even the punk dance, the pogo, didn’t have any moves! Just up and down. It was chaos against order. Things moved quickly though. Central to punk’s ethos were two things: the primary one was, to steal a quote from Miles Davis, “Do not fear mistakes – there are none”. This encouraged everyone to form a band, including people who have historically have been excluded from rock – women. The second was the attitude of “questioning everything, challenging everything” (Mark Stewart. The Pop Group). For me, those music critics who like to deny political influence in anything which doesn’t include Marxist theory (which actually, The Pop Group and Gang of Four did try to do in their time!) miss the fun and power of the music. Post-punk, even when singing about map references or love, was made in a spirit of do-it-yourself, of greater inclusiveness and the challenging of the established order, often on independent labels who were fiercely anti-corporate. Not political?
Within the post-punk pot there were people who had explicit links with political organisations, for example, Green Gartside (Scritti Politti) and the parents of Richard Kirk (Cabaret Voltaire) were Communist Party members. The Redskins were members of the Socialist Workers Party, and Phil Oakley (Human League) has said that the Sheffield post-punk scene were all ‘Old Labour’. However, like the majority of the population, most did not belong to specific groups, but instead were people who were dissatisfied with late seventies Britain. They may not have had a clear worked-out world view but they had a view that the world was not working out.
This atmosphere of questioning of the norm opened space for creativity. Punk had kicked the door open and post-punk ran in. Siouxsie Sioux has said, “The punk thing was really good for women. It motivated them to pick up a guitar rather than be a chanteuse.” To which should be added the powerful effect of such participation had on women listening to and seeing women make music. The currently much used (and misused) term of empowerment can correctly be applied here. How could it not be, when Poly Styrene opens X Ray Spex’s debut single with, “Some people think that little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think, Oh bondage up yours!”
Poly Styrene: Love Music Hate Racism
However, one should not exaggerate the involvement of women; it remained a male dominated arena although the number of female musicians, whilst still a minority, grew in these years. Those who were involved had to battle the contradictions of the ‘scene’ because whilst all in it felt duty-bound to denounce the conservatism of the music business, many still echoed it, with female musicians facing sexism from other bands, music journalists and television. Also, despite the importance of funk and reggae to it, post-punk was also overwhelmingly white.
Simply by their gender, female musicians challenged the status quo, but it is important not to think that just because bands such as Penetration, Delta 5, Girls at our Best, The Slits, The Raincoats and Essential Logic had female musicians that they were similar in style or attitude. I asked Viv Albertine (guitarist of The Slits) at a book launch for her biography whether there was a feeling of kinship between them and bands such as The Raincoats. Her answer was that they treated them like any band, either dismissing them or seeing them as rivals. She added that only now does she see such a connection. On reflection, it was probably a dumb question, probably due to being star- struck (the Slits being one of my favourite bands). I mean, do male musicians necessarily feel a brotherhood with each other?
But to see it all as purely mere individual rebellion is too simplistic. Many were drawn to collective action, most notably Rock against Racism (RAR), the sister organisation of the Anti-Nazi League. RAR organised scores of gigs across the country against the threat of the NF, with the largest in Victoria Park in 1978. The headline act was The Clash, but frankly X Ray Spex blew them off the stage. I admit to feeling joy at seeing her again at the 2008 anniversary festival at the park, and feeling satisfaction that Poly Styrene was as strong and charismatic as she had been all those years before. (There were other examples of direct links with campaigns, such as The Pistols playing a benefit for striking fireman at the Christmas of 1977 and The Slits, Au Pairs and Pop Group playing the 1980 Beat the Blues festival at Alexandra Palace, north London).
The Slits: Typical Girls
The Slits probably should be labelled punk, as they were there in the beginning. However, such a label can be misleading. They had always wanted to avoid what they saw as male guitar rock, with Albertine developing a scratchy style which nodded toward funk and reggae, but which created a new and wonderful sound. Ari Up’s whooping singing with its German-accented English mixed with Jamaican patois bounced around Albertine’s guitar, Tessa Pollitt’s bass and Palmolive’s drums. Produced by reggae musician Dennis Bovell, their debut album Cut (1979), stands as a stunning classic, quite unlike the standard riffs which rock recycles. It is fresh, even after forty years. Their songs, like X Ray Spex’s, were a mixture of anti-consumerism and anti-gender stereotyping. Their best known song, the great Typical Girls, is about the latter, listing the clichés associated with women (“Typical girls worry about spots, fat/and natural smells, stinky fake smells”). The song Newtown addresses the young taking drugs to relieve the boredom, including “televisena” and “footballina”.
The Slits moved further into dub and elements of jazz. Free jazz trumpeter Don Cherry joined them, at their personal expense, on one of their last tours alongside reggae ‘toaster’ Prince Hammer with the band deciding to alternate top billing between the three. An apt illustration of their outlook on life: can you imagine Coldplay doing that?
With post-punk wanting to move as far away from the rock canon as possible, the jazz influence grew, with even Miles Davis playing on a Scritti Politti single, Oh Patti (Don’t Feel Sorry for Loverboy). This was especially the case with free jazz. At the final stages of the Slits' life, they were joined by Cherry’s step-daughter (and future 80s pop star) Neneh. She co-founded, with ex-members of The Pop Group, Rip Rig and Panic - itself a name derived from a Roland Kirk album - to a create a glorious and sometimes quite bonkers mix of post-punk, jazz impro and dub, with Don Cherry also appearing on some tracks.
Jazz and post-punk also shared a belief in strong record sleeve design, feeling that it could complement the music within it - see my piece Wearing their Politics on their Sleeves. They inherited this from punk, using artists such as Jamie Reid, who had designed the cover of the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen and whose ideas were imbued with Situationism. No doubt, the art school influence also played a part. The second Raincoats album, Odyshape (1981), features the Kazimir Malevich painting Peasant Woman.
The Raincoats were often tagged as a feminist band, co-founder Gina Birch responds by being rather more nuanced, saying that hers and fellow founder Anna de Silva’s, was of an “intuitive” variety which was challenged and strengthened with the arrival of the more explicitly political Vicky Aspinall. Their 1979 eponymous debut album epitomises the stop-start rhythms of post-punk, which sometimes sounds as if it will come to a halt at any moment.
The Raincoats, photo: Birmingham 81@Birmingham_81
However, it is far from being a shambles, and is an album of pop which is unafraid of being loose and of leaving spaces. Of the many fine tunes, two stand out – Off-Duty Trip, a scathing recount of then current case of a guardsman let off a rape because it would ‘harm’ his career. The other, is a stunning cover of The Kinks' Lola, who "walked like a woman and talked like a man". Sung by the women in The Raincoats the whole nature of the fluidity and social construct of sexuality and gender are explored brilliantly in a catchy pop song.
Raincoats playing Lola live, with Viv Albertine on backing vocals.
Odyshape moved away from this sound. Using a range of second-hand instruments the band embraced a variety of musical influences as diverse as English folk, world music and our old friend, free jazz. This album and their most accessible release, Moving (1984), combine in a single song elements from around the world, managing to simultaneously float whilst moving in a definite direction. There can be jazz piano alongside Middle Eastern chants and soulful vocals, all at the same time. It sometimes seems as if time and space has been expanded to allow the tunes to breathe. Personally, I think this album is a neglected pop classic. The opening three songs should have been monster chart hits, including the wonderful, No One’s Little Girl:
I’m no one's little girl, oh no, I'm not I'm not gonna be - cause I don't wanna be I never shall be on your family tree.
It’s political! It’s pop!
Another album with a striking cover, with music to match, is Playing with a Different Sex (1981) by the Au Pairs, which has an Eve Arnold photograph of Chinese female militia on manoeuvres in Mongolia. This Birmingham band, formed in 1978, produced edgy yet catchy songs with a scratchy, funky edge to them. Songs included brilliantly sarcastic looks at sexual relationships in We’re so Cool and It’s Obvious, and a great cover of David Bowie’s Repetition, dealing with domestic violence. Other topics include Northern Ireland eg Armagh, with its chorus – “we don’t torture, we’re a civilised nation”. This album has well-crafted songs with passion, humour and politics: polemics which are powerful but accessible. Their lead singer, Lesley Woods, their lead singer, has one of the great rock voices.
The Au Pairs on The Old Grey Whistle Test: Set Up
Perhaps if The Au Pairs had not been political they would have made it big. Or maybe that was denied because Woods was a woman who did not play in the defined roles which the industry demanded. The excellent lecturer and writer, Helen Reddington, has said:
Arguably, if female bands had developed the sort of innovations in music that The Slits and The Raincoats, for instance, made, they would have become household names.
Certainly, a good many of the female (and male) post-punk musicians dropped out of music for many years, some even permanently. Some suffered from mental health issues, perhaps from the pressure and the energy required to swim against the stream. Then again, these were often people who had never intended a career in music, but just needed to create what they wanted - sometimes just one single - and then to stop. Or it might be that by the 80s the music business was taking control: the indie labels were being swallowed up, the rough edges of post-punk were smoothed into new pop, and the rest was discarded.
So what is the relevance of these bands today? Well, firstly of course, there is the fantastic music which they created. If you are unaware of The Slits, Raincoats, Rip, Rig and Panic or The Au Pairs then I suggest you treat yourself. Any list of great albums should include them.
They changed women’s involvement in rock. Viv Albertine in her autobiography says that she had few, if any, women guitarists to emulate. The musicians here - and there were many others - filled that gap and inspired others like the Riot Grrrls to follow in the nineties. Sexist stereotyping of the music industry still exists, and depressingly appears to be going strong, but there are challenges to it. Bands such as Warpaint and The Savages continue the tradition.
Similarly, any list of great political songs should include them alongside the usual entries of sixties protest anthems. They re-energized politics in music, which would continue throughout the eighties and nineties. And whilst bands who are explicitly political are at present rather thin on the ground, benefit concerts for strikes and campaigns are now the norm.
But let me return to the point made at the beginning of this piece. Music, even if not explicitly political, can with its quest to question, challenge and innovate, affect people who listen and enjoy it. For the most part, I have mentioned music which does address political issues but I believe they were able to do so in an atmosphere where such a thing was not seen as odd or unusual. People are drawn into politics by many routes, often by a combination of factors. Art, including music, can be one of them. That was true for me - an important part of my personal political education was as a fifteen year old listening to The Clash, and then having a whole new joyous world opened up by the music from these bands.
Thanks to Birmingham 81@Birmingham_81 for the use of his photos of Lesley Wood and The Raincoats.
Phil Brett is a primary school teacher, who has written two novels (Comrades Come Rally and Gone Underground) set in a revolutionary Britain of the near future. In between planning lessons and marking, he is writing the third.