For Britain the 1970s was a decade of turmoil and economic depression, characterised by rising crime, riots, strikes and unemployment. Not to mention the underlying paranoia brought on by IRA pub bombings, and the Cold War.
Politically, the trade unions were at the height of their powers. The Conservative Government fell in 1974 followed by a four year period of Labour rule. Coinciding with this was a resurgence of fascism and a growth in the popularity of the rascist political group the British National Front.
The landscape of modern Britain was also changing. Victorian slums were being demolished and replaced with modern highrise living, and ‘new towns’ were being built on the outskirts of London to absorb the urban sprawl, originally envisaged as modern utopias but in reality often grim and characterless.
By 1978 “the dislocations caused by economic change and geopolitical upheaval generated a tremendous sense of dread and tension”. (Reynolds 2005, p. 7)
This intensely uneasy and polarized cultural environment had a direct impact on the music which emerged in the period after the short lived but highly impactful explosion of punk.
By 1977 punk had come and gone, having been rapidly absorbed by the major labels and turned into a sensationalized popular culture commodity. This movement from the underground into the dominant culture is what Hebdige famously referred to as punk’s death by “incorporation” in his 1979 study Subculture: the Meaning of Style. (Cateforis 2009, p. 2)
As well as having become commercially corrupted, postpunk believed that punk had failed because “it attempted to overthrow rock’s status quo using conventional music (fifties rock n roll, garage, punk, mod).” (Reynolds 2005, p. 3)
Postpunks believed that the musical revolution was incomplete, that there were still new musical frontiers to discover and that this could be done by exploring the possibilities of electronics, noise, jazz and the classical avant-garde, as well as the production techniques of dub reggae and disco. From 1978 into the early 1980s independent experimentalism ensued, with postpunk artists believing that in order to reflect the radical political and existential content of their music, their music must have a radical form.
Inspired by Kraftwerk, postpunk protagonists as diverse as Daniel Miller, Human League, Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle seized upon the synthesizer as their experimental tool of choice. In it they saw the chance to create a brand new sound – cold, alienated, ‘inhuman’, reflecting the world around them.
Equally as determined to create a ‘new sound’ to reflect their radical and political points of view were bands such as Gang of Four, Scritti Politti, and the Mekons – the former developing a severe and minimalist style of playing which shunned anything they deemed as un-necessary. They were anti the ‘solo’, declaring “It’s democratic music.. we dont believe in the individual and we believe that whatever you do is ‘political’ with a small p.” (p58 Reynolds, S.) Their distinctive style can be heard today in the music of Red Hot Chilli Peppers, The Rapture and Bloc Party, to name a few.
Despite the diverse number of musical styles and political beliefs, British postpunks had a strong unifying factor. They were creating music in response to the cultural or political conditions of the time, consciously taking a position and experimenting with their ouvre in order to express their radical views. Interestingly, perhaps as musicians they were in the best position to do so, because they had the potential to reach the ears of thousands, if not millions depending on their success, rather than expounding theories from intellectual or artistic heights.
By Sarah-Leith Izzard
Reynolds, S. 2005, ‘Rip It Up And Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984’, Penguin Books Ltd, London UK
Cateforis, T. 2009, ‘The Death of New Wave’, IASPM US San Diego
Hebdige, D. 1979, ‘Subculture: The Meaning of Style’, Routledge, UK
Synth Britannia, Dir. Ben Whalley, first screened October 2009 BBC4