In one of pop’s most intriguing cycles, reactionary primitivism gives way to arrogant sophisticates—garage bands blooming into psychedelica, techno offset by IDM, punk mutating into post-punk and no wave. In the latter case, punk’s original revolutionary promise came up short not commercially but aesthetically—it wasn’t musically extreme enough for some. It bred disappointment and frustration—Johnny Lydon felt he’d been cheated by the Pistols, so he formed PiL. This disappointment also fueled a new crop of malcontents in the same Gotham/Blighty axis where punk was bred. Post-punk and no wave juiced punk’s volume and energy but sneered at its stripped-down sound, instead effetely tossing in avant-classical and extreme jazz flavors.
Proselytizing for these lofty self-defeatists is for naive fools like yours truly who seek current indie labels to revive PP staples (Essential Logic, Kleenex). That’s the mission of two recent comps that pump other long-gone treasures. While it’s swell to have scratchy collector’s items digitized, both collections get over-ambitious in their mission.
The Soul Jazz comp’s problems begin with the title, New York Noise—the set brings the noise in a small handcart. Mars, DNA, and the Contortions sprawled punk into even more aggressive territory, denying the primacy of the 4/4 beat—while rare totems like “Radio Ethiopia” had hinted at what was to come, most of CBGB’s original crowd still wrote “songs.” The rest of the late-’70s and early-’80s music New York Noise documents is too much and too little of the story. While roping in left-field rap (Rammelzee), avant-rock (Glenn Branca), and funk-fusion (Defunkt) in one place to make a case for a downtown scene bound by geography, these don’t all mesh with the No Wave cuts and the CD totally misses out on power-pop bands (dB’s, Bongos), who I guess weren’t artsy enough.
The Post Punk Vol 01 collection from Rough Trade Shops (not the RT label itself) coheres better, but stumbles on its history lesson as it tries to nail down a sound. U.K. punk also inspired some artists to aim piss-takes back at the gobbing masses—Television Personalities’ “Part Time Punks” and Mekons’ “Never Been in a Riot” were great late-’70s anthems, targeted at a music that inspired but ultimately betrayed. Though neither tune appears on the Shops’ collection, the best music here screams of the same sense of thwarted expectations and empty gestures. This frustration added potent urgency, manifesting itself in the twisted, jagged funk of Gang of Four and Delta 5, the strident feminism of Au Pairs and the Raincoats, the bile-filled rants of the Fall, and the anarchic reggae of the Slits and the Pop Group. But instead of leaving it at that, Post Punk Vol 01 also gathers No Wave ringers and mixes in recent post-punk booster bands. Fine as Erase Errata, the Rapture, and Chicks on Speed are (no Liars or Radio 4 though?), feeding off the post-punk sound and maybe even expanding it, this new breed misses the crucial letdown-and-resentment element. Stuck in between the oldies, the newcomers don’t hold up as well as they do on their own, and would have fared better if chronologically grouped at the end to show progression or regression.
All of which may be nitpicky, but let’s consider something even more promising. After the recent primitivist roots-rock of the Strokes/Stripes/Hives, what’s going to happen when a new bunch of arty smart-asses makes more aesthetic demands on them than they can deliver? I reckon it’ll be the birth of a successful new music that doesn’t slavishly ape the past. I guarantee that in 20 years, another idealistic geek will proceed to beg indie labels to reissue these impending treasures.