Boil punk rock down to its essence, and it's basically just faster, louder Chuck Berry riffs. This statement is not intended as a denigration. I love fast, loud Chuck Berry riffs as much as the next guy (a lot more than the next guy, actually). I have long been a proponent of the theory, however, that for all the doors that the punk rock revolution of '77 broke down, and as great as bands like The Sex Pistols and The Damned and The Ramones were, it was the bands that followed in their wake that really mattered musically. In many ways, punk rock was just classic rock in different clothes, garage rock with more politics and sneering. It had verses, choruses, bridges, familiar chord progressions, hooky melodies, and even the occasional guitar solo.
Punk didn't really get interesting from a musical perspective until it became post-punk, a transition which happened almost immediately. Just as some of the punk movement's pioneering acts were achieving popular notoriety and starting the downward spiral into self-destruction, irrelevance, or both, post-punk bands began popping up, combining the attitude, ethics, and political and social vitriol of punk rock with a much more diverse range of musical influences and stylistic approaches. Post-punk was smarter, artier, more musically adventurous, and pulled as much from jazz, funk, reggae, electronic music, and the avant-garde as it did from all the various branches of rock music. Musically speaking, post-punk was the real punk ethos fully realized.
Post-punk is still very much with us today. Its influence continues to be felt in just about every current form of rock and popular music, and there are still plenty of bands playing in a distinctly post-punk style all over the world (some of them have even experienced mainstream success). From a guitar perspective, post-punk introduced an approach to rhythm, timbre, texture and atmospherics that completely changed the concept of the guitar's role in rock music. It was no longer merely a barre-chords-and-solos game, the guitar could now function like a percussion instrument or a synth. It could scratch and sting and bludgeon just as well as it could create subtle shifts in mood and atmosphere. Post-punk guitar could be funky, abstract, or heavy in equal measure, sometimes all in the same song.
For the studious and well-rounded modern rock guitarist, a familiarity with the post-punk guitar approach is crucial. The pioneering players of the genre have wielded enormous influence on what we do now, how we think about tone, and how we use and abuse effects (a point that should be of particular interest to Tone Reporters). So if you're not hip to post-punk, now's the time to get hip. Allow me to get you started off on the good foot. Here is a short list of essential post-punkers that every guitar player should listen to.
Bands: Public Image, Ltd., The Clash
It is fitting that one of post-punk's greatest guitarists had so many connections to the first wave of punk rock. Keith Levene was an original member of The Clash who later went on to form Public Image Ltd. (PiL) with John Lydon, A.K.A. Johnny Rotten, former singer of The Sex Pistols. Lydon was itching to take on something more adventurous in the post-Pistols era, and recruited Levene to play guitar in his new dub and experimental-music influenced group with bassist Jah Wobble and drummer Jim Walker. The band's first two albums are absolutely essential post-punk, marrying Wobble's hypnotic basslines with Levene's cutting, artfully effected shards of abstract guitarisms. His tone and approach with PiL has influenced everyone from The Edge and Duane Denison, to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Crucial tracks include "Albatross" and "Poptones" from PiL's Metal Box.
Band: Mission of Burma
Few bands have so brilliantly fused punk rock immediacy and avant-garde sonic textures as Boston's Mission of Burma. Formed in 1979, the band combined an impenetrable wall of guitar noise and Stockhausen-influenced tape loops with thoughtful songwriting, big hooks, and bristling punk energy. Their debut, the Signals, Calls, and Marches EP, is a post-punk classic, highlighted by impossibly catchy anthems like "That's When I Reach for My Revolver." 1983's Vs., Mission of Burma's only full-length album recorded before breaking up (they eventually reformed to massive acclaim in 2002) is similarly propulsive, but also more jarring and aggressive, with Roger Miller's proto-Sonic Youth guitar assault at the forefront. Equal parts cerebral and primal, Miller's distinctive playing influenced players from Kurt Cobain and Lee Ranaldo, to Peter Buck.
Band: Gang of Four
In many ways post-punk is defined by its trait of bringing disparate and wide-ranging musical influences into the punk fold, particularly elements of dance, funk, reggae, and world music. Few groups did this better than Gang of Four, a politically-driven quartet of British art kids that created a sparse, angular, hard-hitting style that owed more to Fela Kuti and James Brown than it did to The Sex Pistols. This thoroughly original style matched prominent, repetitive bass-and-drum grooves with Jon King's burning social critiques and the stuttering, jagged Stratocaster percussion of Andy Gill. Gill's playing on the band's first two records, especially the landmark Entertainment!, is funky, noisy, completely unique, and totally untouchable. Gang of Four's influence can be found today in the music of many popular mainstream acts, from R.E.M. and the Chili Peppers, to Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party.
The transition from punk rock to post-punk happened very fast. Because of this, many bands that started off playing straightforward punk became rather post-punk-ish by their second or third album (if they managed to stay together that long). The Clash is a classic example of this phenomenon, as is the essential and influential London band Wire. Wire's first record, Pink Flag, is a masterpiece of tuneful, tightly-wound, and ultra-economical rock that has influenced countless bands, from Helmet to Elastica to Minor Threat and R.E.M. It is an album that is impossible not to love. Wire's second record, however, is an entirely different beast. Chairs Missing saw the group, fronted by guitarist and vocalist Colin Newman, expand its sound drastically, incorporating synthesizers and hauntingly effected guitars, as well as adventurous beats and unorthodox song structures. Newman's guitar tones and techniques played a prominent role in this ambitious and precisely-crafted album, with sounds that range from spirited, discordant strumming to funky stabs, blips and beeps, and undulating, modulated textures that seem to float in and out like the ghosts of guitars past. Chairs Missing is practically a post-punk blueprint.
Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd
Great Britain's post-punk scene tends to get all the press, but there were several American progenitors of arty noise that continue to wield an outsized influence on modern music. New York's Television was perhaps the most influential of these bands. Helmed by the Fender-wielding tag-team of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, Television's Marquee Moon may be the best album of the post-punk era. Its tangled, knotty dual guitar lines intertwine like copulating cobras, alternately caressing and undermining each other as the mesmerizing rhythm section of Billy Ficca and Fred Smith push the songs forward to infinity. And whereas a lot of punk guitarists were known for their lack of conventional technical skills, Tom and Richard could really play, weaving an intricate tapestry of harmonic and rhythmic genius that just doesn't let up. Despite an initial lack of commercial success, Television's influence has grown steadily into modern times. Bands like Franz Ferdinand simply could not exist without them, and Tom Verlaine was the original Jazzmaster-wielding New York hipster.
Band: The Slits
Punk has always had a fascination with Jamaican music, from reggae and dub to ska and rocksteady. A serious effort to incorporate these influences began in the English post-punk era, with bands like Public Image, The Clash, and particularly The Slits, whose members had close ties to the original London punk scene. The Slits were quite overtly dub influenced, combining deep bass-and-drum grooves with Viv Albertine's angular, scratchy guitar percussiveness and Ari Up's exuberantly tuneful vocal delivery. Albertine's off-kilter approach to the six-string included everything from traditional reggae-style accompaniment and spacious dub atmospherics, to ringing, harmonic-accented rhythmic scratching more akin to a hi-hat pattern than a guitar part. Her inventive and accomplished musical voice did a lot to set The Slits apart from the pack, earning them accolades from punk stalwarts like Joe Strummer and John Lydon, as well as dub pioneers like Lee "Scratch" Perry. In modern times the band's debut album, Cut, is widely recognized for its influence on the riot grrl movement, as well as being a key inspiration for the post-punk revival.
Rowland S Howard
Band: The Birthday Party
In contrast to the more consistent tone and attitude of first wave punkers, post-punk bands were all over the place, from bouncy and playful to downright suicidal. At the darkest end of the emotional spectrum was The Birthday Party, a band of Australian nutjobs that moved from Melbourne to London in 1980 to propagate a particularly chaotic and frightening take on the sound. The Birthday Party is notable for many reasons, including being a seminal influence for nearly every gothic and noise rock band of the following decades, and for introducing the world to the distinctive vocal stylings of Nick Cave. It is also notable for the fearless guitar playing and songwriting of Rowland S. Howard. Howard's approach to the guitar was simultaneously discordant and atmospheric, interspersing jagged rhythmic seizures with dense, haunting textural work. His style combined elements of blues, rockabilly, punk, jazz, and other difficult-to-define elements into a strikingly original instrumental whole. Listening to a track like "Nick the Stripper," from Prayers On Fire one can easily discern the dramatic influence Howard's playing has had on players like The Jesus Lizard's Duane Denison. It was also a catalyst for nearly every goth rock band to follow.
Bands: Joy Division, New Order
Also existing at the dark end of post-punk's long and winding road was Joy Division. Formed by guitarist Bernard Sumner and bassist Peter Hook in the aftermath of a Manchester, England Sex Pistols gig, Joy Division initially began as a fairly straightforward punk outfit. However, by the time of Unknown Pleasures, the band's first full-length record, it had naturally settled into an entirely unique sound that combined Hook's driving, melodic basslines with Sumner's minimalistic guitar textures. This interaction, along with Ian Curtis's dark vocal delivery and Stephen Morris's creative, yet robotic, beats, propelled the band over and above its peers in the scene. Sumner's spacious guitar playing stands out for its blend of melodicism and rhythmic accompaniment, alternatively leaving space and filling it as necessary, while allowing the bass and drums to push the songs forward. Joy Division's last album, Closer, released shortly after the suicide of Ian Curtis, has proven to be its most influential, as it contains the band's biggest hit, "Love Will Tear Us Apart." The remaining members of the band eventually went on to form the equally influential New Order.