Squalling and sardonic, post-punk ripped out the rebellious core of punk in the late ’70s and took it in a new, experimental direction. This is the story of the incendiary genre in 15 wildly influential albums.
Suicide, ‘Suicide’ (1977)
Even the punks hated Suicide; when the abrasive and experimental New York band supported Elvis Costello in Brussels, they managed to play for precisely 23 boo-accompanied minutes before full chaos took over (at one point, a crowd member stole their microphone). Later, a riot broke out – Alan Vega broke his nose, and the police were called. As a result Suicide became known for their confrontational presence – and they admittedly took pleasure from pissing off their crowds.
But ultimately, Suicide were far more than mere wind-up merchants. Listening back to their most infamous disaster show 42 years later, their self-titled debut sounds absurdly ahead of its time, ripping out the rebellious heart of punk, and twisting it into something shocking. Minimal and menacing, the group hollowed out the grit of punk and traded sheer volume for shadowy and electronic gloom. Even in their sugary moments – the Parisian croon of ‘Cheree’ or the hip-shimmies of ‘Girl’ – there’s a dark and unsettling quality amid the kitschy textures; like a derelict and deserted fairground with a lone lit-up carousel that’s still spinning.
Why it was so influential: They were arguably a post-punk band before the genre really existed, as well as influencing everything from no-wave to industrial techno.
Magazine, ‘Real Life’ (1978)
Formed in Manchester by Howard Devoto of Buzzcocks, Magazine took punk rock’s relentless chug and added a mischievous streak; their landmark debut ‘Real Life’ jostles with gnarled guitars, rip-roaring sax solos, and busy-fingered synths. And crucially it bursts with tongue-in-cheek humour, melodrama, and a touch of the absurd – three key pillars of punk’s newest mutation. As with Public Image Ltd (formed by Sex Pistols’ John Lydon) Magazine feel particularly important in the trajectory of post-punk because they were created by an icon of the genre that spawned it.
Why it was so influential: The band went on to redefine the cultural force that Devoto contributed to with Buzzcocks – ‘Real Life’ is arguably one of the first great post-punk records.
Siouxsie and the Banshees, ‘The Scream’ (1978)
Released in the aftermath of their break-out single ‘Hong Kong Garden’ this London band’s 1978 debut drags punk kicking and screaming onto a ghost train. There’s something slightly absurd about strapping yourself into a juddering kart and waiting to be scared shitless by a warped plastic Frankenstein, after all, and on ‘The Scream’ Siouxsie and the Banshees nail this strange balancing act between the ominously gothic, and the playfully glam.
The whole record sounds truly enormous; listening to ‘Mirage’ feels like standing in the shadow of a toweringly spooky castle, while ‘Metal Postcard (Mittageisen)’ proved that aggression can be dished out slowly. And Siouxsie herself has to be one of the best vocalists of the late-’70s – like a severely haunted Velvet Underground and Nico.
Why it was so influential: It’s really impossible to overstate the effect that ‘The Scream’ had on gothic-minded groups like The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Psychedelic Furs – all post-punk purveyors in their own right.
The Fall, ‘Live at the Witch Trials’ (1979)
Flickers of The Fall are everywhere. From James Murphy’s stream-of-consciousness musings with LCD Soundsystem to the meandering lyrics of everyone from Shame and Dry Cleaning to Parquet Courts and Fontaines D.C. the shadow of Mark E. Smith’s acerbic inner narrative is deeply ingrained in the weirdest side of post-punk.
Wildly prolific, The Fall have 32 studio albums to their name – and though no single record stands out as their one classic moment, debut album ‘Live at the Witch Trials’ feels like the best place to start in the story of post-punk. It’s angular, mean-sounding and visceral, and things frequently become meta (“Er, what’s this song about?” Smith mumbles on ‘Mother – Sister!’), the band mocking artsy emptiness with surreal contempt. “Erasing off our rainbows, we are men, we have big toes!” he announces ‘The New Thing!’. “It’s the new leather thing, crash smash crash ring”
Why it was so influential: Just listen to virtually any post-punk band making music after the Millennium – Mark E. Smith’s voice is everywhere
Gang of Four, ‘Entertainment!’ (1979)
One of the greatest things about post-punk is the way that it makes intense bleakness danceable despite itself; and Leeds outfit Gang of Four were one of the earliest pioneers with their debut album ‘Entertainment!’. Sarcastic in title and biting by nature, it’s a record that sets out an urgent agenda with thumping drums: spanning from political violence in Northern Ireland to rampant consumerism. And Gang of Four’s politics often veer towards the personal: the likes of ‘5.45’ and ‘Contract’ nail the lingering sense of anxiety and dread that comes with a constant numbing bombardment of terrible news. “Our bodies make us worry,” frontman Andy Gill sings cheerfully on the latter, atop spiking and uneasy dub-punk. Despair and disenfranchisement colliding with gold-standard pop writing – it doesn’t get much better than this.
Why it was so influential: Gang of Four’s kid-in-a-sweet-shop approach to genre – snatching up elements of disco, funk and dub – didn’t just shape post-punk’s scattershot approach. ‘Entertainment! also influenced everything from rap to grunge: Kurt Cobain once said that Nirvana began as a partial rip-off of Gang of Four.
Joy Division, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ (1979)
Channelling Velvet Underground’s brutal rock’n’roll and cut from a similarly experimental cloth to German rock bands Neu! and Can, Joy Division held nothing back when they made their debut ‘Unknown Pleasures’. Producer Martin Harnett was a firm believer in the idea that punk rock was missing a trick when it came to utilising space to create brutal dissonance, and in no time at all the band were smashing beer bottles, recording the vocals for ‘Insight’ down a telephone line, munching on crisps and transporting speakers in the lifts around Stockport’s Strawberry Studios. The result is a darkness-shrouded masterpiece, the charge led by Ian Curtis’ booming vocal.
Why it was so influential: As well as inspiring a million knock-off t-shirts in years to come, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ mastery if atmospherics filters through to everyone from Interpol to Fontaines.
Talking Heads, ‘Fear of Music’ (1979)
Talking Heads are most readily associated with the genres of new wave and art-rock – but ‘Fear of Music’ is arguably one of the most influential records to bridge the gap between those territories and post-punk. They’d worked with Brian Eno on their second record ‘More Songs About Buildings and Food’ the previous year, and the collaboration continued on ‘Fear of Music’, which melded scrappy New York punk with disparate influences, ranging from disco and afrobeat to surrealist poetry and a nagging sense of anxious unease.
Why it was so influential: In the world of Talking Heads anything and everything goes, and ‘Fear of Music’s pick’n’mix approach would later spawn new-wave.
Public Image Ltd, ‘Metal Box’ (1979)
Best known as a UK punk icon thanks to fronting Sex Pistols, John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd is a post-punk band in the most literal sense of the word – the musician originally founded the band as an outlet to experiment further. Their debut album ‘First Issue’ drew on disorientating noise music, dub and a progressive twist on rock – but it’s the follow-up ‘Metal Box’ that fully plunges into boundary-pushing avant-garde. Hypnotic and squalling, it’s brooding, stream-of-consciousness shadow is charged with a metallic tang; in part thanks to its heavy use of aluminium Veleno guitars.
The B52’s, The B52’s’ (1979)
Knotting together surf-rock, foot-scuffing punk and retina-searing ’60s kitsch into a garish and danceable muddle, The B52’s debut album put a more surrealist swerve on post-punk’s sparing and utilitarian structures. Unlike some of their contemporaries, who used the genre as a vehicle for searing political riposte, this lot traded it in for gleefully campy absurdism; singing about everything from their infamous ‘Rock Lobster’ to stinky Limburger cheese and love “erupting like a red hot volcano”. Surely one of the weirder albums to get Platinum status in the US (with over one million sales there alone), it concludes, naturally, with a cover of Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’.
Why it was so influential: Kitschy and campy, the sheer silliness of ‘Rock Lobster’ in particular had a big hand in shaping new-wave.
The Human League, ‘Dare’ (1981)
The regimented bloops of synth pasted across ‘Dare’ occupy a similar world to Kraftwerk’s revolutionary ‘Trans-Europe Express’. And though Human League added a dollop of poppy melodrama to the cocktail, their third album ‘Dare’ also helped to transport punk’s brutally economic beats onto the dancefloor.
Why it was so influential: Just listen to virtually any ’80s pop record that came out after ‘Dare’ to hear its hallmarks.
Elastica, ‘Elastica’ (1995)
At their peak, Elastica had to put up with a lot of sexist bullshit – namely accusations that they owed their success to vocalist Justine Frischmann’s past relationships (earlier in the ’90s she dated both her Suede bandmate Brett Anderson and Blur’s Damon Albarn). The band were also lumped in with various Britpop bands dominating music at the time, despite the fact that Elastica share far more in common with pop-leaning Talking Heads and Wire at their spiniest. And their self-titled classic album is post-punk revivalism at its finest – as well as a venomous middle finger slung in the direction of people too stupid to underestimate them.
Why it was so influential: Without Elastica’s Justine Frischmann we might not have M.I.A – they lived together post-Elastica and the vocalist became something of a mentor, earning co-writing credit’s on M.I.A’s 2003 debut album ‘Arular’.
Interpol, ‘Turn On The Bright Lights’ (2002)
Pulling the genre into the ’00s, Interpol’s debut album ‘Turn On The Bright Lights’ summoned forth the monumental drama of Joy Division’s ‘Unknown Pleasures’ and gave it a lick of the extra- theatrical. Enormous-sounding and grand, you can hear the imprints of this record embedded across the noughties rock that followed, and along with Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem, TV on the Radio and The Strokes, Interpol helped to bring the fuzz of post-punk back to the streets of New York.
Why it was so influential: ‘Turn On The Bright Lights’ arguably laid out the template for the monumentally ambitious, stadium-filling rock of the early ’00s.
Parquet Courts, ‘Light Up Gold’ (2012)
The New Yorkers’ sound is charged with fidgeting guitar lines delivered at a frantic tempo, lyrics pouring straight out of frontman Andrew Savages’ brain in an insistent, stream-of-consciousness drawl. Though their later records draw heavily on jittering dance-rock (‘Wide Awake!’) and rock’n’roll turned wonky (‘Human Performance), it’s their breakout 2012 album that heaves post-punk into the present with most urgency. All the while, it’s charged with a side-serving of absurdism.
Why it was so influential: Parquet Courts’ breakthrough moment was so distinctive that it accidentally spawned an entire genre of bands who ‘sound a bit like Parquet Courts’.
Savages, ‘Silence Yourself’ (2013)
When Savages emerged in 2011, they came with their own mythology that felt ripped from another time; at early shows Jehnny Beth goaded crowds from inside a wooden cage and the band laid out their creative vision in a succinct manifesto. “If you are focused, you are harder to reach,” read the front of their debut album ‘Silence Yourself’. “If you are distracted, you are available.” And it was an ethos that informed every last note; brutal, industrial, rib-cage juddering post-punk without an ounce of bagginess.
Swooping around in all-black outfits and making squalling, terrifying music, Savages gained a reputation for being ‘scary’. Despite the word following them around since, ‘Silence Yourself’ also channels the innate playfulness of the very best post-punk, sprinkled with gusts of honking clarinet and quiet, deliberate melodrama. Plus, take this lyrical gem from ‘Strife’: ”How come I’ve been doing things with you I would never tell my mum?”
Why it was so influential: Savages brought with them a dose of much-needed mythology, and raised valuable questions about why women in punk are so frequently branded as bolshy or intimidating.
Fontaines DC, ‘Dogrel’ (2019)
The poisonous murk that Mark E Smith summoned forth with The Fall lingers large over this Dublin band’s incendiary 2017 debut album. Like a hulking slab of vintage rock, ‘Liberty Belle’ jitterbugs all over the slop, calling forth playful call-and-response backing vocals. ‘Dublin City Sky’ hangs heavy and morose like a mist over the city. And ‘Too Real’ bursts with provocative confrontation: “Is it too real for you?”
Why it was so influential: The full extent of Fontaines’ influence is yet to play out – they’re still in their relative infancy as a band. But just look at the surge of bands already making similarly charged music; they’ve helped to spearhead a new revivalist scene.