For all its cultural significance, it increasingly feels like punk was a mere gob in the eye that was hastily wiped away: few of the groups that were active in 1976/77 had any sort of longevity, and those that did either found themselves evolving unrecognisably, or becoming increasingly irrelevant come the start of the following decade.
The point was that punk, in the truest sense – an attitude, a limited and often non-existent musicianship, simple songs played with a disregard for convention – was merely an attempt to forcibly pivot away from what had come before. Just like rock ’n’ roll in the 50s, punk was a reaction to the purported contemporary excesses of the 70s. In the eyes and ears of the punks, rock had become a bloated, ponderous genre full of double albums, concepts, lengthy synth solos and a sort of impenetrable, exclusive muso club.
Yet punk did something remarkable for the UK music industry; it provided a much-needed platform for independence and creativity, following the example of Buzzcocks, whose self-released ‘Spiral Scratch’ EP was the epitome of a DIY, anti-establishment ideal. Even as punk music was already mutating, a clutch of labels – Beggars Banquet, Fast Product, Small Wonder, 4AD, Factory, Rough Trade, Mute and Cherry Red – emerged in its wake holding true to the essential spirit of an artist-led creativity “Post-punk”, as a handle, didn’t emerge as a concept until much further down the line, but it provides a convenient shorthand for a period where punk’s central protagonists had sought gainful employment elsewhere (unless you happened to be a member of Sham 69). This was music that remained true to the attitude of punk but, with perhaps great irony, was occasionally more musicianly, and consequently a lot more enduring.
Take Howard Devoto’s Magazine, a lyric from whose ‘Shot By Both Sides’ begat the title of this Cherry Red boxset. Devoto had been the founder of the Buzzcocks, but left to form Magazine with a bunch of other Manchester survivors, including synth player Dave Formula. Formula’s keyboard work was often so long-form and virtuoso-like that it harked back perfectly to the prog rock licks that punk had railed against. Or even Joy Division, who had themselves metamorphosed out of punk group Warsaw, and whose producer – the late, great Martin Hannett – toiled over individual sounds with the same zeal as Pink Floyd working on their lavish arrangements.
So it was a era of almost “anything goes” abandonment, the thanks for which are owed to punk’s libertarian spirit. If you wanted to absorb jazz influences, you could do that (The Pop Group); if you wanted to move in a reggae direction, that was acceptable too (PiL, Scritti Politti, The Slits); if you wanted to make an unholy racket, feel free (The Birthday Party, Throbbing Gristle, Clock DVA). Outwardly, these bands didn’t seem to have much in common, and yet they had everything in common, marking a period that is arguably the most fertile and varied time in British music history.
As evidenced on ‘To The Outside Of Everything’, we also have post-punk to thank for gifting us the very first footings of modern electronic music. One of the reasons that huge modular systems were the exclusive domain of prog groups was that they were ludicrously expensive, especially if you were an unemployed wannabe musician. Toward the end of the 70s, synths got smaller and cheaper – still costing as much as a dodgy secondhand car, but more accessible nonetheless. The increasing use of relatively inexpensive synths, either as a companion to wiry, fuzzy guitars, or as the only instrument on defining moments like The Normal’s ‘TVOD’ or The Human League’s ‘The Dignity Of Labour’, was one of great revelations to many an aspiring indie star.
Take a look down the tracklisting of this sumptuous five-disc set (which comes in a hardback book, with extensive track-by-track notes and a veritable feast of imagery) and the sheer volume of artists who enjoyed, or continue to enjoy, long periods of influence is overwhelming: The The, Joy Division/New Order, Nick Cave, Mark Stewart, Julian Cope, Wire, Gang Of Four, Killing Joke and countless others. Others, such as the likes of Adam And The Ants, Gary Numan, Ultravox, Thompson Twins or Blancmange outgrew post-punk and became central figures in the vibrant, transformational pop world of the early 80s.
Still others, like Fad Gadget, Peel favourites Glaxo Babies, the pre-Renegade Soundwave Mass, 4AD’s Dif Juz and many more to be found here, remain criminally overlooked. ‘To The Outside Of Everything’ will hopefully restore them to the inside of everything when it comes to our appreciation of post-punk.