It's heeeeeeeeere

Gavin McNett reviews Rhino's latest compilation, 'The Postpunk Chronicles'

Published February 3, 1999 12:40PM (EST)

One of the compensations for living in the age of unrestrained
capitalism -- perhaps its chief compensation -- is that we're possessed
of a dynamic, flowing pop culture that'll rush in to fill any void in
the entertainment realm that's been left unstewarded, as long as there's
a buck to be made from the deal. It's not a bad system at all, if
carnival's all you're after. But systems sometimes break down. And in
this case, with a huge, rich store of music cramming the bins and a
crowd of successful fans aching to be serviced, you have to wonder: Why
on God's green earth has the current '80s-postpunk boomlet been so slow
in arriving?

Considering how long we've been stuck in the '70s revival, which
began in avant circles in about 1982, and which has yet to percolate all
the way through the water-table, all of the 30-ish Saab-drivers and
code-churning alternageeks who are poised to run the media nowadays
must be near to the point of violence, what with having to sit
through endless hipster-flipster rehashings of somebody else's Polyester
Years. Disco? Led Zep? Like hell: What we need is one more night in the
dorms with the old college station on, one more drag of a clove
cigarette -- just one simple little pop cultural mirroring statement to
put our scrawl into the rosters. Never mind whether our inclinations in
that are pure or whether we're all just eager for a self-worshipping
nostalgia kick of our own. Never mind that: We can pay! And all we've
been handed so far to slake our thirst is a bunch of crummy pop/new wave
compilations and "The Wedding Singer." Wrong messages; wrong messengers.
Just more reasons among many to snatch Adams Ant and Sandler from the
proverbial marketplace and to hang them from something tall. But
fortunately -- and none too soon -- all of that is changing.

Rhino Records' new "Postpunk Chronicles" series goes pretty far
toward separating out the reflexive kitsch from pop-'80s revivalism, and
sets forth a fairly compelling version of the alternative music that
really mattered at the time, for the people who really cared about what
they listened to. That three-disc set (so far), along with such gems and
ephemera as George Gimarc's recent book "Postpunk Diary" and the 10
zillion small label compilations that've lately been hitting the decks,
are collecting together what's been until now an unheralded golden age
of pop music.

It was also, to an important degree, the foundational movement of the
subsequent 20-or-so years of rock 'n' roll. The real blockbuster bands
of the '80s, in the long run, were middleweight British acts such as
Julian Cope's the Teardrop Explodes and the (pre-Big Country) Skids,
and such small American bands as the Dream Syndicate and Mission of
Burma. (All are collected here.) It was this stuff, bubbling under,
sticking in craws and tape decks, whose influence carried through the
end of the decade, outlasting the flash pop and haircut-rock that
dominated MTV and finally sparking the Nirvana revolution that, in
turn, helped it to fragment into nearly all of the various
alt-rock genres and subgenres that now stuff the record bins. While
punk was becoming hardcore -- which became bad hardcore, which became
speed metal -- postpunk was keeping hard rock proper from choking on its
own hair spray during the Mvtley Cr|e years and saving pop from falling
entirely into the hands of megadivas and smooth-boys. Consequently, of
all the pop musics that were in service at the time, it's the one that
comes off as the most modern and appealing today, even if it's among the
least-chronicled and the most imperfectly championed. Mission of Burma,
the Wipers, R.E.M. -- these bands are in the canon now, to a lesser or
greater extent. But who speaks for Pigbag or the Pop Group? Who's ever
traced a line between white neofunk and Medium Medium, whose widely
popular "Hungry, So Angry" introduced scads of young bassists to the
popping bass line? Whither Tuxedomoon? It's about time the canon
stretched to encompass them. These are good things, too long mislaid.

If you look into things even moderately closely, you'll find that a
lot of wide areas of modern rock collapse down into a single band from
the '80s, or even into a single song. The Burma track that Rhino hiked,
for example, is about half of all collegiate indie rock, set forth in a
single lesson. Like the Velvets before them, it's a truism that very few
people ever bought a Mission of Burma record -- but everybody who did
went straight out and started a band. And while the "Academy Fight Song"
single isn't Burma's magnum opus (not next to "That's When I Reach For
My Revolver" or "Trem Two"), it's the record that everybody bought
first. More than that, though, outfits like Unrest and Superchunk,
hugely influential on their own merits, apparently bought little besides
Burma records, and most of those were the "Academy Fight Song"

The implication that arises is this: The more seriously you take
this series as a historical document, the more styles that we call
original -- as opposed to stuff that's ripped off whole-cloth from the
Velvets or Black Sabbath, or whatever -- turn out just to have been
ripped off from sources that few people can identify anymore, and often
at fourth and fifth remove. Throbbing Gristle (whose "Adrenaline" is
here) are, for their part, the monad upon which the "industrial" scene
was built. The very term comes from the name of their record label, and
while more recent industrial bands can tend to sound like the Sisters of
Mercy or Einst|rzende Neubauten, or even Mvtley Cr|e, it's a point of
debate whether there would've been a Sisters of Mercy or a Neubauten
without Throbbing Gristle having first fired up the rhythm boxes and
started troweling noise over the top. Even hip-hop owes a debt to them.

There's nothing sinister about any of that; pop music is built on
thievery in the first place. But when styles begin to float free from
their influences -- when something becomes comme il faut simply because
that's the way it's supposed to be, then it ceases to be art -- or even
creative in the strict sense -- and becomes craft instead. Again: great.
Still, some of these songs' return from exile brings up real questions
about what sort of pop musical forms we can call creative. If all of a
certain flavor of indie rock is merely a footnote to Mission of Burma
(which isn't precisely true, but let the example stand), then what
makes it any edgier than formalist country-Western? Or than those
Sha-Na-Na-type punk rock bands that've been emerging recently, like
Total Chaos? There are, in fact, enough styles represented here (Chills,
Cocteau Twins, Swell Maps) to cast a doubt over most of the
major flavors of middlebrow alterna-indie rock (haute-jangly, swirly,
retarded), and the 48 tracks that make up the package don't suggest the sprawl left uncompiled or keep to any
rigid standard of seminality (OMD, Thomas Dolby and New Order each have
a slot, although their lineages are largely dead and their songs pepper
dozens of other reissue compilations).

It makes you wonder why the avant-garde might've stopped being quite
so avant after the burst of creativity that flung such rock bands as the Pop Group, Echo and the Bunnymen and Killing Joke into the world
practically at once, and with little contemporary pop musical
precedent. What was in the goddamn water back then that kept
producing such great rock bands? One thing's certain: However things
transpired in England, and however the chips were subsequently to fall
in America, the postpunk period -- stretching from about the time the
Sex Pistols blew up until about the mid-'80s -- was the last in which
the domestic underground labored under the difficult (but magically
nurturing) condition of being simultaneously superior to and
marginalized by the corporate mainstream. Whether or not this was the
American boho's finest hour, it was in many regards his last stand --
after which indie and alt rock began to turn inward, choosing a new
insularity over the prospect of either losing at its own game to the
major labels (who were beginning to launch cod-alternative bands against
real ones for a college audience who didn't always know the difference)
or getting with the program, watering down the elixir and shooting for
MTV rotation -- as bands like X were to do.

And that's precisely the choice that bands are left with today. If
there's one lesson for the underground to learn from the whole Rhino
series, it's that there's a crucial third option, too often overlooked:
Going out and making something singular that the next generation can
steal, trash and ultimately neglect. Without that, the scheduled '90s
revival is going to be a dull affair indeed. If there's a lesson for those 30-ish alterna-geeks who've long been thirsty for this package or something like it, it's enjoy your self-worshipping nostalgia kick -- but don't be hogging the trough for 17 years like those piggy '70s kids.

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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