Written by: Dave Cantrell
Back last spring a compilation album I curated was released on Accident Prone Records that uses as its foundation – and is named after – the radio show I host on XRAY fm in Portland OR. Songs From Under the Floorboard, Vol. 1 contains rare and exclusive tracks from 10 bands from Europe and the US with its proceeds flowing to Planned Parenthood. Along with the handful of promotional interviews I was asked to do around the time of the album’s release, a fairly prominent, essay-based online magazine (that shall remain unnamed but rhymes with Shockmouse) asked for an piece detailing my real-time experiences with the art movement (it was, and remains, so much more than simply a genre) that became known, even in its time, as ‘post-punk.’ I took a couple weeks off from my usual album-reviewing regimen and dove in to that very deep pool with all its complicated currents and swam as best I could. What follows is what I surfaced with, which we thought would be a fine way to cap the recent six-week ‘working post-punk sabbatical’ I took once the chill of fall began to take hold.
It’s November 17, 1979, and I’m standing maybe five feet from a modest riser stage gaping in wonder at a singer – who I’d later learn is named Billy Mackenzie – vaulting with an almost casual virtuosity through the further reaches of his exceedingly supple tenor’s range. The band is called the Associates – who I, like most in attendance, have barely heard of but within a year will issue one of the era’s most captivating debuts (The Affectionate Punch) – and though I’m here at the London School of Economics to see The Cure at a Fiction Records showcase that has the Passions on next – whom I have heard of and am keen to see – this moment of ecstatic paralysis as band co-founder and sound architect Alan Rankine busies himself with scything, brutally concise guitar lines, gets etched immediately into my consciousness in such a way it’s clear it’ll not only never be forgotten but will remain as experienced, the visceral intact, a momentary flash of three-dimensional (4D, I guess, counting sound) I’ll be free to tap in to at any time for the rest of my life.
That may sound extravagant, a bit of amplified nostalgia meant to juice up the premise of this piece. It isn’t. To be honest, that feeling at the LSE – and it’s not like The Cure’s set lacked in triggering of same – was, if anything, decidedly common, an almost, if you will, quotidian astonishment, though not exactly one ever taken for granted.
But perhaps I digress.
What was asked of me here was to share some recollections of that time and I could certainly do that. While still in 1979 London there was XTC on their Drums & Wires tour at the Music Machine, the Pretenders at the Marquee pre-debut LP, the Specials and Selector and Dexy’s at the Lyceum eight days after that Cure gig, Killing Joke playing one of their first shows at a small pub off the Northern Line (I think?) with perhaps forty other people in attendance, which isn’t to mention the none-more-essential discovery of John Peel on the BBC – my god the world debuts and unexpected small label finds that came pouring out of that little bedsit clock radio (including KJ’s “Are You Receiving” which led my then-girlfriend and me to that pub); the sheer everyday abundance was staggering even if some of it bordered on the unlistenable – nor the fateful just-missed opportunity to see Joy Division because, y’know, I’d be seeing them back in San Francisco come the spring (cue heavy sigh that never goes away). Back in the Bay Area there was the Clash seven times including a legendarily anarchic word-of-mouth show at the 1839 Geary Theater next to the former Jim Jones temple on Geary and Television at the Stone in SF where, invited to stay for the late set because of insufficient ticket sales (!), I bore witness, from a table close enough I could put my feet on the stage, to what remains the most transcendent performance I’ve ever seen. There was the Damned, the Gang of Four and Buzzcocks (on the same bill first time I saw them), there was my dear dear Magazine two nights running at the Old Waldorf and there you have the tip of an iceberg where also is gathered the earliest bursts of Elvis Costello as well as Echo, Teardrop Explodes, Blondie, the Ramones, Talking Heads and countless local shows you get the idea. That’s a couple of run-on sentences meant, yes, to convey a run-on life – and to be clear I acknowledge how stupid lucky it is to have been born where and when I was to reach the age of 21 in early 1977 – but it’s also how the words just naturally tend to come tumbling out when asked about ‘those’ times. It’s as if life itself was an accelerant and the buzzing excitement a blood-borne addiction you hoped to never be quit of.
It’s that that mattered, the ephemeral but oh-so-palpable energy vibrating between stage and audience and back again, animating conversations between strangers flipping through the import singles section at Tower, shimmering behind the wonderfully unhinged prose in the NME. Because vivid as those memories are that I just rattled on about, and thankful as I am to have them, they ultimately amount to little more than a scrapbook of snapshots. True, they’ve not faded in the least but are nonetheless in and of themselves anecdotal, random envy-evoking badges of memory I was awarded by virtue of age and opportunity as much as anything else.
All those shows, though not exactly meaningless outside their context (the Au Pairs at Hammersmith Palais or the Delta 5 at Berkeley Square could never be meaningless), only acquire their full measure of impact – at least on this attendee – when placed inside this more broadly framed matrix of intent and intensity. Something had sprung loose into that yet-coined phrase ‘a perfect storm,’ one that, to stay with that metaphor for a moment, sucked the turbulence of punk’s unleashed energy into a jetstream of fearless ingenuity, as funk and krautrock, Beefheart and Stockhausen, dub and a boundless arsenal of suddenly affordable synthesizers (among so much more) all swirled into a madhouse of critically adventurous wind shear shaped in turn by currents of thought already stirring in the air. Radical feminism (and gender roles in general), neo-Marxism, deep French literature, experimental cinema, outsider art (and the art theorists that went with it), the theater of absurd and a thousand other outposts of possibility all had their gates thrown open and their premises scoured. For a moment there, curiosity in the pop world seemed to know no limits. It was, to put it mildly, a mindfuck of the finest caliber, and it swept you up almost no matter what direction you came at it from, its cadences exerting their own dark gravitational pull (it’s worth noting, by the way, the more established artists that felt themselves subject to that same pull, running from both those you’d expect – Bowie, Robert Fripp – to those you likely wouldn’t – such as Warren Zevon and the Walker Brothers).
More than ‘only’ the music, it was this core pulsing impetus of the movement as a whole that compelled the flight to London with a mere $1200 in my pocket (an amount that, once thrown at lodging etc, seemingly vanished within hours, the rate of exchange a punishing $2.75 to the pound), that kept me there without question through near-starvation and the floundering series of ad-libbed survival impulses that resulted – picking up and eating a bologna sandwich found in a baggie in the street, stealing a loaf of bread off someone’s porch; for Christmas dinner we shared a can of cold peas, a tiny wheel of soft English cheese wedges and a single beer – that commanded that, once we secured shitty little paychecks from our shitty little jobs (mine was putting EKG kits together before they went out to the assembly line), it was understood that beyond rent food and transportation everything earned was earmarked for shows, vinyl, and the NME. There wasn’t even any discussion.
Now, I’ve little idea if following generations of young music obsessives were similarly moved to such a degree as many of us were back then, whether, for instance, grunge-slammed kids threw it all in and took a Greyhound to Seattle or EDM ravers flocked in waves to sprawling festivals on the other side of the world. But regardless if that was the case or not, I’d argue that so-called post-punk (the term gained immediate traction once invented by – legend has it – Jon Savage and Jane Suck in early ‘78) was so-called ‘rock music’’s last great gasp, and in fact, by virtue of its fearless audacity, its unspoken but wildly constant push to go beyond itself, carries the singular distinction of being its apotheosis, a modern music status I’d reckon only hip-hop has the intrinsic capability to match (both share a kind of ‘open border’ mindset, an adventurous hunger – or at least the potential for such in their DNA – to explore then incorporate fresh influences into the fundamental texts). How else to go from Durutti Column to Wire to the Pop Group to DNA to, I dunno, the B-52’s, in a single carrom inside the same contemporaneous set of artists, all of whom seemed to have been pivoting off something of a worldwide communal impulse?
As said, something broke loose back there in the first half of 1978 and catalyzed into an extraordinary force for an all-too-brief handful of years (Simon Reynolds in Rip It Up and Start Again sets an end-date of 1984 which has its merits but really the embers were losing heat by the end of ‘82), and to anyone that lived through that era, locked in its thrall, I’d have to guess it comes as little surprise that today a subsequent generation is finding in it a kind of guiding North Star of inspiration.
Though suitably underground – in real terms it has been forever thus; more people are familiar with Peter Saville’s Unknown Pleasures cover design than with the contents inside – no revival scene I know has been as widespread, so deeply devotional. To the former I offer as simple proof the last few years of archives from the show I’m fortunate enough to host on XRAY FM in Portland where, beyond the stunning abundance from all over Europe, Russia, Latin America and the expected urban centers of the US and Canada, you’ll find a band from New Delhi, from Malaysia, and, umm, just a few weeks ago, Norman OK. As for the devotional aspect I can only offer live show testimonials, from both the thriving local Portland scene itself – we’re a bit of a hotbed here, it turns out – and the quality of performances that have so frequently stunned the senses at the Out From the Shadows festival since its inception in 2015.
Straight up front for every set, I could claim, with only a touch of romantic license, that I’m right back at that Fiction showcase, struck similarly dumb as, say, San Francisco’s All Your Sisters crash without exaggeration into the top 25 live experiences of my life or LA’s Terminal A commandeer the audience floor space for their own kinetic playground – there is, after all, in those cases and many others, that same recognizable jolt, beauty with an electrocuting edge to it – but besides being unfair to the artists involved, flattening the arc of their own creative journeys to fit my own little private nostalgia, it would also make trite what is still to this day an extraordinary – and extraordinarily generous – gift: to be thrilled moment after hurtling moment by the ever-vibrant, ever-present spirit of the very thing that first thrilled me forty years ago. I’ve gotten older, yes. That hasn’t.