In U.K. pop, I think there’s always been more of a penchant for the artificial, the blatantly sensationalistic and gimmicky. When I was growing up, the first pop acts I would have seen on television were T. Rex, Gary Glitter, Sparks, and the Sweet. I’m flashing right now on the Sweet doing “Ballroom Blitz” on Top of the Pops: the band all in makeup, the bassist dressed as a woman except for a little black Hitler moustache! That song was at the top of the charts, whereas in America the cross-dressing New York Dolls never got close to the Billboard 200. OK, you did have Alice Cooper and Kiss over here, but I do think there is an anti-image current that runs deep in American rock. So when glam was huge in the U.K., in America the big thing was denim-clad Californian soft rock and country rock. Didn’t the Eagles have a slogan, “Song Power,” that was meant to be their riposte to glam’s “lack of substance”?
Glam is really central to postpunk, especially Roxy Music and David Bowie. And certainly the New Pop bands like ABC, Human League, and the Associates could barely have existed without For Your Pleasure and Bowie’s incredible run of records from Young Americans through Low to “Boys Keep Swinging.” (Listen to the Associates, “Party Fears Two,” 1982) Equally influential was the “soft male” persona of Brian Eno—his feather boa’d androgyny, his dilettante-sensualist approach to making music, his defiant talk of being a nonmusician at a time when there was a premium on technical prowess and mastery of your instrument. Eno did a lot to give the synth its enduring association with gender-bending; before him, it was considered a bombastic, grandiose instrument because of its associations with prog-rock groups like Emerson, Lake and Palmer. On a more philosophical level, Eno talked about how he was rebelling against rebellion, how he wanted to be the opposite of Keith Richards. Yet in another sense he was something of a Brian Jones figure: a dandy who discovered that looking effeminate is a surefire way to pull the chicks.
Talking about “the soft male” brings me round to your point about this U.K. indie-rock cult of heterosexual wimpiness. In the U.K. especially—but also with the Anglophile contingent in America—there is an abiding syndrome of boys who are basically straight but relate to a figure like, say, Morrissey. It’s a mixture of identification and idolatry, with a tinge of homoeroticism. There was a heavily Smiths-influenced band called Suede in the early ‘90s; the singer, Brett Anderson, once described himself, notoriously, as “a bisexual man who’s never had a homosexual experience.” The remark provoked a heap of derision, but I think it actually spoke to, and for, a lot of men: the appeal of a certain kind of amorous surrender. You can trace that swoony passivity back to Smiths songs like “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.” And if you go back even further, you find one source for it in Orange Juice’s songs like “Falling and Laughing” and “Consolation Prize.” (Even further back: Pete Shelley’s singing and non-gender-specific love songs for the Buzzcocks). Many of the things that made Morrissey famous were trail-blazed by Orange Juice’s Edwyn Collins—the flowery-literary, slightly arch lyrics, the “worldliness must keep apart from me” innocence, the unmanliness.
So I agree with you totally about how Belle and Sebastian-style twee pop does have this interestingly dissident sexual politics to it. There’s a lovely song (whose title I forget) by B and S side project Looper about an agonizingly drawn-out romance where it takes the girl and boy about five years to get to the point of holding hands! This sort of naiveté and nonthrusting, virginal shtick was a big thing in the late ‘80s, when I first started writing about music. Mostly it was groups like the Pastels, the June Brides, and James, which again had precursors during the postpunk era: Swell Maps and Television Personalities, with their “weak” vocalists and their lo-fi aesthetic that made a fetish of not sounding robust, of not rockin’. In the late ‘80s you also had the K Records label in America, with Beat Happening, a group I really liked. I can see why this kind of sensibility—the amateurism, the awkwardness and sensitivity, the refusal of adulthood—would appeal even more strongly in America as a rejection of dominant cultural values. I’m sort of “on its side,” but most of the time I find the indie-pop thing sonically a bit too flimsy.
You mentioned the question of “authenticity,” which is a huge and complicated subject. I think you’re right to suggest that the postpunks largely abandoned the hippie singer-songwriter idea of confessional storytelling. People as varied as David Byrne and Gang of Four weren’t necessarily drawing from personal experience. But in another sense there was a great earnestness and passion about postpunk, a seriousness of intent. They meant it, maaaaan. Which is one of the things that attracted me to the period: the lack of irony. There’s never that sense of wry disengagement from their own music you get with so many modern bands. Ian Penman, an NME writer and an associate member of the Scritti Politti collective, singled out the quality of the era as “sincerity—everyone was brittle with it.” People like Scritti main man Green Gartside were racked with doubt about what they were doing; every decision seems to have had an impossible weight to it. This stemmed from the idea that rock had a renewed power to change things, and therefore a lot was at stake in terms of deciding how to use that power. I can imagine it might seem bizarre, even silly, to younger people—”Why were they getting so worked up? Did they really think pop music could matter this much?” Well, you know what: They really did. We really did.
I’m afraid my list of indispensables is going to be somewhat canonical. (Although canons usually tend to be more right than wrong, don’t you think?) But these really are the postpunk songs I’d be most pained to never hear again. I’ve listed the specific song and also where it can be found in terms of the original album/compilation/box set, each of which is indispensable in itself:
10. Orange Juice, “Consolation Prize” (The Glasgow School) 9. Joy Division, “Atmosphere” (Heart and Soul) 8. Pere Ubu, “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” (Datapanik in the Year Zero) 7. The Human League, “Love Action” (Dare) 6. Scritti Politti, “Bibbly-O-Tek” (Early) 5. The Fall, “Fiery Jack” (Early Years 77-79) 4. Gang of Four, “Natural’s Not in It” (Entertainment!) 3. Public Image Ltd., “No Birds Do Sing” (Metal Box) 2. Talking Heads, “Seen and Not Seen” (Remain In Light) 1. The Slits, “Instant Hit” (Cut)
Thanks for an entertaining and thought-provoking discussion.