:: Article

Post Punk Then and Now: a review

By Guy Mankowski.


Post-Punk Then And Now, eds. Gavin Butt, Kodwo Eshun and Mark Fisher, Repeater Books, 2016

Post Punk Then And Now, eds. Gavin Butt, Kodwo Eshun and Mark Fisher, Repeater Books, 2016

Repeater Books are continuing the work of the original team at Zer0 Books. Unlike many publishers, whose ‘mission statements’ frequently contain coded ways of saying ‘we just want to make money’, Repeater possess a more admirable manifesto; their aim is to ‘gather together scattered and isolated voices with those who have already called for an escape from Capitalist Realism.’

‘Capitalist Realism’ is a term used by various theorists. However, the prominent Zer0 Books author Mark Fisher used the term to describe the current global political situation. The Capitalist Realist idea he proposes is a critique of neo-liberalism. With Fisher as one of the editors of this volume, his analysis of neo-liberalism runs like a watermark throughout the book. It underpins each analysis regarding the financial ramifications of creativity during the post-punk era. Accordingly, Post Punk Then and Now intends to provide new critical and previously overlooked perspectives on post-punk through an analytical lens.

Post-punk is a term that most immediately relates to a period of cultural production that ran from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s. A difficult term to pin down in the categorising stakes, ‘post-punk’ most specifically recalls a musical genre typified by agitated and spiky sounds. While this can be attributed to innumerable bands (Magazine, The Fall, Gang of Four) it is the hollow and haunting soundscapes of Joy Division that exemplify the resonance of Fisher’s term Capitalism Realism.

Joy Division’s music had within its aural envelope implicit echoes of neoliberalism. This is most prominent within the whirring and clanking of factory sounds in tracks such as ‘Insight’ and ‘Isolation’. Throughout their catalogue, echoing drums and lyrics about urban trauma evoked the eerie, deserted concrete spaces of 80s Manchester. The northern city was itself a frequently barren landscape rendered so by Thatcher’s underfunding of the north. Neo-liberalism is therefore a persistent echo within such post-punk music.

Fisher appropriates this haunted dimension of post-punk in his own writing, most notably in Ghosts Of My Life. In this study, Fisher looks at the dystopian ‘futures that failed to happen’, as described by the likes of Joy Division in their lyrics.

In Post Punk Then and Now, Fisher’s view of post-punk is expanded through interviews with relevant artists working in other artistic forms. In a scintillating interview with Laura Oldfield Ford, Ford describes her own artwork and its manifesto. Her pictures seem to be a response to the conditions of Capitalist Realism, and they frequently portray ‘liminal territories’. The peripheral spaces she captures reveal the neglected and overlooked swathes of urban territory, which financially aggressive regeneration policies have left in their wake. She talks of these sites as places ‘where other possibilities can emerge’. The reference to such possibilities appear to implicate nascent alternative lifestyles, as well as the fruition of sites in which new creative communities could potentially thrive outside of the neo-liberal narrative. Indeed, these prospects are somewhat vague. This is because, as Fisher identifies, ‘we’re haunted by the failure of the left to come to some arrangement with the libertarian energies that came out of music culture.’ The lack of engagement by the left with libertarian energies from the likes of Ford have, as referenced by Fisher, left us with only vague ideas about alternatives to neo-liberalist lifestyles. Critics of neo-liberalism interested in alternative lifestyle are left to ponder the communal living arrangements of post-punk outfits such as Throbbing Gristle. Personally, I’ve always found that such digressions quickly stray into the nostalgic.

In a set of interviews within the book, Fisher describes Capitalist Realism as an over-arching narrative that manages to absorb any threats or alternatives to its existence. He also talks of how ‘the right absorbed and converted the energies of the counterculture into its own project of re-individualisation’, thereby choking any sense of new possibilities born from libertarian energies. This book skilfully maps a range of critical perspectives on post-punk, particularly those that fit into the vein of Capitalist Realism. The book also tantalises us with the possibility of what lies beyond the ideas proposed in this volume. At the end of a conversation between Fisher and Ford, Fisher asks her what we can do to fight against the neoliberal realities that absorb alternative narratives.

Ford wittily suggests that we take up ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’. When Fisher counters that she ‘can do better than that’, Ford suggests that we ‘get down to Rochester and Strood’ and ‘see what’s going on down there.’ This struck me as a bit of a dead end for such an intriguing question. I couldn’t help wondering if counter-culture can present a coherent voice against neo-liberalism by adopting and subverting their means. If, for instance, coherent subcultures released records and books via Amazon and Apple in a way that could ensure a decent profit stream, why can’t the unfortunate realities of neo-liberalism thereby be engaged with?

However, this volume isn’t just about post-punk ‘now’, but also ‘then’. In lively interviews with Lydia Lunch and Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside, the artistic practices of post-punk musicians are explored. Agata Pyzik emerges as one of the most engaging voices in the volume, in a chapter where she confronts an important contradiction: namely, that post post-punk bands were state-funded, through student grants, whilst their whole shtick was to rebel against the government that was, in a sense, feeding them. In her lucid consideration of post-punk in Poland she mentions the suicide of Magik, the rapper behind the band Kaliber 44, who committed suicide after their ‘popularity didn’t translate into money.’ She also mentions how horrific Joy Divison’s financial circumstances were, given the lack of grants for musicians who weren’t able to align themselves to specific funding bodies- for example, a university art department.

Interviews with original post-punk practitioners expose how individuals worked collectively in university art departments while keeping their own practices closely guarded. Kevin Lycett, member of The Mekons, describes how being in a band was a ‘strategy, a practice, a response to an incredibly barren and unpromising landscape.’ Being in a band during the first pulse of post-punk was a potent ‘world-making’ endeavour, a ‘strategic move to escape the entropic pull of 70s culture and society.’ The book rightly identifies the allure of the band paradigm for people who were not prepared to ‘choose life’ in the standard 9 to 5 format. Being in a band here is rightly identified as ‘a way of living out, a form of doing, that gave performative force to the production of new worlds of artistic and social possibility.’ It struck me at this juncture how input from the likes of Savages singer Jehnny Beth could have been a useful reference point: why not ask some of the leading post-punk practitioners of the day their view on this?

Furthermore, I would have been intrigued to read an interview with a post-punk artist engaging with Ford’s ideas on liminal urban spaces in neo-liberal conditions. LoneLady springs to mind. On the one hand such an artist has access to huge commercial outlets for her work, thanks to the Internet. On the other hand, contemporary artists do not have the relative luxury of free student grants which the first wave of English post-punk artists enjoyed. From my own experiences as a writer, I am only too aware of how the royalty payment system for artists remains horribly oblique given the dearth of artistic funding readily available to creatives. An interview with someone who could expose the neo-liberalist realities of being a post-punk artist now would’ve been enlightening. As Fisher himself says, of the late seventies, ‘the conditions of cultural possibility then seem so remote, so markedly different to those of our neoliberal present.’ Regarding the nebulous concept of post-punk, there are still many questions left unanswered. Post Punk Then And Now aligns these questions with admirable verve and versatility, carrying the intriguing discourse that is post-punk a few steps forward.


Guy Mankowski is an academic whose PhD concerned post-punk literature. He is also the author of How I Left The National Grid: A post-punk novel. His latest novel, An Honest Deceit, was published in 2016.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, December 22nd, 2016.