If you were a teenager in mid-’70s England, not a fan of corporate rock, and not ready for disco—you were in luck, because punk was about to hit. Bands like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Sham 69, and many others challenged the establishment and redefined popular music. Their no-rules, anti-authority ethos was a rallying cry for people too young to be hippies and not interested in the Beatles.
But the early punk bands had limitations, too—the most obvious being their subpar chops. Attitude and bravado couldn’t mask the simplistic nature of their music and, in a sense, contradicted the ideals professed in their lyrics. That only got worse as punk evolved, and by decade’s end, punk, in England at least, was conventional, formulaic, and—worst of all—safe.
But that changed with the dawn of post-punk. The post punks, although disillusioned with the staid convention of punk, took punk’s ethos seriously. They were irreverent. They were audacious. And many of them also boasted superior technical skills, deep roots, and a daredevil approach to recording.
Mastering their instruments was a statement of sorts. “Post-punk, in general, was more of a reaction to [those limitations], where you actually have more advanced musicianship,” says Vivien Goldman, a prominent U.K. journalist, recording artist, and publicist for Bob Marley. Her critically acclaimed album, Resolutionary (Songs 1979-1982), was reissued last summer. “That’s what post-punk really meant: the thing that came after punk where people either weren’t capable of being that simple or they didn’t want to be. They had moved on,” she observes.
Post-punk drew from a deep pool of influences, too. Funk—especially ’70s Parliament-Funkadelic and early James Brown—and, in some cases, free jazz, made a big impact. But aside from punk itself, nothing was as influential as dub reggae.
“A big thing one should mention, maybe the most important thing, is dub and the impact dub had with making people eager to deconstruct the expected,” Goldman adds. “That remained very key for the whole post-punk aesthetic. It taught you to think in fragments, musically. That awareness—that your guitar could be split up into many different echoes of itself and then be brought back into itself… Having that implicit in your sound contributes to the guitar in post-punk searching for a new sound.”
And what a sound it was.
Post-punk guitar was an abrasive, natural distortion—usually produced without pedals—with the treble set to 10 and the bass at zero. It was gnarly. “That abrasiveness was part of the mandate in post-punk to do something different with your guitar,” Goldman says. “People became much more abstract.”
As a movement, post-punk didn’t last. It fizzled in the early ’80s. But its impact was enormous. Bands like U2, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the Minutemen list punk and post-punk bands as their primary and formative influences. Post-punk bands were many—some were huge and some obscure—and include Joy Division, Wire, the Birthday Party, the Fall, the Slits, the Flying Lizards, and others. For this feature, we focused on three guitar-centric outfits: Gang of Four, the Pop Group, and Public Image Ltd (PiL). We interviewed their primary axemen—Andy Gill, Gareth Sager, and Keith Levene—and got the details about their influences, guitars, amps, limited use of pedals, studio techniques, songwriting, and much more. Short of reading a book on the topic, consider this an in-depth primer on post-punk guitar.