Three influential players who staged a genre-shattering coup that changed the sound of rock guitar.
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.
Gill, in one of his typical onstage stances, has mainly played this Fender Strat Ultra from the ’80s in recent decades. It has been modified with a kill switch. Photo by Debi Del Grande
Gang of Four’s Andy GillGang of Four, from Leeds, merged punk energy with a danceable groove and angular guitar noise. Andy Gill, the band’s guitarist, generated that noise with an assortment of guitars—detailed below—and a solid-state Carlsbro amp. Their message was angry, petulant, and yet—at least according to Vivien Goldman—lovable. “Most groups aren’t as clever with their lyrics as the Gang of Four,” she says. “They were more sophisticated. Nicely dressed boys, but poisonous with their sarcasm, you know? I love the Gang of Four.”
What attracted you to the guitar?
Andy Gill: One of the things I liked was the physicality of the guitar itself. It’s this bit of wood with metal strips that go one way and metal strings that go the other way. You press the metal against the thing, but while you’re doing that, it makes incidental sounds. The scraping, the sound of the finger moving along the string, the sound of the pick against the string. All those scrapes and zips, all those things mixed in with a little bit of a tune made something quite magical. Right from the word “go,” I was interested in the rhythmic side of it. You could play a single note and make a kind of Morse code out of it in a very simple way. When I’m coming up with an idea for a song, say, my starting point is often a drum idea—a beat idea—that feels cool and exciting. You want that excitement and it might come from a drum idea and it might be a pulse on the guitar.
Those ideas are something you hear or something you would play percussively on the guitar?
Gill: When I was working with early Gang of Four, I might say to Hugo [Burnham], he was the drummer at the beginning, “I think the beat should go like this.” He’d play that and then we’d move things around. He’d get a little bit annoyed because I was telling him how to play drums, but those Gang of Four songs were making this sort of tapestry: “The high-hat goes over here, the kick drum goes there, the guitar does this in between.” It all fit together like that.
The band becomes like a single instrument, really. It’s not that more traditional approach, where you’ve got layers of things on top of each other. Gang of Four was not in that hierarchical pyramidal structure. On those rare occasions when someone makes the mistake of saying to me, “Oh Andy, play us a bit of a Gang of Four song on the guitar.” I go, “I could do, but it wouldn’t make any sense.” It doesn’t really stand up on its own. It functions within the structure of the other instruments being there.
Were those interlocking parts very deliberate and worked out? You didn’t jam.
Gill: Me and [lead singer] Jon King were very contemptuous of jamming. We’d say the word “jamming” as if it was a dirty word. For some reason, we felt the idea had to be pre-formed and that all we were doing was putting it into physical existence.
Was dub reggae a big influence on your music?
Gill: It was in the air. When I was a teenager, there were people who knew about reggae. They were a tiny minority—most people didn’t have a clue about what it was. There were people who had heard early Bob Marley, like Soul Rebels, and I guess Catch a Fire was the first big record. But me and some of my friends were into that ska reggae—the slightly faster, pre-dub stuff.
Like the Skatalites and those types of bands?
Gill: That kind of thing. Dave and Ansell Collins, Desmond Dekker, and Jimmy Cliff. I mean, dub reggae is essentially that, but a bit more stoned and a bit more slowed down. That earlier stuff, the ska stuff, was a bit more upbeat. It was the antithesis of prog rock. It was not like European and American pop. It was so much more about feel and groove. Melodically it was usually really simple.
Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill stalks the stage of Providence, Rhode Island’s Living Room in 1982, a Burns guitar in hand. “The scraping, the sound of the finger moving along the string, the sound of the pick against the string,” he says, “made something quite magical.” Photo by Paul Robicheau
But I think the main thing about early dub recordings was instruments dropping out. For example, the drums, bass, and guitar are all playing and then the guitar and bass drop out and it’s just the drums—and it’s that lovely spacious feel. After maybe 16 bars the bass comes back in and that’s a great feel. Then the guitar comes back in. The instruments take turns dropping out. I used to call that an “anti-solo.”
Gang of Four did exactly that. The guitar would drop out and it would just be the bass and drums, or the guitar and bass would drop out and it would just be the drums, and then vocals would do something over the top. That would come to a climax and then the bass and guitar would come back in, which is something very much from dub reggae. It’s from the early studio work in Jamaica where whoever was producing or mixing it would say, “Let’s stick a load of tape delay on the vocal and drop out the drums.” But then people learned to play like that. Gang of Four certainly learned to use that thing as very central.
Funk was in the air at that time as well.
Gill: Yeah. We all got quite obsessed with Funkadelic’s One Nation Under a Groove. But way before that, it was James Brown. His rhythm section was so tight. I always pictured it like a metal bridge with crossbars—if you think of those early 20th century railroad bridges, which is just a series of squares with diagonals across them—it was so rigid and tight. But then you’ve got James Brown and sometimes he’s tight with the structure and sometimes he’s breaking the structure down. He’s like something smeared over the tightness of the rest of it, which is something I’ve always loved as an idea. That’s something that happens in Gang of Four. Because I was very obsessed with the bass and drums being super tight, super metronomic, and the guitar would sometimes go along with that and reinforce that structure, and sometimes it would work to destroy it—either with feedback or with beats that were just so off. The off-ness of the beats demonstrated how rigid the structure was. You could reinforce it or you could try to destroy it, but either way, it drew attention to the groove.
They call post-punk “punk,” but when you compare it to, say, the Sex Pistols or the Ramones, it’s so different.
Gill: You think of guitar playing in classic punk and it’s basically metal chords—it’s just hammering out the chords, isn’t it? Not that there is anything wrong with that. It sounds like I’m being critical of that, but it’s very different. I think when punk came along, when suddenly in the U.K. it took over—I guess in late ’76, early ’77—suddenly it was everywhere. Lots of people were really upset about it. Everybody was having arguments about, “What is musicianship?” There would be old conservatives going, “This isn’t really music.” It became a fascinating argument, and people getting banned from shops, and television not knowing what it could say and what it couldn’t say, and everything was up for question. I think that was the exciting thing about punk. Musically, the instrumental things weren’t particularly radical, but it was getting to hear Johnny Rotten on the radio sneering over these tracks at the pomposity of all the old guard. I think the big takeaway from that was—especially the Sex Pistols and Malcolm McLaren—they took down a lot of the barriers and made it obvious that anything was up for grabs. You didn’t have to write a love song. You could do what the hell you liked.
A lot of your songs stay on one chord, similar to funk.
Gill: Exactly. I was listening to some dance music earlier today and it made me think about “To Hell with Poverty,” where the guitar essentially goes between A and C. There’s no chord. It just goes between the notes A and C. There is one section in the middle, which is basically E. It couldn’t be simpler. It’s a great groove. It’s four-on-the-floor—it’s like mutant disco—and the great bass riff, and the guitar wailing on those notes on top. The vocal does a lot of the work. It’s creating a lot of excitement and tension. If you try and fancy it up with some other notes, you lose that intensity.
Check out Gill’s gold Strat-style guitar (sans neck pickup) in this live 1981 version of “To Hell with Poverty.” Also note his abrasive, fingernails-on-the-blackboard tone. “A guy called Johnson made these Strat copies,” Gill says. “I liked it and I used it.” Despite his hard attack, Gill notes: “The strings I like are the Hybrid Slinky. The top one is a thin .009 but the bottom ones are maybe .048? Maybe. Ernie Ball makes these ones with heavier lower strings and thinner top strings, which I like.”
How did you generate your tone?
Gill: On the first album, I didn’t use any pedals at all. There is a make of amps called Carlsbro. I don’t think they are known in America, but they were transistor amps. People were very sneering about transistor amps back then. People would say, “You’ve got to have a valve amp. It’s a much better tone. It’s much warmer.” I’d say, “I don’t necessarily want the warm tone. I want a sharp, abrasive tone and I think this transistor stuff does it.” The first one I was using was called a Stingray. You just turned the treble up full. I had it pretty loud, so the guitar was sometimes on the edge of feeding back.
With the second album, I did start using a lot of tremolo and vibrato, which I hadn’t done before. That was in the amp. I don’t think I was using pedals on the second album, either. I still have this amp and I still like it. I often use it live as part of a pair. The Carlsbro does have a great sound, but I’m not sure about the amps they make now. The one I’ve got is from 1980. It’s got built-in tremolo, vibrato, and, I think, chorus as well. I was very doubtful about effects on the first album, but because they came with the amp on the second album, I started playing around with it and found that quite interesting things could be had.
One of the big things that distinguishes post-punk from American hardcore is that many of you were signed to major labels. Why is that?
Gill: Some labels probably felt they missed out on punk—that they weren’t quick enough to see the commercial side of that. It was a time when a magazine like the NME was very influential. People were talking politics, aesthetics, philosophy, and it was a bit like a movement had been let loose. It had many different facets and manifestations. Whether it was Killing Joke, the Slits, the Raincoats, Gang of Four, or Joy Division. They’re all different from each other, but all quite exciting ideas, and that’s what people were into for a while. That was an exciting time and the record companies wanted to get in on that.