Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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CG-80s Book Cover

Postpunk-Postdisco Fusion

In 1980, when I brought forth a comparable book about the '70s, I was untroubled by such dark thoughts. Taking for granted the theoretically depressing themes of fragmentation and the semipopular whilst thumbing my nose at '60s crybabyism, I argued that the '70s were when the music had come into its own: only after countercultural upheaval could individual musicians buck rationalization's conformist tide to create oeuvres and one-shots of spunk and substance in the belly of the pop beast. It helped that I got off on the '70s more than most rock and roll lifers--I thought Steely Dan and Lynyrd Skynyrd were great bands then, and I still do--and it also helped that the future looked bright. Just like some '70s-haters, I felt as if the punk insurrection had been designed to my specifications, unpredictability included. For all its antihippie rhetoric, punk meant to make something of a not dissimilar cultural upheaval, only without the '60s' icky, and fatal, softheadedness.

From this vantage I can see that my confidence was bolstered by a consensus more sustaining than what I got out of Monterey or Woodstock or Chicago '68 or the Mobilization or any number of excellent Grateful Dead concerts. The core of this consensus was colleagues and correspondents of shared yet far-flung musical enthusiasms, its body and soul the cohort that materialized at any number of punk-etc. gigs. On the one hand, an inferred community of music-lovers cum discophiles; on the other, a lived-in community of music-lovers cum night people. Predicated here on a shitload of discrete sound-objects whose aesthetic was so legible you could build a canon around it, there on a burgeoningly inchoate scene that didn't shrivel up and die when the Sex Pistols quit on us. Predicated here on the biz, there on bohemia.

For anybody who loved punk, 1980 was an exciting time, because punk's flakstorm, christened postpunk in the twinkling of a convolution, was still raging. Just like real revolutionary movements, punk was at its best before the world got it down, but that doesn't mean its diffusion into strictly musical issues was a perversion--a view now promulgated by true believers as well as dilettantes who've gone on to better things. Maybe John Rotten-Lydon hated rock and roll, but we loved the stuff--and we were sure we understood it better than the keepers of the pop machine. However, reduced our spiritual ambitions, the growing legions of postpunk fans and postpunk musicians were fighting all kinds of battles as the decade began--for airplay, for venues, for viable business structures. And by any reasonable standard we won those battles. Commercial radio is as reactionary as ever, but the college variety gets more music to more people than Tom Donahue ever dreamed. The painfully nurtured alternative club circuit is now so taken for granted that every breach in its integrity is bewailed as an attack on the natural order. And though the Record Industry Association of America didn't know it, there were more records available to the dedicated fan in the '80s than in the glut years of the middle '70s--certainly more of spunk if not substance. No one can know how many more only because no one sees all of them, not with the engine of production a profusion of sporadically distributed independent and import labels, many very specialized or local, for whom a run of five thousand spells a hit.

In some sense these labels are still the biz, obviously. But it's just as obvious that they aren't the same biz we assumed in postpunk's early days. Even though we meant to retool the pop machine, we still depended on it to belch out major music--Rumours and Rust Never Sleeps and Dancer With Bruised Knees. Roxy Music and Chic and Donna Summer. Though intergenerational aesthetic comprehension was already eroding, the banal notion that the biz was the root of all banality was not yet an article of faith, because the biz was still where records came from. Young CBGBites may not have thought Rumours was a better album than Talking Heads 77, or Some Girls a better album than This Year's Model, but at least they recognized all four as competing aesthetic objects--accepted the terms of the comparison. So when in early 1979 I asked the gods of history for a fusion of the two subcultural musics of the '70s, the smart punk then establishing a commercial beachhead and the dumb disco then sopping up venture capital, my petition was regarded as misguided, but not preposterous by definition.

I'll say. All over the place, in the biz and bohemia and then unknown scenes between, that's exactly what happened. Soon it became clear that punk wasn't just an attitude with the lineaments of a movement--it was also a rhythm onto which partisans projected an attitude. Simple and unswinging, fast to frenetic, what John Piccarella dubbed the "forcebeat" moved bodies in a way the Allman Brothers--to choose the archetypal boogie band (and with two drummers, too)--did not. And of course, so did a disco pulse that whatever its polyrhythmic gestalt could also be pretty simple--a disco pulse that at its most mechanical consisted of a kickdrum booming away 130 times a minute. It wasn't at all preposterous to put them together into "DOR" (for dance-oriented rock), and soon punk types were hotfooting something slightly more elegant than the pogo. So even as the biz withdrew its support from a disco subculture it had smothered half to death, it began investing in various dancy punk offshoots from England that eventually produced not just such fringe phenomena as industrial and acid house, but the so-called New Pop and the so-called Second British Invasion.

Except for a short-lived New York white-funk tendency, DOR action was sporadic among U.S. bands, who soon adopted a broad orthodoxy--the guitar-oriented garage aesthetic. But with a few hints from transplanted Jamaicans (a crucial Britpunk inspiration, too), kids in Harlem and the South Bronx had already put their own version of punk attitude into effect. Aggressively minimalist, rejecting the pop status quo and stripping music down to what they liked, the early rappers responded to pretty much the same sense of simultaneous surfeit and constriction that their white counterparts downtown couldn't stand, and in pretty much the same way. The big difference was that they didn't have the luxury of regarding their music as a way out --instead, they tried to make it a way in. And though it took years--live rap began around the same time as live punk, but the first rap record wasn't released until 1979, and not until 1984 were there rap albums in any quantity--that's what it became.

As I write, many pop savants are arguing that disco ended up changing rock and roll more than punk, but this theory is just a provocative way of deflating conventional wisdom. Disco sure didn't change rock more than punk did--rock as opposed to rock and roll, the artistically self-conscious music that made the critical analysis of rock and roll inevitable. Long ago I defined "rock" as "all music deriving primarily from the energy and influence of the Beatles--and maybe Bob Dylan, and maybe you should stick pretensions in there someplace." Now I would have to add, "only that stuff has gotten old, so these days I spend most of my time on music deriving primarily from the energy and influence of the Sex Pistols--and maybe Talking Heads, and maybe you should stick, er, postpretensions in there someplace." Because insofar as rock and roll is an object of critical scrutiny--and you'd best believe this tome is full of crit--the '80s belonged to postpunk.

Though punk's program failed on both sides of the Atlantic, its adherents made up in commitment what they lacked in numbers, setting off a countertradition of deep-to-compulsive change. As producers, they founded the alternative biz and infiltrated all aspects of the established biz; as consumers, they supported a retail network designed to adapt. They seized college radio and helped define import-oriented disco record pools. They were among the first white people to take rap seriously or to think rap was fun; they identified with styles from foreign lands. In old fart mode, postpunk zealots proved even more self-righteous than diehard hippies, howling with rage when anyone pointed out that hip hop was taking on the world while indie rock ate its own tail. And there had always been a disco version of all this alternative action--often the original version. But at its best postpunk was open in a way disco wasn't: CBGBites got into Chic more readily than Fun House regulars got into the Ramones, and liked African dance music more than most dancers. And because indie-rockers weren't so hungry for a way in, their independence was more principled. When parental-warning stickers became an issue, for instance, dance labels favored accommodating censorship forces. Rock indies resisted.

Good for them--they had right on their side. But note that the rock labels had less to lose by not compromising--except perhaps for a few metal specialists, they had little interest in or hope of reaching the kind of audience serviced by the chain stores and rack jobbers demanding the warnings. Having learned to make their margin by selling to the converted in specialty shops, indie rock had given up on what's construed as the "mass" audience. And by and large the product reflected this--even when it was really good (as opposed to pretty good, which was far more common), it had no reach. Dance/rap music, on the other hand, was something of a national sensation by decade's end, and while it would be foolish to go on about the nobility of its manufacturers--profit was without doubt their first consideration--it would be cynical to dismiss their aesthetic principles, or to deny that their music did as much as indie rock to keep its audience alive and kicking, maybe even thinking. It wasn't only money they'd be sacrificing if they were banned from the malls. It was impact. They liked having impact. Who wouldn't?

Christgau's Record Guide: The '80s, 1990


Music Processing The Meaning of Rock