You could forgive someone who grew up listening to the Police for thinking that “Post Office” was a synonym for retirement. After all, the label “post punk” described that guitar-heavy, angsty music of the late ’70s and early ’80s as simply “that which came after punk,” so wouldn’t “post office” be, whatever comes after office? It seems foolish to me to name such an influential brand of rock only by its highly dissimilar predecessor. Calling it “post-punk” implies that it grew from punk, that it’s only defining feature was its relationship to its predecessor. I used to wonder what was so “punk” about post-punk to merit the name; the sound of the Police seems quite removed from that of the Sex Pistols, the Talking Heads from the Ramones.
But “the genre formerly known as ‘post-punk’” is less an extension of punk than a radical re-interpretation of its underlying elements. Angst? Check. Guitars (loud)? Check. Charismatic frontman? Often, check. But there seems to be more nuance and less brute force behind post-punk. You hear more complex guitar lines and harmonies, enunciated vocals rather than screamed ones. Post-punk seems to have more in common with modern indie rock’s restrained self-awareness than punk’s balls-to-the-wall ethos (not that Sonic Youth didn’t shred, of course). Maybe this is why we might call it “post-punk,” humoring a sophisticated superiority complex by emphasizing how far we’ve come from our philistine roots. But this again is faulty – like I said, the natural environments of the two parallel genres are fairly similar. So the label of “post-punk” either subjugates that agitated, Stratocaster-driven music to punk, or it distances it from punk, neither of which is really fair.
This obviously pent-up diatribe popped into my mind today when a friend told me he’d been listening to some “post rock.” Now first of all, rock ain’t dead, at least I sure hope not. I’m not sure if you can turn the relationship between punk and “T.G.F.K.A.P-P.” into a linear-algebra like series of transformations, but if you did, I found myself wondering whether they would have any bearing on the relationship between rock and whatever the fuck “post-rock” is (I’m not yet convinced it’s anything). If there’s any point to this, and I’m certainly not sure that there is, then it’s that you can’t really describe music only in relation to its contemporaries or predecessors. Shared inspiration, or even direct inspiration — as I sit here listening to Television, I can’t deny that elements of punk show up unaltered in post-punk — doesn’t imply subjugation.