VARIOUS ARTISTS – Moving Away From The Pulsebeat: Post Punk Britain 1977-1981

When punk shook Britain’s music scene in ‘76, it came as a revelation. The DIY spirit of the Buzzcocks’ ‘Spiral Scratch’ EP suggested that anyone could be in a band; you didn’t need to have to have years worth of musical training. Music could also be about capturing an energy and a spirit. Punk’s first wave was relatively short-lived. By 1978, guitar driven bands were mixing the less flashy elements of punk with bigger melodies, resulting in the mod influenced sounds of The Jam and the broader power pop of Elvis Costello & The Attractions. Some were even taking punk’s pure drive and creating what would now be considered goth, and bands like Ultravox! and Wire – arguably the greatest bands to be tagged with the term “post punk” – added strange and angular artiness, shaping the sounds of a generation.

This 2024 box set from Cherry Red provides a superb set of tracks from the late 70s and early 80s. By bringing together all manner of guitar and synth based bands from a four year period – dating between the end of UK punk’s first wave and the chart domination by the New Romantics – it casts a very wide net. It shows that although “post punk” has been used as a tag to describe a certain style, it also refers to a time and place, and using the term a little more loosely can allow for a massively varied listening experience; one that could be a decent education for the more casual listener, but more than quick, cheap nostalgia for fans of the period’s “alternative” bands.

By choosing to begin its lengthy exploration through a rich and varied selection of tunes with offerings from The Soft Boys and Ultravox, it begins relatively safely, but it’s impossible to find fault with either of the tracks chosen to represent these legendary acts. The Soft Boys’ ‘Wading Through A Ventilator’ presents the band at their rawest, on a tune absolutely bristling with ragged guitars thrashing against an almost jazz-like drum part. Frontman Robyn Hitchcock is left with the unenviable task of holding down a melody, and he spends the bulk of the track sneering brilliantly, before everything takes a swift detour into a more 60s inspired landscape of chiming guitars, fitting more closely with the Boys’ later works. There’s a frightening energy here, and although The Soft Boys end up sounding like a mangled and mutilated cousin of Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel on occasion, this just shows how different they were to many of their peers. In a pre-Midge Ure world, Ultravox were arty, strange and sometimes purveyors of dark sounds drawing from Krautrock, Roxy Music and other art-based noise. ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ provides a decent peek into the John Foxx helmed band with an array of coldwave synth sounds, a flat Roxy-esque sax and a vocal that’s more suited to performance art than finely crafted synth pop. If you bend your ears accordingly, you might just hear a slither of things to come, but its fair to say the early incarnation of the band were out on their own. The opportunity to revisit the fledgling Siouxsie & The Banshees with the non-album cut ‘Voices’ is also hugely welcome. Even when taking their first musical steps, this track shows how they were already branching away from the punks by layering the guitars with phased effects, and clearly, the use of theatrical vocal phrasing would set also them apart from the shoutier bands breaking into the mainstream. Following a blast of drums and a punky riff, this tune actually shows the band at their most obtuse by focusing on solo guitar and voice – both of which are drowned in studio based effects. The Banshees, even in an embryonic state, already understandood that punk had the potential to do more than shock, and paved the way for goth and post-punk movements. This is never easy listening; it’s always fascinating.

The early XTC could’ve been represented with any number of great tunes on this set – from the chorus driven and buoyant ‘This Is Pop’, the new wave predicting ‘Statue of Liberty’, or even the spiky ‘Mechanic Dancing (Oh We Go)’, to give three peerless examples – so it’s quite brave to showcase them with one of the more overlooked tunes from their difficult second album ‘Go 2’. However, ‘Crowded Room’ sits well here, and is pretty much the poster child for a perfect example of post-punk. With its marriage of choppy, punk oriented rhythm guitar, brittle keys sharing a careening, carny-esque non-melody, and some taut bass work, it captures the early band at arguably their tightest. It’s one of those tracks that crosses boundaries effortlessly, and the with the ska-ish rhythms looking ahead to 1979’s massive ‘Drums & Wires’ LP, casual listeners should be able to detect the beginnings of a truly great band at work. “Truly great” isn’t a phrase that can be casually tossed in the direction of the early Sisters of Mercy, but despite a terrible vocal, ‘Watch’ shares a great bassline which has a dub-like quality that, again, captures a great post punk energy, and placed against atonal guitar work, it owes more to Wire than the goth sound the band would soon make their own. As the vocal stretches into manic wailing, there’s even a hint of The Birthday Party, but absolutely none of that band’s unwavering menace. The Birthday Party’s ‘Dull Day’, meanwhile, sounds like the obvious link between the band’s early anger and the first steps taken by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. The way Cave barks his angry statements against a rapid fire drum part is classic BP, and although this track doesn’t reach the sheer threat of ‘King Ink’, ‘Release The Bats’ or ‘Mr. Clarinet’, the fact that this comp has taken the opportunity to include one of the band’s lesser appreciated tracks shows a genuine love from the compiler. If you’re already familiar with the band, this track won’t be in any way revelatory, but if you happen to be hearing them for the first time with the help of this box set, you’ve got some brilliant – and often fucking scary – listening ahead, should you decide to explore further.

Among this set’s top tier deep cuts, you’ll find ‘So Much Fault’ by Dislocation Dance, a frenetic tune from 1981 that could be considered a supercharged cousin to the more abstract moments from the first two XTC albums. In and out in under two minutes, its razor sharp rhythm guitar attacks throughout, which set against an incessant vocal yelp, effortlessly conveys a brilliantly arty sound for the era. It’s great even before taking a strange, bleeping counter melody into consideration. Essential Bop’s ‘Chronicle’ shows Ultravox inspirations in the way it takes atonal Krautrock elements, coldwave synths and a slightly flat vocal and juxtaposes the more obtuse elements with an almost danceable, pop-inflected bassline. The tune may be busy to the point of even being a little tiring, but it’s one of those tight workouts that really captures the crossover potential of the era, showing off music that held onto the energies of punk, but looked forth to great albums like Simple Minds’ underrated ‘Real To Reel Cacophony’. It’s an essential listen for all fans of the era. Drawing more obviously from punk, The Outsiders’ ‘Touch & Go’ applies an overdriven guitar sound to a more angular rhythm to create a sound that’s occasionally Wire-esque, but more often rooted in something a little more melodic. With the chorus broken by machine gun rhythms and the instrumental moments sharing a more complex, layered sound, the complete track becomes a great workout for the entire band, but Bob Lawrence’s tough bass work really stands out, capturing a post punk sound with an effortless amount of flair.

Blending post punk guitars with a deep proto-goth sound, ‘Inner Sanction’ by The Insex is another superb deep cut. Sometimes sounding like a loose Monochrome Set crossed with Bauhaus, the track’s fuzzed up, chopping guitars create a sound that’s so evocative of the era, but it’s the relentless, pulsing bass lines that really make the track. Showing all the force of an on form Steven Severin, the deep tones are a perfect compliment to a dour vocal, and although this ultimately never cares about becoming a hook driven single, it’s absolutely superb. Pleasingly minimalist, Cravats’ ‘Who’s In Here With Me’ shares more great bass work, except in this case, any strong melodies are masked heavily by a demo quality recording, and an off kilter, shouty vocal that makes Alien Sex Fiend sound incredibly polished. The effect is like discovering a ‘Dragnet’ era Fall outcast reworked by rank amateurs, and yet, partly through use of X-Ray Spex inspired sax noises, there’s still something of interest peering through the ugliness.

Leaning further towards the first wave of UK punk, O Level’s ‘Everybody’s On Revolver’ sounds like a less talented Flamin’ Groovies. The track centres around a very thin guitar sound – with production values occasionally reminiscent of The Fall’s ‘Live At The Witch Trials’ – and very British vocal. It’s one of those numbers that sounds fun at first, but starts to grate pretty quickly due to the band’s rather average musical skills, but in terms of a historical piece, it’s easy to understand why it would deserve a place here. Another interesting cut, Expelaires’ ‘Kicks’ offers something a little busier. Its a pleasingly frenetic track that jumps between the influence of early XTC with pumping basses and spiky guitar and an almost rockabilly rhythm that keeps the drums incredibly busy. Then, at the point where you’re expecting a quick fade, the band wheel in a round of pub piano for good measure, making good on the mysterious riff that filled a seemingly unconnected intro. In this way, it often feels more like a “mood” than an actual song, if that makes sense, but between tight playing and a truckload of energy, it more than holds its own. They might seem a little hard work if not approached in the right mood, but they’re pretty mellow in comparison to Occult Chemistry who sound very much like a poor man’s Devo on ‘Water’ – an obscure EP track from 1980 – and Diagram Brothers, whose strangely humorous ‘There Is No Water’ sounds like The Birthday Party impersonating Wire on a track where a bloke rants about a lack of basic facilities and how someone “has written to the council” in disgust. You’d be hard pressed to find anything more British – or possibly tongue in cheek – within this sprawling musical journey!

Given that Adam & The Ants’ ‘Dirk Wears White Sox’ is one of post punk’s seminal albums, absolutely loaded with great material (a few absolutely unforgivable lyrical concerns aside, the album has held up remarkably well; better than those from Adam’s “dressing up box” years), the choice of ‘Tabletalk’ seems rather odd. It has none of the vigour of ‘Cartrouble Part 2’, or the bite of something like ‘Nine Plan Failed’. In some ways, you could even call it dreary. Stylistically, it has all of the classic post punk hallmarks, however, which probably explains a lot. It’s very dark, it has a brilliantly menacing air, the lead bass work is suitably pointed, and the band manage to steer through a slow groove in a manner that makes it feel as if there could be anything lurking around the corner. It’s dreary, yes, but it’s got a sense of menace. Eventually, it becomes clear that the problem with ‘Tabletalk’ is that there isn’t anything unexpected; nothing more interesting beneath the surface noise. As history has shown, the original Ants were capable of so much more.

The far more exciting Essential Logic manage to fill the void between angular garage rock and the punkier elements of early Siouxsie on their brilliant ‘Wake Up’. A high energy number, its blend of punk guitar riffs, absolutely relentless vocal yelps and – not least of all – Lora Logic’s unmistakeable atonal sax work – sounds as good as ever. It’s solid proof that so much punk-ish fare was about far more than noise or destructive attitudes. It’s also great to have the opportunity to revisit Lene Lovich’s hit ‘Bird Song’ – a semi-sinister tune that works a theatrical vocal around a pulsing bass, taking proto-goth moods into the stratosphere. Casual listeners will be more familiar with her ‘Lucky Number’ mega-hit, and those of a certain age will have, perhaps, even fonder memories of ‘Bird Song’s carny-esque b-side ‘Trixie’, but the addition of ‘Bird Song’ to this set heralds a really underrated single.

Tapping into the rawer end of post punk ‘Adult/Ery’ by Scars sounds like a demo with its fuzzed up bass and a guitar sound that sounds like it could cut through glass, but the track conveys a pure energy that shows how far punk influences had moved on by March 1979. The tightness of the arrangement is key; there’s a real excitement in the way the rhythm guitar chops through absolutely everything, even showing a disregard for the lead vocal. For those who fancy hearing something that sounds like a focused version of ‘Grotesque’ era Fall meeting with ‘Spiral Scratch’ era Buzzcocks, this will definitely entertain. Despite taking a similar approach to the bass, Disco Zombies don’t sound quite as assured on ‘Greenland’. The vocals and melodies are strangely mismatched throughout; the verses are driven by an almost clichéd warble, and the chorus sounds like a weird football chant. Still, if you’re happy to accept this on a purely musical level, it sounds like another interesting snapshot from 1980. There’s nothing here to suggest the greatness that guitarist Andy Ross would achieve with Teardrop Explodes, however…and in many ways, it’s easy to hear why this song remained unreleased until 2011.

In another slight change of mood, Art Attacks’ ‘Rat City’ applies a post punk attitude to the hard rhythm and blues of Dr. Feelgood via a very Wilko Johnson-esque rhythm guitar, becoming a little too repetitive in record time. Despite this, there’s something about the angry number that still works well enough to make you possibly glad it’s been rescued from the archives once again, while Apartment’s ‘The Alternative’ fares much better by taking the rhythmic qualities of ‘Spiral Scratch’ era Buzzcocks and adding punky edges to something that sounds like it would’ve been a formative influence upon bands like S*M*A*S*H and These Animal Men. Better still, there’s Portsmouth’s Again Again, a band clearly wanting to divide opinion with their heavy reliance on slurred vocals and atonal guitar work. Their ‘Co-optimist’ is never easy listening, but within its sloppy artiness, you’ll find the purest of post punk sounds, with the band essentially taking on the mantle of a pissed up Wire, and Edinburgh’s The Flowers, who take the sounds of early Siouxsie and add a sharpness within the rhythm, creating something practically perfect on ‘Ballad of Miss Demeanour’. It might sound generic when heard decades after the fact, but from a musical standpoint, this is one of this extensive set’s essential cuts.

Best known for their mauling of Barrett Strong’s ‘Money’ which became a massive UK hit in August 1979, it’ll likely be a pleasure for many to hear something else from art punks Flying Lizards. ‘Her Story’ almost pre-figures the strange funk of bands like A Certain Ratio with its pointed bass work, but with the addition of light vocals, a world of handclaps, pops and clicks, has plenty of its own identity. What there isn’t here, is much of an actual song. This is all about groove, offset by oddity, but on that score, it’s a genuine winner. With its prominent bass and spoken word elements, ‘Central Park’ by Blah Blah Blah comes across as sounding like a rough demo for Eno/Byrne’s ‘My Life In The Bush of Ghosts’, and the drum machine and bass combo of Second Layer’s ‘Underneath The Glass’ never rises beyond the realms of “old Wire demo”, making both tracks very much of the second tier here. At the same time, they’re still nice to have, since they shine a light on the more marginal musical experiments of an expansive scene.

For those still wishing to explore the dustier corners of the post punk era, Avant Gardeners’ ‘Where Are My Hormones’ not only shares something really punky but also presents the raw energies of a very alternative sound. The DIY production of the track is a reminder of how the era encouraged a less than perfect approach to music making, and sounds all the better for it. Normil Hawaiians’ ‘The Beat Goes On’, meanwhile, conveys a massive amount of familiarity, despite not being a compilation staple. The band combine heavy basslines with Slits-like backing vocals, a sax that would make Lora Logic proud and a shouting lead that’s more than happy to remind you that punk’s first wave isn’t too far in the past. Everything combined, this becomes a stand out track, despite not pushing any obvious boundaries. …And then there’s ‘The Heart Rules The Head’ by The Mystere Fives which sounds like one of Andy Partridge’s dub experiments recorded on an old Philips tape deck from the end of a corridor. It might not reach the heights set by Normal Hawaiians, but a few plays will unveil something that’s quite enjoyable.

With these deep cuts and curios backed up by much more familiar material from The Fall, The Psychedelic Furs, The Cure (let’s be honest, ‘A Forest’ never gets old, and still sounds superb here), Echo & The Bunnymen, The Slits, Tubeway Army, Joy Division, The Jam, Magazine and Buzzcocks, ‘Moving Away From The Pulsebeat’ bristles with life, and is overflowing in terms of retro entertainment value. There isn’t any unreleased material tucked away on these five discs – a great pity – or anything especially rare within the staggering 105 song selection, but in bringing together a lot of great recordings, including a wealth of slightly more obscure stuff alongside some cast-iron classics, it does a fine job. Providing both a brilliant listen and an occasionally educational slant, this is a highly recommended box set.

Buy the box set here:

January-March 2024