Earlier this month, Control, a biopic about Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis, was released on DVD, simultaneously with Joy Division, a documentary about the band. That a direct-to-DVD documentary was released is no surprise; if anything, it’s a wonder that a documentary about the band took so long to be made. It’s fitting, however, that Joy Division and Curtis would be the subjects of the first major post-punk biopic — and outside of a handful of Hollywood films (Sid and Nancy, Velvet Goldmine), very few fictionalized films have even addressed the lives of original punk-rock icons.
Although Curtis was the iconic lead singer of what’s considered the first and arguably greatest post-punk band, it may seem a bit presumptuous to give the singer of Joy Division — which was barely recognized in its day and was active for less than five years — the same treatment as Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and other rock ‘n’ roll legends. But to view Control as presumptuous would ignore one of the larger trends in the perception of the history of rock ‘n’ roll that has occurred this decade: Post-punk, by whatever definition of the movement you use, is no longer a small subset of the rock canon reserved for those in the know. It is now essential to any rock ‘n’ roll education.
Witness the slew of books, documentaries, and blog posts that have been dedicated to the subject in the past decade. To wit: There’s Our Band Could Be Your Life and Rip It Up and Start Again; Kill Your Idols and The Devil and Daniel Johnson; American Hardcore, We Jam Econo, and Not a Photograph, to name a few. Mirroring the sudden fascination with the first-wave punks that occurred in the ’90s, one could argue that it makes sense that we’d only start to see documentaries and books now, as only now have we become sufficiently detached from the movement. But can that explain the sheer volume of attention and overwhelming fascination by the media, the whole slew of contemporary imitators, the number of post-punk bands that have reformed to massive popularity, or even the increased scholarly attention given to the music of the era?
A lot of the fascination comes from defining what, exactly, post-punk is. Most would agree to define the post-punk era from end of the first wave of punk bands to the breakthrough of grunge in the early ’90s (though even this definition is controversial), it’s almost impossible to build consensus on the taxonomy of what came in between. A movement that had started with a simple loud, fast, in-your-face sound diverted into too many directions to name.
Nor can anyone reach consensus on which was the greatest post-punk band, though each band has its ardent supporters. There are those, like me, who claim that the creative, oddball futurism of bands like Wire and the Minutemen was the greatest distillation of the aesthetic. There are those who say the technical innovations of bands like Mission of Burma and Sonic Youth were the best. There are even those relative traditionalists who claim all of post-punk was just an expansion on the groundwork established by the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. Yet no matter which ideology you align yourself with, everyone can place their finger on what makes post-punk so essential, even if they can’t fully articulate it.
For instance, although new wave and punk ostensibly represent two divergent schools of early-‘80s American music, most acknowledge that they both came from the same source: CBGB’s in New York circa 1977, when new wave icons like Blondie and the Talking Heads shared the stage with the Ramones and Richard Hell. Part of the whole appeal of post-punk is precisely that diversity: how a simple, egalitarian, do-it-yourself spirit led what was originally a very specific aesthetic to diverge all over the map. Even today, when post-rock bands like Sigur Rós and the Battles sound nothing like the Sex Pistols, all you need to do is utter one acronym — D.I.Y. — and the connection becomes instantly clear.
For many people of a certain age, the key origin of the intellectualization of post-punk was Michael Azzerrad’s 2001 book, Our Band Could Be Your Life, which took its name from a lyric from the Minutemen song “The History Lesson: Part 2.” The book profiled thirteen bands from all walks of life of the American underground of the 1980s, ranging from the straight hardcore of Black Flag to the proto-twee of Beat Happening. The book’s superb conclusion explained how the whole movement panned out once alternative rock hit the mainstream. Our Band Could Be Your Life was the first to create a comprehensive, formal landscape of the American version of post-punk, even as its structure emphasized the individual contributors to the scene.
That book spearheaded the modern appreciation of American post-punk, but for the Brits, whom we often think of when we use the more traditional definition of post-punk, the appreciation actually came through modern bands themselves. In the first half of the decade, bands such as Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, and the Killers stormed onto the music scene and gained massive popularity. Those who were too young to have heard of Joy Division, Gang of Four, Wire, and Echo and the Bunnymen discovered them through contemporary bands, and slowly started to realize that much of the music of post-punk revivalists bordered on outright plagiarism. It’s no coincidence that while the recognition of the original post-punk bands has skyrocketed over the last five years, the revivalists themselves have failed on subsequent releases to maintain the influence they acquired with their initial breakthroughs.
In fact, that divide speaks to the key development of the approach to post-punk this decade. Post-punk bands have always had their fans, and their influence has done nothing but increase since their formation. What separates the current view is the appreciation of people who weren’t even alive when post-punk was still a relatively new movement. For them, post-punk is no different than the French Revolution or the fall of the Roman Empire, a historical era that we can fully appreciate while having no connection to it as a contemporaneous movement.
At the same time, few indie bands can pack concert venues like the newly reunited Pixies, Mission of Burma, Wire, or even the Stooges — and most in the crowd at these concerts are under the age of 40. What that shows is that, in the annals of modern music history, post-punk can be viewed intellectually on the same plane as rockabilly, the blues, and jazz. That may not be an appealing concept to the many living post-punk legends, but we should all be so lucky as to have that kind of immortality.