In 1982, Nippon Columbia released a four-track EP called Dancing Night, uniting artists from Tokyo, Paris, New York, and London with shared sensibility for dance-floor subversion. In itself, the EP was neither particularly successful nor particularly significant. That it existed, however, hinted at a kinship that had emerged, without design, at roughly the same time, in four corners of the world.
What Ryuichi Sakamoto, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Rip Rig + Panic, and PiL had in common was more a question of attitude than musical style. They played with form and delivery, picking the bones of punk and disco to create a new sound that challenged the status quo. Crucially, it was also not too modernist to dance to.
In early 2021, Soul Jazz Records released a compilation called Two Synths, a Guitar (and) a Drum Machine that, like Dancing Night, brings together musicians from across the world off the back of a sprawling vibe rather than a self-contained scene. In doing so, it taps a vein in live underground dance music and finds it still coursing with the dopamine of ESG, Suicide, and Gang of Four.
L.A. synth-punk trio Automatic rub shoulders with London-based French outfit MadMadMad. Susumu Mukai aka Zongamin sits beside New Fries, out of Toronto’s DIY punk underground. Balearic free spirit Tom of England is within touching distance of Toresch, the project of industrially inclined producer Toulouse Low Trax and Mexican-born German artist and sculptor Viktoria Wehrmeister. Stones Throw beatmaker Vex Ruffin jams with hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy. They are a motley bunch, so to generalize would be to miss the point. Individually, however, they have adapted and mutated the DNA of the late ’70s and early ’80s to the technological extremes of the twenty-first century.
But why do these tumultuous, creative years—either side of 1980—remain so fertile for musicians seeking blueprints for independence? The context Simon Reynolds conjures in the prologue to his 2005 book Rip It Up and Start Again is a good place to start. “The post-punk period begins with the paralysis and stagnation of left-liberal politics, seen as fatally compromised and failed, and ends with monetarist economic policy in the ascendant, mass unemployment and widening social divisions.” This served to create an artistic generation for whom “these dislocations produced a tremendous sense of dread and tension.”
The years around which Reynolds published Rip It Up were marked by their own post-punk renaissance. It infiltrated mainstream indie rock and gave the world dance-punk revivalists like LCD Soundsystem and a global network of forums and MySpace bands liberated by the comparatively innocuous first wave of internet connectivity. For the most part, however, the early ’80s were more of an aesthetic reference than a political statement.
The years that followed have given the world a series of seismic convulsions, from financial crisis to pandemic, all of which have played out against the backdrop of corporate tech dominance by the likes of Facebook, Amazon, and Spotify.
It is into this environment that independent musicians have once again had to reposition themselves, pushed to the fringes to find pockets of physical and digital space amid exponential rents and online monopolies. It’s no exaggeration to say that dread and tension have been brought to the fore once more.
For Leon, Kevin, and Benji of MadMadMad, this manifests itself in the urgency of their sound. The blurb to the 2020 LP MORE MORE MORE describes their sound as “unique Disco Noir [that] seeks deliverance from the chaotic and strange times we are now living through, fomenting a deep societal change and, hopefully, a brighter future.” Set up in a North London warehouse, the trio shapes pulsating grooves out of a maelstrom of guitars, synths, bass, and drums that punch short and fast on record, but can be extended ad infinitum onstage.
“The dance factor has been central to how we worked out our live set,” bassist Kevin Toublant explains. “The band’s music is pretty loopy and uptempo, and when we perform, we feel we have a responsibility to keep people on their toes, sliding from one song to the other without noticing it.” Unlike the late ’70s NYC post-punk movement from which they are heavily influenced, MadMadMad have four decades of club culture to add to the mix. “We decided to work our sets like a DJ would work the crowd in the club. We get in the zone when performing and want to share the trance with everybody.”
It is the element of chance, the thrill of risk, and the rewards of spontaneity on which the trio thrive. Dada experimentation and the post-disco dance floor are “endless sources of inspiration, because in the end, they are all about breaking codes and introducing new perspectives.” In the polished world of stream-ready algo-pop, there is already something transgressive about foregrounding process over product.
“All of our material comes from playing together. We basically press record and go with the flow, then sort out what really stands out,” Toublant explains. “It’s a great way to keep the recording process exciting, as so many unintended things can happen. Magic often lies in the accidental.”
Five and a half thousand miles away in Los Angeles, another trio—Izzy Glaudini, Lola Dompé, and Halle Saxon—take a similarly laissez-faire approach to composition, breaking off angular shards of punk-funk from their own free-form jam sessions. As Automatic, they released their debut album Signal on Stones Throw in 2019, which was followed in March 2021 by a remix LP of the same name.
“Our process is so democratic, it’s ninety-nine percent us being together in a room,” Izzy explains. “We always play off of each other, even if it sounds terrible at first.” Like many of their punk inspirations (“a lot of shit from 1977: Kleenex, Blondie, Generation X”), the band are drawn to simplicity in their songwriting, and revel in the limitations of having swapped the guitar for a synthesiser.
“Working within the parameters of just synth, bass, and drums is very liberating,” Izzy continues. “For us, it was a way of avoiding a lot of clichés, because I had never touched a synth before this band. It was more about fucking around and having fun.”
This spartan setup also helped determine the form that the songs take, tapping into their newfound love for Patrick Cowley, Hi-NRG, and underground disco. “Anyone that pulls off a simple song in unique ways is so inspiring.” For Automatic, the synthesizer “keeps things minimal but also experimental.”
To hear Automatic talk about incorporating the gyroscopic electro of Patrick Cowley into their sound speaks of the band’s determination to honor the live, dance-floor tendencies of the music on whose legacy they draw. Liquid Liquid played at Paradise Garage, Bush Tetras at the Danceteria, ESG at Peppermint Lounge. The distinctions between clubs and gigs were less defined, as were those between genres. “I don’t feel like a disco group, I don’t feel like a punk group; I feel like a funk group, maybe like Rick James says, ‘punk-funk,’” ESG vocalist Renee Scroggins told Collusion magazine in 1983. “I feel like we’re right here, in between, we’ve got something for everybody.”
Like MadMadMad, Automatic enjoys the challenge of bringing live groove back onto the dance floor: “I love dance songs that have dark or melancholic lyrics,” Izzy says. “Getting people to dance to some weird or fucked-up concept is the best of both worlds.” Look no further than “Suicide in Texas” or “Damage” for that jarring, playful juxtaposition.
“I’ve always been drawn towards rhythmic and groovy music,” explains bassist and producer Susumu Mukai, who draws on influences as broad as electric Miles Davis and Indian classical music. Mukai released his debut album as Zongamin with XL Recordings in 2002, and has since recorded as part of U.K.-based psych outfit Vanishing Twin among others. He appears twice on the Soul Jazz compilation, alone as Zongamin and with Jean-Gabriel Becker as Becker & Mukai.
“As the title of the compilation suggests, I think many people around the world started recording music using ‘two synths, a guitar, and a drum machine,’” he says. “Maybe sometimes, out of necessity, as they are relatively accessible for DIY home recording artists.”
As a descriptor of process, DIY is a loaded term that is often used to describe anything that sounds raw or under-produced. It evokes a roughness that in turn suggests a radical amateurism. “Rawness could be the result of doing things that are unusual or unconventional out of necessity or lack of experience and knowledge,” Mukai affirms.
Like Automatic, who found themselves freed by their choice of instrument, Mukai suggests that an aspect of DIY is encapsulated in “being creative with what’s available [and] doing the best under the circumstances.” In early ’80s NYC—where graffiti, art, fashion, and music got down to the same beat—creativity in limitation was less a badge of honor than a way of life.
The quotes gathered by Simon Reynolds in his chapter on mutant disco capture some of that live-wire energy. Of a trip to New York in 1983, New Order’s Peter Hook remembers: “We thought that Arthur Baker was going to be this technological genius creating these dance records and really he was just a punk let loose in a recording studio who didn’t know what the fucking hell he was doing. He was just pushing sliders up and down.”
“What inspired me about what was going on,” Fab 5 Freddy told the New York Times in 2000, “was that you would wake up tomorrow morning and say, ‘I’m an actor,’ and you’d be an actor, or ‘I’m a musician,’ and you’d be a musician, and everyone would accept you as that.”
Both Automatic and New Fries formed before they could play their instruments—true adherents to the 1970s ethos of “this is a chord…now form a band.” The former named themselves after a song by the Go-Go’s—the first all-female rock band to have written and played instruments on a U.S. number one album.
“We would consider ourselves DIY,” Izzy says. “We taught ourselves to play our instruments, booked our own shows for the first year, design a lot of our own graphics. The “do it yourself” aesthetic is inspiring and empowering.” Their attitude can be traced back to artists like the Raincoats, the Slits, and Poly-Styrene whose stories in resistance to the misogynistic ’70s music press are vividly documented in Vivien Goldman’s 2019 book The Revenge of the She-Punks:
“Punk was a music for and by outsiders, and technical virtuosity was irrelevant; absolute beginners were almost preferred,” Goldman writes, remembering the dispiriting editorial meetings at Sounds magazine, where the team of “all white, all boys” would go so far as to deny the very existence of women in music. “Under punk’s inclusionary cover, all sorts of oddballs were smuggling themselves past the cock-rock guards—even women!”
To do it yourself then was to resist the dominant structures, because, in essence, no one else was going to do it for you. For MadMadMad, the proliferation in the use of the term DIY simply reflects a reality whereby accessible production and distribution tools have dovetailed with a hostility from the music industry at large towards anything remotely experimental.
“These days, DIY seems to apply to the vast majority of bands around us, regardless of their aesthetic,” Kevin elaborates. “Bands now have access to a much broader and cheaper array of tools in order to produce and put their own music out there. The result can be raw, but not necessarily. DIY means that nobody else is going to do the work for us, so we might as well do it ourselves. It’s more of an observation than a political statement. We can’t blame the music labels or agents of this world for not betting on us. So we took the matter into our own hands, and it paid off.”
Where the post-punk scenes of early ’80s London and NYC relied on a network of record shops and independent labels described by Reynolds as “a sort of anti-corporate micro-capitalism based less on left-wing ideology than the conviction that major labels were too sluggish, unimaginative and commercially minded to nurture the most crucial music of the day,” much of what now exists has been forced to sidestep these support structures altogether. In as far as MadMadMad are a band, they are also a direct-to-consumer entity, using platforms like Bandcamp to finance and distribute their music one record at a time.
“It’s tight-roping really,” Kevin admits. “We funded our first releases ourselves, with a tiny budget that allowed us to press our first recordings on white-label vinyl, in very small quantities. Once these were sold, we had a bit more budget for the next batch. We break even and that’s already a big thing in today’s economy.”
With the requisite boost from touring (under normal circumstances), the band has found a way to marry their DIY principles with a sustainable business model, albeit one which adopts a return to a fan-based economy and the physical product of a hand-printed 12-inch. Such is the omnipotence of online platforms, sooner or later all bands are likely find themselves a client of their services, Bandcamp included.
“Take Spotify. We all know how little retribution artists get from it, yet it’s one of the major places to be if you want people to access your music. How can you work around this contradiction? You can either decide to go without these platforms, and accept the consequences. Or you can repurpose these tools to your own benefit, a bit like Wulfpeck did when they asked their fans to stream their silent tracks at night in order to fund their tour.”
Gaming big tech might not be everyone’s idea of a DIY purism, but it does highlight the contradictions that artists are faced with today when so much of industry infrastructure is built by, and co-opted, to generate income for others.
Automatic are experimenting with a different route to independence, exploiting the transition to virtual spaces and the nascent NFT phenomenon to build their own venue in the off-grid digital territory of Crypto-Voxels. Masterminded by Lola, the band have a venue called Punks4Peace where they have “premiered” songs during the pandemic (via YouTube and Twitch), inviting friends to come as avatars to watch the video on a virtual stage. The venue is part of a larger artistic community built on the Ethereum blockchain, where people buy land and create their own autonomous spaces to trade digital art. “We’re still in the early days of virtual technology, but it’s pretty fun to play around with,” Izzy explains. “You can design or purchase clothes/pieces to individualize your avatar with, or remain anonymous if you chose.”
Mukai has also been experimenting with NFTs, collaborating to create digital artworks that he says can provide “a new way for artists to make an income off their work independently.” This is particularly the case in the digital context where MP3s or streams have little or no financial value for artists.
While this is some jump from Vivien Goldman dropping off Dirty Washing at Glenn Branca’s 99 Records HQ back in 1981, there is analogy in the intention to use the available counter-cultural networks to circumvent the mainstream. Izzy, for one, remains positive: “I’m hoping in the future, artists will stop being such slaves to the corporate overlords and have some more agency over their music.”
To draw a line around music this amorphous, as Soul Jazz have done on Two Synths, a Guitar (and) a Drum Machine, is not to contain it, but it acknowledges the tip of an iceberg. In doing so, it brings into focus elements of an industrial funk sound (sparse instrumentation, motorik beat, jagged bass lines) that has bubbled beneath the surface all along, from Paradise Garage to the Haçienda, Optimo to Salon Des Amateurs, ESG to LCD. They are united in by a sensibility for exuberance in opposition. Part of being subversive is to make sure you have as much fun as you can in the process.
“Rebellion is a forever shape-shifting mechanism,” Kevin concludes. “What was rebel yesterday has been diluted in today’s mainstream. Rebellious acts of today can define tomorrow’s norms.” It is a testament to the essential nature of first wave post-punk that, forty years on, its disruptive tendencies still ring true.