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Post-punk: an examination of the underground music movement

A great history of the Post-Punk underground music movement. It places bands like Sonic Youth and Pavement into the history of `90s Music, and examines post-punk music as an art form.

Post-Punk: A History and Examination

Punk rock began as a response to the big budget, over produced music of 1970s. It was a reaction to disco and arena rock. So what is post-punk? The etymology of the word points to it being after punk, but that is not the meaning because punk music is stilling being made today. An interesting analogy can be made with literature to shine a light on the subject of post-punk. Modern literature did not cease to be written after the advent of post-modern literature. The two exist simultaneously as movements in literature. Thus punk and post-punk exist as musical movements. Post-punk is all most a catchall category for underground, indie, or lo-fi guitar rock. It is also the music most representative of the slacker traditions of gen-x.

So how did post-punk begin? It`s a hard question to answer, but I think it began as a reaction to the nihilism of punk rock. Punk music was defined by its aggressive vocals, and often sloppy, simple instrumentation. More over, the punks were marked by their attitude, where as most post-punk musicians can be marked by their lack of attitude. Punk music wanted to create a revolution. Post-punk music wanted to create art. The D.I.Y. (Do it Yourself) ethic of punk was perhaps the greatest influence the genre had on post-punk. Post-punk bands initially avoided major record labels in the pursuit of artistic freedom, and out of an `us against them` stance towards the corporate rock world. The movement probably begins with Sonic Youth an avant-garde noise band from New York. However, there were many bands that influenced the movement like The Velvet Underground, MC5, Joy Division, and The Talking Heads.

Sonic Youth came together in the New York punk scene of the Early 80s. They clearly had a lot of punk influence (their first album Confusion is Sex has a cover of the Stooges "I Wanna Be Your Dog"), but their obsession with avant-garde art and pop culture distanced them from the punks. They appealed to the art crowd and to the college crowd. In other words, post-punk appealed to the people who were sophisticated, which was quite different than the elements that the punks appealed too. It also came to appeal to the weird kids, the ones that never quite found their place. Sonic Youth created walls of sound and noise with lyrics resembling beat poetry, or the lyrics of Jim Morrison. It often expressed the nihilism of the punks in an intelligent way. Their world-view may have been skewed towards the negative but out of the darkness their sounds would often find a sense of beauty, like saying the world is bad, but something out there does exist to make it worthwhile, and that is what is important.

The music needed time to grow, and it wasn`t until the early 1990s that post-punk broke out into mainstream music with Nirvana. In the meantime, the music spread west over college station airwaves, small clubs, fanzines, and independent record stores. Bands like Minor Threat, The Minute Men, fiREHOSE, and Husker Du began delving into the sonic fields to harvest the post-punk flower. Nineteen eight-six saw the arrival of The Pixies, a band which skirted the edge of fame, and would prove to be very influential on the `90s. There are many reoccurring names in post-punk because often after one band collapsed its members would move onto to new projects. A good example of this would be Ian MacKaye from Minor Threat, who formed Fugazi after Minor Threat`s break up. In many cases the line-up and name changes often produced better bands. Fugazi started from where Minor Threat left off, and were able to further distance themselves from punk and move towards a more experimental sound. Similarly, the Pixies, l ater went onto to become: The Breeders, The Amps, and Frank Black and the Catholics. Dinosaur Jr. lost its bass player, Lou Barlow, who eventually started Sebadoh, and The Folk Implosion. Another example of a reoccurring name would be Big Black`s, Steve Albini, who went on to be a producer for many of the best post-punk albums (most of the Pixies albums, and Nirvana`s In Uetero) after his stint as musician.

In 1989 Nirvana`s first album Bleach was released virtually unnoticed. Three years later they became major stars after their second album, Nevermind, came out with its hit single and video. Drawing from influences like Sonic Youth and the Pixies they were able to create a sound that was popular both to the mainstream and underground audiences. Rock actually began to replace pop as the preferred format for radio and MTV, but it would not last long though, and post-punk went underground again after its brief sortie into the world of popular culture. One of the factors involved with this was the music industry`s ability to copy the post-punk sound and package it in the likes of The Smashing Pumpkins or Weezer. Post-punk in my opinion is better off being in the underground, because it keeps the music pure and uncorrupted by the evils of corporate rock.

A chief factor of post-punk`s music is its ability to combine diverse elements of music. A great example of this are the bands The Flaming Lips, and Pavement, which have elements of psychedelic music, country, jazz, blues, and rock in their songs. In a way post-punk can be seen as the true heirs of the great bands of the 60s like the Stones, Pink Floyd, and the Beatles. The music seeks to never be pinned down as one thing, and it is this, which has helped it to survive and thrive in the jaded underground music scene. Some bands like Sonic Youth, and The Flaming Lips have been together long enough to garner major label contracts purely on artistic merit and strong credentials. The big deals have not changed their attitude towards the music, but rather has given them enough money to experiment with new sounds and ideas. Recently some major labels have shown interest in some recent post-punk bands like Modest Mouse (Epic) and Built to Spill (Warner Brothers), perhaps pointing to a changing trend in the industry. However, if it`s sold on an independent or major label, post-punk music will continue to experiment and innovate into the next century.

On the Bilawal Trail

The old melodies assembled under the Bilawal rubric come on the heels of the Todis and the Bhairavs in the matutinal parade of Ragas. The Bilawals bring to mind those marvellous, hot breakfasts in India, whipped up by the ladies: soft Idlis idling in an ocean of Sambar and spreads of crisp sub-micron thick Dosai laced with gourmet chutneys. Did I also mention filter coffee? (bonus points awarded to the gals if the beans are slow-roasted and freshly ground for that deep, full-bodied flavour).

The influence of the Bilawal Raganga extends far beyond its immediate environs, its kernel pressed into service in a variety of disparate melodic settings. Raganga Bilawal, therefore, merits a careful study. Our trek begins with an introduction to the fundamentals of the Bilawal Raganga. Later on in the programme, we call on several important members of the enchanting Bilawal family. Let M = shuddha and m = teevra madhyam. In all these discussions on Ragas, I strive to use the term "swara" instead of "note." They are not equivalent, and there is no English equivalent of "swara." Those who talk about "note" in describing the mechanics of Raga devalue the very idea of Raga.

The Bilawal thAT is composed of the seven shuddha swaras and corresponds to the Carnatic melakartA Shankarabharanam. The features of Raganga Bilawal are best embodied in its flagship rAga: Bilawal, often referred to as Alhaiyya Bilawal. The lakshaNAs of Raga Bilawal are heuristically explored.

G M R G P, [P] M G R S

This tonal phrase suggests the alpatva nature of the madhyam in the Arohi movement. The latter half embeds a vital gesture. The P in square brackets signifies a peculiar 'shake' imparted to it. Parenthetically we may note that this is also a seminal phrase in Bihag, a rAga of Bilawal extraction. The intonation - ucchAraNa - so critical to Bilawal is difficult to convey with the written word but will be clarified in the audio clips.

G M (G)R G P, G P DG M G, G R G P D-M G

The kaN of R imparted to the rishab and the coupling of D and G merit consideration. The arc D-M is a Bilawal signpost, the precise intonation of which is later addressed by Pandit Ramashreya Jha "Ramrang." It bears emphasizing that although the dhaivat is the vAdi, it is not a nyAsa swara. A careless elongation of D can effectively ruin Bilawal.

P, P P (N)D N S"

This tonal strip is the preferred launch for uttarAnga forays and a recurring theme in all Bilawals.

S" (N)D P M G

S", D n D P M G

The first of these tonal sentences illustrates a key avarohi locus, terminating with a nyAsa on the gandhAr. The second phrase has the komal nishAd tucked in, the manner of which is peculiar to Bilawal.

Obiter dicta: Some people regard Bilawal and Alhaiyya Bilawal as two different rAgas, positing that the latter contains the komal nishAd whereas the former doesn't. I see no reason to make that distinction and consider them to be one and the same rAga. The lakshaNAs of Bilawal have an existence independent of the komal nishAd whose inclusion (or exclusion) does not alter the Bilawal landscape in any essential way. We shall continue to use "Bilawal" and "Alhaiyya Bilawal" interchangeably.

The core of Raganga Bilawal is masterfully abstracted and summarized by the great vidwAn and vAggeyakAra, Pandit Ramashreya Jha "Ramrang" of Allahabad -

Primed with the foregoing preliminaries we now confront a dazzling array of Bilawal performances. The basic Raganga is extended in a variety of ways in the prakArs surveyed here. It takes a certain intelligence and experience sifting the central ideas from the sidelights. The highly specialized constructions render mastery of the Bilawal track a challenge exacting considerable training and thought. Not surprisingly the Bilawals are seen to nest in the repertoire of seasoned campaigners.

Raga Bilawal/Alhaiyya Bilawal

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