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Pop/Rock

by Stephen Thomas Erlewine

New Wave

Punk rock may not have had the all-encompassing revolutionary effect that it originally was supposed to -- after all, disco and pop still reigned on the charts after the Sex Pistols' disbandment -- but it left a number of musical upheavals in its wake. At the time, every musical genre that followed punk was termed "New Wave," in homage to the generation of French filmmakers that revolutionized the cinema in the '50s. Many hardline punk fans and critics complained about the term new wave and the music itself, claiming that it was designed to defuse the danger of punk, but in retrospect, the commercialization and broadening of punk culture was inevitable. Also, it seems that new wave is quite different than post-punk, which tended to be more adventurous and self-consciously arty, as well as hardcore, which took the amateurish, thuggish tendencies of punk to an extreme. So where does that leave new wave? It is a catch-all term, collecting a variety of pop-oriented musics that weren't part of the mainstream, yet were melodic, catchy, idiosyncratic and quirky. New wave applied to everything from synthesized dance-pop to Mod and Ska revivalists -- as long as it relied on hooks and was disregarded by the pop mainstream, it was called new wave. There wasn't a specific sound, but there was a sensibility, one that was humorous, quirky and, most of all, not dangerous. It had a left-of-center sensibility, but none of the revolutionary danger, of punk rock.

In America, some of the very first punk bands indicated how the music would transform into new wave. With their ironic reworkings of '60s pop, bubblegum and garage rock, Blondie and the Ramones had the melodic sensibilities, as well as the visual gimmicks that would prove to be key to commercial new wave success. However, Blondie -- who were blessed with Debbie Harry's sexy, photogenic looks -- made the commercial crossover, and the Ramones remained a cult act, no matter how hard they tried to break into the pop charts with buzzingly catchy rockers like "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" and "Rock N Roll Radio." One of their New York contemporaries, Talking Heads, managed to become stars in the early '80s, after albums like Talking Heads '77, More Songs About Buildings and Food, and Remain in Light had established their geeky, intellectual pop sense. Through these early records, Talking Heads became one of the leading American new wave bands, but their influence was overshadowed by the Athens, Georgia quartet the B-52's and the Boston quintet, the Cars.

With their celebration of B-movie kitsch, dissonant harmonies and jerky hooks, the B-52's developed a new rock & roll lexicon. They were defiantly strange and weirdly funny, with distinctive visual gimmicks and aural hooks that were easily as revolutionary as the speedy guitars of the Ramones. Their esthetic was borrowed by numerous bands, many of which turned out to be one-hit wonders, but there were a handful that took it as rallying cry. These generally turned out to be bands that were major players in alternative rock -- during the late '70s and early '80s, the sound of the B-52's was only heard in clubs and colleges, since mainstream radio accepted new wave in the form of the Cars. For a band that cribbed heavily from the Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop, the Cars were remarkably straightforward; their pulsating, minimalistic rock & roll played like arena rock since it emphasized the hook and loud guitars. Following the Cars, album-rock radio and many of its staple artists began incorporating new wave production techniques in an attempt to stay modern, and it resulted in some trashy, fun hits from veteran rockers that were generally clueless about punk. Of course, there were also bands like the Motels, Missing Persons and the Fixx whose sensibility was more akin to AOR than punk, but they were able to co-opt the new wave sound quite successfully. These bands provided the backdrop for the true sound of new wave, the multitudes of quirky, edgy pop singles that incorporated punk sensibility and culture within the confines a three-minute pop single. The first to essay this idea successfully was Elvis Costello, a pub-rock singer/songwriter that became a sensation with his 1977 debut album My Aim is True. A smart, nervy collection of tight pop songs and ballads, My Aim is True illustrated that punk's energy could be harnessed in more accessible, straightforward styles and it also established that the music could be the province of geeky outsiders instead of stylish hipsters or brutish thugs. Costello's geeky persona would echo throughout the new wave years, yet his initial impact was how he pushed older pub rockers like Nick Lowe and Graham Parker into the limelight. These pub-rockers, whose initial rejection of rock stardom conventions paved the way for punk, favored pop, rock and folk, and helped usher in an explosive era of singles that covered a wide spectrum of sounds and styles. During the late '70s and early '80s, there were countless bands that mined the catchy, quirky guitar-pop vein of new wave. There were conventional power-pop bands like Bram Tchaikovsky, the Romantics, 20/20 and the Knack, as well as the revitalized rock & roll of the Pretenders, the jittery pop of XTC, the inspired songcraft of Squeeze, the Police's savvy pop-reggae and the spruced-up retro-rock of Rockpile and its two leaders, Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds. Almost simultaneously, the ska and mod revivals surfaced in England. The Specials, Madness and the English Beat spearheaded the ska revival, which had a stronger dance rhythm than most new wave variations, along with more humor. The Jam updated the stridently British rock of the Who and the Kinks, and countless bands tried to mimic the band's punchy attack and lead singer/songwriter Paul Weller's biting lyricism. Soon, such guitar-oriented bands gave way to the synthesized, danceable territory of synth-pop and New Romantics like ABC, Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. Inspired by David Bowie and Roxy Music's detached glamor and robotic soul, the New Romantics had cool electronic surfaces, crooning vocals and a distinctive visual style, which incorporated teased hair and flamboyant clothing. Such striking visuals made them naturals for MTV, a cable television network that debuted in 1981.

MTV needed videos to fill their 24 hours of programming, and new wave, particularly New Romantics, became their key to success. Soon, these groups, who had already had significant success in England, began making inroads across America, not only in New York and Los Angeles, but also in the midwest. Elvis Costello, the Clash, the Go-Go's, the Police, the Cars, the Pretenders and Talking Heads became stars thanks to MTV and mainstream radio play, but MTV's most significant contribution was fueling the last great era of one-hit wonders. The network did play the Jam, XTC and the Specials, but these only became major cult acts in America. Instead, the US audience favored A Flock of Seagulls, Haircut 100, the Joboxers, the Buggles -- an endless stream of bands that were united only by the fact that they had great videos and one or two hits.

Within a few years, MTV was a major force in the music industry, and they had helped make bands like Duran Duran and the Australian pop-rock combo Men At Work into international stars. But by that point, new wave was beginning to run out of steam. Several major bands, including the Clash, the Specials and the Jam broke up, while others, such as Squeeze, Elvis Costello and Madness had taken time off to restructure their sound. Furthermore, the record industry had pushed too many bands like the Motels that simply co-opted new wave, which helped the public reach a saturation point. Also, MTV began airing videos from veteran stars that successfully negotiated the music video, which meant they didn't have to air new wave all the time. So, new wave quickly disappeared, since only the major players were able to sustain careers. During much of the late '80s, it was ridiculed for its silly fashion and disposable music, but in the mid-'90s, it not only became the subject of a wave of nostalgia, but it became clear that many artists had been inspired by the music. A critical re-evaluation of the period, however, was far from immanent, since it remained a subject for easy ridicule. And that just ignores that new wave, for all of its crass tendencies, was a stellar time for pop singles.

Recommended Recordings:

Various Artists -- Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Hits of the '80s, Vols. 1-15 (Rhino)

Various Artists -- DIY: UK Pop, Vols. 1 & 2 (Rhino)

Various Artists -- DIY: US Power Pop, Vol. 1 & 2 (Rhino)

Various Artists -- A Checkered Past: The 2-Tone Story (Chrysalis/2-Tone)

The Specials -- The Specials (Chrysalis/2-Tone)

Madness -- Complete Madness (Stiff)

The Pretenders -- Pretenders (Sire)

Elvis Costello -- Armed Forces (Rykodisc)

The Jam -- Snap! (Polydor)

Squeeze -- Singles: 45's and Under (A&M)

XTC -- Waxworks (Geffen)

Talking Heads -- Sand in the Vaseline (Sire)

Blondie -- Parallel Lines (Chrysalis)

Duran Duran -- Decade (Capitol)

Nick Lowe -- Labour of Lust (Columbia)

The Go-Go's -- Return to the Valley of the Go-Go's (IRS)

Adam & the Ants -- Antics in the Forbidden Zone (Epic)