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Wednesday, March 30, 2005
We Got The Beat
Back when I was getting into music, around '79-'80, a term that was bandied about a lot was "New Wave". At the time, it was a nebulous term; essentially the emergence of punk in 1977 drew a permanent line in the sand from what came "before" and what came "after". So at first, New Wave referred to both the new punk bands that formed after the first wave hit; it also was used by others to refer to new power-pop bands. This created confusion among users of the term, who were often talking about two very different things, and over time, "post-punk" came to describe the second wave of punk rockers, and "New Wave" described the pop bands.
As such, New Wave was still a vague term; punky popsters like The Police and the Pretenders qualified, as did New York art-poppers Talking Heads and Blondie. It included ska (The Specials), power pop (Nick Lowe), and semi-classic rockers (The Cars). Wildly diverse artists like Elvis Costello and the Attractions, The B-52's, Squeeze, and The Jam fell under its broad umbrella, as did many other famous artists and a lot of one-hit wonders.
The term started to fall out of vogue by the early 80's, but was given a shot in the arm by MTV, whose new crop of stars (Culture Club, Eurythmics, Adam Ant, Billy Idol, et. al.) were also referred to as "New Wave" despite being, for the most part, entirely unrelated with one another.
Nothing can be called "new" forever, though, and by 1984, when the roots rock movement was underway, returning rock to pre-punk styles deemed obsolete during the punk explosion, the term had pretty much died out.
Looking back, the term is now a fairly handy one for lumping together a wide variety of music that nontheless mostly shares some similar traits.
If punk split into post-punk and new wave, think of new wave as all the late-70's and early 80's bands that pursued a consciously modern style; usually employing a synthesizer in key roles (or to the exclusion of all other instruments), giant hooks, and a directness of approach that seldom had been heard since the early 60's. Its timeline runs from 1977-1983. Many mid-90's bands display the influence of this music; while a lot of it was born disposable and still is, some of the most enduring songs of the era were once "new" wave.
A bonus second posting at Freeway Jam today: A randomized playlist of all New Wave titles in my library (a pool of about 1300 songs, give or take; I didn't have my tags set at "New Wave" and specially re-tagged them for this playlist; I probably missed a significant number). First ten tracks randomly selected by Media Center are profiled, Jam Tags, 1-5 stars, follow:
1. Blondie: Picture This ****
Parallel Lines is generally considered Blondie's best album; the songwriting by all the members took a giant leap forward, and the band toned down some of their artier tendencies. "Picture This", written by keyboardist Jimmy Destri, is one of their best. A midtempo rocker with some of Deborah Harry's best singing, it is representative of the rest of the album's strengths. It yielded two hits, "Heart Of Glass" and "One Way Or Another" but in fact, this and many other cuts on the album sound single-worthy.
2. Squeeze: Slap and Tickle *****
This leadoff song from Cool For Cats, is a surprisingly aggressive and punchy tune from Squeeze. It kicks off with eerie synthesizer that wouldn't sound out of place on a Pink Floyd album, but kicks into a bass and drums propelled rocker with wry Difford & Tillbrook lyrics, a brief Beatley harmony in the middle, and lead guitar making like a train whistle over the rollicking rhythmic drumming.
3. The Specials: Man At The C&A ****
The Specials weren't only the most innovative of the ska revival bands of the era; they were one of the most innovative bands, period. If The Specials laid the ska foundation for their sound, More Specials is where they experimented with it, taking it in as many directions as they could. "Man At The C&A" is angry and busy; with an easygoing dub beat at its base, but discordant disturbed horns and percussion and explosions laid on top with the vocals shouted and filtered. Not the most accessable cut on the album, but much of the rest is as ambitious.
4. Talking Heads: Take Me To The River *****
Inspired version of Al Green's classic ode to baptism and orgasm, not necessarily in that order. David Byrne's vocal style was coming into its own at this point, and he delivered possibly his greatest performance to date on this cut. The song is given the same kind of staccato rhythm the band is famous for, Jerry Harrison's synthesizer and organ washes are atmospheric and propulsive, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth supply a tight backing and Byrne's guitar playing deserves credit here, too. Great cut from a great band, a novice could easily begin with this one.
5. The Police: Too Much Information ****
By 1981's Ghost In The Machine, the Police were moving away from their trademark reggae beats, and approaching a more mainstream, conventional rock sound. This is not to say they had abandoned their peculiarities and quirks; a new jazziness entered their mix, this song begins with swinging horns and busy rhythm guitar as Sting delivers a rapid-fire au currant lyric for the information age (which ahdn't even arrived yet). They also borrow once more from the famous Balinese Monkey Chant, which they also used more explicitly on "Voices In My Head" from Zenyatta Mondatta.
6. UB40: Sardonicus ****
Best known in America for a string of lightweight reggae-pop hits in the late 80's, UB40 was originally a good band, tackling their mix of reggae/dub/ska/pop with conviction. "Sardonicus" is a convincing slab of dub, sensual and sinewy; kind of a Specials-lite, but better than that would imply. Particularly good are the guitar and bass on this track. UB40 (named after a British unemployment form) has been releasing albums regularly since 1980; their most recent was in 2003.
7. The Plimsouls: A Million Miles Away *****
Another song from this album, "Oldest Story In The World" just surfaced in the recent jangle-pop playlist. This one is the Plimsouls greatest moment; it appeared in the movie Valley Girl, and briefly touched the Billboard Hot 100, at #82 (#11 on the Mianstream Rock chart). This has all of what the Plimsouls had to offer; chiming guitars including one of the most Byrdsy leads ever, close harmonies, a punchy, power pop tempo. Everywhere At Once was their lone major-label release, on Geffen, and after reaching no higher than #182 on the charts, they lost their deal and broke up. They briefly reunited for an album in 1998.
8. The Cars: Just What I Needed ****
The Cars somehow managed to blend the elements of new wave, synthesizer, semi-punky vocals, and uptempo songs with elements oc classic hard rock, managing to reach two audiences almost nobody else could reach; new wave fans and classic rock fans. As a result, their debut was a massive across-the-board hit; they'd never come close to equalling it, although they had hits into the mid-80's. They weren't necessarily great; detractors can point to empty lyrics and disposable songs. But "Just What I Needed" still sounds as fresh as ever, and you've gotta give them credit for what they achieved.
9. The Go-Go's: Can't Stop The World ****
An enormously successful debut, Beauty and the Beat reached #1 and included two top-10 singles, "Our Lips Are Sealed" and "We Got The Beat" (A third single, "Get Up Ang Go" also charted at #50). Like most of the album, "Can't Stop The World" is infectious and catchy, and yields its hooks without a struggle. The playing is very slight, but it rocks; and the vocals sound great.
10. The Psychedelic Furs: Pretty In Pink *****
Producer Steve Lillywhite helped brighten the sound of these gloomy Englishmen somewhat, but also emphasizes their rough edges, to good effect. This song is most well-known in a re-recorded version for the film of the same name, but the original (which predates the film by several years) packs the original punch. The new version just missed the top-40 at #41 in 1986, the original was an underground hit in America and an aboveground hit in England.