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Sunday, July 31, 2005
Sunday Morning Playlist: New Wave
The term "new wave" originally meant something different from its popular definition, and as a genre category it is extremely broad and non-specific. It was an almost useless category at the time, although with the passage of two and a half decades the genre has become much more valid; what is now designated "new wave" does share an attitude and ambience, if not necessarily sound, image, or influences.
Originally, new-wave referred specifically to the generation of punk bands that appeared in the wake of the Sex Pistols and Ramones; distinctions were drawn between the vanguard of punk, and those who appeared in its wake. The term is often credited to Sire Records boss Seymour Stein, who wanted a category to market the bands he signed from the CBGB/Mudd Club/Max's Kansas City scene in mid-70's Manhattan, and wanted to avoid "punk" which was considered a soon-to-die fad by marketing executives. He used the term in the manner French New Wave come to classify French cinema of the 1960's, with the inherent innovation and iconoclasm it implied.
However, at the same time the punk revolution was underway, popular music and rock themselves were undergoing profound changes. During the late 1970's a wide range of new groups appeared around the globe, including America and the U.K., that shared a handful of basic characteristics. The music was usually song-oriented, not album-oriented and the songs themselves were generally uptempo and short. Thus "new wave" as a term also applied to this music too, which included almost any rock and pop act of the era that was new, and wasn't metal, punk, or singer/songwriter music. It first spread from the CBGB "new wave" acts Stein had in mind to punky ska and reggae influenced bands, such as The Specials and the Police; it mushroomed from there.
"New Wave" in its current usage reflects the second category, and is classifiable into many subgenres. Prevalent styles included power pop, which included artists like Nick Lowe, Cheap Trick, and 20/20. There were pop bands like Squeeze, the Go-Go's and XTC, the pop-reggae of the Police, punk-ish hard rock from The Pretenders, Blondie, and Television, ska from The Specials, Madness, and The (English) Beat. There were the revivalists, from the mod group The Jam to the classicist Rockpile. There was the perky arena rock of The Cars, synth-rock like Gary Numan and Devo, and ultimately, the first wave of MTV artists like Duran Duran, Flock of Seagulls, and Culture Club.
New Wave was a fertile ground for one-hit wonder artists as it tended to be novelty-friendly and gambled on many trends that never really caught on. Its timeline extends from the emergence of punk in 1976 through the beginning of the college rock era around 1984. Much of it was considered disposable at the time, although artists like Sting, Elvis Costello and Chrissie Hynde have managed to have fruitful long-term careers. Many Britpop bands of the 90's bear its influence as do ironic alt-rockers in the manner of Weezer in the U.S.
Some important/influential new wave artists/songs include:
1. The Cars: Just What I Needed iTunes
The Cars were the most commercially successful American new wave band; all six o their albums reached the top-30; four of them reached top-10. They also charted a total of twenty-one singles. Formed in Boston, MA in 1976 by Ric Ocasek and Ben Orr, the band took influences like Lou Reed, Berlin-era Iggy Pop, the British Invasion, and pure pop to create an extremely radio-friendly, catchy sound. Ocasek (Richard Otcasek), a native of Cleveland, had been in an early 70's folk group with Orr (Ben Orzechowski) called Milkwood and released an album in 1973. The pair changed direction when ex-Modern Lovers drummer David Robinson joined their next band, Richard & The Rabbits, along with guitarist Elliott Easton and keyboardist Greg Hawkes. The band renamed themselves The Cars and signed with Elektra. Their debut album, The Cars, from 1978, remains their essential disc; every song is a familiar classic. The secret lay in the canny balance between new wave pop and hard rock; the band managed to get played on both rock stations and new music stations gaining a huge audience from both sides of the fence. "Just What I Needed" was their first hit, peaking at #27. The band broke up in 1987; Ben Orr died in 2000.
2. The Police: Roxanne iTunes
The Police were a punky reggae-pop band of the late 70's that reached enormous heights when they broke up in 1983. Their five studio albums are classics in the new wave world; their first four in particular remain fresh-sounding and engaging even now. The band was formed by Sting (Gordon Sumner), of Wallsend, Northumberland, England, and drummer Stewart Copeland (ex-Curved Air), the son of a CIA agent born in Alexandria Egypt, and guitarist Henri Padovani in 1977. Their first exposure came in 1977 playing punks in a chewing gum ad on British T.V. which earned them scorn that never fully went away from the real punk crowd. The trio released one single before Padovani was replaced by guitarist Andy Summers, a veteran who had been in Zoot Money's band and a late version of the Animals in the 1960's. Together, the band hit big with "Roxanne" in 1978, and charted 16 singles overall. After the punchy reggae-flavored power pop of their first two albums, the band pursued a fairly eclectic course, plundering world music for their varied sounds. Sting continues to rack up hits, Copeland has been a much in-demand film soundtrack composer.
3. Gary Numan: Cars iTunes
Gary Numan is one of the forefathers of synth-pop, a dominant pop for of early 80's England. His eerie synthesizer-based top-10 hit "Cars", released in 1979, remains one of the genre-defining new wave singles in a notoriously hard-to-define genre. Originally a member of punk group The Lasers, Numan formed Tubeway Army as a backing band for his solo career, which was also the name of his 1978 solo debut. "Cars" comes from his third disc, the excellent The Pleasure Principle which is not only worthy for its aggressive synthesizer, it earns high marks for Cedric Sharpley's percussion work, which crashes and bashes with the best of them. Strangely, Numan never again made the singles charts in America, earning him one-hit wonder status, although he consistently charted hits in England through the 1980's.
4. Nick Lowe: Cruel To Be Kind iTunes
For a new wave artist, Lowe was fairly grizzled; pushing 30 at the time of "Cruel To Be Kind" he was already the veteran of early 70's pub rockers Brinsley Schwarz, who released six albums 1970-1974. He had also already served time as house producer for Stiff records, working with The Pretenders, The Damned, and Elvis Costello. Still, his solo career was fresh and punchy enough, and overlapped with many other new wave artists of the day, that he could be considered a new wave artist himself, as well as a prime power-pop practitioner. "Cruel To Be Kind" was a huge radio hit, and peaked at #12 in 1979; Lowe would make the top-40 in America only once more with "I Knew The Bride (When She Used To Rock And Roll) in 1985, although he continues to release generally well-regarded albums on a schedule of about one every three years.
5. The Human League: Don't You Want Me
The quintessential synth-pop band, Human League, from Sheffield, England, were formed by Martyn Ware and Ian Marsh in 1977, who had both been in the duo Dead Daughters. In Human League, they were joined by vocalist Philip Oakley. They first gained notice as a supporting act for Souxsie and The Banshees in 1978; their 1979 album Travelogue was their first to reach the top-20 in the U.K. Their early work was dense and dark and somewhat recalled Kraftwerk. Ware and Marsh both departed in 1980, and Oakley hired bassist Ian Burden and schoolgirls Susanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall for additional vocal support. In America, their big breakthrough was the 1982 album Dare!, which included the mega-hit "Don't You Want Me", which reached #1 on the pop singles chart. The hits dried up by the mid-80's, but the band, in various configurations released albums through the 1990's on an erratic basis, the most recent appearing in 2001.
6. Elvis Costello: Pump It Up
With his unlikely name, his oddball nerdy looks, his genuine tunefulness, his witty, acerbic lyrics, and the potent energy of his band, The Attractions, Costello (Declan McManus) quickly became the thinking man's new wave artist of the late 70's. The son of a bandleader, he worked as a computer programmer in the 1970's before taking on a music career, first as D.P. Costello. His first group was Flip City, a country-rock outfit, whose demos got him signed by Stiff. His debut My Aim Is True was produced by Nick Lowe, and included his timeless tune "Alison". A package tour of Stiff artists followed, during which the dizzy "Pump It Up" became the showstopping closer; an anthem to hedonism and the party ethic. Steve Nieve's ice hockey organ is the most recognizable component, but Costello's own slashed guitar stars as well. Costello has led an uneven, but generally respected solo career to the current day.
7. Culture Club: Church Of The Poison Mind iTunes
One of the all-time most popular new wave acts, Culture Club's peak was short -they only released four albums, two of which were commercial disappointments- but their presence was inescapable; their mix of synth-pop and white soul dominated the airwaves in 1982-1984. Boy George (George O'Dowd), perhaps ironically, was the son of a boxing club owner. He began cross dressing in the late-70's and became notorious on the party circuit; Sex Pistols producer Malcom McLaren invited him to join Bow Wow Wow, which he did under the name Lieutenant Lush. He appered in a couple of other bands before forming Culture Club in 1981. "Church Of The Poison Mind" was probably their best single, helped by Helen Terry's vocals, although it wasn't their biggest, peaking at #16 in 1983; they'd place 12 singles on the charts, including the #1 Karma Chameleon, before breaking up in 1986. A bizarre appearance at Live Aid in 1985 and the subsequent revelation that Boy George was a heroin addict helped end their career; Boy George has since rebounded, and scored a number of club hits in the years since, including "The Crying Game".
8. Soft Cell: Tainted Love iTunes
Soft Cell, from Leeds, England, was formed in 1980 primarily as a venture to score theatrical productions, and the duo of Marc Almond and Dave Ball favored a visually original style. Their 1981 synth-based single "Tainted Love", from the album Non-Stop Erotic Caberet, was an enormous international hit; peaking at #8 in America, it remained in the hot-100 for nearly a year. Cold, clinical, and emotional, it is emblematic of the duo's style. Soft Cell proved to be short-lived; they disbanded in 1984. Mark Almond has led a prolific solo career, The pair reunited in 2002 and released a fourth album, Cruelty Without Beauty. Dave ball resurfaced in 90's British Acid House duo The Grid.
9. Madness: Our House iTunes
Named after a song by rocksteady Prince Buster, Madness, from London, specialized in ska, and along with The Specials and The English Beat, they helped define the ska-revival movement of late 70's early 80's England. Signed to Stiff records, they scored their first U.K. top-20 in 1978 with "The Prince", a tribute to Buster. Their success was massive in England, where they had a string of 13 top-10 singles. However, the ska revival never really caught on in America, where the band managed just one single top-10, "Our House" in 1983. The band remained active through the 1990's; its most recent album appeared in 1999.
10. Talking Heads: Once In A Lifetime iTunes
Perhaps the most intellectual of the New York CBGB scene bands of the late 70's, Talking Heads was formed in 1975 in Providence by singer/guitarist David Byrne, drummer Chris Frantz, and bassist Tina Weymouth, all students at the Rhode Island School of Design. They relocated to New York shortly after, and won a spot opening for The Ramones in late 1975. Keyboardist Jerry Harrison was added in 1976; the quartet remained stable until the band's 1990 break-up. Their debut album, Talking Heads 77 established their essential style; odd rhythms, absurd and surreal lyrics, sometimes satirical, and Byrne's strange, nervous geek vocals. With their second album, More Songs About Buildings And Food, the band formed a fruitful partnership with producer Brian Eno, who became a de-facto fifth member in the studio, highlighting the band's polyrhythmic and keyboard textures. Their 1980 album, Remain In Light was perhaps their best with Eno; ambitious and complex, it also featured what may be the band's greatest masterpiece, "Once In A Lifetime" which gained a lot of airplay and featured a particularly profound lyric from Byrne. The band broke with Eno following this album, but continued to grow in popularity through the 80's.
11. Duran Duran: Hungry like The Wolf iTunes
Duran Duran is perhaps the purest example of an early 80's new wave band; photogenic, synth-based, MTV staples, quirky songwriting and production. Originally formed in 1978 by keyboardist Nick Rhodes and guitarist John Taylor, the band underwent several lineup changes before its classic lineup, a quintet fronted by Simon LeBon, was finalized in 1980. In 1981, the band had its first U.K. hit, "Planet Earth" and were hailed as leaders of the New Romantic movement. Their next single "Girls On Film" had its video banned by the BBC for nudity, but still made the top-10. The band peaked with their album Rio, which was considered cutting edge modern when it appeared in 1983; "Hungry Like The Wolf" relied on both synth and a great guitar riff, plus a feigned orgasm, to get its message across; it peaked at #3 in America. Known for its lush inventive videos, the band remained superstars through the 80's, and remain popular to this day; their 12th album, Astronaut, appeared on Epic in 2004.
12. The B-52's Rock Lobster iTunes
The B-52's were the first band to break nationally from the college town of Athens, GA; their name refers to the enormous bouffants worn by vocalists Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson. Also featuring the gonzo vocals of Fred Schneider, Ricky Wilson's guitar, and drums from Keith Strickland, the band formed in 1976 despite non of the members having any musical background. The band began getting gigs at CBGB in 1979 where they hawked pressings of their first single "Rock Lobster", a strange cross between surf music, 60's pop, and Yoko Ono. Several excellent albums followed, but the band was dealt a blow when Ricky Wilson died from AIDS in 1985. After a hiatus, the survivrs released Cosmic Town in 1989; it became the biggest album of the band's career.
13. Blondie: One Way Or Another iTunes
Blondie was another New York CBGB band that mixed punk with 60's girl-group pop and British Invasion style playing and added an arty twist to their music. Fronted by Deborah Harry, who had originally been in a folk-rock group called Wind In The Willows, the band was formed in 1974 by Harry and guitarist Chris Stein, who had played together in another band, the Stilettoes. Their self-titled debut was released in 1976, but it wasn't until 1978 that the band had their real commercial and critical breakthrough, with the almost flawless Parallel Lines, which included "One Way Or Another". While Harry remained the focal point, the band was in fact excellent; the playing was every much a draw as her vocals. The band would release three more albums before disbanding in 1983; in 1999 they reunited for an album, and released another in 2004.
14. The Pretenders: Brass in Pocket iTunes
For a brief couple of years, Pretenders were among the most exciting groups ever; Chrissie Hynde was a great no-nonsense guitar-playing tough mama, James Honeyman-Scott had a vast array of effects and rhythms on guitar, Pete Farndon and Martin Chambers were a strong and propulsive rhythm section. Pretenders, their 1979 debut, remains one of the essential releases of the late 70's; "Brass in Pocket" is one of many classics on the record. Pretenders II repeated the formula, with slightly less astonishing results. Then, Honeyman-Scott died from a drug overdose; Farndon also died one year to the day from Honeyman-Scotts death, to the precise day. Hynde and Chambers managed to form a new version of the band in 1983, and various permutations of Pretenders have existed ever since, although recent editions are little more than session players backing Hynde.
15. Devo: Whip It iTunes
Yet another new wave band formed by art students, Devo first came together in 1972 when Kent State students Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh decided to turn their grand concept into reality. The name refers to "de-evolution" and characterized human development, which the band postulated was backward not forward, culminating in a herd mentality that is almost pre-human. The band relied on a very visual approach, with the members dressed as automatons, and pursued a synth-heavy sound that featured wry, ironic vocals. This approach made their 1978 debut Are We Not Men? a classic, although their commercial peak came with the tight disco-funk of "Whip It", from the 1980 album Freedom Of Choice. The approach sustained them through seven albums, but by the time of their eighth, Total Devo in 1988, the formula had worn thin, and the band soon broke up.
16. The Go-Go's: Our Lips Are Sealed
In their own way, the Go-Go's helped further the cause of women's rights in the male dominated rock world during their short run in the early 80's. An all female outfit led by vocalist Belinda Carlisle, they were not only one of the first all-female bands to score a hit single, they did so without relying on male producers or managers. They only managed three albums before breaking up in 1985, but all three are quite good, their debut Beauty and The Beat remaining the best, featuring "We Got The Beat" and "Our Lips Are Sealed"; the album peaked at #1. "Our Lips Are Sealed" was co-written by guitarist Jane Wiedlin and singer Terry Hall of the Specials; released in 1982, it gained huge airplay and established the band as major players. Hall released his own version with his post-Specials band The Fun Boy Three in 1983; produced by David Byrne, his is a brooding, melancholic version in comparison to the Go-Go's exuberant one. The Go-Go's have reunited sporadically in the 90's and 00's.
17. Eurythmics: Sweet Dreams (Are made Of This) iTunes
Eurythmics are another synth dominated British act of the early 80's, a duo of haunting diva Annie Lennox, and multi-instrumentalist/producer Dave Stewart. Their early music leaned heavily on the synthesizers and drum machines, specializing in chilly washes and robotic beats over which Lennox's distinctive voice swirled and soared. "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)" was a #1 hit in 1983, and was one of the most popular MTV videos of its day. The band continued this approach with their next album before changing gears considerable, taking a more r&b and soul-influenced direction, and incorporating organic instruments; by the time they finally split in 1989 their sound barely resembled their debut, save for Lennox's vocal timbre. The duo also reunited 1999 for an album.
18. Split Enz: I Got You iTunes
Split Enz, formed in New Zealand in 1972, underwent several transformations before gaining an international hit with "I Got You" in 1980. Originally they were a progressive rock band with classical leanings; they then reinvented themselves as a theatrical quasi-glam rock band. Led by Tim Finn (and also including his brother Neil Finn at various times), the band's new wave sound was made manifest on their 1979 album True Colors, which became one of the best selling albums ever in Australia and did well in America and the U.K. "I Got You" was the single, and the band's biggest hit in America. The album featured an eye-catching design which included several differently colored album covers and a laser etched vinyl. The band broke up in 1984, but Neil Finn formed Crowded House, which proved even more popular.
19. The Specials: Ghost Town iTunes
The Specials led the British ska-revival of the late 70's-early-80's, and fused a rock steady beat with manic punk energy and fairly topical lyrics to create a sound that hadn't before appeared in rock; a sizable number of bands formed in their wake after their initial successes. Formed in 1977, the band was fronted by vocalist Terry Hall, and featured a seven member lineup; some early gigs opening for the Clash landed them their first label interest, but keyboardist Jerry Dammers decided to form his own label, Two-Tone Records, which handled other ska-revivalists such as Madness and The (English) Beat in addition to the Specials' releases. "Ghost Town" originally was included on the 3-song Ghost Town EP in 1981 and took on race relations and unemployment as its theme. The band released three full length albums before disbanding in 1984; the band reformed without Dammers in 1995 and released three more albums, but none of the later albums matched the early ones in intensity or inspiration.
20. Adam & The Ants: Antmusic iTunes
From the 1980 album Kings of the Wild Frontier, "Antmusic" a ridiculous, jagged slab of post-punk that recalled Gary Glitter to a slight degree. The song reached #2 in England, where it was kept from the #1 spot by John Lennon's "Imagine" which reached #1 following his death. The band had a very visual style, incorporating s&m gimmickry into their stage show. Eventaually the novelty value wore off, and after several similar sounding U.K. hits, the band broke up. However, leader Adam Ant managed a solid, if unlikely, comeback in the 1990's with "Wonderful" which abandoned his quirky 80's style in favor of a mainstream pop approach.
Sunday Morning Playlist is a weekly feature.
Watch The Pretenders: Brass In Pocket [Beat Club] (1979)