A Brief History & Reflections on New Wave
New Wave's older siblings, Punk and Power Pop, surfaced during the latter half of the 70's and helped ignite what was to become one of the biggest musical explosions of the last 20 years, certainly in terms of creativity and diversity. Disco and early electropop pioneers—namely Giorgio Moroder and Kraftwerk—made their mark on new wave as well. While disco revolutionized dance music, widespread backlash forced it into the underground by the dawn of the eighties, leaving new wave to keep dance music afloat and the airwaves and club scene bristling with unheard of energy.
New wave proved to be breathtaking in its scope—it was hard to perceive where it began and ended, both chronologically and musically. I would venture that new wave music occupied the era from 1978 to 1986, after which there was a notable decline offset by movements such as Industrial and Acid House (both seeds of Techno) and the great rise in college indie rock (alternative rock). Musically, new wave should not be pigeonholed or written off simply as "skinny ties," synthesizer geeks, new romantics, and pretentious, fashion-as-content bands. Certainly at the core of most new wave *was* an infectious dance beat or D.I.Y. energy, and more mainstream artists like Joe Jackson, Greg Kihn and rock veterans like David Bowie and The Kinks brushed the fringes of this musical tapestry. Movements like the more guitar-driven Power Pop often seemed to mesh virtually indistinguishably.
Movements and styles such as Synthpop (Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Human League, Soft Cell) and New Romantic (Ultravox, Visage, Classix Nouveaux, Spoons, Peter Godwin, early Talk Talk) were, to many, the defining styles of new wave. Gary Numan's "Cars," Soft Cell's stark electronic take on "Tainted Love," and The Human League's "Don't You Want Me" helped push this new futuristic synthesizer-driven sound into the US mainstream. New romanticism, on the other hand, never managed much of an impression in the US—it remained very much a European (and Canadian) movement. Despite the general inadequacy of pigeonholing, there were the other requisite, defining styles from the era: Goth (Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Cure, Specimen, Bauhaus), Postpunk (The Chills, Gang of Four, The Sound, Joy Division, Comsat Angels), Ska (Madness, The Specials, The English Beat, The Untouchables, Bad Manners), Rockabilly (Dave Edmunds, Stray Cats, Polecats, The Cramps), and Power Pop (The Vapors, The Producers, 20/20, The Records). And still that's only scratching the surface. Even Top 40 radio itself was fresher than it ever could hope to be. Hardly the same can be said today.
The video revolution changed everything as well. Coinciding with—more likely fueled by—the new wave movement, music video added a whole new dimension to music as an artform. MTV can certainly be attributed to the exposure and subsequent rise and fall of many fleeting new wave artists. Without the exposure that music video provided, America could well have slept through the entire movement, perhaps stagnating on AOR/arena rock instead. The visuals these bands presented to their audiences was intoxicating and added to their mystery, rather than dispelling it. The fashion, the make-up, the narrative of videos made even the most insignificant of bands look larger-than-life. I spent my formative years, before even MTV, absorbing the wild, cutting edge of this new medium, courtesy of some daring and pioneering public access video programs which showed much of what MTV wouldn't even bother with or simply didn't have. Despite a propensity for crudeness, over-the-top pretentiousness or camp, these early music videos are testaments to the pioneering days of the medium. I say: Bring 'em back! Where did they all go? Collecting dust in the MTV archives is a bit of a tragedy, although M2 and VH-1 Classics are helping to keep them alive. The new wave CD compilation market has become oversaturated, and now it's time to revive music video classics on DVD. Revisit those vintage days, see the Music Videos List.
New Wave from around the world
Australia enjoyed a brief and lively renaissance (at least from an American perspective) ushered in by Men At Work in '82, who made it clear to the world in their homeland homage "Down Under." INXS broke through this very same year and maintained a huge following worldwide until the unfortunate death of Michael Hutchence. By 1984 the Oz scene tapered off (but by no means are Australian and New Zealand artists absent from US college radio in recent years: Silverchair, Powderfinger, Frente!, etc.). It is gravely unfortunate that all the other amazing Australian and New Zealand talent from this period of creativity never seemed to catch fire despite a flurry of recording contracts and distribution deals in the early 80's. Still, there are many of us who recall those gems from Eurogliders, Swingers, Australian Crawl, Goanna, The Expression, Real Life, Flash and The Pan, Machinations, Mental As Anything, The Models, etc. Many of my all-time favorite artists hail(ed) from down under: Icehouse, The Church, Split Enz and The Go-Betweens. Perseverence paid off for Midnight Oil, Icehouse, Divinyls, and Neil Finn's (formerly of Split Enz) Crowded House with much deserved chart recognition in the US later on.
Canada offered up a number of new wave artists in the early eighties and was a huge export of AOR rock in the early 80s (Saga, Harlequin, Loverboy, Prism, Red Rider, Rush, Chilliwack, April Wine, etc.). Write it off to US-UK domination or what not, but not much new wave north of the 49th parallel seemed to stick here in America. From Vancouver's Payola$ to Toronto's Spoons, so many only managed one brief showing and they were gone as far as the U.S. airwaves were concerned. There were great contributions though from The Kings, Martha & The Muffins, Strange Advance, Nash the Slash, Men Without Hats and Rough Trade. Others such as Blue Peter, Images in Vogue and Rational Youth certainly deserved more recognition abroad.
Germany and mainland Europe certainly had plenty to offer as well, though significant airplay was few and far between by the time it journeyed across the Atlantic. There were the brief but memorable US chart successes from Alphaville, Nena, Peter Schilling, Yello and the late Falco, but discerning new wave listeners here in the States were discovering Telex, Trio, Gruppo Sportivo, The Nits, The Thought, Einstürzende Neubauten, Nina Hagen, Propaganda, Rheingold, Camouflage and D.A.F. The New Wave Club Class-X CD series is a testament to the flourishing continental euro-scene that America never heard.
To justly round out the international scope of new wave, one mustn't overlook Japan's pioneering Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO). Though they only managed one initial chart showing both in the US and UK with "Computer Games" back in 1980 (much like Kraftwerk's fluke smash "Autobahn" here in the US), they were very influential. For example, just one listen to Technodelic (1981) and you will be amazed at how they, too, along with Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, experimented with an industrial sound long before it was popular (although YMO was primarily a techno-pop outfit). The three members—Haruomi "Harry" Hosono, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi—are busy with prolific solo careers, countless collaborations and production work. Six degrees of Kevin Bacon? Try 'Six degrees of YMO'!
How about you living in the 20th Century?
While so many artists were swiftly relegated to obscurity, numerous new wave and punk veterans like The Cure, Duran Duran, New Order, The Stranglers and Depeche Mode continue even to this day, in one guise or another. Both Depeche Mode and The Cure demonstrated that they could maintain their unique style with its roots in new wave and still thrive. Veterans of the original UK punk explosion like The Damned, Wire and The Stranglers displayed amazing maturity in the 80's as they evolved away from punk into (perhaps) more accessible forms of music but with the cutting edge intact. Other new wave artists like Talk Talk took their style in an entirely new direction by casting off their synthesizers and exploring a fascinating fusion of rock, blues, freeform jazz and classical, that proved to be one of the most unusual but rewarding metamorphoses away from the genre. Recently, punk legends Wire and the Buzzcocks both have resurfaced with new albums and EPs.
The 90's ambient-techno & electronica scenes attracted some veterans as well: Tom Bailey and Alannah Currie, formerly of The Thompson Twins, formed Babble; Richard Kirk and Cabaret Voltaire proved themselves in the 90's alongside the new generation of electronic heavyweights such as Aphex Twin, Banco de Gaia, The Black Dog, Moby, etc. ; Rolo McGinty, former lead-vocalist for The Woodentops, re-emerged as Pluto; and one of the most significant and critically-acclaimed bands in the current electronica scene today is Underworld, whom founding members Karl Hyde and Rick Smith created out of the ashes of their glam new wave band, Freur (remember "Doot Doot"?)
As these early years of the new century unfold, a new resurgence of new wave-influenced electro-pop is emerging in the form of Electroclash with artists such as Ladytron, Fischerspooner, Peaches, Felix da Housecat, and The Epoxies. The garage rock revival, too, is allowing some interesting bands with a retro postpunk and power pop sound—like Hot Hot Heat, The Briefs, Interpol, Simian, etc.—to gain some much deserved recognition. Very cool to see the energetic and eminently danceable sound of pre-1983 new wave making a comeback! That old 20-30 year cycle of nostalgia is kicking in, so put the emo-core and rap-metal on the back-burner, if only for a day!
Duty Now For the Future
As the 80's slip further into the past and into our distant memories, long live the music from this era that mattered! Don't let corporate radio undermine and manipulate the opinions of younger generations when it comes to 80's music and "new wave." Hopefully the energy of the new Electroclash movement will encourage new generations of listeners to re-discover the era. I'm here to tell you that it was much more than a handful of songs dished out time and time again on kitschy flashback shows (even "World Famous" KROQ isn't immune here!). As a parting shot to anyone who thinks the 80's should have found adequate coverage on CD by now (one would think, right?), some friends and I have already recorded over 500 vinyl albums from the 1978-87 period, that aren't yet available on CD (see the Obscure80's/MFV page). There's still work to be done preserving this era of music. Look for more MP3's in the future, and as always, don't miss out on the Song of the Week.