New Wave Music

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New Wave Music

If one were to produce a soundtrack album of the 1980s, most of the tracks would probably be labeled "new wave." Much of what passed for new wave fit well with the overall cultural and political milieu of the 1980s. New wave was the type of music most popular among fans of MTV during its early years and musicians specializing in new wave are best remembered for their angular haircuts, brightly colored costumes, and heavy reliance on synthesizers. Moreover, new wave is the music of 1980s brat pack genre films, like The Breakfast Club (1985), Valley Girl (1983), and Sixteen Candles (1984).

Defining which artist or which song fits into a genre is always a difficult proposition, but new wave presents a particular challenge because of the multiple definitions and the music industry's response to new wave. Bands with a variety of sounds and visual styles have been lumped together under the general umbrella offered by new wave. Consider, for example, that both the rockabilly band The Stray Cats and the futuristic technogeek band Devo are both considered new wave. Part of the problem stems from the fact that punk rock, which was the "first wave," was very easily hybridized with other forms of music (reggae, rockabilly, disco, eurodisco) to produce many "second" or "new wave" varieties and styles. Complicating matters was the tendency of record companies during the post-disco recession to label virtually every newly signed act on their roster without long hair "new wave," regardless of their sound. Finally, the faddishness of new wave prompted many acts and their fans to rebel against the catch-all genre distinction. Dozens of genre names were invented to better segregate new wave acts, most of them also quickly becoming blurred. Alternative, post-punk, progressive, synth pop, power pop, alternarock, and eurobeat count among the names substituted for "new wave" and its various sub-genres.

The term new wave was first applied to acts that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Though their music may have had little in common, artists from Britain, the United States, and continental Europe were all tagged as new wave. On the continent, German groups, particularly Kraftwerk, were slowly forging a new style of music that was heavily reliant upon synthesizers. The danceable forms of European synthesizer music, along with the Philadelphia-sounds of Gamble and Huff, laid the twin foundations for disco in the 1980s. In England, rock music musicians and fans, fed up with the excesses of bands like hard rock Led Zeppelin and art rock bands like Pink Floyd, turned to simpler forms of rock 'n' roll. These bands have occasionally been referred to as "pub rock" bands. Counting among the most popular of this group of new wavers were Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and Dave Edmunds. Costello was signed by Columbia Records and became the first of the new wavers to make a significant chart impact in 1978.

In the United States, there was a similar backlash against the excesses of mainstream rock 'n' roll. In Manhattan, inspired by Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, suburbanite Jonathan Richman founded the Modern Lovers. From the suburbs of Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, similar music began to emerge from other youths who had grown tired of the overblown nature of arena-rock. Pere Ubu and later Devo established a second new wave hearth in the industrial Midwest.

Sonically, the music of each of these new wave movements shared little, except that it could be played by those without great skill or extensive musical training. It was rock 'n' roll played by enthusiastic amateurs and produced by tiny record companies, often owned by friends or by the band. As such, new wave music shared much of the "indie" ethos that propelled punk rock forward, but it was never committed to any particular political movement. New wave was not dangerous or anarchic; it was danceable, romantic, and fun.

When punk rock became popular in London in the mid-1970s it gave a new impetus to new wave music. Punk was too dangerous for most fans in Britain, and far too much for most Americans. But the visual style and spirit of punk was infectious and the democratization of punk rock generated thousands of new bands. Many of the bands established in the immediate aftermath of punk that did not share punk's belligerence were labeled new wave. New wave bands found some favor among record companies, who recognized the potential market for bare bones rock music but feared the public relations disaster that might accompany "the next Sex Pistols."

In England, the leading edge of post-punk, new wave was led by bands that borrowed the indie ethos, the musical simplicity, and some of the visual elements of punk rock with the sonic characteristics of other established genres of music. Perhaps the first of these hybrids to emerge was the reggae/punk of bands like The Clash and The Police. Other hybrids were forged that wedded punk to Beat revivalism, 1950s-style R&B, and rockabilly. The Pretenders, which featured Akron, Ohio-born singer Chrissie Hynde, was one of the more notable no-frills rock acts to be classified as new wave.

In the United States, where punk had less impact, there was not the explosion of do-it-yourself garage rock and indie record labels as there was in Great Britain in the late 1970s. In America, disco and arena rock continued to dominate the charts throughout much of the later 1970s. So when the market for disco collapsed in late 1978, there was little "in the pipeline" for record companies to fill the void. Many of the punk and new wave acts that were established on the East Coast and in the Midwest had disbanded during the disco era. The few surviving punk/new wave acts came to the fore and sparked American interest in this "new" genre. Out of the New York's CBGB's club scene came Blondie. Fronted by sexy lead singer Deborah Harry, Blondie was far more flexible politically than their punk brethren. Their flexibility permitted them to crossover into the pop and disco markets in 1979, the breakout year for new wave. That year, The Cars and The Talking Heads, both with ties to the New York punk scene, also entered the charts. Los Angeles's beat revival act, The Knack, also made a big splash on the charts in 1979 with their hit single, "My Sharona."

Gary Numan's 1980 album The Pleasure Principle marked the arrival of British new wave on the North American pop charts. Numan's synthesized dance music set down a template that would come to characterize one broad subgenre within new wave. The heavy reliance on synthesizers and the stark minimalism of Numan suggested influences ranging from Kraftwerk to Brian Eno to Mike Oldfield. Numan's breakout album not only produced an eminently danceable cut, "In Cars," but popularized synthesizer-produced dance music, which became known in some circles as "synthpop." Some of the more notable synthpop acts following Numan onto the American charts include Ultravox, Orchestral Manoevers in the Dark, Depeche Mode, Human League, Howard Jones, A-ha, New Order, Soft Cell, and The Pet Shop Boys.

Numan's rejection of arena rock musical traditions extended to his stage persona as well and many new wavers followed suit. These followers adopted Numan's robotic, technological, futuristic persona, which echoed David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust character. Gone was the ultra-macho hard rock poseur, and in its place was a character without definable gender characteristics, metallic and emotionally detached from his audience. The futuristic motif was carried to extremes by bands like Devo and Flock of Seagulls, and contributed substantially to notions of fashion during the early 1980s. The stage persona of synthpop, with its cool detachment, also set it quite apart from punk music, whose purveyors were interested in destroying the boundary between audience and performer. U.S. audiences were only too happy to preserve the critical distance between themselves and their pop music gods.

New wave's impact was increased significantly by the arrival of MTV into the mainstream during the early 1980s. Because many of the indie label new wave acts from Britain recognized the value of music videos early, they were better prepared to take advantage of the new medium than many American acts. The striking visual appeal of British new wave won over legions of MTV viewers to the genre. Music critics were quick to condemn many of these MTV bands on the grounds of their shallow musicality. Culture Club, featuring the outrageously androgynous Boy George, perhaps better than any act, utilized music videos to augment suspect musical talent. Other groups, particularly Duran Duran, who preferred the label "New Romantic" to new wave, were regularly accused of maintaining their popularity through videos. Despite the criticisms, fans loved new wave's quirky fashion sense and the danceablity of most of the hit songs produced during this time. The heavy emphasis on visual style, combined with their lack of musical depth, doomed the long-term careers of most of the MTV new wave bands. Though there were a number of one-hit-wonders during the first half of the 1980s, it stands nonetheless as one of the most democratic periods in the history of popular music. The clever use of MTV allowed many new wave bands, even those on the tiniest of labels and with the smallest of budgets, to upstage major label acts with massive marketing campaigns.

New wave as a cultural movement has been criticized and praised for its lack of an overt political stance. Compared to the musical politics of the late 1960s and of punk, new wave does seem to lack a political conscious. With few exceptions (U2, R.E.M., and The Clash stand out) new wave offered little rebuttal to the policies of Reaganism and Thatcherism. Many new wave acts were clean shaven, wore their hair short, and even wore ties and jackets. In addition, the more outlandish new wave acts, such as Culture Club, failed to be viewed as a serious threat to the status quo. Instead they were largely understood as campy but harmless self-parodic personas constructed to appeal to the MTV audience. For many, new wave was a hopelessly white, middle class, and safe. On the other hand, new wave acts did push the envelope of acceptability on several fronts. Certainly, the sexual ambiguity and overt homosexuality of many of the acts stand were unheard of in previous popular music. New wave's indie label orientation also made many acts exempt from charges of co-optation by the corporate entertainment industry. Some new wave acts, particularly R.E.M., carried this "indie label ethos" to extremes, rejecting far more lucrative careers on major labels for many years.

While the MTV brand of new wave was a fleeting moment in popular music, the legacy of new wave itself is impressive. The synthesizer-heavy dance sounds of the English and European new wave influenced the development of many of the popular dance genres of the 1990s, including the Chicago-based "house" music, Detroit's "techno," and Europe's various incarnations of "Eurodisco." Latter day new wave acts, particularly R.E.M. and Hüsker Dü, have had a lasting impact on the musical climate in the United States. The indie rock ethos demonstrated by these acts proved a crucial component of the alternative or college rock era that bloomed during the later 1980s, which in turn gave way to the so-called "grunge" rock sound that emerged in Seattle in the early 1990s and the splintering of the music market in the later 1990s.

—Steve Graves

Further Reading:

Arnold, Gina. Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana. New York, St.Martin's Press, 1993.

Belsito, Peter, and Bob Davis. Hardcore California: A History of Punk and New Wave. Berkeley, California, Last Gasp, 1983.

Bianco, David, editor. Who's New Wave in Music: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, 1976-1982. Ann Arbor, Michigan, Pierian Press, 1985.

Heylin, Clinton. From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World. New York, Penguin, 1993.

Kozak, Roman. This Ain't No Disco: The Story of CBGB. Boston, Faber and Faber, 1988.

Marcus, Greil. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1989.

McNeil, Legs, editor. Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. New York, Penguin, 1997.

Palmer, Myles. New Wave Explosion: How Punk Became New Wave, Became the 1980s. New York, Proteus, 1981.

Robbins, Ira A., editor. The Trouser Press Guide to New Wave Records. New York, C. Scribner's Sons, 1983.