Bill Bois’ Music Theory For Non-Musicians™
…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.
S3:E12 – What Makes New Wave, New Wave?
Siblings often look alike.
They’ll have the same eyes or the same skin tone or the same knock knees.
But personalities are affected as much by nurture as by nature. If you separate twins at birth and give them different circumstances, they may end up as different as punk and new wave.
Punk and new wave are fraternal twins, coming from the same place and time, but new wave has better manners and dresses more fashionably. That is, if you consider skinny ties fashionable.
They came from the same desire to get back to basics. With only out-of-touch 1970s rock superstars to listen to in the mainstream, a few artsy rebels decided to start over. They weren’t really starting over completely, banging rocks and sticks against each other. They didn’t even go back only as far as Gregorian chants.
They went back to the 1950s and started over from there.
Punk took the raucous rock & roll of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and early Elvis Presley and gave it new life with speed and volume. New wave took the lighter rock & roll of Buddy Holly, Dion, and The Coasters and gave it new life with harmonies, synthesizers, and quirky performances.
In the previous articles about punk (Part 1 and Part 2), we talked about how the scene based around CBGB in mid-1970s New York City encouraged any and all new, original, music. When the music press gave the entire scene one name despite its disparate sounds, it forced artists to decide if they wanted to continue under the “punk” label or not.
Many opted out because the press, especially the British tabloids, gave punk a bad name. Not that “punk” is a good name.
So the “new wave” label was given to any new artist that wasn’t exactly punk and also wasn’t like the corporate rock of the decade. It’s a catchall term.
New wave is neither this nor that, it’s everything else.
When asked if there were any similarities among the new wave bands, Blondie’s Chris Stein said:
“It’s a reaction against bands like Led Zeppelin or Rod Stewart, but apart from that, no other.”
At least initially, it was one of those rare genres defined more by what it isn’t than by what it is.
Yet, it gelled into a more cohesive sound as time went on. When we think about new wave in retrospect, a particular sound comes to mind. It’s clean-ish or jangly guitars, bright keyboards, and singing that was sometimes eccentric and sometimes emotionless. That’s what new wave became later, in the 80s.
In its early days though, the punk/new wave scene was open to anyone trying something new.
It might be Patti Smith improvising poetry over dynamic but basic garage rock.
It might be Television’s technical and slightly antiseptic guitar anthems.
It might be the revved up Tex-Mex nuevo wavo of Joe “King” Carrasco & The Crowns.
Punk and new wave share a couple characteristics. The bluesy aspects of rock & roll had started fading away in the mainstream rock of the 70s. Blues played even less of a role in punk and new wave.
Both had a very high energy level, though new wave didn’t eliminate ballad tempos. Almost by definition, a punk ballad would fall into the new wave category, or 90s alternative.
Vocals could be sung or spoken or shouted. While many punk and new wave singers are amazingly talented, virtuosity is entirely optional as long as the vocals are interesting. Talking Heads’ singer David Byrne is no match for Lene Lovich’s vocal firepower, but each could be captivating.
And both punk and new wave were, at first anyway, about getting back to rock & roll basics and doing something new with them. Punk was more aggressive, new wave was more experimental. Both are a little irreverent.
A few things differentiate new wave from punk.
Punk drum beats were loud, fast, and simple. There’s nothing complicated about any beat Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols or Tommy Ramone of The Ramones played. It’s mostly just Ringo Starr backbeats but faster.
New wave bands, on the other hand, experimented with rhythms.
Adam And The Ants and Bow Wow Wow used the Burundi beat suggested to them by Malcom McLaren.
The Police leaned into reggae and ska, and Talking Heads brought in Caribbean and African rhythms for the middle part of their career. Drum machines were incorporated as soon as they were reliable and sturdy enough to take on the road. New wave is almost always danceable, something that differentiates it from mainstream 70s rock.
Electronic keyboards became important to new wave.
Some bands, like Pet Shop Boys, opted for no guitars at all. They took inspiration from a duo called Suicide, an early mainstay in the CBGB scene. One of them sang, the other played synthesizer. That’s it. No drummer. All the percussion was electronic.
And while punk was happy with power chords, which are easy to play, new wave used more sophisticated chords and chord changes. Their sophistication didn’t necessarily rise to the level of the prog rock instrumentalists, but Elliot Easton of The Cars, Johnny Marr of The Smiths, and Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd of Television were all innovative, interesting, guitar players.
Musicians still mention Stewart Copeland of The Police in top ten lists of great drummers. Sting and Duran Duran’s John Taylor are excellent bass players. And there’s no denying that Cyndi Lauper is a great, great, singer.
Where punk could get very political, new wave bands rarely dipped their toes in those dangerous waters. They were more likely to write about love, loneliness, alienation and Turning Japanese. Or they’d write about everyday things.
Talking Heads’ second album was appropriately called More Songs About Buildings And Food.
Having said all that, the biggest thing that separated new wave from punk was mainstream appeal.
Given punk’s abrasive sound, it was unlikely to win over anyone who wasn’t going through some sort of teenage rebellion. New wave, however, could catch the ear of anyone who was tired of the status quo. Yes, Feel Like Makin’ Love was great, but enough’ s enough. Give us something new.
The music industry saw new wave as the marketable portion of punk. They packaged it as modern pop music. New wave was different from what had been on the radio before.
It’s not even a genre, really. It’s a movement.
Its playful songs, wacky fashions, unusual hairstyles, and spasmodic dancing arrived just in time for MTV to help get this new music in front of eyes and ears.
It’s worth remembering that the first video played on MTV was by a new wave band called The Buggles.
It was rock music, but new and improved. As seen on TV.
This is why popular music changes so rapidly. We all want our own music. Not only does it have to be different from our parents’ music, it has to be different from our older sister’s music.
And that’s why we’re so nostalgic for the music of our formative years.
It helped define us as individuals distinct from even our closest family members.
It’s part of our identities.
So new wave, and any new music, has to be fresh. If your band sounds like someone else, especially someone older, you’re doing it wrong. Do something unique to you.
One way to create something new is to combine old elements that hadn’t been combined before.
Blondie’s inclusion of other genres was masterful. They added 1950s harmonies to In The Flesh, disco to Heart Of Glass, reggae to The Tide Is High, and hip hop to Rapture.
Three of those four songs went to #1 in the States.
Some bands specialized in adding a single genre to their entire output. The Stray Cats were basically a rockabilly band. The Jam and The Knack were power pop referencing early material from The Who or The Beatles. The Police used ska and reggae throughout their career. It wasn’t the laid back reggae of Jamaica. It was fully charged, headlong punk reggae. Or reggae punk.
A lot of new wave’s popularity had to do with its timing. It came along just as disco was fading out and just as MTV started showing up on basic cable packages. Many discos began including this new kind of danceable music. Some rebranded themselves as “rock dance clubs.”
Once radio and MTV spread the word, new wave was no longer limited to bands from New York or London.
The US and UK produced the most new wave artists, but other countries joined in the fun. Split Enz came from New Zealand, and Hoodoo Gurus came from Australia. Germany gave us the opera-influenced Nina Hagen and Klaus Nomi.
And as we’ve seen with other genres, once new wave became hugely successful, other bands got signed. However, perhaps at the behest of their record labels, they started sounding similar. They sort of missed the whole point of new wave. Instead of doing something new, they hoped sales lightning could strike twice.
It’s hard to tell The Jags from Bram Tchaikovsky from The Vapors (except for that one song).
New wave’s most immediate effect on other genres was how it put the synthesizer at the forefront.
What had been considered a novelty was made a standard instrument, both for playing a lead role or for playing pads.
Pads are long, sweeping notes or chords that fill out a song’s sound.
This had traditionally been done by string sections. Now bands didn’t have to hire string players in every city on their tours. They just needed a keyboard player with a synth. It’s a string section in a box, a box that could also sound like a brass or woodwind section, or make otherworldly sounds never heard before.
The synth pop movement relied heavily on, as the name implies, the synthesizer. British band The Human League hit #1 in the US with Don’t You Want Me and bands like Depeche Mode, Spandau Ballet and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark each sold a lot of albums and concert tickets in the US. They were even more popular at home in England.
While new wave remained popular through all of the 1980s, it splintered, as all genres do, into subgenres with smaller but stauncher audiences.
Britpop, electroclash, the new romantics, synthwave, and others are all children of new wave. And nieces and nephews of punk.
The effects of 80s new wave continued in the alternative rock of the 90s, 2000s, and present. Bands like Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Killers, and Kaiser Chiefs make music that sits comfortably in a playlist with Blondie, The Cure, and Depeche Mode.
They’re more separated by years than by musical differences.
That’s sort of disappointing.
The 60s, 70s, and 80s saw huge artistic advances in rock music. The grunge and alternative of the 90s were steps forward, too. Since then, most innovation has been done in hip hop and electronic music.
Maybe it’s time for rock to go back to basics.
Suggested Listening – complete YouTube Playlist
In The Flesh
Hey St. Peter
Flash And The Pan
Just What I Needed
Pump It Up
Elvis Costello & The Attractions
Dream Baby Dream
Back Of My Hand
Girl Of My Dreams
Human Sexual Response
Joe “King” Carrasco & The Crowns
Crosseyed And Painless
I Got You
I Had A Love
W.O.R.K. (N.O. Nah, No No My Daddy Don’t)
Bow Wow Wow
Cherchez le Garçon
(Keep Feeling) Fascination
The Human League
I Want You Back
People Are People
Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)
Pet Shop Boys
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