Theoretically Speaking S3 | E12: What Makes New Wave, New Wave ?

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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.

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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.

Of course, there are exceptions.

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.

Pro fashion tip:
It always works better with a collar.

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.

Uh oh. Prepare thee for the wrath of “Punky Power.”

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.”

That allowed them to put some distance between them and the “Disco Sucks” movement (as described in the disco articles Part 1 and Part 2).

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.

Again.

Suggested Listening complete YouTube Playlist

In The Flesh
Blondie

1976

Hey St. Peter
Flash And The Pan

1977

Just What I Needed
The Cars

1978

Pump It Up
Elvis Costello & The Attractions

1978

Jocko Homo
Devo

1978

Dream Baby Dream
Suicide

1979

So Lonely
The Police

1979

Lucky Number
Lene Lovich

1979

Back Of My Hand
The Jags

1979

Girl Of My Dreams
Bram Tchaikovsky

1979

Jackie Onassis
Human Sexual Response

1980

Turning Japanese
The Vapors
1980

Buena
Joe “King” Carrasco & The Crowns
1980

Crosseyed And Painless
Talking Heads

1980

I Got You
Split Enz

1980

I Had A Love
Blue Angel
1981

Cherchez le Garçon 
Taxi Girl 

1981

Nomi Song
Klaus Nomi

1982

(Keep Feeling) Fascination 
The Human League
1983

I Want You Back
Hoodoo Gurus

1984

People Are People
Depeche Mode

1984

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Bill Bois

Bill Bois - bassist, pie fan, aging gentleman punk, keeper of the TNOCS spreadsheet:
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/138BvuV84ZH7ugcwR1HVtH6HmOHiZIDAGMIegPPAXc-I/edit#gid=0

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cstolliver
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cstolliver
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February 10, 2023 5:41 am

Considering the vast number of AT40 hits from the ‘80s that I love that fall under this broad moniker, I’d say everything “new” is old again. Thanks for the genealogical journey, buddy.

Phylum of Alexandria
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February 10, 2023 7:35 am

When I was first getting into punk, I was trained by the bands I worshipped to hate New Wave (“Black Flag kills Ants dead/ “Pull My Strings by DK/Kickboy Face in Decline of Western Civilization).

But in truth, I listen to a lot more New Wave (and early punk later classified as such) than I do stuff that gets labeled punk. Even by 11th grade, I was really into Adam & the Ants, Elvis Costello, Oingo Boingo, and Joe Jackson.

I got into XTC somewhat later, but they’re one of my fave NW bands.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0tC9pqA8h9Y

One question I have is: when did the term “post-punk” start getting used? It seems like a retroactively applied term, but back in 1979, what term did people use for stuff that wasn’t punk, but couldn’t be classified as new wave? Stuff like Public Image Ltd, This Heat, or Wire after their first album?

Eric-J
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Eric-J
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February 10, 2023 2:18 pm

They Might Be Giants would object to your classification of XTC as New Wave.

https://youtu.be/_9rCGy8f-xs

lovethisconcept
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February 10, 2023 11:11 am

Punk was interesting to me at the time, and, of course, The Ramones were The Ramones, but new wave was much more appealing to me personally. Some wonderful memories here.

Pauly Steyreen
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February 10, 2023 11:13 am

Anabella Lwin was 13(?!) when she was recruited by Malcolm McLaren to be lead singer for Bow Wow Wow. She was 14 when she was posed nude on the cover of the band’s debut album. She was again photographed nude a year later for the I Want Candy album cover, at the ripe old age of 15.

I’m glad we have reached a point as a society to look on this kind of exploitation with horror. Don’t ever fall into the trap of thinking the “good ol’ days” were anything but a garbage fire. And not saying things are great now, but at least in some ways we’re evolving in the right direction.

Phylum of Alexandria
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February 10, 2023 11:36 am
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

Not for nothing were they originally going to be called The Sex Gang Children…  😣 

Zeusaphone
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February 10, 2023 5:52 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

I’m within a few weeks of being the same age as Annabella Lwin, so my feelings about her exploitation are complicated by the fact that I was just entering puberty when I first saw her. She looked older than she was.

dutchg8r
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February 10, 2023 12:33 pm

Nope, not gonna take the bait and say anything about a certain omission from your selected listening list, nope, not gonna do it, not on this Planet Earth….. 🙃

I’m glad you mentioned how innovation has really flatlined in music the past few decades, Bill. I’ve often wondered if it’s just me being cranky old person or if music’s just gotten lazy? Especially in this day and age, where you’ve got nearly a hundred years of inspiration to pull from of recorded music, think of the kinds of crazy sounds that could be pushed forward and presented in compelling new ways.

Everything old is new again, but current music just seems to be stuck like a record that keeps skipping. It’s rather depressing to me, certainly when reading through all your tutorials VDog at the rich and varied history of musical genre’s we’ve had over the years.

Pauly Steyreen
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February 10, 2023 12:42 pm
Reply to  dutchg8r

Oh no look!

It’s a bird!

It’s a plane!

It’s a BONUS BEAT!!!

https://youtu.be/8NF6Qa84mno

dutchg8r
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February 10, 2023 1:41 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

😎

🥰

mt58
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mt58
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February 10, 2023 2:51 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

Whatta guy!

Phylum of Alexandria
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February 10, 2023 1:53 pm
Reply to  dutchg8r

Popular music has really flattened in terms of style and sound, but I’m heartened by all the great music on the indie side of things, from experimental rap to weirdo hardcore.

dutchg8r
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February 11, 2023 11:10 am
Reply to  Virgindog

Dude, it’s your series, you post what you want! You shouldn’t need to worry about appeasing some schmuck like me! 😆 😉

My go to is always “The Chauffeur” as an intro to the Duran catalog for the curious. It’s moody, it’s artsy, its sophisticated, the lyrics are true poetry, with this amazing synth landscape of sounds for the first few minutes, but then Andy Taylor’s guitar kicks in with his rock leanings blending sublimely with Nick’s sonic landscape, and then the bass and drums join in to fill out the mood and elevate the entire experience to another level of emotion.

How’d I do??!!

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=kUX9pf_wJmg

Last edited 1 year ago by dutchg8r
JJ Live At Leeds
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February 10, 2023 12:55 pm

Punk was great and it did break through into the upper reaches of the charts in Britain but it was never going to sustain that long term. The anger and energy thst made it also constrained it as there’s not so much variation and nuance. Whereas New Wave had the freedom tontry different things and break out in interesting directions.

Once we got to the 90s a lot of guitar music over here has been a case of looking back, which in some ways is no different to what earlier movements were doing but now feels like it’s recycling what’s already been recycled. There’s still plenty of great stuff but it’s hard to escape the feeling that it’s all been done before.

Like you say hip hop and electronic music are where most innovation has occurred but then again, they’re younger genres so maybe there’s more scope and room for them to adapt than the more mature rock scene.

Eric-J
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February 10, 2023 4:52 pm

One reason I think Rock is dying in the US – the kids whose parents are wealthy enough to afford the instruments and amps to perform Rock are too overscheduled to form a band (that probably won’t do anything for their college applications.)

JJ Live At Leeds
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February 11, 2023 4:09 am
Reply to  Eric-J

There’s something similar here I think. Entry into the arts in general are becoming more of a middle class preserve as working class kids can’t afford it. There’s lots of socio-economic and political factors behind this, one of them is in the 80s the Conservatives under Margaret Thatchers charge were seen as the enemy of the creative industries but conversely they allowed budding musicians to focus on their music rather than getting a job through something called the Enterprise Allowance Scheme – though thst wasn’t necessarily how it was intended to be used as this from Luke Haines of The Auteurs attests; https://recordcollectormag.com/articles/auteurtoauthorhow-bastard-thatchers-pocket-money-made-mother-indie-music

The last great working class band was Oasis – whether you like them or not the background they came from seems to be closed off now for entry into the arts. Alternative, or indie as it is here is now largely made up of bands formed our of the middle classes.

thegue
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February 10, 2023 2:56 pm

So much fun reading this one!

Really happy with some of your choices on the playlist as well, though I see Dutch misses her favorite  😉 

I really enjoy the revival of the New Wave sound; maybe because I was too focused on the Billboard Pop 100 when I was a kid? I LOVE the music I was listening to from 2000-2013 (my daughter was born in 2013, so I’ve lost touch again), which is probably a retread of that “New Wave” sound: Interpol, Editors, Doves, Cold Cave, etc…

I guess there’s nothing new under the sun.

Eric-J
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February 10, 2023 4:47 pm

For me, New Wave was intrinsically tied to MTV. We got it fairly early (though not at launch) and I was probably 12 at the time. So it was a singles genre for me – I never got into any particular band, I don’t think I bought any cassettes of New Wave artists, but there were plenty of songs I liked.

In later years I came around to Talking Heads and Elvis Costello and did some moderately deep dives into each, but by that point neither would really be classified as New Wave.

But these days, “First Wave” is one of my top-3 SiriusXM stations. It’s not all New Wave, but that is one of the primary components of the play list. I like to call it “music I wasn’t cool enough to listen to in High School.”

mt58
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February 10, 2023 5:20 pm
Reply to  Eric-J

Also a listener to the SXM “First Wave” Channel.

I like the curation, and some of the relative obscurities bring me back quite nicely to daydreaming about “a simpler time.”

It makes for some nice reflective, listening.

Pauly Steyreen
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February 10, 2023 6:35 pm
Reply to  Eric-J

I don’t have access to SiriusXM often, but when I do, it’s either First Wave or Sirius XMU (college radio wannabe).

cappiethedog
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February 11, 2023 2:18 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

I don’t have access to The Farmer’s Dog.

cappiethedog
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February 11, 2023 2:14 pm

New Clear Days has great album tracks. Here, I’ll rank them. 1) “News at Ten” 2) “Sixty Second Interval” 3) “Spring Collection” 4) “Waiting for the Weekend” 5) “Somehow”. But, yeah, “Turning Japanese” IS new wave. Punk was for the “freaks” and new wave was for the “geeks”.

I had no idea what we were singing about. That chorus. What a great chorus. New Clear Days is like Greetings from Timbuk 3; an album with a fluke hit with great songs people overlook.

In Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, Ben Stiller plays a lost man who screwed up his eighties era band’s prospects of releasing a major label album because he refused to make concessions that compromised his vision. The Vapors is what I imagine this fictional band sounded like.

Luckily, R.E.M. was on I.R.S. They, essentially, fired Stephen Hague when he put his personal stamp on “Catapult”. I wonder if Michael Stipe, or the whole band, stormed into Miles Copeland’s office.

“We’re not Gleaming Spires, Miles!”

Could the band have gotten away with this on Columbia?

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