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  • New Wave
  • Ska
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Playing the likes of - The Jam, The Clash, Blondie, The Vapours,The Police, Billy Idol, The Undertones, The Specials and Madness.  

New Wave is often remembered more for skinny ties and silly haircuts than for musical merits. The Police, Elvis Costello, The Cars and Blondie all lent some respect to the genre, peaking in 1983 when the Police's Synchronicity went number one worldwide.

So what exactly was New Wave? Well, essentially it was all post-punk era music (starting circa 1979) that journalists, record label folk and disc jockeys didn't want to call Punk rock.

Despite punk's grassroots success, to call a band 'punk' still spelled commercial doom because it was relegated outsider status. Hence the term 'New Wave' was substituted to  indicate bands and artists were progressive and different but not necessarily threatening, and certainly not devoid of commercial potential.

New Wave yielded many fine bands and great records, but there were just as many posers and fakers who believed that reasonable facsimiles would sell as well as the real thing. In some cases they were right.

In America, New Wave was the closest thing to UK Punk. In the Bowery, New York,  at CBGB's, bands like The Ramones and Richard Hell and the Voidoids were 'punk', but Blondie and Talking Heads were 'New Wave'.

By 1976 the scene had evolved into something older and more considered that the scene in London, but for a short while the two cities nursed a jealous rivalry, quietly pilfering whatever they could of the other's style and vigorously denying they'd done son.

In underground music scenes across the USA, New Wave could describe bands as far afield as The Cars, The Motels, The Go Go's, Pere Ubu, Jonathan Richman, The B-52s, REM, Devo, X, The Residents and dozens more, good, bad and indifferent, who took their musical cues from punk rock yet seemed less overtly anti-social and more marketable.

This explains why nearly all the aforementioned bands landed contracts with major labels who saw greater profit potential in new wave than in Punk. Primarily because in the disparate world of New Wave, there was no formula for success.

Despite being lumped into the same category, there were significant differences between the radio-friendly pop fodder offered by The Motels and the art-punk of Pere Ubu.

Also, some of the performers dubbed 'New Wave' had in fact been around since before the days of punk (eg Richman and The Residents) or were just plain weird fringe bands with zero commercial appeal. 

What became clear was that  New Wave tried to cover too much ground; Power Pop bands were new wave. So were art-punks. So was the kitschy dance-rock of the B-52s. Ultimately it was confusing, and music fans just wanted good music, regardless of what genre it was assigned.

Across the pond in Britain, New Wave began by watering down punk's aggression with the anti-pop star attitude of pub rock, and produced some of music's best singer/songwriters.

Elvis Costello, Graham Parker and Nick Lowe (although Nick had been around the block a time or two) created music that bristled with venom and sarcasm, and was mostly free from the self-indulgence of the American singer/songwriters of the early 70s.

As in America, English New Wave seemed to encompass anything and everything. There was the speedy trash-pop of The Rezillos (sort of a Scottish B-52s), the dread- filled gloom of Joy Division, the calculated , melodic pop/punk of The Police, the left wing rantings of Gang Of Four, the feminist reggae-funk of The Slits, the retro-psychedelia of The Cure and later bands such as Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets and the dour but tuneful wonderfulness of The Smiths.

There were also mini-revivals associated with British new wave, such as the Mod Revival movement which produced (most notably) The Jam, and the Ska revival which produced The Specials, Selecter and Madness.

Today, what was once New Wave is now 'Alternative Rock'; A term that also suffers from diminished meaning as its use expands and increases.

Ironically, the buzz saw guitar sound from the early days of punk rock has now fuelled the mega-platinum success of bands like Green Day and The Offspring.

Truth be told, no matter what the time period, sweeping terms will be used by critics and the music 'biz' to grapple with the question "How can you lump a lot of likeminded bands who don't play the same kind of music into one category?". 

The fact remains that great New Wave bands would have existed no matter what they were called. And so much good music has been associated with new wave that it is a very important part of contemporary music history.

                                                        And then came the wave....

When he was growing up in 1970s Northampton, Andrew Collins would have killed anyone who'd called his favourite bands new wave

Saturday March 19, 2005
The Guardian
If the kids on Jamie's School Dinners are any indication, there are only two youth tribes in your average playground these days: grungers and rudies (derived from rude boys). In other words, those who like Marilyn Manson and wear Nirvana tops, and those who don't. It was far more complicated - and, let's not be coy, "better" - when I was growing up in the 1970s. On the frontline of the badge war, you had punks and mods, followed by grebos and soul boys (or rugby players as we on Northampton's mean streets knew them), with futurists just around the corner and - this being the east Midlands - a goth uprising just over yonder hill. There were occasional skirmishes, or at any rate the threat of them before a youth club disco, but not as many as one would imagine.

There were never any new wavers. There was no such thing. New wave was a movement with only the very loosest musical parameters, something that filled the void left by punk after the revolution was extinguished by the stupid death of Sid Vicious and the appearance of Gizzard Puke on The Kenny Everett Television Show. Nobody in this country went around saying, "Yeah, I like new wave. It's my favourite kind of music." That's because you couldn't really put your finger on it. Punky. Poppy. Pubby. New wavey.
Yet new wave was bigger than punk. It sold more records, made more people rich and had an influence as wide as its lapels were narrow. And the music made under its flag of convenience has aged much better than punk. Think of the intellectual white-funk jerkiness of pre-arena Talking Heads, the spare, graphic constructivism of Gang Of Four or the atmospheric euro-synth ennui of Gary Numan. These influences live on in a host of with-it young bands, from Interpol and the Rapture to Franz Ferdinand and the Futureheads. A classic Pistols track sounds as frozen in time as news footage of a cracked reservoir during the 1976 drought or an image of Idi Amin in his military pomp. Meanwhile, the Psychedelic Furs at their early 1980s, pre-emigration peak could be a brand new band from Toronto, born after Ian Curtis hanged himself.

Because new wave was never really in fashion, it never went out. It's such a giant aesthetic umbrella, it shelters everybody from Public Image Ltd, XTC and the Human League to Cyndi Lauper, Cheap Trick and Modern Lovers. And, as such, it's not all good. According to New York-based designer Jennifer McKnight-Trontz - whose book This Ain't No Disco (titled after Talking Heads' Life During Wartime) gathers 300 album covers to describe new wave style - it also includes Big Country, Roxy Music, Wham! and Bronski Beat. While this strikes an Englishman as patently ridiculous, who am I to say what is and isn't new wave? It's all things to all cultural commentators.

We must, though, blame the Americans for any lingering confusion. Legend has it that Seymour Stein, the boss of Sire Records, first used the term "new wave" to describe - or, more importantly, market - a clutch of signings including the Ramones, Talking Heads and Richard Hell's Voidoids. Punk, you see, was a difficult label to sell to radio stations. Though Stein was joining some interesting cultural dots, by likening the scorched-earth new music coming out of New York's CBGB scene to the French nouvelle vague of the 1960s, he helped to muddy the waters. After all, weren't the Ramones the epitome of punk's three-chord self-empowerment ethic? Why were they suddenly new wave because some ageing record company exec who'd heard of Jean-Luc Godard said so?

New wave had its uses, I suppose. How else were we to put a label on the Police? Talking of whom, if an item of clothing came to emblemise new wave style it was the stripy T-shirt, beloved of Sting and co, and worn, usually under a jacket, by everyone from the Jags and Adam Ant to Blondie and the Go-Go's, perhaps in honour of the French. It was either that or a skinny tie, as modelled by Elvis Costello, the boys from Blondie and any number of pub rockers operating under the cover of new wave in a bid for credibility, such as the Knack or the Inmates.

If there is a truly definitive new wave band, it's surely the Photos, the sight of whose only album, from 1980, gives me such a Proustian rush I can almost smell the vinyl bag in which I took it home from Northampton Record Library, never mind hear the poppy chords of Irene and She's Artistic. They came from Evesham in Worcestershire - which, if I were Paul Morley, I'd say is as new wave as the Bowery - three ex-punks in drainpipes and nondescript crops, and one ex-hotel receptionist, Wendy Wu, in black mini, white polo and black satin leggings. In the true spirit of the postpunk land-grab, they were signed by a major label (Epic), packed off to a studio with a big producer (Tony Visconti), packaged by a fashionable designer (Keith Breeden) and left to have no hits at all in a crowded marketplace (Irene got to No 56). The Photos offer a snapshot of new wave. It wasn't all Sunday Girl and Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick; it had its casualties, too.

We know precisely when punk ended. According to Jon Savage, whose book England's Dreaming remains gospel on the subject, it was on May 4 1979, the day Margaret Thatcher swept to power. "Humpty Dumpty had fallen off the wall," he writes. "And there was no way of piecing him back together." You could argue that, logically, new wave was born that day, except Savage notes that in 1977 Phonogram's compilation LP, New Wave, introduced the world to the Boomtown Rats. "Many groups were having hits just at the moment when punk was over," he says, damning new wave as punk's "commercially defined variant".

The trouble with its amorphous nature is that it's difficult to call a time of death on new wave. When the Jam split up? When Duran Duran formed? When Breaking Glass starring Hazel O'Connor came out? Whenever it was, nobody told the Pretenders. Costello, new wave's patron saint, was smart enough to put its musical licks behind him by 1980. In the US, of course, it flourished for years after, with bands as sappy as the Bangles and Huey Lewis & The News rocking the look into 1986 and beyond.

It seems ironic now that when I was a 14-year-old punk in 1979 (Undertones T-shirt, homemade Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks and Ruts badges, hair cropped by Mum's friend Carol), I'd have killed you if you'd said any of my bands were new wave. I'd checked with Paul Freeman, my punk mentor, who wore red trousers at weekends. If he said it was punk, it was punk, be it Tubeway Army, Devo or Dr Feelgood.

I was actually a new waver all along. But, then again, weren't we all? Except, of course, the grungers and the rudies.

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