Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: New Wave (page 1 of 2)

Geef Voor New Wave

Geef Voor New WaveI’m at the gym the other day working out and I’ve got my iPod loaded with classic new wave tracks. When one of those tracks, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” by X-Ray Spex comes on, I am immediately teleported back in time, back to December 1980 and January 1981 when I first heard this song on a new wave compilation album I bought at Plaza Records in Carbondale, Illinois.

As compilation albums come and go, it was a pretty decent one. Though for the life of me, I can’t figure out why Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were included with some of these bands and artists, unless Tom Petty’s Hearbreakers were confused with Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers. Big confusion, I know.

Whenever I hear any of these songs from this album (which is out of print and has never made the jump to CD) I always think back to that time. Indeed, when I think about those songs, I always think the time I went to the Space in Chicago to see David and the Happenings. I think of cold, gray days. For some reason, I have always associated my indoctrination with punk rock and new wave with those cold winter days. Warehouses converted into punk clubs, broken down buildings, steam rising up from sewers, winter blue-gray skies ringed with grayish white clouds. Pasty-faced men and women dressed in black; their eyes wild with anticipation. Safety pins, skinny ties, buttons on a lapel. I think about “Style Before Gel” in Damaged Goods–one night at the Space Place.

Sometimes all it takes is one song to take you on a journey.

Geef Voor New Wave Back

Who’s up for a journey back in time?

New Wave Night — TJ McFly’s, Carbondale, December 1980

The photo might be a little blurry, but the memories are not.

I remember this night as if it were yesterday.

Check out the skinny tie and the three buttons.

“I’m feelin’ Radioactive, think I’m gonna meltdown tonight” — Scott Wilk + The Walls

In the mail today!

A flashback to those glorious, goofin’, pogo jumping, slam dancing early the 1980s.

I saw this band at the Southern Illinois University (SIU) Student Center at the beginning of the 1980 fall semester, (shortly after I saw David and the Happenings perform at an outdoor party in Lewis Park) and the band would be one of a half-dozen New Wave acts I would see that semester along with The Pretenders, The English Beat, Ultravox, and Polyrock.

I bought the album at Plaza Records in Carbondale but it was never reissued as a CD until recently through Wounded Bird Records.

Although a bit dated, it has held up quite well over the years. Although Wilk comes across as sort of a cross between Elvis Costello and Warren Zevon, the music takes one back to those early days of New Wave when a farfisa beat and saxophone ruled.

 It’s going to get a lot of playing time on my iPod.

New Wave Class of 1979: “Local Girls” — Graham Parker & The Rumour

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4C2SkcC3TXc]

There are some songs that just emanate or ooze “new wave” whether it’s the songs catchy lyrics or hard rocking sound that was attuned to the energy of the post punk and early new wave period. If you are much of a musicologist, and you’ve listened to music of the 70s and 80s extensively, it’s not too difficult to pigeonhole those songs that captured the essence of that new wave sound.

Take Graham Parker’s “Local Girls” from his hit 1979 album Squeezing out Sparks, which was one of his and his band The Rumour’s most acclaimed work. A lot of folks might have missed this one the first time around; fortunately, two years later when MTV started broadcoasting in 1981, this video got a lot of airplay.

This is a fun video for a classic and fun song.

New Wave Class of 1979: “A Message to you Rudy” — The Specials

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVcD1xAMTo8]

One of the defining moments of the ska music revival, at least in the UK, was the release of the album Specials by the group The Specials. Formed in 1977, the band was first called The Automatics and then The Coventry Automatics and finally, after calling themselves The Special AKA The Coventry Automatics, simply became the Special AKA.

Produced by Elvis Costello, their debut album not only catches the disaffection and anger felt by many young people of the UK’s “concrete jungle” (a phrase borrowed from a Bob Marley album and used to describe the grim and violent inner cities) but also encapsulates the British ska revival that basically reworks the original 1960s Jamaican ska.

(Ska is a musical genre that originated in Jamaica in the 1950s and was a precursor to reggae. Combining elements of Caribbean mento—Jamaican folk music that uses acoustic instruments—and calypso with American jazz and rhythm and blues, it is characterized by a walking bass line—a style of bass accompaniment, common in jazz which creates a feeling of regular quarter note movement—accented with rhythms on the upbeat.)

While The Specials recreated the energy and humor of the original ska sound they also infused this sound with a new found anger that captured the mood of the times along with a punk sensibility. To be sure, it is not as laidback as the original ska sound and by bringing the guitar fore as well as the horns, the sound comes across grittier and more energetic.

Like much of the music from this era, the music of The Specials still holds up well. Of course when you hear it today, you might think, “wow, that’s definitely late 70s or early 80s,” but it still has the energy that it had back then.

New Wave Class of 1979: “Life During Wartime” – Talking Heads

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NedwmkhHpKI]

If you are one of those music aficionados who prefers their lyrics to be on the cerebral side of things without compromising too much foot-stomping danceability, you could also count on the Talking Heads to deliver both.

And you never had to worry about them not making sense.

Take their 1979 hit, “Life during Wartime” that might have seemed to tap into the punk rock/new wave Zeitgeist, but instead comes across as more of a “funky cautionary tale” about foreign terrorists living in American suburbs.

I still remember when I picked up a copy of Fear of Music and slapped it on my turntable. First of all the album itself was really hip—all black and embossed with a pattern that resembled the appearance and texture of diamond plate metal flooring. Then there were such tracks as “I Zimbra,” “Air,” “Electric Guitar,” “Cities” and Mind”– songs for a generation and all creatively produced by Brian Eno.

However it was “Life during Wartime’s” nightmare visions of civil insurrection (and perhaps terrorism) in the United States as well as allusions to an apparent guerilla movement (“Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons/packed up and ready to go/Heard of some gravesites, out by the highway/a place where nobody knows”) that really grabbed me the first time I heard the song. Without question, these were some powerful lyrics jolted listeners in the waning disco era. And when the singer laments that he can’t go to night clubs anymore because he has to live underground, he sings “this ain’t no party/this ain’t no disco/this ain’t no fooling around” which became a catchphrase for punk and new wave.

At the dawn of the Reagan era, “Life during Wartime” might have seemed like a post-punk apocalyptic paranoid nightmare; today, in a post 9-11 world though, it had tragically become a reality.

On a personal note, it was one of those albums that when I listen to now reminds me of a defining moment of my life, not to mention the direction that my musical tastes would be taking me. It was early 1980 and I was debating whether or not to get out of the Air Force. At the time I was stationed at George Air Force in the high desert of California (just outside of Victorville) and I was thinking about reenlisting for another four years or perhaps going to college.

One day, while I was in CBPO—an administrative building for the base—I happened to see an advertisement for Southern Illinois University (SIU). The Air Force and SIU had some program called Students in Uniform for military personnel who wanted to study aerodynamics and even had a recruiter/advisor on base. I was interested in film and having already done some checking on SIU’s cinema and photography department, I stopped in to see the SIU advisor who put me in touch with SIU and helped me with the admission process.

Two months later, I got my acceptance from SIU—one week before my orders were cut for helicopter mechanic school at Shepard Air Force Base—and decided it was time to get out. Had I received my orders first, who knows what would have happened—I might have ended up making a career out of the Air Force.

Instead it was off to SIU.

And the rest is history.

New Wave Class of 1979: “Oliver’s Army” — Elvis Costello

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IiYnhWqtGfY]

New Wave music had it’s share of high energy, danceable rock and roll with snappy, fun lyrics, but not all songs were about turning Japanese, whipping it good, or getting back to Echo Beach. On the contrary, there were some songs that were political in nature—like Elvis Costello’s “Oliver’s Army” from his third album (and one of the albums produced by Nick Lowe) Armed Forces.

As the story goes, Costello wrote this song back in 1978 on a plane coming back from Belfast. It was the first time he went to the city, and he was shocked to see very young soldiers from the British army walking around with machine guns. As such, the song alludes to Northern Ireland’s troubles, the end of the British empire as well as life in the army.

The title refers to Oliver Cromwell, who was the leader of the Parliamentary army in the English Civil War against the Royalist army of Charles 1 (someone was paying attention in history class). One of the things that he was known for was establishing what has been referred to as The New Model Army, which was the first professional, properly trained and drilled fighting force England had and a forerunner to England’s modern army.

As such—given Costello’s visit to Northern Ireland and the economic dire straits in England—the song could be interpreted as a general anti-military statement, in that the only real option that many unemployed had was to join the army (British unemployment figures were at an all-time high). Or, as Costello said, when asked about the meaning of the song, that it was based on the premise “they always get a working class boy to do the killing.”

One could also argue—given the song’s references to “troubled spots” around the world such as South Africa, Palestine, Hong Kong, Checkpoint Charlie, and the Murder Mile (an informal nickname for Ledra Street in Nicosia, Cyprus due to the hazards that British soldiers faced patrolling the streets) that the song is also an “anti-occupation anthem.”

The video of the song might seem a little strange to have Costello enjoying a beverage in a bar and then playing with his band the Attractions on the beach; doesn’t really fit with the lyrics and the subject matter. Perhaps that is what the director intended, interpreting the absurdity of these occupational forces with Costello looking directly into the camera as though he were talking to us and telling us that Oliver’s Army is here to stay.

Aside from the so-called political nature of this song, the lyrics are still catchy and Lowe’s signature musical stamp on this song is quite obvious. The song has also remained Costello’s biggest single to date having reached #2 on the UK Singles Chart.

New Wave Class of 1979: “Video Killed the Radio Star” — The Buggles

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWtHEmVjVw8]

“We hear the playback and it seems so long ago. And you remember the jingles used to go…”

I suppose the playback does seem so long ago when you think about some of the music that characterized the New Wave scene back in 1979. When you listen to some of the music today, it might seem dated; on the other hand, some songs like The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” never get old.

You would have to have lived under a rock for the past 22 years not to know that this song was the first one to play on MTV. And even if you had seen the video or heard the song (including a remake by Presidents of the United States for 1998’s The Wedding Singer) you might have thought it was another New Wave one-hit wonder. Perhaps if the video had never been played on MTV, it might have been relegated to that status; nonetheless, the song and the video have survived the passage of time.

Written by Trevor Horn (who would go onto produce such acts as ABC, Art of Noise, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and even Cher; he was also approached as the story goes, by Bob Geldof to produce “Do They Know It’s Christmas” in 1984 but was unavailable so it was produced by Midge Ure), Geoff Downes, and Bruce Woolley. Horn wrote the lyrics (he was inspired by J.G. Ballard’s short story “The Sound Sweep”) and Woolley the musical content. The Buggles later recorded the song and it reached #1 in the UK charts on October 20, 1979. It peaked at #40 on US charts for one week in December of that year.

The song, which appeared on the album The Age of Plastic, features an additional piano coda. The complicated arrangement of the song, including the high-pitched backup singers obviously foreshadowed Horn’s later career as a producer. Other songs on the album were “Kid Dynamo” and “Living in the Plastic Age.” Interestingly, the song was first performed by Woolley and his band Camera Club with future MTV one-hit wonder Thomas “She Blinded me with Science” Dolby on keyboards.

And speaking of MTV, the music video directed by Russell Mulcahy (his conceptual video creations set the standard for music videos in the 1980s—from Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” to Ultravox’s “Vienna”) was the first video shown on MTV on August 1, 1981.

“In my mind and in my car
We can’t rewind we’ve gone too far.”

New Wave Class of 1979: “Cruel to be Kind” — Nick Lowe

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0l3QWUXVho]

There are some songs that just seem to have the “new wave” stamp all over them—whether it’s a jangly guitar sound with catchy riffs, a Farfisa organ, or some snappy lyrics.

Some bands and artists were one-hit wonders like The Vapors and their hit “Turning Japanese” while others like Nick Lowe had a strong influence on other artists and bands, both as a singer/songwriter and producer.

A pivotal figure in the UK pub rock, punk rock and new wave scene in the 1970s, Lowe is famous for such hits as “Cruel to be Kind,” “Heart of the City,” “Switch Board Susan” and “So, it Goes” as well as “(What’s so Funny Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” that was a big hit for Elvis Costello.

Lowe began his musical career in the mid 60s with the band Kippington Lodge that he founded with his friend Brinsley Schwarz. Later the band was renamed Brinsley Schwarz and Lowe wrote some of his best-known songs including “(What’s so Funny Bout) Peace Love and Understanding” and “Cruel to be Kind.”

In the 1970s, Lowe started to produce albums for Stiff Records (I loved one of Stiff’s promotion slogans that was also a popular button: “if it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a f**k”) and released his own single “So it Goes” b/w “Heart of the City.” He produced Elvis Costello’s first five albums, including This Year’s Model and Armed Forces, as well as the Damned’s first single New Rose and the band’s first album.

Lowe teamed up with Dave Edmunds in the band Rockpile that was noted for their strong rockabilly and power pop stylings (there I go again with two more labels!) as well as the band’s obvious influence on new wave. Rockpile recorded four albums though only one, Seconds of Pleasure was a true Rockpile release (two of the albums were released as Dave Edmunds solo projects and the other, Labour of Lust, was released as a Nick Lowe solo project. The band’s biggest hit, with vocals by Lowe was “Teacher, Teacher.”

Although Lowe’s biggest hit was “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” –that peaked at #7 on the UK Singles Chart in 1977—his next hit was 1979’s “Cruel to be Kind,” which, interestingly peaked at the #12 position on the UK Singles Chart and the U.S. Hot 100 as well as record charts in Australia and Canada. Nothing cruel about that achievement.

It’s a classic new wave tune through and through, especially the song’s bridge with its catchy guitar riffs. The song has stood the passage of time well and it still rocks today.

Lowe has also stood the passage of time as a performer. Unlike some geriatric new wave types that are still trying to whip it good (sorry spuds, but seeing Devo still trying to fit into them radioactive suits in middle age, well, it’s through being cool) and dance the mess around into their 50s, Lowe like Elvis Costello has had a successful post-new wave career. To be sure, his latest recordings have him shedding those once distinguishable power pop melodies and have him becoming, as one music critic observed, “a worldly balladeer, specializing in grave vocals and graceful tunes.”

New Wave Class of 1979: “One Step Beyond” — Madness

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eir3-omjMVQ]

I was jamming to some tunes on my iPod today when “One Step Beyond” by Madness comes on, and I think, if someone asked me what songs best characterized the new wave sound, this one would be one of them.

Although some music purists and musicologists might beg to differ with my simplified assessment—after all, the song is really “ska” and not new wave, but what’s in a name, right?

The song was originally written by Jamaican ska singer Prince Buster, but was made famous by the band Madness on their 1979 debut album of the same name. Although the song was mostly an instrumental arrangement with the title shouted a few times, when Madness recorded their version of the song, there was a spoken intro.

I really dig the sax in this song and the resounding bass—which in themselves lend much to the new wave sound as does the obvious ska influenced up-beat strumming on the guitar.

As for that cool sax sound, bands like Martha and the Muffins would also use a sax in their hit “Echo Beach,” and Midwest/Chicago-based bands like David and the Happenings, Bohemia, and Phil n’ the Blanks would also feature some snappy saxophone stylings in their new wave repertoire.

If it’s been awhile since you’ve last listened to this gem and you’re beginning to feel the heat, well listen buster, you better start to move your feet; to the rockinest, rock steady beat of Madness.

« Older posts

© 2019 Jeffrey Miller

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑