What do we talk about when we talk about New Wave? It’s more complicated than post-punk and No Wave, the term having been almost from the start defined more loosely, and applied to a wider variety of musical styles. But let’s dig into it…
The Origin of the Term
One of the first complications is that rock’s New Wave was hardly the first new wave. Already by the mid-1970s the world had seen:
- the French New Wave (1958—1967);
- the Japanese New Wave (1956–76);
- the Czechoslovak New Wave (1962–71);
- the British New Wave (1958–69);
- and the American New Wave (the “New Hollywood,” 1967–82);
…all of them film movements. (It was also the title of a 1963 Dizzy Gillespie album.)
From what I can tell, the first person to apply the term to music (besides Gillespie) was Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols. John Ingham, recalling his first impressions of seeing the Pistols play (sometime in early 1976, before his famous April interview with the band), stated:
You couldn’t intellectualize the band. You couldn’t analyze it. I got the sense that something was going on here, that this was something to follow, a movement. It wasn’t called Punk then: Malcolm was insisting we call it ‘New Wave,’ like the French cinema. Caroline Coon was there: it was the third time I’d met her and it was the first time we’d ever talked about it. She’d been following them: she knew all about it because she used to go to Sex [Mcaren’s boutique] all the time. (Savage 159)
Coon, a music journalist, later used the term “new wave” in a November 1976 article in Melody Maker, “Punk Power”; in her usage, it described new bands who were playing aggressive music like the punks, but who were not straight-ahead punks. (At least, that’s what I’ve gathered. I’ve looked and looked, but can’t find a copy of this article anywhere, alas.)
From there, the term spread quickly, mainly due, it seems, to its marketing potential: I’ve seen more than a few music critics and historians suggest that its popularity lay in the fact that it allowed bands (and their labels) to differentiate themselves from the then-controversial term “punk”:
Also quite discontent with the ‘punk’ designation, but less public about the matter, were the representatives of the record industry investing in punk music—Sire Records, Atlantic, Elektra, and others—who thought it to be an unfortunate marketing term. By late 1976 a number of executives began suggesting alternative labels, such as ‘underground rock,’ ‘arrogant rock,’ or ‘urban rock.’ But only Seymour stein of Sire hit upon ‘new wave rock,’ the label that would succeed ‘punk.’ There was nothing prescient about this nor did he invent the term. He was paying close heed to the situation in Great Britain, where for some months the discourses of new wave had been welling up alongside those of punk. (Gendron 268–9)
Gendron goes on to repeat the claim that the term originated with Malcolm McLaren, who was “put off by the initial retro and anti-art allusions of ‘punk'” (269). He continues:
Within a few months smatterings of references to the new wave began to appear in the midst of the discourses on punk. By September even the ultimate punk magazine, Sniffin’ Glue, was proclaiming ‘the new wave’ to be ‘the most exciting thing to happen in British music in ten years.’ Carolyn Coon [sic], the promoter of ‘punk’ in the establishmentarian music press, also began using ‘new wave’ as an alternative to ‘punk,’ although in a subordinate and contradictory fashion. In her November 1976 glossary of the ‘Punk Alphabet,’ she made the first attempt in print to distinguish ‘punk’ from ‘new wave.’ Though ‘not a popular label,’ she cautioned, ‘punk’ was now the ‘accepted’ label for bands like the Clash, the Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Sex Pistols ‘who usually play frantically fast, minimal, aggressive rock with the emphasis on brevity, an all in-sound rather than individual solos and the arrogance calculated to shock.’ She found ‘new wave’ to be a more ‘inclusive term,’ used to describe a variety of bands like Eddie and the Hot Rods, the Stranglers, and Slaughter and the Dogs, who ‘definitely’ were not ‘hard-core punks’ but nonetheless were ‘part of the scene’ because ‘they play with speed and energy’ or ‘try hard’ to. (269–70)
Even Coon seems to have used the term loosely; Gendron notes that “in that same month she referred to the ‘punk’ band the Clash as ‘certainly the most politically aware of the new wave bands'” (270).
The rapid result was, it seems, a fairly heterogeneous scene:
McLaren and [Bernie] Rhodes’ carefully formulated definitions of Punk now meant nothing. ‘Punk’ was now ‘New Wave’ and could mean acts as diverse as American visitors Talking Heads, Television or Blondie, whose April/May tour showed that the illusion of any Punk unity of style or milieu—either in London or New York—was becoming unsustainable. Blondie were a pop group with Mod threads; Television were a Rock group, exuding a religious solemnity. Neither had much in common with the Sex Pistols. (Savage 333)
Indeed, that heterogeneity is a fundamental aspect New Wave: in order to be New Wave, one had to be punk + something else. (See the excerpts from the interview with Jean-Jacques Burnel of The Stranglers, below.) This could work in either direction: it could be either a punk band that drew from non-punk influences, like reggae, ska, art rock, electronic experimentation—or even punk’s traditional nemeses, pop, disco, and glam. Conversely, a New Wave band could be a non-punk act that incorporated punk influences (playing “with speed and energy”—or trying hard):
New Wave: A term initially (from 1975) synonymous with punk, but which after 1978 was used to promote bands playing a variety of styles of ‘post-punk’ music: the Stranglers, the Boomtown Rats, Blondie, and Talking Heads. Whereas punk had challenged the star system, Deborah Harry (Blondie) and Bob Geldof (Boomtown Rats) became sex symbols. Moreover, where punk had originally championed ‘musical incompetence’, new wave allowed musical experimentation, for example the influence of progressive rock on the Stranglers, and of ethnic musics on Talking Heads. (Peter Wilton, Oxford Music Online)
So let’s listen to some of those bands, shall we? Since we’re already in the UK, let’s start there.
The Stranglers (1974–present):
JJ [bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel]: We originally described the Stranglers as soft rock. I only contributed Bouncing Man and Go Buddy Go. I didn’t know a lot – blues, rock’n’roll, The Who, The Doors and classical music. Jet and Hugh loved The Beatles but I didn’t. I was spending all my time trying to master the bass. When Dave joined he brought a darker side into the mix with his gothic organ and I could identify more with that and we began to get a direction. Our management were involved with the Ramones and we ended up being the first band in Europe to support the Ramones and previously we had supported Patti Smith. So we started listening to what we were told were our contemporaries and they were playing a damn site faster.
“Peaches” (demo version, 1975):
“Sometimes,” the opening track on their first full-length album, Rattus Sorvegicus (1977):
A brief side note: a decade ago, a few friends and I tried to list every band that had been influenced by the Doors, trying to see if there were any good ones. We concluded that there were none, but we missed the Stranglers, so we were wrong. Deep apologies, Jim Morrison!
“No More Heroes,” from their second album of the same name (also 1977):
Their cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Walk on By,” recorded for the Black and White sessions and released on a separate promotional EP (1978):
JJ: The Stranglers were more like American punk than English punk. The others in the band found it a restrictive moniker because we very eclectic in our tastes. Fucks sake I love a lot of classical music and jazz. I’m not going to restrict my influences and write a punk song. People lumped us in with it and we were playing the same venues and a lot of the audience was a crossover. Its not a thing that has kept me awake at night. I would like to think we were more punk plus and then some.
The Jam (1972–82):
“In the City,” their first single and the lead track on the second side of their debut album, In the City (1977):
(Note that X-Ray Spex is playing in the background in the beginning of the clip!)
“Batman Theme, track 6 on In the City:
“Art School,” that album’s opening track:
Their non-album single “All Around the World,” performed on the Marc Bolan Show (!) (1977):
(The late 70s was a time when Marc Bolan could get his own TV show, and have the Jam on. How far we’ve fallen.)
“The Modern World,” lead track on their second full-length, This Is the Modern World (late 1977):
…and, indeed, the Jam were very Mod.
The Boomtown Rats (1975–6):
“Like Clockwork” (single, summer 1978)
“Rat Trap,” the first single from their second album, A Tonic for the Troops (late 1978):
“I Don’t Like Mondays” (1979):
…So far we’ve seen a real broadening of punk’s more traditional garage-rock/blues-rock palette, even as there have been a few common denominators:
- cleaner production;
- a stronger 60s rock influence, including elements taken from progressive rock and Mod (who are no longer necessarily vs. rockers);
- along the same lines, less of an emphasis on stripped-down instrumentation, allowing in the use of keyboards and other less traditional punk instruments.
By far the most experimental band on this list, XTC synthesized a vast array of sounds, only one of which was punk (their aggressive and raw approach, anti-their authoritative streak, Andy Partridge’s “shouted,” nasally vocals). (At times they even sound like a British version of No Wave.) Above all, much like the above three bands, they were arty:
“Statue of Liberty,” from White Music (1978):
The same song, live on the Old Grey Whistle Test:
A very drunk Peter Cook introducing their song “This Is Pop”:
That song is almost meta-punk, bringing punk’s “fuck all” attitude to bear on itself: “Fuck punk! This is pop!”
“Neon Shuffle,” also from White Music:
“Are You Receiving Me?” (single, 1978):
“Making Plans for Nigel,” from their third album, Drums and Wires (1979):
…The remaining bands on this list are more commercial than the above—but New Wave, as I think even XTC amply demonstrates, was from the get-go an odd amalgamation of geeky experimentation and a more commercially approachable sound.
The Police (1977–84):
At least on their debut album, Outlandos d’Amour (1978), the Police were keeping up with their contemporaries, and taking a few lines from punk. Here’s the lead track, “Next to You”:
And the fifth track, “Peanuts”:
Elsewhere on that album, Sting’s reggae, dub, jazz fusion, and power pop influences (which would quickly come more to the fore) were already strongly evident:
…but there are still punk and New Wave overtones. Check out the cover for the single version of that song:
Even though I’m not a tremendous fan of the band—I like them fine, but rarely seek them out—I really do have a lot of respect for Sting and the Police. Excessive familiarity (due to terrific overexposure) has obscured how eclectic their sound really was, and still is.
The Only Ones (1976–82):
One of the reasons I’ve been doing this series is to finally have the chance to listen to bands I’ve been hearing about for years, but haven’t ever really sat down with. This is one of those bands; until now, I’d only ever heard their hit “Another Girl, Another Planet,” the second track from their debut album, The Only Ones (1978) (the video here is a pretty cool fan video):
A live version:
The Only Ones were always at least half a power pop/hard rock band, characteristics that only grew stronger in their subsequent releases:
“Miles from Nowhere,” from their second album, Even Serpents Shine (1979):
“Why Don’t You Kill Yourself,” from their third album, Baby’s Got a Gun (1980):
Elvis Costello (& The Attractions) (1977–present):
Costello seems a perfect example of a musician for whom punk was only one of many influences:
“Red Shoes,” from his debut album, My Aim Is True (1977):
“Watching the Detectives” (single, 1977):
“Pump It Up,” from his second full-length, This Year’s Model (1978):
“This Year’s Girl,” from the same album, and introduced once again by the late great Peter Cook:
…The last three bands I want to look at—Eddie and the Hot Rods, Slaughter and the Dogs, and the rather influential pub rock band Dr. Feelgood, which also often gets lumped in—are all less art rock, and more hybrid punk/blues rock bands.
Dr. Feelgood (1971–1983):
“Roxette,” from their debut album, Down by the Jetty (1975):
“She’s a Wind Up,” from their fifth studio album, Be Seeing You (1977):
“Milk and Alcohol,” from their sixth album, Private Practice (1978):
Eddie and the Hot Rods (1975–81):
“Teenage Depression,” from their debut album of the same name (1976):
“I Might Be Lying” from their second album, Life on the Line (1977):
“Do Anything You Wanna Do” (single, 1977):
Slaughter and the Dogs (1976–81):
“Boston Babies,” from their debut, Do It Dog Style (1978):
Another track from that album, “Victims of the Vampire”:
…In the next part of this series, I’ll look at the US side of New Wave, as well as New Wave’s second wave (the even more commercial version that eventually came to be what people now usually mean by “New Wave”). Until then…
Gendron, Bernard. Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Savage, Jon. England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond. NYC: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
Wilton, Peter. “New Wave.” Oxford Music Online.