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Looking at Movements, part 5: New Wave (US)

Debbie Harry of Blondie

Part 1: The Post-Punk Revival
Part 2: Post-Punk
Part 3: No Wave
Part 4: New Wave (UK)
Part 5: New Wave (US)

In this installment, I’ll be looking at the late 70s American side of New Wave. Whereas British New Wave (The Stranglers, The Jam, The Boomtown Rats, e.g.) strikes me as emerging from punk, or at least leaning fairly closely to punk, US New Wave seems a pretty different animal. It has some clear punk tendencies:

  • looking backward nostalgically to “simpler” 50s and early 60s rock;
  • fast tempos, with aggressive basslines and drumming;
  • a minimalist tendency toward building songs around short, repeated melodic phrases;
  • shouted/declaimed/half-sung lyrics;
  • political overtones;

…but at the same time it’s also very different, being:

  • much more theatrical (and often more overtly bizarre and weird);
  • much poppier;
  • more willing to draw on “opposing” musical trends, such as glam, prog rock, and (later on) dance styles, such as world music and disco.

That all said, both US and UK New Wave share some similarities:

  • art/experimental overtones, resulting in complex songs often built around punk back beats;
  • an all-around angularity;
  • the heavy use of synthesizers;
  • an overall geekiness, with singers often exaggerating their faces while performing.

Not every band shares all of these characteristics, of course, but we’ll see plenty of them below…

Television (1973–8):

Originally the Neon Boys, Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine, and Billy Ficca later regrouped as Television, adding Richard Lloyd. Verlaine, Ficca, and Lloyd’s playing gradually became so intricate that they kicked the less technically adept Richard Hell out (they obviously weren’t a straight punk band or No Wave band! Hell later went on to co-found Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, then his own band, the Voidoids).

Television’s first single, “Little Johnny Jewel” (1975, later reissued on Marquee Moon):

“Venus,” from their debut album, Marquee Moon (February 1977):

That album’s title track:

The first three tracks from their second and final album, Adventure (April 1978), “Glory,” “Days,” and “Foxhole”:

Blondie (1974–1982):

While very different from Television, Debbie Harry et al are still clearly drawing on punk elements, combining them with late-60s/early 70s bubblegum pop and mid-70s glam.

“X Offender,” from the group’s debut album, Blondie (1976):

(There’s a great video for it here.)

“Rip Her to Shreds”:

Plastic Letters (1978): “Denis”:

“(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear”:

And check out this video version:

Note the blinking neon lights. As I mentioned way back in the first post, I’ll have something more to say about those later…

Also, check out this essay, which claims bubblegum pop as one precedent for later New Wave and punk bands:

After bubblegum had faded and punk emerged in the late ’70s, some critics took a revisionist stance, hailing bubblegum for its innovative production techniques and for boiling pop/rock down to its irreducible essence. It’s often been pointed out that one of the first songs the Talking Heads performed was the 1910 Fruitgum Co.’s “1-2-3 Red Light,” and the simple throbbing rhythm and lyrics of numbers like “Psycho Killer” have a distant relation to bubblegum, although no one’s going to confuse Remain in Light with music aimed at pre-teens.

Speaking of…

Talking Heads (1974–91):

“Love → Building on Fire” (single, February 1977) (with a fan video syncing the album track to a live performance from 78):

“Psycho Killer,” from Talking Heads: 77 (1977):

“Pulled Up”:

“The Girls Want to Be With the Girls” and “Found a Job,” from More Songs about Buildings and Food (1978):

Mink DeVille (1974–86):

Mink DeVille was one of CBGB’s house bands in the mid 70s. Bearing a strong Lou Reed/Velvet Underground influence, they were an eclectic blues/soul/Latin band that also incorporated punk elements.

“Spanish Stroll,” from Mink DeVille (1977, also known as Cabretta):

A great live performance from 1982:

“Venus of Avenue D” (live performance from 1980):

“Guardian Angel,” the lead track from their second album, Return to Magenta (1978):

Willy DeVille on CBGBs:

I never go to any of those reunion things they invite us to. I’m not being snotty but that place was so horrible and they paid us so badly. I got crabs in the toilets. Johnny Thunders’ crabs! Hilly didn’t treat us with respect back then so I’ve no desire to revel in some nostalgic bullshit. We were all labelled as part of this American punk thing but I really didn’t see any of us having much in common.

Willy DeVille passed away about a year ago. He was 58.

Devo (1972–1991):

“Mongoloid” (single, 1977):

A live version from 1979:

Be Stiff EP (1977): “Be Stiff” (live performance from 1980):

Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (August 1978—and, it’s worth noting, produced by Brian Eno): “Satisfaction”:

Devo’s second album, Duty Now for the Future (1979), saw them relying even more on synthesizers. Here’s the opening track, “Devo Corporate Anthem”:

And here’s an earlier, live version (at Max’s Kansas City) of “Timing X,” the third track on that album (plus the eventual single b-side “Soo Bawlz”):

Oingo Boingo (1972–95):

By the late 70s, Richard and Danny Elfman’s ensemble was transitioning from a live comedy musical revue:

…to a New Wave band: “Little Girls,” the opening track on Only a Lad (1980):

Their cover of “You Really Got Me” from the same album:

The Cars (1976–88):

The Cars, like the other bands on this list,  built songs around punk rhythm sections, but turned their synths and guitars more toward power pop (which was experiencing something of a revival in the late 70s).

The Cars (June 1978): “Just What I Needed” (a live version from 1979):

“My Best Friend’s Girl,” from the same album (live version):

Candy-O (1979): the title track, live that same year:

Possibly my favorite Cars song, “Double Life,” from Candy-O:

The B-52’s (1976–present):

“Rock Lobster” (single, 1978):

Note the backup singing, especially during the call-and-response section toward the end. Yoko Ono had a very large influence on American No Wave and New Wave:

In the spring of 1980, [John] Lennon and Sean sailed to Bermuda for a brief vacation; there Lennon became intrigued by New Wave musicians like the Pretenders, Lene Lovich and Madness. And when he heard the B-52’s song “Rock Lobster,” he was spurred to action. “It sounds just like Ono’s music,” he told Rolling Stone, “so I said to meself, ‘It’s time to get out the old axe and wake the wife up!'”

The B-52’s (July 1979): “Planet Claire”:

Klaus Nomi (1977–83):

Starting in 1978, Klaus Nomi became a regular performer in lower Manhattan, walking a fine line between the No Wave and New Wave scenes. While his collaborators were all No Wave artists (e.g., Kristian Hoffman of the Mumps), Nomi’s own style was closer to New Wave (if, indeed, it’s close to anything).

Nomi didn’t begin recording his material until the early 80s (a few years before he passed away from complications related to AIDS), so all recordings of Nomi from the late 70s are of live shows. Here he is performing one of his signature numbers, Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix”:

Nomi on Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party (1979):

A live performance of his single “After the Fall”:

Nomi and Joey Arias singing backup for David Bowie during his 1979 appearance on Saturday Night Live:

(You can find a better synced version here.) After this appearance, Nomi modeled his famous plastic tuxedo on a similar-looking suit that Bowie wore during their performance of “The Man Who Sold the World.”

A live performance (from Urgh! A Music War) of “Total Eclipse,” a track from his first full-length album, Klaus Nomi (1981):

(Click here for more information about that concert film.)

“Simple Man,” the title track from his second full-length album of the same name (1982):

A live 1982 performance of his standard “Cold Song”:

The video for his song “Lightnin’ Strikes” (1982):

A TV spot about Nomi and Arias (among others) at Fiorucci (date unknown):

…dancing to the B-52’s.

Anyone interested in Nomi, and the late 70s New York downtown scene in general, is strongly encouraged to check out the wonderful 2004 documentary about him, The Nomi Song.

…and there were, of course, many more New Wave bands than this. In the next few parts of this series, I’ll look at how New Wave gradually transformed into more of a pop/soft rock movement (which is the New Wave that I imagine most people remember), as well as take a few steps back and try drawing some larger conclusions about all of these different post-punk flavors. But until then…happy listening!

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

14 thoughts on “Looking at Movements, part 5: New Wave (US)

    1. Madeline, thanks so much for sharing that! Alas, I know Nomi only through recordings and documentaries like The Nomi Song. I envy you those black lipstick kiss marks!

      Have you written more, elsewhere, about your memories of that time? If so, I’d love to read them.

      Thanks again,

  1. I’m pretty sure the cars were a rock band, not power pop or new wave. i think easton was more of a rock guy, not power pop.

    1. They’re very much a rock band, but I’ve seen them classified in many places as a New Wave/art rock band. New Wave was a much bigger tent in the late 1970s than it became in the 1980s. Pretty much anyone who married synths with punk-based guitar lines was labeled as such.

      Same deal with power pop: all those strong, soft harmonies and hooky guitar riffs! The Cars are remembered now as a more commercial/mainstream rock band, but they were pretty innovative at the time. And I think there’s a way they can be seen as fitting in alongside bands like XTC and Oingo Boingo—they were smoother sounding, sure, but in the same realm.

      I wonder what their new stuff will sound like…


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