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What’s So New about New Wave?


Vanity Fair, August 2008 (cover).

I’ve outlined some of the following in my Looking at Movements series of posts (more of which are forthcoming), but here I want to examine the New Wave tradition exclusively, and from a different direction. I’m increasingly fascinated by how that simple two-word term has been used over the past 50 years to describe so many different trends and styles, some of which have been fairly disparate. It’s a label that’s really traveled, and hasn’t finished moving yet.

The original New Wave was the French New Wave, the Nouvelle Vague:

Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows) (1959), directed by François Trufffaut:

À bout de souffle (Breathless) (1960), directed by Jean-Luc Godard:

Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us) (1960), directed by Jacques Rivette:

Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962), directed by Agnès Varda:

These directors, along with their friends/colleagues Éric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, broke with the classical French studio tradition of the 1940s and 1950s. They filmed on location (often on the street without permits), used extensive natural light, and favored light hand-held cameras and traveling shots. The results were brash, breezy movies usually about chic, rebellious youngsters dealing with sex and money and daily city life.

The New Wave films influenced and were influenced by the then-current UK Mod subculture—think short hair, short skirts, Vespas, everything sexy, clean, and light:

Jean Shrimpton. Photo by John French (1960s).
Mod with Vespa

(That third image hails from here.)

Musically, both scenes favored 50s modern jazz (which is where the name “Mod” comes from—e.g., Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis) and R&B-influenced rock (Small Faces, The Kinks, The Who).

The Nouvelle Vague lasted as a coherent movement until about 1967, by which time key differences between the directors had grown increasingly apparent:

Le Bonheur (Happiness) (1965), directed by Agnès Varda:

Week End (1967), directed by Jean-Luc Godard:

La Mariée étair en noir (The Bride Wore Black) (1968), directed by François Truffaut:

Mod started to die out around the same time, being replaced by late 60s psychedelia. (Everyone grew their hair out and switched from amphetamines to LSD.)

Nearly ten years later, Malcolm McLaren, who wanted to brand his recently formed Sex Pistols as something other than punk, tried calling it “New Wave.” He was being somewhat nostalgic here, reaching back to the Mod chic of the previous decade. In other words, he was trying to promote his clothing boutique (SEX) by associating it with a previous fashion revolution.

It was a curious appropriation. Both SEX and the Sex Pistols were obviously much more punk than Mod:

Perhaps because of that, McLaren couldn’t convince anyone to go along with the term; everyone called the Sex Pistols punk. But journalist Caroline Coon, who was hanging around McLaren and the Pistols, decided she liked it, and in 1976 started attaching it to a new crop of bands she saw that were punk-like, but not really punk:

The Stranglers, “No More Heroes” (1977):

The Only Ones, “Another Girl, Another Planet” (recorded 1977):

The Boomtown Rats, “Rat Trap” (1978):

All of these bands combined elements of punk with other musical styles, and none of them used the stripped-down “garage rock” setup typical of punk (guitar, bass, drums).

In the US, the term caught on because record labels were looking for a more commercial term than “punk” (which still had derogatory connotations). Over time, “New Wave” became attached to bands that, like their UK counterparts, were borrowing elements from punk (aggressive tempos, repeated riffs, shouting lyrics), but who weren’t punk whole cloth:

Talking Heads, “Found a Job” (1978):

Blondie, “X-Offender” (1976):

Television, “Venus” (1977):

Gradually, each of these bands each moved further and further away from punk proper. And after a while, the term “New Wave” morphed from meaning, say, “a punky art-rock band that uses a keyboard” to “any rock band that uses keyboards as well as other non-traditional instruments, like saxophones—butt especially keyboards.”

Devo, “Mongoloid” (recorded 1977):

The B-52s, “Rock Lobster” (1978/9):

Gary Numan, “Cars” (1979):

Other key influences here—influences that gradually crowded out early New Wave music’s punk elements—were minimalism (Philip Glass, Steve Reich), German synthrock (Can, Kraftwerk), glam (David Bowie, Roxy Music, T-Rex), and the late 70s power pop revival (The Cars, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe).

Over time, the rock itself also softened, as the more abrasive/angular rock of the late 70s gave way to the softer, poppier early 80s.

The Pretenders, “Brass in Pocket” (1979):

The Human League, “Don’t You Want Me” (1981):

Duran Duran, “Hungry Like the Wolf” (1982):

So which New Wave is the New Wave? All and none. For me and my generational cohorts, I’d imagine that the term summons first to mind the synthpop of the 80s, since that’s the cultural stew we simmered in. But those older than us might balk at that suggestion, considering bands like Culture Club and Tears for Fears usurpers who ruined the purity of the 70s CBGB scene. Which might make laugh the Mods and Euro-cinephiles of the early 1960s…

The term “New Wave” is now 50 years old, has come to mean many irreconcilable things, and isn’t through yet acquiring meanings: it’s become the go-to label for any young cinema movement (the Thai New Wave of the early 2000s, the Romanian New Wave of the mid-2000s). Indy rock also recently saw the “New New Wave” of Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, The Killers, The Strokes, and others (also called the “Post-Punk Revival,” even though I’d argue that those bands bear few connections to the original UK post-punk).


“For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Sect. 43

(This post was written in its entirety at New Wave Coffee, Chicago.)

  • 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.

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