New Wave

Psycho Killer

New Wave is a subgenre of rock music that emerged in the mid to late 1970s alongside punk rock. The term at first generally was synonymous with punk rock before being considered a genre in its own right that incorporated aspects of electronic and experimental music, mod subculture, and disco, rock and 1960s pop music.

While it incorporated much of the original punk rock sound and ethos, such as an emphasis on short and punchy songs, it was characterized by greater complexity in both music and lyrics.

The term ‘New Wave’ itself has been a source of much confusion and controversy. It was used in 1976 in the UK by punk fanzines such as Sniffin’ Glue, and then by the professional music press. In a November 1976 article in Melody Maker, English journalist Caroline Coon used Malcolm McLaren’s (manager of the Sex Pistols and The New York Dolls) term ‘New Wave’ to designate music by bands not exactly punk, but related to, and part of the same musical scene; the term was also used in that sense by music journalist Charles Shaar Murray, while writing about The Boomtown Rats.

In the United States, Sire Records needed a term by which it could market its newly signed bands, who had frequently played the club CBGB. Because radio consultants in the United States had advised their clients that punk rock was a fad, they settled on the term ‘New Wave.’ Like the filmmakers of the French New Wave movement whom the genre was named after, its new artists, such as the Ramones and Talking Heads, were anti-corporate and experimental. At first most American writers exclusively used the term ‘New Wave’ to describe British punk acts.

New Wave emerged in the UK in late 1976, when many bands began disassociating themselves from punk. Music that followed the anarchic garage band ethos of the Sex Pistols was distinguished as ‘punk,’ while music that tended toward experimentation, lyrical complexity, or more polished production, came to be categorized as ‘New Wave.’ This came to include musicians who had come to prominence in the British pub rock scene of the mid-1970s, such as Ian Dury, Nick Lowe, Eddie and the Hot Rods and Dr. Feelgood.

In the US, the first New Wavers were the not-so-punk acts associated with the New York club CBGB, such as Talking Heads, Mink DeVille and Blondie. CBGB owner Hilly Kristal, referring to the first show of the band Television at his club in March 1974, said, ‘I think of that as the beginning of new wave.’ Furthermore, many artists who would have originally been classified as punk were also termed New Wave.

The New Wave sound of this era represented a break from the smooth-oriented blues and rock & roll sounds of late 1960s to mid 1970s rock music. New Wave musicians often played choppy rhythm guitars with fast tempos. Keyboards were common as were stop-and-start song structures and melodies. New Wave vocalists sounded high-pitched, geeky and suburban.

Power pop, a genre that started before punk at the very beginning of the 1970s, became associated with New Wave at the end of the decade because their brief catchy songs fit into the mood of the era. The Romantics, The Records, The Motors, Cheap Trick, and 20/20 were groups that had success playing this style. Helped by the success of power pop groups such as The Knack, skinny ties became fashionable among New Wave musicians.

A revival of ska music led by The Specials, Madness and the English Beat added humor and a strong dance beat to New Wave.

Later still, ‘New Wave’ came to imply a less noisy, often synthesizer-based, pop sound. The term post-punk was coined to describe groups such as Gang of Four, Joy Division, The Cure, and Siouxsie and the Banshees that were initially considered part of the New Wave but were more ambitious, serious and challenging, darker, and less pop oriented. Some of these groups would later adopt synths. Although distinct, punk, New Wave, and post-punk all shared common ground: an energetic reaction to what they perceived as the overproduced, uninspired popular music of the 1970s.

New Wave ‘retained the fresh vigor and irreverence of punk music, as well as a fascination with electronics, style, and art.’

The term fell out of favor in the United Kingdom during the early 1980s because its usage had become too general. Conventional wisdom holds that the genre ‘died’ in the middle of the 1980s. The movement receded during this period when advances in synthesizer technology caused New Wave groups and mainstream pop and rock groups to sound more alike.

Starting in late 1978 and continuing into 1979, acts associated with punk and acts that mixed punk with other genres began to make chart appearances and receive airplay on rock stations. The success of ‘My Sharona’ by The Knack in 1979 prompted record companies to rush out and sign New Wave groups. 1980 saw brief forays into New Wave-styled music by non-New Wave artists Billy Joel and Linda Ronstadt. The release during this period of Gary Numan’s album ‘The Pleasure Principle’ would be the pop chart breakthrough for gender-bending synthpop acts with a cool, detached stage presence.

The arrival of MTV in 1981 would usher in New Wave’s most successful era. British artists, unlike many of their American counterparts, had learned how to use the music video early on. Several British acts signed to independent labels were able to outmarket and outsell American artists that were signed with major labels. Journalists labeled this phenomenon a ‘Second British Invasion.’ MTV continued its heavy rotation of videos by New Wave-oriented acts until 1987, when it changed to a heavy metal and rock dominated format.

Urban Contemporary radio stations were the first to play dance-oriented New Wave artists such as the B-52’s, Culture Club, Duran Duran and ABC. By this period the definition of New Wave music in the United States had changed from the less rebellious, more commercial version of punk that it had been described as a few years earlier. For most of the remainder of the 1980s the term ‘New Wave’ was used in America to describe nearly every new pop or pop rock artist that largely used synthesizers.

Fans, music journalists, and artists would rebel against this catch-all definition by inventing dozens of genre names. Synthpop, which filled a void left by disco, was a broad subgenre that included groups such as The Human League, Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, a-ha, New Order, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Yazoo, Ultravox,[35] Kajagoogoo, and the Thompson Twins.

New Wave soundtracks were used in mainstream ‘Brat Pack’ films such as ‘Sixteen Candles,’ ‘Pretty In Pink,’ and ‘The Breakfast Club.’ John Hughes, a director of several of these films, was enthralled with British New Wave Music and put music from acts such as The Psychedelic Furs, Simple Minds, and Echo and The Bunnymen into his films, helping put New Wave into the mainstream. Several of these songs remain standards of the era.

The use of synthesizers by New Wave acts influenced the development of house music in Chicago and techno in Detroit. New Wave’s indie spirit would be crucial to the development of college rock and grunge/alternative rock in the latter half of the 1980s and beyond. New Wave is considered part of alternative rock today.

In 1991 retro futurist acts such as Stereolab and Saint Etienne mixed New Wave and kitschy 1960s pop. In the aftermath of grunge, the British music press launched a campaign to promote the New Wave of New Wave. This campaign involved overtly punk and New Wave influenced acts such as Elastica and Smash but was eclipsed by Britpop.

During the 2000s a number of acts emerged that mined from a diversity of New Wave and post-punk influences. Among these were The Strokes, Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, The Epoxies, She Wants Revenge, Bloc Party, Foals, Kaiser Chiefs, and The Killers. These acts were sometimes labeled ‘New New Wave.’ New Wave was revived yet again during the late 2000s with acts such as The Ting Tings, Tegan and Sara, Hot Chip, Cut Copy, MGMT, Passion Pit, La Roux, Ladytron, and Santigold.


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