New Wave is often remembered more for skinny ties and silly haircuts than for musical merits. The Police, Elvis Costello, The Cars and Blondie all lent some respect to the genre, peaking in 1983 when The Police’s Synchronicity went Number One worldwide.
So what exactly was New Wave? Well, essentially it was all post-punk era music (starting circa 1977) that journalists, record label folk and disc jockeys didn’t want to call Punk Rock.
Despite punk’s grassroots success, to call a band ‘Punk’ still spelt commercial doom because it was relegated outsider status.
Hence the term ‘New Wave’ was substituted to indicate bands and artists were progressive and different but not necessarily threatening, and certainly not devoid of commercial potential.
As far as the mainstream music business was concerned, New Wave began on 22 July 1977 with the release of Phonogram’s New Wave compilation album.
The term had been knocking around for a while – Elvis Costello‘s debut 45 was described as “new wave rock” in March 1977. Malcolm McLaren had wanted to call Punk “new wave”. In 1960, new wave meant the new French Cinema. And former manager of The Who, Pete Meaden, had called his production company New Wave Music in the late 60s.
New Wave yielded many fine bands and great records, but there were just as many posers and fakers who believed that reasonable facsimiles would sell as well as the real thing. In some cases they were right.
In America, New Wave was the closest thing to UK Punk. In the Bowery, New York, at CBGB‘s, bands like The Ramones and Richard Hell and the Voidoids were ‘punk’, but Blondie and Talking Heads were ‘New Wave’.
In underground music scenes across the USA, New Wave could describe bands as far afield as The Cars, The Motels, The Go-Go’s, Jonathan Richman, The B-52s, Devo, X, The Residents and dozens more, good, bad and indifferent, who took their musical cues from punk rock yet seemed less overtly anti-social and more marketable.
This explains why nearly all the aforementioned bands landed contracts with major labels who saw greater profit potential in New Wave than in Punk. Primarily because in the disparate world of New Wave, there was no formula for success.
Despite being lumped into the same category, there were significant differences between the radio-friendly pop fodder offered by The Motels and the art-punk of Talking Heads. Also, some of the performers dubbed ‘New Wave’ had in fact been around since before the days of punk (eg Richman and The Residents) or were just plain weird fringe bands with zero commercial appeal.
What became clear was that New Wave tried to cover too much ground; Power pop bands were New Wave. So were art-punks. So was the kitschy dance-rock of The B-52s. Ultimately it was confusing, and music fans just wanted good music, regardless of what genre it was assigned.
Across the pond in Britain, New Wave began by watering down punk’s aggression with the anti-pop star attitude of pub rock, and produced some of music’s best singer/songwriters. Elvis Costello, Graham Parker and Nick Lowe (although Nick had been around the block a time or two) created music that bristled with venom and sarcasm and was mostly free from the self-indulgence of the American singer/songwriters of the early 70s.
As in America, English New Wave seemed to encompass anything and everything. There was the speedy trash-pop of The Rezillos (a sort of Scottish B-52s), the dread-filled gloom of Joy Division, the calculated , melodic pop/punk of The Police, the left wing rantings of Gang Of Four, the feminist reggae-funk of The Slits, the retro-psychedelia of The Cure and later bands such as Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets and the dour but tuneful wonderfulness of The Smiths.
There were also mini-revivals associated with British New Wave, such as the Mod Revival movement which produced (most notably) The Jam, and the Ska Revival which produced The Specials, The Selecter and Madness.
Today, what was once New Wave is now ‘Alternative Rock’; A term that also suffers from diminished meaning as its use expands and increases. Ironically, the buzz-saw guitar sound from the early days of punk rock has now fuelled the mega-platinum success of bands like Green Day and The Offspring.
Truth be told, no matter what the time period, sweeping terms will be used by critics and the music ‘biz’ to grapple with the question “How can you lump a lot of like-minded bands who don’t play the same kind of music into one category?”.
The fact remains that great New Wave bands would have existed no matter what they were called. And so much good music has been associated with new wave that it is a very important part of contemporary music history.