The Shock Of The New
Updated: Oct 12, 2022
It's time to give the often derided New Wave movement of the late-1970s another look says teen survivor Dan Synge in his new music themed memoir You Really Got A Hold On Me
Put in simple pop cultural terms, my 1970’s ran pretty much like this: listening mostly to Beatles, Wings or Motown compilations; quite liking some of my parents’ easy listening albums including ones by Dionne Warwick, Harry Nilsson and Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass; discovering an Elton John LP and laughing at the sheer absurdity of The World of Pete & Dud at a friend’s house; not sticking up for bands like Thin Lizzy on Top of The Pops when my granny said they looked like girls; dipping into the poppier end of glam rock (Slade, T Rex, Suzi Quatro etc) without ever having to wear eyeliner or glitter; getting belatedly into 1950’s rock and roll after another friend lent me a home-made cassette tape featuring songs by Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and others.
This unimaginative and somewhat retrospective trajectory came to an abrupt end around the summer of 1977 (for me at least) when my rock and roll loving friend suddenly appeared for a play date in bondage strides and was hustling me to buy his cast off vinyl by The Jam and The Vibrators. I had already been subjected to Never Mind The Bollocks in my older cousin’s bedroom, an experience that left me bewildered yet willing to find out more, but I wasn’t about to become bona fide punk rocker myself. Besides, I was only just getting the hang of being a teenager and my tastes tended towards the lighter, more musically competent end of the wave; Stranglers, Buzzcocks, Eddie and The Hot Rods and Boomtown Rats.
However, almost overnight, and in the midst of our mind-blowing teen awakening, some clear battle lines had been drawn. Never mind the so-called ‘punk wars’, we 14-year-olds suddenly found ourselves unwittingly in the vanguard a brand new movement: New Wave.
Not to be confused with the influential French cinematic approach of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, New Wave was a kind of lazy moniker coined presumably by someone at the NME for anything that didn’t quite match the requirements of the safety pins and Anarchy brigade.
The punk purists would deride New Wave for its so-called bandwagon jumping artists, some like Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, who were blatant pub-rock veterans.
Applied normally to the era’s most melodic breaking acts such as Squeeze, Joe Jackson or The Cars, New Wave was in fact a broad church both musically, culturally and aesthetically. For us eager and none too savvy recipients, it shone out brightly from the crowd with its outrageous coloured vinyl pressings, skinny-tied, Rayban-wearing guitar players, modern synth motifs, and often crude allusions to 1960’s pop and soul. Pitched besides the more Neanderthal punk or ‘new wave of British heavy metal’ (NWOBHM) bands of the day, the more astute New Wave musicians showed a prescient post-modern irony for their craft and the adoption of bizarre nerdy tropes; think Elvis Costello with retro geek glasses and Devo in atomic era space suits or the out-and-out whack-ness of Talking Heads and B-52’s.
Songs were often delivered in a nervy, hurried whine. Lyrically, it spoke heavily of the suburban, white-collar experience. Martha and The Muffins complained in their 1980 hit Echo Beach of a boring office job; ‘the only thing that helps me pass the time away, is knowing I'll be back at Echo Beach someday’, while The Members from commutable West Byfleet in Surrey pleaded similar ennui in The Sound of the Suburbs. If I remember rightly, my friend had it on CLEAR vinyl.
A can-do, streetwise punk-lite attitude fizzed and popped on a thousand 7-inch singles while names like The Cure and The Vapors could be dropped like cultural cluster bombs via tiny lapel pin badges on school blazers or read up on in photocopied fanzines dished out in the queue at The Marquee or the 100 Club. Aligning with New Wave instead of the more turbulent, short-lived punk, certainly worked a treat for eventual chart-toppers The Police and Blondie, their various members having laboured under different musical guises including folk-rock and jazz fusion since the early 1970’s.
Although the big corporates saw a veritable gold rush, the genre’s musical output was pioneered largely by independent record labels. Brother of Police drummer Stewart, Miles Copeland persuaded A&M Records to launch IRS signing up all-girl Los Angeles punkettes The Go-Go’s. Stiff Records, the achingly hip label that put The Damned on the punk map with New Rose in 1977, boasted an eclectic assortment of punks, ska revivalists and bluesy pub rockers. Such oddballs and misfits -- among them Ian Dury, Lene Lovich and Jona Lewie -- were perfect for this moment and suddenly there were new leases of life for these relative old-timers, all of whom embarked on the notorious Stiff tours of the late 1970’s.
The scene centred largely around New York and London, but the now critically underrated New Wave had its diverse, global side too. The Pretenders, the Hereford rockers who reached number one with Brass In Pocket at the fag end of 1979 were led by Akron, Ohio-born Chrissie Hyde. From Brisbane, Australia, The Go-Betweens had female drummer Lindy Morrison whose unconventional style underpinned songs like Cattle and Cane or Streets of Your Town. And the leading girls didn’t just front up with electric guitars like Martha Davis of The Motels (from Berkeley, California) or Holly Vincent of Holly and The Italians (Los Angeles). Money, the novelty 1979 hit by arty synth pop collective The Flying Lizards featured Deborah Evans-Strickland with defiant anti-singing and a crystal cut upper-class delivery. Similarly, the catchy synth loop intro to 1978’s single Germ Free Adolescents marked a departure from the punk bish bash bosh previously served up by X-Ray Spex and their mixed race singer Poly Styrene from Brixton. New wave was big in Belgium (Telex, Plastic Bertrand), Paris (Telephone) and Liverpool, home of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, a somewhat unstarry duo who were weaned on Kraftwerk and who archly sang about atomic weapons, nuclear energy and Joan of Arc.
Not quite punk yet hardly the polished rock acts they must have secretly admired, New Wave artists shone briefly as the decade turned but soon New Wave had fragemented into Power Pop, Synth Pop, Goth and Post-Punk, a complex music genre best understood by listening to the free Rough Trade cassette sampler C81 that came with the NME in May 1981 featuring Josef K, The Raincoats, Cabaret Voltaire and others.
Meanwhile back in my teenage bedroom, the distinctions between the ‘now’ and the ‘then’ became hugely important when it came to my opinion on the prog rock albums that took pride of place in my sister’s now woefully uncool record collection. And emboldened by this adopted new ideology, manifesting itself in me ditching my Falmer flared jeans and a disastrous self-inflicted punk rock haircut, I decided to trade her dormant copies of Brain Salad Surgery by Emerson Lake & Palmer and a live Deep Purple LP for singles by Rich Kids and The Skids at a second-hand record shop in Greenwich, where we now lived.
At school a trendy English teacher had, in his wisdom, helped to set up a Rock Society so that we could play our favourite LP’s on a communal record player during the lunch break. This well-intentioned initiative merely helped to illuminate the clear cultural divisions at play among this group of boys aged roughly 14 to 18 years.
The older sixth formers with their long unkempt hair, facial ‘bum fluff’ and Hawkwind albums bulging out of plastic Virgin Records store bags didn’t stand a chance against me and my friends who came armed with Generation X and Sham 69 singles. Given the time constraints of a typical lunch break, a snappy three-minute assault such as The Clash’s Tommy Gun had far more chance of getting onto the turntable than a turgid LP track by Genesis or Barclay James Harvest.
Very soon the infectious energy of this new movement led me and a couple of similarly leaning classmates to form a band of our own, This explains why, just like Jim Maclaine the anti-hero of the book-turned-film That’ll Be The Day, I found myself aged 15 standing outside a junk shop in Woolwich High Street cradling a £30 second hand electric guitar.
Extract from You Really Got A Hold On Me, the music themed memoir out soon