By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.
June 9, 2013
It was an era of one-hit wonder bands, of counter-culture bar bands who hit it big for a minute then self-destructed or disappeared. It was a knee-jerk reaction to the musical wasteland of disco-pop. It was a rebellion against rock’n’roll, but at the same time it was a return to the roots of rock’n’roll (somewhat). It was ambiguous, a little bit new (electronic/experimental), a little bit old (retro power pop), and altogether to be exploited by the suits who were looking for the next big thing.
I am talking about the years 1976 to 1985, when Stiff Records, that little British label which seemed to be at the beginnings of the “new” music, was in its first incarnation. I am talking about British pub rock, as it morphed into the first wave of British punk rock, as it morphed into the so-called “New Wave.”
For me, born in 1960, weaned on classical music, I discovered the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in my junior high years after the Beatles had already broken up. I lived a sheltered life in the suburbs of a white, middle class American city. I knew I hated disco music, but I couldn’t afford to buy records, and the only way to discover new music was to listen to the radio. It took awhile for the corporate suits to figure out how to exploit the New Wave, so I didn’t discover British punk until about 1978 when it was being trashed on a TV documentary as the next thing that had come along to corrupt youth. I still remember seeing the Sex Pistols for the first time in a television news show as representative of a bad trend in music. I knew I wanted to see more, but by the time I had become aware of that first wave of British punk rock, it had pretty much self-immolated or drowned in a pool of its own stage vomit. The Sex Pistols crumpled before they ever got to tour America. But I was ready. Later, while I never got to see the Sex Pistols, I did get to see their brothers in early punkdom The Clash, the greatest show I’ve ever seen in my 52 years of life, and it won’t be matched, because I’ll never be in my early 20s again. It was a whirl of slam dancing and stage diving, political posturing, and great, great music.
New Wave music was the answer to the staleness of arena rock and mirror-ball discotheque music that had many of us despairing over the radio of the mid-1970’s. There were obvious precursors to the New Wave that had been at it since earlier in the decade, such as Blondie—but it took the pressure cooker of the first wave of British punk, combined with the urban white boy restlessness of an anti-rock, anti-disco revolution to create the New Wave. The term “New Wave” is rather ambiguous, and there is no shortage of bands who despised the term, called themselves “No Wave” and other monikers. My best stab at a definition is that “New Wave” was a new music, not mainstream rock n roll and definitely not mainstream disco, AND that New Wave was a music that existed at the intersection between punk rock, electronic/experimental, and retro power-pop. Some acts had more of one and less of the other of that combination of three main elements. Therefore, the New Wave could encompass acts as diverse as The Clash (heavy on the punk rock influence) and Soft Cell (heavy on the electronic) and The Knack (heavy on the retro power-pop).
Oddly enough (and I’ve never actually read any other critics who have pointed this out), the same dissatisfaction with the mid-1970s music scene that created punk and New Wave also created what eventually became hip-hop. While punk and New Wave were fermenting in the pub rock bands of the U.K. and places like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City, hip-hop was starting its long rise to preeminence on the streets of the Bronx. That’s another story, but it’s an interesting parallel and worthy of a thesis. While hip-hop has taken over the world, the New Wave never actually went away either. It’s kind of like how the dinosaurs didn’t go extinct but supposedly lived on as modern birds. On radio, in an attempt to categorize the thing, it got called “modern rock” after a while, and now it’s just “alternative.” In the clubs and concert halls, the New Wave continued to exert its influence in a myriad of musical forms, among them post-punk, techno, house, ambient, drum’n’bass, grunge, goth, and probably a thousand others.
Stiff Records was not the only punk/New Wave label, but it has a special place. First, because it’s British. And Second, because it’s records captured the pub rock that led to punk and the New Wave and included the first recordings by a few of the really important acts of the New Wave. Elvis Costello, Devo, and Madness all had early records on Stiff before they were snatched up by major labels. Stiff had a tendency to catch major acts on the way down or on the way up. They never seemed to be the label where any given artist had their biggest commercial success. The major exception was Ian Dury. His album New Boots and Panties!!, including the hit “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll,” was at one time or another Stiff’s major source of sales. I am pleased to say that The Dalenberg Library of Antique Popular Literature owns a copy of this precious vinyl.
The New Wave was characterized by one-hit wonder bands, and in the case of Stiff Records, most of the bands were no-hit wonders. Only a few supergroups emerged from the New Wave, and none from the Stiff camp. The Police, The Talking Heads, Duran Duran, and U2 are perhaps the most memorable, and to a certain extent Madonna and The Red Hot Chili Peppers trace their origins to the New Wave. But if you mine the Stiff archives, it is impressive how many of the bands capture the quintessential elements of punk and the New Wave as you would have heard it in the clubs in the late 70s and early 80s. For instance, I was just listening to a band on Stiff that nobody’s ever heard of called Department S. They were amazing, full of punk sensibilities with enough synthesizers to have made the transition to New Wave, but they didn’t go anywhere, and they are barely a footnote in musical history. Another f’rinstance: one of the greatest punk songs ever recorded (albeit a parody of punk) was on Stiff—a one-minute-thirty-eight-second shocker called “Kill” by the comedy band Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias.
Arguably my personal favorite of the Stiff acts was a strange vocalist named Lene Lovich who, at one point, claimed as her keyboardist the inimitable Thomas Dolby prior to his fame from the song “She Blinded Me With Science.” Lovich and Dolby had a minor hit together called “New Toy,” an infectious number that you can’t get out of your head. Her first album for Stiff, Flex, is a masterpiece of quirky vocals and New Wave genius, and it is one of the prized pieces of vinyl in the Dalenberg Library. Interestingly, most of my Lene Lovich vinyls are plug copies discarded to used record stores from defunct radio stations, so I may be the only person in America who actually collects her records, because apparently nobody bought them.