New! Wave! (I like?? it!)
For the last few weeks (or longer, who knows what time is) I’ve been contemplating something Past Sarah would’ve poo-pooed: New Wave. I decided long ago, after not really exploring it because that’s what being young and judgmental is all about, that New Wave isn’t for me. All the songs sound the same therefore all the bands sound the same yadda yadda. My ideas about it were clouded and ill-informed. Synth-pop what? Power Pop? OK so I’ve always loved Fountains of Wayne but after a few spins of Matthew Sweet’s 1991 LP Girlfriend I easily decided Power Pop is not for me. It’s a whiny voice situation and saccharine. (Currently trying to get into Alvvays but here, again, it seems that every song on their new record Blue Rev sounds the same; I listened and waited for a new song and looked down to see I was many down the track list.) But! I’ve always loved Ska (The Specials are a top five favorite band for me) and have an older sister who brought Reel Big Fish’s Cheer Up (2002) home from college, a strange introduction to modern music to my ears (my adolescence was full of nothing but Classic Rock until freshman year of (college) radio) that made me go: this is fun! Horns!! But is Ska a part of New Wave? There are many iterations, or waves, of Ska but I’m not going to get into that here. And perhaps the idea of “waves” of Ska has something more to say about its New Wave inclusion (at least according to the Internet).
But maybe this New Wave scratch goes back a little further. A few years ago when another October brought on a craving for Donnie Darko and its spooky ’80s OST: Echo & The Bunnymen, Tears For Fears, Duran Duran, Joy Division, and the original score. Depending on who you ask, Donnie Darko’s plot is a maze of death obsession, the human condition and expectations of, Fear & Love, and time sensitive hallucinations; others are bored by it (here’s looking at my husband). Like Fight Club, Donnie Darko is about mental illness, only a little more up front about it (lol). And when I hear those songs, I think of how perfect it was to cast Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal as siblings (“whats a fuck ass?!”) but more importantly, how songs are tone and voice, and how sound is story. Whenever “The Killing Moon” or “Notorious” comes on the radio, my mind flashes to a slow motion, glassy portal. New Wave is inherently spooky to me and this is that origin.
But maybe it came a few years ago when I saw Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” (1982) at my local record store. Had it not been a 33 1/3 LP of the single and a b-side for $18, I would’ve gone for it. Come to think of it, I regret not getting it ever since. (Not going with your gut on a vinyl you want has haunted me from a first pressing of RAMONES (1976) all the way to Talking Heads’ live album The Name of the Band is Talking Heads (1982). Cost often dictates decisions.) As a child I was too afraid to go to school on Halloween or trick-or-treat, unable to tell the difference between fantasy & reality; I couldn’t even go down the seasonal aisle at CVS. But as an adult I’ve come to love horror movies as a mirror of society, a commentary on life, satire, and I also love crazy shit: show me something. Spooky songs of the 80s, or I guess we could call it New Wave, comes with that territory. Blanket statement?
But maybe it was before then. Last year when I heard Robert Drake of WXPN in Philadelphia’s monthly show Land of the Lost for October: The Dark Side of New Wave I was charmed as a radio nerd who is always looking for and curating the next theme playlist. Land of the Lost is on from 7p-11p on the last Friday of every month and archived here. Drake is an old school DJ (and an actual DJ in Philly clubs) who includes movie clips, sound bites, sfx, and weird deep-cuts, never repeats. In fact his opening theme is an extended play of the 52’s “Planet Claire” off their s/t: Kate Pierson’s haunting organ & keys never fails and, again, sets the scene. Sound is story. The creepy crawly 1980s got me again.
And then finally the Criterion Channel added the 1983 movie Valley Girl, Nic Cage’s breakout movie!, and it was way better than I expected (and on our to-watch list for a lifetime). It was in that movie I heard Modern English’s “Melt With You” for the first time in its natural state: a pop song released the year before (wow lots of 1982 here: are we sensing a pattern?) as a soundtrack to characters falling in love THAT year in THOSE clothes in THAT culture. I’ve heard the song one hundred million times before but this time it didn’t feel cliche or like boring, played music supervision. In Valley Girl “Melt With You” was honest and new! The OST is full of New Wave: Men At Work, The Psychedelic Furs, Sparks, Eddie Grant, and The Flirts among others.
Valley Girl charmed me and I put the soundtrack on at work only to discover it’s a coworker’s all time favorite flick. But when discussing music with this coworker a week later they were trying to tell me that the B-52’s are Americana. Record fucking scratch. They are wrong. That is wrong. Nothing is more incorrect. This person told me they were “raised by punks who hate hippies” only later for me to figure out their crust punk parents are New Wave people which is false advertising. Last week I learned this coworker has a lot more learning to do when they asked me a) what the Mid Term Elections are, b) what’s an Ivy League school, and finally, the kicker c) what’s MeToo? I can’t say anything more about that other than I am dumbfounded and simply, I moved on. If there’s anything six years in food service has taught me: let people reveal themselves to you (customer & coworker); nothing shows a person more than how they eat what.
So! Last week when I saw The B-52’s Wild Planet (1980) at the record store for $10 I did not hesitate. I have their self-titled debut (1979) on vinyl and love it. The Fork’s Sunday Review (my favorite column: if the writing is good enough: everything is interesting) taught me the LP restored Yoko Ono’s faith in music by way of the wailing & screeching on “Rock Lobster,” among many other groundbreaking things about that record and the 52’s. I’ve been collecting vinyl for almost 20 years (my Discogs here) and I’ve come to the point in my career where it’s about the collection (and the $3 jazz bin). Point being is: I like?? New Wave?! I have Devo’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978) on vinyl (for the collection and their “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)”/for the collection) which I’m now seeing is, in fact, New Wave and not Punk/Post-Punk (or is? all three?). When I read a few books listed in the index of Will Hermes’ ‘Love Goes to Buildings on Fire’ chronicling NYC music from 1972-1977, I discovered (renowned Dylanologist & biographer) Clinton Heylin’s ‘From The Velvets to The Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History For a Post-Punk World’ and the Midwestern punk scene. The best thing about music is there’s always more. Hermes’ book is an all-timer. I recommend it to every music reader I meet.
So what was I thinking when I decided I don’t like New Wave? Like all bad decisions and their declarations: I was misinformed. Always go in to every fight, interview, and conversation with all the information you can gather. Listen to the records. Some do sound all the same and I am not of the New Wave generation, but removed from it; without a regular Gen-Xer in my life, I’ve had my fair share of cultural blind spots for a long time. As I enter my late 30s, I’m catching up. There’s clearly been a low boil in the back of my brain heating up New Wave.
When I started working in Music Programming at SXM as a green 23 year old, my assigned channels were hair metal, new age, spa, and classic country (the Vince Gill persuasion). I had no choice but to think in genre. I was up to my elbows (and two desktop screens) in discographies bigger than any one person (or team of people) could manage. When I tell people my favorite music, I speak in genre (psychedelic rock and jazz), and when I ask them their favorites I ask about genre. Some immediately list off a few artists, sure, but even within my favorite artists, I think within their discography (which also lends to phases & faces of artists: we all evolve) and which records are my favorite that month. New Wave has been making a slow creep into my life. And come to think of it, I’ve been meaning to get into Oingo Boingo. There’s always more! Like not discovering Bob’s Self Portrait (1970) until my 30s, some music just needs time to cook down and come together to make a real pot of stew (is this too many metaphors?). Maybe my 40s will be for classical music (a true blind spot). Who knows what the future will bring! For now I’m stuck in a new wave.
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