I’m Tense and Nervous and I Can’t Relax – A Six-Pack of New Wave

Wikipedia: “New Wave is a broad music genre that encompasses numerous pop-oriented styles from the late 1970s and the 1980s. It was originally used as a catch-all for the music that emerged after punk rock, including punk itself, but may be viewed retrospectively as a more accessible counterpart of post-punk.

Although New Wave shared punk’s DIY philosophy, the artists were more influenced by the lighter strains of 1960s pop while opposed to mainstream “corporate” rock, which they considered creatively stagnant, and the generally abrasive and political bents of punk rock.”

New Wave was arguably the last great rock movement prior to the so-called “grunge” period of the 90s. Not saying that there wasn’t good rock during the ’80s but that seemed to be a period of great synthesizers, over-production, and – to these ears anyway – no real musical movement of any sort.

But boy did I love the New Wave era. FM radio was still great, still able to break bands. I seem to recall that I was taking some sort of night course when I would drive around and hear “Roxanne.”

And let us not forget that more traditional rockers like Tom Petty were coming on the scene, Springsteen was touring and Pink Floyd were still very much a viable band. Add to that the fact that you had bands like Steely Dan who managed to push jazz-influenced tunes on the radio and you had quite the fervent period for music. I look back on that era with a mixture of great fondness and no small measure of sadness that it’s gone, never to return.

I’ll highlight six or perhaps a half-dozen here and then add in a few goodies on the inevitable Spotify playlist. (The very idea that something like Spotify would exist back in this prehistoric time was unimaginable. You either bought the album or you didn’t hear it. Unless you borrowed it from a friend and never gave it back.)

Well, since I mentioned the Police, let’s start there. Easily not only one of my favorite bands of this era but of all time. We saw Sting a few years back but never the full band. They are all still very much with us. One more reunion eh, guys?

These guys weren’t punks – they were well-trained musicians who just rode the punk train. And I’m glad they did  Otherwise I would be “So Lonely.” I wound up doing all “live” YouTube versions, drawn as much from that era as I could.

Spotify link

Whereas the Police came from the UK, Blondie grew out of the fervid New York City scene of Max’s Kansas City and CBGB. “inspired by the burgeoning new music scene at the Mercer Arts Center in Manhattan guitarist, Chris Stein sought to join a similar band.

He joined the Stilettoes in 1973 as their guitarist and formed a romantic relationship with one of the band’s vocalists, Debbie Harry, a former waitress, and Playboy Bunny. They started a band and the name Blondie came from, of course, NYC truck drivers yelling “Hey, Blondie” as Harry walked down the street.”

Blondie were unusual in that they were as influenced by dance music like disco as much as they were by rock. As a general rule, I hated disco. But the ones that Blondie did were not mindless Village People shit but rock songs with a disco-inspired beat (like the Stones “Miss You” or the Dead’s “Shakedown Street.”)

In fact, “Call Me” was composed by Italian disco producer Giorgio Moroder whose name you can’t think of without thinking of Donna Summer. It was the main theme song of the 1980 film American Gigolo. Moroder had asked Harry to write the lyrics and melody which she did from the perspective of the main character in the film, a male prostitute.

Spotify link

Elvis Costello is another of my favorite New Wave and all-time artists. In fact we saw him just a few years ago. Alas, he has decided he has now gone the Bob Dylan route and it appears he’s now a crooner. Guess you can’t wear the “angry young man” shirt forever (He said his early songs were based on “revenge and guilt.”)

I’ve written about EC a couple of times and there isn’t much more to say about this great performer/songwriter/musicologist. If you haven’t heard his first three albums, you missed something.

Of “Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes,” Elvis says, “I wrote it in 10 minutes on a train out of Liverpool — the whole song in one gulp. … And then there was the whole comedic thing of getting it down.

Nowadays you can demo things on your phone. I had to block it out in my mind. Then I had to get off the train, get to my mother’s house, grab an old guitar I had there and play the song until I imprinted it in my memory. I had no tape recorder. I had no way other than repetition to drill it into my head so I wouldn’t lose it.”

Spotify link

The Cars sprang out of what was once an exciting, fairly eclectic set of bands in the Boston area. I did a post on them a while back that will give you the history. Alas, two of the original founders of the band, Ric Ocasek and Ben Orr have left us. But they have left a legacy of great New Wave/pop rock that still stands on its own. Turn on a classic rock station for five minutes.

“Just What I Needed” is probably as typical of their sound as anything else. I love what Billboard said about this tune: “Yes, The Cars wrote countless Perfect Pop Songs. But there’s Perfect Pop Songs, and there’s pop songs that deserve a Nobel prize. ‘Just What I Needed’ undoubtedly falls under the latter camp:

For its stupefyingly simple and brilliant stop-start intro, for its addictive post-verse synth whine, for its full-release chorus rush, for its first two lines summing up toxic romance better than any entire song has in the 40 years since (“I don’t mind you coming here, and wasting all my time/ ‘Coz when you’re standing oh so near, I kinda lose my mind.”)

Spotify link

When I think New Wave, I automatically think Talking Heads. I’ve written about this band perhaps too often. Have I? I’m not sure. Maybe not often enough.

At the suggestion of my music-loving chiropractor the esteemed Dr. Jean-Marc, I read – or listened to – the Audible version  of drummer Chris Franz’ autobiography. It’s a great look at how the band came to be. And let’s just say that David Byrne is perhaps not his favorite person of all time and leave it at that. Let’s just enjoy the incredibly fucked-up but great, “Psycho Killer” just in time for Halloween.

Ce que j’ai fait, ce soir-là
Ce qu’elle a dit, ce soir-là
Réalisant mon espoir
Je me lance, vers la gloire

Spotify link

Devo’s biography will tell you that they originally came from Akron, Ohio. But to these eyes (and ears), they are unquestionably from the planet Weird, just west of planet Zappa. (Chrissie Hynde – another Akronite – played in a band with Mark Mothersbaugh at Kent State in the early pre-Pretender days.)

“The name DEVO comes from the concept of de-evolution and the band’s related idea that instead of continuing to evolved, mankind had begun to regress as evidenced by the dysfunction and herd mentality of American society. (Clearly, they were onto something – ME)

I ask you, has there ever been a more motivational, inspirational song than Whip It? Of course there hasn’t

Now whip it
Into shape
Shape it up
Get straight
Go forward
Move ahead
Try to detect it
It’s not too late
To whip it
Whip it good!

Spotify link

15 thoughts on “I’m Tense and Nervous and I Can’t Relax – A Six-Pack of New Wave

  1. Good playlist – I don’t really know Devo for some reason, but all the rest are great.

    For some reason, all the good rock went underground during the 1980s in the US. Bands like The Meat Puppets, The Replacements, Husker Du, The Minutemen, and the Pixies were natural successors to new wave but had to eke out an existence travelling round in old vans. While in the UK, new wave derived bands like The Smiths and New Order were in the mainstream.

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    1. Don’t know Devo? Wow. They were big in that era. Very popular. Couldn’t turn the radio on without hearing ‘Whip It’ or their cover of ‘Satisfaction.’ Plus MTV.

      Yes, those are all good, viable bands you called out. Seemed to be less of a blast of bands that happened all at once like punk or New Wave. Although you could probably put Smiths, Joy Division, Cure and New Order in some sort of collective bag.

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      1. I’ve heard about Devi, just never found an album for cheap or heard them on the radio.

        I guess REM got big eventually, but not until late in the 1980s. Hair metal dominated mainstream rock in the US, the UK was much cooler.

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        1. U2 idolised Joy Division in their early years – they got a bit grander once they got Eno on board. And R.E.M. basically eschewed guitar solos and their early stuff like Murmur is pretty austere – even if it’s a little jangly for straight out new wave.

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        2. A lot of my favourite REM stuff is concentrated on their first four albums. They had some great moments after that but the early phase was their most consistent IMO.

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  2. Nice list, Jim. It’s funny, if you had asked me, I wouldn’t have associated The Police and Elvis Costello with New Wave. Talking Heads, Blondie and The Cars, one the other hand, would have been a yes.

    I guess New Wave was such a broad genre spanning multiple other genres. In any case, at the end of the day, what really matters is that you like it, not what you call it.

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    1. Actually the Police and EC are some of my first thoughts on New Wave. It’s the first thing in Wikipedia on both of them. They were exactly in that era and they fit what I think of as that genre – the energy of punk with much better musicianship.

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    1. Me too. This is just great stuff. I could do Part Two of this at some point. As I mentioned in the piece, I look back fondly to this era. Not only was I young, but there was great music in the air. Boston was one of the music hotspots. It still has a thriving college population. But that scene is gone baby gone.

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      1. Yes it was a fertile time for some very good music. There were a couple guys in my city who had a cable music show and they would play this stuff with clips and videos etc. It was a great source for music. Plus a radio station had a late night program with a cool DJ that also played all this stuff and more . CB was a happy guy.

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