New Wave tried to kill the metal… New Wave is unlike most styles of music. It’s hard to define, or even determine when it exactly came into fruition. Despite that, the evolution of New Wave had a massive effect on the music industry.
Hard rock of the late 60s had morphed into more elaborate sets in the 70’s, and categorized as progressive rock; its focus was less on dancing and more about the listening experience. Well known progressive rock bands of the time were Rush, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and early Genesis.
On the flip side, the funk and soul of the ’60s had morphed into disco, which was all about dancing. Disco didn’t exactly have specific bands, with most made up of crossover artists jumping on a popular bandwagon.
With these two genres dominating, what was left for other music lovers? The stripped-down pop-rock of the early ’60s seemed to disappear, or did it? No, in reality, it was kept alive in the garages of all the kids inspired by popular bands.
This garage rock started in the ’60s and was often stripped down compared to their famous counterparts. While these young musicians had high hopes, they often didn’t have any musical education and subpar equipment. This garage rock became punk and later gave birth to New Wave.
New Wave or Punk?
There are several definitions for new wave. The US and the U.K. both claim credit for it, and is synonymous with early punk. Punk was another term used and difficult to define. Even Bruce Springsteen was briefly given the label and any “hard to classify” music was categorized into the genre.
The point of garage rock was to buck the establishment, and any band doing that was labeled a punk. Garage bands didn’t want corporate record deals and big elaborate rock shows. They only wanted to play music! Who cares if you only know a few chords, just play some rock n roll and have fun. Their songs were short, simple, and often containing lyrics with anti-establishment sentiments.
Soon garage rockers started to put more art and fashion into their shows and the scene started to coalesce into punk music (taking much of their inspiration from Bowie and other glam rock acts). Nearly all early bands that were associated with New Wave were initially grouped in with punk bands.
Bands like Television, Blondie, Talking Heads, and Devo were all initially labeled as punk. It wasn’t long before punk became notorious for bad behavior and violence that many record label owners feared would hurt their sales. The word “new wave” had been used for French cinema and a variety of other experimental movements. And what was initially a name change for the sake of sales, soon became two distinct genres.
Evolution of Punk
Punk was bound to branch off into other music styles based on its simplicity and lifestyle. Punk became more than just about music; the fashion, hairstyles, and mannerisms about aggression and sticking it to the status quo.
This was fun for short period, but quickly lost its luster. No doubt punk flourished and grew into many other subgenres, but it is still associated with a lifestyle. To this day most people may like a punk song or two, but only the real devotees can listen to multiple albums in a row without getting annoyed.
If you want to know how much punk you can tolerate you can take a simple test, see how long you can listen to GG Allin! (Just a warning, like a lot of punk he is fond of anger and bad language!)
Punk didn’t just evolve into new forms due to its lifestyle or bad reputation, musicians naturally advance. When you are young and start a garage band your clueless about complicated chords, other genres, and even writing lyrics.
As these bands played more, their music began to take in more influences and they simply became better musicians. New wave was given the name to appeal to mainstream audiences, it’s only natural that the genre itself had to grow musically to keep that appeal alive. Many music purists will see this as selling out, but in reality, without growth, many acts eventually will fail.
Breaking With the Blues
The key difference in punk and new wave compared to other popular music of the time was how it moved away from blues influences. Genres such as classic rock, soul, funk, or disco, had their roots in the blues.
While this may not seem like a big deal, it expanded the idea of rock music from being more than “blues-based”. Other key musical aspects of new wave are its more complicated chord structures and the addition of other instruments, mainly synthesizers. Their lyrics were often less aggressive, more introspective, and even neurotic at times.
Other than the specific lack of blues background, New Wave had so much variety, initially it was hard to determine what was considered New Wave. After 1977, bands that were called New Wave were bands that didn’t sound like the Punk Rock Band, Ramones.
Ironically the genre of new wave is more defined by what it isn’t. To be considered New Wave you had to be experimental, provocative, and anti-establishment, but still acceptable to mainstreams listeners. If you stop and think, that is a very broad definition!
New Wave, No Rules
As with a few other music movements, new wave wasn’t a set of specific music rules. With funk we have an exact musical formula; the rhythm and bass keep a constant steady funky beat while the guitars and horns play short staccato notes; New wave doesn’t have such rules. New Wave bands can differ greatly from each other, however in regards to their fashion, it’s very one-sided and is synonymous with nerdy looking and educated white middle-class kids (look at Elvis Costello).
This is one reason why “real” punk rockers looked down on new wave. Regardless of punk’s attitude towards the emergence of new wave, had those bands not existed, punk would have likely disappeared. New Wave did the music world a favor by making the general idea of punk palatable to the masses.
The Tech That Helped
After the split with punk, New Wave eventually became its own genre and from there expanded until it lost its originality and evolved into other forms of music. Like most genres, it became too popular and eventually faded, but it had a great run thanks to being at the right moment in history. During the late 70’s and early 80’s, a couple of technological factors helped it become the style we know it as today.
Electronic music and synthesizers were not new in the 70’s and was experimented with electronic devices that made various sounds. Soon people like Bob Moog were making these devices into playable instruments.
The Beatles were introduced to the Moog synth by The Monkees. For years only the wealthy could afford a synth but as other makers began developing their own synths, by the mid to late 70’s the synth became significantly affordable.
Eventually, the synth became synonymous with new wave bands. It made sense considering the “nerdy” music students who played in a band will be attracted to an instrument created by nerdy electronic students!
The Rise of MTV
Another big technological break for new wave was TV, and not just any television, but MTV. The first video to broadcast on the channel was the song “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the new wave band The Buggles.
From that point, many new wave bands were heavily promoted by MTV. The channel wanted to be edgy, provocative, and symbolic of the younger generation. New wave music helped them do it, while remaining mainstream enough to be accepted.
The launch of MTV also helped British new wave bands reach American audiences; known as the Second British Invasion. This included bands like the Human League, The Police, and Joe Jackson. Even Australian new wave type acts like Men At Work were also featured on the channel.
Eventually, new wave became watered down by the influence of pop, with bands like Duran Duran and Wham solidifying the end of new wave. In addition, with MTV began focusing on heavy metal and hair bands, New Wave had fragmented into too many styles during the mid-’80s.
Similar to 70’s progressive rock and disco, New Wave it was replaced by other mainstream movements. As new wave lost its punk roots it started to meld with mainstream pop and other synth oriented electronic dance music.
This lead people to grow tired of the synthesizer, reviving the comeback of the guitar. The guitar always had a musical presence in New Wave, but as a secondary instrument. Overtime, New Wave was categorized as synth-pop, post-punk, and the New Romantic scene.
Bands that were late to the new wave genre were Echo and the Bunnymen, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Cure. These bands were darker and less pop influences.
Bands like Gary Numan, A-ha, and Erasure, began focusing on synths and electronic music, becoming part of the synth-pop genre. This helped lead to modern electronic music that is made only with synths. A lot of new wave music was not necessarily innovative, but brought more styles of music, new instruments, and unique fashion to the average listener.
Since new wave is so hard to define and are categorized under other sub-genres, does it even have a legacy? These days, indie music can trace its roots back to new wave, and even eschew major labels and record themselves.
New Wave showed us we don’t have to commit to a single genre, and some of the best music can’t be defined by one style. The lasting legacy of new wave is that anyone can take the music, art, and fashion that they know and love, and piece it together into a great song!