Music

NEW WAVE:NO-STAR ROCK

David Livingstone April 7 1980
Music

NEW WAVE:NO-STAR ROCK

David Livingstone April 7 1980

NEW WAVE:NO-STAR ROCK

Music

David Livingstone

The mirrored ball high in the arched roof of the old dance hall remembered its role, turning sedately to cast speckled circles of light on the faces of the dancers. Indeed the dancers themselves, some with shocking pink hair, others in wide-shouldered leopard skin jump suits, were two-stepping— but not in the fashion of their parents, who had glided out Saturday nights of the Depression and war years in this same lakeshore dance hall, Toronto’s Palais Royale. These dancers were hopping rhythmically from one foot to another—one, two, one, two—to a brand new beat, a mixture of the hard four/four of rock ’n’ roll and the slight syncopation of West Indian ska music, pumped out by a British band called Thé Specials, a beat that made standing still a waste of legs. White shirts and shapeless jackets apparently bequeathed by the death of a salesman; grey porkpie hats tucked over hair cut so short the scalp gleamed through; ordinary faces except for the toothless grin of the keyboard player; this was the look of the band that had Toronto hot on a cold winter night. A look that was pulled on like protection by many of the fans jumping on the dance floor, a uniform for the ’80s. “Was there any-

thing like this in the ’60s?” two young journalists asked older members of the crowd as the show wound down. “Yes,” the oldsters wanted to answer, “the energy.”

The energy of new wave is reminiscent of the mid-’60s, when that first 60* British rock invasion changed the look (and heart) of a generation, and some fans contend that the new music— which includes more styles

and sounds every moment— is just a revival of good old rock ’n’ roll. Listen harder, past the nostalgia of’60s-style organs and the self-conscious parodies of Beatle harmonies. Listen to the pared-down musical arrangements, the dissonant guitars, the sometimes annihilating beat, the compressed-sounding voices with their rich edges trimmed off, the mingled wit ® and cool despair of the lyrics. (It's better than pleasure and it hurts more than pain /Contort your body and adjust your soul are the ’50s-style instructions to a new dance song by James White and The Blacks.) It’s undeniably music for the ’80s, for children of limited expectations, for urban dwellers (suburban dwellers) facing a future made strange by technology, the price of housing, inflation, threats of war. If punk rock was angry, new wave is cool—coolly prepared to cope with mod-

ern life.

And though it moods for moderns, its values would sound reassuringly familiar to those dancers who circled the floor of the Palais Royale in the ’30s and ’40s: self-sufficiency, independence, integrity, I-will-do-it-myself. Despite its sometimes alarming punk trappings, lime green Spandex pants paired with clashing orange shirts, new wave music is the farthest two-step away from decadence, from disco, from the incessant music industry hype of the past few years. Its byword is not dance, dance, dance but think, think, think.

It’s almost as if new wavers have been reading How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years-, having replaced disco, new wave is the only pop music trend at the moment that is growing. The pioneer success in North America of groups such as Blondie, The Police and

The Cars, registered in lists of last year’s musical hits, was just a beginning. Currently on the pop charts are The Romantics, The Jam, The Undertones, Pretenders, Buzzcocks, Madness and more. In early February The Specials — unheralded — opened twice for The Police in Vancouver and before they could leave town they had to play one night by themselves to satisfy their fans’ demands. Radio is suddenly with it; big-city FM stations are vying to be the first with the most new wave. Even AM radio is beginning to see the light: five weeks after its first sellout appearance, XTC was back in Toronto to appear at Massey Hall and to discover that its single, Making Plans for Nigel, had beaten out super-group Pink Floyd for number one at a major AM station. New wave has taken early root in Canada: perhaps it’s the British connection. Major acts—Talking Heads, The Clash, Dave Edmunds, The Police, Joe Jackson, Tom Verlaine and others—have sold proportionately higher here than in the United States. “Talking Heads have sold gold and the B-52’s platinum,” says a spokesman for WEA Music of Canada. “In fact, the Toronto market for the B-

52’s is the largest in the world. We’re now releasing DEVO’S Satisfaction as lt; a single because AM stations are interI ested now that it no longer sounds so Í strange.”

But far better than in the scorekeeping data of the music business, an industry well-known for confusing sales statistics with standards, the spirit of new wave may be read in the sound itself, the style of those who make it and the attitude of those who come to listen. Though persistently tagged “new wave,” the new music does not submit easily to classification. It takes influences from pop, rock, reggae, jazz and disco, and it is brash enough to borrow lessons from “serious” sources such as the work of electronics composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich, muddying the distinction between “popular” music and its time-honored superior, art. It is primitive and it is “post-modern.” Performers play guitars as if they were just invented but take synthesizers for granted. Their stance combines the cool of the street-wise tough with the nutty composure of the minimalist artist. And for a new generation of city dwellers who consider going to concerts a staple of life, new wave is loud, simple, fun, cheap and as close as the local bar.

The new music has been gaining ground since 1975, binding together the various voices of those who were against the then predominant Los An-

geles laid-back pop music styles. The label “new wave” first gained currency in 1978; while to some it implied the sophisticated pop sensibility of acts like Blondie or Nick Lowe (Gotta ticket for the Bay City Rollers) rather than the hard-driving nihilism of The Sex Pistols and The Dead Boys (There ain't no future and there ain't no past), new wave was then used interchangeably with “punk.” However, by the time Sid Vicious had recorded his inventive version of Paul Anka’s My Way, not long before his death in February, 1979, the word punk was already sounding oldfashioned and “new wave” became the common coinage. Now, the brash idiocy of the Ramones, the cerebral control of Robert Fripp, the gregarious conscience of The Clash or the cultivated cool of Gary Numan no longer fit so well in the category of new wave, and most performers prefer no label at all.

Although they followed few musical rules, new wave artists did want a clean break from the lavish, over-dubbed studio productions, extravagant stage shows and gaudy promotion that were the conventions of ’70s rock. And, appropriate to the pared-down scale of operation, there emerged a new breed of performers who, though not shy of theatrical gestures, came to stand against empty ones—no-star rockers who looked as plain as they talked. They could be inept without apology. Patzy Poizon of Toronto’s now-disbanded The Curse was not exactly Keith Moon on drums, but letting drop one of her heavily eyelined lids in a slow-motion wink in the middle of some old ’60s boy-girl song, she was living proof that there are other talents besides musical proficiency. Casting aside obvious glamor, new wave performers disown the hype mill. Talking Heads distributed a bio which read, with refreshing innocence, “The

image we present along with our songs is what we are really like.”

The words that come again and again to mind when talking to new wave performers are integrity and independence, a down-to-earth attitude miles away from the self-indulgences of a previous generation of pop stars. “The most we can do is be ourselves,” says Martha Ladly, just back from a British tour with Martha and The Muffins, a Toronto band that music insiders are sure is about to “break.” As befits their roots in the suburbs of Thornhill and Etobicoke (one of the country’s first planned communities), they have entitled their first album Metro Music. Which is as pretentious as they get. “It’s too difficult to pull off a big facade,” continues Ladly, handing over the band’s press kit—four sheets of paper on which she has just felt-penned an account of the group’s skyrocketing career. That’s not to say that new wave performers can’t handle a facade if they choose to do so. For instance, The Time Twins, two Toronto women who call themselves Torch and Fugit, explore the poses of gender, dressing up as bag ladies and play soldiers. But they are not so preoccupied with image that they forget why they’re doing it: “We’re just in it for the fun,” says Fugit. “As soon as it ceases to be fun, we’ll do something else, become brain surgeons maybe.” Concerned with style enough to have already had radical effects on graphic design and fashion, new wave nevertheless challenges basic expectations of how things should look. Michaele Jordana, her hair the iridescent green of a city pigeon’s neck, her pelvis breaking out of skintight pants, does not look like the respected painter who was already receiving national media attention before she became lead singer of Toronto’s The Poles. In late 1977, the band released C.N. Tower, a single that gave

to Jordana’s respectable past {Take me to the tower, turn on the power, I'm yours) and was one of the first new wave songs to get played on Toronto radio. Yet, Michaele Jordana and The Poles is still not a household name. Waiting for the contract offer that will grant the artistic control she prizes over stardom, Jordana is cheerily pragmatic about the music business— “Record deals are absolutely trite”— and stalwartly self-determining: “I

want to do my material my way. It’s the same in music as in art. No one’s going to see what I see unless I paint it and no one’s going to hear what I hear unless I sing it.” Independence and integrity.

Some performers, like Jordana, have worked the new wave scene for years without greater rewards than the acclaim of their loyal followers: that kind of tough-mindedness seems characteristic of new wave. Unlike disco with its talk about shook booties, body heat and getting down, new wave has brains. In fact, its intellectual nature is even inherent in its dissonant guitars. Citing medical studies, Hilly Leopold of Joint Communications, a Toronto research firm that advises radio stations on programming policies, explains: “Disco really was an electronic Valium because

induce a transfer of energy to the legs. New wave, with its mid to higher frequencies, induces a neurological transfer, not a muscular transfer. Instead of moving in a trance-like way, people are more apt to jump up and down.” In times politically and economically harrowing, new wave emphasizes the importance of fit minds as basic survival. DEVO has sung one song about swollen, itching brains and another about modern paranoias (/ been dipped in double meaning/I been stuck with static cling). The Ramones have done a dance tune about going mental. And Talking Heads, as well as naming themselves, have recorded a song entitled, simply, Mind. Pawing through popular culture and gamely imagining horrors that only the daily newspapers can match, new wave artists seem cheerfully unneurotic, invigorated by a sense of fun that is often juvenile, yet coldly alert to the world around them.

So far new wave’s independent thinking has made it too ornery to tame. But as the most notable trend since disco, the new music is coming increasingly under the speculative eye of the mainstream music industry, which hopes to make a hot trend hotter

starlet quips with that randy institution, George Burns. Roots shoes, having long ago abandoned the natural virtues of the inverted heel, for spring has introduced a version of Beatle boots that will, as progress goes, make those first worn by new wave performers seem tired. And indeed, the music industry has taken up the notion of new wave so promiscuously it seems that any group spotted together in narrow ties is putting out an album.

But, apart from the commitment of the performers themselves, there are aspects of the new wave scene that should have no trouble resisting attempts to dilute the music for mass consumption. New wave has won its loyal following by getting back to basics, touring hard and long, ignoring concert halls and stadiums to play grubby local haunts. Its young fans are fanatic because they once again believe in their right to see favorites in intimate surroundings at clubs that were left echoing and empty throughout the superstar ’70s. And though many British and American bands play Canada, they do not undermine local talent as much as

and cash in on it. In December, 1979, the Robert Stigwood Organization was sending out advance word that Times Square, a movie due this October, would do for new wave what Saturday Night Fever did for disco. And though the film is being directed by Montrealer Allan Moyle (whose two best-known films, Montreal Main and The Rubber Gun, have been anything but exploitive), even Moyle is surprised to find himself speaking of his movie’s sound track as “the album.”

Horace Panter, bass player with The Specials, describes the dilemma that is yet to be resolved: “It’s odd that something that started out basically as a last-ditch revolt against megabucks and superstars could end up becoming what it was fighting against in the first place.” And there is mounting evidence that the commercial assault is on. A shampoo ad currently running on television has a sound track that is audibly influenced by the Blondie hit Heart of Glass, and Debbie Harry, who sang the song in the first place, wound up on this year’s Grammy Awards show trading

international bands did in the last decade because they are travelling on the same limited scale: on its first and second North American tours, The Police crossed the country in a station wagon.

The music is developing on a regional rather than a national scale, its strongest centres on this continent located in New York, Detroit, Cleveland and Akron, Toronto and Vancouver. The Vancouver scene, as described by Tom Harrison, the rock critic of the Vancouver Province, is typical of new wave breeding grounds: local clubs willing to hire no-name bands, lots of cheap recording activity and specialty record stores which stock all the local singles and the import albums from Britain. Says Harrison: “It seems that everything is happening now. Every local act seems to be going into the studio. Pointed Sticks are signed to Stiff [a high-profile English new wave label], The Payólas are scheduled to release four songs on A&M, and Quintessence, a local record store, has gone from just selling records to making them independently—two of its first releases are the Young Canadians and The Subhumans.”

It has been an exhilarating lesson of new wave that personal taste and effort still matter, that music done on a small scale can once again make an impact. When The Specials decided to start their own Two-Tone label (a practice increasingly common among bands too marginal to persuade large companies to back them or who want control over their careers), they didn’t have enough money to put songs on both sides of the first 45. But the first five songs they released reached the top 10 in England. Working with the strength of amateur convictions, enterprising individuals have been able to change the pop music of their day. “I would never go through the trouble of booking an act I didn’t want to see myself,” says Gary Cormier who, with associate Gary Topp, makes up a Toronto new wave legend called “the two Garys.” Not only have the Garys taken chances with an endless list of local bands, they have shown re-

markable foresight and taste in arranging for the debut appearances in Toronto of The Ramones, The Knack and The Police, among others. Since audiences have now become used to being able to see what they have come for, and not a two-inch flash of color on a stage thousands of seats away, Cormier says, “The days of the dinosaur halls are over.”

The close contact between new wave performers and fans has meant not only a jokey revival of fan clubs (a membership in Teenage Head’s gets you one 8by-10 glossy photo and a balloon) but also a trust in the integrity of the music that harks back to the days of the Beatles. The trust has even inspired the professional cynics, the rock music press. British rock weeklies like Melody Maker and New Musical Express are notorious for keeping a taskmaster’s eye cocked for evidence of compromise, and rap knuckles with doctrinaire rulers when they sense a band is having trouble keeping stardom at bay. Recently they savaged Gary Numan as derivative, mercenary and opportunistic. Replies Numan, “In England, the press takes everything too seriously, themselves too seriously and me and others too seriously. I’m very unfashionable in that I admit that I want to be famous, admit to liking money and being a star. If you want to be fashionable then preach about how bad it is on the dole and have a go at Margaret Thatcher.”

New wave artists have taken all the chances a thorny commitment to a new way of making music demands: risking obscurity, poverty, failure. Risking stardom is just the next challenge, for as Andy Partridge of XTC says: “People will always make other people into stars. As long as one person stands in front of another person for purposes of entertainment you run the risk of becoming a star.” But fans, critics and performers alike trust that new wave will survive the pressures of fortune and fame. As they wander nightly into the grungy clubs that are the temples of new wave, they are sure that, in the words of Talking Heads, This ain’t no night life/this ain’t no disco/this ain’t no fooling around. 0