|Oingo Boingo, one of LA's first big breakout stars of the new wave era|
In my previous post, I discussed how in spring of 1981 I made my first willful attempts to seek out new wave music. Prior to this I liked the handful of new wave singles that had broken through into Top 40/popular culture: “Heart of Glass” by Blondie (a new wave song in name only, a disco song in reality), “Candy-O” and “Let’s Go” by the Cars, “My Sharona” by the Knack (technically powerpop), “Pop Muzik” by M (pop dressed up in new wave synths and quirkiness), “Cars” by Gary Numan (one of the first REAL new wave songs), “Money” by the Flying Lizards, “Rock Lobster” by the B-52’s, “Brass in Pocket” by the Pretenders, “Whip It” by Devo, and “Turning Japanese” by the Vapors. It was the latter song that caused me to actively seek out this music, first by buying the Vapors’ first album New Clear Days on cassette and second by trying to find stations that played new wave music on the radio. All of these songs had crossed over into Top 40 radio and were easy to find, but I somehow knew or found out that there were stations that played ONLY new wave music and I vowed to find them.
And, because I was fortunate enough to live in Southern California, I did. My first recollection was of finding two stations on the far right of the dial that seemed to be playing stuff that sounded different than the Top 40 stations. I have no sharp recollections of what they were playing specifically the first time I listened to them but somehow I knew I’d found what I was looking for.
The stations were, of course, the pre-metal KNAC, broadcast out of my home town of Long Beach, and the now-legendary KROQ, and both would become the de facto radio stations for me and pretty much all of my friends for the next several years. KNAC, 105.5 on the radio dial, has been much lamented by oldsters like myself because at this point in the early 80’s they played a bizarre, free-form format that mixed new wave and punk cuts with old rockabilly and blues singles, reggae and dub, and other pre-punk musical forms in an eclectic mix not frequently heard anywhere else. It has since become super cool among people my age who lived in that area to lament KNAC’s loss to metal in 1985-1986 and to claim that it was cooler than KROQ.
But the honest truth was, I and most of my friends listened to KROQ more. And the reason was that KROQ, while still a pretty wild and unprofessional station in that day, had achieved some stability after several tempestuous ups and downs through the 70’s. In 1976 they’d hired Rodney Bingenheimer, the diminutive bowl-cutted scenester from LA’s psychedelic and glitter pasts, and Rodney’s show became a vehicle for artists from the emerging punk scenes in New York, England, and even Los Angeles. Rodney was one of the first DJs in America to play the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and other leading lights of those scenes, and he would also famously play demos, singles, and tapes brought to him by local bands. It’s hard to imagine new music would ever have achieved the popularity it did without pioneers like Rodney.
But Rodney was just one jock, and most of the other DJs at KROQ were playing typical 70’s fare until about 1978, when they became incorporating more and more new music into their repertoire. But they still adhered to a so-called “freeform” format, which gave most of the decision-making power of what to play to the DJ, and things weren’t played systematically. An amazing artifact of this era is an hour-long tape of legendary LA DJ Frazer Smith from 1978 at the following web site:
The artists being played represent predominantly OLD music (ZZ Top, Bob Seger, the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Ace Frehley) a few prepunk pioneers (David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop), a couple of acts that kind of straddled the ground between the old and new (Cheap Trick, Tom Petty) and from what I heard just a couple examples of truly NEW acts, Elvis Costello and Devo. But still, in 1978 NOBODY was playing Elvis Costello or Devo on the radio (or Iggy Pop for that matter), so even this was pretty surprising. Actually, to me what’s amazing is what a smooth segue it is between “Communication Breakdown” by Led Zep and “Uncontrollable Urge” by Devo; despite being separated by a decade and a seemingly insurmountable musical gulf, they both actually sound eerily similar. It is a reminder both of how innovative and raw Led Zeppelin were in their earliest days, and how much more prosaic so-called “new” music really was. It also reminds me of the time I saw the legendary band Krotch (touted as “LA’s worst band” in the mid/late 80’s when I was at UCLA) and they played as their encore (the only part of the gig I saw; it took place in an apartment in Westwood after finals and we’d pre-partied too long at our place before leaving) they played “Communication Breakdown” and “Freedom of Choice” back to back and it sounded perfectly good and natural.
I have to say, if I’d have stumbled upon KROQ at this time in the late 70’s, I probably would have liked it. I liked most of the artists they played even if I wasn’t a fanatic about any of them—unlike most everyone else who lived through the 70’s, at that time I was not obsessed with Led Zep, Aerosmith, or Kiss—and there was enough “old and familiar” and “new and interesting”. And honestly, today this is VERY close to what I like to listen to now, which is a mix of the best of both the pre-punk and the post-punk era.
But at the time, the freeform format caused problems, most notably that it didn’t allow listeners to get familiar enough with the new songs through repetition that they would call in and request them and eventually buy them. The radio industry exists in a delicate synergy with the music industry—the music biz needs radio to play their songs to make them known and popular and purchased, radio pays licensing fees to the music industry to play their songs, but uses the popularity of the songs to attract listeners, which of course lets them set higher advertising rates. But if radio stations aren’t pushing new hits onto the public, the whole machine grinds to a halt.
About a year or so before I started listening to KROQ in winter of 1981, program director Rick Carroll had been (re)hired to clean up KROQ’s act. Carroll’s solution was simple but effective: he stamped the Top 40 FORMAT on KROQ’s “new music” SOUND. Top 40 stations are characterized by firm schedules that result in movement of songs through “rotations”, from light to medium to heavy. Carroll left a little bit of choice to the DJ’s—they were allowed to play a certain number of songs every hour of their own choice. Initially this was four but eventually moved to one, and then of course went to zero when KROQ went all corporate around 1990. According to anecdotes told by KROQ jocks years later, many of these DJ choice cuts ended up becoming hits by artists like Depeche Mode and Billy Idol.
Carroll’s “innovation” wasn’t exactly novel, but it provided exactly the structure and regularity that had been lacking previously, and that would continue to be lacking at their competitor KNAC. If you were a listener tuning in to seek out the latest new wave hit, you could be fairly assured that you’d hear it within the hour, and you’d likely hear other top new wave hits you might have encountered only occasionally on pure Top 40 stations, and of course you’d be exposed to the newest hits-in-the-making as well. People came, and stayed as the music struck a chord with them so to speak.
Which is exactly what happened to me: I came in search of “Whip It” by Devo and “Turning Japanese” by the Vapors, and eventually got hooked in everything else. In spring of 1981 KROQ was even then still sorting out what was truly “new” music and what wasn’t. The web site below is a compendium of the “Top 106.7 songs” KROQ would regularly compile and count down on New Year’s eve, starting in 1980:
1980 is especially entertaining, containing as it does such decidedly UN-new artists as John Lennon, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Van Halen, Queen, Bob Seger, Genesis, Rod Stewart, Heart, Roger Daltry, J. Geils, Paul McCartney, and Journey. JOURNEY, people!!! KROQ was playing JOURNEY in 1980. Of course, they were also playing Devo, the Talking Heads, the Police, XTC, the B-52’s, the Pretenders, the Clash, the Surf Punks, and the Dead Kennedys! KROQ may have been the only non-college radio station in ANY media market to EVER play the Dead Kennedys! Of course, my two “favorites, “Whip It” by Devo and “Turning Japanese” by the Vapors were #1, and #14 that year, respectively.
1981’s list was quite a bit more new wave-centric, but still managed to contain the Rolling Stones, King Crimson, Joe Walsh, Genesis, and Foreigner. This is something that I vividly remember as well, this mix of new and not-really-new. In fact, two songs I remember specifically hearing on KROQ around this time were “Let’s Get It Up” by AC/DC and “Destroyer” by the Kinks (they also played “Give the People What They Want” by the Kinks too). The Kink’s album came out in September 1981 and AC/DC’s in December of that year.
The first two new music songs I can explicitly remember hearing on KROQ were “Bang Bang” by Iggy Pop and “Red Light” by Wall of Voodoo. I’ve already posted about “Bang Bang”, which was released in June 1981 and came off one of Iggy’s least well regarded albums, Party. “Red Light” by Wall of Voodoo presaged the memorable strangeness of their subsequent hit, “Mexican Radio” and its accompanying video. “Red Light” is majestic and quirky at the same time; its swirling synths and syncopated beat recall the les strident elements of LA’s seminal synth punk band, the Screamers, but instead of Tomata Du Plenty’s harsh, barking vocals, Stan Ridgeway’s western drawl gives this song a country-ish feel despite the novelty of the synthesizers and knocking, pinging drum machines.
There were several other songs from this era I can recall hearing on KROQ early on. One was “We Want the Airwaves” by the Ramones, which sounded dark and threatening to me. I had no idea then about the Ramones’ critical role as one of the founding touchpoints for all of punk music; I didn’t hear their buzzsaw fast-and-furious first album for another 3 or 4 years when my friend John finally purchased it circa 1984 or 1985. “Airwaves” is miles from the minimalist simplicity of their first (or second, or even third or fourth) album; at over three minutes it was practically “Stairway to Heaven” compared to the brevity of their early work—no song on their first three albums was longer than two minutes and 45 seconds. And what sounded ominous and threatening to me in 1981 today sounds kind of desperate and even sad; by 1981 the Ramones were sensing that the window on their shot at the brass ring was closing if not already closed; far from being a threat, “We Want the Airwaves” was more an empty threat, a desperate appeal or plea to give them a chance, which unfortunately they never really got. I also remember hearing “Do You Remember Rock n’ Roll Radio?” from their prior, fifth album End of the Century from May 1980, and “She’s a Sensation” like “Airwaves” off Pleasant Dreams, on KROQ during this early era.
I also remember two B-52’s songs being played back then, “Private Idaho” and “Give Me Back My Man” off their second album, Wild Planet, which came out in August 1980. “Man” is very twitchy and twangy but unlike the shrill campy Farfisa on “Rock Lobster” it has a knocking, almost industrial sounding keyboard but is most notable for Cindy Wilson’s magnificent vocal, which starts out almost chirpy but by the time it builds to her plaintive shout, “GIVE! ME! GIVE back my man!”, is as passionate and heartfelt as anything from this era. The odd lyrics stood out too: “I’ll give you fish, I’ll give you candy, I’ll give you anything I have in my hand”. It bespoke of a strange world (one where at the very least people bartered fish and/or candy for their lovers). “Private Idaho”, with Fred Schneider’s weird yelping and again the strange lyrics about potatoes, also sticks in my brain from this time.
My favorite B-52’s song, and indeed a song that makes my own personal Top Ten (it might hover near the mythical Top Five), is “Planet Claire” off their 1979 debut album. I don’t really recall hearing it on KROQ at this early date, but I do remember distinctly hearing it later, around ’84 or ’85, one night when I was driving around with my friend Steve in his dad’s huge old Cadillac; the eerie 50’s horror movie organ, Ricky Wilson’s savage, slashing guitar chords, and Fred Schneider’s increasingly agitated vocals all melded with our cruising along in a giant smooth driving dinosaur car. One of the things I love about these early B-52’s singles is how they often swing from campy 50’s cheese to punk anger in a matter of seconds. In “Rock Lobster”, it’s toward the end when Fred Schneider shouts “LET’S ROCK!” in a wild, angry voice; the goofy beach blanket bingo party is over and things are getting manic. In “Planet Claire”, its when Schneider yells “BUT SHE ISN’T!”, which again signals a darker shift in the song itself.
One problem I have with my memories of this time is that, like in the “Planet Claire” example above, KROQ continued to play these songs for years afterward and so I’m never 100% sure if I’m remembering hearing them from that time or from hearing them at a later date, when I was both listening to KROQ more and was better versed in songs and band identities. For example, I can distinctly remember hearing two Police songs, “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” and “De Do Do Do De Da Da Da” on KROQ but I can’t be sure it was back then or later. I probably did hear them at least once back then, but the first Police song I have a firm memory of hearing on KROQ was “Spirits in the Material World”, which was released in November 1981; I can still remember being puzzled by the way they said “In Ma-ma-terio”.
The Police ended up being one of the bigger success stories of the new wave/post-punk era, delivering hit after hit from their first 3 or 4 albums. They quickly transcended the new wave “ghetto” and their songs were played on both Top 40 and classic rock stations (like KMET and KLOS). I’m not sure to this day what it was about their sound that melded better with Rush and Bob Seger than the music of their new wave brethren but somehow it made that leap. I find it interesting to see bands in the 21st century who are incorporating Police/Sting influences. Two obvious ones are Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” and “Locked Out of Heaven” by Bruno Mars. The latter is so similar to the lite reggae sound of early Police that perhaps not surprisingly the Grammy Academy had Mars and Sting perform a medley of songs together (including this one and “Walking on the Moon” by the Police) at the 2013 Grammies. Gotye’s song fascinates me. Sonically it does contain some Police-like elements, although what it reminds me of more is the melancholy timbre of “Senses Working Overtime” by another new wave success story, XTC; I also get elements of Fischer Z’s “So Long” in the vocals. The lyrics are captivating; Gotye’s lead chorus makes it seem like he is the aggrieved party because she callously sends a friend to collect her things after their breakup, but when Kimbra gets her turn to tell her side of the story, we find out that this guy is a strange passive-aggressive asshole, pushing her aside and making her feel guilty for their disagreements. But then we get to the kicker; as the snare drums build up a steady rumble in accompaniment, Kimbra’s vocals rise and soar in accusation and we find out the truth: he was stuck on a former lover. So who is this guy? Some strange masochist who always pushes his current lover away, then pines for them when they’re gone? I’ve known a lot of “the grass is greener” romantic types, who are unhappy with their current partner and pine for former lovers, but then continually repeat the cycle, and this seems like what’s going on here.
There are two bands I recall hearing a lot back then as well as later but I’m pretty sure I first heard them back then. The first was the Pretenders. The Pretenders followed up “Brass in Pocket”, their smash hit from 1979-1980, with a series of outstanding singles that made them, along with the Police, one of the most successful exports of the British punk/post-post punk scene. Their cover of Ray Davies’ “Stop Your Sobbing” was another hit, and while it wasn’t a huge crossover smash like “Brass”, “Mystery Achievement” is one of my favorite songs by this incredible band, one I still love to hear today—its crisp, chunky guitar/rhythm at the chorus and the tapping, insistent drum and bass interludes make it a marvelous song. “Tattooed Love Boys”, with it’s chiming, questioning guitar line and similarly from this first album, also got played by KROQ back then too. But the song I totally love, and which I also heard around this time, was “The Wait”. I love everything about this song, particularly Chrissie Hynde’s guttural, super sexy “UUHHH” that starts up the song after a brief instrumental interlude, followed by her heavy breathing and sing-songy lyrics. These early Pretender singles often made highly effective use of Chrissie panting, sighing, etc., and her heavy breathing after the solo is both sexy and captivating. The sound of it was so wild and tough and sexy to me then (and now). The rapid-fire, stuttering staccato of James Honeyman-Scott’s guitar, and specifically his chunky pick slides proceeded by shrieking feedback, show that he was one of the great guitar talents to emerge from the English punk scene. I love the repeating regularity (“DUH! Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh”) of the main guitar refrain; it reminds me of the tight, crisp guitar on the Police’s “Synchronicity II”. This is one of the songs that really ignited my passion for this “new” music.
In August of 1981, the Pretenders released their follow-up, Pretenders II, and it was even more cram packed with future KROQ cuts. The first single was “Talk of the Town”; this was a softer, more romantic Chrissie Hynde, yearning and vulnerable rather than the tough talking mama of the first album. When she pouts, “I want you; I want you but now”, it’s hard for any red-blooded man not to feel responsive. This truly was pop music—sweet, affecting, but still anchored in Honeyman-Scott’s infectious guitar lines. “Message of Love”, their follow-up, was tougher sonically, with its bass-heavy main groove and martial drums (Martin Chambers’ drumming is exceptional here, how he not only keeps the beat but drives the whole song forward with such infectious exuberance) but again the message was decidedly un-punk—rather, it was optimistic (“We fall but we keep getting up, over and over and over and over”) and almost as nakedly romantic as “Talk of the Town”, especially in the first lyrical stanza:
“Now the reason we’re here;
Every man and woman
Is to love each other
Take care of each other.
When love walks in the room
Everybody stand up
Oh its good good good
Like Bridgitte Bardot”
It’s hard to believe that it had been just a few short years since the Pistols arrived not to praise rock but to bury it, especially all of its romantic tropes about love. But in songs like this the Pretenders were never sappy; the message of this song is that love is what keeps people trying and striving in life, not just romantic love but the love of friends and so forth. We all help each other up when we fall or fail. It’s hard to argue with a message like that.
Continuing this amazing streak was the song “Day After Day”, another hopeful, uplifting song; I can definitely remember hearing this on KROQ at this time period too. This song is another guitar triumph by James Honeyman-Scott, from the skirling guitar line that introduces the song and repeats throughout to the soaring majestic chorus elements.
“The Adulteress”, the fourth single from this album, is heavy and chugging, almost metallic; Hynde confesses to “the greatest crime in history” (adultery) and it’s not clear if she’s ashamed or proud, at least initially (later the song seems to turn bitter, and then almost tragic) but there’s something almost noble and defiant sounding about it notwithstanding Hynde’s breathy, sensual delivery of the main lyric. This is another song I distinctly remember hearing on KROQ at this time because very shortly after this another strongly sexual song by a female new wave singer became popular, “Never Say Never” by Romeo Void, and I can remember hearing this song first then wondering if “Never” was by the same band/woman. “Bad Boys Get Spanked”, also off this album, was also played on KROQ to the best of my recollection, as was “Pack It Up”; I still recall Hynde’s opening lyrical salvo, “You guys are the pits of the world”, and her harsh and specific denunciations of her former lover and his shortcomings (including his “appalling taste in women” and his “insipid record collection”).
The third (along with the Police and Pretenders) of the “Big Three” of early KROQ was a local LA product, Oingo Boingo. Originally formed in the early 70’s by Danny Elfman’s brother Richard to make scores for his movies, Boingo later came under Danny Elfman’s control and began gigging around LA in the burgeoning new wave scene and immediately achieved recognition and success as one of the most frantic and entertaining bands on the LA scene. They were signed by I.R.S. Records in 1980 and released their debut album, Only a Lad, in June of 1981. I can remember four songs off this album being played on KROQ. The first was the title track, a twitchy, quirky romp that quickly became a huge hit on the ROQ. Despite its pedophilic subject matter, “Little Girls” was also extremely popular. The first song I remember hearing by them was “What You See”, with Elfman’s alternatingly furious and frantic vocals and strange high pitched yearning vocals making it sound very schizophrenic. The other song I distinctly recall hearing around this time was “On the Outside”, which I still love, with Elfman’s yelping, strangely affected vocals and a jaunty beat. Boingo were clearly NOT raw amateur punks bashing away on their instruments; every song on this album was technically very proficient and the production is crisp and clean.
Boingo’s follow-up, Nothing to Fear, was released the next summer, in June 1982, and it continued their success. The horn-accentuated “Nothing To Fear”, the danceable “Grey Matter”, with its strange xylophone elements (which presage the more well known song “Dead Man’s Party” from the legendary 80’s Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back To School), the almost plaintive “Private Life” with its galloping guitar and repeating elements, and the manic “Wild Sex (In the Working Class)” were all hugely popular on KROQ the next year. I still love “Grey Matter” the best, particularly its strange, almost siren like synth beginning, before the drums and xylophone elements build on it, and the ominous, chanting background “grey matter” vocals.
Other, random songs I remember hearing at this time: May 1981’s “Follow the Leaders” by Killing Joke; their later song “Eighties” was also big on KROQ in 1984 and almost became a pseudo-anthem for the station, but its blend of funky bass and almost danceable synths with furious blasts of strident guitar noise were clearly a new and exciting sound. I wasn’t a particularly huge fan of Killing Joke at the time, certainly not enough to seek out their albums, but definitely liked these songs, with their mixture of synth/industrial elements and harsh, punky guitar—it’s not hard to see how influential this band and its sound were on future industrial bands like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails (indeed, its actually hard to envision Nine Inch Nails existing without KJ’s trailblazing)—and much later in life I became a big fan of their edgy post-punk (“Wardance” and “Requiem” are my favorites by them).
Another song I remember from 1981 is “Up All Night” by the Boomtown Rats. I’d somehow missed out on their strange left-field hit “I Don’t Like Mondays” from 1979 but can definitely remember hearing this song and its odd, repeating chorus of “Up all night”.
In addition, another song that stuck in my consciousness was “Lunacy” by the Plasmatics. I’d seen the album cover for 1980’s New Hope for the Wretched, in a Warehouse Records store, and it was clearly extremely punk: the band is situated around a car crashed into a swimming pool; guitarist Richie Stotts is wearing tights and a tutu and a blue mohawk and Wendy O. Williams has pink hair and bare breasts with duct tape over her nipples! What I wasn’t aware of was that this particular song was their attempt to transition from punk to heavy metal; at that time heavy metal was so obscure and uncool that its sound wasn’t really well known. Listening to this song now I can clearly hear these metallic elements but at the time I just thought this was loud, abrasive punk rock. At the time it sounded raw and threatening; today it just kind of sounds turgid and sad. For a long time the Plasmatics, and this song in particular, were kind of a short-hand for the look and sound of “real” punk for me, cartoonish as both were. But it fit well with what I had “learned” about punk from episodes of C.H.I.P.S. and Quincy.
Two other early KROQ staples I remember from this time were “Lunatic Fringe” by Red Rider and “Ever Since the World Began” by Gary Myrick. Red Rider had a subsequent follow-up single, the lusher and softer “China”, but I like the strange, new wave tinged prog rock of “Fringe” more. I wrote about Gary Myrick in a previous post; I wasn’t a huge fan of his then but a few years ago I got really heavily into his strange prog rock take on new wave. His unique vocals and his incendiary guitar playing made him early on sound like America’s best answer to Sting and the Police; the stuttering guitar line from “Ever Since the World Began” reminds me of “The Wait” by the Pretenders crossed with “Synchronicity” by the Police. This album came out I late 1980 and even at this early time Myrick had absorbed, and was in turn influencing, the emerging new wave sound. His song “She Talks in Stereo” off this album became a minor hit around this time, but I prefer “World Began” as week as the fast and catchy “Living Disaster”. But my favorite Myrick song of all time is the shimmering, romantic and anthemic “Time To Win” off his second album, 1983’s Language. This song was featured in the 1983 movie Valley Girl, when Randy and Julie finally make out after having snuck out of a val party to attend a Plimsouls gig in Hollywood. I especially love the driving, soaring chorus.
I also remember four Devo songs off their June 1981 New Traditionalists album getting heavy airplay on KROQ when I first started listening: “Going Under”, “Beautiful World”, “Jerking Back and Forth”, and “Through Being Cool”. “Going Under” and “Beautiful World” were my favorites of this group, but my all-time favorite Devo songs are “Freedom of Choice”, “Girl U Want”, and especially “Gates of Steel” off their previous album, May 1980’s Freedom of Choice (“Don’t You Know”, “Ton O’ Luv”, and “It’s Not Right” were also great deep cuts from this album). This is of course the album from which “Whip It” emerged to become a massive hit single but I still love “Gates of Steel” more, its frantic, insistent tempo, the perfect blend of hard, punky guitar and perky synths make it a much more fun song to dance to. Devo quickly got pigeonholed as a “synth band” but particularly on this album they used synthesizers to enhance the strong guitar sound of songs like “Whip It”, “Gates”, “Don’t You Know”, and the title track; back then the synths sounded weird and quirky and new wave-y but today I’m struck more by how hard and raw the guitar sound was on these songs.
Summer of 1981 saw the release of three albums that augured the REAL beginning of the new wave era: Duran Duran’s first album, Beauty and the Beat by the Go-Go’s, and the Psychedelic Furs’ second disc, Talk Talk Talk. Duran Duran’s album spawned two KROQ hits, “Planet Earth” and of course “Girls on Film”. The Go-Go’s hit it HUGE with “Our Lips our Sealed” and “We Got the Beat”, but the songs I remember hearing played on KROQ at this time were the plaintive “How Much More”, the bitter ode to LA “This Town” (surpassed only by X’s “Los Angeles in terms of it’s negative assessment of LA), and most especially the dramatic, almost cinematic “Lust To Love”, perhaps the first ever lament of going from fuck buddies to lovers. The Furs of course hit it big with their single “Pretty In Pink”, which Molly Ringwald loved so much she had John Hughes make a movie for her based loosely on its lyrics. It is truly a marvelous song, particularly the propulsive drumming and the grinding but still melodic guitars and of course Richard Butler’s raspy vocals. I never bought this album back in the day (though I loved “Pink”) but recently downloaded several other songs off of it: “It Goes On”, with its heavy bass and skirling guitar almost reminds me of a Gen X song off Kiss Me Deadly if it wasn’t for Butler’s raspy, older-brother-of-Johnny-Rotten voice; speaking of Rotten, “Into You Like a Train” has the propulsive rhythm and atonal guitar of classic P.I.L. and is a really wonderful song, as is the similarly driving and atonal “Mr. Jones”, which also features Duncan Kilburn’s wild bursts of saxophone; the less frantic and more melodic “No Tears” shows off the Furs’ more sedate side, which would also surface in later hits like “The Ghost In You” and “Love My Way”. The Furs’ first album, 1980’s Psychedelic Furs, didn’t yield any hits but there are a number of fine tracks, including the droning, almost psychedelic introspection of “Sister Europe”, the wild (post) punk punch of “Soap Commercial”, and the morose bombast of “Imitation of Christ”, which is punctuated by the uplifting chorus. The Psychedelic Furs would have subsequent hits, including the xylophone accented “Love My Way” (still one of my favorite songs of the 80’s new wave era, but “Run and Run” and the exquisite title track are also outstanding off this album, 1982’s Forever Now, which is probably their most solid LP top to bottom) and three songs off 1984’s Mirror Moves: “Heartbeat” ( the 12-inch remix of which was a major club hit in LA’s dance clubs that year), the lush, romantic “Heaven”, and the sweetly affecting “The Ghost In You”.
Another artist who went on to much bigger and better things started in fall of 1981 with a couple of KROQ singles: Adam and the Ants. In September 1981, Adam released his single “Prince Charming”, backed with “Christian D’Or”, and I remember hearing both of them on KROQ around that time. “Prince Charming” was, and still is, a very weird song, with its weird yelling intro, buzzsaw guitar from Marco Pirroni, and strumming acoustic guitar. The video was, of course, just as strange, silly to the point of extreme pretension. But Adam’s insanely arresting fashion style—a meld of colonial tricorner hats and Indian warpaint— demonstrated in this video and in the videos for two of his other early hits, “Stand and Deliver” and “Antmusic”, made him easily the match of his New Ro compatriots Duran Duran, who were also getting nearly as much attention for their glammed up, Roxy Music-influenced look displayed in their videos as they were for their music. It was around this time that I remember seeing music videos for the first time—recall that MTV didn’t make it to the west coast until the mid-80’s. Usually these were shown in between feature length films on cable TV to fill in the time between half hours and my friend John would videotape them on their Betamax and he and I would watch them obsessively.
I glommed onto Adam and the Ants pretty early—I think Prince Charming was the next album I purchased after Blondie’s Parallel Lines and the Vapors’ two albums. But the song I liked the best was the B-side to “Prince”, “Christian D’Or”, with its wild buzzsaw guitar and its wacky lyrics listing all his fetishes. This is still the punkiest Adam ever sounded.
The final five new wave songs that made an impact on me as 1981 drew to a close were all sexual and/or sexually ambiguous: the decidedly UNambiguous novelty songs “Are You Ready For the Sex Girls?” by Gleaming Spires, “Teenage Enema Nurses in Bondage” by Killer Pussy, and “Never Say Never” by Romeo Void; and the homosexuality associated songs “Homosapien” by ex-Buzzcock Pete Shelley and “Johnny Are You Queer?” by Josie Cotton. Spires was a side project for Leslie Bohem and David Kendricks of Sparks and their song is a typically cartoonish raunchy romp. Shelley’s “Homosapien” was a thinly veiled defense of homosexuality and an attack on homophobia, though few of us junior high school louts knew it at the time. Josie Cotton’s “Johnny Are You Queer?” was more of a calling out of her boyfriend’s sexuality done in a catchy 60’s kitschy manner. Cotton achieved a small measure of local fame for her 60’s girl group-influenced take on new wave; in addition to “Johnny” she also had another single “You Could Be the One” become popular on KROQ (both were also featured in the movie Valley Girl, along with a slew of other new wave hits from that particular year). “Never Say Never” was a sensual blast of sexual energy that almost overwhelmed my pubescent sexuality (or lack thereof); Debra Iyala’s frank and sensual vocals opened up new doors in my young mind. What’s funny is that I endlessly fantasized about what she looked like, this pouty, sexy, horny sounding new wave chick with the sexy voice, and of course when I saw her it was something of a surprise. Nothing against zaftig women whatsoever, but she was NOT what I was expecting; I think I was picturing someone who looked more like Chrissy Amphlett of the Divinyls in her first incarnation in the video for their song “Boys In Town” off their 1982 Desperate album; I frankly hated her sleazy image in the “I Touch Myself” era but still love the punky energy of “Boys” and her torn stockings, bangs-in-the-face punkette image from that video.
So there it is. In the space of about six months I went from totally clueless new wave poseur to . . . slightly less clueless new wave poseur. But we were ALL poseurs back then; all of us were groping our way through the increasingly complex thicket of new music. What amazes me is how well many of those bands, and their music, has withstood the test of time. Obviously one-hit novelty songs like “Teenage Enema Nurses in Bondage” haven’t aged well, though they are still a blast from a nostalgia point of view. But bands like the Police, the Pretenders, the Cars, Devo, and the B-52’s all enjoyed long and fruitful careers and their music from that time continues to sparkle with wild energy.
1981 to me was the last year of innocence for new wave. In 1982 the floodgates opened, and for the next 2-3 years the world was inundated with new wave. During this time even older, established bands like Heart and Linda Ronstadt would add synthesizers and quirky beats to their songs in order to keep up with the times. And the flood of new wave music that followed inevitably contained both classic gems (bands like Depeche Mode, REM, and U2 emerged during this time) and forgettable crap (Mental As Anything, Roman Holliday, Haircut 100). But I would still argue that the new wave era was more fun and more interesting than others that came before or since. Were there a lot of hokey, embarrassingly silly novelty songs? Sure. But one thing you can say about new wave is, it was unique—almost every band sounded completely different. From the synth pop and chirpy vocals of pink-haired, fishbowl brassiere wearing Missing Persons to the cableknit sweater blue eyed soul of Haircut 100 to the transgendered histrionics of Dead Or Alive, no two new wave bands ever looked OR sounded alike. This is in stark contrast to the glam/hair metal era that came after it, where every band looked exactly alike (a combination of Dolls androgyny, Van Halen spandex, and Judas Priest leather and studs) and sounded alike (a mix of Aerosmith, Van Halen, and Motley Crue). Each band would faithfully put out one single that showed their hard rocking bad-boy side and that contained lyrics celebrating mindless partying, rocking and/or rolling, or just plain sex, and a second single that was a ballad that showed their softer side (“they taught us how to live; they taught us how to love”). Even the lamest new wave bands had their own gimmicks, look, sound, etc., which isn’t something you can say for the monotonous hordes of metal wannabes that replaced them on the charts. Even grunge got to be fairly rote after awhile—Bush, Silverchair, Stone Temple Pilots, POTUS, etc., all sounded like second-rate Nirvana knockoffs. As silly and campy as many new wave songs (and bands) were, the very uniqueness of the different sounds still stands out.