Over the past thirty years, we have seen the cycle of nostalgia repeat itself with very predictable results. As each generation hits 40, they have secured positions of influence in the media and begin selling the general public nostalgia for their formative years, usually some twenty years prior. However, it is usually a very idealized and sanitized picture of their youth. In the 'seventies, we saw 'fifties nostalgia in the form of “American Graffiti” and “Happy Days.” In the 'eighties, the 'sixties were celebrated with images of The Beatles, Motown, Woodstock and other cultural icons. In the 'nineties, selective memories of polyester and bell bottoms became trendy. Now, we are seeing the youth of the 'eighties recalling the excesses of The Reagan Years through rose-colored glasses.
Of course, each generation has a very selective memory of their teen years, reminding us only of the most positive and romantic aspects of that decade, even if they existed only in popular mythology. Even though films like “Grease” lead us to believe that 'fifties teenagers were greasers and bobby soxers grooving to Elvis and Chuck Berry, the reality was far less idealistic. It was a time of institutionalized racism and fear of nuclear annihilation. There were far more crew-cutted jocks who hated that cursed “jungle music” than hip Elvis wannabes. Then again, memories this bleak are not very commercial—they can’t be sold to a younger generation with no real memory of that past.
As a senior member of Generation X, I am now seeing my peers sell an equally idealized vision of our adolescence and college years. They paint a very rosy picture of the 'eighties as being exactly like any John Hughes film. To believe this mythology, all 'eighties teens were apple-cheeked youth with unisex blow-dried hair, fluorescent colored Izod clothing, and plenty of Members Only jackets. As for their music of choice, it has become lumped together as “new wave.” While that was a legitimate term in the 'eighties, it has since become twisted into something very inaccurate but highly commercial for sale to today’s kids, who weren’t even born during that decade.
As I thumb through music store bins, I see plenty of nostalgic collections purporting to be some sort of definitive new wave compilation. Then I look at the contents. I see plenty of songs by the likes of Duran Duran, Culture Club, A Flock of Seagulls, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Animotion, Men Without Hats, and Kajagoogoo. In other words, the androgynous and synthesizer-oriented groups who became popular in America after the advent of MTV in 1982. Funny, I seem to recall that “new wave” meant something very different back then.
My story started in the late winter of 1979. I was a frustrated fourteen-year-old Beatles fan who took a lot of crap from my schoolmates over my love of a defunct band. I tried to take an interest in their musical tastes, but arena rock like Styx and Kiss just did not do it for me. I approached my 24-year-old brother for advice on seeking out some truly hip contemporary bands to share with my buddies.
As we discussed my laments in a Wendy’s on a Friday night, I realized that I loved the innocence and simplicity of The Beatles and other 'sixties bands, and longed for something new along those lines. Of course, my brother had an answer. He told me about a movement taking place in New York and London called “new wave.” It was all about young musicians who shared my frustrations with the current state of rock and wanted to return to the stripped-down and poppy sounds of the 'sixties.
My brother then told me about a review he read in “Rolling Stone” of a young British band called The Jam. He explained that the reviewer described them as “a cross between the early Who and Kinks.” The article also stated that The Jam were part of a sixties “mod revival” that was sweeping England. Much like The Who and Kinks, The Jam wore matching suits, skinny ties, and dangerously short hair! Because this all sounded so naff by late 'seventies standards, I was intrigued. It actually seemed very radical, indeed.
The next afternoon, we went to a record store on the Ohio State University campus and bought a copy of the album in question, “All Mod Cons.” By the time we finished playing it, I was infatuated with The Jam and their bouncy-but-slashing mod anthems. I wanted to hear more and discover other bands that were part of this marvelous movement.
By fall, a few of these so-called new wave bands had made inroads to the American Top 40. The first was The Knack, who were touted as the new Beatles, thanks to their bouncy melodies and matching suits. Next was Blondie, whose manic drummer made them sound a lot like The Who, but were fronted by a gorgeous woman who resembled a combination of Marilyn Monroe and Greta Garbo. I quickly purchased their latest hit singles and gobbled up every music magazine available to learn about these fascinating new bands.
After reading several issues of “Creem” and “Hit Parader,” I learned that this new wave was an outgrowth of punk rock! With my curiosity piqued, I read further, and learned that ultra-modern bands that used electronic synthesizers instead of guitars were also part of the new wave. I suddenly realized that I was seeing the future before my very eyes.
As the 'eighties dawned, I realized that so-called new wave music could be divided into three camps. First came the raw, which consisted of caustic punk bands like The Ramones, Clash, and Sex Pistols. Secondly came the retro—groups such as the aforementioned Jam, Knack, and Blondie who seemed to be reinventing sounds of the past for a whole new generation. Lastly came the original, the electronic synthesizer bands whose cold and detached minor chord melodies were made all the more novel by their use of clever mechanical beeps and boops. These included The Cars, Devo, and Gary Numan.
While the 'eighties kicked off with a number of these strangely wonderful new groups in the pop charts, this success seemed short-lived. By mid-year, most new wave had disappeared from the radio in favor of more mainstream sounds like disco, arena rock, and crossover country. Popular punk legend has it that President Jimmy Carter disapproved of daughter Amy taking an interest in this new music, so the chief executive was rumored to have told his cabinet, “I don’t like this new wave thing. Stop punk rock!” Personally, I find it all bollocks. It was simply a case of commercial radio allowing consultants to tell them what to play so not to risk offending the vast majority of Baby Boomer listeners who did not want to be jolted from their mellowed-out 'seventies comfort zone.
Entering high school in the fall of 1980, I was enthralled by all three camps quite equally. Like any good teen into a new musical movement, I emulated their fashion sense. My feathered fluff hairstyle was shorn into an inch-long ska cut and I traded my polyester shirts, flared trousers, and sleeveless sweaters for button-down Oxfords, baggy twill slacks and skinny ties—worn at half-mast, of course. Most of my schoolmates thought I had completely lost my mind. New wave was nothing more than a joke to them. Then again, since they were mostly stoners and metal-heads, their opinions meant nothing to me. Even more so for the clean-cut preppie wannabes who kept asking why I never wore designer jeans, Izod sweaters, nor anything “sporty.” If only they understood.
Even though a few new wave bands did continue to crack the American Top 40, namely The Police, Blondie, and The Cars, they seemed like anomalies. For nearly two years, I kept wishing that new wave would catch on, get airplay, and make other teens aware of my world. Unsuspectingly on August 1, 1981, I got my wish. An experiment in cable broadcasting called Music Television, or MTV for short, signed on. Youth culture was about to change irreversibly.
As I entered my senior year in the fall of 1982, many of my classmates started humming melodies by various new wave bands broadcast on MTV. I started noticing some underclassmen actually dressing the part with skinny ties, short skirts, spiky hairstyles and concert T-shirts with hip band names like The Psychedelic Furs or Madness. However, all was not steady in my world.
Hungering for information on these cool new musicians, I began reading a British import teenybopper magazine called “Smash Hits.” The new trends I saw coming from England concerned me. It was obvious that punk rock and retro bands (like ska, rockabilly, and power pop) were falling out of vogue and being replaced by something called “new romantic.” This new breed of pop stars dressed in very effeminate and foppish fashions, wore big and ornate dyed hairstyles, painted their faces, and played a highly electronic form of dance music that sounded a little too close to disco for my comfort. Soon, one of these acts would become overnight sensations thanks to their very elaborate videos on MTV. They were Duran Duran, whose slick good looks and androgynous fashion sense made thirteen-year-old girls swoon over these sexually benign manufactured idols.
By the time I graduated from high school in 1983, true new wave seemed like history. Punk and retro bands like The Buzzcocks, The Jam, Blondie, and Rockpile had broken up. Their place was taken by even more effete synthesizer players such as A Flock of Seagulls, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Kajagoogoo. While I had once enjoyed synth pop for its novel originality, I was now finding these bands unbearably pretentious. Their electronic noodling seemed to have nothing to do with rock ‘n’ roll and their songwriting was self-indulgent and just plain bad.
For better or worse, gimmicky videos on MTV gave these “new music” groups smash hits in the United States. Many songs by these bands ended up on the soundtracks to massively popular teenage movies, such as “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty in Pink.” The raw and the retro were quickly forgotten as yesterday’s college kid fads while mascara wearing “artistes” programming dance beats into drum machines became the memorable face of new wave.
Of course, some twenty years later, these massively popular Top 40 idols are selectively remembered by aging Gen X’ers as “new wave,” while the genuine innovators like Graham Parker and Elvis Costello are relegated to the obsessions of rock snobs in squalid record shops everywhere. That is truly a sad shame, because the marketing forces behind eighties nostalgia are cheating the general public out of a lot of awesome music whose time has finally come.