'Are We Not New Wave?' Makes Me Wish I Could Take Theo Cateforis's Class

Theo Cateforis gives the Cars their just due, explains why David Byrne used to be considered neurotic, and tells us just what the hell the B-52s were up to, anyway.

Are We Not New Wave?: Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s

Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Length: 294 pages
Author: Theo Cateforis
Price: $28.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2011-07

Theo Cateforis is a professor of music history and culture at Syracuse and I wish I could take his class. After you read, Are we Not New Wave?: Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s you’ll feel much the same.

In his new book, Cateforis explains and explores not only the origin of New Wave, but makes a series of brilliant connections that open up the history of the musical style that briefly seized a transatlantic audience at the beginning of the '80s. Beyond that, we learn why early MTV featured so many British bands, the relationship between New Wave and punk and why we ought to give The Cars more respect. The author even gets around to explaining why David Byrne used to be considered neurotic, and what the hell the B-52s were up to, anyway.

Are We Not New Wave? opens with an excellent exposition of the meaning of the term and its relationship to its genre predecessors. In discussing the meaning of “new wave” itself, Cateforis allows it to be an elastic term while tracing the deep cultural roots of the idea, including its meaning in relation to '60s French cinema.

The style has often been seen as a kind of tamed punk, an aesthete's punk drained of anger. Punk you could dance to, more cerebral and less rage-fueled. The author certainly shows the limited truth behind this idea while also suggesting that British New Wave really constituted a second British invasion for American music and a response to classic prog rock as much as to punk.

The New Wave was more than ready for that moment when video killed the radio star. Groups like Human League had already made use of visuals in their stage shows and the MTV format proved a natural progression for them. Moreover, the use of drum machines and synthesizers freed up performers to act out video narratives while lip-syncing the music.

This is a book that could have been interesting at first only to become a mind-numbing exposition of each and every new wave band, their discography and their influences. Luckily for the reader who is not necessarily a New Wave aficionado, Cateforis uses the rest of the book to examine the cultural history of the genre, specifically its use of the tropes of nervousness, its complicated affection for the '60s, it appropriation of kitsch and its valorizing of the often despised synthesizer and sequencer.

The best of these discussions is likely the author’s “Camp! Kitsch! Trash!” In this chapter, Cateforis explores new wave’s tendency to borrow the objects and aesthetics of others eras, especially what he refers to as “recent modernities.” Rock critics read these allusions as acts of ironic appropriation, viewing them as celebration of trash and a campy celebration if kitsch.

Most of his emphasis is on the Athens, Georgia phenom The B-52s with their aesthetic of fake beehive hairdos, thrift store '50s housewife loungewear, and borrowings from science fiction costumes and soundtracks. The author shows that the B-52s themselves refused the label of kitsch, or at least proved “evasive” in response to it. Indeed, they rejected labeling their obsessions kitsch in favor of suggesting that the “objects themselves were meant to be enjoyed for their own inherent worth and value.”

I think this is a somewhat problematic claim on the author’s part since there is nothing to say that kitsch can’t be enjoyed for its own sake. The argument can be made, after all, that kitsch and camp result from new kinds of human desires awakened by late industrial capitalism’s tendency to produce items that quickly become obsolescent (“trash”). Cateforis himself alludes to this idea but it doesn’t become his final explanation for the B-52s appropriation of such objects.

There are a couple of other places where the author leaves us hanging. Although he alludes in general terms to the concept of “white nervousness,” he never fully explores the racial tropes that this idea employs. He is certainly on to something but I wanted to see if it worked beyond his very fine exposition of the Talking Heads’ project Stop Making Sense. The idea of black authenticity in contrast with white desires for the cool is too simplistic an explanation.

Race might not be the best way to understand what Cateforis is describing. Maybe the template here is not Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer but rather Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. His discussion of Devo raises the possibility that the New Wave’s exposition of modern alienated nervousness has more to do with a growing 80s concern about our relationship to the technological than notions of race tied to authenticity or the lack thereof.

Some readers will also be surprised that the author doesn’t spend more time on the significance of gender and sexuality in new wave. Cateforis certainly alludes to the role of androgyny in the self-presentation of the B-52s and The Human League. He also shows that the Cars disliked some of the images that made their way to their album covers, images of sexualized machinery and objectified female bodies. These images were very much out of sync with their own musical persona and thematic concerns and has led too many to dismiss them.

Cateforis also discuss’ how the performance styles of singers like Byrne and Elvis Costello challenged traditional representation of rock masculinity. They represented an alternative to the cock rock bravado that constituted much of the performance style of guitar driven classic rock.

Highlighting these points is certainly important but these tend to be allusions to the issues of sex and gender rather than a close analysis. I found myself wondering throughout how Cateforis understood NewWave’s appropriation of androgyny, both in relation to the culture of the moment and to influences like Bowie and the New York Dolls. I also wanted to hear more on his ideas about gender performance on-stage and whether this new style of rock 'n' roll masculinity influenced the larger cultural turn toward the celebration of the awkward nerd as culture hero.

Are We Not New Wave? is one of those wonderful reading experiences where there the author puts on such a cerebral fireworks display that you want more from the author. My criticisms of the book should be seen in that light, as questions nurtured by a very fecund discussion of a musical style that becomes an exploration of cultural history at its best.

Like I said, it’s a book that will make you want to take one of this guy’s classes.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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