Music

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

Theo Cateforis

In the early '80s, new wave’s most successful acts -- groups like the Cars, the Police, the Talking Heads, and newcomers the Go-Go’s -- had established themselves among the upper echelon of critically acclaimed and top-selling rock artists.

That Damned Skinny Tie

As with disco before it, perhaps the strongest indicator of new wave’s passage into the mainstream was the large number of high profile non-new wave artists who began releasing new wave-inspired albums. Just as the disco craze of 1978 had precipitated such 1979 disco-fied rock crossover novelty singles as Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” and Kiss’s “I Was Made For Lovin’ You,” so the 1979 emergence of new wave would attract in 1980 such wandering pastiche stylists as Billy Joel (Glass Houses), Linda Ronstadt (Mad Love), and Robert Palmer (Clues). Unsurprisingly, Joel and Ronstadt, both of whom were in their early thirties, claimed to be less intrigued by the new wave’s modernness or sense of difference than by its reenactment of an energetic rock and roll spirit that was deeply embedded in their own personal and artistic histories. In particular, Joel’s hit single “It’s Still Rock’n’Roll to Me” amounted to an adamant defense of his intentions. As he explained to Rolling Stone magazine, there was nothing new about the new wave:

New wave songs, it seems, can only be about two and a half minutes long... The sound has to be limited to what you can hear in a garage. A return to that sound is all that’s going on now, so don’t give me any of this New Wave—using a Farfisa organ because it’s so hip... I grew up on jukebox music, and everybody in the band has played this music all their lives.

As the Knack fizzled, the image of the British Invasion skinny tie became a new wave albatross, a representation both of the movement’s most heavily corporatized musical act and the legion of copycat “poseur” bands who had planned to cash in on its success. Skinny tie had become a derisory term, a modern fashion accessory as damning as John Travolta’s white leisure suit and choreographed dance routines had been to disco’s credibility.
Others, like seasoned art rockers Peter Gabriel and Pete Townshend, were less sheepish or defensive about their admiration for the new music and their solo albums (Gabriel’s third eponymous album, Peter Gabriel, and Townshend’s Empty Glass) willfully embraced the movement’s more progressive and experimental tendencies. Likewise, veteran British groups like King Crimson and Yes overhauled their sound, exploring the meeting ground between progressive rock’s virtuosic complexities and new wave’s layered minimalist textures and synthesized tones. King Crimson’s new front man, Adrian Belew, had spent time recording and touring with the Talking Heads, while Yes replaced departed vocalist Jon Anderson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman with Trevor Horn and Geoffrey Downes of the Buggles.

By the close of 1980, the emergent new wave formation had become seamlessly integrated with the dominant rock formation. Creem magazine acknowledged as much when it dispensed with the separate new wave categories in their year’s end reader’s poll with the justification that the music had finally assimilated itself into the mainstream. As had happened with punk, however, new wave’s newfound popularity brought to the fore familiar concerns over the music’s incorporation. These debates surfaced in the critical reception surrounding the August 1980 Heatwave festival held in Toronto, a one-day event that brought together such notables as the B-52’s, Pretenders, Talking Heads, and Elvis Costello & the Attractions for an estimated 50,000 fans. Reporting for NME, Richard Grabel questioned the logic of moving what was a club-based music out into the fields. A new wave rock festival was “a contradiction in terms,” and a sign that the rock industry was “a big-bellied whale, capable of swallowing anything.” James Henke of Rolling Stone likewise structured his entire review around the haunting question of whether or not the new wave had sold out and compromised its original ideals. Could the very event that seemingly legitimized the new wave also be the one that symbolized its death? In the end, these questions of co-optation proved to be moot. While both critics agreed that compelling sets, especially from the Talking Heads and Elvis Costello, had made the Heatwave festival a creative and artistic success, from a financial standpoint it was a disaster. With ticket prices ranging from twenty to thirty dollars, the organizers had hoped to draw double the number of fans that ultimately paid their way for the event. The Heatwave festival ended with substantial losses that guaranteed it would be the first and last such mass new wave gathering.

Heatwave’s failure to match its advance billing as the new wave “Woodstock of the Eighties” was not lost on the industry. While rock critics were wringing their hands over the genre’s dance with the big-business devil, the major labels were noticing that the majority of bands that they had signed in their post-Knack moment of infatuation were managing only modest returns on their investments and in many cases were complete stiffs. Worst of all, the Knack itself, like the bands that were intended to follow in its footsteps, was faltering badly. The band’s second release, ... But the Little Girls Understand, had run drastically over budget (reportedly reaching in excess of $500,000), negating the expectations of a cheap overhead that their first release had promised. To make matters worse, the album peaked at only number fifteen on the charts, while its lead single, “Baby Talks Dirty,” barely scraped into the Top 40. By the time of its third album for Capitol in 1981, the Knack was essentially a nonentity reduced to playing half-filled clubs rather than the coliseums it had packed on their first tour.

Adam Ant - Photo courtesy of Laurie Paladino

As the Knack fizzled, the image of the British Invasion skinny tie became a new wave albatross, a representation both of the movement’s most heavily corporatized musical act and the legion of copycat “poseur” bands who had planned to cash in on its success. Skinny tie had become a derisory term, a modern fashion accessory as damning as John Travolta’s white leisure suit and choreographed dance routines had been to disco’s credibility. As with punk and as with disco, new wave had died a double death, one attributed to selling out and becoming a fad, and another ironically from its inability to gain a secure commercial foothold.

Two years after proclaiming the genre’s breakthrough into radio, Billboard’s September 1981 headline, “AOR Cuts New Wave Shows,” signaled the industry’s waning interest in the music. AOR directors were starting to curtail their new wave programming because they were fearful of how the new genre would blend with their established formats and audiences. The perception of new wave was that it was music favored by an audience primarily in their teens and early twenties. For AOR stations such audiences were suspect because they failed to match the purchasing power of the “plum over-25” demographic. Reliant upon advertising sponsorship, AOR stations could ill afford to disturb the cash flow that they believed a more established “classic rock” style promised. Billboard summarized the programmers’ decision to cut back on new wave in brutally honest terms, naming “apathy on the part of the listeners, the desire not to be associated with the music because of the risk of listener tuneout and the willingness to let non-commercial college stations program [new wave.]” College radio would indeed pick up much of the new wave programming that AOR dropped and in a few short years would prove to be a major influence on the recording industry, but in 1981 it was still largely viewed as a noncommercial ghetto. By banishing new wave to the college radio ranks, most in the industry concurred that the music had run its course as a marketable genre.

R. Serge Denisoff has characterized new wave’s “invasion” of the American music industry as an unfortunate “Bay of Pigs,” and based on Billboard reports and chart action, it is easy to see why. The labels had lunged for new wave in 1979 in the midst of an economic collapse, but the passage of two years had failed to alleviate the industry’s financial ailments. Label executives laid the blame on numerous sources, from home taping to the intrusion of new formats such as video games and movie rentals that were stealing away the audience’s leisure time and money. Whether the effect of these demons on the industry was real or imagined, they nonetheless reflected a discouraging situation. Within this paranoid industry climate, new wave bands with shaky sales histories were viewed as expendable.

At the same time, there is a danger in charting the course of a genre such as new wave through its depiction in the weekly music industry papers. To be sure, this reception reflects a certain reality, but it is a narrow one. Looking beyond the dim assessments of AOR programmers and jaded industry insiders, one could easily find evidence to the contrary in 1981 and 1982 that new wave was a sustainable, growing movement. New wave’s most successful acts—groups like the Cars, the Police, the Talking Heads, and newcomers the Go-Go’s—had established themselves among the upper echelon of critically acclaimed and top-selling rock artists. Additionally, the occasional new wave novelty, such as Toni Basil’s “Mickey” or Trio’s “Da Da Da,” still found its way into the Top 40 rotation. A number of important independent new wave labels had emerged, such as I.R.S., Slash, and 415—all of which by 1982 had signed distribution deals with major labels—and Ian Copeland’s Frontier Booking International had formed a national circuit of new wave–friendly clubs in which these artists could perform. Even if the music had not transformed AOR and conquered the charts, there was still a tremendous amount of energy emanating from the new wave.

The continuing interest in the new wave was especially evident with the launching of the New Music Seminar in 1980, an event that explored through a series of panels the means and measures of evaluating, producing, marketing, and selling progressive, modern music to an indifferent industry. By its second year, the Seminar had expanded nearly threefold, and it would soon become a requisite professional meeting ground for industry representatives as well as a coveted showcase opportunity for up-and-coming artists. The New Music Seminar would stand as one of the new wave’s strongest legacies until its folding in the mid-1990s, but ironically one of its most significant contributions was the shift in nomenclature that it encouraged away from new wave to that of new music. As a genre label, new music differed only slightly from new wave, and any fan of the bands gathered underneath their respective wings would have readily noticed that they were referring to essentially the same thing. But for an industry still smarting from a post-Knack fallout, it was prudent to create some distance from new wave’s troubled past.

As we will see in the next chapter, in the early 1980s many “new” variants would come to compete with the new wave as descriptors for the modern pop music of the time. More than just simple name changes, these shifts in labeling would reflect a new expanded range of styles. Most significantly, these newest of the new waves would finally come to dominate the Top 40 realm that had generally proven so elusive to the first new wave. As a result, new wave would be transformed from an emergent cultural formation into a dominant one.

Theo Cateforis is an Assistant Professor of Music History and Cultures in the Department of Art and Music Histories at Syracuse University. Prior to his arrival at Syracuse, he taught in visiting positions at the College of William and Mary and Carleton College. His research and teaching is in the areas of American Music, Popular Music Studies and Twentieth-Century Art Music.


He is the editor of the anthology The Rock History Reader (Routledge, 2007) and his articles on topics ranging from riot grrrl and math rock to teen movie soundtracks have appeared in the journals American Music, The Journal of Popular Music Studies, Current Musicology and in the collections Musics of Multicultural America (Schirmer, 1997) and Progressive Rock Reconsidered (Routledge, 2002).


In addition to his scholarly work, Cateforis played drums and keyboards with the New York City indie rock bands Bunsen Honeydew and Four Volts from 1997 to 2004. He has also been a regular “record reviews” contributor to the highly regarded rock music magazine The Big Takeover since 1994.

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