[Note: by the criteria laid out in Songbook #12, this is not a Rock song, but a rock n’ roll one.]
The last Songbook post raised the problem of repetition, of “new music” that is only sort of new. The first sign that recorded pop music could not remain ever-progressive in its development, but might, even when marching under the banner of rock, have to recycle itself, came in the late 70s and early 80s, and came funnily enough, with the music they called New Wave. To set the scene, let’s listen to Charlotte Pinegree’s pronouncement in The Last Days of Disco, the film by Whit Stillman. The time is late 1980:
…before Disco, at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies, this country was a dancing WASTELAND. You know the ‘Woodstock Generation’ of the 1960s, who were so full of themselves and conceited? None of those people could dance.
Besides becoming fodder for one of Peter Lawler’s best essays, The Last Days of Disco, made a strong case (particularly with its soundtrack) for why disco, at least at its hip pinnacle in the NYC clubs, was really pretty great. This typically abrasive and hyperbolic line from the Charlotte character is Stillman’s way of showing us what Disco was reacting against. It was a rejection of Sixties Seriousness, Rock, psychedelics, and the Sensitive Music that came right behind the too much confusion of the era. All of these were effectually poisonous to dance.
Of course, the weak side of disco, its repetitive and live-musician shunning aspect, is not made evident by the film and probably was the main reason for much of the public getting sick of initial disco sound. Any discussion of the “classic disco” era has to grapple with this, and then consider the larger story of disco, i.e., the story of the dance-music that almost certainly will be perpetually with us, the music that has become the world’s pop lingua franca.
I was an avid listener to pop-radio at the time, and I recall the fall of disco rather distinctly. A taste for more aggressive, troubled, or at least quirkier sounds came on the scene. For quite a few white American kids, that meant a return, and with a vengeance, to hard rock: Led Zeppelin’s popularity in 1981 was virtually boundless in my suburb. But other sounds were in the air, sounds labeled New Wave.
What was New Wave? Er…well, it was kind of Big Tent, dedicated to the proposition that the 70s sucked, dinosaur hard-rock most of all, but also usually seeking to avoid the disco trap. In that tent there were three major strands:
1) still-punk or post-punk bands.
2) synth-bands, i.e., elaborations on Kraftwerk/Berlin-era Bowie, shading into disco.
3) a variety of dance-floor oriented revivalist styles: two-tone ska, Jam-style mod music, rockabilly, various takes on early 60s R+B, etc.
A number of bands were basically doing 3), but dressing them up stylistically with camp or otherwise arty elements: Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, B-52s, XTC, etc., and perhaps adding synths or punk-stylings also. Quirky or Bowie-esque singing. Some bands in this mode, such as Duran Duran, Missing Persons, and Billy Idol, found ways of bringing more hard-rock techniques into the mix, eventually to the point that Idol became virtually metal.
With the exception of some of the ambient/psychedelic directions occurring in post-punk, all of this music was decidedly more energetic than 70s rock. And strands 2) and 3) were with disco in insisting on the centrality of dance.
So new wave rock, despite certain superficial commonalities, was actually rather diverse, divided, and even confused. What I want to argue here is that the main hesitation and confusion centered around the folks in strand 3) asking themselves this question: Should we, can we, DARE we, return to doing rock and roll?
You see the seeds of this spirit within punk. Recall, as established in Songbook #13, that the Ramones’ attempt to recreate rock and roll magic by means of musical minimalism could not really work, as they refused to school themselves in the various techniques of the Afro-American R+B tradition. Recall my insistence that that ultimately was a decision, one which allowed the Ramones to present their amped-up ineptitude as new, and as ironically self-aware. Of course, the Sex Pistols showed everyone that this minimalism lent itself even better to anger-expression than to campy rock and roll fun. Very quickly, this sound became connected to a whole punk ideology, and new bands seeking to ride the wave of punk excitement that at all deviated from this were roundly condemned by its advocates. Love songs were a no-no, for example, as apparently were any signs of rock and roll revivalism. The latter posed a problem for one the most promising of the new bands, The Jam, who for wearing their Who-influences on their sleeves, got labeled revivalists. Their leader Paul Weller was apparently very sensitive to such a charge, and showed up at a gig somewhere around 76’ or 77’ with a sign around his neck that read: “How can I be a f*&%ing revivalist when I’m only 18?”
Within a couple of years, punk had burned itself out in the eyes of many, and people worried less about what the punk critics said. A mini-boom of rock and roll revivalism unfolded, sometimes presenting itself as new wave, at other times more unapologetically returning to pre-1967 sounds. The jerkiness of mid-60s rock and roll was particularly valued, even if some groups were more open to soul-influenced sounds. Energetic Dance, without falling into the smooth repetition of Disco, was the moment’s imperative.
XTC’s Life Begins at the Hop is one of the best examples of this tendency: The sound is largely mid-60s, albeit bedecked with a few New Wave stylings, and the lyrics have a certain adult irony to them, celebrating teenage dances held in the “church on the corner” through a knowing eye, one that knows that the kids will learn there actually is much more to life than what they find at hop. But such irony is more in the spirit of Chuck Berry or the Coasters than along the lines of that served up by Soho New Wavers like Blondie, the sorts who were always careful to present their revivalist moments as a kind of camp-art. XTC’s song, however, is undeniably for the hop.
More well-known examples–I provide links to my favorites.
1) The Knack, “My Sharona”
2) Nick Lowe, “Cruel to Be Kind”
3) The Go-Gos, “Our Lips Are Sealed”
4) Dexy and the Midnight Runners, “Come On, Eileen”
5) The Jam, “Town Called Malice”
6) Madness, “Our House”
7) B-52s, “Rock Lobster”
8) Pretenders, “Middle of the Road”
9) Romantics, “What I Like about You”
10) Stray Cats, “Stray Cat Strut”
So, much of what was best about early 80s music was a semi-hidden and semi-sheepish rock and roll revival. To be sure, for various reasons, it was not sustainable, and new forms of hard rock and disco began to make a comeback…
…but I don’t want to talk here about the long MTV-dominated slide into the 90s…rather, I want to dwell a bit longer in that 1981-1983 moment, and notice that for those of us sympathetic to rock and roll revivalism, the next obvious question was: why not go full bore?