Episode 5 – Songs From 1980
Welcome to New Wave Beat! I am your host, Jason D’Orazio. We will talk about some new wave news, and then take a dive into 5 seminal songs from 1980.
0:00 – New Wave news
5:24 – Songs From 1980
New Wave News
Cindy Wilson’s Solo Album
Cindy Wilson from the B-52s just released her 1st solo album titled “CHANGE”, the result of a years-long collaboration with Ryan Monahan and others. She described the album as having eclectic influences, and All Music describes it as going in a different creative direction from the B-52s. Wilson is currently touring to support the album, as well as fitting in B-52s shows, so she has been keeping pretty busy. A few years back B-52s had mentioned that 2008’s “Funplex” would be their last album. But in talking with On Tap Magazine, Wilson is encouraging the B-52s to put out 1 more song. Let’s hope that happens!
1980’s the Last Musical Revolution?
Thompson Twins frontman Thomas Bailey, in speaking with the Herald Sun of Australia, mentioned that the 1980’s was the last time of musical revolution, with synthesizers complementing or supplanting guitars. He went on to say that 1985’s Live Aid was the last hurrah of that revolution, and that music is now tamed by the corporate world. I agree in the sense that the new wave era was revolutionary and allowed for more eclectic sounds to make the mainstream. Indeed, varied artists like the Romantics and Thomas Dolby fall under the new wave umbrella and they both managed to hit the music charts. Nowadays there seems to be a narrower range of music that gets widespread attention.
Boy George Comments
Boy George has been pretty vocal lately, making digs at Lady Gaga. A Tampa Bay Times article described Gaga as the best live performer in pop, and then George on Twitter called the article fake news. Apparently George has been critical of Lady Gaga for several years. In 2010 George complained heavily about Lady Gaga’s cocaine confession, and in 2012 he implied Gaga borrows heavily from Madonna. In addition George recently mentioned that there are too many labels for sexuality, to which fellow musician Adam Lambert agreed. Then Boy George mouthed off at Australian corporate radio at one of Culture Club’s concerts. Definitely some controversy all around.
Kim Wilde Christmas Song
An interesting turn for Kim Wilde: she is teaming up with thrash metal band Lawnmower Deth to release an anti-Christmas song titled, well, “F U Kristmas”. It might top Wham!’s “Last Christmas” and Ed Sheeran’s collaboration with Beyonce titled “Perfect”. In 1987 Wilde did do a cover of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” with Mel Smith, which did quite well. So she is familiar with the format, albeit from a different angle. For what it’s worth, Lawnmower Deth covered Wilde’s “Kids in America”, which she enjoyed. Wilde posted a pretty haunting photo on Twitter in support of the single.
Update on English Beat
Thanks to a very successful crowdfunding campaign via PledgeMusic, the English Beat are releasing a new single in January, followed by a full album in March. This is the 1st album by the full band since 1982’s “Special Beat Service”. They are currently touring in the United States in support of the upcoming album. The English Beat had 5 top 10 hits in their native UK. Their song “Save it for Later” got some more listens this year because of its inclusion in the movie “Spider-Man: Homecoming”, so the band got some good press for that. My wife, not familiar with the band, really liked that song! You can hear snippets of their upcoming album on pledgemusic.com.
New OMD album
New wave duo OMD released a new album a few months ago called “The Punishment of Luxury”. It sounds kind of like a cross between Kraftwerk and OMD’s mid-80s songs made popular by filmmaker John Hughes. Good to see they are putting out new material! The band is currently touring to support “The Punishment of Luxury”. They are doing a cool feature where concert-goers can vote for 1 of 3 songs, and the winner gets played by OMD that night. They are in Europe now, and will be starting the US leg of their tour in March, including here in Chicago.
Midge Ure of Ultravox fame has just released “Orchestrated”, featuring orchestral versions of Ultravox and solo hits. This includes “Vienna” and “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes”. I did like Falco’s orchestral album that was recorded in 1994 and released in 2008, so I am looking forward to another new wave artist’s songs being reinterpreted in this way. These recordings might be a little bit more challenging to pull off for the Ultravox songs than Falco, as Falco had already incorporated classical motifs to his music. This should hopefully tide us over until we get new music from Midge Ure. His last such album was 2014’s “Fragile”.
Songs from 1980
1980 was a banner year for new wave music, as songs began to hit the year-end top 100 Billboard charts.
Gary Numan – Cars
Let’s kick off our review of 1980 new wave songs with “Cars” by Gary Numan. Numan’s music was of a particular brand of new wave called synth-pop. As you may have surmised, it involves a heavy use of the synthesizer, along with a love for all things Kraftwerk. Numan’s classic 3rd album,”The Pleasure Principle” had the smash hit “Cars”, which cracked the top 10 in the United States in 1980. The begining sounds like insects buzzing, and then a familiar 5-note melody repeats through much of the song. The cold synths set the tone for the song. Gary Numan then chimes in with his detached vocals that were indicative of early synth pop. It is interesting to note that there are no choruses in Cars yet in the diverse musical landscape of 1980 it still managed to be a big hit. Only about a minute of the song contains vocals, so I wouldn’t recommend singing this one at karaoke. However the terse lyrics speak volumes; they describe being cocooned in a car, or metaphorically speaking human isolation. At first the narrator likes the safety of his car, but by lyrics’ end he gets lonely and wants to leave it. The music video for Cars has Gary Numan performing the song in a futuristic suit and in front of a mostly black, futuristic background. When the tambourine is played, Numan’s face is shown inside of a large tambourine. Toward the end of the song multiple Gary Numans appear to be steering an imaginary car. What’s great about Cars is that the instruments, vocals, lyrics, and video all form a consistent narrative about the perceived coldness and isolation that comes with the future, according to Gary Numan. Cars was Numan’s biggest hit but he continues to record albums into 2017. In the ‘90s he gradually turned to industrial music, and still sings about dystopian themes.
Devo – Whip It
On deck is Devo’s biggest hit dubbed “Whip It”. Devo debuted in 1978 from Akron Ohio with a quirky, robotic form of new wave. I would say they are sonically closest to fellow new wavers the B-52s and XTC. While they had a cult following early on, “Whip It” off their 3rd album gave them a wider audience. The song moves at a whip-like pace, clocking in at under 3 minutes, but is pound for pound a great, eccentric tune. The drum intro identifies the song quickly. Synthesizers were used for a lot of the song, including the memorable whip-like sound effects and 5-note melody that plays during the verses. Members Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh alternate vocals in a call-response format to great effect. “Whip It” is an effective combination of the energy and absurdity of punk with the sheen and sometimes detached nature of synth-pop. Some people think the song is about sado-masochism because of the whip references, but I think it’s more about blind optimism. Devo highlights the absurdity of employing the same quick, easy solution (whipping it), in response to whatever life throws at you. For example, “when a problem comes along you must whip it”. The iconic video features the band performing in their famous energy dome hats, along with a loose narrative. I am guessing the video is based in the American West due to the log cabins and cowboy/cowgirl outfits of some of the characters. The band uses a whip to take clothes off a woman, and a cross-eyed woman shoots at a can of beer held by someone, both of which raised some eyebrows. The quirky “Whip It” became a top 40 hit in the United States. Devo never had a large hit other than “Whip It”, though they still have a dedicated fan base and a lot of other good songs to enjoy.
The Pretenders – Brass in Pocket
Next up is “Brass in Pocket” by the Pretenders. Although released in 1979, it scorched the charts in 1980 and the album that contained it was also released in 1980. The Pretenders were close to the spirit and aggression of punk, though there were also The Rolling Stones and The Who influences mixed in there. The melody is simple but hummable and memorable. An 8-note riff sets the tone for the song, and the tempo is a little on a the slow side. Little to no synthesizers are used on this one, unlike the previous 2 songs I mentioned today. Chrissie Hynde’s prominent, sultry vocals are excellent and are the highlight of the song. She provides emphasis on the right words to in order to provide variety to the song. The words describe a potential sexual encounter with a guy, and her confidence in the way it is going to happen. For instance, “gonna use my arms, gonna use my legs”. Indeed, the lyrics are powerful and get to the point. I think the name drop of their native Detroit is kind of cool. I give kudos to the video for its storytelling, as I usually prefer a video with a strong narrative over one with the band just playing. In it, Hynde works as a waitress at a restaurant that is nearly empty. She takes a liking to one of her customers, and she fixes her hair, perhaps in preparation for him. The customer walks in, but unfortunately he is with another woman. The customers later leave, and Hynde is left alone and a little dejected. Hynde did not like the more passive role she played in that video, and the song for that matter. The Pretenders had several other hits in the ‘80s, and are still releasing new material and touring.
The Vapors – Turning Japanese
The 4th song in this lineup is “Turning Japanese” by the Vapors, who were a short-lived new wave group that were kind of similar to XTC and the Knack. “Turning Japanese” was the 2nd single off their debut album (the 1st one flopped) and it made the top 40 in the United States. This song starts off with what is popularly known as the Asian riff, and repeats it before the 2nd verse. There are a few other faux-Asian elements to the song as well. The spiky guitar chords and fast tempo have good new wave energy, certainly influenced from punk. Vocalist Dave Fenton delivers aggressive, clipped vocals which match the vibe of the song. The lyrics of the song have been discussed a lot in pop culture circles. It is evident that the narrator misses a love interest, whether it be a girlfriend or just a crush. The “Turning Japanese” part is more open to interpretation. Some say it is a euphemism for masturbation. Meanwhile the more innocent angle is that his love interest is Japanese and he wants to fit in with her. Lyrics like “I often kiss you when there’s no one else around”, could be referring to the pictures of his love interest, or the Japanese stereotype that frowns on public displays of affection. The video runs with the more innocent interpretation of the song. Indeed, it features the band performing on a set that is decorated in a Japanese style, and there is a Japanese woman dressed in traditional geisha attire. To round it out, the band brandish samurai swords. Unfortunately the Vapors released just 1 more album in obscurity before calling it quits. Kirsten Dunst sang to this song in a music video a couple of years ago, which I would skip if I were you.
The Romantics – What I Like About You
Let’s end this 1980 list with “What I Like About You” by Detroit rockers the Romantics. It comes off their eponymous debut album. The Romantics are kind of similar to the Knack, of “My Sharona” fame. The intro is very catchy and identifies the song almost right away. The song has dissonant yet upbeat guitar chords, along with vigorous drumming and clapping. The vocals, courtesy of also-drummer Jimmy Marinos, have a lot of raw enthusiasm to them.There is a little yelling and shouting “hey” that further increase the energy. The instrumental bridge features a memorable harmonica section to accompany the guitars and drums. Like several other of the songs I discussed, this one is a little fast, at just under 3 minutes. The lyrics are more straightforward than the other 4 songs that I discussed. They basically talk about someone’s girlfriend or lover, and briefly go over what he digs about her. Lyrics like “never wanna’ let you go, know you make me feel alright” are par for the course with “What I Like About You”. The repetition of the song title shows a little bit of punk influence. The video is also straightforward as it is entirely of the band performing the song live in front of a black backdrop, and also dressed in black. Marinos is doing a good job with drumming and singing at the same time, both with great intensity. While “What I Like About You” wasn’t quite a top 40 hit in the US, the song has gotten a good amount of play in the subsequent years. It has aged a lot better than, say, “The Electric Slide”. The Romantics also had the hit “Talking in Your Sleep” several years later, and released several more albums after their debut. Australian band Five Seconds of Summer covered the song a few years back. It was tolerable, but not much more than that.
That wraps up my episode for today. Join me next week as I will take a close look at Duran Duran’s 3rd album, “Seven and the Ragged Tiger”. Until that time, please catch my Facebook page. This is Jason D’Orazio at New Wave Beat, wishing you well!