Punk and New Wave

The Pop Group “Y” (1979, Radar Records)

Pop_group_Y

After the punk fallout of the late 70’s in the UK, many groups that didn’t go the route of repetition instead went down more interesting avenues, leaving the “rock” part of punk behind to amass dub, free jazz or funk and disco stylings into their rep. Most acts didn’t try as hard as The Pop Group.

Their first album “Y” is a stew of ideas that may not sit well for everyone, but is definitely worth investigating if you have a tough pair of ears. Early on you get the track “Thief of Fire”  which is actually about as conventional as this adventure gets, and it’s pretty kooky. Almost jangly, almost disco-esque guitar glistens against rough and tough funk basslines and metronomic beats. Until the track turns itself inside out with feedback, tribal drums and atonal sax… All the while vocalist Mark Stewart (who stands about seven feet tall) yelps and screams as anarcho-politico. For how much everything seems to fall apart, the Group remain in control and bring it all home.

Other tracks with tight playing include “Snowgirl,” side one closer “We Are Time” and “The Boys From Brazil” on the flip… All this angular playing may bring up thoughts of Beefheart’s Magic Band with more ill will. Most of their other audio adventures are woven together through free playing, sound collage, and dub editing. The almost pretty “Savage Sea” rests just below unsettling, nearly ambient, while closing cut “Don’t Sell Your Dreams” hardly abrades, ending with a plea and sparse arrangements.

Impressive as both a live and studio act, The Pop Group still manages to amaze after more than thirty years, and their recent reformation cues renewed interest in this disc. Fans of early genre bending music by the likes of PiL, The Minutemen, The Fall or The Birthday Party should take note. -Wade

 

Fun Boy Three “Waiting” (Chrysalis, 1983)

Fun_Boy_Three_Waiting Springing out of the black and white world of The Specials, Fun Boy Three arrived in the early 80’s alongside shiny 2.0 versions of Scritti Politti, The Associates and The Human League.

These groups former years were experimental and dour, but their later careers showed a shared ambition of breaking into pop charts while retaining an experimental and subversive edge. Being on the UK’s Top of the Pops was suddenly more important to the underground than ever, whether it was under personal or political motivation, and it would be a battlefield.

With Fun Boy Three’s “Waiting,” their second-wave Ska roots take a backseat to showcase the studio mastery of David Byrne who at that time was on top of the world after “Remain In Light”-era Talking Heads and work with the B-52s. The Fun Boy Three are accompanied by horns and strings to give them a sophisticated sheen that never clashes with Byrne’s love and use of African instrumentation, and the Boys’s bring their political sloganeering and working class statements to the mix.

The big hit on this disc? What might be seen as a cover of the Go-Go’s “Our Lips Are Sealed” was actually collaboratively written by Go-Go’s guitarist Jane Wiedlin and Fun Boy Three’s singer Terry Hall, but the Go-Go’s had put out their version first. In any case, it was a hit heard around the world, especially across the Atlantic and back again. They had their shining moment as chart-infiltrators during an incredibly interesting time in UK pop music. -Wade

The Germs “G.I.” (1979)

album_GERMS-GIBring up L.A. Punk to folks without a map or a schematic showing what scene-did-what, and they are likely to tune out. Plenty of great groups came from L.A. but there is a certain point when and where an element of sameness set in after the initial waves of Hardcore, when the rot took hold cross-country and suddenly the genre niche could really bum people out with predictability.

So to clue you in, The Germs were around during the Punk heyday and grew around a suddenly fertile Hollywood scene. While the Hardcore-era film “The Decline of Western Civilization” shows them being monstrous alongside footage of Huntington and Hermosa Beach surf-jock (-jerk) bands, and their equally monstrous fans, the Hollywood area had a particularly dirty n’ glammy, ambiguously sexual thing going on that was just about as exciting as how different a lot of these Hollywood groups sounded (Bags, Screamers, Vox Pop).

Germs recordings past their Slash single and some bootlegs were scarce, and once “G.I.” hit it showed that during their relatively short life, The Germs had grown into an impressive instrumental unit. Once you get past (accept, appreciate) Darby Crash’s inability to annunciate vocals, you can hear that Pat Smear really had guitar chops and that Lorna Doom was a great bass player. Witness “Land of Treason” or “Strange Notes” to see how versatile these kids can be at such breakneck speeds set by drummer Don Bolles, who still leaves room to breathe in his playing despite such velocity / ferocity.

But then if you do bother to bring up lyrics, Darby does bring food for thought on just about every track once you decipher what he’s mush-mouthing about. And hey, how many dime-a-dozen Hardcore bands could come up with “Manimal” or the nearly ten minute “Shut Down (Annihilation Man)?” -Wade

Elvis Costello “This Year’s Model” (Columbia, 1978)

Elvis Costello This Years Model HIGH RESOLUTION COVER ARTAfter scoring success with his debut album My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello wasted no time in recording a follow-up. This Year’s Model takes everything that made his first album great and multiplies it several times over. The catchy melodies and intricate wordplay remain firmly intact but they’re given an extra dose of energy by EC’s famous backing band The Attractions, composed of Bruce Thomas on bass, Pete Thomas on drums, and Steve Nieve on keyboards. It’s a firecracker combination that doesn’t let up for even a second during the album’s 39 minute duration.

“No Action” opens the record with such intensity that it’s almost exhausting just to listen to. Elvis begins by snarling, “I don’t wanna kiss you, I don’t wanna touch/I don’t wanna see you ’cause I don’t miss you that much.” Every member of the band comes in at full-throttle and it’s a perfect slice of punk energy that demands your attention and leaves you feeling like you just stepped off a roller-coaster when it ends just two minutes later. I can’t think of a better way to introduce The Attractions and it lets you know immediately that this album will be louder, rougher, and more intense than the first.

The record contains a couple well-known hits, most notably “Pump It Up”, which everyone has heard at some point. Even by today’s standards it still sounds fresh and energetic, making it a well-deserved classic in Costello’s vast catalogue. “Radio, Radio” was a controversial diatribe against corporate radio and its predictable “play it safe” attitude toward music, while “(I Don’t Wanna Go to) Chelsea” rides a killer guitar riff that firmly ingrains it in your mind after just one listen. “The Beat” and “Little Triggers” are both prime slices of pop while “Hand in Hand” and “Lip Service” are trademark Costello songs whose dark lyrics are cleverly disguised by an upbeat melody. “Living in Paradise” is one of my favorites and finds Elvis in a state of jealousy and frustration before concluding, “You better have your fun before it moves along/And already you’re looking for another fool like me.” Perhaps The Attractions’ finest hour comes in the form of “Lipstick Vogue”. Pete Thomas’ drums open with a furious solo and intensity that only heightens as Steve’s organ chimes in as the song blazes by with a punk ferocity that’s impossible to ignore. Every track here is impressive and there’s not a trace of filler or wasted space.

It would have been hard for any artist to follow My Aim Is True and Costello took a big risk by going with a louder and more forceful sound. However, it works perfectly and there’s no denying that The Attractions are a major key to this success. They take Costello’s songs and elevate them to incredible heights. Each musician is amazingly skilled and they all get equal chances to shine here. If Costello’s first album proved him to be a naturally-gifted songwriter then This Year’s Model proved that he was here to stay and wasn’t afraid to take his sound in new directions. His first album was stellar and this one, in my humble opinion, is even better. Don’t miss it. —Lunar

O.M.D. “Architecture & Morality” (Virgin, 1981)

Omd_architectureBoth sides begin with synth pop of the highest order – in fact, one could make a strong argument that the two variations on “Joan of Arc” are the greatest new wave singles of all time, the “Maid Of Orleans” version’s musique concrete intro and waltz time signature making it an astoundingly atypical hit single. “The New Stone Age” is a startling and dirty rocker whose sound may not have much in common with the rest of the album but certainly set the depressed, hurt tone perfectly (and the experimentation with near atonality foreshadows the more ponderous passages of the record). The one-two punch of “She’s Leaving” and “Souvenir” are just gorgeous, however.

What sets this apart from nearly every record of its type and time, though, is the way either side goes out. Tracks like “Sealand” and the title cut wouldn’t feel out of place on a Brian Eno record, while “Georgia” begins with Kraftwerk robotics and ends in an ambient whir. “The Beginning and the End” is a perfect mix of the two sides of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, a lush vocal piece that is nevertheless indebted more to Gregorian chant than any sort of rock or pop fore-bearers. This record is perhaps the ultimate statement of synth pop/new wave as an artform, and a must for anyone even remotely interested in the genre. —Andrew

Wire “154” (Harvest, 1979)

Wire_154This has to be the first truly great Wire LP, certainly the best one in their first incarnation. 154 is filled with all the nihilistic, murky, schizophrenic variety that made it their finest achievement. 154 takes a few steps further from Chairs Missing and makes no apologies for where it takes the listener.In a nutshell, 154 takes one to a dreamy, crazy place with many questions and no answers. A place of musical paranoia and lyrical madness. Right from the start, 154 lures the listener into a wonderous, surrealistic soundscape. Even if there are a few cuts that hark back to Pink Flag (On Returning, Two People In a Room) and Chairs(Mutual Friend), the rest is the next step in Wire’s intriguing evolution. Maybe some would place “The 15th” and Single KO” as also Chairs-influenced, but I would say that those two are murkier, and less accessible than “Outdoor Miner”.

With that said, the rest ventures into unprecedented instrumentation and novel melodies. Frontman, Colin Newman, shines on “Indirect Inquiries” and “Forty Versions” as well as on “The 15th”, my favorite by the way. The meshing of schizophrenic lyrics with twisted guitar licks, bass, and flexible drumming, speaks volumes. Right hand, Graham Lewis, steps forth and takes center on some cuts (Touching Display, Other Window). The album opener, “I Should’ve Known Better”, begins with Lewis singing and not Newman, another indicator that things were really changing.

154 is rather hard to categorize, like the band itself, aside from declaring it post-punk. Basically, it is a surreal blend of Pink Floyd, The Clash, and The Cure. It is an integral piece in the post-punk catalogue. And amazingly, not surprisingly, the LP is still influential and referenced to this day. —Mike

Ramones “ Pleasant Dreams” (Sire, 1981)

rrraaaThe years 1980-1983 were not kind to the Ramones. Struggling to find their niche in a sudden sea-change of musical direction known as New Wave, they tried to keep up without compromising themselves and the sound they were known for. Riding the high from their appearance in the film “Rock’n’Roll High School,” and the accompanying hit of the same title, they entered into an alliance with legendary producer Phil Spector. Bad move! The resulting album was a dud (though I personally like it well enough), and the next two Ramones efforts struggled to correct their blunder by gaining back the fan base that had eroded.

“Pleasant Dreams” was the first of these efforts (“Subterranean Jungle” is the other). Unfortunately, this is/was the most ignored of all Ramones albums, which is a shame considering just how tasty it really is. Unlike the following “Jungle,” which was dark and fierce, reflecting the Ramones’ growing frustration, “Pleasant Dreams” is mostly light and well-humored. The Ramones vent some frustration here too, on “We Want the Airwaves” and “This Business is Killing Me.” But on the whole, the album features some very mature, bubblegum rock. What I love most about “Pleasant Dreams” is its uniqueness. The album encompasses a style on to its own. —Mark

Toyah “Anthem” (Safari, 1981)

How I used to fancy this woman; flaming red hair, cute lisp, Oxfam-reject garb, what a package. But for all my youthful fantasies I found it more than a little disconcerting when Toyah re-invented herself as a television presenter fronting an adult-orientated sex education and enlightenment programme. Bit like discovering the cutest teacher in school metamorphosed into an S & M dominatrix the moment she left the school grounds.

Anthem is Toyah’s finest hour. A new wave, post punk, pulp sci-fi mix which was so easy to ridicule but nevertheless memorable. I first saw Toyah singing “It’th a Mythtery” on Top Of The Pops and it was love at first sight. The album went straight to the top of my wish list and spent weeks on my turntable. It may sound very naive and downright silly now but, boy, did it hit a spot.

As a whole this type of early eighties synth pop hasn’t aged very well – particularly with all the space rock, fantasy punk angles that Toyah seems fixated on – but, playing this today, it still sounded fresh and innovative. “Masai Boy” with its accentuated drumbeat and Toyah chanting nonsense like “Rise o sun golden one” in the background shouldn’t work but is really effective. The almost progressive rock approach of tracks like “Marionette” and “Jungles Of Jupiter” is really surprising but again just has a conviction that eradicates any misgivings. The singles “It’s A Mystery” and “I Want To Be Free” remain as infectious as ever. Yes you can laugh at this stuff but it doesn’t make it any less compelling.

Long gone are my fantasies of meeting Toyah – she’d probably have eaten me alive anyway – but listening to Anthem brings them all flooding back but, more importantly, reminds me what a very good album this is. —Ian

Fad Gadget “Fireside Favourites” (Mute, 1980)

One of the more interesting bands of new wave and synth pop, Fad Gadget combines a synth pop style with industrial aesthetics and sometimes disturbing lyrics. It’s really a shame that they didn’t make it bigger than they did, but it’s not at all surprising. Their sound wasn’t radio friendly, with occasionally harsh sounds and Frank Tovey’s unusual vocal style, but it was also probably just a tad too poppy for fans of bands like Throbbing Gristle and Einsturzende Neubauten (who they would later collaborate with). Without an obvious target fan, there was no way to market the group. The music is great, though, with Fad Gadget’s original sound being their biggest strength. My favorite of these songs is the music-hall meets industrial pop campyness of Fireside Favourite, but the more straightforward synth-pop of Pedestrian is also very good. The second half of the album is a bit more experimental than the first half with darker songs, but Fireside Favourites is quality throughout. It’s not quite a classic album, but Fad Gadget were pioneers and deserve far more recognition than they ever got. —Brian

Iggy Pop “Zombie Birdhouse” (1982)

Iggy’s pop punk stylings of Party take a decidedly weird turn on Zombie Birdhouse, plunging into warped New Wave territory with pieces ranging from the insanely catchy Run Like a Villain and The Villagers to the closing incoherence of Watching the News and Street Crazies (the former of which paved the way for future avant-Iggy works like the title track from American Caesar). Yes, there’s a prominent drum machine, and yes Iggy is batshit crazy on this, but that’s part of what makes it work – tossed aside as an irrelevance by the big labels, Iggy gets back to basics with an independent label and comes up with this triumph. It might be goofy, unusual, unexpected, and surprising, but isn’t that precisely what we want from Iggy? —Warthur

Squeeze “Cool for Cats” (1979)

Squeeze’s first three albums trace the startling transformation of a band evolving from a diamond-in-the-rough punk band with an unmistakable pop sensibility, to a polished new-wave outfit that seems to effortlessly crank out an unending stream of catchy masterpieces. “Cool For Cats” is the second album, and the sound is squarely in the middle between the stumbling debut, “UK Squeeze”, and the fully-developed third album, “Argybargy”, a true classic of Beatlesque pop-rock. The distinctive vocal sound of early Squeeze comes from the unusual gimmick of having both Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford singing the lead together, with Tilbrook an octave higher than Difford. But it wasn’t long before they moved away from that sound, with the sweeter-voiced Tilbrook gradually taking over most of the lead vocal chores from the courser Difford. At the same time, the punk-ish energy of the earlier material gave way to the slower tempos and polished professionalism that has characterized the band for most of their long career. This evolution was dramatic and unmistakable from the debut, to “Cool For Cats”, to “Argybargy”, by which time the transformation was almost complete. “Cool For Cats” highlights are many, starting with the lead track, “Slap And Tickle”, which is very reminiscent of the debut. The album then hits a lull, with the next 5 tracks not making much of an impression, but it finishes with 6 straight winners, starting with the high-energy pop of “Hop Skip And Jump”. The next track is the stunning “Up The Junction”, with Difford’s lyrics telling a woeful tale of boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl because of his heavy boozing. Practically a short story set to music. The booze theme is repeated 2 songs later on the irresistibly catchy “Slightly Drunk”. In fact, excessive drinking would become a recurring theme for lyricist Difford for many years to come. The next track, “Goodbye Girl” is a Tilbrook-sung ballad with a lovely melody, the type of song that would become Squeeze’s trademark. The album comes to a close with the delightful, punky title track. All in all, a stellar effort by one of the greatest pop-rock bands ever. —Eric

Devo “Hardcore Devo, Vol. 1: 74-77” (1990)

Much as I love to go against the critical consensus, in this particular case I have to agree. Earlier DEVO = better DEVO. I mean, up to a point; like say 1973 DEVO isn’t all that hot, but 1975 DEVO? That’s gold. Count me in among the unwashed masses who prefer the “art terrorist” DEVO era to the “wacky new-wave moppets” era; basically anything and everything up through 1979 is all golden. The only thing that could possibly improve this album is that if they were to start using, say, “Golden Energy” in TV ads. Why not, you know? They use everything else in TV ads. You know once I actually heard Eric Dolphy’s “Hat and Beard” in a TV ad? It was for a wristwatch or something. I guess the message here is turn off your radio, and just watch TV ads nonstop. Anyway I’m not quite sure whether I like this or “Live: The Mongoloid Years” better, but they’re both good in their own way.

Oh, and three minutes of “Ono” pisses all over everything Suicide has done in their entire career. —David