Punk and New Wave

The Birthday Party “Junkyard” (1982)

The Birthday Party reached their peak with Junkyard. It soars on a pulsing energy that never fades. It is goth rock. Punk. Frightening rockabilly. Angular funk. Gospel and blues. Demonized cabaret lounge jazz. These and other styles collide in a gruesome, purposeless, and—above all—glorious spectacle. But the darkness in which this music dwells is entirely stable. It is confident at least. The album is mixed to emphasize the low end and the high end, with little mid-range. There are no compromises.

The Thatcher-Reagan era has, in many ways, turned out to be the beginning of the end (or at least another milestone in the world’s continued march towards an easily avoidable doom). Junkyard plays like The Birthday Party intuitively knew this. The slow groove of “She’s Hit” reveals from the beginning that this group was more aware than most. They absorbed the maddening energy of the times, without becoming bound to them. Unlike the living dead of the world, who are modeled on an image of the past, The Birthday Party were in a state of regenerative flux, continually rebuilding decaying happiness.

“Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow)” is a sleazy literary come-on, and Nick Cave sings, “Where for art thou baby-face.” Still, the words come out more like a warning to a future victim issued too late. And yet, The Birthday Party can be trusted. Despite rubbing down and rubbing out simple hopes and pleasant dreams, the band’s resolve is never spent. If something on this album doesn’t arouse something in you, then you might already be spiritually bankrupt. But at least you will wonder what you are made of.

Barry Adamson guests on “Kiss Me Black” (filling in for the jailed Tracy Pew). His bass blasts to the forefront immediately with mangled tones that bend enough to engross listeners as much as whole songs or albums often do. Matched with Cave belting out, “Hey hey hey hey,” the song reveals no intention of relenting. The song is a small representation of all the band was.

Easily the most important band to ever emerge from Australia, The Birthday Party later disbanded after recording a few EPs but no other full-length albums. While there is a saying about wicks that burn brightest burning the shortest, that quip doesn’t quite capture what The Birthday Party were about. They were a black hole that sucked life and the universe into a seeming nothingness. What that leaves us with is anyone’s guess. In a black hole, no known laws of nature apply. —Azuege

Eurythmics “In the Garden” (1981)

Eurythmics 1981 album ‘In the Garden’ is a fascinating and generally forgotten record. Recorded with Kraftwerk producer Conny Plank and featuring Blondie’s Clem Burke and Can’s Holger Czukay ‘In the Garden’ was the first record they recorded after the demise of The Tourists and before they had major commercial success. ‘In the Garden’ failed to chart and, sadly, remains largely ignored to this day.

‘In the Garden’ is new wave, no wave, psychedelic, experimental and pop, if pop comes from outer space (and it’s good when it does). Themes include dreamy reverie (English Summer), Kraftwerkian love songs (Take Me To Your Heart), desperate housewives who behave like calculators (She’s Invisible Now), female body image (Caveman Head), and, that’s just for starters. Annie sings in French on the bizarre and catchy ‘Sing Sing’ and most tracks are punctuated with all manner of sound effects, animal impersonations, trains, crickets and sirens. Vocals are processed, mixed up, mixed down, sound like they were recorded underwater, surrounded by cushions, or beamed in from another galaxy, or era, or mental state.

‘In the Garden’ is a great example of the sound of a band experimenting with an Everest of ideas. They wisely stop short of overloading the album though, as it could have been a complete mess. I’ve been finding new things in this album every time I hear it, and that is an awful lot of times. From here came Sweet Dreams and later, it must be said, a general move away from experimental pop towards a generally more commercial direction (which is where I become a little less excited about their music). —Wayne

Wire “Behind The Curtain” (1995)

Where haaave you been hiding this, life?! Uhh, Behind The Curtain. Heh heh.

Believe it or not, we had no idea this lil’ corker existed until the other night, when after already extending the gentlemanly gesture of giving us a lift, our buddy lays this one on us for the ride home. Sand In My Joints! Map Ref 41 N 93 W? Underwater Experiences, and a bunch of other songs we’d never heard?!?! Driver, you really know how to talk to a girl.

Behind The Curtain, it turns out, is a collection of demos, live, and, unreleased Wire material from 1977-78 – i.e., songs that would wind up on Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154, a near-flawless triumvirate of albums if ever there was one. Rawer, and even more urgent than their album versions, some of these takes may actually get a leg up on their better-produced counterparts. While some of this stuff has surfaced here and there over the years, there is a lot of material that hasn’t, with 13 tracks unreleased in any form. Even this compilation seems to be in short supply, having only seen release in the UK, and languishing in out-of-print purgatory for years.

Collections like these often serve little purpose beyond the label’s ongoing compulsion to get more product into the market. With Wire though, it’s an essential document (and eyewitness) of a band’s all-too-brief formative stages. Unlike many of their peers, Wire’s progression from the trappings of punk into a bolder, more experimental sound occurred at a staggering clip. It’s mind-boggling to think that this band went from the 1-2-XU, barely-holding-it-together snottiness of the early live tracks here to the stark and nuanced ambient mood pieces of “A Touching Display” in a span of 18 months. Which makes this material all the more crucial. After Pink Flag, one of the more cohesive statements to come out of punk, Wire would tear up the map, never to return for the most part. Behind The Curtain puts this in perspective, connecting the dots for those that care to follow. This is how it started, and how they got to where they were going. —Jonathan

Tuxedomoon “Half-Mute” (1980)

Seductive, repetitive and wholly original for its time, Half-Mute is a brilliant fusion of punk sensibilities with arty self-indulgence. Moody, depressing and suicidal equally describe the bleak atmospheres this San Francisco trio create with a host of instruments, ranging from synths and pianos to saxes and violins. “What Use?” is a remarkable distillation of the group’s arty aesthetic of ennui and isolation–a veritable sonic anatomy of the apocalyptic fallout of the American landscape in 1980. Engagingly eccentric. —Hawklord

Patti Smith “Horses” (1975)

During the late 1990’s, in my young teenage years, I fell deeply into your standard “punk” phase. Naturally I was well aware from day one that “Horses” stood as some sort of ultimate classic among the genre’s first outpour. Teachers would tell you this, parents, Rolling Stone magazine. As a young idiot, i would agree. Maybe out of guilt for not “getting it”. I realize now that that’s total bullshit. “Horses” is not a great punk album. Not anymore. Not to a kid. It is, however, one of the finest rock albums ever crafted. Perfect 70’s, in-the-pocket, electric guitar music stretched across unchained, stream of conscience song writing. It’s so genius in the way that Patti Smith seems to understand that the groove of rudimentary rock music is in itself high art. No need to delude it with prog timing or bloated arrangements. Yet as organic as the record sounds, it still comes across like some wild audio painting with no concrete rules or limits. The way that the band speeds up and slows down through tracks like “free money” or the title track, is so natural, so jammin’, that i find myself uncontrollably shaking my hips with every listen, including right now behind the counter at Jive Time. Now that’s a true monument to American culture, counter or otherwise. For fans of The Stones, The Velvets, or American high art in general. Not for punks. —Alex

The Psychedelic Furs “The Psychedelic Furs” (1980)

Disjointed. Messy. Sassy. Irreverent. Loud. Acidic. Mocking. A strange brew of psychedelia, glam rock, post punk, and new wave with a lead vocalist who can not friggin’ sing.  Kind of sounds like the Sex Pistols and Roxy Music had a one night stand and gave birth to a love child. And while we are on the stupid subject of love… God, I’m in love with this album! One of my all-time favorites. Ignore the claims usually made for ‘Talk Talk Talk; This is the best thing in the Furs discography. If the opening tour de force of “India,” “Sister Europe,” “Imitation of Christ,” and “Fall” doesn’t do anything for you, we just can’t relate, bro.  Magnificent! —Minimalism

Iggy Pop “The Idiot” (1977)

This is probably Iggy’s best record, thanks to Bowie’s inspired production touches and obvious assistance in the songwriting department. The weird post-glam sonic breakthroughs Bowie and cohorts were making in these days provide the perfect foil for Iggy’s nihilistic hedonism and manic-depressive urbanity, which ranges from the proto-goth, blasé-in-crowd banality of “Fun” to the “hey, where the f*ck did everybody go?” sentiments of “Dum Dum Boys,” to a final affirmation to just go out for cigarettes in “Mass Production.” The proto-industrial soundscapes give Iggy’s alienated musings the perfect setting, and the Eno-inspired spaciousness in the production gives him room to rant, rave, mumble, and croon his way through the urban wasteland without miring him down; in other words, even when it’s a semi-catatonic drag, this disc rocks with a kind of cold sweat and shivery stagger that reinvents rawk with an ever-so-slight intellectual angle: which is what we call post-punk, even though this is, chronologically speaking, in punk’s very midst. But never mind the conceptual bollocks: play this and Joy Division’s first in rapid succession and the influence becomes readily apparent. Thing is, though, this is a far better album than that one. And I’d even venture to say that this is better than Bowie’s own “Berlin” albums, at least in some respects. The melancholy and menace are more precariously balanced, and Iggy walks a fine line in his lyrics between abstraction and specificity, in vocal persona between a man driven to murder by boredom and an idiot getting stoned and running around (thus splitting the difference between the two and showing up their identity under conditions of mass production, wherein China Girl is not quite what it seems). And the cold, steely textures are at once severely remote and warmly inviting, thanks to Tony Visconti’s richly minimalist mix, which evokes neon nights, gothic fog, factory noises, radio static, and the little voice of one’s bad conscience, among other things. Not only an important and influential record, but one that remains honest-to-goodness great, and fully rewards repeated listening. –Will

Kid Creole & The Coconuts “Tropical Gangsters/Wise Guy” (1982)

Coming out of the same NYC/Ze Records school that fostered the likes of Tom Tom Club, James Chance, and Was (Not Was), Kid Creole managed to stand out in a scene with no shortage of eccentrics, jokers, and flat-out freaks. One glance at the album covers confirms that no two words could have better summed up the entire ethos of this bizarre ensemble better than Tropical Gangsters, the UK title of the Coconuts third album. Kid Creole was an ex-English teacher who put his Masters degree into the service of a theatrical, but light-hearted take on the post-disco-funk explosion that was setting NYC clubs on fire in the early-’80’s. Creole’s former career bled through into the highly conceptual narratives that pre-occuppied his songs and albums, and Tropical Gangsters is no exception. The loose theme of the album revolves around the group being shipwrecked on an island of outcasts and their “gruesome ordeal”, as they are forced to play “RACE MUSIC” to broker their escape. Being of Latin descent, the Kid and his half-brother and bandmate never demurred from their background, often winkingly embracing it in the music and image of the band. Their sense of humor naturally extended into the songs themselves – “Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy” employs the female Coconuts in a dialogue wherein our hero must settle a question of paternity the only way a tropical gangster knows how – with brutal frankness – “See if I was in your blood/Then you wouldn’t be so ugly”. Tropical Gangsters takes the coconut and runs with it from here, with seven more hilarious tales of island-life scandal and intrigue that duly threaten to grind the dance floor to dust while they’re at it. KC had made good albums before this, but this was where the songs and the groove finally came together to create the perfect tropical storm. —Jonathan

John Foxx “Metamatic” (1980)

With every listen, Metamatic takes me into this whole other world, a deserted Metropolis where daylight never comes and the only sound you hear is the menacing “click-click drone” of human-hunting cyborgs. John’s eerie man-machine vocal,combined with bizarre, doomy lyrics provoke an entertaining kind of dread in me, then there’s the music… while the clanking beats and deathly-cold synthesizers show their age, the way they fit with the vocals and lyrics, astounds my senses to the point where its hard for me to hear these tunes as just the work of a creative young man, its more like each song has a life of its own, beyond the confines of its creators imaginings. A difficult sensation to explain, but a very powerful one that places Metamatic among my most played and highly regarded records.

“No One Driving”,“030”, “A New Kind of Man” and the completely surreal “Tidal Wave” (Should I laugh or be very scared?) are a vital part of an extremely weird set of songs that would provide the ideal soundtrack to a mind-bending Sci-Fi/Horror fest. —Misfit

Shoes “Black Vinyl Shoes” (1978)

My pick for the fizziest power pop album ever made. The home-recorded guitar buzz even gives the cozy impression of a warm and constant carbon dioxide “fffffffff” across these fifteen catchy melodies. The group recorded it themselves as a demo—then they just released it as is—and each track is pure melody adorned only with the barest, ghostly living room production. It’s a uniquely spectral record, a little hook-filled cry in the night. Everyone notices its odd sound. Today, roughly 275,000 homemade albums come out each year, but in 1978 there wasn’t much else that sounded like this. Today, it feels timeless. It’s also consistently good. I can’t pick favorite songs off this any more than I can pick which M&M was the best out of the bag, but I’ve thrown “Fatal” onto a few mixes due its great percussion. —Jason

The Cure “Seventeen Seconds” (1980)

What a difference a year can make! Released only 11 months after the rather straightforward post-punk of Three Imaginary Boys, Robert Smith and company completely reinvent their sound and deliver one of the defining albums of the gothic rock movement. The songs here are bare and carefully measured, with little trace of the distorted wall-of-sound that would dominate later efforts like Pornography. Where Seventeen Seconds is very similar to those later releases is via the somber lyrics and the vocal delivery itself, which routinely take a backseat to the arrangements and rarely structures itself into a verse/chorus format. So if you enjoy the atmospheric slow-building side of the Cure, you’ll probably love this album. I personally consider it to be among the best in the Cure discography, rivaling the likes of Faith and Disintegration.

Despite a similar musical approach as Faith and Pornography, I find far more standout tunes on Seventeen Seconds. The entire back half of the album is nearly flawless. “A Forest” is particularly effective, mixing a haunting ambience with an almost Krautrock-esque driving groove. “Seventeen Seconds” is another personal favorite, although it does feel slightly underdeveloped at ~4 minutes. Gothic rock fans will also undoubtedly adore “Secrets”, “In Your House”, and “At Night”, while “M” should placate listeners starved for a slightly catchier and more upbeat melody. All things considered, one of the finest albums of the early-80’s. —Paul

Blondie “The Hunter” (1982)

Here’s an album waiting for some serious revaluation. The Hunter features several tracks of sheer classic quality, accompanied by lesser ones that still have, without exception, something remarkable to offer – a thing not always achieved by today’s acclaimed albums. “Orchid Club”, “Dragonfly” and “The Beast” are among the most interesting Blondie ever created, experimenting with hypnotic beats and unconventional song structures, hinting – along with “Fade Away and Radiate” from Parallel Lines – toward a parallel-world instance of Blondie as a trancey ambient-techno unit. “Island of Lost Souls” is not a rehash of “Tide Is High”, as some would imply. It’s arguably a better song, with a livelier tune and interesting lyrics. “English Boys” is a beautiful anthem honouring the hoisted flag of Pop Music. “War Child”: a fierce electro-disco with stabs of percussion and wind instruments – again, a faultless track. “For Your Eyes Only”: a cunning stylistic amalgam that could fit nicely among Parallel Lines’ reinventions of ’60s pop. “The Hunter Gets Captured…”, while anticipating Debbie Harry’s future work as a jazz singer, rounds off the record nicely, flashing a light on its undercurrent themes of life as adventure / race / bush warfare. —Redux