Punk and New Wave

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

The Damned “Machine Gun Etiquette” (1979)

Up to a point, there is no faulting the genius of the Damned, and Machine Gun Etiquette is the culmination of their (r)evolution. A debatable point, of course, as their Damned Damned Damned album could be considered their first, last AND greatest… BUT, Machine Gun finds the band expanding their cheeky short-loud-fast into something… well, grander! They expanded their song writing beyond what, at the time, had already become cliché 1-2-3-4 punk rock. Perhaps it was Captain Sensible’s (melodic) move to guitar? Maybe they were just getting (ahem) older? I don’t know for sure, but tracks like Plan 9 Channel 7, Love Song…even the faultless cover of MC5’s Looking At You, were some of the first punk songs I could call…(don’t laugh) beautiful! And the songs still hold up, I can put this on anytime and it makes me really happy. –Nipper

The Gun Club “Fire of Love” (1981)

More than any other white musicians in the latter half of the 20th century, the Gun Club embodied the true spirit of American blues music. Members of the musical intelligentsia like to point to 1960s as a period of revitalization for the blues, the decade in which major British Invasion rock groups like Cream and the Stones, having cut their teeth on the recordings of Robert Johnson and Skip James, paid tribute to their idols and introduced the quintessentially American art form to a new generation of enthusiastic young fans. In reality, however, the true legacy of the ’60s Brits, however great their music and sincere their adoration may have been, was to sanitize and whiten the blues, to minimize the ragged starkness and raw emotion and instead to emphasize technical proficiency and a sense professionalism that bordered on sterility (in the process giving rise to flashy guitar-wizardry-as-blues, exemplified by the likes of Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan). The result was a product more commercially accessible to the record-buying public (mostly white teenagers), but it was drained of the visceral power that had made the blues such an authentic and enduring form of cultural expression.

Ironically enough, it took the Gun Club, a bunch of white California punks, to recapture some of that lost essence. Coalescing in 1980 around lead vocalist and songwriter Jeffrey Lee Pierce, the Gun Club were, along with bands like X and the Flesh Eaters, a staple of the Los Angeles punk movement, a regional music scene that spawned some of the most intriguing, enigmatic, and downright weird music of punk’s golden age–stuff so garish and surreal it could only have come out of Hollywood. And the Gun Club were perhaps the greatest and weirdest of them all.

On their 1981 debut Fire of Love, Pierce and company strip away the veneer of politeness that had infected the blues since the ’60s and restore the raw intensity that one finds in the recordings of early country blues artists, demonstrating themselves to be the real heirs of the blues legacy that Eric Clapton and other polished veterans of the British Invasion tried to claim for themselves. Most music writers point out that the Gun Club were among the first groups to combine punk with blues, but such a simplistic description does the band a grave disservice. Incorporating punk, noisy garage rock, swampy Delta blues, and even gothic country and rockabilly, the Gun Club crafted a sound that is completely unique and almost impossible to describe. Though music writer Denise Sullivan takes an admirable stab at it by coining the phrase “tribal psychobilly blues,” even this fails to do justice to the band’s threatening swagger, to Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s sinister, demonic howls, and to the eerie, unsettling voodoo rhythms that throb and pulse like blood pounding deafeningly in your ears.

Pierce, whose depraved poeticism and shamanistic persona draw inevitable comparisons to the Lizard King himself, fully embraced the macabre subject matter so pervasive in early blues music–mysticism, murder, violence, and the occult–and penned some of the most startling, imaginative, and nightmarishly surreal lyrics in all of rock music. Every song on this album is outstanding, from the perverse country bounce of “Sex Beat,” the terrifying murder-sex ballad “Jack on Fire,” and the explosive punk assault of “She’s Like Heroin to Me,” to the frenetic energy of “For the Love of Ivy” (the album’s magnum opus) and the slashing slide guitar of “Preaching the Blues,” one of the most inspired reinterpretations of a Robert Johnson tune that I’ve ever heard.

Jack White hit the nail on the head when he claimed that Fire of Love should be “taught in schools.” Nothing before or since has ever sounded like this. Fire of Love is one of the greatest albums ever, a collection of recordings that sounds simultaneously fresh and timeless, that stands alone as a uniquely visionary work and also fits effortlessly into the populist tradition of American roots music. If the great Skip James had fronted a garage rock band before he died, I have a feeling that it would’ve sounded something like this. —Adam

Section 25 “Key of Dreams” (1982)

By applying the Joy Division dogma to the most far-out acid psychedelia of the 60’s, Section 25 created one of the definitive psychedelic records of the era with The Key Of Dreams. The drum patterns, disjointed guitar and electronic noises in “Always Now” sound quite far ahead of their time; this is almost trip-hop. The industrial mantra “Visitation” is again pierced by the nightmarish guitar, in what is an acid trip for the new dark age. “Regions” takes a less intense but no less hypnotic approach (with a relaxing coda of piano and saxophone). “The Wheel” marks a return to dark-wave psychedelics, albeit in a more minimal way. In all these tracks, the guitar playing in particular is highly original and effective. Then the last four tracks take a turn for the even more abstract. “Once Before” is yet another mantra, but this time focusing on a moody melody carried by acoustic guitar, ritualistic tom-toms and a percussive hiccup; a distant cousin to Bauhaus’ “Spy In The Cab”. “There Was A Time” is another chant carried only by the vocals, excellent drumming and a sub-bass drone. “Wretch” is a relative departure, a crossover between the album’s dark psychedelia and garage-rock, again distinguished by some wild guitar leads. “Sutra” is without doubt the centerpiece of the album (15 minutes), characterized by ominous drones, abstract guitar noise and disturbing harmonic changes. —Ily

Suicide “Suicide” (1977)

In the year 1977, a few (albeit obvious) punk rock groups come to mind that brought the genre to the forefront: The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Damned, and (more or less) Television. (More or less in the sense that Television was arguably the first band to break free from the conventional punk rock mould and venture into more artistic territory.)

However, Suicide seemed to have taken a step back ten years, copping the garage rock swagger of Iggy Pop, the meandering psychedelic drones of the Doors and the Velvets, while at the same time utilizing a swirling, adventurous musicality one could only find on a Brian Eno record…but with the production cost of a carton of cigarettes. ((And since I’m rolling, I’ll go ahead and proclaim foreshadowing of the shoegaze boom ten years LATER (“Cheree” sounds eerily like the Spacemen 3 doing a version of “Louie Louie.”))

Finally, all of these influences and pre-cursors have been packaged into an album that’s barely half an hour long.

Pinheads, this is a punk rock album like no other. Believe it. —The7thSon

Pet Shop Boys “Please” (1986)

This is the first, and considered by many, to be the quintessential Pet Shop Boys album. Anyone familiar with the popular music of the 1980s will know the dominant track on the album, West End Girls. Still considered their greatest hit, the Pet Shop Boys capitalized on the synthesizer and sample-heavy sound conjured up for this song by producing a slick London-based video that catapulted the PSB into the limelight around the world for the next several years.

The music of the Pet Shop Boys defies easy explanation. The lyrics are witty and urbane, very much a product of the disco and consumer-big-money culture of the 1980s. Songs like Opportunities/Let’s Make Lots of Money became a sort of capitalist anthem, spawning two different video versions and countless remixes for the disco environments. Taking a cue from the popular television of the time, the song Suburbia has a piano overlay that sounds similar to the then massively-popular Eastenders, and the lyrics recount a East End-esque storyline which sparks familiarity with those immersed in the pop culture. The song Love Comes Quickly highlights both synthesizer effects and masking as well as simple and elegant poetic lyric. No base or screaming lines in this disco, no banal or forced words simply to serve as fronting for a drum-machine-produced rhythm, this song perhaps shows the Pet Shop Boys at their early height in development of words to music.

Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have continued their collaboration to produce ever more complex and interesting albums, not all of which have been successful, commercially or artistically. While Please is not their best album, it is certainly a classic, and very much the seed from which all the rest of their sound derives. Everything on any future album of the Pet Shops Boys is present in some form here. A must have for any collector of the Pet Shop Boys or of 1980s pop culture and music. —FrKurt

The Jam “Sound Affects” (1980)

Weller and company return to the muscular, yet polished, mod-fed pop of All Mod Cons, while continuing to stretch lyrically and intellectually on Sound Effects. As on All Mod Cons, Weller explores elements of his life and environment, but two years further along his lyrics take a more abstract and poetic approach. Brilliant songs like “Man in the Corner Shop” meditate on class envy through a linked series of vignettes, while “That’s Entertainment” brings the world’s ills to the foreground with its scathing sarcasm.

Musically the band is as sharp as they got. The energy of their earliest works is channeled in a way that makes the rage simmer just on the edge of boiling, rather than exploding. The result is a more fervent and sustained backing for Weller’s singing. Think of Revolver-era Beatles minus the psychedelic excess and plus the introspection of their White Album lyrics.

While other Jam LPs hit brilliant peaks here and there, “Sound Affects” sustains their genius from start to finish. —Hyperbolium

Gang of Four “Entertainment!” (1979)

It’s hard to recognize the importance of music like this in an era when Marketing is considered a legitimate university degree. So we have to have a little historical imagination to look back to a time when political possibilities weren’t limited to corporate tyranny, mindless technocrats, and buzzwords worthy of Nazism. Yes, kids, politics used to be funky, and music even sometimes had brains.

If you don’t agree with their politics and you like their music, you just don’t know it yet that you agree with their politics. You’ll either come around or you’ll stop listening to Entertainment! Further to that point: you don’t have to be a Marxist to acknowledge the falseness of commercial culture and the “globalized” post-modern neurotic subject. So you don’t have to worry about being called a Red. Which if you’re worried about it, you aren’t ever gonna get the message, anyway.

Though I suppose the lazy-fair types are always gonna think that economics is a science when it’s under critique and a board game when it’s not, and that art’s a form of entertainment, subject to market competition just like antidepressants and military contracts. Which is why Marketing is such a goshdarnit important substitute for Marx in today’s active lifestyles. —Will