Best Songs of the New Wave Era

15 Apr

New Wave emerged in the late 1970’s as a response to the overproduced, indulgent music that dominated the airwaves through the middle of the decade.   It took rock back to its roots, eliminating layers of synthesizers, instrumentation, and vocals.  Instead of the bloated sounds of Yes and Journey, there were spare, sharp offerings by Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, and Joe Jackson.   The pseudo-majesty of Styx, Foreigner, and Kansas was replaced by the grit of The Pretenders and The Plimsouls.  The great New Wave bands took music back to the best of the early years of rock and roll when emotion, songwriting, and energy trumped pseudo-orchestral pomposity.  There’s a reason Declan MacManus took Elvis Presley’s name and Buddy Holly’s glasses.

The Hangover’s Five (or six) Best Songs of the New Wave Era:

Tie:  “Less than Zero” / “Pump it Up”  Elvis Costello  (My Aim Is True, 1977 / 1978 This Year’s Model)

Elvis Costello could be called the poster boy of the New Wave movement.  His early albums were musically sparse and clearly intelligent, also biting and catchy.  When his songs began appearing on American radio, their minimalist nature made them a stark contrast to what was in heavy rotation at the time. 

Less than Zero was a scathing attack on British fascist Oswald Mosely.  The lyrics also revealed Costello’s dissatisfaction with the societal status quo.  Bret Easton Ellis picked up on this and nicked the title for his first novel, considered by critics to be an indictment of the meaninglessness found in that generation’s lives.  Less than Zero is a classic example of Costello’s approach to his early music, where the song itself was everything.

Pump it Up is a throbbing paean to sex with sharp lyrics and urgent music.   Costello spits out his vocals with something close to disgust as he chronicles unrelenting, uncontrolled desire.  The pulsing guitar and organ mirror the sexual nature of the lyrics.  It’s a lost cause when Costello sings, “No use wishing now for any other sin.”    

“Is She Really Going Out With Him?”  Joe Jackson  (Look Sharp, 1979)

This song was all over the radio as Joe Jackson broke into the American market.  It begins a quiet,  pretty piano ballad, but suddenly bursts with venom.  Jackson vents his disgust with the beauty-beast coupling that pervades his scene.  The “Is she really going out with him?” chorus is simple and effective; the verse combines a pleasant singing voice with underlying satire:  “Pretty women out walkin’ with gorillas down my street/From my window I’m starin’ while my coffee goes cold.”  In just two lines a listener is firmly placed in the singer’s shoes.  Simple, effective, and fun.

 “What I Like About You” The Romantics  (The Romantics, 1980)

Three chord genius, here.  Just two guitars, bass, drums, and vocals.  Decent lyrics, huge hooks.  The song was not a hit when it came out in 1980.  However, it has since been overplayed and overused to the point that The Hangover now cringes any time we hear it.   But one can’t blame the Romantics for that.  Before “What I like” got appropriated for car commercials, sports stadiums, kids’ movies, horrible sitcoms, tired DJ’s, and every other cliche machine, it was a very cool song that brought to mind the best of the early British Invasion.   Power pop at its finest.

“Mystery Achievement” The Pretenders   (Pretenders, 1980)

This song starts with thumping drums, then is joined by its standout base line.  Crisp guitar chords appear next, followed by Chrissie’s Hynde’s plaintive wail.  The song was written by guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and its subject remains somewhat mysterious.  The Hangover believes that it is most likely about heroin and its constant beckoning.  (This would also make it ironic as Honeyman-Scott later died of an overdose.)  The lyrics are poetic, but clear in the hold “mystery achievement” has on the songwriter:

“Mystery Achievement don’t breathe down my neck, no” and later “But every day, every nighttime I find/
Mystery achievement, you’re on my mind/And every day, every nighttime I feel/Mystery achievement, you’re so unreal”

“A Million Miles Away” The Plimsouls  (Everywhere At Once, 1983)

It’s possible that lost love has been the most written about subject of rock and roll.  Backed by guitar licks and urgent vocals, the Plimsouls do it here as well as anyone.  The song plays fast and hard, raving like Jerry Lee Lewis minus the piano.  The band and song were featured in the cult classic “Valley Girl,” where Nicolas Cage’s character takes the Vals to see a band playing with real emotion and integrity.  As far as the Plimsouls go, it was perfect casting.   

Others that were considered:

“I Got You” by the Split Enz.  This one starts off quietly but its chorus with “I don’t know why sometimes I get frightened/you can see my eyes and tell that I’m not lying” is perhaps the most catchy of the entire era.

“Local Girls” or “Endless Night”  by Graham Parker.  These are two of Parker’s best from his “new wave” days.  The writing is wry and sharp, the spare music is classic pub rock.  

“Driver’s Seat” by Sniff ‘n the Tears.  It was hard to leave this one off the list.  It is a moody piece with a neat guitar riff, sharp drums, and deep-voiced vocals.   Sniff had a distinct sound.

“I’ve Got Your Number (Written on the Back of My Hand)” by The Jags.  This is a song that kicks with built-in humor and a touch of spite.   These guys could have been Elvis Costello’s second cousins.  At the time, The Hangover was certain that this band would be more than just almost-one-hit wonders.   

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8 Responses to “Best Songs of the New Wave Era”

  1. Chilly Nate April 16, 2008 at 5:38 pm #

    Wow, thanks for that stroll down Amnesia Lane. Those are some pretty serious rockers. And I’ve jammed to all of them and have most of those albums. Unfortunately though the only ticket stubs I can produce would be for the before mentioned Journey and Kansas, early 1980’s. However I did see The Ramones at Rutgers University in the Spring of “85.
    Other New Wave artists that I enjoyed were The Fixx, The Psychedelic Furs, Eurythmics and Squeeze. What a great era for music. And the best part was that I actually had time to listen to music, over and over again.
    Great blog Chip.

  2. Rob April 21, 2008 at 2:12 pm #

    One of my favourites from that era is the Cars’ “Just What I Needed”, a stupendous track with some mighty guitar lines, and sparkly keyboards. And XTC’s “Making Plans For Nigel” is a big song from that era too as is Squeeze’s “Another Nail in My Heart”. What I love most about this strain of New Wave is that the music is always joyous and celebratory, yet the lyrics are always full of piss and vinegar. The contrast here is makes for some compelling tension.

    Thanks for the list!

  3. RobO April 23, 2008 at 8:46 am #

    Agree with the Squeeze choice from other Rob. And you have to find a place for the Psychedelic Furs’ “Pretty in Pink” – if for no other reason than they gave us Molly Ringwald (indirectly, sort of).

  4. Rob April 23, 2008 at 3:26 pm #

    I missed the Furs ‘cool’ period and was really turned onto them after the New Wave thing was gone. My favourite tune of theirs is ‘Ghost in You’, one of the best pop songs of that decade. There, I said it.

  5. Sammy May 23, 2009 at 10:58 am #

    For Mystery Achievement by the Pretenders, I had a nagging question on my mind about it. It says that the song was written by the guitarist James Honeyman Scott, yet I own the album and the sole writing credit was given to lead singer Chrissie Hynde. I have checked other sources as well and she is always given credit for writing it. I think you made a mistake about the fact that he wrote it. If not, I was wondering where you found out that he wrote it.

  6. Sammy May 23, 2009 at 10:58 am #

    For Mystery Achievement by the Pretenders, I had a nagging question on my mind about it. It says that the song was written by the guitarist James Honeyman Scott, yet I own the album and the sole writing credit was given to lead singer Chrissie Hynde. I have checked other sources as well and she is always given credit for writing it. I think you made a mistake about the fact that he wrote it. If not, I was wondering where you found out that he wrote it.

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  8. Emily December 2, 2011 at 3:32 am #

    Keep up the great piece of work, I read few blog posts on this internet site and I believe that your web site is really interesting and contains lots of wonderful info.

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