I have absolutely no idea why, but I’ve spent the last few weeks re-visiting music I’ve not listened to in decades. Perhaps it’s because I turned 50 this year, and I’m trying to explore some of my past. Recapture elements of my youth? Play the historian?
I honestly have no idea why. The past is my business, though.
Regardless, I’ve been drawn back to what was once called “New Wave.” If you ask me to define “New Wave,” I couldn’t. I remember from my junior high and high school years that it was that type of music that was not prog, not rock, not pop, and not punk, though it often had elements of each, usually mixed around driving beats, minimalist guitats, and wild keyboard flourishes. Well, at least the kind of New Wave I’ve been listening to.
Let me offer a few thoughts and maybe even a few suggestions and warnings. I picked up my old INXS albums. KICK, to my mind, is way too overproduced and slick. LISTEN LIKE THIEVES is too monotonous. SHABOOH SHOOBAH has some glittering moments mixed with some mediocre ones.
But, THE SWING. THE SWING. THE SWING is a work of sheer genius. The catchiness of the tunes, the variation from song to song, and the intriguing lyrical content all make this an all too forgotten work of excellence.
I also re-listened to The Monks, BAD HABITS. It is just weird.
I re-listened to B-Movie’s FOREVER RUNNING. It is just quirky and a little too poppy for my tastes.
But, then I go back to THE SWING. I think I’ll stay there for a while.
“The songs are lyrics, not speeches, and they’re tunes, not paintings. Writing about music is like dancing about architecture—it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.” — Elvis Costello, 1983, apparently quoting Martin Mull.
On the other hand, would I have ever even heard of Elvis Costello if it hadn’t been for the rock press? Let alone listened to This Year’s Model?
One of my earliest musical loves was Simple Minds. For those of us who grew up deeply loving prog, the late 1970s and early 1980s were a very difficult time. If we couldn’t get our belovedly and outrageously complex 12-minute or even 24-minute epics, we had to find a worthy—no matter how watered down—substitute. For me, at least at the age of 12 or 13, I wasn’t willing to go the classic rock route. No matter how many times the radio played Jackson Brown or Aerosmith, these bands meant nothing to me. Sometimes less than nothing. Even worse was Top 40 pop.
In 1981 and 1982, that meant the only real alternative in the rock world was what was being called New Wave. While their songs were way too short, the use of keyboards and bass—at least in the best of the New Wave sound—I found them rather progressive. And, just as often, the lyrics were as intense as they were intelligently playful.
The bands I loved most: ABC; Thomas Dolby; and Simple Minds. I didn’t just tolerate these bands, I fell in love with them. I couldn’t even count the number of times I listened to GOLDEN AGE OF WIRELESS or LEXICON OF LOVE.
They played over and over again on my stereo during the early 1980s.
I came to Simple Minds a bit latter than either Dolby or ABC, but only a bit later. To this day, I think Sister Feelings Call/Sons and Fascination, New Gold Dream, and Sparkle in the Rain are some of the best albums I’ve ever heard. Even when compared to straight-up progressive albums, I would place anyone of these albums—but especially New Gold Dream—in my top 50 albums of all time.
Anyway, a brief thought about why New Wave mattered. Until next time. . . .
I’ve toyed with the idea of writing an uber-long post about Oingo Boingo over the past two years. Obviously, I’ve never actually taken the plunge. Partly because–as fascinated as I am by the band, the more I read about them, the less I like them. Yet, for thirty years now, I’ve come back to their music at least once if not twice a year. So, it might still be a while before I write on how faux 1980s-California psychedelic New Wave grew into pure dark progressive rock by the early 1990s.
But, as we approach All Hallows’ Eve, who can’t resist the following? Enjoy.
In the late spring of 1982, as I completed 8th grade, I met one of those kids who is always at the height of cool. But, it was a calm, somewhat cynical, real cool, not the show-off cool of the wealthy socialite kids. It was the Bohemian cool of the Beatnik not contrived cool of the Hippie or the Yuppie.
Only a few of us belonged to his circle.
Except for moments of ecstatic outbursts about an idea here or there, he radiated coolness. He read the Great Books and knew lots of poetry, he worked out in his room (he had the whole upstairs of a late 19th century house to himself) and studied Japanese martial arts, he knew everything about men such as Bill Buckley and Jack Kerouac, he owned the best stereo system of anyone our age, and he possessed an amazing record collection. He was the youngest of a large family, and his parents were much older, pretty much leaving Ritchie to raise himself.
It was Ritchie who introduced so many of us–in a medium-sized town in the wheat belt of the Great Plains–to English New Wave. Growing up a progger–addicted from an early age to Yes, Genesis, and Kansas–New Wave was a bit eye opening for me. It seemed to hold much of the complexity of prog, but it did so with computers and keyboards, often one or two musicians, where prog might have included eight or nine. Ritchie introduced me to ABC, Kate Bush, The Smiths, Oingo Boingo, Tears For Fears, and, most importantly for me, Thomas Dolby.
Two years ago, an issue of WIRED hit me hard. Page 55 especially intrigued me. “What’s wired this month” featured the following: “The Cure:Disintegration, deluxe addition — everyone has a favorite Cure album, but anyone who says Disintegration isn’t the best should have their black eyeliner confiscated. The 21st anniversary of this goth-pop classic from godfather of gloom Robert Smith is being celebrated in style. The three-disc set includes rare tracks and a live Wembley Arena recording from 1989.”
21 years? Simply astounding to me at the time I read this. Now, two years later, I’m still astounded. We’re coming up on the 25th anniversary of the album.
I have owned and listened to Disintegration for roughly half of my life. It came out right before the Berlin Wall fell (no connection, as far as I know; though, the title of the album is telling), the summer between my junior and senior years at Notre Dame. What had come before—Japanese Whispers, Head on the Door, etc.—was really good, and I had played each frequently on my turntable. But this 1989 album—Disintegration—ranks up there with Security, Hounds of Love, Spirit of Eden, The Color of Spring, The Flat Earth, Heaven Up Here, and Ocean Rain as one of the best albums of the 1980s. This wasn’t typical rock, “music with an attitude,” but music as art. It still is.
When pushed on this, I have argued Disintegration is one of my top 15 non-classical albums of all time. Though the older I get, the less taken I am with such rankings, even my own. But Disintegration? Is there a flaw in the album? Nearly every note is perfectly placed, and the music holds together beautifully from the opening track, “Plainsong,” to the strange finale, “Untitled.” Lyrical intensity, driving bass, timeless keyboard work, and even some periodic optimism, ala Eliot, fashion, predominates on the album. The Cure’s great flaw is their attempt (commercially lucrative, to be sure) to write bouncy pop songs. While songs such as “Friday, I’m in Love,” are fun, they have absolutely no staying power. If I never hear any of these pop songs again, I will not be sad.
But, “Disintegration” avoids all attempts at commercialism. It succeeds brilliantly.
There are some truly weird songs on the album, such as “Lullaby.” Taken in isolation, “Lullaby,” would not be special. But, in the context of the album, it is stunning.
Many people, especially those older than I am, tend to think of Robert Smith only in terms of nihilism and drugs. These things about Smith are undoubtedly true.
But, frankly, I find much of his work haunting and inspiring. I would much rather spend time listening to Smith’s 1981 Gothic anthem, “Faith,” then any song/hymn I know of by either Dan Shutte or Marty Haugen, modern Catholic drivel. Raised Roman Catholic himself, Smith — no matter how drug-induced his music and lyrics are — possesses a rare sense of the contemplative and even, dare I write it, the liturgical. Thankfully, his music never gets political, but it is always intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally stimulating.
Though the Cure achievesthe creation of some profound moments on their following albums, about 1/2 of Wish (1992), Bloodflowers (2000), and The Cure (2004), Smith and co. never quite reached the level that they established with Disintegration.
1989’s Disintegration serves as the adagio of the Cure trilogy: beginning in 1982 and ending in 2004. To me, the album only has one serious flaw — the few seconds of silence between each song.
A few days ago, Progarchist and classical philosopher Chris Morrissey asked about our first introductions to music.
The youngest of three boys, born in the summer of love (September 6, 1967—only 3 months and five days after the release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by the Beatles), and coming of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I grew up on progressive rock: Yes, Kansas, Genesis, and the Moody Blues. We faithfully shunned the 3-minute pop format and we sought mightily the 20- and 30-minute epics of European (usually liturgically derived) symphonic music with rock instrumentation and bizarre time signatures.
I remember hearing lots of longish, prog songs as early as 1971 or 1972. Though I’ve never played an instrument with any degree of passion, I’m assured by my mom and two older brothers that I was obsessed with music even as a toddler. Somehow, I figured out how to crawl out of my crib and down the stairs to the family stereo. Even as a one-year old, I would wake the entire household up, blaring the Banana Splits or Snoopy and the Red Baron at 3 in the morning.
My first great awakening came, though, from seeing the sleeves of YesSongs. I spent hours trying to figure out how the animals made it from one floating island to the next. And, I’ll never forget the first time I played side one of YesSongs—I was overwhelmed by the depth and complexity of it.
As is now well recognized, the prog lyrics as well as the cover art tended to be fantastic, pretentious, overblown, and theological. There have even been some interesting scholarly articles about progressive rock thriving in the western and midwestern states of America, mostly among middle-class, conservative kids. And, of course, we, with great confidence, derided disco and top-40 music through junior high, high school, and college. Disco and top-40 music, as we understood it, were decadent and vacuous. As far as we were concerned, progressive rock artists (and some New Wavers) were the only real musicians outside of the classical and jazz world.
In many ways, progressive rock helped define my own childhood and teenage years. I will never forget seeing abolitionist John Brown on the cover of a 1974 Kansas album (it sparked all kinds of historical questions re: Kansas, abolitionism, and the American Civil War); hearing Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” at the University of Notre Dame in the fall of 1979; being introduced to Rush’s 1981 “Moving Pictures” in the Liberty Junior High School library in Hutchinson, Kansas; or listening to Yes’s “Fragile” over and over again and trying to figure out the “deep” meaning of the lyrics. In high school, I worked as on overnight D.J. at a local rock station (KWHK), which doesn’t exist anymore. And, while in college at Notre Dame, I had a Friday-night progressive rock show (WSND) my junior and senior years, often playing two hour blocks of Rush or other groups.
As powerful as any of the albums just mentioned, though, was my first listen to Talk Talk’s Colour of Spring in the spring of 1987 and, even more so, my first listen to Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden in September 1988.
My comrade in arms in college was the singer of the most popular band on campus, St. Paul and the Martyrs. They even opened for Phish when Phish played on campus, spring 1990. The leader singer, Kevin McCormick, even became my oldest son’s godfather! Now, he’s a well-known classical guitarist and even a Progarchist.
But, I’ll never forget the two of us listening to Spirit of Eden for the first time. We were just stunned and in complete silence as we explored every note and every silence of the album.
Having turned 13 in the autumn of 1980, I also, of course, grew up with New Wave: Thomas Dolby, Kate Bush, The Police, The Cure, Oingo Boingo, XTC, Siouxie and the Banshees, and Echo and the Bunnymen. Over the Wall!
Our local Kansas radio station—KWHK—had briefly been formatted for New Wave, so I was able to get every new album sent by the record labels. The one that hit me hardest was XTC’s Skylarking.
My college radio show at Notre Dame focused on progressive rock, as mentioned above, but I threw in a lot of New Wave. New Wave just seemed the more radio-friendly version of progressive rock. And, by the early 1980s, progressive rock seemed to have run its course. Could Asia really claim to be the successor of Yes? Or, could Genesis without Peter Gabriel or Steve Hackett really be Genesis? We answered with a resounding “no.” That left us with New Wave.
After all, in 1990, we still had a few years before Dream Theater and Spock’s Beard re-introduced—in the states—a new wave of Progressive Rock.
A quarter of a century later, I realize that music took on religious significance for me and my friends. Those who embraced disco, pop, or top 40 music were heretics, and we supporters of progressive rock were the orthodox.
A year or so ago, some former students asked me to write about my listening tastes in the 1980s. Here’s what I wrote for them:
High School was a long time ago for me, but I still remember it well. During the summers, I had one of the best jobs in the world–I was a DJ at our local AM-station, KWHK. Not only did I DJ, but I also got to write and produce commercials, and I served as a liaison between the sheriff’s department and the National Weather Service. I grew up in central Kansas, so we had tornados and tornado warnings quite frequently. Great job. I’ve also been into collecting music (mostly progressive and alternative rock, some jazz, and a bit of classical) since second grade. I started young, and, for better or worse, I’ve never stopped. My kids (13 and under) can name bassists, singers, and drummers of the major progressive bands. And, yes, I’m proud of them.
Freshman year of high school, 1982-1983. It was freshman year that I really discovered New Wave. I had been listening, almost exclusively, to progressive rock and what’s now called classic rock during the 1970s and earliest part of the 1980s. The father of a friend of mine owned a record store, and we were introduced to all kinds of music through the store in 9th grade. In particular, I listened to Thomas Dolby’s Golden Age of Wireless (favorite song: One of Our Submarines is Missing). I had this on one side of a tape and ABC’s The Lexicon of Love (favorite song: 4 Ever 2 Gether). Also lots of U2’s War (favorite song: Sunday Bloody Sunday). Progressive Rock was never far from my heart, and I listened to Rush’s Signals (favorite song: Subdivisions) pretty much non-stop, Peter Gabriel’s IV (favorite song: Lay Your Hands on Me), and Roxy Music’s Avalon (favorite song: Take a Chance with Me).
Sophomore year of high school, 1983-1984. This was a huge year for music. Genesis released their self-titled album (favorite song: Home by the Sea, Parts I and II); the Police released Synchronicity (favorite song: Synchronicity II); and Yes released 90125 (favorite song: Cinema).
Junior year, 1984-1985. Rush’s Grace under Pressure (favorite song: Between the Wheels) dominated every other album that year. Frankly, this was THE album. If I had to name a favorite album of high school, this would be it. My sophomore year in college, I wrote a paper using only the lyrics from the album. I even got an A. I also listened a lot to The Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow (favorite song: Please, Please, Please), Oingo Boingo’s Dead Man’s Party (favorite song: same as title), and Thomas Dolby’s second album, The Flat Earth (Favorite song: same as title).
Senior year, 1985-1986. Another great year for music, but mostly for former proggers going pop. Albums that year included, at the top of the list: Sting, Dream of the Blue Turtles (favorite song: Fortress Around Your Heart), Peter Gabriel, So (favorite song: In Yours Eyes), Tears for Fears, Songs from the Big Chair (favorite song: Broken), and XTC, Skylarking (favorite song: The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul). The other album I played constantly was the soundtrack to To Live and Die in LA (a pop band, Wang Chung, playing a very proggy style). Lots of Kate Bush, Hounds of Love, too (favorite song: Hello Earth).
It wasn’t until my freshman year (1986-1987) of college that I really got into Talk Talk, the Cure, and Echo and the Bunnymen. I also really liked Blancmange (kind of a really smart Talking Heads) and New Model Army and a few others. That year, U2 released “The Joshua Tree.” I’ll never forget sitting in the car with a friend, being about 1/2 through the album and just breaking down (not something I did very often) because of the beautiful intensity of the album. Crazy. At the time, I was horrified by RATTLE AND HUM. Now, I think The Joshua Tree as a whole is really good, not brilliant. Side two, maybe, is brilliant. Side one has a brilliant moment–bullet the blue sky. And, RATTLE AND HUM seems better than it did to me then.
In high school, I also remember listening to some A-ha, B-Movie, b-52s, Erasure, Depeche Mode, and Communards. I don’t think I would’ve chosen to listen to these groups, but they would’ve been pretty hard to escape then. I would’ve always preferred something prog–unless we were dancing. Had an all night party at my house once my senior year when my mom was out of town. Late, late into the evening, a group of us were trying to analyze a 1977 Genesis concert we’d taped off of PBS! I’ll never forget that night. Lots of analyzing Pink Floyd, too.