Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Punk Vs. New Wave

Breathless - The French New Wave
Punk is easily definable, if not in words then in context. There's a simple narrative connecting surf and garage to three chord punk debauchery. Still, the genre is more definable by what it's not, so let's not and move on. New Wave on the other hand is less succinct, more difficult to pin down. The term's catalyst of course is French New Wave cinema which, like Fauvism and Impressionism in the art world, nixed the academic, rejecting classic filmic technique. This often leads to confusion, alongside the use of the term in the early days of Punk, when "Punk" had not yet risen to the platitude of genre. Indeed Malcolm McLaren, the poet laureate of all things Punk, insisted, before The Sex Pistols had ever recorded a note, that the music be referred to as New Wave (not long after, McLaren rejected the term). If that wasn't enough, the genre itself was compartmentalized long before the term became the catchall phrase we use today. By 1978, a plethora of sub-genres had emerged: No-Wave, New Romanticism, Art Rock, Synth-Pop, Ska. San Francisco based Chrome decided to "Mix our punk shit with weird, acid shit… Let's call it Acid Punk." Sums it up.

As a devotee of Joy Division, I equate the move from Punk to New Wave with the release of Unknown Pleasures (AM10), an essentially punk release accentuated with the synthesizer, a punk exclusion. The two distinct genres nonetheless developed side by side with New Wave taking on an open, far less dense sensibility that stripped bare the guitar of distortion and placed an emphasis on a single note rather than the chord. It may come down to the difference between a pick and strum, with any New Wave chording more closely associated with the jangly feel of the jazz guitar. The extreme of New Wave would of course dismiss the use of traditional instrumentation all together, a feat accomplished by early Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, The Human League and Soft Cell, with the predominant use of synth styled drum machines programmed like a metronome. 

It's a simple task to categorize The Germs, The Sex Pistols, Circle Jerks, Dead Kennedys and The Misfits as Punk; just as simple to quickly name DM, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark and Scritti Politti as New Wave, but where and how, then, to categorize The Clash's venture into Reggae or The Feelies' Punk Lite approach. The Feelies were among the bands that focused on translating the emotional tension of the in-betweens into a new song format. Formed in New Jersey by Glenn Mercer and Bill Million, they were a quiet, shy outfit that rarely behaved like a rock band, thus predating the snobby/hipster attitude of college-pop and bands like Weezer. 1977's Crazy Rhythms was unique, imbued with a controlled frenzy that employed psychedelic guitars, trance-like vocals, repetition of patterns and hypnotic beats. The resulting sound was hermetic, almost extraterrestrial. Songs shared an ascetic and a geometric quality that recalled Zen meditation rather than punk-rock. The mood was halfway between ecstatic transcendence and detached decadence. (Too much?) So where did it fit in?

Along that line of questioning, the most celebrated musician to emerge from the confusion was Elvis Costello. The quintessential "angry young man" incorporated a Buddy Holly look and feel with a quirky delivery and a vast spectrum of styles (the anthemic "Less Than Zero," the romantic ballad "Alison," the eccentric reggae of "Watching The Detectives"). The early singles led to the pub-rock of This Year's Model and to the 60s camouflage of Armed Forces, all before the end of '79. These albums were typical of Costello's ambiguity: subtly attacking the Establishment while openly endorsing its soundtrack. It wasn't a caricature, it was a full-hearted endorsement of Tin Pan Alley's aesthetic. Did it fit anywhere?

What never ceases to amaze is that in 1979 and 1982, amidst the diversity of the New – from The Angry Samoans to Duran Duran to Combat Rock, Pink Floyd's The Wall would manage to top the charts. I'm enamored by the digital age progressive rock of Steven Wilson, the singer songwriters like Andrew McMahon and Rivers Cuomo and the genius of Beck, but God, you gotta miss that.