22 July 2012

We're Through Being Cool

Re: Simon recently riffing on a new enthusiasm of "Notes for a Future Study of New Wave," which he feels mostly feel between the cracks of Rip It Up..., and our subsequent exchanges on the topic remind me of entries I had thought of for the immediately aborted "Three-Minute Zeroes" series of toss-offage I started on some off-the-cuff whim some time ago.

"New Wave" having been a tricky biz in the US back when, mostly a hazily incoherent catch-all -- part music-industry marketing strategy, but mostly convoluted misundertandings of what might (or might not) be "punk" in other respects.

So, subjectivity in such matters being what it is, here's a few previously shrugged-off candidates for the 3-Minutes Zeroes category, the New Wave edition...

I'll probably catch shit for this one, which was why I balked at doing one about it earlier. I owed a few of Romeo Void's records back when I was in high school, and try as I might, they never quite took with me. At best all I could hear was a West Coast art student take on X-Ray Spex, albeit one that was mostly more moody and downtempo due to various post-punk influences. At any rate, the above was the only thing they did that grabbed me.

First: The opening guitar riff -- wonderfully scrape-y, alternately tigthening and releasing tension -- hit me as being up there with "You Really Got Me" attention-getting intros. Then the drums, which -- yes -- are fairly alright. But it's when the bass comes briskly lumbering in that I was ready to start doling out hugs. And the guitars maintaining a stratchy rhythmic steadiness throughout, sputing up the occasion shards of concrete jumping out at the listerner. And the vocal, which -- as it slides in after the opening -- sounds like it's blaring from a squawky PA from ahalf a block away, delineating a narrative whose cadence you almost picture falling and finding its own breakage on the page like the offhanded observational poetry it was, invoking some variety of behind-closed-doors sorditries, which apparently routinely occurred someplace where sunlight didn't so often glimmer as physically land.*

A sum of its part, at a particular moment, and far better than most at that particular moment. An underlying bleakness beneath all its energetic fuss. Amounting to content-wise being perhaps a few years ahead of the sociological curve. What, with the blunt acknowledgment of homelessness some years before it because a big Big Recognized Issue; and with a chorus would quickly seem taunting and maybe quaintly utopic once hets realized that the epidemic of AIDS wasn't as selectively fatal as everyone had been led to believe.**

Beantown act, and everything else I heard by them -- with the exception of the 12" version of the above -- struck me as unbearable at the time; like a bad, faux-camp knock-off of Devo as done by a buncha Rocky Horror Picture Show enthusiasts. But with the above: Severe minimalism with some sped-up oscillating guitar biz, lyrics that might be detailing the dynamics of emotionally-abusive relationship but are ultimately just some tawdry, winking flirtation with then-fashionable s&m entendre. Soon enough the vocal dives into some multi-tracked fever-dream discombobulation, immediately followed by the payoff when the "solo" sequence when the guitars break out into a knife fight, with the ambulance rolling onto the scene before it's all over. Pummeling monotony offset by some brilliantly-paced disorientation. Pony up a couple of drinks for whoever mixed the session.

There was a time when I was starting to think that Devo's influence on the American "new wave" thingey was nothing but pernicious and corrosive. For which you couldn't blame Devo, but rather their legion of imitators that crowded the field for a few years. By that I mean how an adopted, second-hand style bacame so widely applied that it quickly became a tiresome cliche; with much of what constituted "new wave" being something of an annoying caricature of itself. Devo-esque ittery, jerky rhythms quickly became an over-used mannerism, foregrounded by many acts to veil a deep-seated lack of interesting content or ideas. There were, it seemed like, countless bands of that stripe in the years of 1979-1982. And one among them was  -- as I remember them -- a short-lived NYC outfit called the Model Citizens; who dissolved after one EP, with some of its members turning around to form the band Polyrock.

Polyrock were New York new-wave hopefuls and landed a major record deal right off the bat. They lasted a few years, releasing one LP and a subsequent EP; the entirity of their recoded output having the distinction of being produced by Philip Glass. The tune above is the only one of theirs that came close to making any sort of a splash. I liked it fair enough back then, and I guess it still strikes me as alright, even if it now makes me think it sounds too much like a fey, self-conscious and limpid knock-off of Au Pairs's "It's Obvious." ***

As with disco, "new wave" was supposed to be some Next Big Thing, and a number of established acts (the ones with flagging sales) tried to angle in on it. Which might explain this one from Alice Cooper circa 1979, in which Alice jumps about the Numanoid bandwagon as it were the bullet train into the future. Unlike anything Copper had done in several years, the song actually charted. But one couldn't help note the irony that it constituted something or heretical artistic shift (as the grassroots opinion of the day had it). More ionic was that the album sported the attitude-copping title Flush The Fashion, with a pic of of Coop sporting shorter hair and a skinny tie on the back. Guffaws in some quarters, cries of betrayal and "sell-out" and much worse in others. ****

And while the song (and the album, and Cooper's entire "new wave" phase altogether) disappeared into a dustbin for many years, I gather that the above is no where near as obscure as it used to be. Some googling reveals that his most die-hard fans now think that phase of his career to have its (errrr) "conceptual" merits, if not arguing that its supposedly underrated or whatever. And that the above song has in more recent years become something of a "classic." Seems it's even been adopted by bands of various pedigrees -- many of them "indie" -- as a cover tune to be thrown into sets as some crowd-rousing gratuity. History's always stacks up to some weird fuckin' thing, I tell ya.

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* Produced by Ric Ocasek, who at roughly the same time was at the same time busy throwing a big damp blanket on Bad Brains' Rock for Light. Still, some have touted the virtues of the extended EP version this tune, mainly because it includes the whole of the long, unedited paint-peeling "Albert Ayler-ish" sax solo. Not having vere been one much for sax solos in rock tunes, I can only shrug that that last one off as a whatevs. But I'd counter-argue that the truncated version of the opening riff is an editorial improvement, keeping said riff from depleting its punch too early.
** Plus, at the time it so seemed like -- sax solo and all -- like the necessary nemesis/panacea for this fucking song, which was absolutely inescapable at the time (airwaves, MTV, etc.).
*** Glass being pretty speculative crossover hot-prop in those days, tilting the band's sound (as one would expect in 1980) to favor the keyboards and synths, aiming for texture and whatnot. Yet in the end it all came out sound so reedy and airless and ungrounded. But I recall reading some years later reading a review of a live bootleg cassette release on the ROIR label which claimed the band's live sound was more assertively, choppily guitar-oriented. As if any of this matters.
**** The word most closely associated with "new wave" in middle America at the time being "faggot," this sort of career move -- be it cynical, sincere, or desperate -- was bound to amount to amount to suicide.

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