Last week we hung out with the rocker crowd from 1981, and this week it’s time to see what the new wave kids were into. If you recall, I had the fortune — or misfortune — of attending three high schools in 1981, and for the most part, the music was the standard FM AOR rock that, at the time, was still at its apex. However, at “School Three” I was also introduced to music that certainly had elements of rock and punk but was fused in such a way that it was described as “new wave.” The sounds were a quirky kind of pop, the styles more retro and futuristic, and the dance was, well, pretty standardized (See Molly Ringwald, The Breakfast Club, 1984, Scene 26). I certainly hopped on the new wave bandwagon, but I didn’t forget or jettison my hard rock roots. I figured at that time you didn’t have to choose your gang, so for me new wave was just one more style of music to enjoy. And, I have to admit, it was exciting to be introduced to bands that weren’t part of my oldest brother’s record collection. New wave was my music, and there was a lot of uncharted territory to explore in 1981. I would imagine new wave for me was like hip hop for kids in the mid ‘80s: a new music genre that kind of pissed off the older generation (because they really didn’t “get it”), but was really embraced by the younger one because they did. Anyway, before new wave was mainstreamed, there was a brief moment in 1981 when I felt the music I was listening to was just niche enough to make my tastes “fringe” — or so I thought.
1981: A New Wave Rises
“Lover’s Walk,” Elvis Costello (Download)
I had seen videos of Elvis Costello on Showtime in 1980 getting all dork punk weird on camera, and had a good chuckle. By 1981, however, I realized that his music was more than just shtick designed for comic relief. “Lover’s Walk” is one of those songs that, yes, is quirky, but the piano and drums that drive the song is just so infectious. To this day, I don’t get tired of the song.
Did you read about Jon Cummings’ book challenge? No? Well, he’s reading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand — which extols selfishness as a virtue and capitalism as a kind of religion. Well, here comes Danny Elfman in 1981 writing lyrics that are very Randian — if it weren’t for the fact that he said the song is satire. Don’t tell the National Review! But in 1981 the Reagan Revolution was just gearing up to destroy liberalism, and in a way, Elfman’s satire could certainly be an anthem for those righteous righties.
“The Once Over Twice,” X (Download)
Good lord, how I loved X! From their first album to More Fun in the New World, they recorded some fiercely powerful songs. Wild Gift was at the top of many music critic lists in 1981, and at my high school, they were popular with just a handful of kids. X’s punkish music and fashion styles were certainly appealing to wannabe punks like myself, but once I got into the deeper tracks of their music, it was clear there was a real rockabilly vibe to their songs. I still love listening to their CDs because, truth be told, you don’t have sing on key when singing along to an X song.
The Stray Cats are probably one of the most apolitical bands in the ‘80s, but Setzer’s love of America’s past makes him a musically conservative artist when it comes to genres. However, before the Cats hit big in the U.S., they recorded what was perhaps the only political song of their career. “Storm the Embassy” is basically a “Screw Iran” screed that’s very callow, but it certainly reflects a long-standing anger against the hostage crisis that was simmering a year after the hostages where released. Even though the Stray Cats were new wave, this song comes across as as kind of redneck tune that seems out of place in the Cats’ catalog.
“Bad Boys Get Spanked,” the Pretenders (Download)
I had a few fantasy girlfriends in high school: Pat Benatar, Chrissie Hynde and one other. When Pretenders II came out, it was certainly a sophomore slump album because the songs lacked the pop savvy of their debut. But for me, it was one of my favorites by the band. Many of the songs have a deeper rock sound (especially “The Adultress”), and the album contains two of their more favored AOR tracks (“Talk of the Town” and “Message of Love” both originally released on their EP, “Extended Plays”) — but also has this S&M ditty that has a great scream at the end.
“Chequered Love,” Kim Wilde (Download)
And yeah, my third fantasy girlfriend in high school was Kim Wilde. Her debut album is just track after track of new wave pop goodness. I could have mixed in “Kids in America,” which has the curious lyric of “New York to East California.” East California? What are we talking about here… Susanville? Truckee? Death Valley? Hardly the hotbed of suburbia. Ah well, “Chequered Love” is clearly about liking the bad boy, so, well, I never had a chance with her.
And whattya think? Shall I round out 1981 (from my experience, anyway) with a mix from the urban R&B charts? Let me know in the comments section.