In New Wave Music: Image is Everything, I argue that the new wave era represents a significant turning point, not just for music but for culture generally. Echoes of the ideas contained in this music continue to weave themselves not only into today’s music but into film, television, and video games as well. More broadly, I would suggest that it is during this period, the 1980s, when “popular culture” became virtually one and the same with “culture.” At the same time, that “culture,” began to dominate all of life, at least in the western world: we became a pop-culture centered society.
And while “new wave” might be narrowly defined to include a select group of artists who were deeply concerned with this cultural shift, I would argue that virtually every musical artist was sucked into the new wave vortex in one way or another. Tom Petty offers a good example. For the most part a straight-ahead rock and roller, Petty had had early 80s hits with songs like “Refugee” and “Here Comes My Girl,” rock songs in the “classic” mode. He ended the 80s in the same vein with “Free Fallin,” and “I Won’t Back Down.” Yet in between his collaboration with Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, yielded the decidedly new wave “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” with its even more decidedly new wave video, a kind of postmodern Alice and Wonderland with Petty as the Mad Hatter (the song had been originally offered to Stevie Nicks, but she became so frustrated with Stewart and Petty’s studio antics she stormed out and Petty recorded it instead).
The Kinks offer another instructive example. The Kinks were a part of the original British invasion alongside the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Who, yet they transitioned nicely into new wave with albums like State of Confusion and Think Visual. The latter tells you all you need to know about new wave in its title, and includes songs about “video shops” and assembly line music recording practices.
Hall & Oates offers a good example of a band who, to a certain extent, found their sound in the 1980s. Essentially an R&B/ soul based act in the 1970s with hits like “She’s Gone” (1973) and “Sarah Smile” (1976), in the 80s they molded their sound and image to fit new wave with albums like Private Eyes, H2O and Big Bam Boom.
But I want to focus here particularly on the prog rock band, Genesis. Genesis is another one of those groups, like Hall & Oates, who seemed to find their voice within the new wave sound and sensibility. Of course, debates rage on over whether 1970s Genesis was the “real” Genesis, the “pure” Genesis, the serious version of the band before they “sold out” for popularity. The same debates rage around Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett years, and AC/DC’s Bon Scott years. But while I’m a fan of Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and think Bon Scott one of the great blues singers of the twentieth century, I can’t honestly say those bands didn’t improve as they developed, even without the original voices who led them. And I’m especially fond of Peter Gabriel; ironically, his work after he left Genesis is not all that different from what they went on to produce without him. Both found a niche within new wave that they were able to ride to both popular and critical acclaim. So once and for all, stop with the late-career Genesis bashing.
Did the band find popularity? Absolutely. Did it change in significant ways? Yes. Do those changes represent the band “selling out” in some way? Not a chance.
To begin, the new version of the band tightened its sound. In part this resulted from Gabriel’s departure itself. As the album title says, “And then there were three.” With their front-man gone, everyone was suddenly in the position of pulling more – and it seems more equal – weight. In his earliest days as lead singer, Phil Collins seemed almost abashed to be in the spotlight, using humor and an aw-shucks attitude to get the audience on his side. This persona never really changed for him. Though he became smoother, and more comfortable in the limelight (certainly after his own solo career began to take off), he continued to project a working man attitude in his performances. Where another singer might have seemed pretentious, for instance, in insisting on returning to his drum set periodically throughout a show, Collins seemed more like a kid who couldn’t wait to get back behind the kit and leave the “show” behind. The result was endearing.
So too, while Mike Rutherford’s guitar work might was thrust more into the limelight, the result in terms of sound was not a sudden burst of attention-grabbing solo work. Instead, he managed to turn his rhythm work into a style uniquely his own, with riffs that, if they weren’t in your face, were nevertheless the necessary gel holding the sound together (see Andy Summers’ amazing work with the Police and later the Edge’s work with U2).
Meanwhile Tony Banks’s keyboard work tightened up. He’d been given to bursts of lengthy, piano-style concertos and complex runs of notes (see “Fifth of Firth” or “The Battle of Epping Forest”). Without a lead guitarist, his role became more subtle, with pared down, often single-note, solos, and a left hand relegated to laying down rich, if staid, harmonies.
It’s worth remembering, though, that the shift from a foursome to a threesome didn’t accomplish all this by itself. An album like 1980’s Duke still sprawls orchestrally. In fact, the new wave era’s sound played as much a part as anything else in shaping the band to something new. New Wave had replaced raging guitars with jangling rhythm work, given the bass greater prominence, and shifted keyboards to single-note lead responsibilities as opposed to a complex classical-style approach.
New wave could come across as weak musicianship, especially if it was highlighted by a poor videographer. We all remember laughing at Flock of Seagulls’ Mike Score in his ridiculous “seagull” hairdo as he stood before his keyboard using one finger to move between the song’s two notes.
For Genesis, however, less was more. Everyone was suddenly working harder, and the sound was tightened rather than simplified. The result – four multi-platinum albums – Abacab, Genesis, Invisible Touch, and We Can’t Dance, and a string of hit singles, from “No Reply at All,” to “Throwing it all Away,” to “No Son of Mine.” Meanwhile, they stuck to their progressive roots by including on each album a longer-form piece that allowed them to explore musical and lyrical themes in depth, such as “Home By the Sea,” “Domino,” and “Driving the Last Spike.” Unlike earlier long-form work, however, these pieces moved with a steady rhythm from both the guitar and keyboards, while Banks’s solo work on keyboard left behind long runs of notes for subtle but no less intricate interplay between motifs.
Lyrically they were hitting all the new wave notes as well –with songs about characters haunted by invisible dangers and living in a world made unstable by commercialism. Indeed, their prog roots led them to create some of the most biting postmodern commentary of the era in both their music and their videos. And while many critics trace new wave’s evolution to glam rock (Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes among them), prog rock exerted at least as strong an influence on how new wave developed. What new wave gave to Genesis, they certainly returned with interest.
Genesis were not alone in making the transition from prog rock to new wave and improving as a result. Yes, Pink Floyd, and Alan Parsons all found mainstream success by fitting themselves into this new form (if some were more comfortable with it than others). Indeed, say what you will about the “good old days” of prog rock, it’s tempting to suggest that, without new wave it might have disappeared into the ether. We might still be talking about Pink Floyd all these years later, but I suspect little else from the movement would be remembered.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
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