I recently listened to a countdown of the best New Wave hits starting from 101 down to the ultimate number one song of that period (starting from the late 70s to the early to mid 80s.) Of course, Best Of lists are subjective and we can argue that point until New Wave makes a comeback, but I was more than a little disappointed—especially with their choices for the Top 10 hits. I suppose I shouldn’t be too disappointed since the operative word in this case is “hit.” There’s no accounting for popular taste.
I grew up in Southern California and my musical guide through my adolescence was helmed by the world famous KROQ 106.7 FM radio station. Richard Blade, Jed the Fish, Freddie Snakeskin, the Swedish Egil, and Rodney Bingenheimer were the station’s DJs who curated a bevy of the best New Wave artists. Yes, they played the usual hits that are now a staple of the New Wave period. You can’t listen to a compilation CD of the best New Wave songs without including “Blue Monday” from New Order, “I Ran (So Far Away)” from A Flock of Seagulls, “I Melt With You” from Modern English, or “I Want Candy” from Bow Wow Wow. These are the songs that defined that period. They’ve even been featured in Saturn Ion, M&Ms, and Volkswagen commercials. But these DJs also had a sense of adventure and a lot of what they played on the air has now become somewhat obscure and forgotten for the causal 80s music listener.
Instead of rehashing the tired lists, I’m flipping the familiar with the obscure. I will point out some forgotten or little-known songs and artists from that period. I will not bore you with a rundown of what qualifies a song as New Wave, you can read about it here, but know that nobody will ever agree when it began or when it ended. The list is not in any particular order, so read on and chime in if you DO recognize some of these songs.
I’m starting with Ultravox’s “Vienna.” For me, this song encompasses everything that New Wave stands for. It’s got the synthesizers, it exhibits musical complexity, and it features artsy lyrics. It’s a synthpop ballad of epic proportions. You can feel it build the melodrama in the music. The song is inspired by the 1948 film noir, The Third Man.
Freur only had one hit with “Doot-Doot.” I know very little about this band except that soon after, they recorded a soundtrack for a Clive Barker film and the lead singer and some of the band members went on to form the more commercially successful band, Underworld. All I do know is that Richard Blade once stated that it was the best make-out song. I took his statement to heart and tried it out. Indeed, it is a great song for making out. It’s very atmospheric, thanks, in part, to the sound of crickets. Listen and decide.
This next one was one of Richard Blade’s favorites. It became one of mine too. Slow Children is made up of Pal Shazar and Andrew Chinich. They released two albums and three singles before disappearing forever. I think Shazar’s vocals, though very similar in style and pitch, were overshadowed by Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons. I guess there was only room for one high-pitched, squeaky New Wave vocalist. Personally, I prefer Slow Children’s wittier lyrics. “President Am I” is one of the only three singles ever released by the band, who derived their name from Nabokov’s novel, Lolita.
A lot of the New Wave bands formed in art schools and Book of Love is no exception. You might recognize some of their music if you’re not familiar with the band. They’ve been featured in a John Hughes movie (Planes, Trains, and Automobiles), an episode of Miami Vice, and in Silence of the Lambs (band member Lauren Roselli makes a cameo appearance with Jodi Foster while their song plays in the background.) Their music, mostly dance/club hits, has been described as “forward thinking.” Their lyrics deal with gender roles, sexual orientation, and their song “Pretty Boys and Pretty Girls” was one of the first to openly address the AIDS epidemic. My personal favorite is “I Touch Roses.” Trivia: Band mates Ted Ottaviano and Susan Ottaviano share the same last name, but they are not related.
B-movie (which has been called a “British futuristic New Wave Band”) originally released “Nowhere Girl” and it went nowhere. They revisited the song two years later, remixed it, and re-released it again and it became a big hit. The band didn’t have much luck after that and the only successful member is guitarist Paul Stratham, who collaborated with Peter Murphy on two of his albums. He also co-wrote Dido’s first single, “Here With Me.”
The DJs over at KROQ loved to stir up controversy with the music they played over the airwaves. Songs such as Ogden Edsel’s “Kinko the Clown“, about a child-molester, Berlin’s “Sex (I’m A…),” exploring taboo subjects, raised a few eyebrows. The station even managed to piss of the religious right, that they held protests outside the station over the release of Josie Cotton’s “Johnny, Are You Queer?” (Read the excellent article about that controversy here.) But for me, it was The Suburbs’ “Music For Boys.” The homosexual undertones of the song were undeniable, if not a bit creepy in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way. Personally, I think it’s an indictment of certain organizations who have preyed on the young over decades – That’s pretty deep for it’s time. This band from Minneapolis, Minnesota didn’t have very much success, only scoring a hit later in the 80s with “Love Is the Law.” Incidentally, “Love Is the Law” was adopted as the theme song for the same-sex marriage movement in Minnesota in 2013.
One of the bands that embraced what New Wave really was about is Kraftwerk. I would even say that they were one of the bands that helped launch New Wave. They had been around since the 70s, producing a distinct sound using repetitive rhythms with minimalistic, electronic instrumentation and industrial influences. Their 7th studio album, 1978’s The Man-Machine, has been called one of the most important albums of all time. “The Telephone Call” was released in 1987 and some might say it doesn’t count as New Wave. I don’t think so. Kraftwerk pioneered the sound and even this late in the game, they still commanded the genre.
New Wave music has its origins in the punk music of the 1970s. I’m including Time Zone’s “World Destruction” because it features vocals by Sex Pistols’ frontman, Johnny Rotten. It’s a nod to its origins, but it’s also more than that. Time Zone was one of Afrika Bambaataa’s many projects over the years. His message of social awareness and activism gave birth to the Universal Zulu Nation, a group of socially and politically aware rappers and his electro music influenced the development of the hip hop culture.
I stated before how much KROQ was influential in bringing attention to these New Wave bands to listeners who would never have otherwise heard of them. And by KROQ, I mean Richard Blade. And by influential, I mean that a lot of the bands he played on the air (most of them from Britain) flew half-way around the world to say good-bye and play a couple of their signature songs at the farewell concert. But to my knowledge, only one artist actually pays tribute to KROQ in song. Nina Hagen’s “Universal Radio” is a nod to KROQ in Los Angeles. Hagen is a German singer and actress and was an opera prodigy by the age of nine. She is probably best known for the disco/punk/opera “New York New York.” Her sound is dissonant–ranging from guttural to soprano.
Hagen’s quirky style is synonymous with this genre, so I can’t end my list without including at least one novelty song… And there are many. Someone stated that New Wave is nothing but novelty songs. It’s hard to argue that point when you consider that some of the more recognizable bands have written more than their share of novelty songs. So I dug a little deeper. I came across forgotten bands such as Angel & the Reruns, Maurice & the Cliches, Ian Dury & the Blockheads, Barbie & the Kens, Holly & the Italians, and pretty much any band from the 80s with “…& the…” in their name. But after careful consideration, I leave you with a song I still hold near and dear to my heart… The band: Killer Pussy. The song: “Teenage Enema Nurses In Bondage.” Lead singer Lucy LaMode self-described “whore” public personal sang about bowel movements, STDs, dildos, and masturbation, while remaining a virgin during the height of their success. She didn’t do drugs and had her first beer at the age of 26.