From the J. Laben Archives. Enjoy:
What is with these weird hairstyles, this strange music? Are they serious? Are they poking fun? Or both?
The Ramones, a rock ‘n’ roll band of current popularity, have a song called “Teenage Lobotomy.” There are those who would suggest they sing from experience. Take, for example, the words to their song “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School”:
“I don’t care about history,
Rock, rock, rock ‘n’ roll high school,
Cuz that’s not where I wanna be,
Rock, rock, rock ‘«’ roll high school,
I just wanna have some kicks,
I just wanna get some chicks,
Rock, rock, rock, rock, rock ‘n’ roll hi-igh school.”
Appearance is another strike against any claims to great mental stature on the part of the band. Tight jeans, sneakers and leather jackets, a real greasy-mean look, tell you these are the kind of guys who need permission from their parole officers to go on high school field trips.
But believe the image and you’re the fool. They’ve suckered you with rock ‘n’ roll’s favorite gimmick, theatrics, to sell you rockers’ favorite message, irrever¬ence. The Ramones’ lyrics and looks are mostly suitable trappings for their brand of music — high-speed, high-energy and high-volume rock ‘n’ roll.
Boy, they’ve got their nerve. But boy, they have their fun.
The Ramones pale in comparison with some of the other music going on these days within what is called the “New Wave.”
There is Fad Gadget, the band that uses a Black & Decker speed drill as an instrument. There is CRASH COURSE In Science, whose members make music with kitchen appliances and, in one song, become robots reading a cake mix: “Extract contents for cakes in the home.”
(more vintage theorizing after the jump!)
There is the Dead Kennedys, with lead singer Jello Biafra. Their “Holiday in Cambodia” is a ballad about a father and his irreverent college-age son:
“So you been to school for a year or two
And you know you’ve seen it all
In daddy’s car thinkin’ you’ll go far
Back east your type don’t crawl….
Now you can go where people are one,
Now you can go where they get things done,
What you need, my son … Is a holiday in Cambodia.”
That’s the outrageous fringe of New Wave music, a label now so inclusive as to be almost meaningless. Still, it is a wave of music fashion that seems to be peaking, in Rochester and elsewhere in this country, in Europe and Japan. The new music can be heard in a handful of Rochester bars — Scorgies, the Red Creek Inn and the Penny Arcade, in the Triangle Theater, and in record stores full once again with stacks of 45 rpm singles.
“New Wave” essentially is the rock ‘n’ roll revival that began in England in 1975 with the Sex Pistols. Musicians and their audiences, tired of the stagnant, structured disco scene, wanted more energy, more spontaneity. Music, like war, comes in cycles, and 1960s rock ‘n’ roll resurfaced to satisfy the new cravings. The rock was louder and faster than in the ’60s, but still just fine to dance to.
(Some say American New Wave predates the British, with American bands such as the Velvet Underground. Rock history is an interpretive art, open to dispute among aficionados.)
For a while New Wave bars remained outnumbered by discotheques. Then, what had begun as a rebellious, under¬ground form of music went respectable with the successes of groups such as the B-52s and Blondie — whose singer; Deborah Harry, has even appeared on The Muppets Show.
In Rochester, the music and the “scene” are inseparable. Go to Scorgies’ basement most weekends and you’ll find a local band playing some kind of rock ‘n’ roll and a crowd out on the floor, dancing and drinking beer.
If the music sprang from 1960s rock ‘n’ roll, the look can be traced to the ’50s. It is James Dean revisited: tight, straight-leg jeans, sneakers, leather jackets, wrap-around sunglasses and hair so short that barbers are back in business. The women may be in jeans, or leopard-print miniskirts.
Occasionally someone dares a purple stripe down shorn hair or eyeliner in massive doses. There are ducktails stiff with “Nunile” cream, a mixture of wax, petroleum jelly and just enough perfume to kill the smell.
They are just new clothes for new tastes. The fashions shown on these pages, and the pages themselves — designed in the New Wave style — seem to poke fun at today’s world; they smack of an anti-fashion, anti-design attitude — and humor.
And it is all just supposed to be fun, says Duncan Walls, a popular music buff and record-spinner at the Red Creek Inn.
Walls, a long-time rock ‘n’ roll fan, likes the New Wave of rock, and the variety of music it spawned.
“! think there’s room for everybody. If you have a band, and there are people who want to listen to you, that’s all it takes.” He describes his favorite music as the kind that “challenges the brain but makes you dance.”
“I like anything that’s new and unusual,” he says. “My father used to say that if it’s on wax and has a hole in the middle, I’d like it.”
Walls was born in 1951, a child of the rock ‘n’ roll era whose pre-school attentions went to American Bandstand instead of the Mickey Mouse Club, whose public school years revolved around a piano, a guitar and music writing, and whose year and a half in college turned into half-day gigs on the campus radio station, signing on with a morning full of popular music.
He grew up in a time when “young” was synonymous with “open-minded.”
To him, New Wave embodies the virtues of his generation — open-minded exploration. “Now, it’s open for anybody to do anything.”
There are reasonable limits to all that, though. Kevin Patrick, vocalist for Rochester’s New Math band, clearly described the trouble with too much tolerance: “Unfortunately, New Wave has given a lot of talentless people a chance to get up in front of people.”
Could he mean the Texas Great Faith Band, which does polka renditions of old Jimi Hendrix and Doors songs? Or Fad Gadget’s “Human Handshake” cartoon on the sleeve of one of its records, with drawings of a hand going into a working blender, coming out a mangled stub, and leaving behind red juice in the blender?
No matter. These are all questions of personal taste, quite removed from the straightforward rock ‘n’ roll of Patrick and New Math.
New Math is typical of the new style. The bands are small, their music mostly loud and faster versions of basic 1960s rock ‘n’ roll. Back then, all you needed was a guitar and drum, and that’s all you need again. They share a reverence for relentless rock, Rolling Stones-style. They demand audience response, preferring hostility to silence, and will be downright nasty (what one fan called a “We-hate-everything-and-especially-you” posture) to agitate a response. Their spirit is uninhibited by imperfections.
New Wave means different things to different people. Some fans consider it any new kink in rock ‘n’ roll. Others accept only the outlandish, the avante garde. They automatically exclude any popular artists on the premise that anything normal enough to sell cannot.be creative enough to be New Wave.
It began with Punk Rock, with the Sex Pistols and colleagues such as the Clash and the Stranglers. The Pistols were the first and most vicious. Taking rock ‘n’ roll’s irreverence to a new extreme, the band set the tone for much of New Wave. Shouting anarchy, singing treason and spewing profanities, the Pistols loved the rage they generated; they were dropped by recording company after recording company and banned from the BBC radio. “I don’t understand it,” singer Johnny Rotten said in feigned surprise. “All we’re trying to do is destroy everything.” The Ramones and the Dead Kennedys became American heirs to this angry, British music.
Somewhere along the line David Bowie, with his rock music, eyeliner and silken, bisexual costumes, became a little too eccentric for the waning glitter-rock craze, so he was thrown into the New Wave tenement.
There is another brand of English rock, from groups such as Rockpile, with Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds. They play a more authentic rock ‘n’ roll; their energy is a little cleaner, their stance less nasty.
A quantum leap away, yet still in the New Wave camp, is the American band Devo. With their yellow jumpsuits, flowerpot hats and industrial eye shields, they give a great, exhausting show to spread their alleged doctrine of “de-evolution”: The world is in the throes of “reductive synthesis,” they proselytize, no longer evolving to variety but de-evolving to sameness. Devo shouts its humanity — “Are we not men?” — with the sound and tempo of a touch-tone telephone. They have fun with double-speak. Ambiguity is to Devo what anger is to the Sex Pistols — a show, a put-on, a dare to take them seriously with music that warns you not to.
Beyond Devo is a kind of Mondo-Techno music. Ever notice how a well-tuned car sounds like music? The German Kraftwerk and British Ultravox bands did. So did Ford and Lincoln-Mercury, (automakers, not bands), who use this music’s smooth, synthesized sounds on their new-car ads. The mechanical dependence of this alien, computer-sounding music may chill those reasonable people who still have trouble maintaining an electric toaster. But much of the music is gentle, classically influenced, and many musicians feel that those who categorically denounce this “industrial music” are the same kind of people as those who refused to adapt to electric guitars a generation ago.
Finally thrown into the New Wave mire are the rock artists, those who are artists first and musicians last, if at all. Yoko Ono would probably fit here. Also, the kitchen appliances of CRASH COURSE In Science, and the electric drills employed by Fad Gadget.
These bands are mostly “art students with a concept,” as has been said, people who probably never read a measure of music or played a three-chord progression before adopting records as their artistic medium. Some musicians, classically trained, see the newcomers as arrogant, anti-music. At least some New Wave musicians don’t object. “Why do they do it?” says Kevin Patrick of Rochester’s New Math band, “Why not, you know? Things happen, it’s just fun, they’re just being artistic in their own way.”
Variety is the point of New Wave music, from a confederacy of grassroots musicians who tie their musical choices to the towns that raised them — Akron and Cleveland, Boston, Atlanta or San Francisco. Yes, even Rochester.
New Math brought New Wave to Rochester almost four years ago. Kevin Patrick describes the band’s beginnings. “We had total disgust that there were no bands here we wanted to see — they just did other people’s material. So we put together a band of rock ‘n’ roll fans who learned to play their instruments as we learned to be a band.”
For a year and a half, New Math was anomaly in Rochester bars. Playing three sets a night, the band made $35. “We made no money, nobody came to see us, they all just said, ‘Uh, what is this stuff?'”
Band members were just as taken aback. “I mean, we were doing ‘Gloria’ and nobody was dancing,” Patrick says, incredulous. New Math resolved to stir action in its audiences.
“Some of the things I did, I’m surprised I got out of places alive,” he recalls. He would crawl down bars, knocking everyone’s drink to the floor, or pouring beer over the heads of those who wouldn’t dance.
“We got into a thing when, midway through a set, we’d stop and say, ‘We want money, we’re not playing another song until you shoot money at us.’ It was great for a while. The people who liked us threw money our way, and the people who didn’t would fling quarters real hard, to hit us. Either way, we’d make a lot of money.”
Some injuries and a ruined drum set put an end to that tactic.
Since then, small-scale fame (though not fortune) has come to New Math. The band tours throughout the Northeast, giving its own show or opening for bigger acts such as The Plasmatics, an outrageous band whose members have blue Mohawk haircuts and’ destroy cars on stage. The Plasmatics lead singer, Wendy O. Williams, is a native Rochesterian who has made it big in the New Wave scene.
New Math’s first 45 rpm single, “Die Trying,” sold well enough in England to approach the chart of Top 100 hits late last year, and it was just released in Japan. The band has a new single, “Older Women,” and is assembling tapes for a 12-inch record.
Other New Wave bands have come up in Rochester, and many of them have made records on the two local recording labels, Archive Records and Out of Print Records.
Another local band, the Hi-Techs recently released a 45, “Boogaloo Rendezvous,” on the Archive label, that earned air time on top New York City and British radio “stations.
And the Cliches, a younger local band popular at Scorgies, just made a tape which it hopes to turn into a record.
The whole phenomenon of independent recording labels goes a long way in explaining the variety of music circulating these days. New Math’s jump from a major label, Columbia Records in London, to an independent label is an example.
According to Patrick, New Math recorded a 45 rpm, “I Can Tell,” and sent it off to London. After Columbia had its way with the song, it came back violated; instruments had been remixed, some were left out altogether. New Math didn’t approve.
“New Math has always been an up-front kind of band, so I think I speak for everyone when I say there’s really not anything you wouldn’t catch us doing for the right amount of money,” he says. “But they (Columbia) start to manipulate everything about your life, from where you live to the way you play, to what happens to your music between the time you played it and when it comes out.”
Until recently, recording popular music was an elaborate production, so the major labels with their big money and big studios had a monopoly on recording. But New Wave, with its return to the starkness of the ’60s “garage bands,” meant that anyone with some recording equipment and a garage could make tapes. It also meant that any small-time label could turn those simple tapes into records.
Suddenly bands didn’t have to catch the eye of a major producer to make a record. The hundreds of independent labels were more accessible, and interested in different kinds of music.
Why have so many bands opted for small-time independence instead of big-time renown? Some bands claim it is because they want honesty in their music. Others probably decided not to buck the odds against stardom, so they pretend they don’t want the fruit they can’t reach. Others are more attracted to the rebel romanticism of “cult bands” than super success.
Though independent labels foster New Wave music, it is record buyers who call the final shots. And, as has been true since the invention of the allowance, young people are the big buyers.
They want music different from that of their immediate predecessors. Hear, for example, the opinion of Cliches guitarist Jeff Laben about The Who, part of the original British invasion in 1964: “I think they’re definitely old men. I’m not saying old men can’t rock, but…”
The young record buyers also want irreverence in their music because any intelligent kid will have some objections to the social order of his elders.
The 1960s bands sang “Revolution” and “Hell no, we won’t go” to meet the politics of the young then. Next, disco and the “Saturday Night Fever” rejection of factory-work-is-the-meaning-of-life was the economic order of the day. And now, nasty New Wave makes its rebellion a cynical call to take nothing seriously, to see everything as a lark.
“The bands express dissatisfaction with society,” one music observer says. “The things people are saying about Punk were said about Peter, Paul and Mary. The new bands have just turned up the amps and garbled the lyrics.”
With New Wave, even success is a lark. As Duncan Walls says of the bands that make it: “I think it’s fine if you can do it. It’s gotta be fun. But don’t take yourself too seriously in the end.”
The same, come to think of it, could be said of philosophical magazine writers who expound on the stuff.
H.J. CUMMINS is a free-lance writer and a child of the 1950s.