Listen to this track by first-tier Paisley Underground representatives The Dream Syndicate. It’s “Tell Me When It’s Over”, the opening cut as taken from their 1982 record Days of Wine and Roses, their debut. The song was released as a single in early, although in the UK and not in their native West Coast where they were critically acclaimed but not commercially viable, somehow.
The threads between what was happening on the West Coast, and with post-punk bands in New York and in the UK were intertwined thematically speaking by the beginning of the eighties. Yet in many ways, this song and the sound the band reached for in general represented a complete departure, too. Some of the influences that floated into their sound that couldn’t be found in scenes elsewhere at the time. It had to do with the kinds of crowds they played to on the scene as well, partial to jams that perhaps were outside of the standard post-punk wheelhouse in other quarters.
The question of mainstream appeal at the time was perhaps not applicable across the board in other respects as well. From the early 1980s, The Dream Syndicate demonstrated a vital truth from which we’re still benefiting today; that pop music made by indie bands can’t be measured on a single historical line or any one set of musical influences. Read more
Listen to this track by Bostonian post-punk noise architects Mission of Burma. It’s “Secrets”, the opening track of their influential 1982 full-length debut record Vs. The record followed up the Signals, Calls, and Marches EP from the previous year, creating what many critics at the time considered to be a full realization of their sound and potential.
Forming in 1979, the group pulled together a sound that drew from punk rock and British post-punk, with a smattering of American avant garde influences in the form of tape loops and sound manipulation. Like many bands in the age when the term “alternative” as applied to rock music was just a twinkle in the eye of the mainstream music press, Mission of Burma was championed by college rock radio stations, in their case in the Boston area. This opener is emblematic of their approach, which affects a kind of barely contained chaos, with traditional rock grooves being taken on in one instant and then discarded in the next.
This is in line with the song’s subject matter, which is concerned with small moments in time that precede more widely encompassing changes ahead, with human connections becoming less reliable and more frightening all the while. Read more
Listen to this track from former philosophy student turned singer-songwriter Lloyd Cole along with his cadre of musical enablers The Commotions. It’s “Perfect Skin”, their first single and a hit as taken from 1984’s Rattlesnakes. Upon it’s North American release the song would be re-mixed by Ric Ocasek of the Cars.
The song references basements and pavements in a very familiar way, written by Cole in an actual basement while living with his parents who ran a golf club in Glasgow, the same city in which Cole was going to university. The basement mentioned multiple times in this song was an allusion to the one that had appeared in another song, that being Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. Maybe by the mid-eighties, source material from Dylan wasn’t exactly in the mainstream spotlight as the embers of new wave were still faintly a-glow. But, the idea of using densely arranged imagery to project the confusion of love and the uncertainty that very often goes along with it has yet to go out of style.
There’s another stream that comes out of all that in this song which is also pretty widely relatable, and taken on by songwriters of all stripes and eras; pursuit of the unattainable. Read more
Listen to this track by emotive pop song chart bothering duo from Bath England, Tears For Fears. It’s “The Working Hour”, a deep cut off of the otherwise hit single-laden 1985 album Songs From The Big Chair. That album was the much-awaited follow-up to their modestly successful debut record The Hurting from two years previous, with this new record being their breakthrough into the mainstream and outside of their alternative fanbase.
The songs on the album showed some of the same lyrical and musical DNA from their début. But, with this follow-up their sound seemed to be on a larger scale. If The Hurting was a precisely realized and eloquent little indie film, then Songs From The Big Chair had the sheen of a major studio, still dealing in similar themes of inner turmoil and alienation, but doing so with a bit more gloss. Hit singles “Shout”, “Head Over Heels”, and particularly “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” were ready for the red carpet, contrasted to their previous singles that were too emotionally insular to fit that kind of overt mainstream fanfare.
This had more to do with the tone of each release than it did with quality. As a major fan of The Hurting, even I noticed that, and was OK with it. Maybe that’s in part because of this song, “The Working Hour” that is one of the songs on the record that best bridges the gap between the moody and contemplative pop outfit they’d been, and the anthemic stadia-ready band they were seeking to become. Read more
Listen to this track by Mancunian post-punk trendsetters Joy Division. It’s “Transmission”, a single released in October of 1979 between their two sole albums as a seven inch on the Factory label. By the next year in December, it would be re-released as a twelve inch single, later to be celebrated in cover versions by bands from Low to Smashing Pumpkins, to Hot Chip.
By this time, the band had morphed from what they would describe themselves as an “undistinguished punk band” called Warsaw into one that would write a template for bands up until the present day. This would be a highlight in a small but vital body of work, cut short by the death of lead singer and lyricist Ian Curtis, himself something of an iconic figure for post-punk influenced acts, and certainly for frontmen looking beyond the standard shrill-voiced golden god variety.
Actually, this band would provide an example to succeeding ones in many ways beyond even that. They broke the rules of being a rock band. But more importantly, they wrote their own. Read more
Listen to this track by Swindon new wave representatives and documented America-admirers, XTC. It’s “Statue Of Liberty”, a single as taken from their 1978 debut album White Music.
The line-up to be heard here is the earliest incarnation of the band, with stalwarts Andy Partridge (vocals and guitar) and Colin Moulding (vocals and bass) being joined by drummer Terry Chambers and keyboardist Barry Andrews. Chambers would depart by the time the sessions for 1983’s Mummer were in process. Barry Andrews would leave soon after this record, and go on to form Shriekback.
Starting out, XTC was very much in the vein of their post-punk peers. And this was among their earliest singles, a tune about the iconic lady statue that adorns the New York City skyline, symbolizing the ideals of freedom and liberty for immigrants to a land of opportunity.
But, this song takes a bit more from that equation, with a more erotic attachment to the lady herself, so much so that the line about “sailing beneath your skirt” raised eyebrows at the BBC. But, I think this song says a lot more than just being provocative for its own sake. Read more
Listen to this track by Los Angeles new wave Europhiles and future Top Gun soundtrack fixtures Berlin. It’s “The Metro”, a single that was featured on their 1983 album Pleasure Victim. A hair’s breadth just before Madonna, and in the years just after the type of synth-based music that was pioneered by Kraftwerk in the late 1970s, Berlin hit the middle ground with a sort of Americanized version of European new wave, which may explain their band name.
This song was one of their bigger hits, just after their initial international hit subtly titled “Sex (I’m A …)” that had scored a chart placing on the Billboard top 100, but hadn’t cracked the top twenty. This one was always my favourite, their first on a major label (Geffen), and with a sound that captured the essence of the classic synthpop era that would soon disappear in the years that followed.
Yet, even after this song enjoyed its initial success, it would continue to be a signature for a band well beyond the era out of which it came. And it would offer a tale that captures a classic post-punk approach, too – ambiguity.
Listen to this track by Scottish pop sophisticate musical outfit Aztec Camera. It’s “Walk Out To Winter” as taken from the landmark 1983 debut record High Land Hard Rain. The song was a single, scoring a top ten showing on the UK indie chart, with the album scoring top thirty on the UK album chart.
In the 1980s, this act would become grouped in with several musical outfits that would take the template of new wave and post punk, and mix it with more traditional pop threads; soft rock, latin music, light jazz, and R&B. But, that’s not to say that Aztec Camera was just another act in this vein.
Under principle songwriter and sole constant member Roddy Frame’s creative guidance, the results would be something that not many were able to achieve; a classic record, and with a single (this one) and other singles that would make for both an album band, and a singles band, too.
And what of this song? What does it mean to “walk out to winter” anyway? Read more
Listen to this track by seminal Toronto punk rock scene starters and once nominated “best Toronto band ever”, The Diodes. It’s “Tired of Waking Up Tired” as taken from their 1979 record Released. It would appear on compilation records to follow, and became something of a signature track for the band, enduring even after they’d faded away.
Like many bands from this country of mine, the Diodes were brimming over with talent and potential, yet largely unknown to the mainstream in the rest of the world. This is not to say that they didn’t hit the road to put themselves across. They’d associated themselves with east coast punk rock, playing bills with the Ramones, the Runaways, the Dead Boys, and others. They’d also have something of a connection with UK scenes in the 1980s after transplanting the band there.
They’d formed at a time when punk was being recognized by major labels for its radio play potential, and were signed to Columbia records (in Canada, mind you). They’d move on to other labels, with the title of the album off of which this song comes possibly relating to a changeover to Epic.
But, like a lot of the best punk, this tune has miles of pop appeal rooted in rock n’ roll traditions of the previous decade.
Listen to this track by Athens Georgia ’60s hairdo sporting new wave quintet The B-52’s. It’s “Rock Lobster”, a 1979 hit record as taken from their self-titled debut album the B-52’s. This is the longer version of a record that had been released earlier in a shorter form. The song established their sound early on as an amalgam of ’60s surf music, B-Movie aethetics, and of course a DIY spirit that played right into punk and new wave. Their timing was perfect.
Serving as their first single, the song was an instant pop hit, despite the fact there was nothing to prepare audiences for it. Of course too, the sound of the record goes against the system too, full of surf guitar, tinkly keyboards, and call and response backing vocals that aren’t really backing vocals, but more like shared leads.This is thanks to Kate Pierson (who also plays Farfisa organ) and Cindy Wilson, who come off as post-punk Shangra-Las.
It became a signature hit for the band along the way. Even in an era when weird, cool records were more common in the mainstream than perhaps they are today, it’s popularity was widespread, played at every school dance for years after its release.
Where did this song come from? Read more