New Wave Hits Of The '80s - Just Can't Get Enough

Various Artists

Rhino Records, 1994

REVIEW BY: Mark Feldman


Has anyone else noticed that nostalgia is rapidly gaining on real life?

In the late '70s and very early '80s, the '50s came back into vogue. In the early to mid '80s, we were all rediscovering the early '60s, at least musically. In the latter half of the '80s, the late '60s came back with a vengeance. Then in the early '90s, the '70s were big, but now even that is old hat. By 1995, '80s nostalgia was in full bloom, enough so that Rhino records capitalized on it with this unwieldy 15-volume series of CDs.

These days, the teen superstars are highly reminiscent of what was going on in the latter '80s. What's next, an MC Hammer comeback? And will we see a grunge resurgence before too long?

The 15 discs on this collection trace the evolution of that nebulous genre known as 'new wave,' a style that's actually very difficult to define. Volume 1, which gathers together a pretty accurate assessment of the post-punk musical scene circa 1979, would be the best place to look for influences, but even then it was all over the place. On the one hand, the Ramones' "Rock And Roll High School" is an outgrowth of British punk rock, the Sex Pistols, the Damned, and other scary-haired revolutionaries that tore down the bombastic walls of the established '70s album rock sound.

On the other hand, Dave Edmunds' "Girls Talk" and the Knack's "My Sharona" took cues from '60s rock, returning the art of the single to pop songwriting. But ironically, many of the songs cited as early new wave records were essentially disco songs, such as the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star," also featured on volume one.

And some of it defies categorization. Plastic Bertrand's "Ca Plane Pour Moi" is punked-out, unintelligible Beach Boys. Tim Curry's (yes, the Tim Curry's) "I Do The Rock" is British glam-style rap. The Flying Lizards' industrial-edged cover of Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)" throws a fascinating twist on the original by perfectly capturing the impersonal greed culture of the upcoming decade.

In fact, volume one stands on its own as a snapshot of early new wave at the dawning of a fresh new decade. But if you must have more, you won't be disappointed. The very early '80s chug along on the next few sets, with some obvious selections (M's "Pop Muzik," Devo's "Whip It," Split Enz's "I Got You," Gary Numan's "Cars"), some fairly obvious cult favorites (XTC's "Making Plans For Nigel," the Nails' "88 Lines About 44 Women," Ultravox's "Vienna"), and some wonderful obscure gems, such as Ian Dury and the Blockheads' dance-oriented "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" (which was actually a big hit in the UK), Klark Kent's hilarious "Away From Home," featuring the Police's Stewart Copeland, and the Undertones' super-catchy "It's All Going To Happen."

A personal favorite of mine is Altered Images' "I Could Be Happy," a wistful-yet-punchy confection that recalls the Go-Go's or Missing Persons (both of whom are also represented in this collection, of course) musically; the kind of song that makes you want to escape from reality, just like singer Claire Grogan longs to do in the song. This was also a big UK hit as a matter of fact; what were we thinking over here?

Volume 5, perhaps the best of these discs, is where it all comes to a head - it's 1982, and the punk revolution has come and gone. In its aftermath lies a top 40 filled with MTV poster children, flavors of the month to be sure, but perhaps the most energetic year ever in pop music. 14-year-old Annabella Lwin and Bow Wow Wow cover "I Want Candy" and make it sound fresh and exciting. Choreographer Toni Basil takes the Elvis Costello-influenced cheerleading classic "Mickey" to number one. Tommy Tutone etches the number "867-5309" in our heads forever. Even Frank Zappa (with the help of his daughter Moon Unit) gets in on the act with "Valley Girl," an essential period piece. What a time.

The bulk of the rest of the discs focuses on new wave's 1982-83 zenith, shifting between discs filled with the well-known and the obscure, the experimental and the various forms of new wave crossover into other genres. After the glitter and glam of discs 5 and 6, disc 7 shows a completely different side of the coin, several sides in fact; the ability of the new wave image to worm its way into reggae (Bad Manners' "Samson And Delilah"), rockabilly (Wide Boy Awake's "Chicken Outlaw"), and even rap (The Musical Youth's "Pass The Dutchie").my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

And if that weren't odd enough, we're also treated to the closest new wave ever got to adult contemporary, like Paul Carrack's "I Need You" and Split Enz's "Six Months In A Leaky Boat," and the truly bizarre, like Laurie Anderson's "O Superman" and Trio's "Da Da Da I Don't Love You You Don't Love Me Aha Aha Aha," which of course has been rediscovered in recent years in a car commercial.

But we return to (relative) normality on the next few discs, as 1983 comes along. Songs you've heard 78,000 times (Dexy's Midnight Runners' "Come On Eileen," Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Science," Modern English's "I Melt With You," Kajagoogoo's "Too Shy") drift by and remind you yet again just how good they all were.

Meanwhile, the folks at Rhino show some excellent taste in the bottom-of-the-chart gems they pick to round out the CDs. The Bluebells' low-key "Cath," Heaven 17's synth-pop dance classic "Let Me Go," and the Plimsouls' riveting "A Million Miles Away" are dug out of their respective closets one more time, fortunately to stay. Spandau Ballet's "True," Naked Eyes' "Always Something There To Remind Me," Madness' "Our House," and A Flock of Seagulls' "I Ran" are all here, but so are their equally excellent follow-ups "Gold," "Promises Promises," "It Must Be Love" and "Wishing."

Eventually, the new wave attitude had found its way into mainstream pop so naturally that it was hardly different from its surroundings. Many of the latter songs on these CDs may not have been considered new wave at all had they been sung by artists without the proper image. Picture, if you will, Def Leppard fist-pumping their way through Big Country's "Fields Of Fire," Huey Lewis belting out Marshall Crenshaw's "Whenever You're On My Mind," or Madonna crooning Bananarama's "Shy Boy (Don't It Make You Feel Good)." Not too much of a stretch, is it? In fact, Volume 13 is a virtual soul-lover's haven, featuring the Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon," Paul Young's first hit "Come Back And Stay," and Tracey Ullman's '60s girl-pop homage "They Don't Know" (16 years later I still love the part where all the music stops and she screams "Baaaaabeeeee!!!!")

By 1985, new wave had become high art. From the technological standpoint, synthesizers were no longer a novelty, but were being used in increasingly complex ways, creating sonic textures and layers, making early experiments like Visage's "Fade To Grey" (on volume 3) sound downright primitive. Animotion's "Obsession" and Bronski Beat's "Smalltown Boy" took angst to new heights. Urban grooves were making their way into everything, as Paul Hardcastle's "19" and Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax" became dance floor standards. The Dream Academy's "Life In A Northern Town" and Tears for Fears' "Head Over Heels" are a couple of the most powerful, sprawling musical collages ever recorded.

But the world was ready for something new, and within new wave itself was quietly brewing yet another back-to-basics revolution. Many groups stripped down to good old fashioned guitars, bass and drums again, and paving the way for what would become the signature '90s underground sound. Alternative, or at the very least "lo-fi" as we know it now may have started with Violent Femmes "Blister In The Sun," included on volume 9. Its laid back, unpretentious approach was quite a contrast to the Duran Durans and Thompson Twinses of the world.

Numerous examples of this are included, such as the Red Rockers' "China," Icicle Works' "Whisper To A Scream," Charlie Sexton's "Beats So Lonely," Rubber Rodeo's "Anywhere With You," Let's Active's "Every Word Means No," Katrina and the Waves' "Walking On Sunshine" (which doesn't sound the least bit dated) and a very young Red Hot Chili Peppers doing "True Men Don't Kill Coyotes." Again, very perceptive for the compilers of this collection to recognize the slippery slope of music, and show that everything has a thread. Fittingly, the last song on volume 15 is the Lords of the New Church's tongue-in-cheek version of "Like A Virgin," signifying yet another out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new (though of course Madonna got the last laugh on them success-wise).

So is all this worth the price? Well, if you're looking to hear all the songs you've heard 78,000 times without anything unfamiliar stuck in between, forget these discs (or at least most of them) and buy one of those dirt-cheap Billboard Hits compilations. And if you're looking for '80s giants like the Police, the Cure or U2, you won't find them here. Excellent groups all, but they aren't missed - part of new wave's charm was its disposability, and genuinely innovative artists are appropriately kept to a minimum on these discs. Frankly, they don't need the exposure anyway.

But if you were either listening hard enough to alternative radio back in 1982 (and yes, it did exist then), or have enough of a musical appreciation for '80s new wave to the point that you would like to hear what was going on behind the Depeche Modes and Culture Clubs of the world, then this collection is very much for you. Maybe the new millennium will clue us in that we need to invent our own present rather than living continually in the recent past, but in the meantime we can at least enjoy the parts of the past that are worth reliving. And this set of CDs is one of the most tastefully done reissues ever, made especially for real music lovers, as opposed to nostalgia lovers.

Rating: A

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© 2000 Mark Feldman and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Rhino Records, and is used for informational purposes only.