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today's discussion (courtes of J. Lileks): punk. new wave. was there really a difference?

nw.jpgMr. Lileks has started a little controversy in the comments here, regarding the fusion of the punk and new wave genres.

Was there really ever a genre of new wave, or was new wave just a sub-genre of punk?

Frankly, I think the biggest difference between the two can be summed up in one word: synthesizers.

I'd like to hear your take on this, with examples, citations and references if possible. I'm going to do my research on this now.


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New Wave didn't come along until I was in junior high. It was purely an 80s phenomenon, and early 80s, at that.

You could probably back-date some punk to be "new wave," but it didn't exist, as a genre, in 1979. They were just different flavors of punk.

There were five Cure albums before Japanese Whispers (i.e. Lovecats), and they were decidedly Gothic - or what would become Gothic - not New Wave. Even if you call early Cure non-punk, they were certainly no Human League.

For all the crapping on the Human League for their later stuff, their very early work was decidedly non-happy-peppy. I had a (now lost) LP sampler from the Fast-Produkt label (UK only and LP only, near as I can tell) with a pair of songs by the Human League, and damned if they weren't good, art-punk style little tunes. I think Boiling Boy was the only one that was ever released, although it was the weaker of the two.

I don't remember the name of the other song, but it was a nicely atmospheric tale reminiscent in some ways of Wire's more narrative work.

Punk: Out of control on stage, generally bad musicianship, pain -- self-inflicted or otherwise -- was ok, bad hygiene, and an emphasis on raw emotion.

New Wave: Tightly controlled so as to appear out of control, superb musicianship (if not necessarily music), pain was for other people -- usually in the audience (name a New Wave performer with scars!), as for hygiene, two words: Big Hair, and an emphasis on clever lyrics, new sounds, and a beat.

New Wave was derivative from Punk, but it wasn't the same thing at all.

New Wave was a term in use in England by at least 1977. It covered any band that played new music but wasn't Punk.

So what was Punk?

The word means different things to different people, but for me, in England in the late seventies, it meant these bands.

Punk rockers pierced their faces with safety pins and threw up on audiences grateful for the vomit. New Wave musicians had cool hair and dressed neat.

Personally, I was a punk rock fan.

Punk was anger; new wave was irony, or, barring that, cleverness for its own sake.

You didn't have to play your instruments very well to be punk; impact mattered more than precision.

Punk was unemployment; new wave was college.

New Wave started out with one synth - the Most Holy Farfisa, if you can call that a synth - then added more synths as it headed into the mainstream.

Punk was about looking glamorously ugly; New Wave was about looking sharp.

Punk was bad teeth; New Wave was bad hair.

And I'm sure each of these statements could be instantly proven wrong. Have at it!

Punk: music for angry kids with garage bands who like yelling and playing quickly.
point of view: angry, outragous, slightly nilistic

New Wave: music for nerds (no wonder it didn't last)!!! / fun with sequencers

Point of view: self depreciating humor, mildly ironic, insecure (too insecure to be sexy), self consciously neurotic, oddly optimistic and upbeat by today's standards

Obviously I know more about about New Wave than I do about Punk, but still I'm suprised anyone thinks that New Wave and Punk are related.

I always figured new wave was the sanitized version for those of us who were equally sick of disco but afraid of the whole safety pin thing. We could be edgy without catching hepatitis.

Punk and New wave are two entirely different entities. Calling punk "new wave" is like calling what Kraftwerk was doing "rap." You hear bits of KRAFTWERK samples in rap all of the time, but they were never a rap group. It's kind of like calling Avril skater music. Yeah....

good points, but you're all missing a big one...

talent scouts couldn't sell punk to record execs, but they could sell new wave.

take a punk band, clean them up and sell them as new wave.

Best example I can think of is the GoGos.

Punktilious thinks new wave was "edgy"? Wow, I wonder if I was ever cool without realizing it (insert smiley here).

Well, Elvis Costello was edgy, at least c. 1978-9; if "Lipstick Vogue" isn't "edgy" in the era of Disco and the Eagles, I'm not sure what qualfies.

I agree with Lileks' descriptions the most.

Punk was for those who society wouldn't accept, so they rebelled against society.

New Wave was for those who didn't accept society and tried to rebel but didn't quite succeed. They only pissed off their parents with their haircuts.

Punk was loud, obnoxious, rude and vulgur and they didn't give a sh*t.

New Wave, as much as they tried to stray from commercialism, was still controlled.

Punk was angry.

New Wave was more poetic.

Punk was about no money, drinking crap beer and eating horrid, cheap food.

New Wave had money and used it.

Punk rebelled, New Wave could only try.

I liked them both and felt myself as a mixture of both. And yes, I pissed off my parents with my hair cut...and didn't care.

Interesting discussion. Of course, if you go back to the 70s, there was considerably less distance between the two genres. Blondie and the Talking Heads came out of the New York punk scene, but I'd hardly call either of those bands "punk" as they progressed. I'm sure there are other examples as well.

Same thing with the Cure. I think where the confusion arises is that the "mainstream" conflated the two, not distinguishing the basic differences in style and audience. Of course, there were those who - for lack of better choices - danced to new wave at clubs and slam-danced to punk bands when they came through town.

Of course, it's all really a pointless argument now..but a couple of comments here strike me....

Frst, "New Wave was a term in use in England by at least 1977." sure, by the music media and the record labels trying to safely label and package the music, the same as punk..the bands (and fans)certainly didn't refer to themselves as punks until the media called them that.

Secondly, Lileks whole "punk was...new wave wave" arguement...an eighties perspective at most.

What y'all need to remember was that there wasn't much happening, music and media were perceived as being boring, there was little employment or future prospects and completely depressed economy. Out of this a handful of art school students and dropouts decided to form bands and stage a few shows...for fun...for laughs. These inspired others, that in turn inspired more. The media jumped on it and the phenomenon spread across the UK, and eventually back to the states. There was no plan, no ideology, no purpose to it...it just happened, and the bands played what they could, what they wanted and with what they had. Some of them had been playing for a while previoulsy and had more skills, others came from an art school background and had artistic pretentions and still other just made a racket and screamed about what was on their minds. It was a scene without a name.
The media called it punk, and it stuck. The record labels called it New wave and it sold. The fashion magazines called it Goth and New Romantic and it was trendy...but it all grew out of the same roots.

Arguing about it is pointless though, the historians will write what they want, and those of us who were there will be forgotten.

comments I forgot to respond to...

"I'm suprised anyone thinks that New Wave and Punk are related." I'm surprised anyone who claims to know about New Wave thinks they aren't..try looking into the origins of your favarite New Wave bands and you'll find a ton of comments like.."I saw the Damned live and knew I had to start a band" and the like...

I think Rob hit the nail on the head here...it was all about how it could be marketed...of course it all changed in the eighties when the New Wave bands hit bigtime, and second generation New Wave bands came along...

BTW can any name Robert Smiths first band? Or who the bass original bass player in that band was?

I like to fondly remember the good old days when we all just enjoyed good music without having to label it. What a great time that was! I can remember it as if it actually happened. And if you can scrape up an old episode of new wave theater with peter ivers, you maybe able to convince yourself that it did.

I thought I had more to say, but I really can't improve on this:

"I have excellent news for the world. There is no such thing as new wave. It does not exist. It's, uh, it's a figment of a lame cunt's imagination. There was never any such thing as new wave. It was the polite thing to say when you were trying to explain you were not into the boring old rock n' roll but you didn't dare to say 'punk' because you were afraid to get kicked out of the fucking party and they wouldn't give you coke anymore. There is new music, there is new underground sound, there is noise, there is punk, there is power pop, there is ska, there is rockabilly but new wave doesn't mean shit."

-Claude Bessy

Quoth Jello Biafra, "We're not a punk rock band anymore ... we're a new waaaaaaave band."

Charles Austin said: Punk: Out of control on stage, generally bad musicianship . . .

Nonsense. There is no way you can look back to 1975 or 1976 and look at Television, the Voidoids, the Talking Heads, Blondie, or even the Clash and accuse them of either of those things. Not even a little bit. It's such a generalization as to be meaningless.

The whole point of punk -- to the degree there was a "point," and I highly recommend the book Please Kill Me for illumination on that matter -- was a reactionary one: To bring rock and roll back to rock and roll. Punk was a big tent, at least NY punk, and whoever wanted in was in. A group as sloppy as the Dead Boys could be right in there with a group as precise as Television. A stripped-down bunch of rock and rollers like the Heartbreakers could play a show with a band as artsy as the Talking Heads.

James wants to distinguish by reducing it to Punk was anger; new wave was irony, or, barring that, cleverness for its own sake. Read the narratives from the Ramones about their early days, and ask yourself whether they were about anger or irony. It's clearly the latter -- four good-for-nothing kids, including a smack-addicted hustler on the bass, playing Phil Spector-influenced rock at breakneck speeds. It was a put-on at first, then gathered its own energy.

Punk and New Wave might not describe the same music, but they are a lot closer than just kissing cousins. Siamese twins separated well after birth, maybe.

I think we are close, but as some one who lived the scene (so to speak), I think the perspective is wrong. Punk and New Wave were two sides of the same coin. The key was they both were not Top 40. Remember the bubblegum music of the 80's? It was absolutely cloying, Debbie Gibson and Tiffany. Then the hard rock was mindless thrashing of the hair bands. So those that had 1/2 a brain were lost in the wilderness. From stations such as WLIR in New York , and college campuses around the country came the sounds of England, the second invasion. These songs had an intellectual edge, and allowed some separation for those that could not stand wither Top 40 or Heavy Metal.
Now , obviously some of the New Wave went over to Top 40, these guys were capitalists, but the sounds were distinct. But there was a deviding line between the AHA sellouts and the Smiths.

New Wave and some punk you could dance to, be seen as cool dancing to by your friends.

In the age of social stratification (Burners, Preppies, Rockers, ect...), every group had to have there defining music, and for the college set, New Wave and Punk was it.


Punk: Yelling
New Wave: Singing

All I know is that before grunge came and killed the party, music was fun.

KFX: (looks a shoes) I'm not like an expert or anything...

My skewed view come from limited exposure. To me New Wave was whatever was playing on "Video West" - y'all remember that? Plus I like a few popular New Wave bands on the radio. And punk was the garage bands "Maximum Rock and Roll" played on KPFA. The band names and song titles had to be beeped most of the time (they lyrics would too if anyone could understand them). But I never listened to the punk bands people have heard of and I wasn't really into it.

KFX: "New Wave was a term in use in England by at least 1977." sure, by the music media and the record labels trying to safely label and package the music, the same as punk..the bands (and fans)certainly didn't refer to themselves as punks until the media called them that.

That's not how I remember it.

I wasn't in London in '76 but I was in Liverpool in '77. There was a big Punk scene centered around Probe Records and Eric's (a nightclub). I saw Elvis Costello and the Attractions play there in '78. At the time, I thought they were New Wave and so did most of the people I played music with. But not everyone would have agreed.

What was Punk and what was New Wave? We were arguing about it even back then.

I was a dire bass player by the way, it was only the naked enthusiasm of Punk that got me involved in music. Few of the bands I played with were together for more than one or two gigs before breaking up, with people going off to form or join other bands.

That was pretty typical of the time, as I recall. Out of all that churning came some signal New Wave bands like "The Tear Drop Explodes" and "Echo and the Bunnymen".

I guess mine is a pretty parochial take on the whole Punk/New Wave thing. It's my recollection of a short period spent as bit-player in the Liverpool music scene of the late seventies.

What's that you said? "The historians will write what they want, and those of us who were there will be forgotten."

Where were you in '77?

hehe in 77 I was living just outside of Edinborough, trying to scrape enough money together to buy an instrument...any instrument...just something to make a noise with and join in.

One thing is for certain...
Country Rap is now in the house.

Michele--maybe a little contest needs to be started for this...like a contest to see who can come up with the best Country Rap song title (like All My Ex's Live in Compton)?

In regards to Punk and New Wave...your observation is dead on, most punk bands I frequented growing up at least used actual musical instruments (or tried to) to make their music (guitars, actual drums, etc...). Also another big difference was in the shows. A New Wave show was very much a different thing than a good hardcore punk gig like The Exploited or Corrosion of Conformity or countless other good Punk bands could put on. Did you even break a sweat at New Wave shows...I don't remember, but I didn't go to that many--probably just when I had a free ticket or my girlfriend wanted to go or something.

oops forgot to link to the Country Rap thing.

In Albuquerque in 1981 the differences between the two weren't even musical, they were I guess sociological (sp?). New Wave was effeminate, arty and, well gay. It was for gays and girls all neon and pastel. Punk, specifically Hardcore was tough and brutal and black and red. If you liked New Wave you were suspect. As much as I love X now, we didn't listen to them then because we considered them New Wave, stupid huh?. And in hindsight, we must have looked pretty gay in our motorcycle boots and leather jackets.