“New Wave: Popular music less raw than punk rock and typically including unconventional melodies, exaggerated beats, and quirky lyrics.”
— Merriam-Webster Dictionary
In the late 1970s and into the 1980s, with Punk Rock’s effects still being felt, a great number of bands came along, most quite different from one another, that were categorized as New Wave. The opening for these bands was created by Punk’s ransacking of popular music — a ransacking that many among Punk Rock’s believers might have called a cleansing — but that did not make the movement more cohesive. As is often the case with stylistic categories, the bands that were designated New Wave often rejected such a label, however powerless they were to change the situation. Elvis Costello’s breakout single, the ballad “Alison,” was too melodic and too romantic to be called Punk. He was thrown in with the New Wave. Tom Petty — who wore on the cover of his band’s debut album a leather jacket that connoted Punk to many, but who musically connected to 60s Rock and Roll — was called New Wave. The Talking Heads, coming out of CBGB but too arty for Punk, were filed under New Wave, as were Blondie, the Cars, the Police, Devo, and the Knack.
Though many Punks would likely challenge this view, New Wave could be seen as Punk’s greatest victory. It was a testament to the power of Punk’s “cleansing” that it opened the floodgates as wide as it did. Popular music had been changed fundamentally by the energy and ideas of Punk, and in its aftermath, almost anything could happen. But the bands that followed in its wake still needed a category. New Wave was the category they got.
If there is a historical parallel to be drawn, perhaps it comes in the form of early Rock and Roll. After Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and others burst onto the scene in the second half of the 1950s, the music kicked off an era in which emerged a range of popular music, much of it earthy and immediate, that was not exactly like early Rock and Roll but was certainly informed by its energy and ideas. A kind of renaissance was underway, and it was felt in many places and in many forms, from California’s Surf music to Detroit’s Motown to New York’s Brill Building and the Soul music of Memphis.
This lesson looks at the “cleansing” effect of Punk and at New Wave as the result. Selecting the Ramones and the Patti Smith Group as case studies, it will explore what Punk brought that influenced the groups associated with the New Wave. The lesson will hinge around an ABC-produced 20/20 episode on New Wave, aired in 1979. As a summary activity, students will have a chance to compare the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” with New Wave group Devo’s interpretation of the same song, a comparison which will reveal many among the New Wave’s common attributes.