I recently downloaded the reissued Human Switchboard album, Who’s Landing in my Hangar? Anthology 1977-1984, which set me off again obsessing about a subgenre of new wave that I’ve never really seen recognized. I don’t even know how best to name this subgenre, although I’m convinced it has a musical coherence. I’ll call it new wave rent party to evoke an emblematic scene for this music:
1979, Manhattan, a 5th-floor walk-up on 2nd Avenue between 28th and 29th. Carla, 26, and Michelle, 25, college friends from Rutgers University, moved to The City three years ago to the horror of their parents, who are waiting for the phone call from the NYPD informing them that their daughters were raped and stabbed on their way from home. Neither of the girls can exactly allay their parents’ fears, but they felt they had to leave New Jersey because New York could give them three things:
1. real jobs that will give them a chance to use their degrees
2. a chance to fool around with guys who don’t want to stay in New Jersey, inherit their fathers’ accounting firms, and expect their wives to have kids
3. bars, clubs, movies, 24-hour restaurants, theater… the NIGHTLIFE!
The girls’ roommate, a SVA student from Japan named Sukiko, moved back to Japan on last-minute notice, leaving Carla and Michelle behind in rent. It looks like this guy Marshall, a gay friend of Carla’s (can’t WAIT to tell the parents about that situation), can move in next month, but their shady Greek landlord (who’s NEVER around to fix the hall light or replace the moldy shower unit) is threatening to evict them unless they can come up with the $250 rent. It’s not like there aren’t other places to live, but Manhattan can be really HAIRY in a lot of places, and the girls have spent too much time learning the lay of the land in this neighborhood to leave.
So they’ve decided to throw a rent party to make up this month’s rent. Carla knows this other girl from the gallery she works at who’s in some kind of new wave band. It’s not exactly their kind of music—they’ve had fun dancing at Hurrah’s before, but that New Wave Vaudeville at Irving Plaza was so dull!—but this girl Nina is really cool (does Carla have a CRUSH on her?), and she promises the band will draw at least 50 of their own friends and get people dancing.
Friday night comes, and the band arrives at the girls’ loft apartment at 10:30. Nina, another girl with a really short bob, and three guys (wearing button-down shirts that already show the sweat under their arms) bring in their gear: guitars, amps, keyboards, drums, sax, microphones, and a ton of cords. What, they need grounded plugs? Uh oh, hope these adapters don’t blow up the place. Then the band leaves (Carla looks a little crestfallen) while guests start showing up.
Ugh, Michelle’s brother Ricky from New Jersey is here! But he and his friends roll in a couple of kegs; they can stay just as long as they don’t go making fag jokes. Then Aaron from the law firm where Michelle paralegals is making a mess at the kitchen, whipping up margaritas: “here, Michelle, try these!” “Ugh, needs more mix!” And suddenly the apartment’s really crowded and REALLY LOUD, and Michelle needs to use the bathroom (better just sit still for a minute before the line outside gets too long), and then they’re having a BLAST, exactly the reason why they left New Jersey for The City, let’s just not think about the clean-up tomorrow, and is that Nina and her band now? It is! They’re gonna play!
Musically, new wave rent party is the style of new wave in its early, pre-synthpop years that reveals a line from 60s garage bands to the Velvets through the Modern Lovers on to many, mostly unsung groups circa 1977-81 who played danceable garage rock. The foundation of musical influences in this subgenre isn’t all that important; what’s more distinctive is how new wave rent party reflects an interesting moment of change in the practice and aesthetics of the rock ensemble. Quintessentially, new wave rent party is a mixed gender affair. The greater visibility in new wave of female musicians, singers and composers signaled a gain of liberation and freedom in rock music overall, but for this subgenre it’s in the internal dynamics within each band that the most significant ideas, values, and pleasures of performance emerge.
To illustrate, look at the B-52s, probably the greatest of the new wave rent party bands: two girls, three guys, a then-uncommon mix of thrift-store signifiers and camp aesthetics, and a genius for danceable rock music. More than 30 years into their career, the joy these musicians have in playing together and dancing onstage is still contagious, but it’s perhaps best captured in the final half of “Rock Lobster,” which to my thinking is one of the great moments of pop music.
[A few weeks ago, I was in line at Michael’s arts and crafts store in Manhattan, waiting in line with my daughter to return some cupcake decorations, when I heard a BLOOD CURDLING scream over the store speakers. “What,” I thought to myself, “did no one else hear that?! Oh… it’s just the end of ‘Rock Lobster’.”]
In this song chock full of fantastic moments, the call-and-response vocals particularl rips open the staid conventions of rock music, as the singers commit themselves to an new extremes of offbeat vocals. (Fred: “There goes the norwhal! Kate: Eeee-oooo-eeee-oooh! Fred: HERE COMES A BIKINI WHALE!! Cindy: EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEKKKKK!) In Are We Not New Wave? Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s (University of Michegan Press, 2011), Theo Cateforis writes:
As Rolling Stone‘s Anthony DeCurtis aptly described, [Fred] Schneider approached the band’s lyrics quizzically, “as if he hoped that by singing them, he might be able to figure out their meaning.” DeCurtis reacts here to the doubleness in Schneider’s singing; on the one hand we hear the dynamism of his surface affectations, but on the other hand it is difficult to read in his voice any direct emotional underpinning. Like the camp of the drag queen, Schneider’s singing comes across as deliberate role-playing. But the quesiton remains, what exactly was he camping? (pg. 118)
Cateforis goes on to analyze Schneider’s “camp play on male whiteness” persuasively, although by doing so he ignores the B-52s’ secret weapons, vocalists Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson. Nevertheless, irrespective of the group’s semiotics, what comes across in the best B-52s’ music is their discovery of a new performative syntax. This discovery still sounds as much of a shock to the band members as it was to listeners the first time they heard the B-52s, which is why for me their music always brings to mind the interpersonal dynamics and back-and-forth within the group.
I’m being generous in claiming that a small handful of groups from the new wave rent party sub-genre were nearly as great or important as the B-52s. Most of them almost certainly weren’t, and listening to their music today, you can see the reasons why many of them have been forgotten. Still, reviewing the other groups sheds light on other dimensions of this sub-genre and provide further historical context to this transitional moment. So, in declining order of their greatness (in my humble opinion)…
Martha & the Muffins
Rush may be the greatest Canadian rock group, but Martha & the Muffins are definitely my favorite. Based in Toronto, this new wave unit led by singer Martha Johnson and guitarist Mark Gane evolved over its first five or six albums in remarkable tandem with Talking Heads’ aesthetic arc, but their prime years in the new wave rent party corresponds early years leading up to their first two LPs, particularly their ageless debut album Metro Music (1979). This record features a classic new wave rent party format: two women, keyboards, guitar, saxophone, bass and drums. Saxophone is a particularly vintage new wave instrument; after the so-called second British invasion made synthesizers the sound of new wave, the sax almost immediately became an archaic instrument linked inextricably to the “retro” 50s/60s rock and R&B styles that originally inspired new wave just a few years before. The same holds for cheap keyboards: Farfisa, Vox or, in the case of Martha & the Muffins, the Ace Tone that dominates their biggest hit “Echo Beach.”
Furthermore, at this point in rock music (and perhaps on into the present day) saxophones and cheap keyboards weren’t regarded as the basis for “new sounds” and studio exploration, two hallmarks of most new wave bands whose influence survived past the early 80s. This might be a shortcoming of early new wave, but I think it once again calls to our attention the real-time performance setting of this music: bands playing before a audience, but also members’ musical interactions as captured (or asynchronously refashioned) on recording. All of this is to say, I don’t listen to new wave rent party to take a headphone-assisted flight into fantastic landscapes of my mind. I crank it up as loud as needed to recreate the presence of a band playing live. And while Martha & the Muffins hit their stride as a studio band with their third and fourth albums (1981’s This is the Ice Age and 1983’s Danceparc, both highly recommended), it’s on those first two albums where you can hear the band’s internal rapport. On tracks like “Revenge (Against The World),” I imagine the original six-piece band playing to each other in a circle (not lined up facing the fourth wall, as in concert or video) as the twin vocals of Martha Johnson and Martha Ladly (two Marthas! how cool is that?) carry out a private conversation within the band.
Martha and the Muffins’ Canadian origins also highlight how new wave rent party is almost entirely a North American sub-genre. Certainly there were contemporaneous groups in Britain, Ireland and Europe playing new wave styles and sounds not all that different from the groups reviewed here, but they did so in a different context due to the undeniable impact of punk rock. When the Sex Pistols have reached the top of the charts in your country a year or two earlier and changed the game of pop music entirely, the choice to play a kind of music that’s just fun, danceable and poppy wouldn’t be as innocent as it would in North America; more likely it would represent an artistic timidity (“nothing too extreme to keep us off the charts!”) or an acknowledgement of conventional popstar ambitions. In North America, by contrast, the dominance of corporate rock by Led Zeppelin, the Eagles et al. would give music that’s “fun, danceable and poppy” a more transgressive charge. And in an era before MTV, the vast geography between still fairly distinct musical regions meant bands undertook new wave music without the media echo chamber fostered by Britain’s music-weekly saturated pop culture.
The stretch of Ohio between Cleveland and Akron was an especially fertile crescent for vintage new wave, and out of it came the Waitresses. Under the musical directorship of guitarist Chris Butler, the group started out in Akron more as a studio project with an evident taste for Beefheart and Pere Ubu (which was even more pronounced in another band that Butler played in, Tin Huey). Butler relocated to New York City, reformed the Waitresses with NYC musicians (such ex-Television drummer Billy Ficca), and let original singer Patty Donahue assume all the vocal duties. And of course it’s Patty’s voice that has become the Waitresses’ signature; singing lyrics written by Butler, she developed a talking style of vocals that managed to convey both feminine sass and urban stress. I can’t say it better than Jim Green did in The New Trouser Press Record Guide (3rd edition, 1989):
Furthermore, Donahue’s persona — she doesn’t sing so much as carry a simultaneous conversation and tune — has been developed into the archetypal young, white, middle-class woman trying to sort out her identity while beset with standard societal conditioning on one hand and specious, voguish “alternatives” (the Sexual Revolution, the Me Generation) on the other. The Waitresses’ combination of musical aplomb and lyrical acuity makes the first LP [Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?] at once funny, sad and universally true (pg. 621).
As this passage suggests, new wave rent party is a very self-consciously middle-class music. If this seems uncool or uncomfortable for those inclined to look for rebellion or (in the language of cultural studies) “resistance” in their pop music, I think the historical context reveals its signficance. New wave rent party is the sound of young, college educated women and men moving to the city at a time when the urban crisis was raging with no apparent end in sight. Maybe some of these kids moved “downtown,” i.e., to the emblematic zones of punk rock (and, in New York City’s case, no wave). However, the statistics suggest many others settled into less destabilized urban neighborhoods where, frankly, you could still get mugged or worse if you were careless or unlucky. Perhaps these kids hedged their bets geographically and musically, although if they really wanted to play it safe, it would be easier to stay, like most of their contemporaries did, in the suburbs where their parents (quite likely themselves of the generation born and raised in cities) lived.
For young women at this time, the urban context was perhaps most alarmingly represented in the 1977 film Looking for Mr. Goodbar. To acknowledge the pleasure in “thinking about sex again” (to cite another title from the Waitresses’ first album) might be a privilege of the “archetypal young, white, middle-class woman,” but it was also an achievement with its own risks.
Hence the gender revolt signified by Romeo Void, one of San Francisco’s most successful new wave groups. In the early 1980s, generations of virginal teenagers had their libidos tantalized on the dancefloor as they heard singer Debora Iyall’s croon the chorus of “Never Say Never”: I might like you better if we slept together. Those who saw the band on MTV would likely have had their minds blown to boot, as they watched a charismatic, overweight woman of Native American descent command the stage like Pat Benatar never could.
Musically, Romeo Void were a mixed bag. On the one hand, their taut rhythms, jagged guitar (for me, “Never Say Never” was a musical gateway drug to Gang of Four), and muscular saxophone were appealing enough. On the other, the songs weren’t really there as a rule, and the band’s cheesy gestures of “rocking” and mugging for the camera were probably as hard to stomach then as they are thirty years later.
Romeo Void exemplifies how across the generic border of new wave rent party lies the traditional rock stardom that most musicians in this sub-genre uncritically aspired to. “Do it yourself” prodded Romeo Void and others of their ilk to get up on stage, no matter how unlikely a rockstar they might seem, but in general these groups didn’t have the independent ethos that might commit them or their audiences to sustaining the urban nightclubs and regional independent labels from which these groups typically launched. Of course, almost no one had this ethos in these days; their inconsistency was true for new wave in general, as well as much of early punk in New York City and Britain. Maybe what new wave rent party added was a visibly gendered component, as illustrated by Romeo Void, in which a subversive female performance shared the stage with the macho posturing of “real” (i.e., male) rock musicians.
Across the other generic border lies post-punk, which brings its own set of contradictions that new wave rent party negotiates. While it takes obvious inspiration from postpunk’s “rip it up and start again” aesthetic (to cite Simon Reynolds’ canonical book on the subject, which in turn invokes the Orange Juice lyric), it stops short of the radical modernism that motivated Wire, PiL, the Raincoats, and other postpunk groups to create new musical forms. On the whole, new wave rent party is formally conservative, operating out of fairly established generic traditions (i.e., that line from 60s garage bands to the Velvets through the Modern Lovers); its aesthetic innovations appear primarily in the domain of performance.
For this reason, the Athens GA group Pylon squeaks through into the subgenre. Formally, they fall squarely within the postpunk genre, but it’s Vanessa Briscoe’s musical and performative reinvention of the “girl singer” for which they’re probably most remembered, and which qualifies them for new wave rent party. One might even go so far as to say Vanessa upholds an emerging Southern tradition of iconoclastic female frontwomen that Kate and Cindy of the B-52s established, and which Hope Nicholls of mid-80s college-radio band Fetchin Bones (from North Carolina) next embodied. In any case, I do think it’s significant that Pylon weren’t from New York or Los Angeles. The absence of major punk scenes in their environs seems to have inspired the group to forge an idiosyncratic performative grammar, something characteristic of new wave rent party’s most important contributions to pop culture.
The Bush Tetras
For similar reasons, I think New York City’s Bush Tetras also squeak into new wave rent party. The group had an impeccable no wave pedigree, particularly via the Contortions. So why doesn’t new wave rent party overlap with no wave, considering how the latter yielded so many iconic mixed-gender groups? For one reason, you generally couldn’t dance to no wave; artists like James Chance might have toyed with (or, to be more accurate, took delight in torturing) dance music, but others like Lydia Lunch would just as likely want to eradicate dance music altogether. Furthermore, no wave’s continuity with New York’s confrontational high art traditions made playing music too much of a serious undertaking. In obvious yet significant ways, new wave rent party isn’t all that serious; it’s less about art and more about fun and pleasure. Listening now 30 years after the fact, these distinctions might not be all that evident. I suspect they would be much starker on the ground, since historically the two genres drew support from different neighborhoods, different nightclubs, different drugs, and different lifestyles.
The Bush Tetras, by contrast, were a dance band in the percussive, hypnotic postpunk styles of Gang of Four and Talking Heads. Which in turn raises another question: why haven’t I mentioned pioneering new wave groups like Talking Heads, Blondie, and the Patti Smith Group? The reason is historical; new wave rent party represents the next generation of bands, the ones who took their cue from these CBGBs icons. With the exception of the B-52s, none of them attained the commercial success of their NYC role models. That’s largely why this subgenre was soon eclipsed by synthpop and the second British invasion, but for a few years this commercial obscurity gave these groups a relatively autonomous space (not that many of them wanted it!) to do their own thing and explore the dynamics of the mixed-gender rock ensemble away from the media spotlight.
A Los Angeles band who recorded between 1981-87, the Fibonaccis outlived the heyday of new wave rent party, evidently with diminishing returns until they broke up in obscurity. By that time, Los Angeles seemed to have moved light years past the creative peak of vintage new wave, which unfortunately would almost always be associated in L.A. with the Knack. Hardcore, roots rock, the paisley underground, death rock, and hair metal would have come and most likely gone by 1987, and the metal-funk hybrids of Janes Addiction, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone and Thelonious Monster would be in ascent. Just as importantly, the promotional music video would have become an inescapable fact of the music industry by this time, a format that too many new wave rent party groups found themselves unprepared or unsuited for. Artistically the Fibonaccis did okay on that front, making a great, crazy video in 1984 for their great, crazy cover of “Purple Haze,” but one look at the results should make clear why MTV wouldn’t want to touch it.
The Fibonacci’s connection to new wave rent party comes from their obvious “artiness” as well as the influence they took from sources left in the alternative-music wilderness: Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, the chamber-music textures of Henry Cow. There used to be a place in some cities where these traditions found a home: the new wave vaudeville, new wave cabaret, new wave theater, etc found in willing nightclubs and on late-night public access TV. Klaus Nomi and Anne Magnuson got their start at the New Wave Vaudeville in Manhattan’s Irving Plaza. This video captures the Fibonacci’s big moment on L.A.’s New Wave Theater.
As I’ve argued before, higher education remains a key social element to the independent or underground rock music scenes thriving in many cities today. Arguably, new wave rent party represents a beginning of that tradition, as college kids, art students, and autodidactic oddballs appropriated new wave music for their own ends. It’s a fascinating question how the value and uses of their education have changed over 30 years of musical development. Certainly, it’s rare to find today such an overt display of art and culture learning of the kind found in the new wave theaters/vaudevilles/cabarets, which from the likes of these video documents look like they were excuses for drunken parties by art history grad students.
So whatever happened to this generation of new wave rent party musicians, once the bands eventually broke up? Some became art professors. One or two may have even become big-time record executives. Today reunion concerts and album reissues have rekindled many of their careers; some of them may have kept musically active in the three decade interim. And no doubt some went on to obscure lives of substance abuse and ignoble ends of the kinds that we might expect for rock musicians, but I suspect that’s not the norm.
New wave rent party represents the first cohort of the young urban professional, a.k.a. the yuppie, as that term first appeared in the early 1980s. However, with few exceptions these girls and guys weren’t the monied Wall Street or successful professionals originally designated by that term. I suspect that currently many of them, maybe most, enjoy the familial and career situations that they find themselves in. They’re middle class, after all, and they’re armed with a backstory and a cultural capital that would be the envy of many a 20-something today. But the path to where they find themselves today hasn’t been clear because, with few exceptions, they failed at their first significant vocation.
To the extent that they still live in the city, we can recognize them as the so-called urban pioneers of urban gentrification. It’s easy to cluck about that in hindsight, but at least we shouldn’t forget the uncertainty and risk of their urban existences back in the late 70s and early 80s. This was hardly an era in which people moved to cities because homeownership was a safe bet; they were drawn by other opportunities for lifestyle, self-expression, and self-actualization. To the extent that cities today have become safe playgrounds for hipsters, we could look further at the new wave rent party to how that unanticipated development came to be.
[For more on new wave rent party, see my next post.]