between champagne and eviction- more new wave rent party 1

My last post introduced an imaginary sub-genre that I call new wave rent party and covered the basics of its aesthetic principles and historic urban context. Here, I continue that discussion with some more material from 1977-81 era. Well, maybe a couple of years further on as well—the sub-genre went on a few more years past its historic sell-by date.



New Wave Vaudeville

I’m thinking a whole article could be written about the underappreciated signficance of those self-consciously arty, goofy, and amateurish performance spaces that flourished under the umbrella of new wave. Did these new wave theaters/cabarets/vaudevilles evolve into new form after the genre declined? Do we see them in today’s open-mic nights, poetry slams, theater marathons, something else?

In the last essay I cited Klaus Nomi and Ann Magnuson as examples of artists who broke out of the new wave vaudeville circuit. Behind that statement, I had in mind “The Nomi Song,” the 2004 documentary directed by Andrew Horn. This clip, which focuses on Nomi’s debut at the 1978 “New Wave Vaudeville” in NYC’s Irving Plaza, conveys the peculiar combination of urban cynicism and hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show guilelessness of the form better than anything I could write.

Needless to say, Klaus Nomi could fit comfortably under the category of new wave dance party. Although (so far as I can tell) his act involves only men, the performative play with gender is obviously there. So, too, is the urban oasis of culture and “the finer things” that a cohort of 20-somethings sought to create for themselves after the emancipation of punk and the disturbances of the urban crisis. If Klaus Nomi seems far more aesthetically sophisticated compared to, say, Martha & the Muffins, I think this reflects, first, the remarkable way in which his art emerged fully formed from the get-go (the whole point of the clip above). Second, the rent parties Klaus Nomi attendered were, shall we say, a hell of a lot more fabulous than your rent parties! Drawing a gay and multinational population with its foot in high fashion and high art (he was even pursued by David Bowie!), he underscores the general straightness, whiteness, American and suburban origins that characterized new wave rent party as a general rule.


Ze Records

This last point also holds true for the stable of musicians, entrepreneurs and bon vivants associated with Ze Records, the NYC-based label whose initial burst of activity between 1978-84 overlaps largely with the heyday of new wave rent party. It’s no accident that the Waitresses (whom I discussed in the last post) signed to Ze Records. True, any label that has August Darnell as a house producer has nothing amateurish about it, and any label that draws on the art worlds of Europe, Detroit, No Wave, and the Paradise Garage for its “mutant disco” vibe has broader horizons than the narrow generic domains of so many new wave rent party groups. But then, if an artist like Cristina doesn’t embody the romantic dream of champagne and urban decadence that drew more than one girl to find her future across the bridge-and-tunnel, then no one does.


The Feelies

These Hoboken legends operated in the aesthetic wake of Talking Heads, the Modern Lovers, and a variety of other familiar new wave sources to come up with something subtle and ineffable yet clearly original. They’re often lauded for the 1980 debut album, Crazy Rhythms, but I think this originality is best captured in their subsequent recordings and their various side projects (the Trypes, Yung Wu, the Willies): an eyes-closed surrender to percussive, strummed-guitar rock that’s often quite danceable.

Just for kicks, here’s their appearance (credited to the Willies) in the high school reunion scene from Jonathan Demme’s 1986 film, “Something Wild”.


The Shirts

From Park Slope, Brooklyn, the Shirts had the good fortune of becoming regulars CBGBs back in 1975, when the club first made its unexpected splash on NYC and rock music at large. They played an early string of dates opening for Television, and they were counted among the “Top 40 New York Unrecorded Rock TALENT” that advertised CBGBs’ first Summer Rock Festival. God knows how they managed that company, based on the chirpy pop-rock they recorded that survives on Youtube.

between champagne and eviction- more new wave rent party 2

In Love Goes to Buildings on Fire (Faber and Faber, 2011), Will Hermes describes the Shirts as “an amiable bunch of rockers with catchy songs and a strong-voiced, Little Rascals-style frontwoman, Annie Golden” (pg. 140). Annie also pursued a career on stage, and she landed major roles in “Hair,” the 1977 Broadway revival and subsequent 1979 film adaptation by Milos Forman. Her charisma takes the band far — maybe far enough to distract you from the band’s trite gestures of “rocking” and “entertaining.”



There must have been something in the water in San Francisco to make it an especially fertile city for new wave. San Francisco’s punk and new wave bands and clubs did their best not to live under the shadow of New York and Los Angeles; certainly they succeeded in overshadowing whatever comparable was going on in Chicago at the time. If the San Francisco scene never gained quite the prominence it deserved, we can still marvel over the great local bands that played punk (Crime, the Avengers, the Offs), hardcore (Dead Kennedys, Flipper), and whatever category one feels like assigning to pre-punk heroes like the Residents and Chrome.


The Nuns

In terms of new wave up through 1983, Romeo Void (discussed in my last post) and Translator were probably San Francisco’s best known groups. And then there’s the Nuns, whom I really don’t know what to do with because they split the difference between punk and new wave so closely. Probably best known today as Alejandro Escovedo’s first band, they came out of the first wave of San Francisco punk and had the good fortune of opening (along with the Avengers) for the Sex Pistols’ final gig at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom in January 1978. By their 1980 debut album, they’ve become like a tough but tight rock band behind Jennifer Miro’s vampy vocals. Presumably the Nuns’ future success was predicted on the basis of their generic resemblance to Blondie, but the music they made on this album sounds closer to Pat Benatar, and their “punk” background appears largely in their shock-value titles like “Decadent Jew” and “Child Molester.”


Pearl Harbor & the Explosions

Now we’re getting back into the center of San Francisco’s new wave dance party — its goofy, antiquated center. My 3rd edition of The New Trouser Press Record Guide calls Pearl Harbor & the Explosions “danceably forgettable.” The music doesn’t hold up that well, but these clips from San Francisco’s public access show “Girl George and the Supperstars of the Future” reveal a couple of interesting facts about the band. First, they opened for Iggy Pop at the Fillmore Theater in 1980 alongside the Police (yes, the Police opened for Iggy Pop!). Second, they had some remarkable things going on in the sartorial and choreographic departments — see for yourself.


Los Microwaves

Whatever happened to Los Microwaves, one of the city’s earlier synth-based combos? (They morphed into the equally forgotten Baby Buddha, that’s what.) The influences of the Residents and Devo are rather apparent. This whole strain of new wave used to be lumped under one word: quirky.



The Motels

I’m torn about whether the Motels are new wave rent party. Originally from Berkeley, Martha Davis had been kicking around an incarnation of the Motels since the early 70s, and her pluck got the band placed in credible new wave settings in L.A. (the Rodney Bingenheimer show, new wave nightclub Madame Wong’s, a rehearsal space at the Masque that they shared with the Go-Go’s) before they made the big-time. Their 1979 self-titled debut album is inconsistent and schizophrenic in a pleasing way; “No Control” (their first commercial success, albeit overseas) already points the way to their MOR future, but there’s also some stranger tracks with that resonate with the new wave theater/vaudeville/cabaret vibe. Yet the Motels were always professional in their career determination and technical ability, and Martha Davis didn’t so much challenge the conventions of what a woman could do in front of a band, so much as use new wave’s retro umbrella as artistic license to revive an iconic torch-singer style.

I say, enjoy the Motels’ big hits “Only the Lonely” and “Suddenly Last Summer” (both of which deserve their heavy rotation as 80s oldies), and as you watch this video, try to think back to an earlier period when new wave and punk were a convenient step on the way to bigger things.


Slow Children

Originally from Los Angeles , Slow Children also had the quirky thing going on in Pal Shazar’s vocal styles. Some KROQ airplay, a single released in England—it seems like it never quite came together for Slow Children, who juggled a hodge-podge of 80s aesthetics and relocated to London without much to show for it.



The Graphic

A North Carolina group fronted by Treva Spontaine, the Graphic illustrated the “new south” that enthralled college radio for much of the 80s. The association with Don Dixon (who produced their album) and Mitch Easter (who played on a solo record by Treva) underscores the Graphic’s jangle-pop bona fides: we’re talking the same territory as the dB’s, R.E.M., and Let’s Active, just a little less distinguished. The sprinkling of 60s folk-rock and power-pop influences also brings to mind Katrina and the Waves.

How does this mild pop-rock qualify as new wave rent party? I think it’s not so much the music but the social precedent that Treva Spontaine set locally. She’s a far cry from the iconoclastic frontwomen exemplified by Kate and Cindy of the B-52s and Vanessa Briscoe of Pylon, but then the college towns of North Carolina don’t exactly have the same subcultural edge as Atlanta. For most of the south, Treva’s commitment to making rock music independently and outside the norms of Southern rock had to be pretty inspirational.

Ultimately, new wave rent party declined as an aesthetic moment alongside the broader new wave genre. The brief window for formal, sonic and (most relevant to this sub-genre) performative innovation became incorporated into “new rock of the 80s” and a more mannered, professional mode of performance suitable for MTV. And, as the cultural response of a largely middle class suburban cohort to the opportunities for personal freedom, nightlife pleasures, and self-expression found in North American cities of the late 70s/early 80s, new wave rent was submerged under the tides of the neoliberal urbanization. Wealth streamed back into the city in more pronounced and uneven ways, as epitomized by the new talk of “yuppies” and gentrification in the Reagan era.

The college graduate demographic that typified the new wave rent party generation was always implicated in this uneven urban development, but by the mid-80s, as these kids entered their 30s, it must have felt like time to shit or get off the pot for many of them. The music of new wave rent party, which was really about fun and dancing and the thrills of urban nightlife that young people (particularly women) might enjoy amidst the urban crisis, was no longer as innocent or credible as it once seemed. Hip hop exploded, the urban economy of art and creativity heated up, the downtown musical underground abandoned groove for noise—as the 80s progrssed, the lines between urban accomodation and urban revolt were drawn in increasingly bold strokes.

One hypothesis, maybe too tidy, about what happened to new wave rent party was that the music moved to the South. Or to college towns. Or, better yet, to college towns in the South, where the networks to the art/culture/entertainment economies of big cities weren’t so well established as to incorporate the aimless, jaded pursuit of musical kicks. The mid- to late 1980s were the era in which Austin, Athens, and Chapel Hill were ascendant; the era gave us R.E.M., the new South, and the film “Slacker” (the latter in 1991, technically). In the South, where patriarchal values of honoring “daddy,” family, and heritage still prevail, young middle-class kids, especially women, could experience the pleasures of personal autonomy and artistic self-expression as something new and genuine, much like it was for their counterparts in big North American cities 5-10 years before.



In the five days between my last post and this one, news came that Laura Kennedy, bassist for the Bush Tetras (discussed in my last essay), passed away. The blog Dangerous Minds posted a touching obituary, including this quote from Kennedy, which nicely evokes the aspirations and worldview of new wave rent party:

Us New York City kids from the ‘80s, often transplanted from other cities, other countries, occasionally other planets (take a wild guess who I’m talking about) – we’ve kicked ass. We’ve taken names, too – and a good many of us have not only lived to tell, but are rockin’ the telling and rollin’ the living in a way that’s inspirational… We keep going, and going and going. I defy you to tell me that all of us weren’t defined by that moment in time that we shared. This has been apparent to me for a while, but more so now that we’re a decade into the oughts. We were blessed to come together in this life at a time that defined the End of a Century.