Great bands that slipped between the cracks of new wave, power pop, punk and post-punk, 1978-1982
Trends are bullshit. From film to fashion to music, they can be somewhat useful for marketing, packaging and selling certain things, but a lot of great art gets passed over for substandard cultural product. In Parts one and two of my Between The Cracks series, I focused mostly on music from the 70s which fell between the cracks of glam, prog, art rock, metal and punk. While I love much of the music that came out of those genres, bands that didn’t quite fit were often ignored, unfairly suffering a demise due to lack of commercial success.
This latest batch re-entered my brainspace when I was thinking about what albums I would send back in a time-travelling care package to myself for my 12th birthday. To keep it simple I kept it to roughly a three year period of what was considered contemporary music a the time, from 1978 to mid-1981 (my birthday is July 16). As I was digging through the kind of music my twelve year-old self would have liked (mostly new wave and poppy punk), coincidentally UK magazine Vive Le Rock’s current issue had the feature, “The 50 Greatest New Wave Albums Ever.” The top of the list had the predictable, obvious choices of Blondie, Devo, Elvis Costello, The Police, The Romantics and The Go-Go’s, The Cars, Talking Heads, The Knack, The Pretenders, B-52’s, Squeeze and Joe Jackson, all easily available stuff I listened to as a kid. Following those were a lot of artists that took several years to track down, but became favorites sometime between my teens and twenties, like Tubeway Army, Ultravox, Graham Parker & The Rumour, Lene Lovich, XTC, The Undertones, Iggy Pop, The Vapors, Monochrome Set, Wall Of Voodoo, The Flying Lizards, Altered Images and Ian Dury and the Blockheads (if you haven’t seen the movie Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (2010) starring Andy Serkis, I recommend it).
However, there’s still artists that I had not properly discovered. All the names are familiar, as pretty much all of them were reviewed in the back issues of Trouser Press magazine that I still have stashed in a box, and covered in the various editions of the Trouser Press Record Guide. Perhaps because 1978 to 82 came to be considered one of the top three high points of rock ‘n’ roll, spearheaded by the creativity of post-punk and even deceptively simple punk bands that make huge leaps of progression with each album (The Clash, Buzzcocks, Wire), bands that navigated the murky gray areas between glam, pub rock, new wave and punk, didn’t fare as well.
Case in point, The Flys. The Coventry, UK band was peripherally associated with bands somewhat linked to the mod revival like The Jam and The Vapors. However there’s much more than The Who worship going on here, as one can also hear the influences of Neil Young, The Byrds, Tom Petty, Mott The Hoople, Bowie, and Eddie and the Hot Rods. The result is quite original hybrid of interesting guitar work and pop hooks that floated in a relatively unexplored pocket between mainstream rock and new wave at the time. Waikiki Beach Refugees (EMI, 1978) is chock full of should-have-been hit singles like “Beverley,” “Fun City,” “Name Dropping” and cult classics “Love And A Molotov Cocktail” and the title track. The quality rarely dips, with “We Don’t Mind The Rave,” “Don’t Moonlight On Me” and “I Don’t Know” just as captivating as the singles.
The following year’s Own (EMI, 1979) was a little more direct and stripped down, not a bad thing, but couldn’t quite keep up the consistency of engaging songwriting. Not the best introduction to the band, but with plenty of good songs to recommend new fans, like standout single “Undercover Agent Zero,” the dark “Night Creatures,” “Cheap Days,” “Frenzy Is 23” and “Let’s Drive.” Both albums were reissued on CD by Captain Oi! 15 years ago, but have since become out of print again and sell for ridiculous prices, at least giving some indication of their staying power at least as a cult concern.
Why Holly Vincent never became a huge star is one of rock’s unsolved mysteries. Growing up in Chicago and playing in the Brothel Creepers and Backstage Pass, she migrated to L.A. to form Holly and the Italians in early 1979, then, like Chrissie Hynde before her, moved to London for a musical environment they felt more at home with. Based on the strength of an opening slot with Blondie and an independently released single, “Tell That Girl To Shut Up,” they were signed to Virgin, and released The Right To Be Italian (Virgin, 1981). Produced by Sire co-founder Richard Gottehrer with keyboard contributions from Talking Head Jerry Harrison, it seemed they were destined for success. The new wave sheen was balanced by the band’s fairly sophisticated musicianship, and Vincent’s tough denim ‘n’ leather rocker persona that evokes The Runaways with hooks worthy of Ramones and Cheap Trick. “Just For Tonight” is a toughened up cover of a Chiffons song, while “Means To A Den” is a great little garage psych number that makes one wonder why she didn’t rule the airwaves at least at the level of Joan Jett. Along with a re-recording of the “Tell That Girl…” single, “I Wanna Go Home,” “Miles Away” and “Rock Against Romance” measure up well against anything by Blondie and The Pretenders, with the added advantage of truly convincing accounts of teenage yearning and passion.
The lack of success lead to the band’s break-up, and Vincent recorded Holly Beth Vincent (Virgin, 1982) basically as a solo act with session musicians, though still attributing it to Holly and the Italians. Working with producer Mike Thorne, who had played an Eno-like role with Wire’s brilliant run of albums and contributions, she created a brilliantly dense, atmospheric piece of art pop adorned with violins, mandolins, Thorne’s keyboards, and her most inspired vocal performance of her career. She’s come a long ways from the punky power pop in just a year, pushing herself into original territory with practically no contemporary frames of reference aside from possibly Kate Bush and the more adventurous cuts of the most recent Raincoats album. Her cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” is an odd choice but she has a refreshingly unique take on it. The album hits a literate, sensual, noirish stride with a smoking trio of songs, “Revenge,” “Samurai And Courtesan” and “Cool Love (Is Spreading Around).” It may not have the gleeful energy of her debut album, but it’s an endlessly fascinating gem of an album, and criminally overlooked. The 2002 Wounded Bird reissue features an additional duet with Joey Ramone (who also sang on “We Danced”) on “I Got You Babe.” Also included is the original “Tell That Girl To Shut Up” single and a raucus cover of “Chapel Of Love.” The CD now sells for over $140.
With punk morphing into post-punk in 1979, Scottish band Doll By Doll (named after an e.e. cummings poem) definitely had trouble fitting in. Leader Jackie Leven had released a solo progressive folk and R&B influenced album Control, back in 1971 under the name John St. Field. It was only available in Spain. Like Graham Parker, he had more in common with Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen and fellow former pub rockers Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello than the current crop of new wave bands. Debut album Remember (Automatic, 1979) featured Antonin Artaud in it’s cover art, and contained long, meandering songs full of poetic lyricism and raw, bare-bones guitar that offer both a structural bridge from Free to Gang Of Four and a spiritual link between Dr. Feelgood and Joy Division. That’s an unlikely range, but since forming in 1977 the band have toured with both Hawkwind and Devo. It crescendoes with the raging “Palace of Love.” Dualling guitars are out of tune and the production is sloppy, but it’s a memorable debut full of promise for exciting things to come.
That promise is fulfilled and then some later that same year on Gypsy Blood (Automatic, 1979). It explodes out the gate with “Teenage Lightning,” a concise bundle of energy at just 2:28 that includes sleek pop harmonies and even girl group backing vocals, but still maintaining a raw rock edge. On “Stripshow” Leven flexes his vocal chops, switching between baritone and falsetto with ease. The haunting, elegiac vibe continues on “Human Face,” which slowly blossoms into a power pop anthem, then switching between folky beauty and squalling guitars. An epic highlight. “Binary Fiction” is guitar funk as Robert Fripp would soon be incorporating in King Crimson. “Forbidden Worlds” starts with a fragile, lovely guitar riff that would be at home on one of Television’s albums, until the band creates a vortex of psychedelic distortion. “Highland Rain” is also a potent balance of folk and post-punk fury. The album concludes with two very short acoustic numbers that nevertheless heavy with apocalyptic foreboding, and repurposed poetry from Anna Akhmatova. It’s easy to see how some would not know what to make of this intense, diverse collection. But just one close listen leaves no doubt it is an unsung classic.
Label contract issues delayed progress on the band’s self-titled third album, which emerged in 1981 on Magnet records. Leaving behind the unhinged chaos, the band had evolved their sound, screwing down a sleeker, tighter sound that’s both a progression, but slight downgrade in passion. Nevertheless, it’s an extremely accomplished recording that’s worth repeated listens, from the Springsteen romanticism of “Figure It Out” to the motorik funk of “Caritas” and the upbeat, bubbly “Soon New Life” adopts a neo-skanking rhythm that could be a tribute to the likes of Two Tone bands like The (English) Beat. “Main Travelled Roads” features some lovely Celtic lyricism, but the mainstream ballad format is one of the few disappointments. Attempts at experimentation like “I Never Saw That Movie” are also near misses. That was essentially the end of Doll By Doll, as Grand Passion (Magnet, 1982) was basically a solo album. A fifth album was recorded but never released.
Afterwards, Leven entered his wilderness years, losing his girlfriend to the Dalai Lama’s bodyguard (seriously!) and getting addicted to drugs. He sobered up and set up the addiction charity CORE Trust. He was befriended by one of its supporters, Princess Diana, who encouraged him to return to singing. With former bandmates Jo Shaw and David Mcintosh and Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock he formed Concrete Bulletproof, but it didn’t go anywhere. He spent another eight years in Scotland, getting involved with Robert Bly’s men’s movement, before finally releasing a solo EP in 1994. He released nearly twenty indie solo albums, including bootlegs, three under the pseudonym Sir Vincent Lone, and collaborations with Pere Ubu’s David Thomas, and crime noir author Ian Rankin, who’s signature character Inspector Rebus is also a Leven devotee. He died from cancer in 2011.
Manchester’s The Distractions formed in 1975 with 60s influences until they were inspired by the Buzzcocks. to evolve toward a unique hybrid sound of garage psych, power pop and post-punk. After recording the You’re Not Going Out Dressed Like That EP in 1978, they released the “Times Go By So Slow” single on Factory records. They had already signed to Island before the single was released, and put out two more singles, “It Doesn’t Bother Me” and “Boys Cry” before releasing Nobody’s Perfect (Island, 1980), a nearly perfect album completely out of fashion and time. It’s lack of commercial success lead to the band splitting up in 1981. A box set reissue with the full album and all the singles, Parabolically Yours, will be out sometime early next year on HiddenMasters. The band reunited in 2010 and released The End Of The Pier (Occultation, 2012), and will be releasing a third and final album also next year.
It’s funny what they called new wave. Palm Desert, CA native Steve Krikorian had been in bands since his teens, and his first recording was with Buddy Holly’s band The Crickets in 1973. Taking his stage name from the Thomas Mann novella Tonio Kröger, Tonio K. released his debut solo album, Life In The Foodchain in 1978. Because it was 1978, they tried to shoehorn it into the new wave movement to market it, even though he doesn’t really fit. While Elvis Costello’s acid wit might be considered an influence, it could just as well be compared to both Graham Parker, Warren Zevon and The Hold Steady. While it was considered a critical hit at the time, it seems to have slipped between the cracks of history. Backed by studio musicians, and a guest contribution from Dick Dale, it’s a masterpiece of darkly comic lefty rage, epitomized by the 8:43 long centerpiece, “The Ballad of the Night the Clocks All Quit (And the Government Failed).” The second half of the album focuses on cynicism about relationships and emotional abuse on “American Love Affair” and “How Come I Can’t See You in My Mirror?” Distressing moments of misogyny remind you that it was 1978, but nevertheless, he had a lot to offer as a lyricist. Amerika (1980) was nearly as great, full of literary references, and even more nihilistic than ever. But his third album, Too Cool To Be A Christian was never released, and Tonio K. faded into obscurity.
People often forget that while punk was raging full on in London and throughout the UK throughout 1977, it wasn’t the only kind of music happening. There were still many other rock artists emerging that initially had nothing to do with punk. Some, like The Stranglers and The Vibrators, embraced a punk identity. Others, like the Tom Robinson Band, did what they did no matter what was popular. They were a fiery working class rock band that specialized in liberal rage, participating in Rock Against Racism, and were also pioneers in gay rights activism with the triumphant singalong “Glad To Be Gay.” Their debut album Power In The Darkness (EMI, 1978), produced by Chris Thomas (Sex Pistols) was nearly as subversive as Never Mind The Bollocks in that the original edition included a stencil that enabled fans to spray paint the clenched fist TRB logo all around town. It kicks off with the kickass “Up Against The Wall,” which sounds as fresh 38 years later as anything by, say, The Hold Steady. While their first single “2-4-6-8 Motorway” remains their biggest hit, the album is stuffed with highlights that are just as riveting, street-fighting songs like “Long Hot Summer,” and “The Winter Of ’79.” The energy rivals anything that The Clash did in 1978, the smoldering anger inspired Stiff Little Fingers. And while the Tom Robinson Band is somewhat forgotten these days, it was actually a pretty big success at the time, reaching number 4 in the UK charts, sales earning it gold record status. Mark Ambler left the band after the album was completed, and while they recorded a solid follow-up with Todd Rundgren, the decline had begun.
Skids are now known as the band guitarist Stuart Adamson was in before forming Big Country, but their debut album has all the anthemic power and passion that served as an inspiration for U2 and all their progeny. The anthemic “The Saints Are Coming” has been covered by Green Day and U2, and was a big influence on The Alarm. Their first single, “Into The Valley” is a seemingly conflicting mix of semi-pretentious stream-of-consciousness lyrics along the lines of Astral Weeks combined with football chants, but it works brilliantly. The title track, “Hope And Glory” and “Of One Skin” are all quite original hybrids of anthemic power pop and blazing post-punk.
I’d listened to the Scottish cartoon pop punk of The Rezillos for years, but the follow-up version, The Revillos is just as great, this time a unique variation on the B-52’s kitsche style. “Bobby Come Back To Me” is a pastiche of the Shangri-Las, while others give a day-glo B-movie drive-in treatment to surf punk, rockabilly, mod rockers and danceable post-punk in “On the Beach,” “Secret of the Shadow,” “The Rock-A-Boom,” “Voodoo” and another single, “Motorbike Beat.” The more successful covers are of “Cool Jerk” and “Hungry For Love.”
The Mo-Dettes were a diverse mix of nationalities, with an American (guitarist Kate Korus, original member of The Slits and briefly of The Raincoats), a Swiss (singer Ramona Carlier) and two Brits (bassist Jane Crockford of The Bank Of Dresden and drummer June Miles-Kingston, later of Fun Boy Three, Everything but the Girl and the Communards). They could be described either as a mix of the Go-Go’s, Blondie, The Slits and The Raincoats, or a poppier new wave version of The Au Pairs. There’s no real downside either way, except for the fact that they didn’t manage to write songs quite as memorable as any of the aforementioned groups. “White Mouse Disco” and “The Kray Twins” are standouts. “Paint It Black” and Edith Piaf’s “Milord” are interesting covers but I prefer other originals like “Dark Park Creeping.”
The Boomtown Rats are well enough known, yet also somewhat overlooked and undervalued, despite the hit “I Don’t Like Mondays” and Bob Geldof becoming well known for his charity projects.
The Boomtown Rats – A Tonic For The Troops (Mercury, 1978)
The Boomtown Rats – The Fine Art Of Surfacing (Mercury, 1979)
The Flys – Own (EMI/Captain Oi!, 1979)
Suburban Lawns – Suburban Lawns (IRS/Futurismo, 1981)
Units – Digital Stimulation (415/Futurismo, 1980)
Skids – Days In Europa (Virgin, 1979)
Yachts – Yachts (Radar/Stiff, 1979)
Plastic Bertrand – An 1 (Sire, 1978)
Punishment Of Luxury – Laughing Academy (United Artists/Lemon, 1979)
The Piranhas – The Piranhas (Sire, 1980)
The Flying Lizards – Fourth Wall (Virgin, 1981)
Flash And The Pan – Flash And The Pan (Epic, 1979)
Icehouse – Icehouse (Regular/Chrysalis, 1980)
Yachts – Without Radar (Radar, 1980)
Icehouse – Primitive Man (Regular/Chrysalis, 1982)
Skids – The Absolute Game (Virgin, 1980)
So what about my time-travelling rock ‘n’ roll care package? My first task was to troll through my memories of what were my favorites at the time. Due to limited cash flow, I didn’t even own all my favorites, but made do by borrowing albums from friends, family, the school library and taping from the radio. As I’ve mentioned before, the first full-length LP I bought was Pleasure Principle. I admit I did also own some Styx, Journey, Foreigner and er, Loverboy, but they were never top favorites. ELO though, I still love ’em.
1. Electric Light Orchestra – Time (1981)
2. Rush – Moving Pictures (1981)
3. Electric Light Orchestra – Discovery (1979)
4. Gary Numan – The Pleasure Principle (1979)
5. Elvis Costello & the Attractions – Armed Forces (1979)
6. Devo – Q: Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo (1978)
7. Rush – Permanent Waves (1980)
8. Talking Heads – Fear Of Music (1979)
9. Blondie – Eat To The Beat (1979)
10. The Cars – The Cars (1978)
11. Billy Squier – Don’t Say No (1981)
12. Joe Jackson – I’m The Man (1979)
13. The Police – Regatta de Blanc (1979)
14. Queen – The Game (1980)
15. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Damn The Torpedos (1979)
16. The Cars – Candy-O (1979)
17. The Knack – Get The Knack (1979)
18. AC/DC – Highway To Hell (1979)
19. Devo – Freedom Of Choice (1980)
20. Billy Joel – Glass Houses (1980)
So yeah, the closest I ever got to punk was probably Devo at that point. The reason I got into Tom Petty, The Knack and The Cars was via my Chipmunk Punk album! But there was so much great stuff a 12 year-old would appreciate, and I was even aware of some of these bands at the time by reading about them in Creem and Trouser Press magazines. And a lot of these would have made great additional volumes of Chipmunk Punk.
1. Buzzcocks – Singles Going Steady (1979)
2. Echo & the Bunnymen – Crocodiles (1980)
3. X-Ray Spex – Germ-Free Adolescents (1978)
4. The Specials – The Specials (1979)
5. The Damned – Machine Gun Etiquette (1979)
6. Generation X – Generation X (Chrysalis, 1978)
7. The Feelies – Crazy Rhythms (1980)
8. The Undertones – The Undertones (1979)
9. Adam and the Ants – Kings Of The Wild Frontier (1980)
10. Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band – Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978)
11. Iron Maiden – Iron Maiden (1980)
12. Talking Heads – Remain In Light (1980)
13. The Clash – London Calling (1979)
14. U2 – Boy (1980)
15. The Ruts – The Crack (1980)
16. The Slits – Cut (1979)
17. The Cramps – Songs the Lord Taught Us (1980)
18. Holly And the Italians – The Right To Be Italian (1981)
19. Black Sabbath – Heaven And Hell (1980)
20. The Adverts – Crossing the Red Sea With The Adverts (1978)
21. X – Los Angeles (1980)
22. The Revillos – Rev Up (1980)
23. The Raincoats – The Raincoats (1979)
24. The Romantics – The Romantics (1979)
25. The Rezillos – Can’t Stand the Rezillos (1978)
26. Squeeze – Cool For Cats (1979)
27. The Cramps – Psychedelic Jungle (1981)
28. Elvis Costello & the Attractions – This Year’s Model (Columbia, 1978)
29. Ramones – Road To Ruin (Sire, 1978)
30. The Jam – All Mod Cons (Polydor, 1978)
There was a lot to choose from, also including The Dickies, The Pretenders, Bad Manners, English Beat, Madness, Def Leppard, T.S.O.L., Thin Lizzy, Agent Orange, Stiff Little Fingers, Joe Jackson, Nick Lowe, Tubeway Army, Ultravox, Kraftwerk, The Teardrop Explodes, Scorpions, UFO, Graham Parker and Bob Marley.
There’s also of course plenty of stuff that was more sophisticated, dark and heavy than my 12 year-old self would have appreciated. Yeah, Remain In Light is kind of dark, but I’d already gotten Fear Of Music and it blows my mind that I was about seven years late to hear that masterpiece. I was not yet ready for: Joy Division, Public Image Ltd., Wire, Gang Of Four, The Birthday Party, Pere Ubu, Motörhead, Killing Joke, Comsat Angels, Magazine, The Fall, Martha and the Muffins, Fela Kuti, Funkadelic, This Heat, Brian Eno, The Au Pairs, Bad Brains, Black Flag, Gun Club, Wipers.