In the uncanny pop valley at the dawn of the ’80s—specifically, after disco and before MTV—the music industry bet big on new wave to be the future of rock. Punk had proven too (ob)noxious for mainstream tastes (and heavy metal was essentially taking care of itself), so the record biz turned to the safety-pin brigade’s arty, quirky, less abrasive offshoot “new wave.” Two forms were most prevalent: peppy power-pop as embodied by the Knack and synthesizer-driven dance weirdness on the order of Devo.
Many other new wave acts fell somewhere in between, with Elvis Costello, Blondie, Talking Heads, Billy Idol, and Duran Duran dominating dawn-of-the-’80s radio airwaves and LP sales. It all seemed to spell doom to a multitude of longhaired, bell-bottomed, meanderingly jamming ’70s rockers that had previously ruled radio and record stores. Some of the previous decade’s arena-packers stood their ground and waited for new wave to get old and dry up. Others, though, adjusted their looks and sounds in an attempt to evolve, embracing the notion of “pogo or perish”—at least for a while.
Aging hippies and limousine libertines suddenly donned skinny ties, asymmetrical haircuts, polka dot cocktail dresses, and geometric makeup so they could more effectively wail in newfangled “music videos” before walls of flickering TV sets and electro-pumping drum machines. Really, how could this not have lasted?
Here now are 10 classic rockers who went new wave for one album—and then back again.
1. The Rolling Stones, Some Girls (1978) – “Shattered”
Staring down the threat of being damned as “dinosaurs” by rock’s late-’70s upstarts, the Stones decamped to New York, soaked up the sights and sounds of CBGB and Studio 54, then authoritatively fired back with Some Girls.
A landmark leap forward that rapidly became the Stones’ all-time best seller, Some Girls propelled Jagger, Richards, and company back to the pinnacle of rock royalty, and, by enflaming the band’s signature raunch-and-roll with strains of punk and disco, largely set the sonic boilerplate for new wave.
The record’s eye-popping cover imagery also broke similar ground. Graphic artist Peter Corrison transformed a vintage ad for women’s wigs into a crazy sliding collage via cutouts that place the Stones and other famous faces under the hairpieces. New wave visuals would spend the next half-decade trying to catch up to that (literal) wig-out.
2. Alice Cooper, Flush The Fashion (1980) – “Clones (We’re All)”
After peaking midway through the ’70s as rock’s multi-platinum ringmaster of shock and awe, Alice Cooper’s booze-fueled downward slide toward the ’80s was marked by increasingly shrinking sales and dank creative doldrums.
Despite his directly inspiring both the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, punk bypassed Alice and left him in a makeup-faced pickle. New wave, rife as it was with freak aesthetics and pop-up performance art, seemed to offer a bridge forward, and Alice forced himself into the flow via Flush The Fashion.
The gambit almost worked. Flush got Alice back on the charts and it generated one of the absolute mightiest anthems in the entire Alice Cooper canon: the anti-conformity bop-along “Clones (We’re All).” Be yourself and listen.
3. Billy Joel, Glass Houses (1980) – “It’s Still Rock-n-Roll to Me”
Billy Joel’s quick conversion from suave Long Island troubadour to skinny-tied troublemaker on Glass Houses spawned most popular album to date and, in turn, his first number-one single.
From its cover image of leather-jacketed Joel about to lob a rock through a wall of windows to its opening one-two rip-roar of “You May Be Right” and “Sometimes a Fantasy to the multi-culti employment of Spanish castanets and French lyrics, Glass Houses is an album that could only be of its own moment. That moment, namely, was new wave.
“It’s Still Rock-n-Roll to Me,” the aforementioned #1 hit, niftily encapsulates new wave noises and notions. It’s built on a nervously percolating drumbeat and teases an “up yours, let’s dance” stance via Billy’s attitudinal delivery and funny-tough lines like “Hot punk, cool funk, even it’s old junk, it’s still rock-n-roll to me!” Us too, Billy. Us too.
4. Steve Miller Band, Abracadabra (1982) – “Abracadabra”
Formed as it was in the cultural extremes of hippie San Francisco and heartland Wisconsin, the Steve Miller Band embraced adaptability from the get-go.
The group’s early albums lean heavily on psychedelic blues (“Journey From Eden”), while its stadium-packing middle-’70s period is all about smooth grooves (“Fly Like an Eagle”) and tuneful rave-ups (“Jungle Love”). Thus, when the new wave came, Steve Miller and his boys had their electro-beats and synth solos ready.
“Abracadabra,” Steve Miller’s last number-one radio smash, bouncingly embodies the rest of the Abracadabra, Steve Miller’s last million-selling album.
5. Linda Ronstadt, Mad Love (1980) – “How Do I Make You?”
Linda Ronstadt surfed the ’70s nostalgia storm to six platinum discs in a row by reinterpreting ’50s rockers and ’60s Motown classics. She then shot the new wave curl toward another million-seller with Mad Love.
Linda herself is pictured on Mad Love’s cover talking into an old telephone. It’s a stark black-and-white photo surrounded by pseudo-scrawled pink and gray lettering. In the event you don’t recognize new wave when you see it, the track list features three Elvis Costello covers (including “Girls Talk,” with which Dave Edmunds scored one of the period’s defining hits).
The album’s signature hit, “How Do I Make You?” is a furious onslaught of locomotive power pop that sounds like a frontline attack by an assassin in an ironic Eisenhower-era prom dress. After this, Linda switched to belting out Broadway show tunes.
6. Rush, Permanent Waves (1980) – “Spirit of the Radio”
Percussion overlord and conceptual Rush mastermind Neil Peart pointed out at the time of Permanent Waves that he and bandmates Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson listened to and absorbed all types of music. In fact, Peart said, they felt particular affection for new wavers the Talking Heads, the Police, and post-Genesis Peter Gabriel.
Permanent Waves displays Rush’s art-pop kinship with an apocalyptic cover image of Armageddon going down around a clueless ’50s glamour-puss. The album’s production immediately conjures new wave’s clean directness, as well, while the opening song, “Spirit of the Radio,” essentially incorporates every existing rock subgenre circa 1980.
Power-pop guitars lead to synth-tinklings lead to reggae breakdowns lead to electro-punk freakouts lead to one of Rush’s all-time most towering classics.
7. Neil Young, Trans (1982) – “Transformer Man”
Neil Young flirted with new wave synths on his 1981 collaboration with Crazy Horse, Re-Ac-Tor, but with Trans, he went all in—as in “insane.”
The record consists of nine electronic mash-ups bearing titles such as “Computer Age,” “We R in Control,” “Computer Cowboy,” and “Sample and Hold.” Neil sings seven of them through a robotic-sounding distorted Vocoder. The remake of his old Buffalo Springfield hit “Mr. Soul” at least sounds like the oddball band he’d unexpectedly taken under his wing: Devo.
Trans has its own cult following and it deftly set up Neil’s next album: the equally new wave retro-’50s masquerade, Everybody’s Rockin’.
8. Iggy Pop, Blah-Blah-Blah (1986) – “Real Wild Child (Wild One)”
David Bowie believed he had seen the future of not just rock but movies, TV, art, celebrity, and everything else when he came across Iggy Pop back in the ’70s. The public didn’t quite agree, but the erstwhile Ziggy Stardust was loath to give up this particular glittery dream.
Bowie co-wrote, produced, and vigorously promoted Iggy’s two brilliant, subsequently beloved punk-era albums, Lust For Life and The Idiot. Upon release, though, they bombed. Nearly a decade later, Bowie took one more swing by trying to launch Iggy into the electronic drumbeat ’80s with Blah Blah Blah.
The LP itself stiffed as usual (and Iggy has since disowned it), but its bass-popping, synth-percussed, glossily engineered single “Real Wild Child (The Wild One)” caught on in England, Australia, and elsewhere. Mostly its familiar now as the go-to commercial jingle featuring Iggy’s voice that isn’t “Lust for Life.”
9. Nazareth, Malice in Wonderland (1980) – “Holiday”
Scottish metal scorchers Nazareth’s ambitions to expand their audience with Malice In Wonderland comes across right on the album’s cover. The group’s previous effort, No Mean City, featured a purple-hooded skeleton monster in a multi-horned war helmet. The Malice cover, on the other hand, depicits an ultra-new-wave art photo that depicts mannequins of a well-dressed suburban family having their lavish backyard picnic interrupted when their hedges burst into a wall of flames.
Malice in Wonderland also sounds different from even the most commercial of Nazareth’s past releases. Produced by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, the record is clean and airtight, with songs that work in calypso, reggae, and other sounds that were in vogue. The one-time rock radio staple “Holiday” sums it all up nicely.
10. Grace Slick, Software (1984) – “All the Machines”
By the time she recorded her fourth solo album, Software, Grace Slick had weathered transformational stardom from the ’60s psychedelic dominance of Jefferson Airplane to the ’70s hard rock/mellow ballad output of Jefferson Airplane.
Software was Slick’s statement on new wave and the dehumanized/dehumanizing computer age she saw coming. Alas, nobody else bought into her vision. As a result, Grace regrouped post-Software, dropped the Jefferson from Starship and, a year later, she and co-vocalist Mickey Thomas let humanity know that they built this city on rock-and-roll.
11. Adrian Belew, Mr. Music Head (1989) – “Oh, Daddy”
As Neil Peart of Rush made clear nearly a decade earlier, progressive rock dudes seriously dug the Talking Heads. Given guitar guru Adrian Belew’s Zappa/Bowie collaborations and legendary King Crimson stewardship, it makes sense, then, that he went very David Byrne on his ’89 solo album, Mr. Music Head.
What’s curious is that the LP’s (sort of) hit single, “Oh, Daddy,” so closely resembles a vintage Talking Heads number on the cusp of the grunge decade. It’s also peculiar how well remembered “Oh, Daddy” is—until you re-watch the charming cartoon-imbued music video featuring Belew and his real-life ten-year-old daughter, Audie.
[Photo: Getty Images]