Sunday, January 22, 2012

What No Wave Apparently Was Not

I used to think I knew what No Wave meant.  I thought, for example, that Talking Heads were a No Wave band.  I said as much in an earlier blog post.  I was right that it was basically a New York phenomenon, but I thought it encompassed some reasonably popular bands like Talking Heads and Blondie who weren't exactly new wave, but weren't really punk either.  It turns out that every source I can find now describes No Wave as limited to the noisier, more obscure far-from-the-mainstream artists that were on the 1978 No New York compilation.

I still wonder if maybe No Wave once meant something more like what I thought it meant.  The only evidence I can find is a 1978 A&M compilation called "No Wave".  See the full track list here.  The album included songs by Joe Jackson (Sunday Papers), The Police (Roxanne), and Squeeze (Take Me I'm Yours) among others.  Can we agree that the Talking Heads would have fit perfectly well on that record in 1978 even though they weren't on it?  These are artists that all could be lumped into New Wave, but they don't fit what became the 1980s archetype of new wave.

I looked up both no wave and new wave on wikipedia.  The no wave piece isn't worth much, but the new wave piece was interesting and well done.  I thought the section on Reception in the United States was particularly well-written and informative.  It is, for example, much better done than the entry in my 1991 hardcover edition of the Oxford Companion to Popular Music by Peter Gammond.  That entry, which is about a quarter the length of the entry for Randy Newman, says among other things "..while in the USA it became, on the one hand, even more vaguely used to cover anything that was not obviously punk, on the other a label for avant-garde groups like Taking Heads."

I like books (real physical books) a lot, but score one for the internet on this one.


  1. Being in my mid-twenties in the late 1970s NYC, I can tell you that Police, Squeeze, Blondie, and Joe Jackson all fit into the emerging New Wave category of the time. No Wave was an edgy, NYC out-jazz and funk fusion sound -- as you say, groups on the NY No Wave, like Defunkt, Lounge Lizards, James White/Black and the Contortionists, etc.
    Although the Talking Heads is typically grouped as New Wave, they were a bit special because they did have a distinct NYC edgy feel in their use of funk and later world beat rather than R&R rhythm, and because of their sardonic lyrics; also early Talking Heads ('77 and MSABF (1978)) has a strong punk feel as well.

  2. I remember the "No Wave" and "No New York" LPs very well. Seemed to me that the title of the former was just an album title created by the marketing department at A&M, and not indicative of any new trends or sounds that had yet expanded beyond the commercial new wave of the day. At that time it was just an album title. No relation to what came later.