It’s tricky to convey the difference between New Wave and postpunk. Partly that’s because the meaning of New Wave fluctuated throughout this period. (To add to the confusion, in America “New Wave” is often used to describe everything from The Pretenders and Joe Jackson to what Brits would call New Pop--i.e. the MTV British Invasion bands like Duran).
Initially New Wave as a term was kind of cool: indeed some embraced it as an alternative to punk, seeing it as more open-ended and less lumpen on account of its evocations of the French avant-garde.
But soon New Wave became a negative term, referring to the middlebrow soft option: bands who weren’t confrontational or aggressive like punk, but who were also too steeped in trad pop values (usually of Sixties provenance) to be regarded as experimental or modern a la postpunk.
At its narrowest and most pejorative, New Wave came to connote
something quite particular: skinny-tie bands with choppy rhythm guitars and often a keyboard (played Sixties organ style as opposed to like a synth). This specificity further cemented the defining paradox of New Wave: musically, it wasn’t really that new. All that said, the energy, pop concision, and stripped-down sound of New Wave contributed to the era’s excitement, the sense of “all change!”. If they generally failed to push the musical envelope, New Wave bands were often innovative or unusual on the level of persona, performance, and lyrical content. And it was New Wave acts who penetrated the pop charts, far more than the postpunk groups did, and who therefore made the late Seventies a golden age for the 7 inch single, for radio and Top of the Pops.
Probably the best way to define New Wave is through listing some classic instances of it. The jumpy energy and angular choruses of The Vapors’ “Turning Japanese” is archetypal Noo Wave. So is the chugging rhythm guitar feel (chords chopped against damped strings) of groups like The Cars. Then there’s The Boomtown Rats, who took Springsteen-style romping keyboards and busy arrangements and added just enough of a punk edge to seem contemporary. There’s the oddball female contingent, with shrill operatic voices and sing-song melodies: Lene Lovich, Nina Hagen. And the oddball male contingent, often ex-proggers of a theatrical bent, originally fans of Hammill/Crimson/Gabriel-era Genesis but who’d been turned around by Ubu/Devo/XTC, and embraced the mannered, high-pitched vocals and stop-starty structures: Punishment of Luxury, Human Sexual Response (on prog label Passport, a dead giveaway).
What about borderline cases?
XTC: In the beginning they’d get placed alongside Talking Heads. Musically, they had the same twitchy rhythms and shrieky-geeky vocals, while content-wise, XTC, like Byrne, avoided love songs in favour of unusual topics (“Roads Girdle The Globe”) or satirical social comment like “Generals and Majors” and the great “Making Plans For Nigel”. The early XTC of 3D EP, White Music and Go 2 felt radical to many listeners, on account of the frenziedly fractured structures. Things like the bonus mini-LP of dub versions that came with Go 2, or the record’s demystification sleeve covered in text (“this is the album cover”) and accompanying adverts, all seemed pretty much in line with the postpunk programme. But after Drums and Wires, XTC got steadily more English and whimsical, harking back to The Kinks and Beatles and the lighter side of psychedelia.
Elvis Costello: Like Paul Weller, Elvis seemed too beholden to trad rock virtues; in his case, too readily placed in a lineage of Dylan, Lennon & McCartney, etc. That said, like The Jam, Costello overlapped with many of postpunk’s stylistic phases and shared many of its obsessions when it came to content. Punky-reggae, with “Watching The Detectives”. Personal politics, with Armed Forces (original title: Emotional Fascism). Language as a force of oppression and spiritual corruption: throughout the oeuvre, but especially pronounced on Trust (“Pretty Words” and “Lovers Walk” parallel “The ‘Sweetest Girl’” and Lexicon of Love) and the logorrhea-ic Imperial Bedroom ("Pigeon English" etc). When 2-Tone took off, Costello was an early supporter: he produced the Specials’ debut and, between labels, very nearly released his single “Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” via 2-Tone. The accompanying album Get Happy! intersected with the mod revival’s rediscovery of Sixties soul. Modelled on Booker T & the MGs, the sound was dominated by Steve Nieve’s organ; Costello’s guitar stayed small and Steve Cropper-like. The whole vibe was redolent of a smoky Carnaby Street cellar in 1963, mods grooving to Georgie Fame. Like a Motown best-of, 10 tracks were crammed onto each side. A few years later, circa Dexy’s and New Pop, Costello went soul again, with the horn-blasting Punch The Clock.
The Police. Such a monstrously huge band it’s easy to forget how they partook of the punky-reggae vibe of the period, or how their sound (guitar-as-texture, drums as third instrumental voice not mere backbeat, bass as melody) conformed to postpunk precepts. Later Sting discovered Arthur Koestler and the Police went prog, but let’s not forget “Message In A Bottle,” the subtle radicalism of the sublime “Walking on the Moon”, or the baleful ambient fog of Northern Ireland-protesting #1 “Invisible Sun”.
Blondie. Another group so ubiquitous they ascend beyond categories into sheer Superpop. But “Heart of Glass” is Moroderized discopunk and the video for “Rapture” (which features the first white rapping in the chart ever, albeit really dire) takes a snapshot of Mutant Disco Manhattan, with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Fab 5 Freddy doing graf in the background.
Other groups on the cusp. The Psychedelic Furs quickly revealed themselves to be reactionary rockists but for a moment early on songs like “Sister Europe” and “We Love You” were Peel faves on account of their haunting, hypnotic, sax-soured atmospherics plus the perfectly-poised-midway-tween-Rotten-and-Bowie sneer of Butler Rep (as he then called himself, ludicrously). Romeo Void: like Pylon, audibly Gang of Four influenced in their reduction of funk to tense, unyielding bass-riffs. The Passions: the glassy guitars of “I’m In Love With a German Film Star”, almost worthy of Vini Reilly. The Feelies: Crazy Rhythms is a great album, but to me they’re the bridge between that Modern Lovers/Velvets fast-strum sound and the totally white-out sound of post-REM college rock.
One last subcategory: prog-rockers who tried to go
----Be Bop Deluxe’s Bill Nelson reinvented himself as Red Noise with 1979’s “Furniture Music” and Sound-On-Sound.
---Robert Fripp, after a period of withdrawal from the rock biz, returned in 1979 with short hair, a suit, and, yes, a skinny tie. He also came bearing a solo album Exposure--first installment in what he called the “Drive to 1981”. His next album Under Heavy Manners/God Save the Queen showcased his new tape-delay systems, Frippertronics and Discotronics; David Byrne guested on one vocal. Later he formed the League of Gentlemen with ex-XTC/future-Shriekback keyboardist Barry Andrews.
---Peter Gabriel. For his third self-titled album in 1980, Gabriel hired producer Steve Lillywhite; banned the use of hi-hat and cymbals at the sessions to achieve that stark Joy Div/Comsat Angels sound; sang songs of tension, paranoia, and unease.
---Tom Robinson: strictly speaking, not prog, but certainly a poignant example of attempted career auto-salvage via postpunktification. Stung by the brutal backlash against the second TRB album, he reinvented himself with Sector 27: lyrics that were still political but less literal, plus a self-consciously “modern” sound. In interviews, Robinson earnestly enthused about being inspired by Gang of Four, Scritti, Joy Divison. The makeover didn’t convince anybody though.
[these are from the Postpunk Discography: Esoteric that for a while was up on the Faber website -- originally written in 2004 for Rip It Up and Start Again, left out because too long to add to an already oversized book, put up at the site, then withdrawn because of the notion that they might be the kernel of a future book, a proper discographical survey... who knows maybe i'll return to that some day, although it would be a sanity-jeopardising endeavour, especially all the sterling archaeology done by blogs like Mutant Sounds and DIY or Die and many others... not forgetting the inexhaustible well of industrial cassetteage and the retroactive invention of Minimal Synth - which didn't even exist as a category afaik when i was writing Rip It Up]
further reading: other people's thoughts on the subject
Theo Cateforis, author of Are We Not New Wave?
interviewed about the book