New Wave Grudge Match: East vs West

Frankie Goes To Hollywood © A.J. Barratt

Reader Echorich made a cogent observation last Wednesday* in the comments on the posting made on Berlin VS Missing Persons. He said…

“Forget rap and hip hop, the first East Coast/West Coast musical rivalry for me was over Punk and New Wave! Having been nursed and spoon fed Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Television, Voidoids, even The Cars, Urban Verbs and Bush Tetras, my friends and I were very suspicious and dismissive of most West Coast Punk and New Wave. X and Dead Kennedys made an impact on us, but West Coast New Wave just basically sucked in our opinions.”

Brother, have you got that right. When I run down the bands I like best in my mind, it seems that all of the seminal groups that have had a fully lasting imprint on the hundreds of bands that I love that came afterward, were from the East Coast. Rock and Roll sprang from the fertile South, but it received the smart-assed attitudes that I value from the East. When I think of West Coast rock I almost gag! “Smug hippies” is the phrase that comes to mind.

Caveat: I was born in Santa Monica but have lived the last 40 years of my life on the East Coast. Actually, the East Coast vs West Coast mindset cuts to the core on almost any issue you can name, irrelevant of just music. There are vast differences in the attitudes to be found on the two coasts. My pals Elisa & Tom have lived on both coasts and they sum it up [perfectly] in the following manner: Someone on the East Coast can say “f*ck you” and make it mean “I love you” whereas someone on the West Coast can say “I love you” and make it mean “f*ck you!” But enough sociology. This is supposed to be about music.

Echorich lists quite a lineup of East Coast bands.

 

  • Ramones – NY
  • Blondie – NY
  • Talking Heads – NY
  • Patti Smith – NY
  • Television – NY
  • Richard Hell and the Voidoids – NY
  • The Cars – Boston
  • Urban Verbs – D.C.
  • Bush Tetras – NY

I’d say the top four were groundbreakers who laid the tracks for a hell of a lot of train-jumpers, but even Richard Hell, who is more heard of than heard, carried enormous weight with Malcolm McLaren. He appropriated Hell’s image wholesale to give UK punk a face. I’d add more bands that Echorich missed, including the elephant in the room right off the top.

  • The Velvet Underground – NY
  • Suicide – NY
  • Jonathan Richman – Boston
  • New York Dolls – NY

Those last four certainly stand with the first for in Echorich’s list, for my money. I can name many more West Coast bands who have had comparable impact on rock music, but then I’d be talking about bands I dislike. That is where the gulf between the coasts for me, becomes profound. The West Coast is crucial for rock’s earlier periods, like folk-rock or psychedelia, but when it comes to New Wave, it’s the East Coast that provided the petri dish for that particular culture! True, by ’79 at least the West Coast got infected with the germs [pun intended] and developed their own culture, which, by and large, pass me by. Most West Coast bands always seemed lame to me.  But not all of them. There are some West Coast bands that I hold in relatively high regard. Who are they?

Wall Of Voodoo in their urban element © Scott Lindgren

  • Wall Of Voodoo/Stan Ridgeway – These two have an undeserved sub-DEVO rep that is totally off base, in my opinion. Stan’s literary, film noir roots made for a unique perspective in the New Wave canon. Their instrumentation [guitar, synth, percussion, rhythm box but no drums] made for a singular sound. After Ridgeway left the band, all bets are off, however.

The classic early Oingo Boingo lineup ca. 1983

  • Oingo Boingo – The first couple of albums are definite keepers at least. Their big-band, horn driven sound was influenced by the UK ska wave, but they didn’t really sound like that at all. Miles of bad attitude and hostility informed the likes of songs such as “Insects” from my favorite of their albums, “Nothing To Fear.”

from the band's "Vermillion" period ca. 1988

  • The Three O’Clock – The band that kicked up the L.A. Paisley Underground scene of the early 80s. It makes perfect sense that the next generation would have looked back to West Coast psychedelia for inspiration and I like this band’s output way better than the original thing. All of their records are great but the first two… magic!

The Dickies ca. 1978 in the A+M era

  • The Dickies – They’ll always be the “West Coast Ramones” but their first two albums are every bit as good as their Forest Hills spiritual brethren. They were insanely fast, insanely cheerful punk rock, capped by the form-and-content-perfected single cover of “The Banana Splits Theme.” Green Day remind me a lot of these guys [they wish].

The Go-Gos ca. 1982 with Margot Olaverra, their original bassist © Janette Beckman

  • The Go Gos – The debut single was a New Wave classic and thank goodness a group of women came together to finally form a band that wasn’t a front for a bunch of creepy old men pulling the strings! [Sorry, Kim] The debut album sold like hotcakes, and for once justice was served. Richard Gottherer, who cut his teeth with 60s “girl groups” like The Angels and progressed to New Wave with early Blondie, was the perfect choice to produce. Their later albums were less than crucial, but the fact that The Go Gos were the first all-female band who played their instruments, wrote their songs, took them to the top of the charts, and that it happened in 1981, says a lot.

Sparks in Münich, ca. 1979 © Moshe Brakha

  • Sparks – The big one. I rank them as being as influential as The Velvet Underground were to the generations of bands that I love, which is saying a lot. This band was extremely Anglophile to the point of moving to the UK and becoming stars. I can see why. They had nothing to do with the leaden US rock scene of the era! Ron Mael’s songwriting is inhumanly witty. That his lyrics are capably matched by the incredible voice of his brother makes them a potent musical team. Though Suicide were the first synth duo, let’s admit that Sparks UK success marks them as the popularizers of the shockingly prevalent UK synth duo trope of the early 80s [and beyond]. Still, this is the only West Coast band I’d put on a pedestal as high as the East Coast progenitors of punk rock and New Wave.

The West Coast has some good, even great bands, but they undeniably followed on the heels of East Coast bands, who go there first [with the exception of Sparks]. I think that there’s a good reason for that. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and state that the East Coast Punk and New Wave movement was largely a reaction against the West Coast establishment rock of the 70s. All the labels and money were in Southern California, and the scene made for a lot of smug decadence. Punk and New Wave desperately needed something to react against and in the US of the early-mid seventies, acts like Jefferson Starship and Linda Rondstadt were sitting ducks.

– 30 –

* Has it been a full week since my last post? Mea culpa! I’m insanely busy, of late.

About postpunkmonk

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12 Responses to New Wave Grudge Match: East vs West

  1. Taffy says:

    OK, I’ll weigh in first.
    Great post, Monk! I agree whole-heartedly that the east coast is the fertile crescent of punk/new wave/alternative/what have you, from the Velvets , Dolls, CBGB crowd on down. Rather than just be your yes man, I’ll throw out a few additional west coast bands I enjoy and you omitted.
    I really did love the Bangles at the start of their career (pre-Walk Like an Egyptian). Their debut EP on indie label Faulty Products contained five fun little garage-pop nuggets, and I will insist that album All Over the Place is superior 60′s influenced power-pop.
    The Units were a San Francisco synth band whose album (Digital Stimulation) is pretty punky in its intensity. The later EP (New Way to Move) contained smoother electropop of a very catchy nature.
    Finally, I will admit that when it first came out I was a big fan of Get the Knack. What can I say, but I do enjoy skinny tie power-pop, even that created by smarmy poseurs.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Taffy – The pre-CBS Bangs/Bangles were good [and I still have a copy of “All Over The Place” myself] but I never could enjoy Susannah Hoff’s voice; she sounded too much like Stevie Nicks to me – ugh! I used to have some Units vinyl in the Record Cell. They got turned into CDs during the Great Vinyl Purge [probably MK I] to my eternal shame. Bill Nelson produced one of their EPs. I always had time for Bill Nelson.

      I really hated The Knack. Their crass take on power pop annoyed me all the more since they reeked of cynical hype. I can be pretty immune to the pull of Power Pop, though I don’t hate it, per se. But in another life, Doug Fieger’s songs for Was (Not Was) didn’t annoy me in the slightest. I even liked the ones he sang on “Born To Laugh At Tornados.”

      Sonuva… do you know that I forgot a great San Francisco band – Tuxedomoon! It may be that due to their successful move to Europe [where they belonged] it was hard for me to think of them as American much less an SF band!

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  2. Brian Ware says:

    I’ll join in to acknowledge the early Bangles. I saw them on the first LP tour and they had a great grungy energy behind those harmonies. Wasn’t as enthused during the big hit years as Susannah’s voice did get grating for me as well. I always preferred the Peterson sisters. I highly recommend the 2003 comeback album “Doll Revolution”. Just ignore the lame Hoffs tracks and the rest add up to a terrific LP.

    I’ll also stand on the hill and wave a torch for that first Knack LP. Yes, it was smarmy, crass, and often crude – and also full of some first rate power pop. It just clicked with the 1979/80 edition of Brian in a big way. Very fond memories indeed…

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Brian Ware – I always wanted the Peterson Sisters to spin off into their own duo. I would have bought it. Caveat: I have seen The Bangles in Mr. Ware’s company – And I enjoyed it, but it was the events leading up to the concert which were much more memorable. In fact, they’re indelibly burned into my brain! Re: The Knack – I’m well aware of your devotion to that band though I can’t go there, personally.

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  3. ronkanefiles says:

    Black Randy & The Elite Metrosquad (“Pass The Dust, I Think I’m Bowie”); The Screamers (“Punish or be Damned”); The Deadbeats (“Kill The Hippies”); Human Hands (I produced them in 1980, some of those tracks eventually made it to CD)…

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      ronkanefiles – I have read reams about The Screamers, and I suspect I would love them, but have I ever seen a Screamers disc? No. The fact that they are all ex post facto, to boot, has only increased their rarity. Their continued evasion of my ears causes me vexation!

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  4. Echorich says:

    First off, thanks for the recognition Monk! Much appreciated. I fully agree, Velvets, Richman, Suicide and the Dolls are ALL foundation bands for me. Suicide is possibly the weirdest, wildest and most primal music I have ever heard or witnessed! The Dolls were ruined/exploited by McLaren, which could be seen as a great compliment really. And Johnny Thunder’s Heartbreakers are sort of the bridge between era’s in NYC.
    I have to say that the Dickies do get East Coast association credit as they made quite an impact on the CBGB’s/Max’s Kansas City scene – I actually own a “Live at CBGB’s” 8-track which I have hidden away somewhere. Love your Green Day comparison. I also have always heard a bit of The Jam in them as well.
    Back on topic, I also have a soft spot for The Residents – their version of the Stones ‘Satisfaction’ is sort of mind altering. As I said before, you are spot on with regard to Sparks. For me there can’t be any Oingo Boingo without them.
    Next not so subtle suggestion on my mind (I hope it hasn’t been covered here)… Bands who left home for stardom in the New Wave Era… NYC and London were real magnets for a number of bands that I love.

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  5. thesecretlivesofcats says:

    I would say that in the war of West Coast soft rock vs. the Birth of Punk it gets a bit complicated when you factor in Disco. Disco(which I love) was birthed on the East Coast and seen as this corporate, anti-soul, excessively pumped up form of music. It’s a bit silly to draw the line though.

    Also, the Units, kudos to taffy for mentioning that little band. Their first album is gold… and they had a second one–produced by Bill Nelson!–in the can that never saw the day because of contract disagreement with 415 records.

    Now the singing for Units does sound a bit like Mark Mothersberg on their 1st record, but I never associated Stan Ridgways singing or anything about Wall of Voodoo with Devo. So thanks so much for mentioning that they get a “sub-devo” tag.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      thesecretlivesofcats – It seems to me that early reviews in Trouser Press called out the WOV/DEVO comparison, but a cursory glance at my collection has not yet revealed that bit of text, alas.
      [update 5/30/11 – In issue #69 in Jon Young’s “Hit + Run” column. to wit: Wall of Voodoo/Dark Continent – “Brittle, mechanically executed tunes like “Full Of Tension” and “Animal Day” show the effects of early Devo, though Wall Of Voodoo will need a better sense of the absurd to attain true strangeness.” – Phew! I knew I read this somewhere!]

      Disco may have been spawned on the East Coast, but it was pimped on the West Coast. I blame the West Coast! I was okay with disco when it was merely a style [of many] on the radio. It became stifling to me when it was over a third of the music on the radio, as well as filling up movie screens and the TV screen to boot. All of this occurred thanks to men in suits in West Los Angeles.

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  6. Zach says:

    Long-time reader, first-time commenter here. I truly enjoyed this post and your explanation of the differences between East Coast/West Coast new wave/post-punk/punk. I’ll go a step further and argue that Northern California spawned more enjoyable bands than Southern California*. The Residents and their unique brand of deconstructionist/avant-garde performance art kick-started the real golden age of San Francisco rock music. Duck Stab (the LP that combined the Duck Stab and Buster & Glen EPs) is a fine introduction if you want to start with a more accessible work. The opening one-two punch of Constantinople and Sinister Exaggerator hooked me on The Residents for life! If you want to dive into their more outre work, Third Reich ‘n’ Roll and Mark of the Mole are highly recommended listening in that vein. You’ll never think of 60s pop music the same after hearing the eyeball boys twist and contort that decade’s staples on TRNR!

    The Ralph Records (The Residents’ label) roster was home to all sorts of interesting acts that (IMHO) bolster the case for SF as one of the major post-punk mecca: the aforementioned Tuxedomoon, Snakefinger (An English expat who collaborated with the Rezzies but also recorded much of his own work), MX-80 Sound (Originally from Bloomington, IN, they later moved to SF and unleashed a unique metal/hard rock-fused style of post-punk), Club Foot Orchestra (Sort of like a NorCal cousin to Pigbag, but with a heavy emphasis on experimental big-band/free jazz, plus they’ve provided live soundtrack accompaniment to classic silent films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis), Chrome (Granted, they only submitted 3 tracks to the 1979 Ralph Subterranean Modern compilation, but they’re a major part of the SF post-punk scene worth investigating), and Renaldo and the Loaf (Another pair of British expats who have to be heard to be believed – imagine if The Residents and Sparks had a baby). I’ll support taffy and thesecretlivesofcats on The Units. Not a Ralph act, but from SF, and a very strong synthpunk trio. Romeo Void also receives much love from me, especially on the basis of Never Say Never.

    *Despite my preference for SF to LA new wave/post-punk, I likewise love Wall of Voodoo (The Stan Ridgway period, haven’t heard enough of the Andy Prieboy era to make a proper judgment), Sparks, Oingo Boingo, and The Go-Go’s (Beauty and the Beat is as great as they come with debut albums). I need to look further into The Three O’Clock, despite my disdain for the Paisley Underground (The worst offenders of that scene being the Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade, and Long Ryders, all highly derivative of 60s West Coast folk/psychedelic rock). I do like Jet Fighter quite a bit. I weaned off of The Bangles a long time ago. They so badly wanted to sound like the Beatles (especially Susanna Hoffs), it’s nauseating. The Dickies are another act I need to explore, but I love their title theme for the movie Killer Klowns from Outer Space! Super fun movie, too!

    On the subject of East Coast acts, Laurie Anderson might be tops for me. Big Science is a glorious treasure I enjoy very much. Probably one of the most controversial musical opinions I hold is my vast preference for Laurie’s work to that of her late husband Lou Reed. Reed has his good points, but I like Laurie much better. The fact her music relies more heavily on electronics plays a major role in my preference for her over Lou. In my book, few instruments are as glorious as an analog synthesizer. :D

    Liked by 1 person

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Zach – Welcome to the comments! There’s nothing quite like a comment longer than some of my posts! You have raised so many interesting issues that I will need to come back to this and address them when there’s time. I hope!

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      • Zach says:

        No worries, PPM! I went the rest of the summer without a single follow-up comment (Gotta enjoy the warm weather while it’s here!). With daylight savings and colder weather here in MA, you’ll see more of me around these parts.

        A few other worthy west coast acts I’ve recently discovered whom you might enjoy:

        Human Hands – Their keyboardist, Bill Noland, later played in Wall of Voodoo and with Stan Ridgway, so that right there should be a ringing endorsement. Musically, the Hands had a great, nervous style reminsicent of Talking Heads, XTC, and Devo (All influences on the band, as admitted in the liner notes to the Bouncing to Disc CD compilation).

        Monitor – It takes a lot for music to scare me (I wasn’t even fazed by Frankie Teardrop, if that tells you anything), but this band is an exception. Very dark, cavernous sounding art punk with tribal drumming, eerie keyboards (synths and organs), and whispered/chanted vocals. Their one and only LP, the eponymous 1981 album, was reissued on a Digipak by Superior Viaduct (who’ve been responsible for nifty reissues of material by Devo, the Residents, the Fall, MX-80 Sound, and others). The synth intro on the opening track, We Get Messages, sounds like it was ripped straight from the Eraserhead score.

        Rhythm & Noise – Another fantastic Ralph Records act. Imagine Tangerine Dream, Throbbing Gristle, Tuxedomoon, Cluster, Einsturzende Neubauten, and Popol Vuh having an orgy, and you might have a picture of what to expect. Their 2 Ralph LPs are both terrific soundscape works of art that simultaneously terrify and amaze the ears.

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