Way back in the New Wave era the record labels had a problem. That problem had a name, and his name was Lee Abrams! He was the joker who developed the AOR FM-Rock format I disparage so much! Armed with convincing data, polling profiles, and statistical gimcrackery, Abrams conclusively proved that what radio listeners really wanted was music from 1969-1979 played to the exclusion of all other eras of rock! If you could play “Stairway To Heaven” every hour, then that would kick your ratings up even higher still! The net result was that FM-Rock radio, being run by capitalists, stopped caring too much about any music that didn’t fit a narrow purview as defined by Abrams himself, who [coincidentally] really loved what we now [euphemistically – for me] know as “classic rock!”
This left the labels in a bit of a pickle, since the symbiotic relationship between records and radio was now corrupted. Commercial radio only cared about catalog music that didn’t need selling – or stuff that sounded just like it. What were the labels to do to get some of the new music they were investing in to the ears of listeners? By the early 80s, the New Wave Compilation was born to address this conundrum. Labels would sell these albums at a low cost, possibly a loss, in order to increase the likelihood that music buyers might take a chance based on thrift. It made sense. The economy was in the doldrums in 1981 and RCA released a $2.99 album filled with stuff that wasn’t being played on the radio.
Various Artists: Blitz LP
- Bow Wow Wow: Chihuahua
- Slow Children: Spring In Fialta
- Robert Ellis Orrall: White Noise
- Sparks: Tips For Teens
- Shock: Angel Face
- Polyrock: Love Song
- Bow Wow Wow: Orang-Outang
- Landscape: European Man
- Robert Ellis Orrall: Call The Uh-On Squad
- Polyrock: Changing Hearts
This album was my first exposure to the wonderful Sparks and Bow Wow Wow, not to mention the electro-trash of Shock. I had read about Bow Wow and Sparks but you never heard that music. Not on the radio. No, they were too busy playing exactly what Lee Abrams told them to! I had heard that Malcolm McLaren had been paid to “consult” to Adam Ant, who duly took notes on Malc’s theories and carried them out to great success, before noticing that Malcolm had poached his band! No matter, with the help of Marco Pirroni he rounded up new ants and stormed the charts.
The erstwhile Ants were given a new, teenaged, Burmese girl as a frontperson and sang songs filled with McLaren’s provocative lyrics, derived from his beloved Situationists. The rhythm section of bassist Lee Gorman and drummer David Barbarossa laid down a very impressive foundation for the music. Balinese monkey chant was one of the cultural influences that you rarely heard in rock, but they offered it up, and with Matthew Ashman’s [r.i.p.] thick, golden guitar tones redolent of Duane Eddy, surfing along the top, the end result beat Ant at his own game.
“Chihuahua” was miles better than even the fun tribal pop that Ant was offering to considerable success at the time. The “Orang-Outang” instro track was pure Duane Eddy-goes-surfing bliss. Sparks turned out to be everything that I had read about and more. “Tips For Teens” was an impossibly witty number that sounded like the best track 10CC never made coupled with a bang up production by Moroder associate Mack.
Robert Ellis Orrall was a Bostonian rocker with a varied style on the two tracks offered. “White Noise” sounded like the second cousin to Peter Gabriel’s excellent “On The Air” from his second album. In contrast, “Call The Uh-Oh Squad” was gimmicky, novelty New Wave of a very sub-Costello stripe. Ultimately, I didn’t bite for the Orrall album. Its horrible cover didn’t help. Shock, I absolutely loved, but that was only a single, and they never had an album to buy. Read more Shock love here.
Shock were included because their producer, Richard James Burgess, had his own synthesizer band to flog. Landscape were represented by the exquisite “European Man,” which mixed Kraftwerk and jazz influences for a sound not quite like any other band of the time. The group came from a jazz fusion background and moved into synthpop at just the right time. Their synthetic and real horns, plus a clever sense of humor, made them a valuable band in the generally self-serious synthpop/New Romantic era. Yes, Burgess himself coined the phrase New Romantic during the heady days at the Blitz Club, ostensibly, the source of the title of this compilation name. “European Man” made me race to the store to buy Landscape’s “From The Tearooms Of Mars… To The Hellholes Of Uranus” album, which remains a favorite to this day. The later Landscape material missed the target for me, but this album manages to sound as cool and forward thinking as Bowie [Colin Thurston produced “European Man”] or Kraftwerk with the all important feature of witty humor that usually isn’t present in those artists’ repertoire.
Slow Children were another synthpop duo, this time hailing from L.A. and crossing the pond to record. Singer Pal Shazar and Andrew Chinich wrote the agitated songs that buzz with nervous energy while Jules Shear and Stephen Hague produced and engineered the tunes. Both of their albums are OOP gems that need the REVO touch. I just need one more single for bonus tracks. I was lucky enough to see a show with both Shazar and Shear in town a couple of years back as they lived here at the time and were a couple. The version of “President Am I” here is not the remix that ended up on the US edition of their debut album some time later. In later years I was lucky enough to finally find their UK import so I’ve got both versions of their debut.
Finally, Polyrock were another synth band that wasn’t necessarily dancable. They had the distinction of their album having been produced by Philip Glass, who also played keyboards on their first two albums. The subtlety of mood they offered caused me to be drawn instead to the brighter, more glittery textures of Ultravox or Simple Minds, but the pull to their album has always been there and eventually it needs to be sated! Wounded Bird issued their first two albums in 2007, but the second, “Changing Hearts” is already OOP and unavailable. Shoppers, act now!
This comp was effective in that it got me to buy many of the associated records it was promoting. Polyrock are on my B-list currently, and the Robert Ellis Orrall I would probably buy for a few buck in the bins if I ever came across it now. “White Noise” is actually a pretty good song, but I was put off by the novelty whiff of “Uh-Oh Squad” for the longest time, it’s true. Strangely enough, he managed to make a nice career for himself writing and producing for country music acts. But records like this are a snapshot of that tumultuous time when labels were signing acts that radio was just not interested in playing. In a few months, MTV would take the bait and records like these would fade away quickly when videos became the key to reaching new and receptive ears.
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