This Was Your Father’s New Wave: A Timeline of Non-Mainstream Musical Nomenclature

Back when the whole Post-Punk groove thang was happening, a lot of diverse music got thrown together in the media under the “punk” label. If you were nothing like The Doobie Brothers, then obviously, you were “punk!” I noticed at the time that this music that I was interested in, had various names that it was called in the media and even by fans, and that over time, these labels mutated variously. Many of these artists pre-date these labels and might not have found their greatest success until years later, under a different period. At ground zero, the first label to matter was Punk.

Punk ca. 1977-1978

  • Ramones
  • Devo
  • Sex Pistols
  • Patti Smith
  • Buzzcocks

Obviously in hindsight, one can now see that labeling Patti Smith as “Punk” doesn’t quite work, because punk is now a codified style of music sounding nothing like her work, especially of the times we’re discussing. Devo? Too electronic for punk! As seen in the rearview mirror, “Punk” is now seen as fast tempo guitar music played with more enthusiasm than finesse. If it’s too loud, you’re too old! The content was aggressive and threatening to the status quo, as was the form [music]. Enter Howie Klein of Sire Records, who used cinematic nomenclature to refer to the music that was manifesting itself after the crudeness of Punk as “New Wave.” Obviously, Howie was fighting an uphill battle against “Punk” which was pigeonholed quickly in the media as a vulgar threat to the status quo [which it was]. “New Wave” was an effective way to label this music which was artistically divergent from the mainstream but didn’t necessarily seek to violently upturn the status quo. The content was intellectual but not crudely aggressive, and the form was a conscious move from the increasing orthodoxy of punk into a multitude of subtler forms.

New Wave ca. 1978-1982

  • Talking Heads
  • Blondie
  • Gary Numan
  • Magazine
  • Joy Division

By the time that MTV debuted in The States in 1981 and actually began finding eyeballs in 1982, it ushered in the next marketing phase. MTV gravitated to visually sophisticated bands who had a wide variety of music videos to show on their incessantly hungry channel. UK post punk acts who made videos as a matter of course reaped the spoils as meatball US rockers were snoozing in their beer. MTV became the closest thing to a national radio station the United States had ever seen in their traditionally Balkanized media structure. MTV in turn, became the tail that was wagging the traditionally conservative dog of US radio. Radio stations began playing sounds that a year earlier would have been unthinkable. The phrase “New Music” began to filter out into the media sphere as an even more harmless way of describing these sounds. New Music was largely a US rebranding of what was being called New Pop in the UK at the time. The music was less controversial than New Wave as it sought to add elements of dissonance within a much more traditional music milieu.

New Musicca. 1983-1984

  • ABC
  • Duran Duran
  • Culture Club
  • The Fixx
  • U2
It was following this period that in the US college radio community, which was always receptive to these sounds first, that I began to hear a new term being used, most unironically, by the current generation of media youth. At a certain point the term New Music was seen as dated so the war horse “Progressive” was given a new and radical coat of paint! Now, as an older guy, I can remember when Progressive meant Prog Rock; music that was descended from the likes of King Crimson, Yes, The Moody Blues, or any other band where the sort of flashy musicianship coupled with obsessive craftsmanship that was the antithesis of Punk coalesced to become a major part of Punk’s impetus. To apply it to Post Punk variants was ironically hilarious to me, but the ones using this term were to young to have been through the Prog Rock crucible like I had. By this time, MTV had moved on to pimping US mainstream rock acts who had taken a crash course in marketing and now dominated the channel, leaving the sort of acts who for a short time made up a large part of their playlists, fighting for a weekly showing on the Post Punk ghetto that was 120 Minutes.

Progressive – ca. 1985-1988

  • The Cure
  • The Smiths
  • The Pixies
  • Book of Love
  • Erasure

Once the bands that made up the wave of “Progressive” artists began to attain success in the marketplace, a new phrase began making the rounds to describe all of the sorts of music that was neither Madonna, nor Bon Jovi, nor Bruce. Following the lead of seminal radio stations like WLIR or KROQ, this wave of acts that came next saw the rise of newer radio stations content to narrowcast this brand of music under the name “Alternative” as broadcasters divvied up the fractured market in order to more closely target narrower demographic groups.

Alternative – ca. 1989-1993

  • Nine Inch Nails
  • The Breeders
  • Ministry
  • The Church
  • Sugarcubes

As far as I have noticed [and I haven’t been looking], it seems like the “Alternative” tag has lasted for almost 20 years. While it’s true that I haven’t paid much attention to the mass media in the last 18 years, a cursory glance on Amazon under the term “alternative” reveals that as late as 2005, EMI was flogging a series called in all seriousness, “Now That’s What I Call Alternative Rock!” Really! So can any readers enlighten me as to what they’re labeling music that stands off to one side from the mainstream? Please take into account, that I have no grasp whatsoever of the mainstream and may not be able to parse what you are telling me.

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | media design • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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5 Responses to This Was Your Father’s New Wave: A Timeline of Non-Mainstream Musical Nomenclature

  1. Taffy says:

    Hey there.
    Labelling/categorizing bands is so utterly subjective that it’s tough even when the criteria is broadly defined (anything outside of the mainstream must therefore be alternative, etc etc). so here are a few of my (completely subjective) thoughts.

    If punk is going to be more than just loud fast guitars, but can include all those who truly pioneered in upending 70’s rock bloat, you’d have give Blondie, Talking Heads and Television props for being as punk as Patti and Devo. After all, those bands were working the CBGB /Max’s circuit as early as 1974, and their approach, attitude and philosophy were as punk rock as those you named.

    Also, I always found “post-punk” to be a widely used descriptive for bands (Joy Division, Echo & the Bunnymen, etc) who came out just after the first punk wave and added lots of different textures and styles, specifically moody atmospherics and/or funky rhythms (such as the Gang of Four).

    New Wave to me is the BIG generic term that is all-encompassing for late 70’s/early to mid 80’s punk-influenced stuff, whether power-pop, synthpop, or any of a number of stylistic diversions (from the rockabilly of the Stray Cats to the easy listening cocktail jazz of early Everything But the Girl to the ska revivalist Two Tone bands, and many many more).

    I never heard the “progressive” tag used to describe any of the bands you mention, and I listened to a lot of college radio in that time frame. Maybe it was a regional thing (I lived in New York and New England)? One term that was used with great frequency in the mid 80’s was “college rock,” and the Smiths, Cure, and REM were probably the big three of that niche.

    At some point in the 80’s, the phrase “modern rock” was bandied about. I think that was pretty much replaced by alternative, which as you correctly note, is still holding on decades later. These days it seems like alternative is used interchangeably with “indie,” which i find hilarious. Back in the 80’s, indie referred to DIY acts releasing music on small independently distributed labels. Just last week I ripped an old Morrissey CD into my itunes library, and itunes labelled the album’s genre as indie. The CD was on the Parlophone label, hardly a grubby little start-up! So what’s in a word anyway?

    Anyway, great topic. Thanks for hearing me out.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Taffy – “Progressive” was used around the college radio circuit in Central Florida in the mid-80s. This would have been after I had graduated. I was not involved in college radio; my time on the air was in high school! Chas_M and I met via our school’s radio station and we went through the New Wave crucible together. He was a Beatles fan and I was caught up in the death throes of Prog Rock when our heads were turned by New Wave. Oh the shows we did! Later, when he did college/community radio [Chas’ crusty Old Wave on WPRK-FM] in the early 90s, I used to pop into the studio with a good stash and we’d get back in the groove.

      Progressive may have been a regional thing. “College Rock” and “Modern Rock” passed me by. They might have been out there but by that time, I was paying less and less attention to the mass media. Echorich has also discussed the “Modern Rock” label, and cites its use in Billboard, but by that time, I had graduated college and no longer had access to the beloved Billboard. How I used to pore over the trades back in college! Hard to believe that there was ever so much time.


  2. Echorich says:

    I have to agree with both Monk and Taffy here… I think the descriptors came and went as they were found to be useful and then eventually not.

    Being unapologetically New Yawk and Anglophile in my definitions of the music I like, I tend towards Punk as being a two pronged beast…First prong includes those subversive undercurrent acts of the CBGB’s/Max’s Period – Television, Talking Heads, Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith (the greatest and PUNKEST poet of the Rock and Roll Genre)… Second prong includes the bands that McLaren wrought…Pistols, Damned, Generation X, (pub rock converts) Stranglers, Eddie and the Hot Rods, Sham 69, Buzzcocks…

    New Wave was definitely the ‘Big Basket” that the media chose to throw lots of bands and sounds into. I think because of my religious devotion to NME I began using terms like Post Punk and Blitz and New Romantic earlier than they were being used in the US. For me New Wave was The Cars, B52’s, Stray Cats, Thompson Twins, The Tourists, The Buggles…. but I began using New Romantic, Electronic Pop and other pop sub genres as I was exposed to them. Sure Numan and Ultravox could be called New Wave, but they were so different from say Thompson Twins or Bow Wow Wow.

    “New Music” and “Alternative” always seemed like a cop out for me. Tried to never use them unless I just couldn’t get through describing a band’s sound to someone. The one that really got me was Modern Rock. That term even made it into Billboard as a Radio and Sales chart.

    I can get really esoteric… I will describe Southern Death Cult as Postive Punk, but The Cult as Goth. A band like Everything But The Girl have gone from New Jazz to Pastoral Pop to Hybrid House. The Cure basically have multiple personalities… Punk, New Wave, Post Punk, Goth – changing and growing with every album. The Banshees started as Punk, flirted with Post Punk and proto Goth and were ultimately genre busting. Simple Minds have done the business as well evolving from one genre to another over 30 some odd years.

    In the end, the music I have always enjoyed was not mainstream. Mainstream was the death of most bands I have loved. Some have found their way back from it, others have been lost to the masses.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – A point of discussing all of these labels is their ultimate absurdity. I have amusement over the way that they change and mutate over the years. My Southeast region probably colors this with the “Progressive” tag. Taffy had never heard of this and that’s probably why. I missed “Modern Rock.” Since I haven’t seen Billboard since graduating college, I no doubt missed their adoption of that term! Oh for the days of whiling away hours in the library and waiting for the weekly Billboard! My wife works in a college library and bought home a Billboard recently. Of course, it’s a pamphlet compared to what i was used to. And Since my time reading Billboard coincided with an early industry downturn, the ’81-85 era was probably a shadow of the mag’s heyday mid-century, when radio was king.


      • Echorich says:

        You are so right about the absurdity of music labels…I am certainly guilty of using them though!
        In my former life back in NYC running a celebrity and music photography agency, Billboard was one of my clients. Like most trade mags, they paid a pittance to license images, but it was a great placement for a music photographer.
        I have to say I miss those days back in the 80’s and even most of the 90’s when mags like Billboard had space for new bands and musical trends. If it wasn’t for the blogosphere, I don’t think 80% of new music out there would get a chance.


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