It’s hard enough to define exactly what New Wave is without splitting hairs over what constitutes a novelty song within that genre, yet that’s what we’ll be opening the metaphoric phone lines to in today’s post. With a look at songs what came within the New Wave period [or in some cases, much later] and still managed to exude the whiff of “novelty material.” Songs produced for the sake of a chart hit with seemingly no thought given as to the overall integrity and timelessness of the art involved. We have to admit that for some of these songs, it may be that they managed to straddle the Venn Diagram evenly on both sides of the divide.
JOSIE COTTON: Johnny Are You Queer?
This was a song that was all over college radio in 1982. The song’s pedigree as an early Go-Go’s song certainly marked it as having a direct connection to New Wave, but the band didn’t think twice about having Josie Cotton take the song and Do What Thou Wilt with it. The retro Girl Group sound had become one of the pillars of New Wave, thanks to Blondie’s exploration therof in that band’s early career. That Josie was an actress/singer hybrid brings with it the suggestion that all of the might have been a lark for her; an indicator of novelty territory.
Taco was a one-hit-wonder with his electronic cover version of Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ On The Ritz.” This 1982 hit was prevalent on MTV and the radio back then, but the whole slant of rendering old Tin Pan Alley pre-war era songs in the latest musical trends was something that dated back to the early 70s [see: Bette Midler – “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”] and was a big factor in the Disco era, with Disco versions of almost anything [Babyface, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, etc.]. Taco Okerse used the language of synthpop but hedged his bets with a song from the American Standards Songbook. The song title was familiar enough afterwards for a Post-MTV game show of lip-sync competition called “Puttin’ On the Hits” to have been green-lighted! He had a somewhat longer career in Europe, but few Americans have heard more than this song, ubiquitous as it was.
In 1979 there were New Wave songs really starting to breach the US Top 40 and at first, these tracks like “Cars” by Gary Numan seemed like novelty material just by being so radically different from the fabric of the US Top 40 to begin with. With their synthesized palette, they were novel in every sense of the world. One of Numan’s chartmates at the time managed to carry that synthetic and quirky arrangement all he way to the number one spot, achieving a gold single [1M sold] in The States. Robin Scott [a.k.a. M] never managed another hit here thought he had a further career in various worldwide pockets. It’s his daughter, Berenice Scott [Heaven 17, Simple Minds], on the cover.
Boys Don’t Cry: I Wanna Be A Cowboy
I can remember this song being played on MTV in 1985, first on it’s nascent 120 Minutes “college radio ghetto” but eventually in prime time as the song hit the upper reaches of the US Top 40. I always thought that the band took their name form the early Cure song. Nope. They were just British dudes who copped the name from 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love!” This song got perilously close to breaching the US Top 10 but let’s admit it; no one has heard another note that these guys issued, yes?
We can do some more of this at a later time. Just saying.
Great idea for a post today, Monk!
As a representative of the Falco Liberation Organization I am obliged to formally protest his absence from this poll.
And Walk the Dinosaur should be in here no matter how much I love Was (Not Was)
Falco is nowhere near novelty territory. He had a very long and successful career in Europe. His grave is Austria’s most prestigious cemetery, not too far from Beethoven! (I was there in 2018!)
JT – Wha…??! Surprise support for the Falco cause from the person I’d least expect it from! I knew a friend of Mr. Ware back in Florida who was a Falco Collector®. I once bought a sealed ßeta video cassette and dubbed the contents to VHS for him! But the US #1 mix of “Rock Me Amadeus…” if that’s not a novelty song, what is?
And having a long and successful career in Europe…?
Is this some new litmus test of artistic legitimacy I was previously unaware of?
Ha, I’m not Falco fan by any stretch. Never owned a lick of music by him. Just pointing out – in the interest of fairness – that he had a more substantial career (in terms of both longevity and number of records released), and respect in his native land (in his own time and posthumously) than the other four artists on your poll, combined. Hasselhoff isn’t a good comparison; Falco really is viewed as an artiste in parts of Europe. Hasselohff was seen as a pop star, at best.
JT – In the interest in this…fairness, I went to Discogs to see just how many Falco albums there were and to my [extreme] surprise, I saw the green dot with a number 2 on his photo. I dug deep and discovered that I actually own two Falco records! The first one is the US “Vienna Calling” US 7″ [’86 mix edit, for hair-splitters]:
This 7″ single [with the picture sleeve shown] was one that my wife bought at a garage sale back when we did had an antique mall booth in the 90s. She usually bought any 80s records she found and knew my penchant for picture sleeves! And I also had a Falco track on this Razormaid promo sampler:
It had a Joseph Watt remix of “Charisma Commando.”
Having mocked Falco…twice, on the basis of having heard only “Der Kommissar” and the inescapable [and super gimmicky] US mix of “Rock Me Amadeus” about 500 times on MTV, my next logical step should be to actually listen to these records and discuss my findings. Perhaps I’ve been hasty? Comments on the artists’ Discogs page suggests that his fanbase is substantial.
Let me step out in Falco’s defense too. Not a fan also, but I have a fair chunk of his music, some of it is really great. His first album seems to be his “true” New Wave statement, though his third (called “3”, naturally) is his most successful, of course. It has some truly great songs and I find it a strong album, i.e. a whole program. Yes, his mannerisms and unusual song subjects can veer dangerously close to “novelty” territory but he’s a legitimate “artiste” (though not to everyone’s taste, of course).
His manager has written a book about his years working for Falco and it’s a depressing tale of a talented guy who suffered years of burnout and depression (not to mention substance abuse) not least from the failure of his artistic aspirations. I started to see Falco in a different light after reading it.
Tim – I felt that putting Falco and Taco in the same post was going too far! But can any song that put Sweet Pea Atkinson on the airwaves be deemed “novelty?” I say thee, NAY!
You should indeed do this more often!
By the way: Taco – Putting on the Ritz is still a favourite of mine!
Ronald van Veel – Well, I did make up a new category for this post with the eye on more to come. It’s been years since I made a new catagory for the posts.
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I love that one too – still sounds unusual and quite refreshing. Pity most of his other covers were cut from the same cloth and that put an end to longer success.
By the way he recorded a song called “Superphysical resurrection” seemingly about the end of the world or something – the last topic I expected a Taco song to be about!
My personal take is that you’re creating a false dichotomy in posing the question to begin with. To the extent that New Wave was either 1) a Punk outgrowth (remember the early days when they were lumped together by most music industry pundits as “New Wave/Punk” – it was only later that Nu Wav became acknowledged as a genre to itself), or 2) a low-fi smart-ass reaction to the endless reams of AOR drivel (which itself took over from the barrage of “Southern Rock” which took over from Disco, which ….), it seems pretty self-evident that Nu Wav was at it’s core a smarmy, largely Gen X and existential “everything is meaningless, so have some dumb fun” sorta thing.
Case in point, one could rather easily claim that EVERY B-52’s song ever written is a “novelty song”. That’s essentially their oeuvre. And Gary Numan. And Stan Ridgeway. ALL early Talking Heads. Etc. etc. Novelty is an important part of the core DNA of Nu Wav. Sure, there were some very talented bands who managed to be New Wave while sticking to the poppier, more well-trodden safe zones (Blondie, lor’ l’um), but in escaping from Punk and it’s OWN (much more political / sociological) zone of poseury, New Wave staked its claim in a much more “dumb for fun’s sake” field.
I believe a lot of this was intentional, in hopes of breaking with multiple conventions at the same time: “pop music must be about heterosexual teenage love”, “pop music must be 3/4 time”, “pop music must have a lead singer/guitarist, a bass player, a drummer, and a keyboardist who does B/Vs and sometimes plays a tambourine instead”, “pop music must be serious art”.
That said, I don’t know that I’d particularly call any of the four songs you mentioned “Nu Wav” (though I suppose a case could be made for “Johnny”) – they certainly occurred at the SAME TIME as Nu Wav, but then so did a lot of Rush, U2, Foreigner and Motley Crue. Even at the time, New Wave was well-defined enough to eliminate them from the roll call – Pop Muzik, while EXCELLENT, is late-period Disco, pure and simple, “I Wanna be a Cowboy” was … whatever classification is appropriate for Duran Duran, China Crisis, ABC and that whole MTV lot (NOT New Wave, whatever else you may choose to call it) Taco was genre-less bilge, and as mentioned “Johnny” was MoTown / Girl Group inspired vaguely new-wavey novelty of the same general class as “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun”.
The Grudgin’ Curmudgeon [aka RAHB] – That’s the spirit! I was baiting the hook here. I like half of these songs and dislike the other half but they are are ALL in that netherzone of possibility where one person’s fish is another’s fowl. And i just wanted to hear other brains parse the conundrum. And for the record, that whole MTV [NOT New Wave] lot were the “New Music” period that followed New Wave but was watered down. It was the commercial side of the same wave that on the less commercial side gave us the early College Rock.
I just finished reading “Sweet Dreams” by Dylan Jones, it’s an oral history of the time that you’re talking about here. Great book, quite dense, well structured and the topci seques within chapters are executed so well.
Anyhow, the nomenclauture of post punk, new wave and new romantic is dissected quite ably in this book by the people who were making the scenes and the music that was the outcome of them. You may enjoy the book and I thought I would mention it in the event that you are not famiar with it already.
Tim – I remember hearing about it when it came out. I have three books on my table and not enough time to read them right now.
I heard about it when it came out and dismissed it without seeing it, just read some blurbs on Amazon I think it was and mentally shrugged and said to myself, there’s not enought in here about acts that I like to justify it. Weekend before last I was in the last bookstore in town (Barnes and Noble) and I found a copy on the shelf and started sorting through it and was sold. It covers all the bases. There’s huge sections on the club scenes and the groups of people who populated them and how that influenced the bands that came out of them. There’s a lot about the press (probably more than i would like by the time you get to the mid 80s but you can’t fault the author’s dedicated thoroughness). There’s a lot about the politics of the UK from 1975 to 1985 and how it factored in, just a brilliant book and I am so happy that I decided to go fot it.
Reading it I wondered how much of the interviews were cribbed from old NME or UK papers and when I reached the end I learned that apparently a lot of it is interviews done circa 2017 for preparation of the book. To be honest, there is a LOT of self deprecation in the book, the people intereviewed generally are not looking back through rose colored glasses. Sadly that means not a lot of 1st hand stuff from someone like Steve Strange (who is a huge figure in the book) however that shouldn’t dissuade anyone.
Tim, thank you very much! Seems like the book to have about the years in question. I read probably the very same Amazon reviews and got the impression it’s nothing much worth spending money on – but you wrote enough for me to follow your lead. It’s high time for such book to appear – the previous “big one” seems to be “Rip it up and start again” by Simon Reynolds and that’s the one I got but was so put off by the author’s self-righteousness, arrogance and that indie purism that rock critics seem to be stuck to. The oral history type seems to be just the way to do it right.
Though I have to stop on the self-deprecation for a bit – I think that’s the thing that cut “New Wave” down in the long run. When even the main players are quite critical about the whole era and don’t lionize their and their peers’ work, image etc, what the others have to think? It seems the complete opposite of the stance of those who were movers and shakers in the 1960s – they don’t waste time and opportunities to remind everyone how great and pioneering and staggeringly fantastic everything was. I also remember the closing pages of “Please kill me” book with some reflections about the “punk” generation as being, let’s say, “unable to live fully” and fight for their own place in the sun. Like they themselves view everything they did as somehow not “worthy” enough, some junk they did “for simple fun”. Like there was something in that generation that prevented them from overtaking “The Sixties”, something psychological even. A big topic, for sure, but I just thought I’d mention it.
Great post Monk! AND it’s INTERACTIVE!!!
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Echorich – So it’s interactive. The new WordPress has all sorts of widgets built in like Polls, but I’m wondering how we can see the results? I thing they only show if you submit and thereby it will skew the results!
Love this new category and I can see Trans-X “Living On Video” appearing in a future post.
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RobC – I know, but we just sort of covered that one.
I kinda think this is one of those “you say potato, I saw tomato” type things. I firmly believe that new wave (in America) was a catch-all for basically anything “alternative” rising up in the immediate wake of punk. It encompassed so many genres – power pop, doomy post-punk, goth, rockabilly revival, new romantic, synthpop, etc etc. None of the songs you feature are novelty in the Dr Demento sense; I’d call them all new wave alongside Video Killed The Radio Star, Rock Lobster, Antmusic, et al. Don’t get me wrong – i love this topic and think it’s great fun to banter about this stuff, but there’ll never be a definitive yes or no. Unless you just listen to me. ;)
Taffy – By invoking Dr. Demento you remind me that I first heard the DB Records release of “Rock Lobster,” The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette,” and even The Residents’ “Constantinople” on the Dr. Demento radio show. For those not our age or nationality, Dr. Demento was a weekly 2 hour radio show that played only comedy and “novelty” records. The teenaged Weird Al Yankovic used to send home made tapes to the show that took off and started his career. You would get old Yiddish double entendre records played next to tracks like “Warm Leatherette.” And every week you would hear music from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” as the movie’s early cult fans always requested it.
Well, there goes my argument that they’re not novelty records in the Dr Demento sense! Oops. Well, I’d still rather hear a wacky new wave jam about aliens, insects, or crustaceans than one more hackneyed tale of boy meets girl.
Taffy – And your last sentence is the crux of the question I’m posing with this post. Where does the line between New Wave and Novelty begin or end? Is there even a line?!
I’ve got to say, I did this to try out the new Poll function embedded in WordPress and I am disliking the fact that until you hit the [curiously blank] submit button, one cannot see the results of the poll. Kind of a buzzkill, from my perspective.
The Silicon Teens, The Flying Lizards, where does it all end or start even.?
Ade.W – I still have barely heard the Silicon Teens, and in that they were actually not real teens but Daniel Miller faking it I’d call “novelty” on that. Particularly since the notion of covering old hits on synthesizers was, for many years, something of a novelty in itself. The Flying Lizards are superficially in the same mold. “Money” was a widely played electronic cover of a classic pop song, but I’d argue that the avant leanings of David Cunningham precludes novelty status. Even if that single alone might straddle the Venn Diagram between New Wave and Novelty.
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How about Mickey by Toni Basil?
Mel – Next time. It was loaded in the queue and I ran out of room/time.
Given that this post has had a much longer lifespan than I expected, and has wandered over a rather large map, I’d like to draw some distinctions in the service of thinking about the subject:
– Novelty SONG — Whether by an OHW, or by a band that would NORMALLY produce more straightforward material. (Whatever THAT might mean).
– Novelty BAND — By this I mean a band which specializes in novelty songs, NOT a band which is by it’s nature a novelty (though the latter seem frequently to also be the former).
– One Hit Wonder (OHW) — In terms of those whose solitary hits were Novelty Songs, these would necessarily be one of the above, but the limited material available for judgement makes it hard to determine.
The original post made no distinction between the first two, and later replies have meandered between one and the other context.
Also, there seems to be some difference of opinion on how INTENTION colors the categories. Given a band who happen to generate their one big hit (an OHW) with a novelty song but otherwise have “artistic intentions” qualify as a Novelty Band, or just SAD.
There’s intentional novelty (of the “let’s do something REALLY WEIRD to get some attention and hopefully a few bux” variety – e.g. Josie Cotton above), and then there’s “we’re just weird people doing what comes naturally and loving it” (looking at YOU, B-52s xoxo). Also the “Ahhhrt MUST be weird to be true Ahhhrt” variety (“Can you say `Talking Heads` children? I knew you could.”). And likely several others I’ve not even thought of.
Then there’s the matter of what QUALIFIES as “Novelty” in the first place. I would argue that “Take On Me”, while a fine song, would NOT have been the massive hit it was without the insanely original and creative (that is to say: “Novel”) video produced for it. Where and when does “Novel” become “Novelty”? And why is one good and the other stigmatized?
Oook, that’s quite enough of my rambling — the workday awaits! Gotta hop on a call.
xo all, in health and music…