Five Records You Should Own: British New Wave

By Roy Gregory

If ever a pop phase embodied the seeds of its own (self-) destruction, it was Punk. It fought its way, kicking, spitting and screaming into the harsh light of everyday events, burning with a brilliant intensity that soon exhausted the angry fuel of discontent. If you rail against “success” what’s left when you have success thrust at you? The answer has always been the same – evolve or die. While Punk faded back to its roots, what it left behind was music that was just as angry and unsettling, but played by bands that deployed critique and commentary in place of nihilism, argument, intelligence and a Grammar school vocabulary in place of four letter words and the shock value of rigid middle digits. New Wave bands might have been more polite and they had learned to play their instruments – at least somewhat better than their punk brethren – but underneath they were just as pissed off, producing music with the same facility to shock but a considerably longer shelf life. New Wave was the grown up version of youthful rebellion. In the depressed and depressing world that was Britain under Margaret Thatcher, you didn’t grow out of unemployment and degradation – you just got more street smart and savvy, making music that was even more focused and effective.

Some bands made the transition from Punk to New Wave, although in truth you could argue that they were never really punk bands to start with: too experienced, too knowing and way too competent. Right in the vanguard of the emerging movement were The Clash, one-time Punk pillars but always a cut above, making them lynch pins of any New Wave core repertoire.

london callingThe Clash – London Calling
CBS CLASH 3 (Double LP) – 1979

While the band’s debut album (The Clash – released in 1977) worked hard at maintaining its Punk credentials, loaded with stomping, anthemic rabble rousing (the coruscating ‘White Riot’) and anti-establishment hyperbole, follow up Give ‘em Enough Rope (1978) was much more of a mainstream rock production, clearly revealing the band’s musical abilities and heritage – albeit losing its edge along the way. Perhaps responding to the criticism, the band produced a flurry of singles – ‘(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais’, ‘I Fought The Law’, ‘Pressure Drop’ – which quickly reestablished their anti-government and anti-racist agenda, preparing the way for their finest hour, the mighty double slab that is London Calling…

From its iconic cover, stolen from Elvis himself, to the 19 three-minute marvels pressed across its four sides, this album is one big letter of intent, liberally laced with political agenda, happy to range far and wide in its pillaging of rock royalty, rock history and rock’s sacred cows. This is where The Clash found their feet and lived up to their name. Comfortable and cuddly it isn’t, but then this is music that matters – at least to the people playing it – and that attitude doesn’t just show through, it drives it along at well beyond the speed limit, well outside the comfort zone and well past the outer reaches of polite conversation. If you were somewhere less than 25, living on the scrap heap of a deeply depressed British economy, unemployed and devoid of hope, this was exactly the soundtrack you wanted, you needed to hear. Suddenly it was okay to be angry – but more than that, it was okay to be bright and be angry and to do something about it. Where Punk was nihilism personified, New Wave had an energy born of resistance – it meant that doing nothing could be a positive action and millions of the idle poor loved it for that.

Right from the towering power chord opening of the title track, this is an album that means business. If the tracks are remarkably varied and inventive, flowing in a weird urban stream of dance consciousness from the over-active creative genius that was Joe Strummer, there’s no missing the underlying attitude that binds it into a single, purposeful whole. Songs are short and sharp – with the emphasis on the latter – ranging from the insurgent mob-rule of the title track or ‘Clampdown’ to the white-boy reggae of ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’ and ‘Guns Of Brixton’, but they all share an infectious drive and energy. It’s not hard to understand how the Clash became the hottest live ticket in town.

London Calling was never an audiophile standard pressing; that’s not what this is about. This is all about energy and willpower, having the sense of purpose to change things for the better. That energy is critical to the music and without it, it makes no sense – which is where picking your pressing comes in. The early CBS discs were full of drive and dynamic clout, just what the doctor (and the band) ordered. The later Columbia pressings – dating from 1988 – lack the bite, edge and attitude of the originals and whilst they are arguably smoother, they’re the poorer for it. But the discs to avoid are the heavy-weight Simply Vinyl re-issues. Pressed in 1999 and distinguished by a “The Clash Restored” cover sticker and a Columbia 495347 1 serial number, these records are a high-priced travesty. The same lack of care that failed to find the original CBS labels and artwork reduced the records to a sludgy, congealed and impenetrable mess, robbed of life and vitality, attitude and intent – the very things that made this record so special in the first place. Don’t go there… Instead, dig out an original (they’re not hard to find) and marvel at just how angry, disgruntled and positively mutinous we were – back in the day…

the jamThe Jam – Setting Sons
Polydor 5028 LP – 1979

The Jam was a phenomenon. Between May ’77 and November 1980 they produced five short, sharp musical shocks, concise albums that drove them to the pinnacle of UK pop and the New Wave. They were so successful that when the single ‘Going Underground’ went straight into the UK charts at number one (when the singles charts still meant something, both financially and in terms of public consciousness) they were the first band to achieve the feat since the Beatles. They even cut short a US tour to appear on the BBC’s weekly chart program Top Of The Pops – obligatory watching for any self-respecting teenager at the time. Punky hair and a mod aesthetic chimed perfectly with the frenetic power chords of their stripped down three-piece, just distinctive enough to separate them from the mob, just rebellious enough for the necessary cred – but the facts are rather more prosaic.

Formed as a four-piece in late 1973, they were already well-established on the R&B circuit by the time of the unruly arrival of Punk. Seeing which way the wind was blowing it was easy enough to add a suitable snarl and a few rough edges, their superior playing making them natural leaders of the New Wave as it emerged from Punk’s self-immolation. Front-man Paul Weller became the central focus and face of the band as they proved as consistent as they were productive. In truth, it was a toss-up between Setting Sons, All Mod Cons, the album that preceded it, and Sound Affects that followed. Each album benefits from the rough and ready slabs of guitar, the edgy vocals, the simple drum patterns that drive the pell-mell tempo and the intricate bass lines that help fill the gaps left by the sparse guitar. It was a potent combination, a perfect balance of virtues that managed to make the most of Weller’s indifferent voice, Bruce Foxton’s articulate bass and the vital simplicity of Rick Buckler’s powerful drumming. This was raw music for a harsh time and it proved a perfect fit. The vicious spite of ‘Eton Rifles’ is what elevates this album just ahead of the pack, it’s stark images of class conflict and street violence perfectly capturing the antagonism and aggression that bubbled below the surface of Thatcher’s Britain. It is ably supported by ‘Saturday’s Kids’, a plaintive terrace chant for the disenfranchised, the ones who can’t afford a ticket for the game, while ‘Little Boy Soldiers’ carries a ghostly pre-echo of Costello’s later ‘Oliver’s Army’, demonstrating just how firmly rooted this music really was in the reality of the British youth buying these records. For anybody who thinks that Margaret Thatcher was a savior or social crusader, the New Wave is a sobering lesson in the damage done and who paid the price.

But in many ways, it’s ‘Smithers-Jones’ that is one of the most interesting and telling tracks on the album. A modern parable of exploitation and redundancy it draws heavily on the almost quaint social commentary style of the Kinks, firmly cementing Weller with the role and label of the new Ray Davies. British rock royalty if ever there was. It’s a trend you see repeated in the sardonic bite of ‘That’s Entertainment’ (from Sound Affects) but it was a mantle that was to hang heavy on his shoulders, a perfect example of the dangers of believing your own PR. The band’s final three albums charted a decline as meteoric as the rise in Weller’s celebrity status. When he suddenly (and shockingly) dumped his band mates to musical obscurity, forming the horribly self-indulgent Style Council, it demonstrated just how central their input had been to the band’s success, how the whole had been greater than the sum of the parts. Weller’s subsequent career has never reached the heights or relevance of those early Jam albums and latecomers scratching their heads in wonder at the reverence with which he’s treated need look no further than the likes of Setting Sons for the reason.

Any album this successful is always going to be in plentiful supply on the secondhand market, and while this was always a musical rather than a sonic tour de force, the early British pressings are worth seeking out for the extra presence and energy so vital to the driven power pop they exude. Those first issues come in two waves, both identifiable by their embossed sleeves (run your fingers over the edge of the front image to feel the raised “land”). The earliest pressing had no track listing printed on the back, using a clear sticker instead, while second pressings have the tracks printed. If you can find a copy with the sticker (and it’s not that hard) it’s a worthwhile step up in immediacy, musical intent and menace – all the things that made this such a great album.

joe-jackson-look-sharp-2Joe Jackson – Look Sharp!
A&M AMLH 64743 LP – 1979

Okay, I know that Joe Jackson isn’t exactly an unknown, but how many of you revere (or even own) this, his first album. And what an album it is! As well as the timeless Is She Really Going Out With Him? you get One More Time, Sunday Papers, Happy Loving Couples, Baby Stick Around and Fools In Love, most of them on a first side that hits it out of the park. Indeed, if it wasn’t for Fools… (possibly the best song here) many a record out there would be mint condition on side two. Happy coincidence meant that Jackson’s poignant and acerbic observations on life and love, along with his impressive musical training and heritage collided headlong with the UK New Wave, opening wide the opportunities for his bitter-sweet songs. His material and delivery draw inevitable comparisons with Elvis Costello, but for me, Jackson is a cut above our Declan. Of course, that might be home-town familiarity speaking and Joe and the boys were an ever-present part of the live music wall-paper while I was at college, but then The Cure, The Banshees and The Attractions were too, if on a more revolving basis, so he had plenty of competition for my attention and affections. But what makes this album stick is the sheer quality of the lyrics. Even an out and out rocker like One More Time has an observant intelligence and almost painful honesty, while Fools… and Is She… have stood the test of time, shored up by the barbed familiarity of their outsider’s stance and subtly twisted viewpoint. These are songs that speak not just for their generation but all the generations that have followed.

The recording here is solid, substantial and upfront, the songs delivered with all the intent their content deserves. If you are familiar with the raw, rock sound of early Costello then you’ll know what to expect from this last great era of UK analog pop recording. The vocal is all angst and attitude, with driven riffs, bass that goes deep and drums that stay hit. What’s not to like about a record that captures the life and energy of a classic four-piece rock band in full, uninhibited, unabashed overdrive. Me – I love it!

If you are shopping secondhand, lookout for (and avoid if possible) the later re-issues, especially the version with two extra tracks added. Don’t Ask Me and You Got The Fever were the B-sides from the first two singles, but don’t make up for the loss of immediacy and dynamics that go with their inclusion. The earliest pressings (matt sleeve and stamped matrix) are spectacularly immediate, with wonderfully expressive, natural vocals that play to the material’s strengths. But the next tranche of pressings – AMID 120 (gloss sleeve, serial hand written on the groove land with the original matrix scrubbed out) – also have their virtues. The examples I have to hand are somewhat heavier and pack extra bottom-end wallop and impact. They’re also significantly more numerous and therefore quite a bit cheaper with a wider range of quality and condition on offer. The originals shade it, but don’t turn your nose up at the second coming…

Now, by way of a bonus, if you like Look Sharp! don’t deny yourself the almost equally pleasurable experience of the follow up, I’m Your Man. Released later that same year (A&M AMLH 64794) either as a straight LP or (in the USA) as a box containing five 7” discs (A&M SP-18000), the second album dials back the energy a notch, with an even more wry and emotionally incisive perspective. Once again, the first side is a stormer and the recording, whilst it lacks the sheer energy and presence of the first outing, is only just behind and quite a bit more refined to boot. Again, the early UK pressings (hand written matrix, pictures and lyrics on the in-sleeve) are the ones to go for, with deeper bass, better separation, greater dynamics, more presence and immediacy, although again, the later pressings with stamped matrix numbers are still excellent. But the joker in the pack is the 7” set. This betters the UK early release for dynamics and impact, if not quite matching it for weight and body, while the vocals are the best of the lot. But – and it’s a vital caveat – only if you have adjustable VTA. The 7” 45s are significantly thinner than the albums and will sound thin and gutless without arm height correction.

1280x1280-2Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Armed Forces
Radar RAD 14 LP – 1979

The Clash might have stolen an Elvis cover – Costello stole his name and in the process became the unlikely poster-boy for this new musical wave. Thin, almost spindly, with nerdy glasses and a rockabilly hair-do, here was the nerdy kid that nobody bullies because he’ll cut them down to size with his tongue. His 1977 debut, My Aim Is True and the follow-up album, This Year’s Model (1978) are rightly revered in both the musical and audiophile universes, as almost brutally honest, self-effacing compositions and recordings and in truth, either could happily grace this list. But instead, I’m going to opt for Armed Forces, the Elvis (Costello) album that finally cracked the mainstream. After all, that’s what the New Wave was ultimately all about: harnessing the angst and ennui, the dystopian dislocation of young people and locating it center stage – making it the center of attention and top of the charts along the way. In that sense it was playing the traditional pop role – an escape route from poverty without the bruises that go with boxing.

On Armed Forces, the sparse arrangements and caustic commentary are replaced with a bigger, lusher but still deft production from the same Nick Lowe sat at the desk. The sheer smack and dynamic impact of the earlier albums is less apparent here, making for a less immediate presentation. But that’s a function of the richer, more complex textures, the denser mix and subtle layering that add up to more polished, balanced and sophisticated arrangements, adding musical density and range to back up the vocal dexterity. Less pointedly personal, dressed in the garb of wider social comment, the lyrics are no less clever, just more oblique, sliding under your guard and zapping you with recognition when you least expect it. Take ‘Senior Service’ as an example with its doubtless intentional echoes of ‘Satisfaction’ and the multi-layered pun of its title. It cleverly mixes the hum-drum repetition and alienation of a dead end job with the boil of underlying anger and bitterness that results, all played out to the catchy and danceable up-tempo beat of a perfect three-minute pop-song. But the general becomes the personal very quickly indeed with the chorus:

“They took me in the office and they told me very carefully
The way that I could benefit from death and disability”

Suddenly, that title isn’t quite so brand-centric and life – your life – seems cheap, whether it’s being spent in the forces or an office. Suddenly the notion of class war becomes very personal indeed.

Those themes of casual violence and indifference (physical and emotional) are echoed across the album, from the melancholy reflection of ‘Party Girl’ to ‘Accidents Will Happen’ and the biting historico-social barbs of ‘Oliver’s Army’. What started out as music that’s firmly rooted in its time and place has passed the test of time, partly because those hooks just keep coming. If a lot of the texture and layered meanings in the lyrics are woven deeply into British culture (besides the obvious sense, who else knows that Senior Service is both a cigarette brand and a nickname for the Royal Navy, or who Oliver was?) the socio-political agenda here was thrown firmly into the spotlight by subsequent events – the Falklands war, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, conflicts in Africa – which keep it solidly and sadly relevant today. Likewise, the cynical response to news, the media and political spin embodied on ‘Green Shirt’ might be more familiar these days, but remains just as pertinent. Back in 1979 it was almost prescient!
Costello’s working title for this album was ‘Emotional Fascism’ and the words are tacked onto the sleeve liner. They underscore the sense and sensibility of the lyrics, somehow making the damage and desolation all the more poignant, an even greater contrast to the insistent beats, undeniable energy and jaunty tunes that make this his most hummable work. As a commentary on Thatcher’s Britain and emotional poverty, with a sub-text on the price of power and success it takes some beating. As a 40-minute snap-shot of New Wave moods and music it’s near perfect.

When it comes to the recording, it might lack the sheer immediacy of the first two albums, the edgy excitement of Aim or the power and energy of TYM, but it’s no slouch, with the early Radar pressings being particularly impressive. Just make sure that you’ve got your VTA spot-on: if this album is sounding thick and syrupy that’s more than likely the cause. The keyboard fills should cradle the driving percussion and heavy guitar riffs, the driven bass lines and insistent tempi – not submerge them. Amidst it all, the vocals should be articulate and expressive, with Costello’s voice a more finely tuned and versatile instrument than it was on the early discs. I haven’t tried the recent 180g repressing from MoFi (as with the other titles here, I’ve no need, he comments somewhat smugly) but they certainly had good material to work from.

the cureThe Cure – Seventeen Seconds
Fiction Fix 004 LP – 1980

If the other albums here are all about post-teenage angst and an undercurrent of outrage, The Cure offers a far more reflective perspective. If The Clash and Jam are all about Saturday nights, then the spirit of The Cure resides firmly on Monday mornings – or maybe wet, Wednesday afternoons. Measured, repetitive beats, beautifully undulating tempi and carefully layered musical textures, long before sequencers hit the scene, bring a calm, almost meditative quality to this and the follow-up, Faith. It’s a sharp contrast to the vivid, contained ferocity of so much New Wave music, but it’s just as much a part of the early ‘80’s landscape, a poignant counterpoint to the abrasive energy and spurting anger of their contemporaries.

Hailing from the bleak, concrete, suburban sprawl of Crawley, adjacent to Gatwick, London’s second airport, the band emerged from an environment with not a single noteworthy feature. This was life in grey-scale, and with no money and scant opportunities to relieve the boredom, it’s no surprise that Mr Smith and the boys quickly graduated from the spiky, upbeat chaos of their first album Three Imaginary Boys (later and somewhat confusingly supplemented by the addition of singles to create Boys Don’t Cry) to the more disturbing and introverted musical claustrophobia of Seventeen Seconds, exemplified by the teetering off-kilter discomfort of ‘A Forest’ and the title track. Each side opens with a short, downbeat, melancholic overture that sets the mood for the deftly interlaced chord progressions and keyboards, the sparse but incredibly effective guitar and Robert Smith’s slightly whiny yet evocatively addictive vocals. Indeed, addictive is the word for the almost mesmeric quality of metronomic drumming and understated instrumentation. Nothing rises out of the mix; instead it sucks you in, wrapping you in an atmospheric musical blanket that envelops your senses. Even the initial urgency of ‘M’ gently decays, while the measured tread of ‘At Night’ is a minor evocative masterpiece, leading almost inevitably to the ultimate musical conclusion that is ‘Seventeen Seconds’.

Unlike many albums of its time, the music on Seventeen Seconds is very much a whole, each side working in its entirety, the tracks more like the movements of a symphony than the individual vignettes so beloved of the likes of Elvis Costello or Joe Jackson, the laser-guided, chart-bound energy of the Clash or Jam, but in many ways that makes this album the most complete and lasting listening experience here. It too contains its fair share of quintessentially British cultural references, along with the sense of dislocation and desolation that infected almost everybody who lived through the years of that deep and prolonged depression, but the subtlety built into the layers of this music, matched by the subtle studio production reward repeated listening in a way that pure pop simply can’t match.

As a relatively unknown quality from the nascent Fiction label, the album went through repeated pressings, with the earliest examples identified by a thicker, textured sleeve and the serial FIX 004 on the top right corner of the back. The next generation looks similar but have an FIXD 004 serial instead while later pressings lose the textured sleeve and eventually the FIXD designation. There have also been a number of later re-issues, notably from Music On Vinyl (MOVLP 394) and two from Fiction themselves, one of which confusingly reverts to the FIX 004 serial but has the smooth sleeve. Once again, the textural subtleties and solid drumming of this album are best served by the earliest pressings, which are rare but consistently clean; chill-out zones didn’t exist in the early ‘80s, but you needed to be a special kind of moribund to play this at a party!

Seventeen Seconds and Faith have been constant companions on my audio odyssey. That might be down to sympathetic resonance and the power of nostalgia, but those things weigh just as heavily in favor of the other albums here. Yet it’s The Cure who are, at least for me, the cream of the crop. Their intense and slightly disturbing melancholia is a welcome antidote to the vacuous hype of modern celebrity culture, a thoughtful and thought provoking presence that gives Seventeen Seconds a rare, timeless quality. If you don’t already know it, it’s well worth seeking out.