New Wave Schtick of the '90s
By Ken Lieck
July 21, 1997: It's hardly a typical night at the Hole in the Wall when the Prima Donnas come to play. In place of the usual chattering clutch of people sitting, sipping their beers, and occasionally looking up to acknowledge a particularly nifty solo or lyric, there's a large crowd packed all the way to the rear of the venue, exchanging silly grins and whooping for their favorite tunes from the keyboard-pounding trio. Many bands have derisively been given the appellation, "The Next Spinal Tap," but these pranksters, with their horrid fake British accents and maniacal insistence that they do indeed hail from Sussex (pronounced "soos-icks") England, go all the way with the schtick.
Regaling the audience with tales of their home country while fighting desperately to get the simple sound system to accommodate their bombastic, antiquated, and overloud keys and drum machine, the Prima Donnas seem to be from an alternate universe rather than a nation across the Atlantic. After several aborted attempts to reduce the volume of the booming, feedback-laden vocals of his first few tunes, vocalist Otto Matik finally can't stand the pressure anymore. Gazing in bafflement at the few knobs of the small PA, he pleads to the crowd, "Is there any-woon here who unduhstands electronics?"
It's a line truly befitting the Nigel Tufnel of faux technopop, and one that makes some audience members double over with laughter while the rest continue the ongoing "Are they or aren't they?" debate over the band's origins. "[Syn-drummer Nick Holiday] still hasn't got the accent down -- that's why he doesn't talk as much," smirks one `in-the-know' audience member. This is one fan who knows to stand at the back, prepared from the oncoming onslaught of cloud and stench that the band's prerequisite smoke machine is sure to belch forth soon.
It's a device that could only seem natural at the Hole in the Wall accompanying this trio of cheeky brats, whose instruments and melodies, somewhat obscured by the shrieking of overbearing keyboards and Matik's onstage antics, still clearly recall the sounds of the Reagan era, when "trickle-down" often referred to the flecks of white powder trailing from the noses of bobbing Yuppies. At the end of the set, Matik instructs anyone who wishes to remain in the club to place themselves in one of two lines -- one for those who wish to purchase Prima Donnas merchandise, the other for those interested in "sooking on our pee-neses."
Apart from the car-crash thrill of observing the sadomasochistic joke being perpetrated here, why have so many people assembled at this club to view and rock out to the antics of these three individuals? Simply because they offer something different. And while it is different and new in its own way, it's rooted in the familiar: Eighties' New Wave. The Prima Donnas are the Thompson Twins without tech support, Depeche Mode with their angst tucked deeply into their pants. While some have alternately bemoaned and celebrated the fragmenting of Austin's underground music scene (see Greg Beets' "The Big Bang" in last week's Music Section), the Prima Donnas are the undisputed leaders of one local faction that actually seems to be gaining in strength. Let's attempt to explain by way of a little history lesson.
It came to pass that in the Seventies, the Fifties were born, in no small part brought about by films like Grease and American Graffiti, along with their television offspring like Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley. Oh sure, the Fifties had actually been around as early as the late Sixties, when Sha Na Na championed the wearing of leather jackets, "wifebeater" shirts, and slicked-back pompadours. Sha Na Na made the Fifties so popular in fact, that they were even chosen to play at Woodstock. Still, it wasn't until the Seventies that the world, passing from the "Summer of Love" into the "Me" decade, began following Sha Na Na's lead of trying to forget the turbulent Sixties -- the Vietnam era -- by burying themselves in the simpler, less threatening world of the Fifties.
The Eighties saw a similar rejection of the garish, freewheeling Seventies, and predictably, the fashions and music of the Sixties began to reemerge. Unlike the Fifties, however, which had pretty much been brought in wholesale, the Sixties were snuck into the music of the Eighties, recalling the sound of a previous time while still claiming to be moving forward; bands like R.E.M. pulled the sounds of the Byrds into their songs and Tears For Fears began channelling the Beatles. Duran Duran, meanwhile, took their name from a character in the 1969 cheesecake flick Barbarella. Hell, while it wasn't particularly evident in their music, Andy Summers of the Police was once a member of the Animals, for Chrissake!
What are we really talking about in reference to Eighties music? As with any decade, the artists who brought home the bulk of the bacon were generic, multi-platinum rock & roll acts like Bryan Adams, Bon Jovi, and the like. Nevertheless, much of the influence on this decade's acts comes from that pair of old standbys: punk and New Wave. Both musical movements actually have their roots in the Seventies, but it took until the Eighties before the general public was fully aware of their existence.
New Wave has had its share of descriptions as critics tried to explain what did and didn't belong under that banner. Simply put, it was any kind of music (including punk) that came from a need to escape the fatuous dinosaur acts of the Seventies; you know, Led Zeppelin, the Who, the Rolling Stones (what's now called "Classic Rock"). Therefore, the proto-electronica of Kraftwerk, technopop of the Buggles, neo-rockabilly of the Stray Cats, and many other variants became part of a New Wave of music that sought to pull itself out of the "Me" Decade.
The New Wave movement was also about fashion -- as is any musical/social/cultural revolution -- but this one was about a change in fashion, not one wherein everyone wore identical bell-bottoms and excessively tall shoes. The Prima Donnas' Matik further makes the point that the New Wave era exists on two disparate timelines: "It's kind of different for oos," he says. "A lot of the music we listen to might be Eighties music to Amurrica, but there's a two-year jump either way. Eighties music that I find truly brilliant like `U Can't Touch This' we didn't even heah until 1992." Matik's memory may be stretching that timeline a bit, but more than once I remember wearing out import singles of the latest U.K. hits just in time to have American radio pick up on them after I'd played them to death. This musical time lag between the U.K. and U.S. gives us a "decade" that lasted -- again, musically speaking -- for close to 15 years.
That quasi-decade started off strong, too, producing new-sounding hitmakers like Duran Duran and the Cure, before fragmenting into a messy sea of dissatisfying one-hit wonders and paving the way for the next "wave," the so-called Alternative movement, which, like the movement before it, simply lumped together all music that rejected the previous decade's bloated sound. If you're feeling a sense of déjà-vu right now, it's because what the fracturing of the New Wave movement is exactly where Alternative has found itself at the moment -- incapable of producing any more long-term successes and just waiting for the new guard to come in and take over.
The Prima Donnas, of course, with their keyboards and drum machine, page-boy locks and Brit schoolboy grins, are the most blatantly Eighties/New Wave act in town these days -- as well as being the reigning clown princes of the music scene -- though it might surprise some to hear what they listened to in their formative years. Key man Julius Seizure cites Eighties metal bands like Metallica and Guns 'n' Roses, while Matik, in prime John Lydon fashion, can only tell you what he hates: "I don't really loike Eighties music, actually. I don't loike Devo -- I think that's just crap music, too herky-jerky. I don't like anything from New Yo'k in the Eighties. I don't really like British New Wave; at the time I just hated it because it was everywhere. I was joost dying."
In desperation, Matik finally concurs with Seizure: "Anything by Metallica," he says. So, why do the Prima Donnas play Eighties-sounding, keyboard dominated music? "It's koind of loike we're exorcising our demons," Matik muses. "We do this for the rock & roll loifestyle. We're innit for the ego stroke, but we're also innit for a pee-nis stroke, really." He pauses, looks around at his mates, then finally out tumbles his confession: "We'd loike to be able to play the music we love, but we just can't do it."
The aptly named, keyboard-powered cover duo King Cheese are doing their best to mine this new/old market as well. Unbelievably, though, they too choose to perform at original music hangouts like Emo's and the Hole In the Wall rather than cover band havens like Maggie Mae's. "I don't think we've ever played at a place where you'd expect a cover band to play," points out Cheeser Michael Bluejay. "In fact, I'd like to think that Maggie Mae's wouldn't touch us with a 10-foot pole."
When King Cheese first got together, Bluejay admits he didn't think they had a chance of getting away with peddling Seventies and Eighties dance hits to a two-guitar-bass-and-drums city, though he says he sees nothing unusual in people liking what they do. "Nineteen Eighty was 17 years ago," he points out. "It's nostalgia for one thing, but it was also an intense time for music. We get away with some of this by making fun of it and doing it as a parody, but I think there really was some good music at that time."
Still, getting local music scene types to see a cover band would seem to be a task worthy of Hercules, but it was actually performed by a guy (well, a band) named Ed. King Cheese had been around for approximately a year when Ed Hall asked them to open a show for them at Emo's "As soon as we did that show," recalls Bluejay, "people were all over us. I think that people didn't think it was cool to like us, but as soon as they saw us playing with Ed Hall, they realized it was okay."
The Recliners have found yet another use for the metal, New Wave, and punk of not so long ago; they use it as fodder to turn back the clock to before Billy Idol got out of diapers. "Our schtick as a lounge band really involves doing well known songs," says Recliner Eric Calistri, whose band goes beyond performing the hits of the Big Band era into adapting songs from other times -- including the Eighties. "If you're doing something so recent, a mid-30s age group might be out of touch with that," adds bandmate Michael Moran. "If you've got something too old -- an 18-year-old kid probably thinks the Seventies is old. When you do the Eighties, everybody knows those songs." Well, not necessarily everybody, Calistri shoots back; as a band that ofttimes plays to groups of octogenarians, he explains, "I think that there's a certain part of the crowd that's totally unaware that Tony Bennett never did `Rock the Casbah.'"
But the Prima Donnas, King Cheese, and Recliners aren't the only local bands whose music can easily be traced to the New Wave era. The Adults' Paul Ahern accurately describes the syndrome as "shallow nostalgia." It's almost impossible to listen to an entire Cotton Mather set without the name "Squeeze" coming to mind, and most any punk act in town by definition owes itself to the Eighties.
The Hamicks' most recent single, "Dot To Dot" b/w "X-Ray Eyes" can, with some imagination, come off sounding like an outtake from the Cars' Panorama album, though as a band, they pooh-pooh any great plan to sound New Wave, dismissing it as coming down to the fact that they have a keyboard in the band. "You automatically get pegged with it," mourns keyboardist Jeanine Attaway. Indeed, when asked to name bands that fall into the same category as the Prima Donnas, Seizure and Matik reel off the Hamicks, Kiss Offs, and Bunny Stockhausen before realizing, "Oh, I guess those are just other bands with a keyboard."
"[The New Wave influence] is obviously there, because I grew up in the Eighties," allows Hamicks' drummer Brandon Crowe. Bassist Arman Mabry counters with, "It's not intentional. I grew up in the Eighties too, and all I want out of it is to get out of it."
There's an increasing number of music fans, though, who seemingly can't wait to get back into it. Not one but a whole series (!) of Devo hoot nights have drawn large crowds at local clubs; it's quite an irony, that Devo, who for years were mostly remembered from the fact that wearing their T-shirts would get you beaten up as a nerd, have come to represent the very archetype of New Wave with their stiff, unemotional dance beats and snide, antisocial lyrics. (To a new generation of musicians, Devo has become what Neil Young was a few years ago.) The audiences at a similar batch of Prince hoots have in turn dwarfed the attendance at the Spud Boys' tributes.
A quick flip through local releases of the past few years also yields a half-dozen
Blondie covers with no effort, with the perpetrators ranging from the Cherubs to
Cut the Green Wire to Gut and Glorium, who are features on a four-song all-Blondie
orgy EP. And who can forget 1994's
So, the Eighties are everywhere. They're 15 volumes of Rhino's New Wave Hits of Eighties. They're on the radio, they're in our clubs, they're being laughed at here, and taken dead seriously there. And why not? As King Cheese's Bluejay succinctly puts it, "When my parents were my age, they played stuff that was about 17 years old, so I guess we get our years imprinted on us pretty heavily." But don't worry. Like any other trend, the whole Eighties thing is bound to go away soon enough, only to lurk around until another surprise return sometime in the future. As stated above, the Alternative scene is rapidly splintering and collapsing just like the New Wave inevitably fell.
What do we have to look forward to after the turn of the millennium -- after That Which Is To Come inevitably loses our interest? How about Kelly Willis covering "Jagged Little Pill" or Don Walser yodeling his way through a Foo Fighters classic? And as unbelievable as it may seem now, I'm putting my money on a string of well-attended Radiohead Hoot nights as early as 2006. Back to the future indeed.
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