Modern Love Is Automatic

I’ve never bought completely into the idea that the term New Wave was merely a cynical move on the part of record labels to make Punk more marketable. Although it’s true that a potentially flexible term like “New Wave” (just like “alternative” years later) would provide enough wiggle room for labels to market relatively new acts like Devo while simultaneously being able to squeeze in repackaged 1970’s acts (see: J. Geils Band) and hitch a hip wagon to by-then mainstream acts (see: Blondie) there was still something prescient about the term. That is, even if its genesis was in a corporate board room it was such an apt descriptor of an attitude, a style and a music that it’s hard to imagine a suit coming up with it. A romantic college professor, maybe, but not a marketer.

Whereas the first wave of Punk had started to become an exercise in self-parody (see: The Stranglers, Sham 69, New York Dolls, et al.) punks younger sister New Wave suffered the indignation of 1) not being Punk and 2) being pretty damn wimpy. New Wave wasn’t seen as authentic Rock-n-Roll, wasn’t physically threatening and wasn’t seen as rebellious. And it wasn’t…at least on the outside. But to a large degree it was subversive. And most of the genre’s best bands had a least some roots in punk. Additionally, bands who would have hits in the early 1980’s had already been around several years (the aforementioned Devo, The Human League, Joy Divisions post-post-punk survivors New Order) which, of course, leads to the wondering of whether the stars had aligned correctly for these bands to hit when they did or, as been suggested by more than one, their sound was influenced by income potential and shaped by record label boss-men. With regard to the examples above the only groups that this seems somewhat possible with is The Human League, but they were moving toward a more commercial, accessible dance-oriented sound before they ever had any hits.

True, the most subversive tunes were never the ones picked as singles. The Human League was huge with “Don’t You Want Me” but the bands chilling anti-war/this-is-reality track “The Lebanon” never went anywhere. Similarly, A Flock Of Seagulls made their cash with the sweet, though thoroughly empty, “Space Age Love Song” and the inane (when divorced from the concept of the whole debut album, the concept being alien invasion) “I Ran”. But the cold, aggressive (yes, at the same time) and fitful “Modern Love Is Automatic” went nowhere.

(There are hundreds of examples of this and it’s a fools errand, really, to attempt to break them all down. I’ve intentionally only touched on a few, most readily recognizable examples. No reason, really, to focus on more obscure acts when I’m trying to communicate about a music that was, if nothing else, supremely populist. )

And I want to explore this whole idea further at another time but it serves as a fitting introduction to the record that has fascinated me for the past few weeks.

Shocking Pinks new full length album was released a few weeks back in the US via DFA. Essentially the work of one man, New Zealand’s Nick Harte, the album is a combination of two previously issued works that came out, appropriately and perhaps predictably enough, on Flying Nun. Like that labels best artists, Harte is thoroughly versed in pop music’s terminology, but also so removed from its standards, that even though he reminds me instantaneously of many favorites (The Go Betweens, The Vaselines) I can listen to his album and hear things again for the first time. Though the songs jump from indie-dance, beat-oriented tracks to bedsit ruminations there’s an intense personality present here. And it’s not one of split aesthetics but, rather, one who knows what he has to say shouldn’t be said in merely one way. Not that it couldn’t be forced to translate into a singular tongue, but why should it be?

I’m fascinated by Shocking Pinks because, even though there’s been (and it’s now largely on its way out) a New Wave, or close approximation of it’s most surface details, resurgence in the the US over the past few years, and Shocking Pinks music is not terribly similar to most of it, this music has a sweetness and personality that is so up-front and close to the listener as to make it unrecognizable for those simply seeking entertainment. Yet, for as intimate as the music sounds, Nick Harte himself sounds very far away. That is, when internalizing his songs there is both the desire for a connection, but the knowing that this is nigh impossible. Still, it’s sometimes best to not know everything about an artist, especially one whose work you admire so thoroughly. And the reason I keep going on about Shocking Pinks in relation to New Wave is because, sorry Nick, you don’t get to name your project “Shocking Pinks”, release album cover art like this and avoid immediate association. However, there’s a deeper connection, too.

For as much as Harte obviously admires the music of the early-mid-1980’s it’s almost as if he only heard it in passing, picked up on its buried, hidden soul, stripped away the fluff and through a determined, quiet defiance or deliberate inattention brought the meaning to the forefront. It’s a supreme achievement that couldn’t have possibly reached it’s nexus has Harte been concerned with other matters. And that’s almost the entire point of this writing.

As one who was entering adolescence in the early 1980’s I feel a stronger connection with what was marketed as New Wave than I do with the punk of the 1970’s. I also feel a stronger connection with 1980’s punk and hardcore than I do with anything released in the 1990’s. That isn’t to say that I remain untouched and uninfluenced by records that came before and after my teenage years but, rather, that the music through which one is first spoken to tends to have a powerfully emotional hot-wire that isn’t easily let go of. At the time, bands like Devo, Madness, A Flock Of Seagulls, hell, even Culture Club were, to me, completely fresh and of my time. It mattered not that all were selling in the millions, were destined to be relatively short-lived phenomena or that, to a large degree, has already been polished up and marketed to me. I was unaware of market forces and record company hustling. All I knew was that this music was new, completely different from my parents records and that was enough to claim it as my own. But, as all those bands have been repackaged, warmed over and relegated to the dust bins and VH1 shows of the 21st century, the only thing left of their music seems to be their hairdos and keyboards.

That’s certainly the impression one would get by checking out the glut of New Wave revival bands that have been pushed by seemingly every label in the world over the past few years (not to mention utter dreck like The Killers, courtesy of Island). It’s as if the current bands learned about the music, not through active listening to records and fitting them within the context of the time of their release (that is, attempting to understand how they came to be and why) but through a Time-Life infomercial on the hot sounds of the 80’s.

And that’s all the more reason to absolutely fall in love with Shocking Pinks. For one thing, Harte is not in his early 20’s (I suspect he’s closer to his mid-late 30’s but I cannot confirm this) and while this doesn’t instantly make him an authority it certainly lends him some credibility with regard to knowing what he’s doing. But, still, what is he doing? In the simplest terms, Harte is uncovering what New Wave buried. Through the utilization of simply played, thoughtful tracks (punctuated effectively by his soothing, understated voice) he negotiates the territory New Wave once had the chance to conquer but lost in battle. That is, the place where Punk wasn’t (contrary to record-critic myth) stripped of its balls but had things to say that required one stop showing his ass and start using his head. And, maybe, show a little heart, too. Not the heart that was required to declare things unacceptable (which many of the best, original Punk bands were brilliant at) but the heart that, when revealed, makes one vulnerable.

This vulnerability, matched with pop wit and economy, is what makes Shocking Pinks a band I want to claim as my own. It’s not nostalgia for a sound so much as it’s a reminder of what pop music can, and probably should, mean. I haven’t wanted to take out a blank t-shirt and a magic marker and construct my own t-shirt for a band in years.

That Shocking Pinks makes me want to do this is, perhaps, the biggest compliment I can give.

MP3: Shocking Pinks-Emily
MP3: Shocking Pinks-Second Hand Girl
MP3: Shocking Pinks-Victims
and as a special bonus…

MP3: A Flock Of Seagulls-Modern Love Is Automatic (Live in Boston, 8-4-1982)

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