In the fall of 1977, to publicize a stable of new artists whose music was known as "punk rock," Sire Records put out a promotional package emblazoned, "New Wave rock 'n' roll: get behind it before it gets past you." The bands featured on those discs did indeed get past the mainstream audience (though one of them, Talking Heads, ultimately became well known), but the label stuck.
"New wave" was meant as a substitute for the rather threatening "punk" label, but gradually the two names came to signify different, albeit related, styles. Rough-edged bands like the Ramones and Television were called punk, while cooler, cleaner-sounding outfits were classified as new wave. Soon an even more significant contrast was noted: New wave, it turned out, was a salable commodity.
The group that put new wave in the Top 10 was not one of Sire's New York innovators, but rather an interloper from left field (or, more precisely, Boston): the Cars. Though they drew on many of the same sources (Cars drummer David Robinson and Talking Heads guitarist-keyboardist Jerry Harrison, for example, were fellow veterans of the Modern Lovers), the Cars were always glossier than their New York counterparts. Commercially, that has paid off -- a decade later, the Cars are still stars and the Ramones remain a cult band.
The Cars: 'Door to Door'
The Cars' sound was always chilly and mechanical, but a human pulse could be located on upbeat early singles such as "Best Friend's Girl" and "Let's Go." The band's work iced up severely over the years, with its last album, 1984's "Heartbeat City," bearing the fewest traces of humanity. The new "Door to Door" (Elektra 9 60747-1), the first record the Cars have made without an outside producer, was supposed to be looser. It's not clear, however, that even a three-year vacation is enough to get these studio perfectionists, who'll appear Nov. 4 at Capital Centre, to relax.
Most of the songs on "Door to Door" are about love, but it is hardly a passionate record. Antiromantic refrains such as "I could leave or stay/ Makes no difference either way" from "Leave or Stay" set the tone; even the lively "You Are the Girl," the first single from the album, is similarly jaded.
"Door to Door" is not quite so highly burnished as the synth-heavy "Heartbeat City." Robinson's drumming is freer and a careening Elliot Easton guitar solo almost busts loose from the title song's quickstep arrangement. Still, the record's motto might well be the refrain from "Strap Me In," one of the few genuinely catchy songs: "Oh oh I'm falling through/ You better strap me in." After six studiously trussed-up albums, it would be interesting to hear what the Cars might sound like if they were ever really at risk of falling through.
The Ramones: 'Halfway to Sanity'
The Ramones, whose "blitzkrieg bop" defined the punk sound, have made an album for each of the 11 years they've been signed to Sire (one, a live set, wasn't released here). Over the course of those records, the group ethic central to the band's early work has disintegrated, a process that culminated in last year's "Animal Boy." That record had several songs better than anything on the new "Halfway to Sanity" (Sire 9 25641-1), but it was distressingly fragmentary. The current disc doesn't prove the Ramones are once again the "happy family" they ironically claimed to be on their "Rocket to Russia" album, but it does cohere better than "Boy."
The Ramones' original brainstorm was to marry the simplistic tunes of pre-Beatles rock with the sonic power of heavy metal, then crank the whole thing into overdrive. The band, which has suffered some internal feuding and frequent turnover in the drummer's slot, no longer seems capable of holding this formula together. Instead, "Sanity" alternates girl-group-inspired pop such as "A Real Cool Time" and "Bye Bye Baby" with punk or metal blasts like the Stoogey "Worm Man" and the band's most metallic track yet, "Garden of Serenity."
The four have probably drifted too far apart to re-create the awesome ensemble attack of the group's early work, but "Sanity" is best when it attempts to reunify the band's sound. The two songs where Dee Dee Ramone moves toward Joey Ramone's more melodic sensibility, "I Wanna Live" and the instant-oldie "Go Lil' Camaro Go" (the latter featuring Debbie Harry as Joey's vocal partner), are the record's highlights. Songs like these don't prove that the Ramones can put it all back together, but they suggest that it's worth a try.
Richard Lloyd: 'Real Time'
In Television, the best of New York's punk-era bands, Richard Lloyd was earth to Tom Verlaine's fire and air. Nice work if you can get it, and Lloyd hasn't had so good a gig since Television split in 1978. He may not realize that, of course. With time out for shaking a serious drug habit, Lloyd has been pursuing a solo career, but his third album, a surprisingly low-key live recording called "Real Time" (Celluloid CELL 6135), doesn't make a strong case for continuing on that course.
Not that Lloyd isn't an excellent guitarist, a capable (if inconsistent) melodist and an acceptable singer. It's just that he lacks vision. He's a weak lyricist, and even the best songs included on this disc -- which mixes a few previously unrecorded songs with some of the finest from his previous records, "Alchemy" and "Field of Fire" -- seem only partially realized.
As shown by his disappointing version of "Fire Engine," the 13th Floor Elevators' song with which Television so often opened its shows, Lloyd can't fan the flames all by himself. He needs a band of equals with another songwriter and a worthy guitar-duel partner.