One autumn day in 1983 I was accompanying my parents on a shopping trip to the Short Hills Mall (although my memory is probably faulty, it was more likely Menlo Park). Browsing through the music section of whatever chain bookstore we were in I came across a rather large yet mysterious book called International Discography of the New Wave. I asked my parents if they would buy this for me and they did. I remember wanting to look at it on the drive home but knowing I’d only get carsick if I opened it.
The book was exactly what the title described, lists of thousands of New Wave/Punk/Hardcore/Industrial/Synth-Pop bands and every record they had released, from albums to 12” singles, EPs, 7” singles, cassette only releases and bootlegs. Lists of the personnel and how they changed over the years and the other bands the individuals may have been a part of. The text was set in that CRT typeface that even in the fall of 1983 seemed both ancient and futuristic at the same time.
Throughout my High School years and beyond I’d spend countless nights reading about these thousands of bands, many who only released one cassette, unlikely to be heard by anyone other than the friends of the band. The idea of this seemed both incredibly lonely and yet empowering. It was reporting from a world I lived in and was familiar with but was still unknown to me.
The entire book was laden with the sense of dread that informed the post-punk years. This book taught me what a band could consist of. A singer and a synth player could be considered a band. And ‘tapes’ could be considered a valid instrument. It was (and still is) a strange sort of Bible that ignored all but Revelations and seemed to document the end of the world. It was my own version of the Dead Sea Scrolls and to this day it still has news and ideas to report that I’d somehow missed before.
Note: After a quick search on the internet I see the book is out of print and selling for $200. Also, leafing through the book tonight I came across the entry for R.E.M., who at the time of the publishing were an obscure band from Athens, GA who had only released the Radio Free Europe/Sitting Still single and had just changed their name to Ego K. Apparently that name change didn’t quite take. Would R.E.M. be remembered today if they had changed to Ego K?
Its strange looking at this book after all that has transpired in music and civilization over the past quarter century. I first started reading/glancing over it as I was just forming my opinions about the world. Although I enjoyed the Burundi beats of Adam & the Ants/Bow Wow Wow and I was getting interested in punk (The Clash, Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys) this book was my true introduction to what I later understood to be experimental music and the dreader than dread mindset of the post-millennium era which I would later understand a hell of a lot more than I did the pre-millennium of which it spoke and informed. The same sense of dread we feel in this time of Economic uncertainty (collapse?) and wars in the east existed then in the form of Cold War paranoia and propaganda and economic crises in America and Europe, and the Soviet Union which would collapse in a few years time.
I like to speak of music criticism as a secret history or club where the lesson is more than the sum of its parts e.g. when you read a review of a record you need to understand where the writer is coming from. Everybody’s taste is different. A good writer who dislikes a record should be able to describe the music in such a way that you can determine you’d like the record despite the negative review. This is reading between the lines, understanding the critical codes and symbols within the review. As a teenager reading the International Discography of the New Wave which is, in essence a book of lists with a rare bit of trivia included, I was forced to use my imagination to figure out what most of these bands sounded like with my only clues being band name, song titles, record labels, instrumentation and country/location. And this was decades before the idea of every band in the world having a myspace page. At the time there was literally no way I could ever hope to hear 99% of the bands cited in the book. Yet still I knew.
The practice of Chaos Magick includes drawing symbols of your own devising on a piece of paper to conjure the desired result. The drawing is referred to as a sigil. Perhaps in some way the various entries in the International Discography of the New Wave were sigils. And this is how I knew what a band like Soft Verdict from Belgium may have sounded like. What would Austin Osman Spare think of this? On many pages of the book there were strange graphics of x’s and spirals and strange fish. What did they all mean? More sigils? They were like ancient cave drawings and they added to the mystery and tone and that strange loneliness of the book.
There are over 7500 bands listed in the book. They represent 30 countries including Iran, East Germany and ‘Red’ China. While at first glance 7500 seems like a large number, to think they are spread out over such an area as large as the Planet Earth demonstrates how unusual it was for a punk or new wave band to exist. In the late 1980’s and early 90s I worked at a market research firm in Westfield, NJ making phone calls to people around the United States, surveying them about their radio listening patterns. You could always tell if they lived in a rural area based on the name of the street they lived on. The more colloquial the name of the street was, the smaller the town was. Calling these people late in the evening (we’d call until 10pm local time) I’d picture an empty house with one light on; I could picture the telephone as it rang, hanging on the wall in the kitchen (illustrations of log cabins and birds on the wallpaper). Nobody home. Probably spending the evening at the local bar. And even now I can remember trips in a plane, flying at night over rural New England seeing a couple of houses lit up while looking out the window and then nothing for miles. This is the impression I get while reading discographies of these obscure bands. Bands that needed to travel a distance if they wanted to find a like-minded band. It showed a sense of commitment that may never be witnessed again in the United States and Europe.
Reading about these bands now, over 25 years after the fact, an odd sort of terror can come over you as you are reading about a time that no longer exists. Pre-internet could be Before Christ considering how much the world has changed. We are reading in this book about a dead time. An analog time that is gone and when we picture it we can only see it in sepia-toned images. Like the aged pages of the book I’ve turned so many thousands of times.