‘EVERYBODY WANG CHUNG TONIGHT’: REMEMBERING THE ‘NEW’ NEW WAVE
Back at art school in 1980-81, I was taught music theory by a cool, unassuming guy called Jeremy Ryder. His knowledge of the works of Mendelssohn, Stockhausen and Hendrix was a revelation, and the variety of his collection something to admire. It was after about three weeks of these lectures that Mr Ryder revealed to us that he, too, fronted a band. Well, I could see it – he wasn’t a bad looking bloke: one part Sting, two parts Ray Davies, perhaps. In this capacity, he was known as Jack Hues (which I assumed was a play on the writings of Emile Zola).
Before class finished, he played us a couple of tracks by his group, Huang Chung: they weren’t especially memorable, but were better than I’d anticipated. By the end of the college year, the band had played a couple of freebie gigs at the college, signed to Arista and had made it to the smaller columns of the NME. But, despite much hype during 1982, things simply weren’t happening for Huang Chung – it means ‘yellow bell’ in Cantonese – the press considering their faux-Eastern take on post-punk somewhat contrived.
So, you can imagine my surprise when vacationing in the US some years on, to hear a Texan girlfriend warbling ‘Everybody Have Fun Tonight’ (1986, US #2; UK #76) – a million-selling American hit for the renamed Wang Chung, now signed to the all-conquering Geffen. In Britain, Mr Ryder’s band had remained a one-hit-wonder, their rather odd ‘Dance Hall Days’ (1984, UK #21; US #16) having slotted briefly into the playlists and the hit parade during that rather nondescript musical era.
However, ‘Fun Tonight’ – along with all of The Chung’s other releases at home – had ‘tanked’: let’s face it, the British were never likely to buy into the refrain “everybody have fun tonight, everybody Wang Chung tonight!” But, in America, they followed this with another Top Ten single in ‘Let’s Go’ (1987, US #9; UK #81) – the band’s sixth of eight Hot 100 entries.
The improbable US success of Wang Chung emphasised a phenomenon I’d begun to notice some time previously: America seemed to be welcoming all the new-wave leftovers that we Brits didn’t want. At around the same time that Chung were being chunked in Britain, another touted London band, The Fixx, weren’t exactly setting the charts alight, either. The Cy Curnin-fronted group had limped to poor finishes with the okay-ish ‘Stand Or Fall’ (1982, UK #54) and ‘Red Skies’ (1982, UK #57) before their second album reached US beaches. While The Fixx couldn’t get arrested back home, Reach The Beach went platinum overseas and its massive flagship hit ‘One Thing Leads To Another’ (1983, US #4; UK #86) was just one of six(x) Top 40 entries for the group in America.
In the wake of these flag-bearers, ‘obscure’ British acts were suddenly finding their wares stocked in US stores under the all-embracing header of ‘New Music’ (usually represented in appropriately jagged hand-lettering – perhaps to denote a DIY-punk ethos, perhaps because they hadn’t any proper cards for this unexpected new ‘genre’). Forgotten UK bands such as Naked Eyes (four US Top 40 smashes, zip-all at home), After The Fire (a million-seller with ‘Der Kommissar’), Modern English (500k copies of ‘I Melt With You’) and The Quick (a dance number one with ‘Zulu’) were finding a far better reception across the pond, while even awkward synth-princes like Comsat Angels, Eyeless In Gaza and Leisure Process were fetching the kind of airplay they simply couldn’t buy at home. And everywhere one looked, there seemed to be a photo of A Flock of Seagulls’ Mike Score with that stupid haircut of his.
So what was behind this peculiar trend? I’d originally surmised that the general facelessness of these particular acts was a turn-off to UK record-buyers surrounded by pretties like Culture Club and The Human League – but then Blancmange went and scored chart hits at home, so it couldn’t have been that. Without an obvious answer – even from that musical oracle himself, Jack Hues – I put it down to a belated (and somewhat misguided) US appropriation of ‘punk rock’. The guitar-driven, emotionless drone, the funny haircuts and the ‘cock-er-ney’ accents probably did the trick for early eighties US pop kids to whom the real McCoy was way too scary, and perhaps even a bit passé.
The proper UK stuff was never really played in America at the time, but perhaps this ‘new’ new wave opened a few doors? After all, old UK stalwarts like The Clash (who scored a US Top Ten hit before they did in Britain), The Cure, Siouxsie & The Banshees and even ex-Bauhaus mob Love and Rockets all, paradoxically, secured major hits thereafter.
Now, if only someone had stuck a drum machine under some Stockhausen. They’d surely have cleaned up….