I was inspired by a video post of a 1980 performance by The Cure before they got really big. It was before Robert Smith started wearing his hair and make-up for which he became so famous along with his great song-writing and stage performance. I noticed, at this stage in the band's development (they had only been together since '76) that the thing that made them so great was their sound. It was not rock 'n roll in the "classic rock" 70's way (The Eagles, Led Zeppelin) and yet it was not punk either (Sex Pistols) although the members site punk as a major influence when they started, coming out of Crawley, West Sussex in England.
The Cure's sound was different and unique and I started to think about how they achieved that sound. I noticed Smith used chorus (a pedal effect mimicking the sound of multiple guitars) on his guitar instead of distortion, which created a twangy yet mysterious sound; and occasionally a flanger (another pedal effect), which created a washy, murky effect. He had a delay (similar to echo, but you control the timing) on his voice, but it was done carefully so that you only heard it when he explicated a word and then stopped singing for a moment, like at the end of a phrase, which gave the delay a chance to work effectively. The vocals, as a result, highlighted Smith's distinct natural voice and were enhanced by an eerie echo-effect. The instrumentation was simple, Smith on guitar and vocal, Simon Gallup on bass, Lol Tolhurst on drums and Matthieu Hartley on keyboards (Cure fans, please correct if I'm wrong, this was July 1980); no horns or strings, of course. The drums had a "tight" sound - that is, they weren't loud and "boomy" but rather crisp and clean. The bass was also "clean" in the sense that it had little or no distortion (rock without distortion must have been quite a concept at that time - I know other groups were doing it as well). Also, the fact that many of the songs were in minor keys and the melodies were minor, adds to the dark and brooding feel. The beats for most songs were also more driving and machine-like rather than laid-back and loose. The synthesizer (keyboard) sound was characterized by a more "futuristic" sound which was achieved by triangle-shaped ('sawtooth') wave forms and 'frequency sweeps' with envelopes that went from square to sawtooth, as opposed to the rounded, "freaky" psychedelic sounds that came from the early '70s. The look of the band is also worth mentioning - short hair instead of long, and Smith had angular tapered pants and suit jacket, a far cry from bell-bottoms and puffy shirts that came out of the late '60s/early '70s.
I also started to think about the ethos, or the cultural statement behind this music. What was this music about? It was not overtly political, like the folk and rock of the '60s. Nor was it necessarily meant to shock the parents or society, like punk was. And, of course, it was not the feel-good, "let's party" mentality of Kiss. Rather, it seems as though this period of music that developed in the years 1976 - 1980 may have been the first rock sound that was based purely on aesthetics, or sound, rather than part of a clearly defined culture (sex, drugs and rock 'n roll) or political movement (end the war in Vietnam, overthrow the Establishment). Other bands that took shape during this period, most notably Joy Division and Talking Heads, share this same attention to sound and "rock as art" ethos - post-punk, post-industrial, and, in a way, post-society, where the sound is central and the culture surrounding that sound is just a side-effect.
I'm not a rock scholar, and I'm sure much has been written on this subject, but this idea struck me. Perhaps one of the reasons this period of time resonates with me so strongly is because it covers the first four years of my life and, consequently, the sound of this period greatly influenced the sounds of the bands that I grew up listening to, and the MTV generation. Here's that youtube video - The Cure is the opening act, I hope the person who posted doesn't mind:
My website, which includes info about me and audio clips of my music, is: http://plumleafmusic.com