New Wave Music | New Wave

New Wave Music

New Wave followed Punk in music chronology, thereby placing its roots in the late 1970s. What also followed Punk was Post-punk. Both New Wave and Post-punk sought to distinguish themselves from the popular music of the time, punk included. While Post-punk retained some of Punk’s characteristics, like the gritty sound and the machismo attitude, New Wave emerged as an entirely different entity. Music Journalist Simon Reynolds says, “The sound was as skinny as the ties worn by so many New Wave Bands, consisting of choppy rhythm guitar (with hardly any lead playing), fast-tempos, and often keyboards. The songs often had stop-start structures and melody lines that were angular and jumpy rather than gently curving.” It was an attempt to rid the popular music of the time of its black influence, namely the feel of the music. It took on a white, nervous, edgy feel.

As New Wave developed from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, the original incarnation of the New Wave idea, however, turned into more of a pop sound. As a genre, New Wave  is hard to define  because it has taken on this pop, catch-all existence. Bands like Talking Heads, The Cars, XTC had originally developed the sound, but in the world of music after punk, much of the music was simply labeled New Wave: acts like The Beat and the Police had a reggae-influenced sound; Gary Numan and the Human League relied heavily on synthesizers; Elvis Costello, The Pretenders, and Blondie had a rock & roll feel. Also, with the rise of MTV, many acts emerged on the scene and were supported by corporate labels. The commercialization of New Wave more or less brought about its demise because the rebellious spirit that had given rise to the genre had been swallowed up by corporate agendas and public renown.

My goal with this project is to illuminate the big players of the New Wave genre, showcase the diversity of styles under the New Wave umbrella, and show how, as the years, progressed, the music became much more commercial and resembled pop music. Despite the short existence of the genre, New Wave set the tone for the 1980s. It brought music from the depths of underground punk to the spotlight with MTV and major record labels. Many of the songs come from 1982 which is evidenced by MTV’s launch in mid to late 1981. This was the peak of New Wave, and I have included many examples to showcase the trend to become more visible. A lot of New Wave bands faltered after having initial success, unless they were successful in the transition to the genre of pop.

Antmusic – Adam & the Ants

Kings of the Wild Frontier. Epic Records, EK-37033, 1980.



Antmusic is a prime example of New Wave music in that it has choppy guitars, jumpy melodies, and an upbeat tempo. I chose it because Adam Ant was one of the early faces of New Wave music, with his quirky stage persona and flashy style.

Being Boiled – The Human League

Travelogue. Virgin Records, 2160, 1980.



Being Boiled has a very heavy synthesized foundation supporting the nervous vocals of the lead singer. The melody gives off the angular vibe that Reynolds mentions in his book. The song is unique in that it has a dark and forboding tone unlike many typical New Wave songs of the time.

Cars – Gary Numan

The Pleasure Priciple. Atco Records, SD-38120, 1979.



Cars also has a heavy synthesized base. The vocals bring to mind an edgy, anti-corporate, almost robotic lead singer. The overall sound is very otherworldly and interesting, but different from the typical 1970s sound and thus labeled as New Wave.

Cool for Cats – Squeeze

Cool for Cats. A&M Records, 4759, 1979.



Cool for Cats contains very choppy vocals sung by an edgy, white lead singer. There is a synth keyboard and a clangy guitar to round out the nervous feel of New Wave. The sound achieved in this song is representative of the early New Wave songs.

De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da – The Police

Zenyatta Mondatta. A&M Records, 4831, 1980.



De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da has been added to the playlist because it represents the diversity of the styles under New Wave. The Police started out as a punkish band in the late 1970s but soon adopted other sytles, namely reggae. This song has choppy, sharp guitar, reggae drum beats, and an edgy feel.

Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? – Culture Club

Kissing to Be Clever. Epic Records, 38398, 1982.



Boy George and his flamboyant stage persona provided Culture Club with a platform to spring from. This enabled them to achieve much success in the MTV world. The song is slow-paced, subtly synth-laden, and has George singing with tones of desperation and pain behind the lyrics. The song does not necessarily fit into the typical New Wave format, but MTV proved that New Wave was a good label for potential departure into stardom.

Girls on Film – Duran Duran

Duran Duran. EMI/Capitol Records, 584380, 1981.



Duran Duran is a perfect example of MTV launching someone’s career. Girls on Film came out just before MTV was launched, but the video, which contained many supermodels in bikinis, was a big hit on the station. They grabbed the bull by the horns and launched a very successful career.

Hanging on the Telephone – Blondie

Parallel Lines. Chrysalis Records, 1192, 1978.



One of the pioneers of the New Wave sound, Blondie is an interesting case study. Having started out as more of a Punk outfit, Blondie threw that label aside and adopted the New Wave style. The song has a rocking feel, but the vocals bring it back into the realm of New Wave. Deborah Harry’s voice jumps around the rhythm, and the effect on the guitar give it the staple New Wave sound.

I Ran (So Far Away) – A Flock of Seagulls

A Flock of Seagulls. Jive Records, 6600, 1982.



One of the most iconic songs from the early 1980s, I Ran is a great example of New Wave music. Coming to light right as MTV did, A Flock of Seagulls capitalized on the New Wave boom. The song contains synth and keyboards, echoey guitars, up-and-down drum beats, a prickly bassline which all combine to give it the edgy, airy feel.

I Want Candy – Bow Wow Wow

I Want Candy. RCA Records, 4375, 1982.



Bow Wow Wow was an interesting case. I Want Candy was their most popular song, but they had been around for a few years before the MTV machine aired the song. The song is unique in that it contains African drum beats, fiery guitar picking and strumming, and a female vocal rolled into one. This song helps portray the diversity of the genre.

Love My Way – The Psychedelic Furs

Forever Now. Columbia Records, 85909, 1982.



The Psychedelic Furs came to prominence in the early 1980s and fed off of the success of the MTV machine. Love My Way is more of a slow song, laden with synth keyboards. The vocals are representative of a typical New Wave singer, the bass line is choppy, and the overall airiness are definitive elements of new wave.

Love Plus One – Haircut 100

Pelican West. Arista Records, 100, 1982.



Love Plus One was a prototypical New Wave song, but incorporated other elements into the overall sound, such as funk (noticeable in the bassline). The vocals are typical as they are white, quirky, and nervous. Love Plus One came out in 1982, the MTV boom, which would explain why the song it Haircut 100’s only single. The song has many pop elements, but is just different enough to be labeled New Wave.

Mirror in the Bathroom – The Beat

I Just Can’t Stop It. Sire Records, 6091, 1980.



Along with The Police, The Beat incorporated reggae into their music. The saxophone and drumming are evident of this, but the vocals are good examples of quirky, edgy lead singers. The guitar and bass are played in the choppy New Wave style and are enhanced by effects that give it the echoey ring.

Moving in Stereo – The Cars

The Cars. Elektra Records, 1352, 1978.



The Cars were among the early prominent New Wave acts. The use of keyboards punctuate the song perfectly as the synth-laden track winds along. The vocals are haunting and edgy, and there is just the subtle appearance of a rock influence in the song.

Never Gonna Cry Again – Eurythmics

In the Garden. RCA Records, 5061, 1981.



Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart caught the wave of New Wave and experimented with it before turning to more pop-like styles in the mid to late 1980s. Never Gonna Cry Again has a simple, synthesized foundations with echoey guitar picking, and an ethereal keyboard solo. This distinguished the song from pop necessarily and because of its difference, it seems very welcome into the large net of styles enveloped in New Wave music.

Once in a Lifetime – Talking Heads

Remain in Light. Sire Records, 2-6095, 1980.



David Byrne is the prototypical New Wave singer. He embodies all of the characteristics that later acts models themselves after. Byrne has the edgy, anti-corporate persona that brought life to the genre in the first place. He and Talking Heads helped launch New Wave. They were signed by the specifically New Wave label, Sire Records.

Poison Arrow – ABC

The Lexicon of Love. Mercury Records, 4056, 1982.



ABC was one of New Wave’s typical later additions. Having been released in 1982, ABC was riding on the hopes of MTV-driven success. Posion Arrow has a distinctly pop feel but still retains the typical characteristics of New Wave songs.

Private Idaho – The B-52’s

Wild Planet. Warner Bros. Records, 3471, 1980.



The B-52’s were one of the premier American New Wave bands. They grew out of the Athens, Georgia music scene, which was a center of New Wave bands. The song features quirky vocals, choppy guitar, and thumping drums and the edginess of New Wave songs.

Private Life – Oingo Boingo

Nothing to Fear. A&M Records, 75021-3251-2, 1982.



Oingo Boingo was one of America’s leading New Wave bands. Forming in the early 1980s, they benefited from the rise of MTV and getting their videos shown to the masses. Danny Elfman’s vocals are quirky and jumpy and the bands uses synthesizers and keyboards appropriately for a typical New Wave song.

Pump It Up – Elvis Costello and the Attractions

This Year’s Model. Columbia Records, JC-35331, 1978.



Elvis Costello’s songs  contain lyrics that were very representative of the New Wave spirit. In Pump It Up, there are several double entendres, including the title of the track referencing both a penis and the music. The song itself is rather edgy and choppy like other New Wave tracks. Elvis Costello was also one of the prominent early players in the New Wave genre.

Statue of Liberty – XTC

White Music. Virgin Records, 2095, 1978.



XTC was one of the prominent players in the New Wave sound. Keyboards were evident in Statue of Liberty, with the jumpy vocals and rhythms adding to the overall feel. As with some other New Wave bands, XTC became more pop as the years drew on because they had not really become popular in the UK or the US.

Tattooed Love Boys – The Pretenders

Pretenders. Sire Records, 2-3563, 1980.



Tattooed Love Boys is more of a rock song, with its churning guitar chorus and lead guitar presence. The edgy vocals of Chrissy Hynde give the song the early New Wave signature. The Pretenders were at the forefront of the New Wave scene having been picked up by the independent New Wave label, Sire Records.

True – Spandau Ballet

True. Chrysalis Records, 41403, 1983.



This song comes right at the end of the New Wave era. It has a soft rock style tempo to it, but still retains the airy, echoey, distortion of the guitar. This song symbolizes the end of an era with other elements being incorporated and a loss of edginess to the sound.

Vacation – The Go-Go’s

Vacation. IRS Records, 70031, 1982.



Vacation is a pop song at heart. The vocals and jumpy and light underlined by the choppy bass line. The date of release is right at the beginning of the MTV video craze. What is unique about the Go-Go’s is that it is an entirely female-based band. This adds to the edgy spirit of the early 1980s following the punk tradition.

Whip It – Devo

Freedom of Choice. Warner Bros. Records, 3435, 1980.



Whip It could be considered one of the more typical New Wave songs with its jumpy, upbeat feel, quirky vocals, and synthesized rhythms. The music video for the song was picked up by MTV and had plenty of airtime and became a chart topper after over a year having been released.


Reynolds, Simon. Rip It Up and Start Again. London: Penguin Books, 2005.

All album covers are taken from, except for This Year’s Model, Forever Now, and White Music, which I have taken from

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