10 Songs That Defined New Wave Music

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Blondie in an early publicity photo

Blondie in an early publicity photo

It was 1979 and I was in the midst of a good-natured tussle with Sting. It was backstage at the Paradise club in Boston after a scorching Police set. I got up a bit on my high horse, declaring the Police were not a punk band. They weren’t, Sting readily agreed. “Punk rock” he said, “kicked open the door for bands like us.”

And what did Sting mean by “bands like us”? Well, you could debate that endlessly, but let’s say he was talking about bands that were most often then considered “new wave,” a term that was broad and sometimes used in a derogatory manner to imply “lame” or “watered down.” But at its best, new wave meant bands influenced or stimulated by punk rock, but perhaps showing a bit more diversity, scope and range. Not just an angry blur or blitz, but bands considering topics rarely explored in pop music and bands that turned the beat around.

New wave bands might have crawled out of pub-rock or twisted out of power pop, edged in from the synth-pop field or rock-reggae terrain. For a few years, “new wave,” nebulous and vague as it was, worked. (It also mutated into “new music” and later “alt-rock.”) It was a term you could toss around and people had a general idea of what you were talking about.

Most of the acts listed here have at least a handful of songs that could have been chosen, but for this 20-song list we kept to the one-band/one-song dictate. We also stuck to the late-’70s/early-’80s heyday. Sometimes, we picked the best-known song—the “hit”—and other times went a little deeper to a preferred song. We tried to combine the ideas of “best” and “most impactful.” And, of course, we’re trying to instigate an argument.

10. “Watching the Detectives”—Elvis Costello
There are so many Elvis songs to pick from his first three albums, you could just about throw a dart and be happy with your choice. “Detectives” was, if you will, sort of epic in the new wave, masterful in its restraint, almost Dylan-esque in its mysterious story and film-noir-like imagery. It’s a tersely constructed minor-key rock-reggae. Tense and creepy, it seems to concern this girl is watching a detective show on TVgetting off on the violence—but then it (perhaps) mutates into real=life drama, the girl realizing, “Someone scratching at the window, I wonder who is it?”

9. “Passion Is No Ordinary Word”—Graham Parker and the Rumour
One of the best songs about the pressing need to go beyond sexual conquest, to combat the ennui that can set in. Parker sets it up with “I pretend to touch you and you pretend to feel” and later zeroes in with “Everything’s a thrill and every girl’s a kill/And then it gets unreal and then you don’t feel anything.” Passion? Yeah, it’s an overused word, but as Parker insists it is (should be) no ordinary word – “ain’t just another sound that you hear at night.”

8. “Tainted Love”—Soft Cell
Did any song drive the new wave denizens to the dance floor more than Marc Almond and David Ball’s synth-pop remake of an obscure mid-’60s song? From that opening “bink bink” salvo—repeated throughout—Almond sang of the torture that tainted love put him through.

7. “Senses Working Overtime”—XTC
An early, brilliant gem about, well, the nature of existence, by Andy Partridge and his mates. Partridge giddily muses about this football (English kind)-shaped world, trying to taste the difference between lemon and lime (as the church bells softly chime) with the senses counted off, “1-2-3-4-5!,” before exploding into the joyous chorus. Plus a little slice of worldly philosophy: “Hey, hey, night fights day/There’s food for thinker/And the innocents can all live slowly, all live slowly.”

Related: BCB’s classic punk rock songs (part one)

6. “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”—The Cars
“Just What I Needed” put the Boston quintet on the map—Roxy-ish, synth-and-guitar driven power-pop—but “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” is the pick. Here, the seduction process takes on a pleading, sadomasochistic tone before twisting toward the rarely told truth in the title. It’s not exactly a negative thought, but this girl is all Ric Ocasek’s got and he “needs you, needs you, tonight.” Probably not tomorrow.

5. “Heart of Glass”—Blondie
Remember the “war” between punk and disco? Never the twain should meet, some punks thought, but Blondie—who’d already brought ’60s girl group sounds and sci-fi themes to the genre—thought differently. They, with producer Mike Chapman, channeling his best Giorgio Moroder, put a relentless Euro-disco thump to the melodic waves of “Heart of Glass.” A song of blasé romantic diffidence, Deborah Harry’s love for this guy took a turn: Once she had a love and “it was a gas, soon turned out, had a heart of glass” before becoming “a pain in the ass.”

4. “Tank”—The Stranglers
Margaret Thatcher was a year away from power and Ronald Reagan two years, but tension was in the air and the sabers were rattling. And to gin that up, the military was looking for new fresh troops. The Stranglers were there to provide a caustic counterargument to the joy of warfare by sending up its advertised glory. “I can drive/drive!/my very own tank!” sang Hugh Cornwell, boasting (ironically) of the massive destructive firepower at your command. Yes, you, young man could have that costly piece of machinery at your disposal. And you can “Kill! Maim!” Dave Greenwood’s Doors-y keyboards spiraled madly.

3. “The Things That Dreams Are Made Of”—Human League
A yearning song about searching for adventure in the present tense, while already expressing nostalgia for what’s just barely passed (“Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee—good times.”)

2. “Just Can’t Get Enough”—Depeche Mode
Before singer Dave Gahan joined and Depeche Mode embraced a darker, more art-rock side, singer-songwriter Vince Clarke penned this almost absurdly buoyant hit about nothing so much as the joy of being alive and experiencing all life had to offer.

1. “The Big Country”—Talking Heads
Beginning with a mournful country twang, the song rings of coastal snobbery, but I can’t say I haven’t felt this. David Byrne is a plane flying cross-country noting “a baseball diamond, nice weather down there, places to park,” and decides, “I wouldn’t do the things the way those people do/I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.”

Want more? Read part two of our new wave celebration now!

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan

As a high school baseball player growing up in Maine, I used to pump myself up for games by playing Raw Power by Iggy & the Stooges –the ultimate adrenaline rush. My friends and team mates didn't quite get it. They liked Chicago (the band). But that was OK: the punk rock revolution was around the corner, and that's where my musical taste locked in with many others, bored with corporate rock. Yes, I had Slade, Mott, Bowie and Roxy to get me there, too. That punk (and post) period was a time of extreme excitement (friction, joy, conflict) that inspired me to write about what I loved. And it opened the doors to even more worlds.

I wrote about pop music and other arts for the Boston Globe for 25-plus years, with more than 10,000 stories to my credit before leaving in 2005. Since then I’ve freelanced for the Boston Phoenix, Boston Herald, Where magazine, Boston Common, Yankee magazine online, Time Out Boston, US News & World Report, the Cape Cod Times. I host the XFINITY on Demand music/interview show “Boston Rock/Talk,” and write and edit www.jimsullivanink.com, which serves as a critical guide to arts and events around metro Boston.
Jim Sullivan
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