10 More Songs That Defined New Wave Music

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Devo, one of the most innovative American new wave bands

Welcome to the second half of our celebration of the new wave era. If you haven’t read the first part yet, please start here.

As we noted in part one, it’s likely that few bands really wanted or encouraged using the new wave tag, but, keep in mind, most bands loathe any genre or attempt at pigeonholing.

“It’s sort of an historical term now,” says the Cars’ keyboardist Greg Hawkes. “I don’t know if we really minded it back then. It was just one of those things where ‘new wave’ was almost like a joke term to us. It seemed to be a generic catchall phrase for bands that weren’t punk but weren’t like hard rock and heavy metal. To a degree some of the bands, maybe, had a little bit more of arty edge to it: Talking Heads, Devo, us. An art student approach to being in a rock band.”

10. “Rock Lobster”The B-52’s
Silly, sexy (you do know what “bakin’ potatoes bakin’ in the sun” and a “rock lobster” are, don’t you?) and dance-floor delight of the late ’70s, re-envisioning that Beach Blanket Bingo era for a modern ambi-sexual audience. The kids are hoppin’ on the beach and the fish are doing the same in the sea. A sprightly keyboard-based melody buoyed by a dizzying array of sound effects, a spiel of fish name-dropping from Fred Schneider and a climax of “Here comes a bikini whale!”

9. “There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards”Ian Dury and the Blockheads
There was no better, wittier wordsmith (and proto-rapper/singer) than Dury and he and the Blockheads could tackle any pop, rock, jazz, reggae, music-hall style of music. This one salutes a universe of clever bastards—Noel Coward, da Vinci, Einstein, Segovia, among them—and the backing vocals run “lucky bleeders, lucky bleeders.” Dury croons, “Now that we’ve had some, let’s hope there’s lots more to come.” The late Dury was one clever bastard himself.

8. “Lucky Number”—Lene Lovich
An insanely catchy, hiccupping song about loneliness and togetherness, where Lene’s lucky number changes from 1 to 2 over the song’s course, but the glee maintains. Big banging percussive punctuation from guitarist Les Chappell and company with Lene’s cuckoo clock, setup call of “Ah-Oh! Ah-Oh.”

7. “Can’t Make Love”—Wall of Voodoo
Like many, Stan Ridgway wrestled with sex and love: Can you have the former without the latter? Of course, the answer was YES. But still sometimes your intended needed some cajoling. Ridgway led this arch, wry group from L.A. and he served up this modern day (com)plaint in a joyously clanking pop song, singing, “I can’t make love to girls in this city/’cause the girls say I will use them.” (He also switches gender midway through—“the boys in the city.” Whether he was singing from a girl’s viewpoint or staking a progressively pro-gay claim, I don’t know.) Ridgway’s incessant plea: “I’m a nice guy but I don’t love you/I just wanna sleep with you.” Nice guy anthem.

6. “So Lonely”—The Police
Teeter-tottering between skanking reggae and full-on rock, the trio bring the fire as Sting plays the heartbroken, abandoned lover—“So lonely! So lonely!”—prompting young women everywhere to rush to his comfort.

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5. “Shot By Both Sides”—Magazine
Out of the Buzzcocks came singer-songwriter Howard Devoto with Magazine, bringing a bit of prog to punk. In this brilliant opening salvo, the frenzied musical action is ricocheting around him and he’s stuck in the middle thinking he’s been “shot by both sides, they must have come to a secret understanding.” Is he exaggerating the protagonist’s sense of self-importance—that two sides would care enough to conspire to kill him? Is he paranoid? Or truly are there forces at work that want him dead? An anthem for anyone who’s felt just a bit persecuted at times.

4. “Up the Junction”—Squeeze
The top pop song without a chorus and one of the best three-minute narratives of any day. Just waves of hopeful verses from Glenn Tilbrook with a twist at the end, the singer surmising, “So it’s my assumption, I’m really up the junction.” (Stuck.) What gets him there: Dating, courtship, blue-collar job, marriage, fatherhood, separation, and ultimately solitude all sung with blithe cheer, both real and false.

3. “Uncontrollable Urge”—Devo
They became more of a synth-oriented pop band in the “Whip It” era, but they first came out of the gate with bracing, if arch, art-rock, with this early Devo track conveying exactly what the title says. The rhythmic guitars lurching in lockstep, about to zoom every which way, singer Mark Mothersbaugh can barely contain himself—but has to!— because that’s what Devo must do.

2. “Tattooed Love Boys”—Pretenders
Chrissie Hynde spins a curdling, fierce song of sex and power—defiant yet submissive—with a series of jolting, killer licks from guitarist James Honeyman Scott.

1. “Dancing With Myself”—Billy Idol
In 1981, solo artist Idol issued a remix of the song he did with his punk band, Generation X, in 1980 and tailored it perfectly to the new wave dance floor crowd. An anthem of alienation everyone could relate to in those days of wanting-to-meet-someone-special/despairing-of-doing-so, and as such, sinking another drink, giving you time to think … while you keep dancing with yourself. Kinda genius.

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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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  1. Bob
    #1 Bob 14 July, 2019, 13:46

    New wave hit when I was in 10th grade (1978). To most rock’n’rollers at that time, it was “uncool”. It was music that gave nerds and misfits a voice. At the time, I was into hard rock, so I kinda loathed it. The first New Wave songs I clearly remember making it to rock radio were “Roxanne” by the Police, and “Just What I Needed” by The Cars. All of the other New Wave bands were still underground at that point, but that all changed when MTV launched.

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