10 Songs That Defined New Wave Music

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Deborah Harry of Blondie

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 choices for classic punk rock songs

6. “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.”)

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 1979’s “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 Greenfield’s Doors-y keyboards spiraled madly.

3. “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.

2. “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.

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!

Jim Sullivan

23 Comments so far

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  1. Bob
    #1 Bob 12 April, 2018, 22:16

    In 1979, being a huge Rush fan, I absolutely abhorred “new wave” music. To me, it was music performed by rockers who lacked virtuosity on their instruments. Looking back, the first taste of new wave that hit American airwaves was The Police and The Cars…those two bands broke open the door for Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Blondie, Flock of Seagulls, Men At Work…and on and on. New wave was defined by ridiculous hairstyles, preprogrammed beats and way too much synth for my tastes. I was glad to see that era disappear, just as I will be glad to see the demise of rap and hip hop one day.

    Reply this comment
    • Z
      Z 30 June, 2018, 09:45

      I’d like to see the demise of you You are such a hater Stop it now

      Reply this comment
    • Antibob
      Antibob 2 January, 2019, 00:22

      …and then Rush went full on New Wave. HAH!

      Reply this comment
    • Jon
      Jon 27 June, 2019, 17:44

      Not sure about The Cars, but Talking Heads came out about 2 years *before* The Police.

      Reply this comment
    • Robin
      Robin 20 May, 2020, 13:34

      Rush is music for and made by virgins. The least sexy music on the planet.

      Reply this comment
    • Mark
      Mark 24 December, 2020, 12:49

      It’s funny that your Rush went New Wave/SynthPopRock in the ’80s. Have you ever seen Depeche Mode or The Cure in concert? They do not lack skill with their instruments. The hair bands of the ’80s may fit your description better.

      Reply this comment
  2. C
    #2 C 3 September, 2018, 05:46

    May I suggest that you include the date of the article publication. It will make it easier for us to reference your writing. 🙂

    Reply this comment
  3. Waz
    #3 Waz 6 June, 2019, 17:51

    “Before singer Dave Gahan joined and Depeche Mode embraced a darker, more art-rock side, singer-songwriter Vince Clarke…”

    Dave Gahan has been the lead vocalist for Depeche Mode ever since the band’s formation. (The band that existed prior to his arrival was called Composition of Sound.) Gahan performed the lead vocals on “Just Can’t Get Enough” and is featured as the lead vocalist in the embedded YouTube video.

    Songwriter Vince Clarke appears in the embedded video as well. Clarke is the keyboard-playing blonde with the Flock-of-Seagulls-style hairdo. “Just Can’t Get Enough” was released as a single in October 1981 and Clarke left the band the following month.

    Alan Wilder was brought on board to replace Clarke on keyboards and primary songwriting duties went to Martin Gore. It was Gore who steered the band down a darker path.

    Reply this comment
  4. ChristyD
    #4 ChristyD 28 December, 2019, 14:36

    Uh… no Duran Duran?

    Reply this comment
  5. Marsh
    #5 Marsh 2 January, 2020, 17:33

    Any list like this that doesn’t include “Love Will Tear Us Apart” can’t claim much authority. It was THE song by THE band that started it all.

    Reply this comment
  6. Marty
    #6 Marty 17 January, 2020, 11:24

    Not sure who made this list but: Squeeze, Rick James, the B52’s, Devo & Gary Numan have to be on any New Wave list!

    Reply this comment
  7. buckdaddy
    #7 buckdaddy 19 May, 2020, 08:35

    I am a fan of new wave, but this is the worst list of “new wave” music I have ever seen.

    Reply this comment
  8. TyStick
    #8 TyStick 2 July, 2021, 09:49

    The Cars were bad ass! I saw them in 82 at the Cow Palace SF. Another great band from the 80s were The Stray Cats. I’ve seen them three times. In 1983, 2007 and 2019. They still kick ass! New wave is great music. I still love all those bands I grew up with. Duran, Romantics, Power Station and the list goes on and on. cheers

    Reply this comment
    • Gigi
      Gigi 19 December, 2021, 04:49

      Loved the Cars! Listened to their first 2 albums over and over again. Especially when I was 17-20. I was mesmerized by their unique sound and vocals.I think “All Mixed Up” was my fav cuz that is the way I felt a lot at that time, all mixed up.

      Reply this comment
  9. Bobby Frufracker
    #9 Bobby Frufracker 30 April, 2023, 15:30

    If we’re talking New Wave, how about “I Got You” by Split Enz ???

    Reply this comment
  10. wernersaurus
    #10 wernersaurus 1 May, 2023, 00:00

    I think THIS album defines New Wave better than anything


    Reply this comment
  11. 122intheshade
    #11 122intheshade 1 July, 2024, 00:32

    I might add Wall of Voodoo and the terrific LP “Call of the West”. Maybe WoV was more “cinematic” rock. If you’ve ever driven on the desert part of Interstate 15 . . .

    Reply this comment

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