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New Wave: The Pulse of An Era

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

Pictured - Elvis Costello & The Attractions (1978)

The American side of our New Wave journey begins in 1976, at a Chinese restaurant in the college town of Athens, Georgia. Cindy Wilson and her brother Ricky, alongside friends Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson, and Keith Strickland found themselves sharing a "flamingo drink" before deciding to have their first jam session. This collection of fun-loving misfits went on to become The B-52's, mixing dance music with rock in their own eccentric way, finding immediate local love in Athens and across the American underground. Known for their beehive hairstyles, quirky personas, and most importantly, their exciting and unusual live shows. While The B-52's were making waves in the US, in the UK, Elvis Costello was blending punk rock with dance music, also exhibiting a relatively quirky persona. Despite being 4000 miles apart, The B-52's and Elvis Costello found themselves at the forefront of a style of music that would dominate underground and eventually mainstream music scenes for the next ten years. Akin to these two, The Talking Heads, Television, Joe Jackson, Blondie, The Cars, Joy Division, and The Cure also contributed significantly to the explosion of the first generation of new wave in the late '70s.

By the late '70s, many rock musicians had begun to depart from the traditional, aggressive punk rock style in favor of the more musically advanced, less political, and experimentation-friendly post-punk style. This era saw the release of a string of legendary post-punk records, such as Three Imaginary Boys by The Cure, Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division, My Aim Is True by Elvis Costello, Marquee Moon by Television, Talking Heads: 77 by Talking Heads, and of course, one of the finest records of all time, London Calling by The Clash. The advancing recording technologies of the time allowed artists and engineers to use post-production techniques at an unprecedented level. The newer, dance-friendly post-punk sound, filled with catchy guitar hooks and pop sensibilities resulted in the creation of the first generation of new wave. The explosion of new wave music in the US and the UK found success not only in the underground but also in the mainstream, with artists like The Clash, The Cars, and Talking Heads achieving substantial mainstream success.

In the US, the first generation of new wave artists was often characterized as nerdy, outcast individuals who held a deep respect for the music of the time but were more or less disinterested. These artists expanded on punk rock ideals but proclaimed them in new, unconventional ways. This included odd and jerky dancing, high-pitched jittery vocals, big glasses, thrift store suits, and a nervous persona. David Byrne of Talking Heads and Fred Schneider of The B-52's exemplify this persona to a tee. Devo took a different yet equally quirky approach, with the band all wearing their trademark yellow jumpsuits and red cone hats. Other first-generation American new wave bands like Blondie exposed other personas, more akin to traditional punk rockers, while Television adopted more modest, casual styles akin to what the alternative and indie rockers of the '80s would have.

Pictured - The B-52's (1980)

The British first-generation new wave artists expressed a more unified "new romantic" style more so than the generally more modest Americans. The fashion-forward new romantic style of savvy intellectual and often glamorous dress was the norm for new wave artists like Adam Ant, Elvis Costello, XTC, Squeeze, Joe Jackson, and The Cure. The Cure, of course, changed up the game by 1980, introducing the gothic rock chic. Some of the Brits also found themselves wrapped in the mod-revival scene of the late to mid-'70s with groups like The Jam. Having delved into the attire of these groups, the question arises: why does this matter? The reason the dress code of the new artists is important is because, given the times, this was dramatically different from the disco and punk attire donned by musicians and club-goers alike, introducing a new, broader, new wave counterculture. First generation new wave came with a counterculture appeal associated with the music, partially exhibited in artist attire, but also the attiude and the frequented nightclubs, something that was pretty much lost by the second generation.

Artists like The Clash, who had already established themselves as one of the world's premier punk rock bands, branched out deeply with their third studio album London Calling. The band turned away from their initial aggressive and more simplistic style, delving deep into new wave alongside two-tone, ska, rockabilly, roots rock, and R&B. The experimentation that came with new wave in the late '70s made classifying albums into genres a challenge, which largely was part of the appeal. London Calling was rock-forward and danceable, just as many of the other iconic early new wave records were, and the world took notice. The Clash now had danceable rock tracks that fit perfectly in the new wave spectrum, although their new wave peak was certainly 1982's Combat Rock.

The debut Talking Heads album Talking Heads: 77, released in 1977, has been hailed as one of the cornerstone early new wave LPs. The debut record released the iconic rock track Psycho Killer to the world, still being amongst one of the most recognizable songs of the era. The band mixed pop sensibilities with post-punk and Bowie-esque art rock sensibilities, resulting in one of the finest late-'70s albums. The record's opening track Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town introduced Talking Heads to the world with a funky, danceable, quirky riff, yet vastly different from disco. Mixed with David Byrne's quirky, jittery vocals, new wave was on the prowl, here to stay, and adored by American audiences.

Pictured - Talking Heads (1980)

Another New York City-based group bursting onto the music scene in 1977 was Television. Television released their debut album Marquee Moon in 1977, garnering much more of an underground appeal than Talking Heads, with Marquee Moon not even grazing the American pop charts. The debut album by Television saw the same post-punk and art rock influence of Talking Heads: 77 but introduced the guitar might of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd to the world. Tom Verlaine was ranked as the 43rd greatest rock guitarist of all time by us this past month. Standout tracks from the new wave masterpiece were Prove It alongside the ten-and-a-half-minute long album-titled track. Although Television received little to no mainstream appeal, their impact on new wave and the broader alternative rock genre is deeply substantial.

1977 also saw the release of the one new wave album which tops them all, aside from London Calling. Elvis Costello released his debut album My Aim Is True in 1977, mixing punk influences with pub rock and power pop to create one of the most iconic new wave records of all time. In an interview with NME, Costello claimed most of his lyrics were inspired by "revenge and guilt," resulting in a slew of scorn, sarcasm, deceit, and even an element of sinisterness in his rough-edged lyrics. The record gave listeners classic tracks like the reggae-inspired Watching the Detectives (present on the US release, and released as a single in the UK) along with Alison. Elvis's quirky persona alongside a DIY-sounding, "out-there" record was pure new wave and produced a massive legacy.

The first generation of new wave began to wrap up around 1979-1980, with new wave artists now pushing forth more synth-infused melodiesand less guitar. The second wave of new wave saw a much broader classification of the genre, essentially turning into a catch-all term for pop-oriented styles of music mixed with electronic elements and that can more or less be danced to. The primary distinctions between the first and second generations of new wave are that the first generation was much more intertwined with punk rock and post-punk, and secondly, it relied much less on electronica and synthesizers. This can be seen clear as day by just putting first-generation new wave artists like Joy Division next to second-generation artists like Tears for Fears. They're both great, new wave bands, but dramatically different. You could say the same for bands like Television (first generation) and Depeche Mode (second generation). Even though most first-generation new wave was characterized more heavily by guitars than synths, The Cars and Devo were playing with the '80s new wave style years before their counterparts.

Even though the term "new wave" lost a lot of its meaning in the early '80s as it broadened and became increasingly intertwined with synth-pop, the '80s still churned out a sea of top-tier new wave albums like Songs From the Big Chair by Tears for Fears, Power, Corruption & Lies by New Order, Dare by The Human League, and Music for the Masses by Depeche Mode. The second generation of new wave brought about a massive level of commercial success to new wave artists as it crossed over into mainstream territory, something pretty absent in the '70s, primarily in the US. With that being said, the term had genuinely become so broad by the mid-'80s, it was hard to even tell if new wave was still really going on. The second-generation artists mostly had already steered so far away from first-generation new wave that mainstream new wave, which hit the charts in the mid-'80s, hardly resembled first-generation new wave at all. This led to esteemed music critics like Robert Christgau and Lester Bangs to become increasingly critical of second-generation new wave artists, at least in their relation to post-punk, fuelled late '70s new wave.

Of the second-generation new wave artists, the one band that achieved perhaps the largest legacy was Depeche Mode. Formed in 1980, Depeche Mode has become one of the most well-known British bands in the world after the Beatles era. For their first five albums, Depeche Mode used virtually no guitar, instead relying on keyboards, samples, electronic drums, and the commanding baritone voice of Dave Gahan. Depeche Mode found plenty of mainstream success in the '80s but was equally hailed as kings of the underground in the US, finding love on college radio and in dance clubs. Depeche Mode had a uniquely romantic style of music which was adored by fans of The Cure and The Smiths. The sound of Depeche Mode was electronica before anything else, releasing some of the first well put-together, catchy, radio-friendly electronic tracks, a step to the side of traditional synth-pop. The band saw their creative peak in 1990, with the release of the record Violator, which we ranked as one of the best alternative albums of all time. As you may expect, all signs of new wave were gone by that point, but the record has since gone down as an alternative rock must-have.

Pictured - Depeche Mode (1982)

As the second generation of new wave took to the mainstream charts, the first generation of new wave artists like The Cure and Elvis Costello began being much more closely intertwined with alternative music than the new synth-infused new wave. By the mid '80s, what was considered new wave in 1977 was now considered alternative or indie rock, with bands like R.E.M. on the rise in the US and The Smiths on the rise in the UK, building on the post-punk ideas of the '70s alongside the rise of jangle-pop. Of the '70s new wave bands, most continued to tear it up through the '80s as they adjusted with the times. Other bands like Joy Division had their time cut short by the death of frontman Ian Curtis in 1980. New Order, which emerged from the ashes of Joy Division, embraced the synth-pop sound, finding substantial commercial success and largely introducing the world to the alternative dance style of music.

The area where second-generation new wave shined brightest was its perfect timing with the launching of MTV. Some of the most iconic new wave tracks of the '80s came with top-notch music videos, like Duran Duran's Hungry Like the Wolf or Need You Tonight by INXS. The new video format paired perfectly with the modern and electronica-embraced sounds of second-generation new wave. The success of these songs on mainstream pop radio, alongside their usage on MTV, worked out great for a lot of new wave artists. The very first music video ever aired on MTV was the classic new wave song Video Killed the Radio Star by The Buggles.

Whether it was the early new wave artists tearing it up in the underground or the second-generation artists topping charts across the world, new wave was an incredibly well-received style of music that dominated the mainstream in the '80s. New wave was deeply influential on indie and alternative rock, with many of the early new wave artists leaving marks on later bands. Although new wave became a blanket term to describe all sorts of dance-friendly, pop, and rock styles by the early '80s, there was a unifying factor behind all things considered new wave: modern, catchy, creative, out-there records.

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