Rhythm and Blues
New Wave Music
In the aftermath of the punk movement of the late 1970s, the term ‘new wave’ became part of the musical genre classification jargon. In reality, new wave music is just a general term that was placed upon music that was essentially pop rock, but not punk, and was a catch-all term, a collection of pop-oriented music that was not necessarily mainstream (at the time) and pretty much applied to anything from synthesized dance-pop to ska; as long as it attempted to distance itself from the mainstream music arena- it was considered to be ‘new wave.’
In fact, some musicologists have different opinions as to what exactly new wave music was. The term was introduced in the UK by Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren as an alternative label for what was also called punk (since the term punk music scarred away some of the advertisers). The term is in homage to the generation of French filmmakers that helped to revolutionize the cinema in the 50s and 60s. So to add to the confusion, many music professionals soon began using the term and it was initially interchangeable with punk music.
However, around the same time in the US, Seymour Stein, the head of Sire Records, needed a term to use to market some of the label’s newly acquired talent who frequently performed at CBGB’s. Radio had advised their clientele that punk music was just a passing fad, and many stations, already had been burned by the disco music format, decided to utilize Stein’s term to describe the newer music that they played. Soon, music lovers were able to differentiate this music from punk music.
Furthermore, Charles Shaar Murray, in writing about the band the Boomtown Rats, only reinforced the suggestion that the term new wave had just become an industry catch-all for musicians that may have been affiliated with the punk movement, but were in some ways different from it.
So, new wave bands were not necessarily punk music groups, but they did believe in the same principles and ideals. While punk music sometimes got bad press, new wave music did not. So, utilizing this statement, let’s define new wave music as more or less pop rock and remove punk out of our definition.
We can agree that new wave music retained the fresh vigor and inventiveness of punk, but added more electronics and style to it. It meant that new wave could include synth-rockers such as Gary Numan and old rockers revivalists like Graham Parker and Rockpile. It also included the quirky and defiantly strange music of the B 52s and the almost made-for-FM radio sounds and commercial appeal of The Cars and the melodic sensibilities of Blondie. Also included was the pub-rocker Elvis Costello, the pop-rock sounds of Squeeze, the refreshing sound of the Pretenders, the pop-reggae music of the Police and the ska revivalists like the Specials or Madness. We can also include the geeky-like intellectual pop sense of the Talking Heads.
But just as important as these major acts were the countless one-hit-wonders, who all shared the love of pop hooks and synthesized production techniques and being labeled as slightly left of center. Also included are groups like Patti Smith, Ian Dury, Nick Lowe, XTC, the Motels and the Stranglers (among many others), who may have not enjoyed the commercial success of the aforementioned artists, but nonetheless were an important cog in the new wave phenomenon.
By the early eighties there was a plethora of bands and artists that were considered to be new wave such as the Human League and Duran Duran (among others) that fans and musicians alike started to rebel against this catch-all term and invented many sub-genres with “synth pop” becoming very trendy and popular. This genre of music included bands like Ultravox, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, Depeche Mode, A-ha, New Order, Soft Cell and the Pet Shop Boys, among others.>
New wave music was also fueled by MTV, who broadcasted endless hours of new wave videos just to keep themselves on the air. New wave got a second chance, so to speak, with new wave acts such as Adam Ant, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Haircut 100 and A Flock of Seagulls (among others) all getting major exposure on the fledgling network.
The new wave movement finally died out around 1984 when established artists began making professional videos and went to a more guitar-oriented sound with bands like R.E.M. and the Smiths who began capturing the attention of college radio. But new wave music has proved more influential than some would have guessed as the mid 90’s were dominated by grunge and alternative rock bands; whose members were all raised listening to new wave music.
Popular New Wave Artists