Tricky to pin down, new wave took abrasive, scrappy punk and painted it in Technicolor, bringing synthesisers, a dollop of disco and a tongue-in-cheek absurdity to the table instead. Here’s the story of the spiky genre in 15 timeless records.
Elvis Costello, ‘My Aim is True’
Melding the swagger of 1950s rock’n’roll with the raw energy of punk, Elvis Costello’s 1977 debut encapsulates the spirit of new wave. Recorded with producer Nick Lowe over the course of a few short sessions – amounting to about a day in total – there’s an unpolished directness to ‘My Aim is True’ as it veers from twisted velveteen warbling (‘Alison’) and strutting Buddy Holly (‘Mystery Dance’) to twanging film noir (‘Watching the Detectives’). And the very best thing about Costello is his knack for dressing up dripping venom in pop melodies, crafty innuendo and wordy poetry.
Television, ‘Marquee Moon’ (1977)
Along with the Ramones and Blondie, Television made their name playing at the New York dive venue CBGB – and from the beginning they stuck out from the crowd they ran in. Taking the attack of rock’n’roll to a sprawling and experimental place, their debut ‘Marquee Moon’ traded in relentlessness for something more subtle; a gloomy shadow hangs over the whole record. And the band didn’t just pave the way for post-punk and new wave – they shook up rock music as a whole.
The Cars, ‘The Cars’ (1978)
The Cars’ first single ‘Just What I Needed’ name-checked both the Velvet Underground (the lyric “wasting all my time-time” references their song ‘Sister Ray’) and bubblegum outfit Ohio Express – and it’s indicative of the group’s approach as a whole. The late frontman Ric Osalek held pop in the same regard as punk rock – “I loved the Velvet Underground and the Carpenters,” he once said – and accordingly their self-titled debut is an addictive tangle of the two, bringing together surreal imagery and solid-gold songwriting.
Blondie, ‘Parallel Lines’ (1978)
Pre-’Parallel Lines’, Blondie were possibly New York City’s most tuneful punks, embracing everything from doo-woppy French yé-yé and 60s pop to the rhythmic pulse of disco. And on their 1978 breakthrough record, all of that earlier genre-blending helped to take eclectic new wave to a different place. From the swooning ‘Sunday Girl’ to the stomping foundations of ‘Heart of Glass’, Debbie Harry and the gang took new wave’s Frankenstein’s monster of dance and punk and dragged it into the mainstream.
Devo, ‘Q. Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!’ (1979)
Clad in matching boiler suits and playing jittery, chaotic art-punk, Devo were decades ahead of their time when it came to predicting what technology’s role in modern life – and strived to make music that sounded as alien and robotic as the very things they were taking aim at. And their Brian Eno-produced debut ‘Q. Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!’ is one of the most influential new wave albums going: nerdy, uneasy and charged with absurdity.
Talking Heads, ‘Remain in Light’ (1980)
Lanky and loose-tied, standing with his hands awkwardly behind his back, David Byrne is new wave personified – as Talking Heads’ lead singer, he traded in brute strength for something gentler, and more playful. And having helped to influence the direction of post-punk on 1979’s ‘Fear of Music’, the New York innovators turned their attention to defining yet another wave on follow-up ‘Remain in Light’.
Twisting the doomy landscapes of Joy Division, channeling a drawling Velvet Underground on ‘Once in A Lifetime’ playing around with rock’n’roll swagger, Talking Heads’ 1980 classic is rooted in subverting past punk conventions, and drawing from an even wider net. Psychedelic funk, stream-of-consciousness, and Fela Kuti’s 1973 album ‘Afrodisiac’ were three such influences on a record that would go on to redefine the limits of rock music.
Adam and the Ants, ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’ (1980)
Prior to forming this band, Adam Ant was embedded in the London punk scene – his former group Bazooka Joe infamously headlined the Sex Pistols’ first ever gig, and an earlier line-up of Adam and the Ants toured with Siouxsie and the Banshees. Even back then, they stuck out like a brightly nail-painted thumb – singing about raunchy and provocative topics ranging from the size of god’s knob (‘Day I Met God’), to Sunday spanking sessions (‘Whip in my Valise’) on ‘Dirk Wears White Sox’. And then their manager Malcolm McLauren – who also managed Sex Pistols and co-founded Vivienne Westwood’s Kings Road punk boutique Sex – pinched most band members for the new wave outfit Bow Wow Wow.
Undeterred, Adam and the Ants regrouped, and those peroxide-singed roots stuck mingled with pop instead. Punk icon Jordan (aka Pamela Rooke), who worked at SEX, managed Adam and the Ants during their ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’ era, and played a pivotal role in their garish aesthetic. “So, unplug the jukebox and do us all a favour,” Adam Ant booms ‘Antmusic’, the band’s feisty statement of intent. “That music’s lost its taste / So try another flavour.” It’s a campy rock’n’roll record that took the rebellious core of punk to an absurdist place, and most punk bands sounded like old news held up next to their “sex music for ant people”, to quote ‘Don’t Be Square (Be There)’.
ABC, ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ (1982)
Pinning new wave down is a difficult game – largely because the term got chucked at virtually every band with a synthesiser in the ’80s. In some quarters it was shorthand for a more palatable, glossier version of punk, but that isn’t altogether accurate. Instead, the best and most influential new wave brought together punk with dollop of dance music and a sprinkling of kitschy artificiality. And that’s the camp that ABC’s debut album ‘The Lexicon of Love’ falls into, taking the strut of disco and twisting it into new shapes.
Duran Duran, ‘Rio’ (1982)
Pop gone skew-whiff, Duran Duran’s second record ‘Rio’ couples experimental recording techniques (reversed tapes, audio of tumbling ice cubes and sampled nature sounds, among other things) with punchy panache. Duran Duran’s love of a decadent ruffle, a knack for attention-grabbing music videos – and being name-dropped by Princess Diana, of all people – led to the band being nicknamed ‘the Fab Five’. New wave’s first boy-band? Quite possibly.
Culture Club, ‘Colour By Numbers’ (1983)
Virtually any mention of Boy George’s Culture Club tends to be followed by a reference to their ubiquitous single ‘Karma Chameleon’, one of the biggest radio hits of 1984. And it’s a decent place to start in nailing what made Culture Club such a brilliant new wave band; though on the surface it borders on surreal novelty, the lyrics themselves dig deeper and admit putting on a false front for fear of being alienated. “I’m a man who doesn’t know how to sell a contradiction,” George sings.
Crucially, ‘Colour By Numbers’ album tracks shine just as brightly as the singles – from the crooning ballads through to the flashy and upbeat, it’s a hard to fault. And through Boy George’s vocal isn’t acrobatic or octave scaling, there’s soul all the same – which collides with backing vocalist Helen Terry properly belting it out on the record’s biggest moments.
Talk Talk, Spirit of Eden (1988)
At the beginning of their career, Talk Talk were titans of synth-pop: responsible for gold-clad hits such as ‘It’s My Life’ and ‘Such a Shame’. Such huge commercial success lined the band’s pockets, but it left Mark Hollis feeling creatively unfulfilled. And then, came their intricate fourth album ‘Spirit of Eden’, crafted over 11 meticulous months.
Experimental and slow-burning, ‘Spirit of Eden’ harnessed everything from jazz to post-rock, and set them leagues away from their new wave contemporaries. This isn’t Talk Talk’s defining new wave record – that came earlier on with 1984’s ‘It’s My Life’. Instead, ‘Spirit of Eden’ is important in the story of the genre because it bridges the gap to what came afterwards: you can hear its enormous influence everywhere from Radiohead and Spiritualized to These New Puritans.
No Doubt, ‘Tragic Kingdom’ (1995)
Emerging around the same time as grunge, No Doubt stood out as bright and cartoonish –and to begin with, radio stations shunned them for it. That all shifted with their third album ‘Tragic Kingdom’, which skirted further away from the group’s roots in third-wave ska, and instead pulled in all the fun aspects of ’80s new wave. As a result of shoving so many genres into a blender, it certainly has its weird moments – ’You Can Do It’ transports the vague spirit of Studio 54 for the Warped tour, with not-altogether-successful results. But at its best – the fidgeting ‘Spiderwebs’, the mega-hit ‘Don’t Speak’ and the deliciously pissed-off ‘Just A Girl’ – it paved the way for the band’s subsequent new wave-tinted record ‘Return of Saturn‘, and Stefani’s influential solo career.
Le Tigre, ‘Le Tigre’ (1999)
Just as Gwen Stefani smuggled riot grrl into ‘Tragic Kingdom’’s ‘Just A Girl’, Kathleen Hanna took feminist politics onto the dancefloor with Le Tigre. Bringing together android drum machines with the relentless rage of punk, their self-titled debut is a direct descendant of Devo, blended with all the venom that made Bikini Kill so vital. “Wanna disco?/ Wanna see me disco?/ Let me hear you depoliticise my rhyme,” Hanna’ challenges on classic hit ‘Deceptacon’.
Paramore, ‘After Laughter’ (2017)
Paramore’s ‘After Laughter’ isn’t quite ’80s revivalism. Instead, it’s a pastel-hued, fizzy-sounded interpretation of the decade’s greatest hits, plucking most heavily from new wave-minded synth pop. Taylor York’s spritely production – drawing on Talking Heads and Bangles – is a neat foil to Hayley Williams’ shadowy explorations. A tension forever sits at the heart of it – rose-tinted sounds jostling for space with some of Williams’ darkest writing to date.
Public Practice, ‘Public Practice’ (2020)
Before Public Practice, Sam York was unstoppable as the front person of desolate-sounding New York band WALL – and then they suddenly disbanded. You sense that the constant brutalism grew monotonous, because with her next project, the main goal shifted from no-wave gloom to new wave limb-flailing. “That’s the big driving force with this project,” she told NME. “We wanna have fun.”
And just as the original new wavers bundled up punk and gave it a talent for hip-shaking, Public Practice’s debut ‘Gentle Grip’ takes the sound of WALL and transports it to a neon-coloured dancefloor. Blondie and The B52s loom particularly large as influences, bring the story of New Wave right up to date.