Glittering Prize: A New Wave Retrospective
Listen along to the playlist on any of the following.
Some songs are missing from Google and Spotify playlists as they're not available. YouTube is a complete playlist (at time of publication).
# Song - Artist - Year# Song - Artist - Year
- Autobahn - Kraftwerk - 1975
- Oxygène IV - Jean-Michel Jarre - 1976
- I Feel Love - Donna Summer - 1977
- Bring Back the Spark - Be Bop Deluxe - 1978
- No Imagination - Blondie - 1978
- Moving in Stereo - The Cars - 1978
- Followe Me - Amanda Lear - 1978
- Bombers - Gary Numan & Tubeway Army - 1978
- Take Me I’m Yours - Squeeze - 1978
- I Got You - Split Enz - 1979
- Memories Can’t Wait - Talking Heads - 1979
- Halloween - Japan - 1979
- Because You’re Young - David Bowie - 1980
- Same Old Scene - Roxy Music - 1980
- Radio Silence - Blue Peter - 1980
- Women Around the World at Work - Martha and the Muffins - 1981
- Independence Day - Comsat Angels - 1980
- Amnesia - Fingerprintz - 1980
- Messages - OMD - 1980
- Dreaming of Me - Depeche Mode - 1981
- Love Action (I Believe in Love) - The Human League - 1981
- Jerkin’ Back’n’Forth - Devo - 1981
- Cries and Whispers - New Order - 1981
- Primary - The Cure - 1981
- Planet Earth - Duran Duran - 1981
- I Could Be Happy - Altered Images - 1981
- Bette Davis Eyes - Kim Carnes - 1981
- Tainted Love - Soft Cell - 1981
- The Unguarded Moment - The Church - 1981
- To Look at You - INXS - 1982
- Glittering Prize - Simple Minds - 1982
- Poison Arrow - ABC - 1982
- Nowhere Girl - B-Movie - 1982
- Modern Love is Automatic - A Flock of Seagulls - 1982
- Someone’s Calling - Modern English - 1982
- Stand or Fall - The Fixx - 1982
- On Our Honeymoon - The Wake - 1982
- Undercover Kept - Romeo Void - 1982
- First-Last-For Everything - Endgames - 1982
- Damned Don’t Cry - Visage - 1982
- Situation - Yazoo - 1982
- Feels Like Heaven - Fiction Factory - 1983
- I Like Chopin - Gazebo - 1983
- Wishful Thinking - China Crisis - 1983
- Doot Doot - Freur - 1983
- The First Picture of You - The Lotus Eaters - 1983
- Whistle Down the Wind - Nick Heyward - 1983
- Dance with Me - Lords of the New Church - 1983
- Blind Vision - Blancmange - 1983
- Send Me an Angel - Real Life - 1983
- Pale Shelter - Tears for Fears - 1983
- Seven Seas - Echo & The Bunnymen - 1984
- Tell Me Girl - Scary Thieves - 1984
- A New England - Kirsty MacColl - 1984
- Might As Well Be On Mars - Pukka Orchestra - 1984
- Collapsing New People - Fad Gadget - 1984
- Radio On - Kissing the Pink - 1984
- A Victory of Love - Alphaville - 1984
- P-Machinery - Propaganda - 1985
Ever since French cinema in the 1950s was dubbed ‘new wave’ there has been no shortage of trends given this label across a variety of art forms. Every time a group of artists break new ground within a form the temptation to label it ‘new wave’ exists. For music, there have been many such occasions, but for the most part the term pertains to the music period from the late 70s to the mid-80s.
This is an important genre for myself since it’s the music in which I came of age and my interest in it set me apart from my peers who were listening to rock or top 40. When I first compiled a list of songs for this playlist I had about 135 songs, and that was even with some editing along the way. So by necessity I’ve applied some constraints around this list, the first of which was cutting it off at the end of 1984 which results in this being a focus on the arrival and growth of the genre only and not an exploration of its later adherents. I have also only focused on the core style within the genre and not touched on its many variants (I will touch on this throughout). Finally, it is limited to only one song per artist. Regardless, this is still a healthy introduction and review of the New Wave era and sound.
Defining New Wave music is not very straightforward, as is the case with most genres. Classifications of art always work in the grey areas, so at best we can look at the similarities and the components that tie this music together. First, let’s look at the hallmarks of the style and then review a bit of history on how it came about.
New Wave is best described as a stylized pop music with a traditional R&B foundation. The song structures trend to melody over rhythm with the song presented as a package more than as a vehicle for the instrumentation and playing – i.e. there are rarely solos. There is a significant or total use of electronics, keyboards, and synthesizers, though not as a rule since there are many New Wave songs with no keyboards. The use of guitar is light, both in sound and extent. Finally, the vocals are usually even with the mix and minimalist in approach; so there is no wailing, oohs or aahs, or multi-octave virtuosity. Most singers tended to have a deadpan or even delivery, giving many of the songs a dark and emotionally impenetrable feel. This does not mean the songs didn’t elicit an emotional response or couldn’t be moving with the beauty and grace of their composition, but be certain this wasn’t drawn from you with an emotive delivery.
It is not surprising that New Wave arose in conjunction with the evolution of electronics in the making of music. By the mid-1970s pop and rock music had evolved from the original R&B compositions to a variety of forms but that still focused on the guitar, bass, and drums. There was still traditional, guitar-driven rock and the offshoot of evolving heavier guitar sounds that would coalesce into the Heavy Metal of the 1980s. There was light pop and corporate rock that utilized more piano, organ, and strings; and of course the emerging disco sound with its danceable bass and drum driven rhythms. Prog Rock had a musician-centric approach that celebrated the virtuosity of its players, offering long and complex arrangements that bore as much in common with jazz or classical music as with rock’n’roll. And in 1976-77 there was a rejection of all the above by groups in New York and the UK in the form of punk, which sought to bring expression through short and direct songs that captured the anger and political disenchantment of the times – there would be no solos, lachrymose strings, or wailing vocals, no celebration of featured performers and a rejection of the showmanship and theatrics that had become commonplace in rock.
New Wave would be born out of the punk movement, dominated by the British, and be almost entirely populated by white males. In reviewing this playlist Donna Summer is the only artist of colour that I can identify and that includes all band members in these acts and regardless of the country of origin. Even then, Summer wasn’t a New Wave artist and is only included because of her collaboration with Italian (i.e. white) composer Georgio Moroder. I’m sure if I do some research I can find Asian New Wave bands but I suspect they would have come about near the end or later than this period of study. I also accept that this may be a product of bias on my part since my musical focus has always been on Britain.
I offer this observation regarding the demographics of New Wave simply for context on its origins and, actually, the audience too. When attending shows of these artists the audience was dominated by white males. Fortunately, the nature of the music of this genre resulted in a non-violent, more dispassionate following than those that also attracted large groups of white males and that often resulted in violence. New Wave bands wouldn’t engender much in the way of mosh pits – perhaps the occasional and brief slam dance – but really people were there to listen to the music and maybe dance a little, as long as no one noticed or messed up their hair.
Autobahn \ Kraftwerk (1975) – It’s not too often you can identify a single start to an entire genre, but in this case we can come pretty close. Kraftwerk was a German band that was one of the first to have success with music that was purely electronic in its creation. There were some playing around with the banks of recorders and keyboards needed to produce electronic music, most notably by Walter Carlos (later Wendy) who created electronic versions of classical music, famously used in the movie A Clockwork Orange.
Kraftwerk however created something that didn’t sound like anything else. It was pop music yet clinical, hypnotic, and the sounds were unfamiliar given the complete absence of guitar, bass and analog drums. Across Europe aspiring musicians were enchanted with this new approach, keen to see what could be done with a whole new domain of musical creation. Most of those influenced by Kraftwerk would create an electronic off-shoot to punk music, and most of those would be in Britain. In the same way the British Invasion of the 60’s was an evolution of American music, the UK would again take sounds from elsewhere and shape it into its own.
Oxygène IV \ Jean-Michel Jarre (1976) – New Age music would play a significant role in advancing the use of electronics in music. Artists such as Frenchman Jean-Michel Jarre helped push the use of the new technology towards greater and more refined sounds, thus influencing any user of these technologies regardless of their musical style. As much as Kraftwerk influenced dozens of synth-pop artists, Jarre and others (such as Mike Oldfield, best known for Tubular Bells which was used in the movie, The Exorcist) in the New Age genre also made their mark on these artists. The smoother, more melodic uses of the synthesizer in New Wave would have been shaped by what was happening in New Age.
Oxygène was Jarre’s third album and is a masterpiece of early synth music. Composed in movements like a symphony, it effortlessly moves from piece to piece creating otherworldly atmospheres and building on recurring synth lines and melodies. It would be an early and rare crossover hit for a New Age artist.
I Feel Love \ Donna Summer (1977) – this song is important to the evolution of New Wave because it was the first electro-pop hit song. Georgio Moroder, the Italian DJ and songwriter, wrote this disco hit that featured soul-disco-diva Donna Summer on vocals. There’s no surprise that many a New Wave artist would later cover this song (e.g. Bronski Beat and Marc Almond would cover it in 1984 and in 2015 New Order issued a song, “Plastic,” that is a tribute). Moroder, like Jarre, was an influencer that composed in both New Age and pop, and often collaborated with mainstream and alternative artists and thus helped bring his innovative use of electronics into common music. This song showed that the new keyboard sounds could be popular and there was an audience for this sound.
Bring Back the Spark \ Be Bop Deluxe (1978) – After this band Bill Nelson would move away from the traditional rock sound to a pure electronic, ambient approach. In 1978 he was in the progress of mixing rock, with its usual solos and instrumentation, with a heavy keyboard sound. I include this because of the stylized sound and blending of the keyboards within the rock arrangement, creating a sound that starts to push towards something different than everything else at the time and which when more fully formed would become New Wave.
No Imagination \ Blondie (1978) – the band’s second album, Plastic Letters, started to evolve away from the retro-punk sound of their first album and build towards a keyboard-laden pop sound that would deliver them enormous success. While many embraced the ethos of punk, not all wanted to angrily strum their guitars and snarl into the mic. The success of bands like Blondie incorporating greater use of electronics paved the way for what followed.
Moving in Stereo \ The Cars (1978) – The Cars came out of Boston amongst a divergence of punk bands, in which many were reverting to a power-pop sound that was less aggressive but maintained the elements of the punk style. The Cars use keyboards effectively to balance against the edgy guitar and lay a fuller sound behind the vocal. The unique sounds and melody set it apart from the standard power-pop and punk songs of that year. Their first album was fantastic, and helped launch New Wave in America.
Follow Me \ Amanda Lear (1978) – Amanda was a French model, known as Salvador Dali’s muse and once Bryan Ferry’s girlfriend that appeared on the cover of Roxy Music’s album, For Your Pleasure, she was also a Euro-disco queen. This song however, while certainly drawing on the disco beats of the time, lends itself as a helping hand to the growth of New Wave due to the predominant use of keyboards and the stylized, minimalist delivery of her vocals. These trends were influencing music around the world.
Bombers \ Gary Numan and Tubeway Army (1978) – Gary Numan is recognized as one of the earliest artists to succeed through the primary use of electronics. Many bands were toiling in obscurity and creating avant garde music, but Numan would be the first to break through by showing melody and catchy songs were possible within this medium. This early single shows how the punk sound was evolving through the combination with electronics, which would take hold more fully with the next album, Replicas. Numan was also one of the first to develop a separate fashion sense to go with this music. Similar to the pioneers, Kratfwerk, he wore suits and had short hair, but also would wear make-up like the glam bands but in a less feminine way. This gave him a robotic look that seemed to go with the style of his music. It wasn’t the jeans and ripped shirt of punk, but still made a statement that this was non-conformist music.
Take Me I’m Yours \ Squeeze (1978) – the UK was bursting with punk bands, but also bands playing a stylized pop music. It wasn’t easily accessible and was experimental, lacked the aggression of punk but also didn’t fit in with the usual sounds. The strange sounds and rhythms created by the keyboards set this music apart from dance and disco. We’re starting to hear a purer sound that would become recognizable as New Wave. Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook had a knack for writing great pop songs, and later would move to a more pure-pop sound, but for their first few albums helped set the stage for what would come.
I Got You \ Split Enz (1979) – this new sound was catching on down under too, and the Finn brothers were one of the first to have international success with it. Although they’d been together for a while, this New Zealand band would have their greatest success with catchy pop augmented by synths. This was one of the first songs to enjoy international chart success with a New Wave sound. The Finns would move to pop music when reforming as Crowded House, but their earlier formulation were New Wave pioneers.
Memories Can’t Wait \ Talking Heads (1979) – Talking Heads weren’t generally a New Wave band, but this song shows how the experimental use of electronics was filtering into bands of all stripes. A rhythm based band, this song blends New Wave influences into their unique sound.
Because You’re Young \ David Bowie (1980) – Bowie had just completed his Berlin Trilogy with Brian Eno and had introduced the modern keyboard sounds into his music, heavy with experimentation. On his next album, Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, he would return to his traditional rock and pop sounds but carry along the new synth component. Songs like this helped introduce the New Wave sound to a larger audience. Though not a pure New Wave song, the stylish sound with the repeated guitar riff punctuated with keyboards were a departure from his former styles and shows this rock legend was adapting to the new sounds.
Same Old Scene \ Roxy Music (1980) – Likewise, this legendary Glam band introduced synths to their sound and came away with one of their most polished and unique songs. Phil Manzanera’s experimental guitars mixed with piano, sax and smooth synths give a new foundation for Ferry’s elegant voice. Bands like Roxy and Bowie would help introduce the New Wave sound to large audiences, paving the way for the thousands of experimental bands working in this new space.
Halloween \ Japan (1979) – One of those new bands was Japan. After a disco-punk-glam debut album, Adolescent Sex, the band moved to a less aggressive and more experimental sound, augmented with greater use of keyboards. By their third album, Quiet Life, they captured a consummate New Wave sound. “Halloween” is less dance-oriented than the title track, and perfectly captures their new sound, as always led by the distinctive sound of David Sylvian’s vocals.
Radio Silence \ Blue Peter (1980) – New Wave was catching on in Canada too, where British trends were often quick to catch on. This Toronto band was short-lived but wrote a lot of great songs in a New Wave sound. Here keyboards aren’t as prominent but the tight guitar and drum combo exemplify the smart- pop approach of New Wave, as adopted from the punks.
Women Around the World at Work \ Martha and the Muffins (1981) – They would be best known for the song “Echo Beach” from their debut album, but I simply love this overlooked single from their third album, released the following year. The guitar work is fabulous, playing over the simple keyboard riffs and propelling a catchy, sax-infused melody. Yes, there are guitar and sax solos, but otherwise this song fits the New Wave mold and has a female lead for a change. Martha Johnson’s voice is layered to give it a stylized sound that blends with the melody and synth-guitar combo.
Independence Day \ Comsat Angels (1980) – The first album by this group is impressive and sorely overlooked. There is a darker tone here that shows the punk origins of New Wave yet foreshadows the direction some would take the New Wave sound. Rhythm plays the lead here and the synths, as they often do, serve to counterbalance the heavy bass-drum bottom end.
Amnesia \ Fingerprintz (1980) – as with any emergent genre, there are many bands trying new things and offering up obscure yet compelling songs. In the onslaught of new sounds many will get overlooked. This Scottish band would blend the punk, New Wave and pop sounds of the time, while employing the bagpipe-like guitar and synth sounds that would become associated with other Scottish acts like Big Country.
Messages \ Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (1980) – an act that was one of the most experimental and purely dedicated to electronics was the duo of Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys, otherwise known as OMD. Brilliant songwriters and focused on getting the most out of their primitive electronic devices that they could, they came up with gems like “Messages.” I think this song is one of the most brilliant pop songs ever written. The simple, repeating rhythm off the synth is one of the most catchy things I’ve ever heard and makes this song addictive.
Indeed, in the early days the electronics needed to be ‘played’ and weren’t as programmable as they are today. No different than a guitar or bass, but rather than plucking strings the electronics needed to be poked, knobs twirled, and sliders moved to create the variation of sounds that made up a song. Watch this section of a doc on OMD to see how they created and ‘played’ the song, “Electricity,” and here is the part where Humphreys recreates the rudimentary sound for “Messages.”
Synth-pop is a genre on its own, but fits most comfortably as a sub-stream of the overall New Wave movement. Songs like this that hold to all the tenets of New Wave fit as much as any other. Although purely electronic, the focus on melody and the restrained vocals fit with those that feature guitar and drums.
Dreaming of Me \ Depeche Mode (1981) – Like OMD, Depeche Mode are utilizing electronics and showing that they can be as catchy and full-sounding, even when stripped down to a few basic elements of composition, as anything with analog instrumentation. This is DM’s first single but already showing the penchant for irrefutable pop songs that would propel them to the leading edge of the New Wave movement.
Love Action (I Believe in Love) \ The Human League (1981) – Another of the synth-pop pioneers, led by Philip Oakey. This was the lead single off the third album and showed how the band was evolving and figuring out how to capture the New Wave melody-driven sounds that electronics could deliver so flawlessly. Another of the synth bands with a tendency for dance more than the pop purity of other acts, they would break out with the third single from this album, “Don’t You Want Me,” one of the first electro-New Wave songs to go big.
Jerkin’ Back’n’Forth \ Devo (1981) – In the US there were similar experimental, electro-pop bands that fit into New Wave. From the unlikely locale of Akron, Ohio, Devo would be one of the more unique bands and the least likely to achieve success, yet would do so the year before this with an album that had two minor hits, “Girl U Want,” and “Whip It.” They were known as much for their flowerpot headwear as their music.
New Wave was never very prominent in the US, losing ground to rock and soul/R&B artists in the 80s. New Wave would do well on college campuses and get some attention on MTV due to the visually-friendly styles of the bands, but would rarely conquer the American charts. Likewise, there are not a lot of US bands to draw upon for this genre.
Cries and Whispers \ New Order (1981) – re-establishing themselves after the sudden end of Joy Division, the remaining band members that would form New Order in 1980 started to introduce keyboards more prominently as they evolved their sound the following year. This song is the b-side to their single, “Everything’s Gone Green,” and shows how their Joy Division sound is being augmented by synths. New Order’s success would help push New Wave to a wider audience though more so with their dance songs like “Blue Monday” and “Bizarre Love Triangle.”
I will also note here that Joy Division was an essential contributor to the growth of New Wave, given they were one of the first and most influential to use synth-rock combinations and develop a pop sound that was borne of punk but abandoned the aggressive sound and look of that genre. They fit more generally into the “Post Punk” category, which itself is an umbrella term for all the offshoots that came of punk, which would have included New Wave, Industrial, and Goth. I chose not to include them here in order to give space for other artists of the 1978-80 timeline.
Primary \ The Cure (1981) – We saw a taste of the darker tones New Wave would venture into with the Comsat Angels and Fingerprintz, building on the punk and post-punk sounds pioneered by bands like Joy Division – but the band that would most define that sound would be The Cure. By now on their third album, Faith, the band was refining their sound. Less reliant on keyboards, the band still achieved a New Wave sound with tight guitar riffs, repetitive rhythms, and Robert Smith’s distinctive vocals. The songs were a whole, tying together all the elements into that stylized sound that separated New Wave from existing genres.
Planet Earth \ Duran Duran (1981) – history will remember Duran Duran more as a pop sensation that helped launch the video generation into the forefront, but their first album is a New Wave classic. What Duran Duran also brought to the fore in New Wave was the complete sense of style the new genre was building (many with this fashion would also be labelled as New Romantic).
In this regard these artists altered the punk anti-fashion ethos and bought into clothing, hair and make-up as essential ingredients to the total package. Perhaps more the descendants of David Bowie than the Sex Pistols, the styles were savvier with tailored suits, avant garde shirts and pants, and hairspray creating a look that embraced modernism. When people look back at the 80s and cringe at the hairstyles and fashion, it is the New Wave styles that are the focus (though the American hair bands have a lot to answer to also). However, at the time the fashion helped to bring attention and intrigue to the burgeoning genre – and most especially, teenagers and girls that showed this wasn’t some wimpy, weak-ass version of rock and pop, it had moxie and sustenance.
I Could Be Happy \ Altered Images (1981) – as is obvious at this point, there weren’t a lot of females in New Wave, which wasn’t much different than other forms of punk and rock. Altered Images were a Scottish band that stood out due to Clare Grogan’s distinctive, young girl sound to her vocals. Their hits “I Could Be Happy” and “Happy Birthday” are mainstays of any 80s collection of New Wave and pop music. They seemed to epitomize the new, 80s sounds.
Bette Davis Eyes \ Kim Carnes (1981) – if there was a sign that New Wave was becoming more known and popular it was the enormous success of this song, the prominence of which relegated Kim Carnes to a one-hit wonder. The New Wave elements are subtler, but the pop structures around an electronic foundation of keyboards and drum machine make this a distinctively New Wave pop hit of the early 80s.
Tainted Love \ Soft Cell (1981) – the other sign of New Wave’s arrival into popular consciousness was the success of Marc Almond’s rendition of this 1965 song by Gloria Jones. The synth-pop hit with its infectious melody brought the synth sound to prominence and helped launch more acts like it. While Soft Cell and Almond had continued success, they would never again come close to matching this mega-hit, which was the #1 song of the year in the UK.
The Unguarded Moment \ The Church (1981) – let’s travel south again and acknowledge that New Wave was not just a UK phenomenon. The Church wouldn’t realize international success until 1988 with the hit “Under the Milky Way,” but as early as 1981 were setting the New Wave standard in Australia with songs like this, as well as several very solid albums. Another band that achieved the New Wave sound with little use of electronics.
To Look at You \ INXS (1982) – perhaps along with the Bee Gees and AC/DC, INXS would be one of the most successful Australian bands in pop and rock history. Their third album, Shabooh Shoobah, is when they started to gain attention, driven by the success of songs like “The One Thing” and “Don’t Change.” This song, “To Look at You,” is more indicative of their New Wave sound. The aforementioned singles were larger and more rock oriented, and this would be the sound they would pursue and hold less onto their New Wave roots.
Glittering Prize \ Simple Minds (1982) – another Scottish entry, Simple Minds moved from a darker sound into a pure New Wave style with their fifth album, New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84), which is one of the best New Wave albums ever recorded. 1982 marked the year that New Wave hit its stride as the number of bands around the world playing a purer synth-pop style peaked and then held for the ensuing two to three years. “Glittering Prize” is literally a glittering example of the genre, with its perfect pop melody and blend of light guitar and shimmering synth lines, with Jim Kerr’s typically New Wave styled vocals. The album also included the title track, “Promised You a Miracle,” and “Someone, Somewhere in Summertime,” all of which are standouts of the New Wave genre (or any genre for that matter). Their next album, like INXS, would move to a more expansive sound and they would have greater chart success with songs like “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” that moved away from New Wave towards a rock sound.
Poison Arrow \ ABC (1982) – this album, Lexicon of Love, was ABC’s debut and has a special place in my memory. My brother first brought this song home as a 12” single, and I listened to it to death. At the age of 12 it was one of my first exposures to New Wave (though I’d been a big fan of “Bette Davis Eyes,” Blondie and Gary Numan’s hit, “Cars,” the year before). ABC was unknown in Canada and I thought were very cool. The disco elements infused into the New Wave sound gave them a slightly different, dancier sound without resorting to pure electronics. Martin Fry seemed like a new Bryan Ferry (whom I was also enamoured with due to the constant playing of Avalon in our house). When the album came out that summer and the song, “Look of Love,” became a hit, I felt very cool for having been into the band prior to their success. In the 1980s being ‘in the know’ could be a badge of distinction among your friends and New Wave was rife with bands bubbling under the surface of popular attention.
Nowhere Girl \ B-Movie (1982) – another gem of the genre, this one-hit wonder captured the essence of the New Wave sound. It is a consummate song of the era and a hit among the early alternative music stations that were giving attention to this genre. In Toronto CFNY 102.1 would become my go-to place for this music and to learn about all the bands streaming out of the UK embracing this sound. New Wave influenced popular music and many chart hits of the time would include New Wave elements, but the bands embracing the sound more comprehensively would rarely break through to larger success.
Modern Love is Automatic \ A Flock of Seagulls (1982) – you can’t talk about this genre without including this band, possibly the most emblematic of all the New Wave bands. Styling your hair over the face, or at least one eye, was common to the New Wave look, as well as having it short on the sides and back and long on the top (which would be permed or heavily sprayed into a swoop to one side). Colouring the hair into two-tone or various unnatural colours would also be common, continuing the trend started by punks. The Seagull’s Mike Score’s pointed swoop of hair over his face was one of the most outrageous examples and a source of derision for those who thought New Wave was ridiculous (and many thought so, especially among rock bands).
A Flock of Seagull’s debut album featured this single but would be followed by their breakthrough, “I Ran (So Far Away).” With their next album and the hit “Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You), this band would provide two of the most known songs of the genre.
Someone’s Calling \ Modern English (1982) – due to the enduring success of the hit single from this album, “Melt with You,” this band has been relegated to one-hit wonder status. It’s a shame because the entire album, After the Snow, is fantastic and one of the best of the New Wave era. There are many other great songs throughout the LP, such as this one.
Stand or Fall \ The Fixx (1982) – a rare instance of a band that enjoyed more success in North America than in its native Britain. Indeed, the single from their second album, “One Thing Leads to Another,” would go to #1 in Canada. This song is from the prior album and displays their distinctive brand of the New Wave sound.
On Our Honeymoon \ The Wake (1982) – this is a good example of one of the numerous bands putting out the very stylized pop of the time that was never able to break through. Another Scottish band, they would be one of the many to be launched by Factory Records and would receive a helping hand from New Order’s manager, Rob Gretton. An early member of the band, Bobby Gillespie, would go on to help launch the band Jesus and Mary Chain before establishing himself as part of the 1990’s wave of artists on the Creation label with the band Primal Scream.
Undercover Kept \ Romeo Void (1982) – Although they had some success from this album with the song, “Never Say Never,” and later with “Girl in Trouble (Is A Temporary Thing),” Romeo Void is a band that never got the full attention they deserved. Combining great melody and rhythms with twisted sax interludes and Debora Lyall’s sardonic vocals, they put together a great collection of distinctive songs. This one is an example of the different atmospheres and lyrical twists that marked many corners of New Wave. Echoey sounds, far-off vocals, and hypnotic rhythms were common in ways that you didn’t hear in Prog, classic or hard rock.
I hope I’m wrong, though I suspect not, but I believe one reason for this band’s lack of popularity was due to Lyall being overweight. In the age of MTV in which video made superstars of artists based as much, if not more, on their looks, having a lead in your band that didn’t conform to stereotypes of attractiveness could be a detriment. Other than Lyall, Alison Moyet is the only other artist I can think of on this list that wasn’t skinny – even the male artists tended to be rather gaunt.
First-Last-for Everything \ Endgames (1982) – let’s check back with the electronic and dance variants of New Wave. Endgames were yet another Scottish band of the era though only had a brief tenure, with this song as their only success.
As the technology progressed greater and more polished productions were possible, and musical creation became available to legions of new young people who couldn’t play a traditional instrument. The patience to work out beats, rhythms, loops, and intriguing but simple affects on the keyboards could put together very catchy and memorable songs. Also the cost of the equipment was coming down, though not so much as to be accessible to a large degree – but at least such that more people could play around in their bedrooms or in a small studio and produce music by just one or two people.
Damned Don’t Cry \ Visage (1982) – the duo of Steve Strange and Midge Ure combined with half of the post-punk Manchester band, Magazine (including Barry Adamson), to create one of the more enigmatic of the synth-dance bands of the era. They got off to a great start with the first single in 1980, “Fade to Grey,” but then struggled to stay together for a second album as the musicians all headed for other projects, most notably with Ure going on to form Ultravox. Steve Strange persevered and put together another album that included this song, “Damned Don’t Cry,” which is one of the more haunting and affecting synth songs of the era. It suggested songs of this style didn’t have to be cold, machine-like, or lacking ambience. It’s a classic of the New Wave synth sound.
Situation \ Yazoo (1982) – Vince Clarke had moved on from Depeche Mode and was continuing to produce outstanding, synth-pop and dance music. For Yazoo (also commonly referred to as ‘Yaz’ in North America due to trademark issues) he teamed with Alison Moyet and her powerful, soulful voice, making for a different feel among the synth-based bands. Their debut album, Upstairs at Eric’s is easily on the list of must-have New Wave albums, featuring songs “Only You” and “Don’t Go” (the North American release would include “Situation” also, which originally was a b-side to “Don’t Go” in the UK). They would release another solid album that included the song “Nobody’s Diary” before Moyet would go on to solo success while Clarke would first work with Feargal Sharkey in The Assembly before finally settling in with the band Erasure.
Feels Like Heaven \ Fiction Factory (1983) – as we move into the next year the volume of New Wave bands putting out music was at a peak. Yet another Scottish band, this one-hit wonder with the great name caught a fair bit of attention with this beautiful, simple pop song that rides along a lovely, echoey piano riff played on a synth.
I Like Chopin \ Gazebo (1983) – Another one-hit wonder mastering sublime pop melodies on synthesizers, Gazebo was actually just Lebanese/Italian disco musician Paul Mazzolini. Despite the natural assumption the piano riffs in this song are either taken from or inspired by the composer Chopin, neither is true. It’s just another simple, affecting hook that so many New Wave songs employed.
Wishful Thinking \ China Crisis (1983) – this duo of Gary Daly and Eddie Lundon would enjoy more than one hit, but none ever hitting too high on the charts. Still, over three albums they released a consistent string of classically structed New Wave songs that blended light guitar over synth foundations. This album, Working with Fire and Steel (this would be the third single and best-known release from it), brought them their first success. The title track was one of the first I remember hearing on CFNY (along with The Assembly’s “Never Never”) locking me in to a long and fond history with the famed Toronto radio station. CFNY, Brave New Waves on late night CBC radio (which wouldn’t start until 1984), and the overnight video show on CityTV, City Limits hosted by Christopher Ward (it was on from 1983 to 1984 and then continued on MuchMusic until 1995) were the only places to hear New Wave music (and many other forms not in the mainstream). All would sustain until the 1990s (Brave New Waves lasted until 2007) though shifted with the times to more commercial, tightly formatted approaches – especially CFNY which would be re-branded as The Edge 102 under a modern rock format.
This song employs a use of synths that was increasingly common in New Wave, and that’s to create a sound similar to symphony strings. This sound would invite criticism from traditional musicians who feared and loathed the use of electronics to replace the sounds they had so painstakingly learned and created. Also, moving far from its punk roots, it was evidence that New Wave was no longer about the anti-establishment and acerbic expression of a disenfranchised youth. Indeed, the significant adoption of extended mixes and remixes of songs moved New Wave closer to Prog Rock and classic rock, the very genres punk had formed against.
Doot Doot \ Freur (1983) – Another relatively obscure one-hit wonder. Freur was a British synth duo who would have greater success later as the act, Underworld. “Doot Doot” would be their only song of note and has probably enjoyed greater exposure as a staple of compilation releases.
80s and New Wave compilations have become a cottage industry of sorts due to the lasting legacy and interest in the genre (and the fact that, like me, the generation that grew up with this music is now entering its prime nostalgia period – priming activities like… ahem, extensive write-ups on music from the era). Compilations such as the 5-cd series Hardest Hits (released in Canada by SPG Records and, if my memory is correct, the song selection was done by CFNY contributors), Rhino Entertainment’s 15-cd set Just Can’t Get Enough: New Wave Hits of the 80’s, and the 1990s issued Pop & Wave series out of Germany all offered extensive and impressive collections of music from the New Wave period.
The First Picture of You \ The Lotus Eaters (1983) – another band from Liverpool same as OMD, Echo & The Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes, A Flock of Seagulls, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, The Lotus Eaters only stayed together briefly, releasing one album and enjoying only this one successful single. Unusually, this single was released and hit the charts before the band had played a single live gig, showing how synth-based bands could arise without the benefit of playing live to establish themselves (they were notorious for being boring to watch).
The World Famous knapsack,
though we used the brown one so the black, marker-written band names would show up.
In 1983 I was finishing grade 7 and then starting grade 8. I went to an all-boys Catholic school and had to wear a uniform, so there was limited opportunity for stylistic expression. I was in a prep school connected to a high school, so was exposed to older teenagers on a daily basis. In the high school was a guy who had a very styled, bleach-blond New Wave hairdo and wore the skinny ties of the genre. He stood out amongst our school’s populace and to a young, impression boy like myself seemed ultra-cool. He had many band names written on his World Famous burlap knapsack, which was the cool standard of the time, and one of them was The Lotus Eaters. Without the internet there was no way for me to hear this band without going to the store and buying them, which with a limited budget wasn’t going to happen.
So I had to wait a year or two before hearing them on CFNY and later picking up this song on a compilation. To this day I associate this band with that guy in my school and as a symbol of “cool” from the New Wave era. I wonder what that guy is doing today, I should look up his name in my yearbook and see what he’s doing through social media. I shudder to think he became an insurance adjuster or some similar job that seems the antithesis of cool. I say this as someone who became an office clerk in an investment office, which we know as Martha sang in “Echo Beach:” The job is very boring, I’m an office clerk.
This also prompts me to comment on the era and how niche genres really served to define people, especially in microcosms such as a high school. John Hughes captured much of this in his movies, using New Wave music to set his protagonists against his antagonists, who probably listened to hair metal or cheesy top 40. But if you weren’t inclined to search out music through alternative sources in radio, TV, or magazines, or maybe nightclubs if you were beyond high school, then you wouldn’t be exposed to music like this. Also significant were those people such as I profiled above, and a good friend of my brother’s who was a DJ in clubs playing this music in Toronto at the time such as Club Domino and Nuts and Bolts who would share this music with friends through mixed tapes. It was the tapes my older brother had from his friend and others at university that exposed me to this music before I found CFNY. Indeed, that practice of sharing music is what started me on this habit of making playlists and doing write-ups. In today’s environment of shared online playlists and social media, it seems so normal, but in the 1980s it was a critical mode of finding affiliation and bonding with friends, more so for followers of less popular music than the widely accessible top 40 music.
Whistle Down the Wind \ Nick Heyward (1983) – a popular offshoot of New Wave was the New Romantics, which played up even more of a melodic, pop sensibility. Many acts are commonly referred to as New Wave or New Romantic. I tend to consider acts such as Spandau Ballet and Haircut One Hundred as those more purely indicative of the New Romantic sound. Perhaps their fashion style set them apart from New Wave as much as the music, generally adopting a more preppy attire. Nick Heyward was the singer in Haircut One Hundred and enjoyed solo success with this song, which was originally intended to be a release for the band. He released it after he left (or was fired, depending on the perspective).
Dance with Me \ Lords of the New Church (1983) – Perhaps one of the more intriguing entries in the New Wave cannon, The Lords were considered a Goth band but on songs like this, sounded like a classic New Wave dance band. It was formed by members of various punk bands: Stiv Bators (The Dead Boys), Nick Turner (The Barracudas), Brian James (The Damned), and Dave Tregunna (Sham 69).
I find it interesting how many punk bands, and often the only ones to survive the original punk scene from 1977-1979, would adopt keyboards and embrace the lighter and more varied sounds of the post-punk era. The Damned, The Cure, and New Order are all prominent bands that made that transition. There was also Pete Shelley’s solo success with synth-pop after the breakup of The Buzzcocks. Interestingly, and noting the changes of the late 80s, Al Jourgenson would start the band Ministry with a heavy New Wave-dance sound from 1981 to 1985 (“Everyday is Halloween” from 1985 is a classic), but by 1988 would move to an Industrial sound thereafter.
Blind Vision \ Blancmange (1983) – After initial success in 1982 with the song “Living on the Ceiling” this UK band released one of the stronger albums of the period, 1983’s Mange Tout. “Blind Vision” was the first single from the album and would be followed by another successful single, “Don’t Tell Me.” They were also one of the many duos that New Wave featured, given the ability to produce full-band music with the electronics on hand. Blancmange would not be able to sustain their initial success and disbanded after a couple years. Like so others of the era, they have reformed in the past ten years and are releasing new music.
Send Me an Angel \ Real Life (1983) – one of the few breakthrough singles of the era, this Australian act enjoyed international chart success with this song. They would repeat it to a lesser degree with another, “Catch Me I’m Falling,” before dropping out of the limelight along with the rest of the New Wave acts.
Pale Shelter \ Tears for Fears (1983) – the duo of Roland Orzabel and Curt Smith never seem settled on who they were and what their musical focus should be, but at the start they were unquestionably a New Wave band. Their first album, The Hurting, is a standout, with this song along with “Mad World” and “Change.” They would achieve success in North America with their follow-up albums before disbanding in 1991, and then of course reuniting in recent years.
Seven Seas \ Echo & The Bunnymen (1984) – by 1984 New Wave was going strong but also dissolving in into many different variants. Many bands would alter their sound to a pure pop or rock sound in pursuit of a larger audience, since despite there being many successful New Wave songs few bands of the genre achieved the higher echelons of success. No New Wave bands were embarking on arena or stadium tours.
Echo & the Bunnymen, led by Ian McCullough and Will Sergeant, had been building a solid repertoire of songs trough their first three albums before gaining broader attention with 1984’s album, Ocean Rain, and the single “The Killing Moon.” “Seven Seas” captures their grandiose New Wave sound, and was the third single from the album. They would follow this up with a highly successful greatest hits album, Songs to Learn and Sing, driven by a new single from it, “Bring on the Dancing Horses,” and then a further successful single, “Lips Like Sugar,” on the next album. By the end of the decade they’d established themselves as one of the more distinctive and successful of the New Wave era.
Tell Me Girl \ Scary Thieves (1984) – not quite a one-hit wonder since they also had a well-received single, “The Waiting Game,” from the same album, they would nonetheless only release the one LP and be done shortly after getting started. Yet another example of the depth of music being generated from the New Wave genre. Another act that would likely be forgotten if not for their usual inclusion in compilations.
A New England \ Kirsty MacColl (1984) – Kirsty MacColl had been around on Stiff Records for several years – her first single in 1979, “They Don’t Know,” would be a success for comedienne Tracy Ullman in 1983 (in which MacColl provided backing vocals). Kirsty was also married to famed producer of many New Wave bands, Steve Lillywhite, and would provide vocals for some of his recordings, most famously with The Pogues in the 1987 song, “Fairytale of New York.” Her sound was more pop than New Wave, but for this song, a cover of a Billy Bragg song (in which she added lyrics to change perspective from male to female), she achieved pop-New Wave perfection. I think she had one of the loveliest voices in music, and it’s a shame she didn’t achieve massive success. More so, she would unfortunately be killed in 2000 when a motorboat struck her while she was scuba diving in Mexico.
I’ve chosen the extended version of this song (available on the YouTube playlist only), which became normal due to the rise in popularity of 12” singles and the extra room for additional and longer versions of the singles. There weren’t a lot of extended mixes that I cared for, but this one is the type that I enjoyed the most. It takes the best parts of the song, lengthens them, and blends it into a new version that simply sounds like a longer version of the original (check out the similarly styled extended version of “Nowhere Girl”, though appears on this playlist for Google Play Music and Spotify). Others would repeat sections ad nauseam, jumble up the song, or insert samples of one part of the song throughout the rest, and the result would be a frustrating and less satisfying version that only left you wanting to hear the original instead. While for some songs, less is more, but when a song has a great groove it’s nice to hear that aired out and left to enjoy for a longer duration. This mix of “A New England” takes the wonderful, bass and guitar interplay and lengthens it into an extended two-and-a-half-minute intro, and then drops into the original single version before ending with an extended one-minute outro of the song’s concluding segment, turning the 3:45 song into a 7:50 song. It’s just a great version of this song.
Might as Well Be On Mars \ Pukka Orchestra (1984) – In Canada there were no shortage of New Wave bands. Pukka Orchestra released just one album in this era (there would be one many years later) but it contained several classics of the Canadian New Wave genre. Other bands to contribute to the scene were The Spoons (their early songs), Boys Brigade, Rough Trade, M+M (a successor of Martha and The Muffins), The Box, Parachute Club (not a clean fit to New Wave but were of the same circle of acts), Images in Vogue, and Strange Advance.
Collapsing New People \ Fad Gadget (1984) – Frank Tovey, who performed under the stage name Fad Gadget, would bring industrial music and greater use of rhythm into his New Wave sound. “Collapsing New People” sounds different than most other songs on this list as a result, but the reliance on synths and Tovey’s New Wave styled vocals keeps it in the realm. Indeed, it is a collaboration with famous German industrial pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten (which means collapsing new buildings). This would be the last single and album under the name Fad Gadget before using his own name henceforth.
Radio On \ Kissing the Pink (1984) – KTP’s second album (after also releasing an EP) was What Noise?, and is a classic album of the darker tinged, New Wave style. Full of subtle melodies, haunting vocals, and beautifully arranged, nuanced, and atmospheric songs, the album is a joy from start to finish that demands focused listening. They would never achieve much success, though did have some attention on the dance charts years later, and remain a relatively obscure act from the era. Indeed, I only picked up this album from a discount bin in the late 1980s based on a vague memory of the band’s name. What a joy to discover how good the album was. I strongly encourage taking the time to explore it in full.
A Victory of Love \ Alphaville (1984) – In 1984 I was going to my first high school dances. We were a new generation not raised in the sounds of 70s classic rock and disco and our dances turned to New Wave for the prominent moments. The last song would not be “Stairway to Heaven” but Alphaville’s slow version of “Forever Young.” The key slow song to get your favourite girl for a dance would be the 10-minute excursion of The Art of Noise’s “Moments in Love.” Of course, it was perfect when the 2004 movie Napoleon Dynamite used “Forever Young” in a high school dance scene.
Over the night we would dance to several Alphaville songs, including “The Jet Set,” “Dance With Me,” “Sounds Like a Melody,” or the fast version of “Forever Young.” They were a consummate New Wave band and one of the few German New Wave (Neue Deutsche Welle) acts to gain an international audience, along with Nena, Falco, Peter Schilling, and…
P-Machinery \ Propaganda (1985) – We started with the German act that started it all, Kraftwerk, so let’s finish with a German band that defined the mid-80s evolution of that sound started ten years prior. Propaganda was a classic synth-dance New Wave band that did well with their album, A Secret Wish. “P-Machinery” is the only song from 1985 I’ll include on this list just to tie into the German scene as well as show that New Wave continued through the middle part of the decade. Indeed, if I had included 1985 in this list we’d need another 10 songs to adequately cover that year, most of which are still classics of the era.
As the 1980s progressed there was a natural disinclination to the New Wave sound as audiences hankered for a return to heavier guitars and less electronic music. Electronics would venture more fully into dance and experimentation, leading to genres such as techno, trance, rave, and acid house. While electronics would never fully leave pop music, the focus on New Wave would die off as the acts of the early 80s disbanded and were not replaced – perhaps due to the inability of the genre to ever gain a solid foothold on the charts in North America. Bands such as The Cult would reinvigorate guitar-driven music amongst indie and alternative listeners, leading to a resurgence of punk and the grunge movement in 1988. In England, there would be a shift to modern variants of the 60s pop formula, using guitar and blues experimentation to create new sounds such as Shoegaze, indie pop/rock and Brit pop, led by Indie labels such as Creation Records.
When the youth of the 80s came of age and started forming their own bands, there was a return to New Wave as an inspiration. I don’t see the modern bands as fitting cleanly into the New Wave genre, but there’s no question they draw upon the key components in creating a new and modern sound. Bands like The Killers, Beta Band, Metric, and The Horrors clearly show inspiration from the New Wave era. The ubiquity of rock and synth blended music today is a direct result of the New Wave scene.
New Wave was an offshoot of punk, born of young musicians that wanted to play with electronics but not necessarily dance (but sometimes dance necessarily), who still wanted to rock but show a little style and flare, and who liked a good melody but didn’t want to distract you with virtuoso solos and vocals. It was a modest and modern sound that helped evolve rock and pop music from the 70s into the 80s. It paved the way for synthesizers to become mainstream and accepted as a legitimate outlet for creative talent. It also shifted the focus from the stage to the studio, making the recording of music and the experimentation of mixes through 12” and remixed version of songs a new normal. It created the basis for an electronic genre of music that led to DJ culture and the many forms of electronic dance music. It was male dominated, white, and mostly British, and created a wonderful period of modern music for a young teenager like myself to discover music. I am forever enamoured and indebted to the sounds of this era and how they have shaped my appreciation of music to this day.
The following list is other hit songs and notable new wave titles from the same time period that I excluded so the playlist wouldn’t be a hundred songs and a day’s worth of music. There’s a good mix of chart hits, alt-radio hits, and hidden gems from that era – explore and enjoy.
- Video Killed the Radio Star - The Buggles - 1980
- Johnny and Mary - Robert Palmer - 1980
- It’s My Party - Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin - 1981
- They All Run After the Carving Knife - New Musik - 1981
- I’m In Love with A German Film Star - The Passions - 1981
- Arabian Knights - Siouxsie & The Banshees - 1981
- Treason (It’s Just a Story) - The Teardrop Explodes - 1981
- Cambodia - Kim Wilde - 1981
- Sex (I’m A…) - Berlin - 1982
- Wot - Captain Sensible - 1982
- One of Our Submarines - Thomas Dolby - 1982
- Love Is A Stranger - Eurythmics - 1982
- Escalator of Life - Robert Hazard - 1982
- Let Me Go - Heaven 17 - 1982
- Destination Unknown - Missing Persons - 1982
- A Private View - Bill Nelson - 1982
- Love My Way - The Psychedelic Furs - 1982
- Saturdays In Silesia - Rational Youth - 1982
- The Politics of Dancing - Re-Flex - 1982
- Talk Talk - Talk Talk - 1982
- Face to Face - Twins - 1982
- Hymn - Ultravox - 1982
- Blow Away - The Spoons - 1982
- Ahead - Wire - 1982
- Never Never - The Assembly - 1983
- Just Like Gold - Aztec Camera - 1983
- Sign of the Times - Belle Stars - 1983
- Numbers with Wings - The Bongos - 1983
- Melody - Boys Brigade - 1983
- You - Boytronic - 1983
- Lust for Love - Images in Vogue - 1983
- Promises, Promises - Naked Eyes - 1983
- Perfect - The The - 1983
- Smalltown Boy - Bronski Beat - 1984
- West End Girls - Pet Shop Boys - 1984
- Someone - Eurogliders - 1984
- Leuchtturm - Nena - 1984
- International - Thomas Leer - 1984