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How to Play New Wave Music: The History of New Wave Music

Updated on December 4, 2015
Talking Heads, one of the most successful and popular new wave bands.
Talking Heads, one of the most successful and popular new wave bands.

Are you a fan of the music of the 1980s? Have you ever wanted to play music that captures the spirit of this magical era of Reaganonmics and jazzercise? Learn how to create a new wave sound, an essential part of 80s music. This examination of new wave music shall begin by analyzing the various musical movements that led to its formation, and the history and origins of new wave music.

To begin, we must travel in time all the way back to the 1970s. There were new wave scenes that appeared more or less simultaneously in both the United States and the United Kingdom. The American new wave scene was based mostly in New York clubs such as CBGB and the Mudd Club, and included groups such as Talking Heads and Blondie. The British new wave scene was centered around clubs like Eric's Club in Liverpool. Eric's hosted elite new wave acts such as New Order, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Ultravox, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

The first, and perhaps most difficult part, is defining new wave. A simple definition of new wave would be an amalgamation of punk, glam rock, fifties and sixties music styles, and the German musical style sometimes called "krautrock," which included bands such as Kraftwerk, La Dusseldorf, and NEU!.

New wave primarily evolved from punk. New wave bands often consisted of musicians with little or no formal training, who were inspired to express themselves through music by the punk ethos, and the punk mantra that anyone can, and should, be a musician. Also, like punks, they were often of humble origins, meaning that they often had access only to cheap equipment, much of which was older and purchased second hand. However, one way in which they deviated from the many punks is the artiness of most new wave bands. A number of new wave musicians, such as the members of Talking Heads, were actually former art school students. These elements resulted in a music that was raw, simplistic, and unconventional.

As far as sound, the fast tempos and energy of punk can also be found in new wave (but not the anger). Another commonality is the use of simple chords; like punk, many new wave songs feature only two or three chords. Also like punk, new wave was a reaction against the music of the seventies: virtuosic progressive rock, which punks and new wavers dismissed as pretentious, and disco, which was seen as trite. Both new wavers and punks combated the artifice and meaninglessness of 70s music through authenticity and sincerity, choosing to display emotion rather than technical proficiency. They believed that one was better able to express oneself through simpler and more straightforward songs.

Krautrock's most obvious influence on new wave was the use of synthesizers, electronic percussion, and sequencers. However, the influence extends beyond instrumentation. The simple but memorable melodies, arpeggios, and ostinato featured in many krautrock tracks later came to be associated with new wave. Also, krautrock seldom followed conventional song structures; many of them were long (sometimes around twenty minutes in length) instrumentals. On the tracks that did feature vocals, the unusual vocal stylings and lyrical themes of singer/writers such as Kraftwerk's Ralf Hutter would prove to be an influence to many new wave vocalists. Additionally, some new wave bands opted for the minimal, steady, and repetitious rhythms of krautrock. The most obvious example is the "motorik" beat, popularized by Kraftwerk's hit single "Autobahn." Examples of new wave songs with the Motorik beat include "Just What I Needed" by the Cars, "Seconds" by the Human League, "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes" by Ultravox, and "Never Understand" by Jesus and Mary Chain. It was used rather frequently by OMD, on tracks such as "She's Leaving," "Georgia," and "Radio Waves." This beat was a particular favorite of Simple Minds, who used it on their Empire and Dance album, and Devo, who used it many of their earlier tracks.

The influence of krautrock on new wave was not limited to sound. Some new wave bands would adopt the "professional" look of Kraftwerk, with short hair, button-down shirts, and ties.

It wasn't only these newer musical styles that influenced the new wavers; a renewed interest in the music of the fifties and sixties also shaped the sound of new wave. Some bands, such as the Knack and the Jam, infused 60s style music with the energy of punk. With others, the influence was more subtle.

Instrumentation was one of the ways in which the sixties influenced new wave. 12-string Rickenbacker guitars experienced a resurgence in popularity with new wavers. Groups like the Church, the Jam, the Plimsouls, the Romantics, the Three O’clock, and the Bangs (who later became the Bangles) used Rickenbacker guitars to achieve a retro "jangle" guitar tone. Other new wave guitarists also chose brighter and cleaner guitar tones, often opting for single coil guitars and solid state amplifiers to emulate a jangly 60s tone.

Another instrument that made a comeback with new wavers was the combo organ. These organs, made by Vox and Farfisa, were used by sixties groups such as the Doors, Velvet Underground, ? and the Mysterians, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Iron Butterfly, and the Dave Clark Five. New wave groups such as OMD, Blondie, the B-52s, Suicide, Simple Minds, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Madness, and the Specials made vintage Vox and Farfisa combo organs a part of their sound palette. New wave keyboardists preferred to augment their sound with these older electronic organs, bought cheap second hand, rather than pay for another synthesizer, which was quite expensive at the time.

Many new wave drummers looked to the sixties for inspiration, reviving a ubiquitous sixties back beat pattern. This pattern consists of playing two eighth notes, rather than a quarter note, on one of the off beats (beats "2" and "4"). It can be found in multiple genres, but was primarily associated with surf music (Surfin' Safari" by the Beach Boys, "Surf City" by Jan and Dean, and "Wipe Out" by the Surfaris) and British pop ("Please Please Me" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" by the Beatles, and "I Like It" by Gerry and the Pacemakers). This beat was featured in a number of new wave songs such as "Tell It to Carrie" by the Romantics, "Sunday Girl" by Blondie, "My Best Friend's Girl" by the Cars, "Good Girls Don't" by the Knack, "She Goes Out With Everybody" by the Spongetones, "Joan of Arc" by OMD, "Going Up" by Echo and the Bunnymen, "Start" by the Jam, and "Hanging on the Telephone" (both the original by the Nerves, and the cover by Blondie).

Hand claps, popular in the sixties, also experienced a resurgence in the new wave movement. Hand claps featured (either real or synthesized) on new wave tracks such as "Safety Dance" by Men Without Hats, "Our Lips Are Sealed" by the Go-Go's, "In a Big Country" by Big Country, "My Best Friend's Girl" by the Cars, "Sunday Girl" by Blondie, "What's Your Name" by Depeche Mode, "What I Like About You" by the Romantics, "Betty Davis Eyes" by Kim Carnes, and “Living on the Ceiling” by Blancmange.

It is also worth noting that many new wave bands adopted aspects of the sixties in their look. In fact, the article of clothing perhaps most associated with the new wave movement, the skinny tie, was a resurrection of a sixties trend.


Glam rock influenced the some of the look of new wave, as well as its emphasis on style. The New Romantic subsection of new wave is where the strongest influence of the glam look can be found. The new romantics combined the androgyny and flashiness of glam with the clothing styles of the Romantic era. This same kind of look, albeit less androgynous, can be seen on Adam and the Ants, who wore makeup, colorful ensembles, and clothes that had been in style centuries earlier. Adam Ant, however, was not associated with the new romantics (in fact, the Ants don't like to be referred to as new romantic).

New wavers weren't captivated only by the glam look. The odd, yet accessible, sound of artists such as David Bowie, Brian Eno, and Roxy Music had a palpable influence on new wave music. Despite its strangeness, new wave music was able to appeal to a mainstream audience through catchy melodies and danceable beats. Furthermore, the baritone of David Bowie and Bryan Ferry's croony vocals were an influence on many new wave singers.

Continue learning how to play new wave music by reading part two...

Which is the greatest new wave band?

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