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How to Play New Wave Music: How to Be New Wave

Updated on December 4, 2015
Adam and the Ants
Adam and the Ants

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. In this section, learn about arrangements and instruments needed to play new wave songs. This section covers the issue of how to “be” new wave, particularly with regards to the look. The new wave look is one of the iconic eighties fashions. Fashion in the 80s was colorful and outrageous, and new wave was no exception. Learn to dress like a new waver, and how to “be” new wave.

One of the most memorable new wave styles was the new romantic look. The new romantics modernized the look of the Romantic era by combining it with glam rock fashion. An example of this would be a frilled fop shirt, leather trousers, a nineteenth century military jacket, a cravat, riding boots, a quiff or wedge hairstyle, and make up. Actually, a good place to start is to buy a pirate costume and try to make it more glamorous and colorful by adding accessories of your own. Don't overdo the skull and crossbones imagery, and you probably shouldn't wear an eye patch; it may come across as gimmicky if you go too heavy on the pirate stuff. For more examples, look at Visage, Spandau Ballet, and Adam Ant (although Adam and the Ants weren't actually a part of this scene).


Other new wavers also opted for a retro look, but instead revived the fashion of the mid twentieth century. The most notable example is the skinny tie; this staple of new wave originated in the 1960s. The B-52's parodied the fashion of the sixties by wearing beehive wigs along with vintage clothing. Others, such as Elvis Costello and Marshall Crenshaw, went for more of a fifties look and wore Buddy Holly glasses. Groups such as ABC wore suits and pompadour or quiff hairstyle, also showing a 50s influence. Elements or rockabilly fashion, such as brothel creepers and bolo ties, were also adopted by new wavers.

Some new wave groups, such as OMD, opted for a more professional look. This is the easiest look to pull off (short hair, a dress shirt, slacks, dress shoes, and maybe a tie), but the least visually engaging. This is your best option if you don't want to focus too much on image.

Popular hairstyles included the quiff, wedge, asymmetrical hairstyles (Phil Oakey of the Human League), backcombed hair (Robert Smith of the Cure) and short haircuts.

Beyond the look, the new wave movement was associated with outsiders. This is reflected in the association between nerd culture and new wave. The new wavers' interest in technology (especially the synthesizer) is itself a nerdy preoccupation. David Byrne, Gary Numan, Thomas Dolby, Paul Reynolds of A Flock of Seagulls, every member of Devo, and new wave producer/Buggles front man Trevor Horn were just a few unabashedly nerdy figures in the new wave movement. The Buddy Holly glasses worn by Marshall Crenshaw and Elvis Costello were not just retro, but nerdy. Pete Shelley's Homosapien album cover featured a Commodore PET computer, as did the video for the title track; computers were still considered by many to be nerdy at this time. Even Sting, who is not generally considered a nerd, wore a calculator watch on the cover of the Police single “Wrapped Around Your Finger;” the calculator watch is an iconic nerd accessory.


Another outsider group associated with the new wave movement is the LGTB crowd. There were a number of new wave musicians, such as Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Marc Almond of Soft Cell, Andy Bell of Erasure, the Pet Shop Boys, the B-52's, and Pete Shelley who were openly gay or bisexual and/or prominently featured gay themes in their lyrics. Although none of them are actually gay, Depeche Mode is noted for wearing leather and have a large gay fan base. On a related note, there was a lot of androgyny in the new wave look; notable examples include Boy George and Annie Lennox.

There isn't really a formula for being new wave. The best way is to just do something different, be different. New wave was about defying the cliches and mores of the seventies by offering new music and new looks (hence the term “new wave”). Avoid doing anything too artificial, as most popular music is criticized for its artificiality. The best way to seem genuine is to be genuine. Forget about trends or what kind of music is popular and make the music that you want to make.

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