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Essential New Wave Tracks, Part I

The single best thing about New Wave





















As punk music croaked commercially in the U.S. in the late ‘70s, its safer kid sister, “new wave,” was introduced as an alternative marketing term.  What exactly was “new wave”?  Everything that had a beat and wasn’t metal was thrown into that category at one point, including traditional rock bands (Cheap Trick, The Pretenders, The Cars), singer songwriters (Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Joe Jackson), and experimental post-punk acts (Wire, The Fall, Gang of Four).  Heck, even Linda Ronstadt made a “new wave” album.  For my list, I’ve gone with more melodic pop rock/synth pop acts. 

Not definitive, not in rank order, just 12 essential songs for the hungry iPod.

1. “Cars,” Gary Numan.  Electronic musician Numan had six Top Ten hits in the U.K., but is known as a one hit wonder in the States.  Personality wise, during his prime he made Kraftwerk look like The Banana Splits (he was later diagnosed with “a mild form of Asperger syndrome”), but he has consistently produced new music, even releasing a Top Twenty U.K. album in 2013.  His 1979 signature song about the physical and psychological safety of being in an automobile has popped up regularly in pop culture through the years – in movies, parody form, television shows, and, of course, car advertisements.

2.“Come on Eileen,” Dexy’s Midnight Runners.  Kevin Rowland’s ragtag group were no strangers to U.K. pop audience – then went to #1 in 1980 with “Geno,” but “Come on Eileen,” was their first and only U.S. hit.  With its complicated arrangement and quick tempo/key changes, “Eileen” sounds like a Celtic folk/rock version of Queen.  Dexy’s, they dropped the “Midnight Runners” from their name in 2003, continue to record, but haven’t hit the U.K. singles charts since 1986.


3.  “Don’t You Want Me,” Human League.  Proof you don’t have to be a U.S. one hit wonder to make this list, the Human League topped the U.S. charts twice and had nine U.K. Top Ten hits.  This male “I made you”/female “talk to the hand” sexual politics play is one of the most definitive songs of the new wave era, but the vocals always made my eardrums a little skittish.  When famed rock journalist Lester Bangs was found dead in his New York apartment, Human League’s “Dare” album was playing on his stereo.  No cause and effect implied.

4. “Dreaming,” Blondie.  Blondie was a fantastic band in the ‘70s, mixing elements of ‘60s girl group pop, garage rock, and CBGB’s punk rock energy.  Let’s pass the mike to drummer Clem Burke to finish this entry, “Dreaming was Joey Ramone’s favorite Blondie song, and people always say to me, ‘The drums are fantastic on that track – how did you come up with that?’ The reality is that those crazy drums were just a first take – just a pass to run through the song!”

5. “Echo Beach,” Martha and the Muffins.  Those wacky Canadians – did you know that these art school Muffins were a two Martha outfit?  Martha Ladly had most of the lead vocals, while Martha Johnson also sang and played keyboards for the band.  The wordy chorus about the fictitious “Echo Beach,” didn’t keep this bopper from hitting Top Ten in Australia, Canada, and the U.K.  In 2011, Live Nation opened up a concert venue on the shores of Lake Ontario in Toronto.  Its name, of course, is Echo Beach.

6. “Genius of Love,” Tom Tom Club.  The Tom Tom Club was a side project for Talking Heads rhythm section (and at that time, husband and wife) Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz.  Working in the Bahamas, the band captured a sweet reggae groove that filled dance floors in the early ‘80s and has been sampled by every rapper on the planet.  James Browwwwn, James Browwwwn…

7.  “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick,” Ian Dury.  If he had been born later, it’s quite possible that Ian Dury, with his endlessly inventive and often sexual lyrics, would have been a rapper.  While Dury is mainly known as a novelty act in America due to “Sex and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll,” this 1979 number one U.K. hit displays both quality songwriting and a more than capable rhythm section.  Dury, who suffered from polio as a child, passed away from cancer in 2000, but his backup band, The Blockheads, continue to perform.

8.   “I Don’t Like Mondays,” Boomtown Rats.  Jesus, what does Bob Geldof like?

9.  Talk Talk, “It’s My Life.”  Talk Talk had a respectable career in Europe and New Zealand in the ‘80s, but were another one hit wonder in the States.  No Doubt did a tepid cover version of this in 2003, but go back to the original and enjoy those swelling choruses and ponder whether immortality would be a blessing or a curse.

10.  Split Enz, “I Got You.”  This neurotic ode to possessiveness makes “Every Breath You Take” sound positively carefree in comparison.  What could have been more new wave than laser etched vinyl?  The Australian Performing Rights Association named this the 11th best song in New Zealand history in 2001.  The Split Enz song “Six Months in a Leaky Boat” was #5 and Neil Finn’s Crowded House captured the #2 slot with “Don’t Dream It’s Over.”

11. Modern English, “I Melt with You.”  Modern English, no relation to Bad English, have never had a Top 40 hit in any country, yet have been performing for almost 35 years, largely on the strength of this jangle pop, Earth stopping classic.  You get this kind of staying power when your tune is in the “Valley Girl” movie twice.

12. “I Ran (So Far Away),” A Flock of Seagulls.  Best known for Mike Score’s bad haircut and this MTV staple, the Flocksters were a solid pop act with plenty of catchy synth hooks, but couldn’t survive their own image.  Score has kept different versions of the band on the road for the past three decades and has also worked in the restaurant business.  Rock NYC highly recommends that you listen to Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Own” and A Flock’s “Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)” in rapid succession.



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