Riding the New Wave


By Dave Austin, “The Music Professor”

I’m going to toss out a few groups and you name the musical genre into which they fall:  Adam and the Ants, B-52’s, Cars, Echo & the Bunnymen, Devo, R.E.M., and INXS.

If you said New Wave, you’re right!  This style of pop music bridging the late 1970s and 1980s gave us a plethora of legendary alternative bands – mostly identified by their open-ended styles and their departure from the strict songwriting rules of the past.  Also, the music melded both punk and pop with slick production and more thoughtful lyrics than those found in the typical 80s radio playlists.

Let’s look at some of the major bands who helped define the New Wave genre:

If you missed Duran Duran songs during the 1980s, you just weren’t there.  Honing their chops during the late 70s, this band broke through in 1981, becoming one of the first groups to ride the MTV wave to mega-stardom.  Their first single, “Girls on Film,” was a raunchy track with an accompanying video that was either banned or heavily censored.  However, the resulting notoriety helped the band’s second album, “Rio,” push New Wave into the mainstream.

The Cure, emerged from England in the late 70s with a dark and melodious sound that would help them define what was later to become known as the Goth genre.  Not satisfied with their gloomy image, they began to release singes with lyrics reflecting their swing to a more upbeat movement.  The Cure scored big with two albums, in succession – “The Top” on 1984 and “The Head on the Door” the following year.  However, it was their 1987 release of “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me” that brought them to international stardom.  The Cure remained successful until 1995 when changing musical tastes dimmed their popularity.

New Wave’s inclusion of straight-ahead rock infused with pop was best defined by INXS.  Coming from Australia, the band spent most of the early 80s touring heavily and releasing albums mostly for their Aussie fans.  Their 1982 “The One Thing” track convinced record companies they could score internationally.  In 1983, the band recorded what is widely considered the greatest New Wave song, “Original Sin,” and their 1985 album “Listen Like Thieves” garnered the group their first Top 5 single.  Their trademark release, “Kick,” produced four singles and an album which broke into the American Top 10.  The band fell apart in 1997 following the death of their charismatic lead singer, Michael Hutchence.

New Wave also had a goofy side and Devo is the perfect example.  Formed in Ohio, Devo spent much of their early history making fun of what they considered the “de-evolution” of their surrounding society.  They created a unique sound which encompassed the oddness of New Wave.  Their greatest hit, “Whip It” from their third album, was sexually risqué and lyrically puzzling.  Aside from their odd songs, Devo is also remembered for their elaborate stage costumes which included yellow plastic suits and red “power dome” hats that more closely resembled flower pots.

If there was a soundtrack for the 1980s, many would choose R.E.M. for it.  This quartet from Athens, GA,

inspired bands from the Indigo Girls to the White Stripes with their jangling guitar and mysterious lyrics, and their 1980 “Murmur” album made them the darlings of college radio.  Years of heavy touring as well as their hit, “The One I Love,” vaulted them to international success.  When the band re-signed with Warner Brothers in 1996, they received a reported $80 million – a record-setting deal for the time.

Other influential New Wave groups:

Yaz – also known as Yazoo (A short-lived group which has remained relatively unknown in the U.S.  Their 1982 album, “Upstairs at Eric’s” produced songs which belong in the musical history books.)

The Smiths  (1982 to 1987.  Their popularity was mostly in their native England, but they were an underground college hit in the U.S.)

New Order  (The new name for the band, Joy Division, which immersed itself in the New York City club scene and positioned itself as a dance music powerhouse.  Their 1983 hit, “Blue Monday,” still holds the record for the best-selling 12-inch single of all time.)

Depeche Mode  (In the U.S. the band was considered dark or Goth.  However, in the U.K. they were pin-up heart throbs.  After losing and replacing several members over the years, this band continues to tour and record.)

Tears For Fears  (Complex in terms of both themes and composition, their music explored another side of the popular New Wave genre of the time.  Listen to their track, “Shout,” a Top 5 hit which was aggressive and dour when compared to the typical upbeat New Wave sound.)

I’ve just touched on a few of the most influential groups of the era.  For a more comprehensive listing of New Wave groups and their songs, follow this link:  http://www.liketotally80s.com/new-wave-hits.html


  • Dave Austin began his career at age 13 at a small, hometown radio station. He went on to graduate from the University of Southern Mississippi with a Bachelor’s degree in broadcasting. Since that time, Dave has been a mobile and radio DJ, radio station Program Director, and a TV news reporter and anchorman. He has also done voiceover work for documentaries and commercials. In 1986 Dave’s longtime passion for music prompted him to start “Southern Celebrations DJs,” a multi-system mobile entertainment company serving clients in Tennessee, Northern Georgia and Northern Alabama. You can email him c/o TheDJDave@aol.com

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