New Wave is the name for a period of time in popular music that lasted from A Flock of Seagull’s release of “I Ran (So Far Away)” in the summer of 1982 to the release of Duran Duran’s live album Arena in November of 1984. A Flock of Seagull’s “I Ran (So Far Away)” has been deemed the seminal new wave release because the music, and accompanying music video, would come to exemplify the new wave era. Duran Duran’s Arena is seen as the end of the era because it was a poorly reviewed album (some critics were skeptical the performances were even live) by one of the stalwarts of the era (this despite the fact the album broke the top ten in both the United States and the United Kingdom).
Characteristics of music from the New Wave Era include the heavy use of synthesizers and drum machines, de-empathizing the guitar and guitar solos, Beatle-esque melodies, and adult oriented lyrics that focused on sexual rebellion instead of political rebellion.
Fashion and image were very important to the New Wave Era. How you looked was paramount because music videos, now airing on MTV, played a major role in determining a band success. The music video often propelled mediocre artists to stardom.
Since new wave was so intertwined with technology, one must remember that the new wave period was a fad, a moment of time, a sudden rush of creativity in the early 1980’s. Therefore it excludes artists that transcend the genre, in particular: the Cure, Depeche Mode, New Order and the Smiths. While some artists pushed the quality of the genre to its limits (Culture Club, Thompson Twins, Duran Duran) others were barely musically tolerable (Bow Wow Wow, Soft Cell, Alphaville). It is therefore safe to apply a pejorative element to the term new wave.
The term “new wave” was coined by Sire record chief Seymour Stein in the late 1970’s. He needed a label for his newly signed bands that shared the punk ethos but didn’t play punk music. U.S. radio stations, convinced by clue-less radio consultants, believed punk to be a fad and chose to play disco music instead (much to the chagrin of music lovers everywhere). Stein borrowed the term “new wave” from the French New Wave film movement because he believed both movements were similar. Some of the artists labeled new wave in the late 70’s and early 80’s were Elvis Costello, the Police, Blondie, Gary Numan, the Cars and the Talking Heads. The Talking Heads were the main impotence for the term new wave.
The move towards new wave was blazed by the aforementioned artists and by the post-punk movement. Post-punk is the euphuism for awful bands who couldn’t write catchy enough songs to be played on the radio, but whose music wasn’t heavy enough to be called punk. Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, new wave was being formed by a mixture of several genres including: ska, two tone, new romantic, pub rock and synthpop.
From the British perspective, new wave music encompassed a much broad swath of artists and sounded different from American new wave. The former relying more on soulful vocals and wide ranging melodies (ABC, Culture Club, and Eurythmics) while the latter relying more on the guitar and having a closer relationship to punk (the Go-Go’s, Berlin, Missing Persons). Lastly, a few American one-hit-wonders actually scored multiple hits in the United Kingdom: Kajagoogoo and Dexy’s Midnight Runners who had two #1 hits in the UK (Geno in 1980 and Come On Eileen in 1982).
Of course, defining any genre of music is difficult. Artists strive to make the best recording possible. They don’t try to confine themselves to the stringent guidelines of a contrived genre, or more accurately record music that conforms to a radio programmer’s ridiculous specifications. So while our intellect longs for a logical, organized, categorization (at least mine does) our ears and souls do not. Therefore, no definition is truly definitive nor will it ever please all fans, critics and artists (those included or excluded). Still, this definition isn’t meant to be definitive, just inspirational.