When British “New Wave” Was New — and Great

Garry Berman
10 min readJan 20, 2024

Let us now celebrate New Wave, forty years after it was dominating the music charts on both sides of the Atlantic.

It can be argued about when “New Wave” music was really new, and how much of it grew from the early, raw punk bands of the ’70s (e.g. The Sex Pistols), or how much of it can be traced to the more theatrical “glam rock” acts (David Bowie). We can also debate which bands/singers really belong in the category, or even whether the genre should have ever been referred to as “New Wave” at all. Music is evolutionary, after all, even when a new sound or style seems to have come out of the blue, it has likely grown from what has preceded it. And multiple styles can emerge from their respective musical roots parallel to each other at the same time, without having much in common musically.

In a 2012 interview, Thomas Dolby recalled, “In the mid-70s there were these rival factions going on. You had the very outrageous, spiky-haired, torn trousers, three-chord set on one side, and the more thoughtful electronic music that was sort of bubbling up on the other side. I went to the Sex Pistols gigs and spiked my hair — which promptly fell out — then I would go home and work on my electronic music.”

So, to try to pinpoint an actual birth date of New Wave or provide a simple definition of this or of any musical genre, will probably succeed only in spurring endless debate. The important thing is that, as Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart said when he was challenged in 1964 to define “obscenity,” he answered, “I know it when I see it.”

Such is the case with New Wave — while not obscene (in most cases), it made its way from the U.K. to the U.S. and elsewhere with an unmistakable sound that invaded the airwaves in the early ’80s, and, just as importantly, a look that became pervasive on the almighty MTV, which made its historical debut on August 1, 1980. New Wave heavily populated the music charts through mid-decade — until it wasn’t really new anymore, or as interesting.

But not since the mid-1960s had the pop music world enjoyed such an abundance of bands that had at least one or two major hits to offer. Much of New Wave music relied heavily on synthesized keyboards (and often synthesized drums) to create sounds — “synth pop” or “electro pop”— that reached beyond those made by guitar-centered bands, and often with distinctly robotic — sounding results (Devo’s “Whip It”).

“(I Ran) So Far Away,” released in March of 1982 by A Flock of Seagulls, actually featured guitar as much as the synth keyboards. “We rehearsed this song to death,” the band’s lead singer Mike Score recalled in a 2016 interview. “We already had the musical basis for the song…the little riffs and stuff come from when [guitarist] Paul [Reynolds] joined us — what is Paul gonna play? We don’t want to have big spaces in the song, so we said make it echo-y. We used guitar echo in the sequence. The song just evolved into this spacey sound, and of course the band evolved into a spacey band, with my seagull’s hairdo…I guess it shows the sound of the band at the time and where we were going, it’s totally different to anything I can remember hearing — I guess America loved it ’cause of the lead guitar, and synths weren’t really the fashion in America…”

In another interview two years later, Score said, “The band were huge, the look was incredible, and when I see us the way we were, I have no difficulty realizing why we got so big, ’cause we were focused on exactly where we needed to be — the look, the sound, everything was right.”

Yet the bands and solo singers achieving the most overall commercial success during those years belonged to a sub-genre of British New Wave, dubbed collectively and broadly as the New Romantics, which included the likes of ABC, Culture Club, Thomas Dolby, Thompson Twins, Duran Duran, Bananarama, Squeeze, The Eurythmics, Haircut One Hundred, Adam Ant— the list goes on (so, no need to post “You forgot about…” or “How can you leave out…” in the comments section).

Ironically, what is arguably the quintessential New Wave video, “The Metro,” was made not by a British band, but the American band Berlin (with lead singer Terri Nunn) filmed in 1983. The music, editing, art direction, hair/make-up styles, and fashions could only belong to that particular slice of the ‘80s — and if made today, could be interpreted as a parody of the times.

Visually, most of these bands demonstrated considerable creativity in designing their signature looks — from faux military costumes, to multi-colored hair, to swaths of rainbow streaks across the cheekbone and heavy applications of eyeliner….and that was just the guys.

The less flamboyantly attired bands of the era, such as Spandau Ballet, The Human League, and Naked Eyes, produced a style of smoother, more easygoing pop, played by musicians favoring smartly tailored suits (and shimmering, body-hugging dresses for the girls).

Spandau Ballet.

And it was all to be preserved forever in their videos, then airing 24 hours a day on MTV. Today, we can re-visit each video with a click on YouTube.

As ABC’s lead singer Martin Fry told BBC Breakfast in May of 2022, “Things were very ‘shiny’ back in the 1980s — I had the gold suit on back then. I think it was a cry for help, though, from my generation. I think everybody wanted attention, you know — all those guys in Duran Duran and Depeche Mode and ABC, it was all about attention.” He acknowledged that they tried to outshine each other with their outfits. “Absolutely. When you’re in a band, only one act can get to number one, so anyone who tells you it wasn’t competitive is lying. [It was] fiercely competitive.” When asked if there was a correlation between the shininess of the outfits and success, Fry agreed. “I’d say so, yeah. When you look at Boy George and Annie Lennox, and ourselves, yeah, you could nudge yourself up the charts a bit higher [that way].

“Duran Duran were the boys from Birmingham, they were in Sri Lanka shooting their videos, we were in Sheperd’s Bush [West London] shooting ours. But we were kind of — I was in the gold suit, yeah — kind of a mod thing, I think, then it got turned up a couple of notches. We were a pretty cosmopolitan sound…”

But as was the case with many popular groups twenty years earlier in the 1960s, these New Wave bands are remembered today as basically one-hit wonders — maybe two-hit wonders if they were lucky. Even fewer achieved considerably longer-lasting success with a string of hits over several years, and some are still touring today. Their hits covered a wide range of sounds and moods, and the majority of them were, in a word, fantastic. As well as the music itself, the accompanying videos on MTV — which debuted on August 1, 1980 — could be vastly entertaining, funny, confusing, even mesmerizing, and boosted record sales to great heights.

Looking back, some bands are still remembered today by having had a single hit, rather than by a more extensive body of work; “She Blinded Me with Science” by Thomas Dolby, “Cruel Summer” by Bananarama, “The Look of Love” by ABC, “Cars” by Gary Numan, “Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League.

Speaking of which, in 2011 The Human League members — Phil Oakey, Joanne Catherall, and Susan Sulley— talked about how having had the hit “Don’t You Want Me” still brought with it more positives than drawbacks decades later. When asked what the song means for her, Susan Sulley replied, “It means I’ve got a nice house! (laughter)…The great thing about it that it’s done for us is it’s given us a chance to play all over the world, and we’d never do a concert and not play it because the audience loves the song, we’d be stupid not to play it” (for the record, the band had a number of hits in the ’80s, including “Fascination” and “Human”).

The Human League.

The inspiration for all of this nostalgia stems from the issue of Newsweek magazine below, dated January 23, 1984 — exactly 40 years ago this week, and, to emphasize the cruel and unrelenting passage of time, that was exactly 20 years after a largely unsuspecting America found itself invaded by the Beatles, with their arrival in February of 1964 to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show and their first live concerts in the U.S.

It could be said that Newsweek arrived a bit late to the party, especially since the second British Invasion had been underway for roughly three years by the time this issue was published. But it’s always amusing to see a conventional and respected pillar of American journalism attempt to educate the public about a pop culture phenomenon among young people (as Time magazine has done recently in naming Taylor Swift the Person of the Year for 2023).

But this Newsweek cover story made a number of interesting observations, such as the fact that the American music charts of July 16, 1983, included an unprecedented 18 British acts in the Top 40, surpassing the previous high on June 19, 1965, when the Beatles and other British Invasion groups were riding high.

In late 1984, the top British bands and solo singers were coerced, on rather short notice, by Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats to converge for a studio recording of a new song, “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” that he had written with Midge Ure of Ultravox, in order to direct the world’s attention to a devastating famine in Ethiopia. The proceeds of the sales were to go to the relief efforts to help alleviate the mass starvation.

The New Wave era reached its climax at the biggest concert of all time, for charity or otherwise. Live Aid — also organized by Geldof — took place on July 13, 1985, when simultaneous concerts at Wembley Stadium in London (attended by over 70,000) and RFK Stadium in Philadelphia (attended by nearly 90,000) linked up via satellite for 16 continuous hours of music. Among the New Wave bands performing were Duran Duran, Adam Ant, Status Quo, The Style Council, Ultravox, Spandau Ballet, Elvis Costello, Howard Jones, Thompson Twins, along with many rock veterans, including Led Zepplin, Eric Clapton, Queen, U2, David Bowie, the Who, and, as they say in show business, “a host of others,” including Paul McCartney, for whom the organizers saved the closing slot, ahead of the “Do They Know It’s Christmas” grand finale on the U.K. side.

Live Aid at Wembley Stadium.

The commercial success and hit-making abilities of many popular British bands of the early ‘80s began to run low by the latter half of the decade, with their hits becoming fewer and farther between. Moreover, the raw, indie rock styles like Grunge, fusing elements of punk and heavy metal, began emerging in the U.S., specifically from the Seattle area, serving almost as a diametrically opposed reaction to New Wave, whose popular, flamboyant British acts of the early ’80s were losing favor.

But while it lasted, New Wave brought with it a colorful, rather eccentric array of bands and singers who made the music world sit up and take notice, while leaving the rest of us with a long menu of memorable, catchy tunes and videos that ran the gamut of sounds and attitudes.

Much of New Wave was in the eye of the beholder, and it remains so forty years later. But it was certainly a musical era to behold with nostalgia.

Until next time…

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My other articles related to pop/rock music include:

“Retro Review: Kate Bush and ‘The Dreaming’”| by Garry Berman | Medium

“Marshall Crenshaw’s Stunning Debut, 40 Years Ago” https://garryberman.medium.com/retro-review-marshall-crenshaws-stunning-debut-40-years-ago-9f3ff870898b

Retro Review: In Praise of the Bangles https://garryberman.medium.com/retro-review-in-praise-of-the-bangles-7110c0c79b49

Retro Review: The Cardigans https://garryberman.medium.com/retro-review-the-cardigans-ca1e8e5f05f1

Retro Review: Donald Fagan’s “The Nightfly” https://garryberman.medium.com/retro-review-donald-fagans-the-nightfly-6af34cafc87d

Two Classic Albums: “Layla” and “All Things Must Pass” at 50 https://garryberman.medium.com/two-classic-albums-layla-and-all-things-must-pass-at-50-1d4b8ef9e4c6

Retro Review: Renaissance (the band) https://garryberman.medium.com/retro-review-renaissance-the-band-b497319a84fc

“The Rise and Fall…and Rise…of the LP” https://garryberman.medium.com/the-rise-and-fall-and-rise-of-the-lp-cc105ff8beb1

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Garry Berman

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.