What New Wave Brought to Rock ‘n’ Roll

There will always be a new music craze out to getcha, getcha, getcha

“We had ears open to all the influences that were around us,” Debbie Harry recently told Interview magazine. From Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk / Rizzoli, 2014 / Morrison Hotel Gallery

When Neil Young recorded his 1981 Re-ac-tor album in the midst of rock’s new wave movement, he included a surf number, “Rapid Transit,” with this refrain: “Every wave is new until it breaks.”

It was one of Young’s best musical jokes. Surf music, of course, was all about waves. “Catch a wave,” the Beach Boys sang back in 1963 when they were the hot new thing in rock ’n’ roll, “and you’re sitting on top of the world.” But by 1981, the hot new things were punk and new wave, the latter named after La Nouvelle Vague, the movement of low-budget, brisk-and-frisky French movies by Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and others.

Both punk and new wave wanted to get back to the focus and drive of early rock, largely in reaction to the excesses of the mid-’70s—the ponderous rhythms, smoke machines and seemingly endless guitar solos of arena bands such as Pink Floyd, Yes and the Eagles.

What distinguished punk from new wave was its attitude toward the Beatles. The Clash summed up the feeling of most punk bands by singing, “Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust.” Punks liked to pretend that they had scorched the earth so they could rebuild rock ’n’ roll from scratch. New wavers such as Elvis Costello, the Police and the Cars tried to keep the catchy choruses and twitchy rhythms.

If rock’s new wave began in 1976, with Blondie’s eponymous album, it ended 30 years ago, in 1984, when Duran Duran and Wham!, new wave acts with all the rebellion and originality drained away, scored No. 1 singles. The movement’s most gifted figures (Costello, David Byrne, Graham Parker, Chrissie Hynde and Sting) would go on to make memorable music, but only rarely would it have new wave’s brisk, lean attack.

That was Young’s point. Each new wave curls a little differently, but they’re all constructed of the same salt water. No matter how high a wave is riding, when it hits the rocks and sand, it’s gone, shattered into millions of water molecules that sink back into the ocean, to be reconstituted into the next new wave.

Just as Blondie and the Police had used the Beatles, ska and Motown to build their new wave, so have 21st-century bands such as Radiohead, the Decemberists and Wilco built on the ebbing tide of their ’80s predecessors. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke cited Costello’s Blood & Chocolate as “the album that made me change the way I thought about recording and writing music, lyrics too.”

So it is in every field, from music to film, fashion to physics: Every wave is new until it breaks. Ride it while you can, and then paddle back out in the ocean to look for the next one.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.