What is ‘new wave’ music? Debbie Harry and Blondie explain…
Debbie Harry became the poster-girl of the new wave scene when Blondie managed to re-shape punk into pop-friendly radio hits, a genre that didn’t compromise the ethos that the band had put in stone when they began back in 1974—but what exactly is ‘new wave’?
New wave would somewhat become a redundant term by the early 1980s after almost every single act that gained popularity was deemed unceremoniously branded with the tag. People struggled to get to grips with understanding with the new sound, a movement which banded a certain group of artists together in a booming new direction. The term can be dated back to 1973 when the new wave tag had begun to be used to classify some New York-based groups but, in reality, it didn’t really kick on for another couple of years until the likes of Talking Heads, Mink DeVille and Blondie began to gain more prominence.
What made an artist be classed as being part of this new sound, in the early days at least, was down to the aforementioned artists performing live at CBGB’s and, crucially, that their music didn’t fall into what would traditionally be described as punk—although they did still share the same DIY ethos, one which saw new wave born out of rebellion. Former CBGB owner, Hilly Kristal, referring to the first show of the band Television at his club in March 1974, said, “I think of that as the beginning of new wave.”
By 1978, the term was internationally recognised and this was largely down to the success of acts like Blondie, a band who ushered in a new sound into the consciousness of the public. Debbie Harry and the group had been making waves in Europe and Australia for a number of years thanks to the group’s self-titled debut and sophomore record Plastic Letters, creations which had seen Blondie flourish abroad but they were yet to crack America.
When the band appeared on the Australian television programme Nightmoves in 1978, the interviewer was curious to understand exactly how they viewed the new wave movement, an attempt to explore the differences between the British version of new wave with the American one. “I think there are more influences in the American new wave,” Chris Stein started his assessment by saying. “It’s like the assimilation of the last 20 years of radio whereas the English new wave, I think is New York Dolls influenced.”
Debbie Harry then intervenes the conversation, adding: “It seems like a lot of the new wave label has been coined and interpreted through the Sex Pistols and there’s a lot more bands than that who have songs that are not very interesting,” she scathingly said.
Stein then went on to define new wave in very simple terms by saying, “I actually think it’s just a lot of new bands coming out at once, a lot of new blood from people who weren’t in the business before and just coming out now. It’s making an impact and snowballing because it’s more than one band, it’s like a great amount of bands. That’s actually what new wave is,” Stein added.
“It’s a reaction against bands like Led Zeppelin or Rod Stewart but apart from that no other,” Stein added on the sonic similarities between bands in the new wave camp.
Keyboardist Jimmy Destri then provided a fascinating answer to when he was asked what was the next wave of music to come in a few years once tastes and culture moved on once more. “I think it’s gonna be completely synthesized, I think it’s going to be computer-controlled music where the artist is just gonna sit on a bank and do weird things,” Destri foresaw, seemingly accidentally predicting the advent of EDM.
Judging from their appearance on Nightmoves, Blondie saw new wave as a movement rather than a genre. It was about new acts entering the system and changing it for the better. There was no scene or collective in reality but the tag of new wave was a way of grouping these acts who thought similarly about music together.