Dance Beats That Defined ’80s New Wave

The void following the first real punk movement left an audience craving something fresh, different, and a bit more commercial. The influence of MTV put a band’s image on an equal footing with its sound, and the post-punk era saw bands playing a variety of different styles that often got lumped together by record companies and marketed as new wave. Some of these bands played ska, others gloomy art rock or quirky pop. But with the appropriate fashion choices, an impractical haircut, and a catchy song, lots of bands were able to join the club. The movement continues to have an influence, leaving lots of pop bands and the entire goth movement heavily in debt to some of these bands. While the use of Simmons electronic drums, drum machines, and sequencers cannot be denied, this article will focus on songs recorded by human drummers during the new wave explosion.

“Whip It” by Devo

Who can forget Devo’s yellow jumpsuits and energy dome hats? Devo somehow merged performance art and music into a saleable commodity. Whether the lyrics are about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps or about S&M — I’ll let you decide. The fast two-handed groove that Alan Meyers played on the song uses a sticking of R RLR RL and makes this a tiring song to play. If you hate the song, focus your blame on MTV.

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“Can’t Get Used To Losing You” by English Beat

The English Beat was a ska-influenced band that became categorized as a new wave band. Their light, danceable sound was a great contrast to the moodier, and often bleak sound of many English new wave acts. Drummer Everett Moreton plays a pretty standard ska groove that was quite a fresh sound in the early ’80s, especially to American ears. The groove features the bass drum and rim-click played primarily on counts 2 and 4, with the rim-click occasionally playing on various e’s and ah’s. Moreton plays this part with a light swing that contributes to the groove. Though they had some successful singles like “Save It For Later,” the band dissolved and the members founded two other successful bands: General Public and Fine Young Cannibals.

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“Just What I Needed” by The Cars

This American band had just the right offbeat pop hooks and synthy overtones to make them successful. Drummer David Robinson suggested the band’s name and laid down the groove on this early recording, though he was regrettably replaced on later hits by the ubiquitous drum machine that, by that time, had become an essential part of the genre’s sound. The intro is very sparse on this one and gradually grows to become the rhythmic foundation of the song.

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“Sister Europe” by Psychedelic Furs

Singer Richard Butler’s cigarette-and-whiskey coated delivery is a bit reminiscent of David Bowie’s, but is darker and more morose, especially on the moody and plodding tune, “Sister Europe.” Vince Ely’s drumming is simple and machine-like, but functions brilliantly in this context, creating a hypnotic effect through its relentless repetition and simple fills. The song begins starkly with just snare and bass drum laying out the foundation of the groove until the bass enters after the first drum fill. The cymbal crash on beat 2 of the verse comes as a welcome surprise. Producer Steve Lilywhite provided a massive drum sound and kept the mood nearly suicidal throughout this song. The Foo Fighters did a good job of covering this often-overlooked gem on their One By One release.

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“In a Big Country” by Big Country

The ’80s new wave movement wasn’t known for lots of impressive drummers and drum parts, but Big Country’s Mark Brzezicki was an exception. For the intro of their signature song, “In A Big Country,” Brzezicki played several overdubbed drum parts that I’ve done my best to separate. Throughout the intro Brzezicki plays a funk groove on set and layers some octabon and tom fills on top of the groove. He alternates between those fills and a march groove that may have been played on several different-sized snares to add depth to the part. His clean double stroke rolls offered a clue to his technical skill, and this layered intro has confounded cover band drummers ever since it was released. Brzezicki has also recorded and toured with a wide range of artists, including Pete Townshend, Procol Harem, Roger Daltrey, and The Cult.

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“Watching The Detectives” by Elvis Costello

Costello wrote this track the day after he heard the Clash’s debut album, and it was his first attempt at reggae. Little did the world know, we all would be humming songs by the oddly named songwriter for the next 30 years. Studio drummer Steve Goulding played on this great track and offered just the right combination of a lazy swing feel and a cool reggae groove to help make it a hit. The chorus changes to a half-time feel with open hi-hats that relaxes the feel of the section.

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“Poptones” by Public Image Ltd.

After the Sex Pistols broke up, John Lydon and early Clash guitarist Keith Levene formed one of the most innovative and odd bands of the era. They are hard to categorize since PiL’s songs were usually depressing, eerie, a bit atonal, and featured Lydon’s distinctive caterwauling vocals. Many people won’t enjoy the band, but that’s because they constantly challenge their listener’s expectations. “Poptones” is a dreary song about a murder that features a great repetitive bass line by Jah Wobble and cacophonous and somewhat loose drumming from Richard Dudanski. The two-bar groove is very repetitive and alternates between the snare landing on 3 in the first measure and 2 and 4 in the second. He varies the bass drum pattern a bit as the tune progresses. They lip-synched to this song on American Bandstand, which had to have been one of the oddest performances in the history of the show.

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“Rise” by Public Image Ltd.

This Bill Laswell produced track of their release Album features Steve Vai on guitar, Jonas Hellborg on bass, and jazz legend Tony Williams on drums (incidentally, Ginger Baker was the other drummer on this disc). “Rise” was one of the band’s more popular songs and has contemporary relevance — it lyrically deals with political torture. Williams starts simply with just bass drum and a solitary snare note on 4. He later adds hi-hat sixteenth-notes and plays backbeats on the snare.

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“Windows” by Missing Persons

Another band with a stellar cast of musical talents, Missing Persons consisted entirely of alumni from Frank Zappa’s band and included Terry Bozzio and his then-wife Dale, who created quirky pop songs featuring great and innovative drumming. On the song “Windows,” Bozzio unleashes some of his trademark singles runs around his large Roto Tom set that are definitely worth checking out. The first tom run uses hertas (RLR L) phrased as two groupings of five and two of three to fill out the first bar. Bozzio throws flams in interesting places during his descending triplet fill. The third run descends down his kit, skipping drums back and forth, which is very difficult to play as cleanly as Bozzio does. The last run is a crazy sextuplet pattern down all seven Roto Toms broken up by a pair of snare hits in the middle of the pattern.

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“The One Thing” by INXS

Some of you may only know INXS as the band featured on the reality program, Rockstar INXS, but they were one of more successful new wave bands to break from Australia, along with Midnight Oil and Men At Work. Their first hit, “The One Thing,” was a heavily rotated MTV video that featured their charismatic frontman, Michael Hutchence, whose sinuous movements were reminiscent of Jim Morrison. Jon Farriss created a cool drum part in the chorus that had a snare note on the & of 2 and a tom note on count 4, and a hi-hat pattern that gives the section a rumba flavor.

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“Just Like Heaven” by The Cure

The Cure is sometimes cited as goth rock founders, but in their earliest incarnation they were a post punk band that tended to write gloomy songs. By the mid-’80s, they’d become a sugary pop-oriented new wave band and their song “Just Like Heaven” was one of their biggest hits. It begins with an unusual drum intro courtesy of Boris Williams. The song isn’t hard to play, but his short intro fill and crash on beat 2 are a little unusual and may throw your band off if they aren’t counting.

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“Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus

More than the Cure, the post punk band Bauhaus planted the seeds of goth rock. Peter Murphy was a large influence on Trent Reznor and many other current rock bands. This nine-minute song is peculiar, experimental, gloomy art rock and drummer Kevin Haskins’ bossa nova groove certainly seems an odd choice. However, liberal use of a tape echo transforms this simple beat into a creepy chorus of rattling skeleton bones.

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“Rio” by Duran Duran

MTV helped quickly establish Duran Duran as one of the biggest new wave bands in equal parts due their catchy songs, their high-quality videos often shot at exotic locations, and the fashionable and videogenic nature of the band. Drummer Roger Taylor (no relation to the Queen drummer of the same name) plays a set of syncopated tom fills in the intro, overdubbed on top of the brisk, two-handed hi-hat pattern.

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“Burning Down The House” by Talking Heads

David Byrne’s eccentric or perhaps slightly disturbed stage persona may have overshadowed the rest of the band a bit, but drummer Chris Frantz and studio percussionists David Van Tiegham, Steve Scales, and Raphael DeJesus all contributed greatly to the Heads’ 1983 album, Speaking In Tongues. The song “Burning Down The House” was their biggest hit to date and featured a relatively simple drum groove with overdubbed tom fills that made the track quite memorable.

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