Essential Question

What did Punk Rock provide that opened the door for New Wave acts? And what are some among the defining attributes of New Wave?


“New Wave: Popular music less raw than punk rock and typically including unconventional melodies, exaggerated beats, and quirky lyrics.”

— Merriam-Webster Dictionary

In the late 1970s and into the 1980s, with Punk Rock’s effects still being felt, a great number of bands came along, most quite different from one another, that were categorized as New Wave. The opening for these bands was created by Punk’s ransacking of popular music — a ransacking that many among Punk Rock’s believers might have called a cleansing — but that did not make the movement more cohesive. As is often the case with stylistic categories, the bands that were designated New Wave often rejected such a label, however powerless they were to change the situation. Elvis Costello’s breakout single, the ballad “Alison,” was too melodic and too romantic to be called Punk. He was thrown in with the New Wave. Tom Petty — who wore on the cover of his band’s debut album a leather jacket that connoted Punk to many, but who musically connected to 60s Rock and Roll — was called New Wave. The Talking Heads, coming out of CBGB but too arty for Punk, were filed under New Wave, as were Blondie, the Cars, the Police, Devo, and the Knack.

Though many Punks would likely challenge this view, New Wave could be seen as Punk’s greatest victory. It was a testament to the power of Punk’s “cleansing” that it opened the floodgates as wide as it did. Popular music had been changed fundamentally by the energy and ideas of Punk, and in its aftermath, almost anything could happen. But the bands that followed in its wake still needed a category. New Wave was the category they got.

If there is a historical parallel to be drawn, perhaps it comes in the form of early Rock and Roll. After Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and others burst onto the scene in the second half of the 1950s, the music kicked off an era in which emerged a range of popular music, much of it earthy and immediate, that was not exactly like early Rock and Roll but was certainly informed by its energy and ideas. A kind of renaissance was underway, and it was felt in many places and in many forms, from California’s Surf music to Detroit’s Motown to New York’s Brill Building and the Soul music of Memphis.

This lesson looks at the “cleansing” effect of Punk and at New Wave as the result. Selecting the Ramones and the Patti Smith Group as case studies, it will explore what Punk brought that influenced the groups associated with the New Wave. The lesson will hinge around an ABC-produced 20/20 episode on New Wave, aired in 1979. As a summary activity, students will have a chance to compare the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” with New Wave group Devo’s interpretation of the same song, a comparison which will reveal many among the New Wave’s common attributes.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The importance of Punk Rock as a movement that dramatically changed the culture of popular music, clearing the way for New Wave
    • ​The role of groups such as the Ramones and the Patti Smith Group in carrying Punk’s energy and ideas to the artists of the New Wave
    • The wide range of artists associated with New Wave and some defining characteristics that nonetheless give shape to the category
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Extrapolate arguments about music by assessing sound, mood, tone, instrumentation
    • Draw connections among various print, audio and visual texts
    • Compare and contrast texts, arguments and ideas
    • Common Core: Students will work in groups to analyze videos of musical performances and closely read two texts to determine the central themes (CCSS Reading 2; CCSS Reading 7; CCSS Speaking and Listening 1; CCSS Speaking and Listening 2)
    • Common Core: Students will analyze two texts and explain how the musical artists embodied the New Wave spirit (CCSS Writing 2)


Motivational Activity:

  1. The night before, have students watch and take notes on ABC’s 20/20 Special on The New Wave.
  2. ABC’s Hugh Downs describes New Wave as having an “inspiration that goes back 20 years.” Ask the class:
    • What inspiration is Downs referring to?
    • In what ways does that inspiration, early Rock and Roll, reveal itself in New Wave music?
    • Why do commentators like Lisa Robinson refer to New Wave as something that brings back the energy and excitement of early Rock and Roll?
  3. Show students a clip of Jerry Lee Lewis performing “Great Balls of Fire”. Ask them:
    • In what ways does this early Rock and Roll performance prefigure New Wave music?
    • In what ways does the fashion, the delivery, and the music itself prefigure New Wave?


  1. Show the class a 1956 clip of Connie Francis performing “Little Blue Wren”. Ask them to make notes as they watch and listen. Explain that Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire” came out the following year, in 1957, and ask them the following questions:
    • How is the instrumentation different in the two songs?
    • How is the vocal style different?
    • How are the performers’ personalities different?
    • How could the style of Jerry Lee Lewis’ song be considered a reaction to the other song’s style?
  2. Remind the class of a comment made in the 20/20 special, that New Wave was a reaction to Disco. Remind them also that early Rock and Roll was a kind of reaction to the Pop of artists such as Connie Francis. This is one reason so many commentators associated New Wave with early Rock and Roll: they were reactions.
  3. Divide students into groups of 3-4. Play the clip of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”. Ask the groups to compile a list of elements in “I Will Survive” that are things to which New Wave reacted.
  4. Ask the groups to pick a leader to share their lists.

Summary Activity:

In the 20/20 episode we see two bands performing the song “Satisfaction,” the Rolling Stones and Devo. Look at the definition of New Wave in the epigraph at the top of the lesson as a kind of basis for comparing the two versions. Ask the class to have a discussion about what makes the Devo rendition particularly New Wave in character.

Writing Prompt:

Have students read one of the two Rock’s Backpages articles, on the Talking Heads and the Police. Have them write one-page responses, explaining how these bands embody the spirit of the New Wave.


Map out three phases in the Rock and Roll story that were “reactions” to what came before them. Write a short essay explaining how history moves forward through such moments. Ask students to present their own theories, in the essay’s conclusion, regarding what the next “reaction” will be and why.


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text

  • Reading 2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
  • Reading 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects

  • Writing 2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12

  • Speaking and Listening 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

National Standards for Music Education

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.
  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate  musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.

National Core Arts Standards


  • Anchor Standard 7: Perceive and analyze artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 8: Interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 9: Apply criteria to evaluate artistic work.


  • Anchor Standard 10: Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art.
  • Anchor Standards 11: Relate artistic ideas and work with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.