Songwriting Tips from 3 Influential New Wave Tracks

These three New Wave/New Romantic tracks from the 1980s influenced me and inspired me to create electronic music. While there are many more obvious choices I could have included (Depeche Mode, New Order, and Tears for Fears), these songs embody everything about electronica that appeals to me, even if the tracks themselves aren’t electronic.

This all began when fellow producer Justin DeGuzman of Deeper Manila asked the ElectronicaManila group for new wave song recommendations. These 3 tracks were my reply. I also appended the key songwriting lessons that each track taught me.

Heaven 17

Heaven 17 – “Five Minutes to Midnight”

I bought the album How Men Are on cassette around 1985 and relished its delightful weirdness. Turns out Heaven 17 created songs in a very dadaist manner –beginning with titles and then working their way to individual lyrics and meanings.

I could never figure out what this track was about, but was always intrigued by its mystery and funky dance-ability. It used vocal samples and real strings plus some distinctive sound editing and sound design.

Key lesson: Beats aren’t enough. Create a world within your music — one that’s rich enough with details to dive into and explore.

The The – “I’ve been Waiting for Tomorrow (All of my Life)”

This is one of the first tracks I learned to play drums to. I’d inherited my Uncle Mario’s drum sticks when he migrated to the States and was teaching myself beats by battering my pillows with the sticks, while a cassette played. My sister came in one day while I was practicing this song and said: “Wow. You’ll make a pretty good drummer one day.” Thanks, sis.

Little did I know that The The‘s Matt Johnson recorded drums by Zeke Manyaka and then LOOPED it. What did I know about drum loops then? Nada.

This track came from the very same album (Soul Mining) that contained their 2 most famous singles, “Uncertain Smile” and “This is The Day” (used in a lot of movies, though I can only remember the ending of Empire Records).

Key lesson: You can have whole sections of the tune rely on only the drums. But there better be a climactic chorus to it. Plus, people relate to angst.

Modern English – “Machines”

This is Modern English and their endless drum machine loop doing “Machines” from their 1984 album on 4AD Records, Ricochet Days. This was an unforgettable album — magical and mystical in the way it taught me to feel the emotions behind music, in turn inspiring me to write heartfelt, even if obstruse, pop music.

“Machines” creates a pre-Y2K vision of a dystopian nightmare — where machinery breaks down and everyone asks “What are we to do? Wake up you must be dreaming.” At the same time, the music is wistful, bittersweet and dreamy, just the way I like it.

Key lesson: Music needs a good groove and lyrics or melodies that people can connect with. The more bittersweet and sad the lyrics and melodies, the better.

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