New Wave Music–DEVO, Talking Heads, Blondie, Elvis Costello–Gets Introduced to America by ABC’s TV Show, 20/20 (1979)

Giv­en the efforts of peo­ple like Mal­colm McLaren to turn punk rock into a viable com­mer­cial product—or at least a quick cash grab—it’s a lit­tle sur­pris­ing it took as long as it did for “pop punk” to find its prof­itable 90s/oughties teenage niche. Always a catch-all term for an eclec­tic vari­ety of styles, punk instead fur­ther diver­si­fied in the eight­ies into var­i­ous kinds of post-punk, hard­core, and new wave. The lat­ter devel­op­ment, how­ev­er, quick­ly found a com­mer­cial audi­ence, with its suc­cess­ful fusion of 70s pop, reg­gae, and dis­co ele­ments with punk’s wry, arty-out­sider sen­si­bil­i­ty. Artists like Gary Numan, Blondie, DEVO, Talk­ing Heads, and even The Clash emerged from the 70s with high­ly dance­able hits that set the tone for the sound of the next decade.

But first the pub­lic had to learn what new wave was, and many of them did in a sur­pris­ing­ly main­stream way, in the 1979 spe­cial pro­duced by ABC’s 20/20 in two parts here. By com­par­i­son with the num­ber of awk­ward­ly clue­less or bla­tant­ly sen­sa­tion­al­is­tic news reports on emerg­ing youth cul­tures over the decades, the show is “impres­sive­ly astute,” writes Dan­ger­ous Minds, “for a news seg­ment on new music from one of the major TV net­works.” It fea­tures a num­ber of the above-named artists—DEVO, Blondie, Talk­ing Heads—and makes an inter­est­ing attempt to sit­u­ate the music on a con­tin­u­um with Chuck Berry, Bud­dy Hol­ly, and the Rolling Stones.

The seg­ment claims that new wave both sat­i­rized and updat­ed rock and pop—with DEVO’s cov­er of “(I Can’t Get No) Sat­is­fac­tion” as Exhib­it A. And while new wave would even­tu­al­ly glam it up with the best of the 70s dis­co acts—think Duran Duran or the bub­blegum pop of Flock of Seag­ulls or Kajagoogoo—in its first, post-punk phase, the music stripped things down to 50s sim­plic­i­ty. Elvis Costel­lo gets called in to rep­re­sent the revival­ism inher­ent in the nascent form, herald­ing a “redis­cov­ery of the rock and roll audi­ence.”

There are prob­lems with the his­to­ry: punk gets labeled “an extreme ele­ment of new wave” and “a British phe­nom­e­non,” where it makes more sense to call it a pre­cur­sor with roots in Detroit and New York. It’s a nit­picky point, and one shouldn’t expect too much accu­ra­cy in a top-down net­work news report. The real treat here is the per­for­mance clips and rare inter­views. Even with the poor video qual­i­ty, they’re all well worth watch­ing, espe­cial­ly the extend­ed focus on the Talk­ing Heads in the sec­ond part above. As Dan­ger­ous Minds writes, “it takes an effort of will to remem­ber how weird David Byrne… must have seemed to a main­stream audi­ence in 1979.” Or not. He still comes off as pret­ty odd to me, and the music still fresh and inven­tive.

Note: Elvis Costel­lo has just pub­lished a new auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Unfaith­ful Music & Dis­ap­pear­ing Ink. And he nar­rates the audio­book ver­sion, which you can down­load for free (along with anoth­er audio­book) if you join’s 30-day Free Tri­al pro­gram. Get details on the 30-day tri­al here. And get Elvis Costel­lo’s audio­book, by click­ing here and then click­ing the “Try Audi­ble Free” but­ton in the upper right.

via Dan­ger­ous Minds

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of CBGB, the Ear­ly Home of Punk and New Wave

See Very Ear­ly Con­cert Footage of the B‑52s, When New Wave Music Was Actu­al­ly New (1978)

The Talk­ing Heads Play CBGB, the New York Club that Shaped Their Sound (1975)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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