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 Audible.com’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.