Excerpted with permission for PopMatters from Chapter 1 of Are We Not New Wave?: Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s, by Theo Cateforis, © 2011 (footnotes omitted), published by the University of Michigan Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
New Wave in America, 1979 to 1981: The First Rise and Fall
While anyone looking at either Billboard’s singles or album charts needed to squint to spot a new wave artist in 1979, for those who were paying attention to such things, the few that had made an impact offered signs that the genre’s fortunes were on the rise. Elvis Costello’s third album, Armed Forces, was in the Top 10, as was Blondie’s third album, Parallel Lines. Two new British artists, the Police and Joe Jackson, had also cracked the Top 40 singles chart, and better yet had also each placed two separate releases in the Top 40 albums chart. Two albums in particular, the Cars’ Candy-O and the multiplatinum debut from Los Angeles power pop quartet the Knack, had sold remarkably well and had swept Billboard’s end-of-the-year “Reader’s Rock Polls.”
Are We Not New Wave?: Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s
(University of Michigan Press; US: Jul 2011)
In many respects, the increase in new wave sales during 1979 was simply a case of a slow-building genre with deep roots that was beginning to gain more momentum. At the same time, new wave’s heightened presence must also be understood within the more complicated context of a desperate American music industry that was facing its worst financial crisis in decades. To a large extent the troubles befalling the industry were symptomatic of a larger national recession, compounded by the oil crisis and skyrocketing gasoline prices. In such a climate CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff may have exaggerated only slightly when complaining, “Our customers literally ran out of money.” An industry accustomed to yearly upward profits was sent reeling, and, faced with a sea of abnormally large overstock returns and sharply declining sales, the major record labels panicked. Companies began to lay off employees at an alarming rate. In August, BusinessWeek reported that the music industry had cut one thousand employees in a workforce of only fourteen thousand. Five months later Rolling Stone estimated that the number had increased to two thousand. The result was a bloodletting that had decimated a significant portion of the industry’s workforce. The year ended in what R. Serge Denisoff has called “The Great Depression of ’79.”
Many in the industry were quick to point their fingers in blame, and inevitably they were directed at disco. The year 1978 had been a banner year, largely thanks to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack’s unprecedented sales and the rise of disco dancing as a mainstream pop culture phenomenon. The industry had gotten drunk on the genre, however, as labels expanded their disco department staffing and pursued new artists with reckless abandon. Throughout the first half of 1979 disco continued to dominate the singles charts thanks to radio programming and the club scene, but a glance at the more highly prized album charts, where disco’s profile was comparatively modest, told a different story. Disco, which was more a producer-oriented than artist-oriented style, and which thrived on extended remixes and twelve-inch singles rather than albums, was having difficulty prospering within the industry’s standard rock-driven marketing model. Billboard bemoaned the relative anonymity of the music and the movement’s “dearth of superstars.” The problems, however, extended beyond just disco. Even the proven superstar rock acts that the labels rushed for a fall release, hoping that they would help offset disco’s lost potential revenue, managed relatively disappointing returns. As Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door fell far short of the bands’ previous triumphant sales, it appeared that the recession was resistant to any convenient remedies.
In such an atmosphere, labels were understandably anxious to resuscitate their failing health. Even though members of the industry looked upon disco’s failure with disillusioned eyes, they still held out hope that they could harness the music’s selling power in some way. Most of all they were looking for some magical genre that could fuse disco’s formula of “high rates of turnover and low production costs” with the consistently high sales that the top rock albums provided. New wave appeared to fit this bill in many different ways. For one, the music had already assimilated some of disco’s familiar turf, specifically through the spectacular boom in urban clubs known as rock discos. The first of these, the former New York City discotheque Hurrah, switched over to playing predominantly rock music in May 1978 and flourished as a space where disc jockeys could spin new wave records for a dance audience, and where bands could also occasionally play live. The concept soon spread, and by the summer of 1979 New York alone boasted at least seven similar clubs. Undoubtedly the rock disco helped in breaking the year’s first new wave / disco crossover hit, Blondie’s chart-topping smash “Heart of Glass,” and there would be many more such success stories to follow as rock discos began to spread to nearly every metropolitan center throughout North America. Even more importantly, the major labels noticed that new wave was incredibly cheap to produce. At a time when the average rock album cost anywhere between $70,000 and $100,000 of studio time and blockbuster productions like Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and the Eagles’ The Long Run could run well over $500,000, a new wave group on an independent label could record an album for $2,000 to $4,000. The Police’s 1977 debut single, “Fall Out,” had only cost the band $300. Such numbers were hard for industry representatives to ignore.
The band that finally realized the major labels’ wide-eyed dreams was the Knack, a Los Angeles guitar rock quartet decked out in British Invasion era Beatles suits, whose danceable debut Get the Knack would spend five weeks at the top of the album charts. I will look at the Knack in more detail in chapter 5, specifically at how their nostalgia for mid-1960s power pop played a significant role in defining a new wave musical style, but for now it is the narrative of their rise to success that is most relevant to the present discussion. The Knack’s rapid ascent from Los Angeles club act to rock star sensations provided a model that many bands and record labels alike hoped to replicate. The group had first generated interest by playing to increasingly large crowds in Los Angeles, which essentially acted as showcase performances. With evidence of a proven audience, the Knack became the subject of an intense bidding war, one that saw Capitol Records pay the band what was at that time the largest signing sum in the label’s history. Most importantly, the group took just eleven days to record their album, for a total of $18,000, which allowed the label to shift more of its budget and focus to promotion. Upon its release, the album met with immediate success, reaching gold status (500,000 sales) in just two weeks. Likewise, the leadsingle, “My Sharona,” became the fastest U.S. debut single to achieve gold sales since the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” fifteen years earlier. Equally successful on AOR and Top 40 radio, the Knack seemed to be a model for the type of rock artists who could penetrate the pop market that the major labels hoped to cultivate.
It is impossible to understate the significance of Get the Knack. In many ways it proved to be as important to the new wave as Saturday Night Fever was to disco, inasmuch as its overwhelming success validated the genre in the industry’s eyes and sent the major labels on a massive signing frenzy in search of comparable talent. Well aware of the post–Saturday Night Fever fate that had befallen disco, Ray Caviano, head of Warner Brothers’ dance music division, noted with a tinge of ominous foreshadowing the labels’ shift in attention and resources toward the new wave: “Anybody who walks in with a skinny tie seems to get a contract right now… a year ago it was anybody with a whistle and a tambourine.” Word travels fast among musicians in such a climate, and a whole underclass of amateur and semiprofessional hopefuls had soon made the switch to new wave. As Will Birch of British power pop band the Records noted while on tour in the United States in support of the AOR single “Starry Eyes,” the Knack’s influence had permeated the Los Angeles scene with awkward results:
We had a few days off in LA and went clubbing ’round. Every bar we went into we saw bands with three guitars and drums, three minute songs, Beatle haircuts, the whole bit, doin’ pop. Most of ’em were appalling. They were all good musicians—the drummers were always great—but it was almost as if they were all session musicians who couldn’t get gigs, telling the bands, “I’ll get the haircut but I keep my Octa-plus drumkit.” So you get these older guys with dyed hair and huge drum kits doing these flashy licks, hoping some record company will discover ’em as “their” pop group. You can look good and have the hype, but it’s down to the song. Most of ’em don’t have ’em, and they’ll fall by the wayside.
Birch’s estimate of the situation would prove to be prophetic, but in late 1979 and 1980, the music industry was too enthralled with new wave’s potential to notice. In the wake of the Knack’s success, Billboard issued numerous optimistic announcements that signaled new wave’s breakthrough into a larger marketplace. The most impressive of these was a cover feature announcing that “New Wave Rock [was] Catching Hold All Over [the] U.S.,” which consisted primarily of quotes from a nationwide survey of AOR program and music directors who had begun adding a handful of new wave artists into their stations’ rotations.
Unsurprisingly the most positive reactions to new wave programming resided on the coasts and in liberal college cities like Austin, Texas, while many midwestern and southern stations reported less enthusiastic responses. Most stations were easing (sometimes reluctantly) new wave artists into their rotations, but some, such as KROQ Los Angeles and WPIX New York, were now devoting roughly half their programming to the new genre. Other AOR stations relegated their new wave programming largely to late-night shows, with appropriate titles such as KSJO San Jose’s Modern Humans or KZEW Dallas’s Rock and Roll Alternative that indicated the genre’s progressive status.
New wave’s infiltration into AOR programming was complemented by its expanded coverage in the rock press, and not just in small-scale East Coast publications such as New York Rocker and Trouser Press that had been linked with the music ever since punk’s emergence in 1976 and 1977. Nonpartisan rock gossip and pop culture magazines like Circus and Hit Parader began to place new wave artists on their covers, as did the more estimable Rolling Stone. Detroit-based Creem, which had been feeding readers with a steady diet of hometown heroes Bob Seger and Ted Nugent and other hard rockers for much of 1978, gradually devoted more and more of its space to the new wave, to the point where over half of the magazine’s 1980 covers featured new wave artists. Creem readers responded to the magazine’s mixed genre allegiances in kind, flooding their mailbox with both anti-new wave and pro-new wave letters that soon spiraled into a virulent debate over the merits of the Clash and its fans on one side and Led Zeppelin and its fans on the other. Even a publication like the solidly Deadhead-oriented Relix was not immune to the new wave’s influence. Faced with plummeting sales, the magazine turned to a new editor, who placed Blondie’s Debbie Harry on the cover and began to feature new wave articles with increasing regularity. The magazine’s fortunes took a turn for the better.