NEW YORK — Punk or "new wave" rock still hasn't made any significant commercial impact on the vast American pop-music market. But there are interesting behind-the-scenes pressures building within the music business that may soon lead to a breakthrough.
The most obvious index is the proliferating signings of punk groups by record companies. Most of the even semi-important New York bands have record contracts now, as do many of the London groups.
And even bands in towns like Boston are being snapped up now, too — as with the eminently worthy Willie (Loco) Alexander and his Boom- Boom Band. The next step is for American record companies to arrange distribution deals with smaller American organizations (as Warner Brothers has just done with Sire) or with foreign companies (as CBS may do with the British Stiff label). The next link in the chain is to get the music out to the public.
The press, at least in the big coastal cities and the national music magazines, is no problem: Many critics have been among the principal champions of this music. But the radio stations are another matter. It's not hard to understand, really. The 1970s have been a genuine reaction against the more extreme forms of 60s rock.
This is the time of "mellow rock," "beautiful rock" and such-like. Radio stations, for all their obeisances to hipness and to accurate reflections of teen-age tastes, are still run by middle-aged men, whose own preferences may well be for Johnny Mathis. Thus when some particularly aggressive, obnoxious punk comes along blasting three-chord rock into a radio executive's eardrums, he may rationalize his own conservative prejudices by appealing to the presumed taste of the country as a whole. But as with any trend, 'progress is made by committed individuals.
FM stations in cities like New York and San Francisco have begun to champion the music, and advocates in trade magazines like Record World have begun to write regularly about it.
Eventually, the music will stand or fall depending on the passion of its advocates and the response they evoke. If the masses simply don't want a harder, more exciting kind of rock, then no amount of selected air play and enthusiastic reviewing will convince them. But if the receptivity is there, there are certainly enough sparks around to kindle something widespread and exciting.
These musings were inspired by an import disk called "Elvis Costello," by the artist of that name. (Costello can't be accused of capitalizing on Elvis Presley's death, because he came by his moniker long before Aug. 16.) This is a record on the Stiff label, and perhaps soon it will be distributed in this country. In the meantime, however, it is receiving a good deal of air play in New York, in California and other spots sympathetic to the "new wave."
Not that Costello is a punk; he's more in the rhythm-and-blues revivalist school of Graham Parker, Southside Johnny or even Bruce Springsteen. The music is spare, tight and infectious, and Costello — who's reportedly a most lively performer in concert — spits out the singing with a confident flair. Best of all are the songs, which are reminiscent of Parker's in their ability to handle serious themes in a witty and entertaining manner.