When Sid Vicious. Late of the now defunct Sex Pistols. fell victim to the heroin needle last week, another English punk rocker, Elvis Costello, was quietly motoring up the charts with his latest album.
The dichotomy shows the danger in generalizing about punk rock or, if you will, New Wave music. While Vicious' death was technically ruled an accidental overdose, It was probably more the culmination of the self-destructive lifestyle he himself had chosen, however laced with social values and pressures beyond his making.
The Sex Pistols had already disintegrated after their American tour last year, and you can be sure that other New Wave groups, facing the whims of the recording industry and inaccessibility of radio, are on a similar course.
Yet, for all the sad endings, there is an Elvis Costello. Costello is the leading edge of New Wave as it painstakingly enters the American pop consciousness.
Costello, a prolific songwriter, is out with his third album in little more than a year. And Armed Forces (Columbia JC 35709) is the same quickly paced menu of digestible tunes that drew such attention to his first release in late 1977.
Produced by Dave Edmunds' bassist, Nick Lowe, Armed Forces is Costello's smoothest album, with the emphasis on his vocals rather than instrumentation. In the musical attack there is even a hint of complacency, as if the songs are strong enough no matter how diffidently performed.
In his first album, Elvis Costello, Costello was angry, an ugly nerd of a guy from the British working class who spat out his songs as if he weren't going to take it anymore.
Costello's commercial success is in part due to an individual image and its current association with good singers and "meaningful" artists who have their own bands, including Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, Graham Parker, Tom Petty — acts known by the personal integrity of a main man who is both singer and songwriter.
If other New Wave groups, playing at essentially the same furious pace and using the same spare instrumentation, are not as easily identifiable, there is still every indication that New Wave is going to be big — bigger than most of us realized. It is no longer an aberration confined to some curious tangent of rock expression.
New wave, in fact, is rock 'n' roll's answer to its own decline. Rod Stewart has turned into a prima donna; The Who quit trying to please restless teenagers years ago; the Beatles generation is over 30 and is getting comfortable to the mellow sounds of Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac and Chuck Mangione not to mention Barry Manilow, Debby Boone, the Osmonds and the Bee Gees,
At the end of a decade which in many ways paralleled the 1950s, New Wave has brought rock through a full circle. As it nears the honesty, vitality and structural simplicity of the natural burn rockers we had in Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran and Carl Perkins, New Wave is ready to wash us out of our ennui into a new decade of creativity.
Of course, Punk bands need to drop their propensity for self-destruction. And as artists develop, their longevity will no longer be denied by a record and radio industry always on the make for new trends.
Today, album oriented radio all over the country works on a Superstar format. A few select groups are piling up massive album sales and the definition of success is rewritten in their image. This squeezes out so much music not textured In commercial formulas, including, by definition, the rebellious nature of New Wave,
Tentative inroads are being made, however. Behind Elvis Costello there is forming a new list of safe, palatable New Wave, bent in the same mold of brevity and melody, but not as troublesome as, say, the Ramones or the Sex Pistols.
Robert Johnson, with his debut album, Close Personal Friend (Infinity INF 9000), and the Fabulous Poodles' Mirror Stars (Epic JE 35666) are prime examples of commercially designed rock which in every intent is New Wave.
As with Elvis Costello's new album, Johnson and the Poodles have released an itinerary of songs, and as they speed by within three and four minute boundaries, a few jump out for their directness, cleverness and symmetry.
New Wave, Punk, or whatever you want to call it, is on a similar course. The seeds have been planted.