When the style of music changes, the walls of the city don't necessarily shake. Witness the Heatwave Festival at Mosport Park, Toronto. The promoters publicised this event as the first new wave rock festival to be held in North America, the first great, cataclysmic music event of the '80s. Punkstock! How absurd.
A new wave rock festival is a contradiction in terms. Some of us once hoped that as the content of the new music changed, so would its packaging and marketing. This hasn't happened, and perhaps never will. New wave (ahem) has proved to be adaptable — a nice, cooperative little monster.
So what does an event like this mean? Only that, to most of the rock audience, anyone who sells lots of records is a pop star; and pop stars are to be accorded the same rituals of adoration that have been offered to all other pop icons over the last ten years.
Like mass outdoor gatherings.
The promoters hoped for 100,000 paying customers, but according to estimates in the Toronto papers, they got slightly over 50,000. It's still a sizeable crowd and at least you sit near your idols, but not near enough to see them or hear the details of the music they make. You "party." Why not just go to the beach with your tapes?
It's a long way from the seedy Bowery clubs and SoHo pubs that nurtured this music for it to go onto a world of racetrack venues, giant stages, bands being lifted by helicopter to fenced-off trailer camp dressing rooms, colour-coded backstage passes and all the other trappings of a bigbiz rock festival. That most of these bands made the transition so easily just proves that the rockbiz is a big-bellied whale — it can swallow anything.
At eleven, with the sun beating down, Toronto punksters Teenage Head open the show. So I can see, I put myself directly front and centre of the towering stage. There's a high wall in front of us to keep the mob back, and the stage's height makes neck strain inevitable. I get a good view of the bands' front lines but don't see a drummer all day.
What I see of Teenage Head are two scraggly guys playing guitar and bass and a crop-haired singer in long-tailed livery coat and eyeliner. Their image is confusing, but musically they know what they're about: good ol' head-banging ramalama punk rock. They have a large and loud following cheering them on, and they play with confidence, as if they belong up in front of all those people.
When they formed four years ago, they no doubt sounded radical and fresh, but now they seem only to be running through the motions of what has become just another routine. They knocked it out with power, but in this setting, classic punk rock seemed just another kind of boogie music. If I'd been in the mood for jumping up and down I might have loved them. But I was standing in clouds of dust too early in the day.
After slambang of Teenage Head, the more relaxed Rumour are a breath of fresh air. There's no local constituency for them here (and no high expectations), but in view of the crowd it's hard for them to relax.
Their rock and roll has journeyman precision, good singing, tight playing — in fact, all the classic virtues — but it bores me. And the obvious criticism really does apply — they need a frontman, someone to supply songs with some special, distinctive qualities.
The crowd at the front is polite; the rest hardly pay attention. There are some rewards, some choice moments for those who are. Their version of The Spinners' "Rubber Band Man" may lack soul-punch in the vocals, but Belmont and Schwarz's guitars spin absolute magic.
The heat, the press of bodies and the volume were making me dizzy, so I took a powder for a while and missed Rockpile. From the press tent I could hear the boom of Nick Lowe's bass and the vocals. They stuck to a familiar run-through of their standard set — "Sweet Little Lisa," "So It Goes," "I Knew The Bride," "Switchboard Susan," "Trouble Boys." It sounded as if the crowd like them.
Backstage is depressing. Colour codes, pecking orders and elitist games are the order of the day. Publicists read out lists of names while photographers line up, two abreast and 30 deep, waiting their chance to be led on to a catwalk in front of the stage for a ten minute shift. No one is being allowed to photograph Rockpile, or Elvis Costello — on or off stage.
Costello moves from the heavily guarded band area to the stage to watch Rockpile in the back of a black Cadillac. Chrissie Hynde walks to the stage, but runs off when a video crew approaches. "It's just pictures, just pictures," they call after her. Jake Riviera rushes around playing bully-boy and threatening dire harm to anyone caught taking Costello's picture. Paranoia fills the air, good times soured by manipulation.
Back out into the audience for Holly And The Italians, and I start to feel good again.
A relatively unknown and unannounced addition to the bill, they are the first group to come across with spontaneity and the kind of feeling one can't get just from rehearsals. Their sound is bright, snappy punk-pop, just as derivative in its way as that of The Rumour or Teenage Head, but played as if they'd proudly developed it entirely on their own. And Holly is the first singer of the day who sounds as if she really means it, who doesn't appear to be thrown by the crowd.
"Dancing With A Boy Like You," "Close To Someone" are silly, throwaway pop sparked by the right spirit, moved by Holly's guitar playing and with plenty of room left in the songs to be unpredictable. "Tell That Girl To Shut Up" couldn't be more of a homage to The Ramones (see "Beat On The Brat"), but it is enthusiastic, clever borrowing, done with flair.
People around me keep asking Who is this band? They are going to remember the name.
By now some serious rock festival fun is shaping up in the crowd's back reaches. A streaker streaks and is tackled by security guards. An ambulance arrives to take a PCP (angel dust) casualty away. Tabs of acid inscribed with the word Sid are being sold.
The fans are mostly the same North American rock audience you'd expect at any such event. This being Canada, they are a bit more blonde, a bit more healthy looking. There are rock fans with coolers of beer and frisbies; and lots of hippies; a smattering of punks, some with dyed hair, some sweltering in leathers. There are a few skinny ties.
Onstage, a lot of Woodstock jokes are cracked, and some Clash jokes, as they had been advertised to play but cancelled. Nick Lowe says, "Watch out for the brown acid." Fred Schneider says, "I'd like to announce that three babies have been born here today and they've all been named Heatwave." In the morning, Martin Belmont introduces "Just Another Whistle Stop" as "a Joe Strummer song." In the evening, Elvis Costello steps up to the mic and announces, "Hello, we're The Clash."
The Pretenders take half their set to warm up. Chrissie Hynde is stiff at the start, afraid of letting go. Her band is coldly professional, knowing their moves but not the reasons for making them. Their expertise works on their album, where it sounds like care and craft. But live, where emotion on the moment counts, it falls flat.
By midset Hynde has overcome her nervousness. When she provides an effective focus The Pretenders start to force my admiration. She shoots off meaningful smirks during "Tatoo Love Boys," starts to dance as she plays. Honeyman-Scott plays guitarist's guitar, well-practised leads that are textbook studies in "hot," while hiding behind a look of absolute cool. Like Chrissie says, all very run of the mill. Sure, it's a great hit record, but watching The Pretenders live does nothing to deepen it for me.
The B-52's are stars in Canada, with a platinum first album, and they get a hero's welcome. Tacked up in full regalia, the girls wear the most outrageous wigs I've seen them in. Fred is very dapper. They break into "6006-842" and for the first time the festival is the dance party it promised to be.
They are all image, costumes, colour and broad gestures. I expected all that to be diluted by the big stage and the open air, but the circumstances made them seem even more stylised, more like cartoon characters — and it worked. Even from way back, people could tell something weird, dramatic and funny was going on up there.
Ricky Wilson has one of the most distinctive guitar sounds going, and the band is a multi-faceted rhythm machine with no solos and no one element ever dominating. They are sexy, intriguing and ridiculous. Cindy Wilson's singing on "Give Me Back My Man" is full of yearning, not at all faked up. The sexual call-and-response between Fred and the girls on "Strobe Light" goes well beyond camp comedy. "Devil In My Car" is pure voodoo. "Rock Lobster," the quintessential rock disco song, nearly provokes a riot.
The B-52's rose fast and went far on the strength of a relatively small body of songs and one basic routine. They just keep applying what they do to bigger audiences, and it keeps working. I'd like to see them change a bit before the routine wears out. I'd like to see them drop the masks and let their hair down. But for now, it works like a charm.
Talking Heads supplied the first surprise, the only real news of the day.
They debuted their new format — a nine-piece stage show veering sharply away from the old Talking Heads sound into funk.
They begin with the old lineup plus a new, unidentified .guitarist, and get "Psycho Killer" out of the way straight off. There's a clear change: Byrne is no longer the whacko preppie spraying his spittle over the front rows, acting so awkward and nervous we worried how he'd make it through the next song. He's a pro now. He seems so calm and collected he could almost be under hypnosis.
After a couple of numbers the stage starts to fill with people. There are nine now, a Mob, a Talking Heads Pan-Cultural Funk Orchestra that lurches into "I Zimbra" and "Cities," throwing up cross-currents of rhythm and a visual spectacle. The stage is full of dancing and motion, except for Byrne who stands like the calm at the centre of a storm.
Most of the newcomers are grouped on the left of the stage, they're not just playing their instruments but dancin', funkin' around, at times looking as though they're having a party while Talking Heads are trying to play.
At last Byrne speaks. "We're not the same as we used to be," he understates before introducing the new crew.
There's Bernie "Woo" Worrell, ex-Funkadelic, on keyboards; bassist Busta Cherry Jones, vocalist Dollette McDonald, Steven Scales (percussion) and Adrian Belew (guitar). Worrell swoops over his keyboards, Jones and Tina Weymouth provide double-punch bass, the guitars mesh and move around each other.
Talk about a full sound!
Some of the new material is disappointing because the possibilities of this setup isn't fully explored. Most of the new songs go for a simple groove but end up more like tape loops, spinning endlessly, going nowhere. Byrne is taking disco, funk and various ethnic trance-musics and searching for a synthesis that he hasn't quite found yet. I also found Jones' bass mechanical and heavy-handed. Weymouth followed him, and I missed the sharp contrapuntal sense she usually displays.
But this is their first time out. When they get this thing working right it's going to be incredible.
As it is, the audience go bananas. "Take Me To The River" is perfect for this setting, with McDonald's wailing soul vocals setting the right mood for Byrne's vocals to slip into. "Life During Wartime" is the topper, with every one onstage pumping out a continuous, single-minded flow of sound. Up front amongst the hardcore fans, a large group shout out the chorus at the top of their lungs: "This ain't no Mudd Club, no CBGB's." Probably none of them have ever been anywhere near the Mudd Club. Which is just the point — there's a lot of resentment about the way such places, seen from afar, are imbued by the media with the patina of hipness. Byrne hit a deep nerve there.
The crowd does it again on the lines "This ain't no party, this ain't no disco." Byrne hears them and makes a face that says "hmm, impressive." And it is.
After Talking Heads surprised us, Elvis Costello lived up to our expectations, and then some.
The set is powerful, mostly familiar, ranging over all the albums though short-changing the last one slightly. What a legacy of songs he'll leave, tightly executed, brilliantly constructed gems too numerous to list.
The Attractions keep getting hotter, and they are definitely pouring it out for this crowd. They blast, they pound. Their wall of sound keeps getting higher, thicker, more solid. Bruce Thomas turns his bass into a lead instrument. Steve Nieve plays his fingers off, sounding like five organs at once. They are all unstoppable.
Instrumentally, Costello keeps up with them, but it's as a vocalist that he's really grown. I've seen him be more dramatic. The spite and venom seem to be going out of him. What he does better now is project a bigger, clearer and more complete picture of himself. From "Alison" to "Two Little Hitlers" to "You'll Never Be A Man," a new one, the emotional shadings are more distinct, the feelings underlying the songs more palpable.
A fundamental difference in approach separates Costello's performance from everything that had gone earlier. All the others tried, in one way or another, to entertain and to please. Costello couldn't care less about that, and didn't play to the audience at all. He's here to make his points, to deliver his ultimatums to the world, with no attempt to ingratiate. He just lays it out, take it or leave it.
I'll take it. So apparently, will a lot of other people. Unlovable, Costello is still widely loved; or at least held in high esteem.
The last encore is "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding." This ain't no Woodstock, obviously.
Heatwave presented no theme and produced no definitions. It meant nothing, except that a group of very distinct musical acts have broken through to the point where they can draw large crowds. It verified the commercial and very occasionally the artistic gains these acts have made.
At the end I was exhausted, strung out, totally used up. It wasn't just the physical strain of the circumstances — the heat and dust all day, the volume, surging crowds and neck strain all night. This was a mental battle. The size and shape of these outdoor marathons make them difficult places in which to experience music. Most of the day was merely a prelude to the final three acts.
But there was the drama of contrast produced here: The B-52's' revelling in image rubbing up against Talking Heads' rhythm departure crashing into Costello's defiant pose. Sparks did fly.
But sparks are transient. Rock festivals are business. As I walked out of Mosport, past the backstage area, one last photographer was squaring off against one last security goon, trying to get near the stage. He didn't have the right pass.
Colour codes are forever.