If the 1970s was the decade of disco, the 1980s may be the decade in which dancing Americans return to rock 'n' roll.
This surprising turnaround may be seen — and heard — in the increasing popularity of New Wave music, a highly danceable, energetic style of rock.
Record companies are aggressively signing New Wave bands. Conventional rock-format radio stations that once shunned this music as too experimental and anti-social are now regularly playing the records of such New Wave artists as Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, The Ramones, The Clash, Blondie, and Joe Jackson.
Part of New Wave's appeal lies in its musical experimentation and no-frills lyrics — often expressing dissatisfaction or disillusion with modern life.
New Wave songs replace 1960s-style odes to peace and love with hard-boiled assessments of life.
"I want to bite the hand that feeds me," says Elvis Costello. "I am isolated and alienated," cries David Byrne of Talking Heads.
Such anger fired New Wave's antecedent, "punk rock" — a crude, loud, and short-lived style. Eventually, however, punk and other types of pop music — electronic music, Jamaican reggae and ska, early 1960s rock — became integrated under the label "New Wave," a term first applied in 1977 by Seymour Stein, president of Sire Records, to lessen the notoriety associated with the more violent punk rock bands.
While it looks forward to the 1980s, New Wave music also looks back to the 1950s and early 1960s. The simple, "innocent" rock of the early Beatles, for example, is echoed in a form of New Wave called Power Pop, typified by The Knack.
The fashions of that era — skinny black ties, miniskirts, leopard print dresses, go-go boots, black leather jackets, wraparound sunglasses — are standard garb at rock clubs. Hair is cropped, sometimes rainbow-hued. Noticeably absent are the trappings of the late 1960s — long hair, denim shirts, work boots.
New Wave music's appeal can also be traced to a decline in the popularity of disco, whose slick, studio-produced sound is its antithesis. "Disco used to be rebellious, but it's become boring," claims Howie Klein, a disc jockey in San Francisco.
Dancing to the New Wave is definitely in order. As a matter of fact, it's primarily dance music. Dancers move in robot-like motions, pogo (jump up and down), or do such 1960s freestyle steps as the Twist and the Watusi. Capitalizing on this renewed interest in rock dancing, more than 100 "rock discos" have sprung up across the country.
The rise of New Wave rock does not mean that discos will decline — many, in fact, will probably follow the lead of New York's trendy Studio 54, which kicked off its fall season last year by adding rock records to its play list. Future dance music may well involve a mix of rock 'n' roll and disco — already Talking Heads and Biondie as well as veteran mainstream rockers like the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart, have experimented with mixing the two styles.
"In a few years, the term 'disco music' as we know it will probably be dead, replaced by a mixture of rock, disco, funk or whatever," predicts Scott Anderson, editor of Dance Music, an influential trade newsletter which recently changed its name from Disco News to recognize the rise of "dance-oriented rock."
With much of the violence and hostility associated with punk rock diluted or absent in New Wave music, its audience is expanding. "This music is the freshest stuff I've heard in a long time," says Robert Moss, 28, a vice president with pollsters Louis Harris and Associates. Moss wears three-piece business suits by day, black T-shirts and pointy-toed boots by night when he haunts Manhattan rock clubs. "For the first time since I was a teenager, I'm dancing to rock 'n' roll again."