Relix, October 1980
Canada's New Wave Festival:
"It's our own Woodstock.. for a new generation... I'm gonna be there" — commercial on a Toronto radio station for Heat Wave, the first major festival to feature only new wave bands. The commercial was aired at 9:30 A.M., August 23, one hour after the festival was supposed to begin.
"It's very weird" — Talking Heads' David Byrne, 4:00 P.M., August 23, standing backstage at the Heat Wave Festival, watching the Pretenders.
Well, it was very weird. No doubt Byrne was thinking back five years when new wave was a term applied only to French films and Talking Heads were a trio, playing to a handful of curious intellectuals and stumblebums at a dive on New York's Bowery. And now here he was, a half decade later with an expanded band, pumping out a radically different sound to 40,000 or so partyers and poseurs sitting in an open field 60 miles east of Toronto, trying desperately to soak up whatever Woodstock vibes they could find.
But Woodstock it wasn't and ultimately, Heat Wave was a failed attempt at grafting the most significant musical movement of the late '70s onto the most significant cultural-musical event of the '60s.
The concept seemed doomed from the start. After all, new wave (in its broadest definition: exciting, risky music best heard in intimate settings) began as a reaction to some of rock's excesses—long, boring solos and overblown stage shows—which reached its numbing climax at the rock festivals of the 1970s. Thus, a new wave festival seemed to be the ultimate contradiction. When the promoters told a hostile Manhattan press conference two weeks prior to the show that Heat Wave was valid because the "New wave audience has grown large enough to necessitate a festival," they were received with hostility and skepticism.
Naturally, Heat Wave was bound to infuriate those who remember new wave (aka punk rock when hail of the Heat Wave crowd was still into disco or REO Speedwagon) as a tiny, truly scorned (probably by many of these same festival-goers) alternative subculture. And to see it packaged to the masses (by those whose connection to the music was tenuous at best) cloaked in pre-new wave rhetoric was especially depressing.
But what's happening is understandable. Musical trends usually take anywhere from three to five years to trickle down to the largest audience (i.e.: disco began in the gay-Hispanic-black clubs of New York in 73, didn't hit it big 'til 78; acid rock originated in the San Francisco ballrooms in '65 and exploded in '69-70); and new wave is following the rule. With the most commercial of the so-called new wave acts (Blondie, Joe Jackson, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello) as the cutting edge, audiences' tastes are being slowly weaned away from the pablum they ingested during the '70s. It's to their credit as well—labels or no labels, good music is good music and it is unquestionably better to be listening to Talking Heads than to Styx.
Still, what smarts the most about new wave's growing popularity is its appearance in festival form, a concept that should have been retired long ago. And Heat Wave's promoters were only deceiving themselves and their audience by constantly using the Woodstock analogy. Woodstock purported to be the expression of a new culture based on a mutuality of interests between music, politics and spiritual philosophy—perhaps best shown by its symbol—a dove of peace sitting atop a guitar. On the other hand, the symbol of Heat Wave was a pair of sunglasses and a skinny tie. That's all new wave has come to mean for the promoters and for many of its so-called fans—a fashion statement.
By reducing new wave to a fashion statement, Heat Wave leeched it of its most threatening aspect—a conscious effort to obliterate all vestiges of the post-Sgt. Peppers '60s. Wanna become part of the brave new culture, kid? Then all you gotta do is ask your grandmother for a pair of her old harlequin glasses (or else buy them at Mosport's concession stands) or ask your old man for the tie he wore to his brother's wedding in '61. Just check your brains (along with your coolers of beer and vodka-filled watermelons) at the door. Ludes are OK.
Our generation's Woodstock? Come on. The audience's relationship to new wave seemed about as hip as the promoters'. The majority of the people at Heat Wave were so old wave—scraggly shoulder-length hair, headbands, bandanas, overalls—that they could have walked right out of the movie version of Woodstock. Oh, there were several hundred "punks" scattered throughout the grassy field with their asymmetrical multi-colored haircuts, leopard print shirts, and leather pants and jackets (masochists, most likely, considering the 80° temperature). But they were probably purchased by the promoters from Rent-a-Punk to lend a touch of authenticity to the proceedings.
Sure, everyone seemed to be having a good time—who doesn't like to lie out in the sun on a nice day and listen to good music? But even the location of the event smacked of 60's hippie-ism. Isn't there something weird about a "punk" (excuse me, I mean new wave) festival taking place in the mellow country? One almost expected to hear the familiar Canned Heat flute solo waft through the air, or a spikey-haired neo-Arlo Guthrie walk on stage and laugh, "Lotta punks, man. Far out! The Queen Elizabeth Way is closed!" No, an authentic new wave "festival" would've taken place in the Bowery, where it all began.
Speaking of authenticity, the promoters lost their one chance for that when the Clash, the would-be headliners cancelled its appearance two weeks prior to the show. They are still the defacto leaders of the punk/new wave movement and the one group capable of creating a community based on a new musical-political synthesis. "Personal reasons" were cited for their withdrawal, but one suspects other factors related to the festival's credibility were more important considerations.
With the Clash gone, and no other truly revolutionary bands invited, Heat Wave was left with a collection of groups that represented the most mainstream "greatest hits" variety of new wave—Rockpile, Pretenders, Rumour (without Graham Parker), B-52s, Talking Heads, and Elvis Costello and the Attractions. All great bands, true, but perhaps due to the large amount of daring, truly progressive underground rock (not heard on commercial radio, but only on college radio and in certain dance clubs) now available, the once-snappy sounds of "Rock Lobster," "I Knew The Bride," and "Brass In Pocket" sounded curiously dated.
A promoter truly plugged in to new music would have booked state-of-the-art acts such as Gang Of Four, Delta 5, X, the English Beat, the Mo-dettes or the Feelies in addition to the big names, to give some indication of where music is heading. The opening acts at Heat Wave (Teenage Head, Holly & the Italians and Canada's Vladymir Rogov) were interesting but hardly innovative. And where were Jamaica's Third World and the British soul band Dexy's Midnight Runners, both advertised as the last-minute replacements for the Clash? Not at this show.
Of Heat Wave's name acts, only the Heads and Costello showed potential of expanding new wave's parameters. Costello, who had heen hanging around the celebrity tent all day, did not go on until close to 10 o'clock. During the day, he exhibited classic Costello public hostility, allowing no photographic access, with those attempting to shoot him having their film destroyed by El's friendly bodyguards.
But when Costello came on stage (greeting the audience with an unsubtle "Hello, we're the Clash"), he became uncharacteristically chummy, joking with the crowd and saying thank you after each song. Costello's guitar playing has sharpened considerably as he slowly pushes his music into newer areas (especially the Stax-derived R&B that is a rage in the U.K. these days)—although he is not growing as fast as the Talking Heads. For their part, the Heads were stunning. Augmented by five new members including P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell and ex-Zappa/Bowie guitarist Adrian Belew, the new Heads performed lushly rhythmic music that was teeming with ideas. After opening with "Psycho Killer," the band played an entire set of the new sound—roughly a blend of one-third Talking Heads, one-third Public Image and one-third P-Funk--until it closed with "Life During Wartime" and "Take Me To The River," the songs the crowd really wanted to hear.
Not surprisingly, the Heads' new sound was unenthusiastically received. Their performance, however, revived faith in what new wave was and could be music that is current and vital—and for a brief moment allowed Heat Wave to become more than just an amplified juke box. Unfortunately, the Heads' set was an exception that painfully pointed up how concepts such as Heat Wave have helped kill the ideal that once was the new wave.
Relix, October 1980