When the mode of music changes, the walls of the city don't necessarily shake. For proof, there was the Heatwave Festival, held August 23rd at Mosport Park, about 50 miles outside Toronto. The promoters publicized 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!
A new wave rock festival is a contradiction in terms. Some of us once hoped that as the content of rock 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 a lot of records is a pop star, and pop stars are to be accorded the same rituals of adoration that have been offered to all pop icons over the last 10 years. Like mass outdoor gatherings.
Heatwave's promoters hoped for 100,000 paying customers; according to estimates in the Toronto papers, they had slightly over half that number. That's still a sizable crowd, and thus only a minute fraction were near enough to see their idols or hear the details of their music. The rest "partied." 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 to the racetrack venues, giant stages, bands airlifted by helicopter to fenced-off trailer camp dressing rooms, color coded backstage passes and other trappings of a bigbiz rock festival. That Heatwave's bands made the transition so easily proves that the rock industry is a big-bellied whale, capable of swallowing anything.
At 11 a.m., with the sun beating down, Toronto's Teenage Head opened the show. In order to see, I put myself directly front and center of the towering stage. There's a high wall in front of the press section to keep the paying rabble back, and the stage's height makes neck strain inevitable. I get a good view of the bands' front lines but I 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. The image is confusing, but musically this band knows what it's about: good ol' head-banging ramalama punk rock. A large and vocal following cheers them on, and they play with confidence, as if they belong up in front of all those people.
After the slambang of Teenage Head, a more relaxed Rumour is a breath of fresh air. There's no local constituency for them here (and no high expectations), and the crowd makes it hard for them to relax. The Rumour's music features journeyman precision, good singing, tight playing — all the classic virtues except excitement. It may sound obvious, but they really do need a frontman, someone to supply songs with distinctive qualities.
The crowd at the front is polite; the rest hardly pay attention. There are some rewards for those who do: A version of the Spinners' "Rubber Band Man" may lack soul punch in the vocals, but Martin Belmont and Brinsley Schwarz's guitars spin absolute magic.
Heat, the press of bodies and decibel overload were making me dizzy, so I chickened out to the press tent and missed Rockpile. From there I could hear the boom of Nick Lowe's bass and the vocals. They stuck to a familiar run-through: "Sweet Little Lisa," "So It Goes," "I Knew The Bride," "Trouble Boys," "Switchboard Susan." The crowd liked them.
Backstage was depressing. Color 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 for their chance to be led onto a catwalk in front of the stage for a 10-minute shift. No one is allowed to photograph Rockpile or Elvis Costello — on or off stage.
Costello moves from the heavily guarded band area to the stage in the back of a black Cadillac to watch Rockpile. Chrissie Hynde walks to the stage but runs off when a video crew approaches. "It's just pictures, just pictures," they call after her. Infamous Costello manager Jake Riviera rushes around playing bully-boy and threatening dire harm to anyone caught taking his boy'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 tc, come across with spontaneity and a feeling you can't get from rehearsals. Their sound is bright, snappy punk-pop — just as derivative in its way as the Rumour or Teenage Head — but played proudly, as if they'd developed it on their own. Holly is the first singer of the day who doesn't appear to be thrown by the crowd.
"Dancing with a Boy Like You" and "Close To Someone" are silly, throwaway pop sparked by the right spirit and Holly's guitar playing and with plenty of room left in the songs to be unpredictable. "Tell That Girl To Shut Up" is obvious homage to the Ramones but the borrowing is enthusiastic, and done with flair. People around me keep asking, "Who is this band?"
By now some serious rock-festival fun is shaping up in the crowds nether reaches. A streaker is tackled by security guards. An ambulance arrives to take an angel dust casualty. Tabs of acid inscribed with the word "Sid" are being sold.
The fans are mostly the North American rock audience you'd expect at any such event. This being Canada, they are a bit more blonde and healthy looking. There are rock fans with coolers of beer and frisbees; lots of hippies; and a smattering of punks, some with dyed hair, some sweltering in leather. There are even a few skinny ties.
The performers crack a lot of Woodstock jokes and a few Clash jokes (they had been advertised to play but canceled). Nick Lowe advises, "Watch out for the brown acid." Fred Schneider of the B-52's says, "I'd like to announce that three babies have been born here today and they've all been named Heatwave." Martin Belmont introduced "Just Another Whistle Stop" as "a Joe Strummer song." Elvis Costello steps up to the mike and announces, "Hello, we're the Clash." [Whatta sense of humor. — Ed.]
The Pretenders waste half their set warming up. Chrissie Hynde is stiff at first, afraid to let go. Her band is coldly professional; they know their moves but not the reasons for making them. The expertise works on the album, where it sounds like care and craft, but live — when emotion counts — it falls flat.
Once Hynde overcomes her nervousness she provides an effective focus, and the Pretenders force my admiration. James Honeyman Scott plays well-rehearsed leads that are textbook studies in "hot" while hiding behind a mask of absolute cool. But, as Hynde says, it's all very run of the mill, and live Pretenders bring nothing to their LP.
The B-52's, with a platinum debut album in Canada, receive a hero's welcome. Tackied up in full regalia, the women wear outrageous wigs while Schneider is very dapper. They break into "6060-842" and for the first time the festival is the dance party it was promised to be.
The band is all image: costumes, color and broad gestures. They are sexy, intriguing and ridiculous. The big stage and open air, far from diluting their impact, make them seem even more stylized, more like cartoon characters — and it works. Even from way back, people could tell something weird, theatrical and funny was going on.
The B-52's are a multi-faceted rhythm machine with no solos and no one element ever dominating. Ricky Wilson has one of rock's most distinctive guitar sounds. 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 Schneider and the Cindy/Kate Pierson division on "Strobe Light" goes beyond camp comedy. "Devil in My Car" is pure voodoo. "Rock Lobster," the quintessential rock disco song, nearly provokes a riot.
Talking Heads, however, supply the first surprise and only real news of the day by debuting their new format: a nine-piece outfit veering sharply away from their old sound and into funk. They begin with the old line-up plus guitarist Adrian Belew, and get "Psycho Killer" out of the way straight off. Byrne is no longer the whacko preppie spraying spittle over the front rows, acting so awkward and nervous we worry how he'll make it through the next song. Now he seems so calm and collected he could almost be under hypnosis.
After a couple of numbers the stage fills with people: Bernie Worrell, ex-Funkadelic, on keyboards; bassist Busta Cherry Jones; vocalist Dollett MacDonald and Steven Scale on percussion. The Talking Heads Pan-Cultural Funk Orchestra lurches into "I Zimbra" and "Cities," throwing up cross-currents of rhythm. The stage is full of dancing and motion, except for Byrne, who stands calmly in the eye of the storm. Most of the newcomers are grouped on the left-hand side not just playing their instruments but dancing and funkin' around; in contrast, the original Talking Heads concentrate on the music. Worrell swoops over his keyboards, Jones and Tiny Weymouth provide double-punch bass, guitars mesh and move around each other. "We're not the same as we used to be," Byrne says, understating as usual. Talk about a full sound!
Some of the material disappoints through lack of daring: Most of the new songs attempt a simple groove but end up like tape loops, spinning endlessly. Byrne is searching for a synthesis of disco, funk and various ethnic trance-musics, and hasn't quite found it yet. Jones' bass is mechanical and heavy-handed; Weymouth, who followed him, didn't exhibit her sharp contrapuntal sense. This is the "new" Heads' first time out, though, and when they work out the bugs it's going to be incredible.
As it is, the audience goes bananas. "Take Me to the River" is perfect in this setting, MacDonald's wailing soul vocals setting the right mood for Byrne to slip into. "Life During Wartime" is the topper, with everyone onstage pumping out a continuous, singleminded flow of sound. A large group of hardcore fans up front shout out the chorus at the top of their lungs: "This ain't no party, this ain't no disco." Byrne hears them and makes a face that says, "Hmmm, impressive." And it is.
After the Talking Heads revue, Elvis Costello lives up to expectations and then some. His set is powerful and mostly familiar, ranging through all his albums (though short-changing the last one slightly). The Attractions keep getting hotter, and are definitely pouring it on for this crowd. They blast, they pound; their wall of sound keeps getting higher and 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.
Costello keeps up with them on guitar, but it's as a vocalist that he's really grown. The spite and venom seem to be receding; now he projects a more complete picture of himself. From "Alison" to "Two Little Hitlers" to the new "You'll Never Be a Man," the emotional shadings are more distinct, the feelings behind the songs more palpable.
A fundamental difference in approach separates Costello's performance from everything that had gone earlier. The others tried, in one way or another, to entertain and please; Costello couldn't care less and doesn't play to the audience at all. He just lays it out, take it or leave it. Most people take it. He may not be lovable, but Costello is at least held in high esteem.
His last encore is "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding." This ain't no Woodstock.
Heatwave presented no theme and produced no definitions. It meant nothing, except that a group of distinctive musical acts have broken through to the point where they can draw large crowds. It verified the commercial and occasionally the artistic gains these acts have made.
By midnight I was exhausted, strung out, totally used up. Like most of the crowd I passed on the Kings, another Canadian band, who had the unenviable task of closing the show. It wasn't just physical strain — heat and dust all day, oppressive sound levels, surging crowds and neck strain all night. This was a mental battle. The size and shape of outdoor marathons make them difficult places in which to experience music. Most of the day was merely a prelude to the dramatic contrast of the penultimate three acts: The B-52's' image-reveling rubbing up against Talking Heads' rhythmic departures crashing into Costello's defiant pose. Sparks did fly.
But sparks are transient. Rock festivals are business. As I walked out of Mosport, one last photographer was squaring off against one last security goon, trying to get near the stage. He didn't have the right pass.
Color codes forever.
Reprinted courtesy of New Musical Express