It appears that the long-awaited eighties are about to rush into history a year and a half early—nothing could be better.
Without question this is going to be the best rock and roll summer in years. In the last several months there have been brilliant new releases from Elvis Costello, Tom Petty, Cheap Trick, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Seger. Furthermore, almost all of these artists have made or have plans to make Southern Californian appearances this summer.
But what actually makes these six artists, their new records, and their upcoming performances so important is the fact that they currently represent, in terms of both creativity and popularity, the crest of the new wave. Punk rock is dead, the new phrase is "power pop." Basically all this means is that only those bands who know how to play their instruments are going to survive. Yet punk rock was essential to the re-vitalization of rock and roll because it reminded everyone just how important urgency and energy are to the music. The best new wave songs replace melody for monotony while still maintaining an angry edge. Ultimately, a more marketable product is produced. And if the new wave is going to survive, it's going to have to sell.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are one of the few new wave bands who have actually made good on the charts. Their single, "Breakdown," reached number 40 nationally and after "American Girl" got a lot of FM airplay, the entire album started selling well. Now hopefully, the even better new album, You're Gonna Get It, will continue Petty's march up the charts. You're Gonna Get It is real rock and roll but it also contains several tracks that could easily be great singles. And, as Petty said in a recent interview, "I think it's great for a band like ours that's playing rock and roll to crack the Top Ten or the Top Forty or even the Top Hundred because this kind of rock and roll isn't on the AM radio and I want to put it there. I'm after it. I want to get it. It's only going to take one or two artists of the rock mold... to go into the Top Ten before we might see a turnaround in music. Kids love rock and roll — real rock and roll — on the AM radio."
Another artist who shares Tom Petty's conviction is Elvis Costello. Being the sort who likes to come away from every show he goes to feeling it's the best he's ever seen, I was not at all disappointed by Costello's show last Thursday night at Millikan High School. The very fact that he would do shows in high school auditoriums, even though he is capable of selling-out much larger halls, is indicative of Costello's attitude toward rock and roll. During the concert, Costello played a fast-paced, manic set that ended after the encore of "I'm Not Angry," during which Costello had the whole audience snarling the word 'angry' back into his amps at each chorus. Costello's newest album, This Year's Model, is easily one of the best power pop albums yet.
While Tom Petty tends to concern himself with rock and Costello with power pop, one new group manages to do both in the tradition of all the great bands of the sixties. That group is Cheap Trick and their new release, Heaven Tonight, is their best yet. Although a few cuts on this album almost sound as if Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick's lead guitarist) had been admiring Queen's success on the chart for too long, the best tracks are those in which the band grabs some fantastic riff and lets singer Robin Zander scream his guts out. As is the case with all the new eave groups, Cheap Trick's production quality does anything but improve as they spend more time in the studio. All this band needs to do is to pick the right song which, as a single, will bring them to a waiting world of misguided Foreigner and Boston fans.
Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger are all three pioneer new wave artists who came into the music scene when it was at its worst. Their efforts to return the basic values of direction and simplicity to rock and roll were very instrumental in the shaping of the L.A. and New York new wave birthplaces. Yet for years they were rejected by their current audiences. It is for this reason that their present successes, and they themselves, are so important to the new wave.
Of course, just because a whole lot of fantastic music is going to be made this summer, not just by the six above discussed but also by local and regional bands across the country,) the vast record-buying public isn't immediately going to trash their present record collections and rush to embrace the new wave. Conversion is a slow and painful process, perhaps most painful to those left behind. Yet, sooner or later, a new wave album is going to climb the charts until it has no place higher to go.
And in a country where Saturday Night Fever has been Number One for over twenty weeks—nothing could be better.