At DM we often poke fun at impossibly stiff or clueless news reporting on the music of the past, but sometimes you run across a piece of news coverage that is much better than it has any right to be. In that category falls this detailed segment from ABC’s 20/20 on the rise of new wave music that aired in December 1979—impressively astute for a news segment on new music from one of the major TV networks. It was written by Thomas Hoving, whose primary competence lay in the world of high art, so he deserves extra credit for being able to assess new impulses in popular music in an intelligent way.
The piece links the new wave impulse with the recent stirrings of punk while also making sure to find precursors in figures of the past such as Buddy Holly. (DEVO’s cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is, naturally, enlisted to make plain these appropriations of the past.) The segment features live footage of Blondie, the Clash, and Talking Heads—it takes an effort of will to remember how weird David Byrne, here singing “Psycho Killer,” must have seemed to a mainstream audience in 1979. The reporting emphasizes the simple chord structures, youthful exuberance, and a stance of general skepticism as integral to the movement, such as it is.
Joe Strummer is shown in an unflattering clip, while Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison idiotically compares the fresh air of new wave music to Beethoven. Remarkably, the piece ends with a look at Klaus Nomi, before Hugh Downs avuncularly cites the 1958 Danny & the Juniors hit “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay.”
The report is broken up into 2 parts on YouTube: