Part 3: So It Goes, The Life Cycle of a Wave

We often hear about trends in politics being cyclical. The reason for this is the opportunity cost built into a closed system. There are a finite number of seats in Parliament/Congress, thus any increase in for one party is magnified by a decrease for another. Similarly every hit that makes the Hot 100 knocks another song off the chart. In politics there are shifts to the right (Conservative) and left (Liberal). The Hot 100 has similar shifts with the reactionary (right) end of the scale represented by Country music and the more radical music trends representing a shift to the left. Historically when pop music becomes too radical, there is a corresponding boom on the popularity of Country music, such was the case in the late 70’s.

Country,BlueGrass and Blues better known as CBGBs was the name of an influential 70’s New York music club. It is famous for being the birthplace of the American New Wave and Punk music scenes however the regular acts, most notably the Ramones, only had chart success oversees. What was a New Wave in North America was already an old wave in the UK.

In the UK it was called Pub Rock and it allegedly got its start in 1971 when Eggs over Easy, an American Country-Rock outfit was stuck for an extended time in London. That same year Dave Edmunds had a hit with a cover of a song from 1955. This back to basics movement continued to grow and in 1976 Nick Lowe, who had played in Edmunds’ band and been integral to the Pub Rock scene released on an independent label the single So It Goes. It wasn’t a hit at the time but it was way ahead of its time, in a few years power pop songs like that would be the norm.

The problem with London’s Pub Rock scene of the mid 70’s and later with the New Wave/Punk scene of CBGBs was that without support from radio, which had arena rock on AM and disco on FM, they couldn’t reach a wider audience. By the late 70’s though technological improvements to the audio cassette finally matched those of 8-track tapes, in addition they become recordable. A new entity, the mixed tape was born and it was a boon to underground music scenes.

On July 12th 1979, the Chicago White Sox decided to invite Steve Dahl, a local 24yr old DJ to host their annual Teen Night promotion. Dahl hated disco records and part of his act was ‘blowing them up’ on the radio. Fans were encouraged to bring disco records to game to have them destroyed. As a baseball promotion, Disco Demolition Night was an utter disaster, a riot broke out and the 2nd game had to be forfeited. However for New Wave Music, the Tipping Point at last was at hand.

The final death blow for disco ironically came from the brother of Jack Kevorkian’s (euthanasia activist) lawyer. Doug Fieger and his band, the Knack, were a power pop band out of LA. Their single, My Sharona was released a couple of weeks before Disco Demolition Night. It hit #1 on the Hot 100 in August, sold a million copies in record time, and kick started a new era.

The Knack unfortunately were a flash in the pan. Their follow-up song didn’t crack the top ten and there was a significant backlash to Capitol’s marketing campaign, which unwisely emulated the Beatles. However they did expose a large untapped market for back to basics pop songs. On the technology front, Sony introduced the Walkwan to North America in June of 1980 further cementing cassette tapes, and thus mixed tapes, as the dominate recorded media of the next decade. However it wasn’t until August of the following year that a unique event happened that would bring about the 80’s revolution, and it was televised.

When music executives went looking for the next My Sharona-like hit what they found was a plethora of similar bands from the UK where that style of music had been around for some time. This second British invasion brought with them a keen sense of visual style no doubt influenced by Top of the Pops, an immensely popular TV show in the UK. Each week they would do a countdown of the current hit songs and featured either a live performance from that artist or a dance number by their in-house troupe. In the late 70’s acts that were unable to perform live started supplying the show with prerecorded video performances instead. These videos provided the initial content for MTV when it launched in 1981. It also sent a clear signal to other acts that they needed to make singles that fit within MTVs format, and had to look good doing it.

This phase of the wave is called critical mass, the point at which the trend is sustained beyond the original tipping point. The wave will continue to rise until it reaches a saturation point, in the 80’s that happened by 1984. In the late 70’s Eddie Van Halen burst on to scene, a lightning fast guitar wizard, he was the epitome of arena rock. At the same time Michael Jackson, already a legend as a dancer and a pop singer, made his debut as an adult. At the time they were in completely different worlds – hard rock AM vs dance pop FM, and yet in a few years they would have a hit song together. The videos themselves became increasingly important, Michael Jackson’s Thiller cost half a million dollars and featured a big name Hollywood director. As the MTV video of the year proved, increasingly it was more about high concepts and cutting edge special effects than an actual performance.

The decline phase of a wave mirrors the ascension phases. It starts with seemingly minor changes to the status quo. In 1985 VH1 began as a grown up version of MTV, this allowed the original channel to maintain its youthful cutting edge. The next year MTV started offering genre specific shows, this was the first step away from the visual radio station format toward something resembling traditional television. Also in 1986, Country music, which had been dead in 1984, started to show signs of life again with the emergence of Randy Travis. The biggest change though was just around the corner as a new audio format was gaining in popularity.

I worked at a record store in the summer of 1987 and at that time compact discs were relegated to the classical music section since they only appealed to hard-core audiophiles. As the year progressed, the Beatles and other classic rock artists were released on CD for the first time. Compact Discs helped renew an interest in long form music and more specifically to MTV, albums provided an outlet for artists who wouldn’t conform to their broadcast standards.

Jane’s Addiction’s 1988 the video for Mountain Song was famously banned by MTV, and other songs never had videos made because of edgy lyrics and mature themes. This is particularly true of the emerging Grunge and Hip-Hop scenes of the late 80’s. As pop music slowly shifted left and began to diversify, country surged with Garth Brooks and all his friends in low places having a tremendous amount of success by 1990. The following year Nirvana, a grunge outfit out of Seattle, had an enormous hit with Smells Like Teen Spirit. It was another tipping point, the 80’s era of music was over and a new wave had begun.


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