In pop music, what goes around comes around. There is barely a style that hasn't, at some point, been seized upon and regurgitated as the new thing, even if it's been barely modified since its original iteration. One we haven't seen for a while, however, is new wave – perhaps because it has long been considered "inauthentic". New wave, lest we forget, was what happened when seasoned musicians took notice of punk and reshaped it to their own ends.
Conventional wisdom holds that new wave was to punk what Tesco burgers are to Byron: a cheap and barely palatable imitation, a source of UK bands, such as the Members, the Vapours and Buggles, who are remembered for one song. This also happened in the US, but without the shadow of punk. As something that was of interest only to a small number of people in New York, LA and a handful of other big cities, the new wave acts didn't have to be seen as a second-rate imitation. Groups such as the Cars and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were able to build lasting and serious careers, helped because they were lasting and serious songwriters. And other performers, including Pat Benatar, flourished at the point where solidly MOR rock met the concision of new wave. Then there were the brief wonders – the likes of the Knack, Rick Springfield, and the Romantics, whose What I Like About You is a breathless explosion of fun.
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These days, I love a lot of that American new wave. It's certainly weathered much better than most punk, possibly because it has sturdy foundations in classicist rock, and it doesn't try to deny it. A copy of Pat Benatar's Greatest Hits, which I picked up for 50p in a secondhand shop two years ago, has become a favourite, and the early Tom Petty stuff excuses the fact that he would later write Don't Pull Me Over – possibly the worst song ever written. Perhaps it's a function of growing older: in music, my longing for pure energy is tempered by a desire for actual songcraft to go with it. At 44, I'm less concerned with the need for angst and rage, what with being happily married, with kids and with no desire to emotionally torture myself.
It can be hard to see American new wave as more than a set of signifiers: it's the soundtrack of early 80s teen movies and the raised eyebrow of irony in adverts, so there haven't really been many attempts to revive it. Weezer and Fountains of Wayne have nodded back to those sounds, but always with those raised eyebrows. The DFA-signed Free Energy have issued a couple of albums in a roughly new wave style, but no one was paid attention.
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This year, though, one of the big major label hopes is clearly and indisputably a new wave band. Public Access TV are so new wave they should be wearing shiny suits and skinny ties. They're so new wave, they've got one song that sounds exactly like Nick Lowe's I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass. ("Have you heard Jesus of Cool by Nick Lowe?" frontman John Eatherly said to NME earlier this year. "It's just such a cool-sounding record.") They're so new wave, their obligatory fast, punky song is weedy and underpowered rather than loud and furious. But all those things are compliments.
I caught Public Access TV twice last weekend at the Great Escape festival, in Brighton. The first time was at an afternoon showcase gig, off the festival programme and for two or three dozen people, mainly from the music industry. Then, to see how they'd fare in front of actual fans, I went to a late-night show in a bigger venue. Both times I thought they were fun. Their songs have an attractive easiness, and nothing hangs around long enough to get boring. And they have the advantage of novelty; I can't think of any other band who's doing this stuff at the moment, so it sounds fresh.
Eatherly has known fuss before. He was the drummer in Be Your Own Pet, the teenaged sensations of Nashville's garage-punk scene, and was also in Turbo Fruits – which may help account for how Public Access TV have generated so much industry buzz and won a contract with Polydor, part of the Universal group. Because, while their evening set was received well enough – heads nodded, applause was granted – it wasn't exactly hysteria in the Haunt. (Although, when the audience doesn't know your songs yet, that might be understandable.) And it's hard to know if the band like this will resonate – they have none of the cool of, say, the Strokes. In fact, if you were to imagine what kind of band a Michael Cera film character would front, you'd probably come up with something like Public Access TV.
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But I'm curious. Because this music feels like comfort food to me. Seeing the same set twice in a day didn't bore me, even as I thought it was all bright shiny surfaces, without real depth, and even as I wished for a bit more personality and charisma onstage. We'll see how it goes for Public Access TV. I suspect they'll be the subject of a press kerfuffle but never really connect with a wide audience
Then again, the first piece I ever wrote predicted big things for a headline band called Tad, but consigned the support band to the dustbin. The support were Nirvana.