"When is someone going to take this flag I'm holding?" begged Peter Townshend of the Who a year ago. "It's too heavy. I can't hold it up any more."
The self-styled "godfather of punk" was welcoming the onslaught of Britain's anarchistic New Wave, which was then threatening to take over the British music charts and spread its rebellious music charts and spread its rebellious message to America.
The takeover never occurred. The New Wave joined the Establishment, buying a few hits at the price of its anarchism. Not a single punk band broke through big in America, and in Britan John Travolta sold more albums than the entire New Wave.
"They threw all those punk bands up against the wall this year," says David Essex, Britain's leading scream producer in the teenybopper market. "The bands that stuck have made a lot of money. The rest of them -- they got scrubbed out like old graffiti."
At the start of 1979 the No. 1 single in Britain was a new version of the old Harry Belafonts song, "Mary's Boy Child." No. 2 was a disco tune, No. 3 was a parody novelty, No. 4 was the Bee Gees, No. 5 was Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond. The British album chart was even more conservative, tooped by "Grease," followed by the Carpenters and Rod Stewart.
Britain has what one record company executive calls "an everybody market" in music. Literally anything can hit No. 1 her, from the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.S." to Laurel and Hardy's "Trail of the Lonesome Pine."
The major influences on taste are the BBC's two national pop radio stations, which never saw it as their mission to further the punk revolution. Radio One, in the words of its controller Derek Chinnery, caters to "the housewife with an iron in her hand and the worker beating time on the floor with his monkey wrench."
Nevertheless, some New Wave bands were good enough to stick on the wall, despite the easy-listening philosophy of the two BBC stations and the nation's several dozen local stations.
The Boomtown Rats, the Stranglers, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, the Clash and the New York band Blondie have proven themselves viable record sellers. Perhaps a dozen other bands with names like X Ray Spex, the Jam, and Siouxie and the Banshees have shown enough potential to keep their record companies picking up the options. Countless other youthful aggregations that sprang up during the heady days of mid-to-late 1977 have vanished.
"Musically, 99 percent of the New Wave was rubbish," said Bob Geldof, leader of the Boomtown Rats. The Rats, from Dublin, have become Britain's biggest-selling New Wave band. Their Single "Rattrap," a tuneful six-minute diatribe against the hopelessness of most working-class lives, was No. 1 for two weeks in November.
"We're in the 1 percent, naturally," Geldof continues, "but that's not the point. Waht's important to me is the feelings a band like the Boomtown Rats can produce, in ourselves and in the audience."
The Rats and the other New Wave stayers are now playing Britain's biggest halls. A few months ago, though, they were working small stand-up clubs like the Marquee in Soho, the very venue where the Rolling Stones were first noticed 15 years ago. Now that bands like the Boomtown Rats and Elvis Costello have been absorbed into the record industry establishment, the lines outside the stand-up clubs are shorter, but the bands playing there for beer money are keeping alive the youthful spirit of what has been called "dole queue" rock.
Wall-to-wall chaos reigned in the Marquee when groups like the Boomtown Rats headed the bill. "We consider it an insult if the people don't dance when we. play," says Geldof. "They'd better leave the hall drenched with sweat and numb with rock 'n' roll."
By "dance," Geldof doesn't mean waltz or disco. He means the pogo. The pogo is a joyous up-and-down idiot dance that exactly suits the speeded-up, simplified music of the New Wave. A pub full of panting pogoers, dressed in pre-threadbared sweaters, their hair cut in two-tone clumps, is a sight to send American record company executives back to their Jacuzzis, vowing never to let that junk onto their release schedules.
Americans appear more comfortable with older British performers like Eric Clapton, the Who or the Stones, who no longer achieve spectacular s ales back home in Britain. Even a younger group like Queen consistently charts higher in America than in Britain. Foreigner and Al Stewart are newer British acts with a Top-10 following in the U.S. but virtually no fans in Britain.
At the start of the year Elton John had two singles in the British Top 30. Elton has never been so popular in Britain as in America -- one of many illustrations of the British tendency to find fault witha winner. But now that Elton has come out of the closet, admitting baldness, breakdowns and homosexuality, he perhaps qualifies as enough of a loser to achieve true popularity in Britain.
British bands often lose their fans back home when they go for the big bucks in America. The Stones didn't tour this year in the U.K., confining their road activity to North America. The Moody Blues re-formed and toured the U.S., but haven't found time to play Britain yet. "We can't find a hall big enough," explains Moddiest Blue Justin Hayward, somewhat disingenuously.
Rod Stewart is one of the few transatlantic stars who's kept in close thouch with his British fans. Stewart's "Do You Think I'm Sexy?" was No. 1 here in early December, and on his British tour later in the month his fervent supporters answered the question with their usual display of tireless scarf-waving and leatherlunged singing along.
The biggest singles-sellers of 1978 in Britain were neither British nor American, Boney M, four West Indians who live in Germany. Europop remains strong in the U.K., even though oncemassive Abba had only one hit single all year. A farcically simple-minded Dutch group called Father Abraham's Smurfs hit No. 2 after being used in an oil company's television commercial.
A further indication of the breadth of British taste is that the biggest-selling locally-produced single of the year was a ditty called "Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs," by Brian and Michael, whoever they are. Yes, the song sounds as a awful as its titile, but it's in a grand old British tradition.
There's never a week when the Top 10 doesn't include at least one wee novelty like "I've Got a Brand-New Combine Harvester," "Do the Funky Gibbon," Floral Dance" (by the Bridghouse and Rastrick Brass Band,) "Halfway Down the Stairs" by the Muppets, or the biggest-selling single in British history, Paul McCartneyhs bagpipe tune "Mull of Kintyre,"
British tastes are so far from being standardized that the top 10 albums of 1978 included collections of oldies by Nat King Cole and Buddy Holly. Sales of a million or more can be achieved by catalogue items like these because of saturation television advertising campaigns. Around Christmas, every other commercial on Tv/ is for a record, usually something MOR for auntie. A quarter of all albums sold in Britain are sold via television.
"Something Better Change" was the theme song of New Wave leaders the Stranglers. They meant not only that unemployment should be abolished (it hasn't been), but that the Smurfs should go back to Holland (they haven't).
The Stranglers had three gold albums in Britain but seem to have lost momentum after failing to rouse America from its musical torpor. "When we played in the States," recalls chief Strangler Hugh Cornwell, "we jumped down off the stage and kicked the tables over in people's faces. That got through to them.'Uhhh, I guess it's okay to stand up.'"
Such belligerence is now understood here as part of the punks' act. They wanted a revolution but settled for northing more than a minor branch of show business.