Last summer’s Eden MusicFest, held just northeast of Toronto, was the largest music festival in North America since the original Woodstock. It spanned three days and featured more than 60 bands. Perry Farrell’s Porno for Pyros was one of the most popular groups appearing. So it’s no surprise that The New Music, Canada’s 18-year-old rock-journalism show, wanted to set up an interview. Not knowing if Farrell would be “in the mood,” the band’s record company said to wait and ask on the day of the show. At the event, New Music host Avi Lewis approached the band’s on-site tour manager. The answer was: No-Perry had a sore throat. Having just seen him perform, Lewis knew Farrell’s throat was fine-he was probably just in too “good” a mood to be chatting with the media. But Lewis already had an alternative route.
He correctly surmised that Mike Watt, a “strictly plaid-and-jeans kind of guy” who was playing bass for Porno for Pyros, would want to get out of the toga-like garment he was wearing on stage as soon as possible. And sure enough, after the performance Lewis found Watt backstage doing just that. A rock star in his own right, Watt was an old friend of The New Music, having been interviewed by the show several times over the years for his own career. He was more than happy to help Lewis and his cameraman backstage-he got a kick out of sneaking them in “the backdoor of the biz.”
When the item appears on The New Music two months later, the viewer is shown the backdoor nature of the interview: Lewis follows Watt, the cameraman follows them, the camera’s light is adjusted (colours get distorted when they go inside), the camera bobs slightly with the cameraman’s steps and Lewis and Watt make small talk. (“One life is made of many days; the sun rises, the sun sets,” philosophizes Watt.) Finally, they all arrive at the dressing room that Porno for Pyros shares with Love and Rockets. Inside they find Farrell among bandmates and crew. Watt hugs Farrell and then Farrell puts on an English accent and insults Watt’s clothing: “Lookit yoo in yer jollywaggers an’ yer pollypoppers!” Then there are a few seconds of general chaos-indecipherable voices blending with laughter and the mike not anywhere near whomever is talking. Soon Farrell is saying, “tell you what, let me talk to Canada.” Taking the mike from Lewis, he begins a story about meeting some kids from Canada and saying how “beautiful” it was that they planted trees for a living in the summer. Then, as if announcing a whole new thought, he says that the “beautiful” idea of planting trees was given to him by college kids from Canada. That seems to be the end of the story because somebody puts some Brazilian dance music on a boom box and Farrell says, “Uh-oh! It’s time to dance!” And he dances around for about a minute before landing on top of one of the members of Love And Rockets. End of segment.
“Everything in that incident,” says Avi Lewis later, “was classic New Music.”
True, you wouldn’t see anything so raw on the CBC-and you may be questioning whether or not the Farrell segment could even be categorized as rock journalism. But Lewis is convinced that it can be and that it exemplifies “the best thing The New Music does.” The show brings the icon down from his pedestal and exposes him as a real person. It knocks down the PR wall and lets the viewers see how the idol interacts with the world. But more importantly, it exposes where music comes from and why. By doing all this, The New Music separates itself from a world of broadcast music journalism that is so often seen as a publicity tool by record companies and is characterized by sensationalism and celebrity worship.
The first episode of The New Music went to air on September 22,1979-predating Music Television (MTV) by one year and MuchMusic by five. Eighteen years and more than 700 episodes later, it continues to produce innovative music journalism that is seen across Canada and syndicated in 14 other countries. Both MTV (owned by giant Viacom Inc.) and Britain’s BBC have comparable music journalism shows but they are only available in other countries by satellite, making them more focussed on their home music and markets.
The New Music was created by John Martin, who at the time was a producer in the current affairs department of the CBC. He wanted something on t elevision that would give him the same type of information he was getting from print sources such as Rolling Stone and England’s New Musical Express-something that treated music as a serious journalistic subject with good reporting and analysis, but focussed on what was happening on the street. Martin tried to sell his idea to the CBC, but it didn’t have a place for a show that couldn’t be slotted in either variety or current affairs. He also tried Toronto’s Global Television, which wasn’t interested either. He then met with Moses Znaimer, president of Toronto’s Citytv, where the staff was young and the programming included dance-party shows and soft-porn movies. The station had just been acquired by radio and television broadcasting network CHUM Limited, and Znaimer himself had a background in music (he once owned a recording studio). Znaimer okayed a pilot, then 13 half-hour shows. “By the time we got to the second or third show it was an hour,” recalls Martin. “It was just obvious it was working.” It was the perfect marriage: A new show that treated rock and roll as a journalistic subject actually worthy of airtime, on a station that broke all the rules of conventional television anyway. The show was, and is, anything but static-as New Music special assignment and associate producer Kim Clarke Champniss says, what changes out there, on the street, is what changes on The New Music . And for each era of new music, there’s been a new era of hosts to mirror that music.
It was 1979-the tail end of the punk era and the beginning of the “new wave”-a coincidence that Martin describes as “fortuitous” for the show’s beginnings. “It meant that as the show launched, it was also launching off a whole new block of music,” says Martin. “So you got something completely different than anything on television-a show that suddenly had reggae, punk and ska and whatever. And the only other music on television was an Anne Murray special.”
A limited budget (dollar figures aren’t available) helped to define the style of the show in the early days. The hosts, J.D. Roberts and Jeanne Beker, couldn’t be flown to London or New York, but they could wait for artists like Madness and Iggy Pop to come through Toronto. Martin believes that Toronto sees more quality musicians pass through than England or the U.S. The minimal budget also meant no fancy sets when the bands did come to town. The New Music camera caught them backstage or in their vans-wherever they could catch them. Just like Lewis did with Perry Farrell. Not too slick, but you got to the artist. The show also covered music news such as the riot that erupted when Alice Cooper didn’t show up for a Toronto concert in 1980, Bob Marley’s funeral (for which Roberts went to Jamaica) and the 1981 Reggae Sunsplash/Police picnic-a huge rock festival held just outside of Toronto headlined by British band The Police. An Iris award for the best independently produced television program in North America went to the episode that featured the Marley funeral and the Police picnic. These segments were produced much in the style of City’s news show, CityPulse. After the Roberts-Beker era ended, this newsy technique didn’t carry on as strongly, perhaps because Roberts, who wanted to (and did) become a professional news broadcaster, was no longer an influence on the show’s style.
After Roberts and Beker had moved on to other things at City in 1984, Daniel Richler-a messy-haired, leather-clad DJ and seasoned arts reporter-became the host of the The New Music. This was just what the show needed to really bring it down to the street-since Roberts and Beker had grown a little too used to “pride of place,” as Richler says, becoming too focused on getting to interview the big stars. “I wasn’t really interested in meeting Mick Jagger,” says Richler. “I was more interested in angry young turks with nails in their noses and their pubic hair dyed purple and why anger was an energy for them. And I said, ‘Look, I’ll go to the place you cannot go.’ Because in their pursuit of the Top 40, J.D. and Jeanne had become a little cut off from the street. If they went to a grungey punk club, they received some abuse from the rude crowd. And they really didn’t like going into those places. I was more anonymous. I was branded differently and trusted more.” Richler also would not be told by record companies who he should be interviewing and where and when that should be. He felt (and feels) that rock and roll is youth politics. “I thought, ‘Let’s use the principles of investigative journalism in the world of rock and roll and let’s go looking for things.” In 1984 he went looking for things in London without a clue as to what he might find. So he went to the street and asked the punks what music they were into. The name Jesus and Mary Chain kept coming up, and the band was playing at North London Polytechnic. So Richler and his cameraman went and “All hell broke loose right in front” of them. The “music” consisted of yelling and speaker feedback, and then there was a mini-riot because the band only played for 20 minutes. The bassist had only two strings on his instrument (“introduce another couple of strings and you confuse the guy,” said his bandmate). Questions about their popularity got answered all right: “Because we’re so good.”
“And I went ‘wow!'” Richler recalls. “I can’t believe we scored.”
Laurie Brown joined Richler as co-host of The New Music later in 1984, and she believes she was first considered because of her ability to act (she’d “starred” in two Corey Hart videos) and experience in a band. Brown approached the show with the honest curiosity of a huge music fan, which complemented what Richler was doing. She too wanted to go further than any other media went-further than the scheduled hotel interview. Brown recalls doing many interviews in washrooms “because they’re the quietest places” in most venues and it jars the artists out of their typical interviewee mind-set of plugging the new album. In particular, she remembers talking to Simple Minds in the men’s shower room of a football stadium.
When Richler left to become an arts reporter for CBC’s The Journal in 1987, Denise Donlon became The New Music‘s producer and Brown’s new co-host. Donlon brought a strong social consciousness to the show. Again, change on the show reflected what was happening in the music world. It was the time of growing awareness of global issues, epitomized by Live Aid, the benefit concert for the famine in Ethiopia. Some typical fare from Donlon’s day: “Rock ‘n Roll ‘n Reading,” to promote literacy; “Earth to Ground Control,” which tackled environmental problems; and “In Your Face: Violence in Music,” for which Donlon won two awards at the 1993 Yorkton Short Film and Video Festival. The shows were a mixture of facts, video clips and artist comments about the given issue.
Today, The New Music continues to take on these kinds of subjects. “The idea is to give these issues some life,” says the current New Music producer John Marshall. “Keep it a pop show-bouncy and visual, and actually have a real discussion in there and real serious food for thought that will stick with the viewers, and they’ll think ‘Oh, I never really thought of that ,’ or ‘I didn’t expect to hear that from that artist.'” In “Rock ‘n Roll ‘n Reading: Chapter 3,” for instance, viewers found out that angry thrasher Henry Rollins has his own publishing company.
Despite the success of this approach, Brown left in 1989 because she felt that Donlon was pulling the show in a direction that was a bit too mainstream-catering to the same huge audience that watched MuchMusic (launched by Znaimer in 1984) and forgetting that The New Music was supposed to be cutting edge. Donlon’s new co-host, Jana Lynne White, reinforced what Donlon was doing, producing her own “issues” shows including: “AIDS: Your Place or Mine?” and “The Big Tease: Media Imaging of Women.” The White era also presented a number of pieces on the “big” stars like Madonna, R.E.M. and Van Halen.
After seven years on the job, Donlon moved on to become the director of music programming for MuchMusic/Citytv, and White continued to host the show solo until September 1996. That’s when Avi Lewis (who had been a reporter for the previous four years at CityPulse) and Larissa Gulka took over as co-hosts. In many ways, they make the show an updated version of what it was in the early days-showing sides of stars that don’t come across in the standard PR interview by imbuing The New Music with a real feel for what is happening on the streets.
For Lewis, it’s getting past the rock-star facade that makes good music journalism. One of his favourite moments was when he actually got Lou Reed (who in 1986 had walked out of an interview with Richler after only five minutes) to crack a smile by asking him about the woman he was living with. He finds that one good tactic for getting some personality out of stars is asking questions out of left field. When he asked Keith Richards about aliens and UFOs, Richards’ reply was something like: “UFOs? I drive them for a living!” And about transvestites: “You’ll have to ask David Bowie!”
Co-host Larissa Gulka is also the show’s resident “videographer,” a crew of one who interviewees and shoots with the camera always on her shoulder-the camera as the human eye. While doing a story on dance moves, Gulka asks a dancer what part of his body gets the best workout when he’s dancing. The answer: “My ass!” And the camera jerks from the dancer’s face to his backside-just where your eye would go if you were there. Visually effective, not to mention cost-effective. This technique, along with Gulka’s specialty-stories on raves and club life-brings the viewer to “the street” more than ever.
Beside the street-style videography, editing technique also helps tell the story. “TV operates on so many levels,” says John Marshall. “It’s not just what you’re seeing and what they’re saying-it’s the pace of the edits. There’s a literacy to that too.” All along, the editor wants to reflect the artist’s musical vision. If the piece is on an industrial band, for instance, the edits are fast and jerky. If the piece is on a group that sings medieval Celtic music, the frames are slightly blurred and grainy.
The New Music is the longest running rock-journalism show ever, so its formula must be working. It has a viewership of 56,000 (ages 18 and older) per episode and receives fan mail from Canada and around the world (about 60 pieces per show, in various forms-mail, e-mail, phone calls). Reporter and assistant producer Jennifer Morton has found that people from all over the world recognize her “TV Frames” specials (which feature the music and culture of a different city on the globe) and that Toronto radio stations start to play bands that were introduced to the world on her specials. Greg Quill of The Toronto Star has called The New Music “one of Canadian TV’s most lasting institutions,” and The Globe and Mail‘s Rick Salutin has written that he “would like to nominate it as the most intelligent show on the air.”
In Lewis’ opinion, it now takes more to impress audiences than when the show first began. Just getting an interview with a rock star isn’t a big deal any more-it’s expected. But getting backstage at Eden MusicFest to talk to an artist who wasn’t supposed to be talking to any press-that’s a big deal. As silly and amateurish as that segment may have seemed to someone just tuning in, the incident really was classic New Music. It was unruly, spontaneous and, above all, it told you a little bit about who Perry Farrell really is-you begin to understand why he looks so freaky on stage and why his music is as different as it is. And it was all possible because of the show’s long-standing relationship with Mike Watt. As Avi Lewis would later say, “our history came to our rescue.”