Cable TV has gotten better and worse since its mass infiltration during the 1980s. On the one hand, it’s now a cliche to point out that the five best shows on cable are far more innovative, artistic, and edgy than the five best motion pictures of any year. On the other hand, things have gotten so homogenized that it’s hard to find a cable channel with any identity anymore. You know you’ve reached a tipping point when CMT (Country Music Television) is showing “Caddyshack.”
However, back in the early 1980s, I would argue that cable was ballsier because they were really trying to be an alternative to regular TV and movies. A lot of it was cheesy, but there was an adventurous “let’s throw it against the wall” mentality that was quite exciting.
Which leads me to “Night Flight,” the USA Cable Network’s terrific late-night Friday and Saturday three-hour block of rock video, cult films, and other esoterica that you couldn’t find anywhere else on television (or video, for that matter). “Night Flight” featured a lot of music you couldn’t find on MTV back in the mid-1980s, including rap, punk, industrial music, and pretty much everything that was classified as “college rock.” It was the first place that I was exposed to Run DMC, R.E.M., Cabaret Voltaire, Depeche Mode, Roxanne Shante, and Laurie Anderson. I also had a chance to see great films such as “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains,” “Rude Boy,” and “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” that were hard to find on video and couldn’t be seen anywhere else on cable.
Which now leads to “New Wave Theatre,” which was nationally available on “Night Flight.” “New Wave Theatre” was literally the only public outlet for hardcore punk music on national television at the time. I got into punk with my friends around the age of 13, but the only way you could experience it in those days was to trade tapes with friends. Unless you lived in a big city, the bands never came to your town and even if they did, you had to be 18 to get in. The albums were hard to find and if even if you could find them, they were beyond the budget of the average 13-year old. I remember seeing this very clip around 1984 or so and I felt like levitating. These days, moshing and slam dancing are about as corny and quaint as square dancing and the Charleston. However, this DK’s clip was the most exciting musical performance I’d ever seen. I remember being so wired afterwards that I couldn’t sleep. As a result, I watched “Night Flight” every week to see if they would repeat “New Wave Theatre,” only to discover later that the episode I saw was a rare repeat, since the host (Peter Ivers) was murdered around the same time. It wasn’t a complete loss by any means because I got to experience so many other cool things through “Night Flight.” But I also remember being terribly let down when it didn’t pop up until years later.
There are clips of “New Wave Theatre” scattered throughout “YouTube” if you’re feeling inclined. There’s also a terrific biography about Ivers that came out in 2008 called “In Heaven, Everything Is Fine” which I highly recommend as well.