In the age before MTV, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, rock music had to scratch and claw its way onto the primordial ooze of television and content itself with short, usually live, performances on late night talk shows and burgeoning cable access. In the seventies, the variety show had begun to see the end of its days as anything more than a showcase for the cheap pandering of artists like Sonny and Cher and Tony Orlando. There were no more breakthrough performances in primetime, like those on Ed Sullivan that broke Elvis and the Beatles. Other than shows like the Midnight Special, television was largely a wasteland for rock and roll, particularly smaller bands and emerging acts. Enter Tom Snyder. Snyder, a newsman at the start of his career, began hosting the Tomorrow Show in 1973 and, despite his usual lack of interest in the cutting edge music he presented on his show, nevertheless provided a forum for these bands to be seen by a much wider audience than ever before.
Particularly ignored by mainstream television in America were the Punk and New Wave scenes mushrooming in the late Seventies and early Eighties. With the release of The Tomorrow Show: Punk & New Wave in 2006, enthusiasts for those genres have reason to celebrate. While not an end-all collection of Punk and New Wave music, this two DVD set does chronicle a rare view of this explosive and vitally important period in music history through the seldom seen point of view of the American mainstream media. The performances and interviews on the discs in this set demonstrate with a historian's eye how over the head of most people Punk was in its infancy and how befuddling it was to the old guard in the media and on television who were still getting over the shock of the Beatles.
Host, Tom Snyder, provides the perfect foil for the outrageous personalities of the early Punk scene, whether he's butting heads with John Lydon or chuckling along with obvious amusement with a suspiciously giggly and dazed Patti Smith. Constantly smoking (which interestingly seems just bizarre in this day and age to see on a television show), Snyder revels in an unstated sense of superiority over kids who he clearly considers punks in most cases, and that's with a lower-case "p". Snyder makes no effort to be hip and talk down to the level of his guests, and while he always seems professional and prepared with his questions, he obviously doesn't understand the music or the people he's dealing with and clearly doesn't care to. Still, there's something unbelievably likeable about his easy laugh and sometimes hilarious and open disdain for the likes of Lydon-not because he's a Punk, but because he's rude and nonsensical. An everlasting disappointment about the material collected here, however, is that Snyder was on vacation when the Ramones were in studio. The band even seems disappointed and one wonders how that interview would have gone.
The set itself is quite an extensive collection although some memorable performances, such as that by the Clash, had to be excluded due to issues with the rights to the music. Despite the exclusions, the set still features a pretty impressive roll call of early punk. Although many of the artists were already passed their affiliations with the bands that made them famous, seeing Iggy Pop post Stooges and John Lydon post Pistols, before they were household names, intrigues and amuses.
Patti Smith and Joan Jett are also both here, and although neither of them perform, the emphasis on the role of women in Punk and New Wave is crucial. The quality of the footage throughout is great, but the discs are put together a little unusually. Rather than just keying on the Punk & New Wave aspects of the shows as the title suggest, the producers give us eight complete episodes of the Tomorrow Show. While the menu does allow you to access "Just the Punks", if you so desire you can also see Snyder interview Rick Shroeder, James Michener, and a very stuffy economist who seemed convinced that the US economy was on the brink of utter collapse in 1981.
You can also jump to just the songs, although they represent a very small portion of the almost five hours of material spanning two DVDs. While most of the artists who perform are allotted two songs apiece, the liner notes inside the DVD are misleading as Iggy Pop and the Ramones are each credited with three songs while the third song in each case is cut noticeably short as the credits roll and conclude mid-song. The second song by the Jam suffers a similar fate. Otherwise the groups bash out their respective songs in true punk fashion, especially the Plasmatics who have to be seen to be believed.
The center piece of the entire set is a roundtable discussion featuring Snyder, legendary club-owner and promoter, Bill Graham, producer Kim Fowley, artists Paul Weller of the Jam and Joan Jett then of the Runaways and a California rock critic, Robert Hilburn. Snyder's blatant statement that Fowley looks ridiculous, and to be fair he does, gets the conversation going and it's fascinating to the end. Weller and Jett both seem intimidated, although Weller does muster up some opinions towards the end and Fowley is completely smug throughout, acting almost pimp-like towards Jett whom he was producing at the time. Hilburn's observations are keen if a little bit carefully chosen and Graham seems bored with the whole proceeding, but it is in this piece that the importance of Punk in history is debated, at least as it was viewed at that time. The culture clash between old and young stands out as to the conclusion of that debate, but no one seems very convinced that the whole Punk thing will amount to much. In fact, the debate between what is Punk and what is New Wave takes center stage by the end and the term Punk is almost universally shouted down as a media label by all involved in it. Strange, considering how many modern Punks wear the term as a badge of honor.
Honestly, this is not a set that many people are going to throw on their DVD players more than a couple of times, but if punk, historically, is important to you, or if you remember these performances from when they aired originally-and many of them are quite memorable-then this set is a solid buy. The fans of Tom Snyder, and they're out there, get eight complete episodes of a landmark television show and the Punk and New Wave trappings are pretty easy to ignore if you have a mind to do so. Dan Aykroyd's send up of Snyder on Saturday Night Live was a classic bit, and he certainly nailed the quirky host, but the fact remains that Snyder did as much for Punk as almost anyone else on television in its early years, simply by giving it a stage and ten minutes out of a national television audience's evening. For a mainstream television personality to do that during that time in history is, let's face it, a pretty damned Punk Rock thing to do.