How many of you remember “Night Flight” on the USA Network and “The Cutting Edge” on MTV? Those were long ago days, so if you have the slightest idea what I’m talking about you are probably over the age of forty; at the very least you are over thirty. “Night Flight” was actually the very first nationally broadcast American TV show to feature music videos. For many, “Night Flight” was the second place to get a look at artists like Devo and Kate Bush; the first being Saturday Night Live back when they used to have cutting edge musical artists rather than just continually inviting the same old stale superstars. “Night Flight” was not all about music, of course, but it was at its best when it was about music.
The Cutting Edge came along a few years later and aired monthly on MTV. It was produced by IRS Records, one of the premier New Wave labels of all time, and was actually hosted by Peter Zaremba who was himself the leader of one of IRS’s most idiosyncratic and entertaining bands, The Fleshtones. The Cutting Edge gave Americans exposure to artists like Jools Holland, Wall of Voodoo, and The Alarm.
It is very easy to miss the early 80s because not only did it provide the most exciting music that Americans raised on monotonous classic rock, disco and heavy metal stations had ever heard. The ascension of the music video caused an explosion on American radio and forced them to do something they hadn’t been forced to do in decades: play bands who didn’t have top forty albums and records. Bands that had never been heard of before and would not have been heard of at all were suddenly blaring from car stereos precisely because of exposure on shows like Night Flight and The Cutting Edge.
The trick here was the introduction of cable television. With televised exposure to music no longer confined to three networks, it was almost a matter of time before somebody besides the Bee Gees, Fleetwood Mac, or the Eagles would start getting some radio time. Of course, even at that it still took five or six years before things hit. The reason for that, of course, was that prior to the explosion of fun and creative music in the 1980s the alternative, quite literally, was punk rock. And American radio is not even ready for punk rock today, much less back in the 1970s. That infamous installment of Weekend with Lloyd Dobyns pretty much ensured that Americans of all stripes would be terrified of punk rock. Americans would have wait over twenty years for the opportunity for journalists to confirm George W. Bush’s lies about the existence of weapons of mass destruction before they would ever see such a codification of falsehoods and mistruths and fearmongering such as Dobyns’ report on punk rock that fateful night.
And so, once punk rock had been tamed down into accessible New Wave television was ready to embrace it, and once that happened the floodgates were unleashed and for one brief, wonderful moment American radio was worth listening to again. It wouldn’t last, of course, and today I am proud to admit that I haven’t listened to any other broadcast radio station other than NPR for fifteen years. Proud, but far from happy. I would love for broadcast radio to compete with satellite radio by offering up some narrowcasting, but I know that’s not the case. How do I know this if I don’t listen to the radio? Because every time I fill up with gas some moron pulls up next to me with the radio blaring and the only kind of music I ever heard is country or rap.
Night Flight and the Cutting Edge fulfilled their duties of expanding the horizon of American music. Since the power of the internet far outweighs the power of cable television one would think that the magic of Night Flight and The Cutting Edge might be reappropriated and cause another renaissance. Alas, that is not the case and only in part because there exists a decidedly less creative musical environment today than existed in the early 1980s.