“What is the meaning of life?” A normal TV show would ask its musician guests “what was the inspiration behind this song?” or even “what’s your favourite toothpaste brand?”, but New Wave Theatre was not a normal TV show. The half-hour program went on the air 1980 and was originally broadcast locally on a UHF channel. It was a music show with a DIY philosophy: the bands were scrappy, the audience was rowdy, and the presenter was a rambling hippie. At the time, one critic called the show ‘the most cutting-edge thing coming out of Los Angeles’. New Wave Theatre was broadcasting the right bands at the right time. The 1980s hardcore punk scene in California was the birthplace of “moshing”, surf punk, and the straight edge movement, and would later spawn the famous 924 Gilman Street project and influence modern bands like Green Day, Bad Religion and NOFX. It was a vibrant scene and New Wave Theatre was its CGBGs. Featuring bands such as the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag, New Wave Theatre brought punk rock to the masses.
Peter Ivers was the show’s spaced out presenter, instantly recognizable for his trademark sunglasses and rambling monologues. An ex-jazz musician, Peter Ivers was already somewhat famous for writing the song ‘In Heaven’ for David Lynch’s Eraserhead. He was well known in Hollywood, with many friends among movie stars and punk rats alike, but the New Wave Theatre bands tended to dislike him. They found him a bit smug and annoying. The show was filmed by a man named Jove, a “lunatic” who filmed and edited the show himself, preferring to work alone in a cave-like environment. New Wave Theatre was shot guerrilla style, and Jove was in charge of absolutely everything. The show embodied the makeshift culture of the punk bands they presented, the culture that would inspire the Eskalators to put on extravagant street shows 20 years later and David Ferguson to found the Institute for Unpopular Culture.
After a few years on UHF, New Wave Theatre became a 30-minute segment on the 4-hour long variety show Night Flight. Night Flight was among the first TV shows to see the music video as an art form as opposed to a glorified advert, showing music videos that were censored by MTV and other outlets. Night Flight also featured stand-up comedians, short films, cartoons and some politically oriented shows and documentaries, some about subjects like apartheid in South Africa. There was even a segment dedicated to the then-novel world of computer animation. The show ran from 1981-1988, but reruns were broadcast as late as 1996.
“New music is get up and die. Death is tomorrow’s beginning.” This a was typical line from one of Peter Ivers’ monologues, which took on a more sinister meaning in 1983. At the age of 36, Peter Ivers was found bludgeoned to death in his apartment. On the day of his death, a large crowd of his friends were gathered outside his home, a result of his popularity. His murder has never been solved, although the police believe it was the consequence of a burglary. Naturally, Peter Ivers’ death spawned lots of rumours. Some said he was murdered on air by a crazy fan. Others said he was shot in his sleep with a bow and arrow. Still others that the culprit was a band member from the show, annoyed at Ivers’ pretentious questions. After his death, New Wave Theatre ended. The crew disbanded and the show was no more.
However, one of Peter Ivers’ powerful Hollywood friends, a fan of New Wave Theatre, wanted to create a similar but more polished show, which he called The Top. Wanting keep the spirit of the original show, he invited the “lunatic” Jove and others from New Wave Theatre to work with a real production staff. It turned out that Jove was not good with sharing creative freedom. According to one account, Jove would run around the set, stopping people from filming or writing, as they didn’t agree with his vision. Five minutes before filming, he put the presenter in a punk rock outfit with a spiked wig. The presenter was more than a little awkward on stage, standing there, not saying a word as the audience rioted. The programme had to be re-filmed: Jove’s script was thrown out and he was handcuffed to a chair in the production room during taping. The new show was successful, but it had nothing to do with New Wave Theatre.