OH NO IT'S DEVO!
With Roy Thomas Baker's sheeny production credentials, Oh No It's Devo! de-emphasizes the guitar and highlights the Omnichord and Roland synths, as well as the Linn drum machines...with largely pleasing results.
The conventional wisdom, all the more hilarious for the very idea that the word "conventional" could apply to any facet of Devo, is that the first time out was their pinnacle (which does happen with certain bands, and is the only way music can be better than sex), the follow-up a tougher if ultimately more rewarding listen, and the "mersh" record came along to give the group fame, fortune, addiction and venereal disease…then it all went to hell, and the product after that is pretty damn negligible.
Which is wrong. It's after Oh No It's Devo! (record number five if the score matters) that Akron's finest became horrendously facile. Consider this, then, the final huzzah.
"Time Out For Fun"--Simon Says as motivational tool. Everyone locate your inner happy rhombus! A straight-faced plea to PMA it up that doubles as one of my favorite Devo tunes of ever. These optimistic words coming from the mouth of one Gerald Vincent Casale, Smartass-At-Law, may stretch the tensile strength of credulity, but damn it, I want to believe in this song. Like how I really want so much to believe I can hold my liquor. It's so friggin' fun, and I could use more smiles these days anyways.
"Peek-A-Boo"--This song reminds me of a baby. It's real cute. It smells amazing. When it attempts to communicate, I could just die. Then, the baby grows into a toddler, to a young child, then to a teen, and finally to an adult. Real early along the way, it stops being cute.
"Out of Sync"--In the vein of Don Henley's "All She Wants To Do Is Dance," referencing a metaphorical female. But Devo didn't write songs about cocaine, they just snorted the shit.
"Explosions"--Only played live once, at the legendary-for-the-wrong-reasons first show on the "Oh No It's Devo!" tour, 10/30/1982 in Beverly Hills. Intended to transmit live in 3-D to college campuses nationwide, technical futzery abounded, peeving the band, who could at worst be accused of reaching far beyond their grasp. (For this show, for their career…)
"Explosions" is a lost classic for sure, except not really, 'cause if that was literally true, how would I ever know of it? Sounds the way an assembly line looks (and functions).
Awesome job by the Casale Bros. on the affirmations, also. Peanut butter stuck to the roof of my brain to this day.
"That's Good"--It's dance-y, but not too much that way, and they once played it on an episode of Square Pegs. Which starred Sarah Jessica Parker, who later participated in setting women back an entire generation with Sex and the City. Which also starred Kim Cattrall. Who once upon a time exchanged full-body high-fives with Jerry Casale.
"Patterns"--A redo of a little ditty called "One Dumb Thing" (later found on the Pioneers Who Got Scalped compilation and maybe my favorite example of Statue Jerry, but oh God, what a feast to sample from), this is a spudly ballad for the taters to sway with. The spiraling synth is reminiscent of "Mongoloid," but here comes off as far warmer and contemplative. Life is a series of patterns sequenced into a larger pattern. Perspective as key one to peace.
"Big Mess"--It must be awesome to not only have friends who manage fan mail for game show hosts, but to have unscrupulous friends who manage fan mail for game show hosts. Luckily, the song is more dynamic than the backstory.
"Speed Racer"--I really wish I still had the We Are Devo! bio in my possession (or do I?), because then I could credit the person who made the observation that Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh completed each other creatively. See, per this observer, Jerry had all the ideas but no talent, whereas Mark had no ideas but a shit-ton of talent. This is of course an exaggeration to prove a point, but "Speed Racer" makes me think of that statement. The only song credited entirely to one member, and if therefore Mark is to credit for the inventive sonic trail blazed within, he is then entirely to blame for the banality of the lyrics. "I'm a big pirate and I like to steal"? That Barbie Doll bullshit, complete with high-pitched vox? At least, you can take the isolated parts and make one corking instrumental, with the right software. In fact I wish you would.
"What I Must Do"--Gerald hitting the confessional booth like a good Catholic boy.
"I Desire"--The most infamous song on the album, for borrowing lyrics from a John Hinckley poem dedicated to actress Jodie Foster. Hinckley of course is known less for his poesy and more for attempting to murder then-Prez Reagan. The band actually spoke with the shit-shot himself to obtain permission to use his words of love, and found no resistance: "I'm a fan of you guys," Hinckley reportedly told them. "I got your first album."
Haha, that's funny. You know what's not funny? The fact you had six shots at erasing one of the most rancid people from the face of the planet and you could not even once hit your target directly. That's unfunny on a Mencian scale. Fuck you and fuck your poetry, making Robert Herrick come off like Robert Frost. And oh check out this punchline, Jodie Foster is gay! You were writing romantic doggerel to a lesbian, you ridiculous idiot!
Much like "Speed Racer," the music saves the day. That beat is what transpires when manufacturers attempt to infuse toy soldiers with erotic feeling.
"Deep Sleep"--Not very somnolent at all. Or memorable. Weird Al's Devo tribute "Dare To Be Stupid" (released three years after this album) basically takes "Deep Sleep" as its launching pad…and does it drastically better. Mark Mothersbaugh, Jerry Casale and even the notoriously tacit Bob Mothersbaugh have all had disparaging quotes for Weird Al's devolved mash note, and you know what? If some goofy-fuck famous for taking original hit songs and turning them into odes to food decided that for one of his rare self-penned tunes he was going to take the aesthetic of my band's last album and do it better…I'd be pissed off too.
BOUNCING OFF THE SATELLITES
On October 12, 1985, after most if not all of this album had been recorded (stories vary), Ricky Wilson died from complications related to HIV-AIDS. Wilson discovered he was HIV-positive during the Whammy! sessions in 1983, but told only Keith Strickland. By the time Bouncing Off the Satellites was being recorded, Wilson was noticeably thinner and weaker. Still, he kept his devastating diagnosis a secret from the others in his band. Most likely he did not want to present a burden. Something in that mind frame is quite admirable. Of course, the problem with such a decision arose when Ricky was hospitalized at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York and an intern called Cindy Wilson to inform her that the big brother she idolized was dying. The secret was out in an unfathomably devastating way. Days later, Ricky was gone, his death attributed to cancer, such was the fear and ignorance surrounding HIV-AIDS at that time.
Although, again, most of the record was completed at the time of Wilson's passing, it simply does not sound to me like a B-52's album. Session musicians are sprinkled liberally throughout, and Fred Schneider's sprechgesang is almost nonexistent. For the first time, the band were pressured by record company execs to "write a hit." Even if they had, how the hell would they promote it? Ricky's death was a cinderblock to the gut, jackknifing them just in time to take the medicine ball to the head. Bouncing Off the Satellites came and went. The surviving members disappeared into their own worlds-within-the-world, to heal and reflect. Thoughts of reassembly were a galaxy away.
"Summer of Love"--The hit that shoulda been, and a sparkling example of the Fairlight done right. (To hear it done wrong, see the last three Devo albums.) The harmonies of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson are uniformly fantastic, belting out some rather deceptive lyrics:
"I've been waiting for the man
Just buzzin' around...downtown
Waitin' for that very special
Comes in to see what I got
Orange popsicles and lemonade"
The original mix features much more of Ricky Wilson's guitar, and might be the best representation of the ideal sound the B's were aiming for in this next phase of their existence.
"Girl From Ipanema Goes To Greenland"--I always thought a song blessed with such a title should sonically resemble a spastic crackhead battle royale, but it stays in a spaced, spacey niche. Pointless, but fun.
"Housework"--A Kate solo vocal turn. Actually, the only other member credited on this song is Keith Strickland. Hmm.
You don't get many Kate solo tracks. Cindy, sure; out the ass. A Cindy Wilson spotlight moment became a quick hallmark of the B-52's albums. Why Cindy and not Kate? This song helps explain why. Asinine and forgettable, the words and music evaporate from your head at a two-second clip. The cries of a tortured urchin are more appealing to the ear. Far and away the nadir of the album.
"Detour Thru Your Mind"--Finally, at track four, we hear some Fred. (And, also, a chorus that is more than just the title said over and over.) Incredible; on the earlier albums, he's already crashed a party, spotted some pink air, done all sixteen dances, ran around, and gone down down doowwwn by this time.
He tries his best to make up for it here, a spoken word psychedelic sojourn (less down to acid intake, more up to dentist chair bliss) that manages to rhyme "orange" and "large" and inject the best back-masked message on a record to date. Great guitar solo, too, courtesy of Keith Strickland.
"Wig"--This is to BOTS what "Butterbean" was to Whammy! A song where they are clearly trying too hard to be the tackiest, wackiest band on Earth, yet somehow succeeding despite the slimsy slip showing. Keith plays a for-fucks-sake sitar solo on this bitch.
"Theme For a Nude Beach"--Featuring all five members on vocals, a loose-limbed frolic around Beach Bowl Galaxy that keeps evoking sandbars in the lyrics. It succeeds at the attempted graceful sounds, but the B's of 1979 would have been far kookier with this, making it sound closer to a real nekkid party.
"Ain't It a Shame"--As out of place on this album as a Whole Foods Market in Hagerstown, Maryland. The entire song is one long, heavy sigh, from the lazy guitar swashes to the resigned harmonica to Cindy's syrup-y vox gone mournful and bitter as she serenades deadly apathy. (Even Keith and Ricky's backing vocals seem afraid to wake the neighbors.)
In a case of "real recognize real", Sinead O'Connor did a cover of this song for her She Who Dwells... album. It's well-done, but not even Sinead could out-break Cindy's heart here.
"Juicy Jungle"--A horn-y Fred solo number that foretold the group's interest in environmental issues. (Although this was earmarked for Fred's upcoming solo, so no other B's appear.) Great cause; annoyingly trite song. All that money spent in the studio recording this claptrap could have been donated to Greenpeace. That had to cross Fred's mind at one point.
"Communicate"--Jumps out like fire from an exposed manhole after "Juicy Jungle." Fred pops in to deliver an imitation of Paul Lynde as a (fill in the blank) instructor while the girls with kaleidoscope voices shimmy behind him. The most positive song on the album (don't hold it in!) is also the most tightly structured and effortlessly executed, with perfect pacing and dearth of tacky keys.
How does one resist a tune that spells out the title within the lyrics? One doesn't, so stop Googling for the answer. Just listen to it over and over until you enter such a state of giddy other-than you start making up your own chant. (My favorite variation pays homage to my favorite musculoskeletal disorder "C-O-S-T-O-C-H-O-N dritis.")
"She Brakes For Rainbows"--(Hip hop crate digger alert: sampled by the Majesticons for their track "St. Tropez Party.") Written by Keith and Ricky and given to Cindy so she could pull a heart from a fuzzy hat. Gorgeously arcing chorus. Tells the story of "Brenda Holiday," a woman who doesn't speak much but knows more. "She knows where the rain goes/She brakes/She brakes for rainbows." The last song on the last album with Ricky Wilson isn't supposed to suffuse the air with unbearable sorrow--we're supposed to admire this Brenda--but as the chorus fades into the clouds, it's difficult to not think of Ricky Wilson following right behind.