Tuesday, January 24, 2012
The Space In Between Is the Place: The Music of Devo and The B-52s (Fragment One Is Yellow and Grotesque)
Q: ARE WE NOT MEN? A: WE ARE DEVO!
After several years slogging around the Midwest, and allowing a couple sour grapes to drop unceremoniously from the vine, Devo solidified as a tick-tock crew of "five punk scientists with a plan" ready to dominate the globe: vocalist/synthist/co-writer/geek Mark Mothersbaugh, vocalist/bassist/co-writer/wise-ass Gerald "Jerry" Casale, guitarist Bob Mothersbaugh ("Bob1"), guitarist/occasional key-toucher Bob Casale ("Bob2") and drummer Alan Meyers.
Before long, they captivated the New York scene and the -sters within. Famed names lined up to suck their dicks, but only one could stay on for any appreciable amount of time. Recording with Brian Eno in Cologne, Germany in late 1977, Devo very quickly rejected nearly every adventurous idea their legendary producer offered up and decided to commit the songs to tape as faithful to their original demo forms as possible.
Taking inspiration from a picture of golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez (with further impetus to avoid a lawsuit by morphing the image into something resembling the Hispanic cousin of Lyndon Johnson), Devo's prom picture is unnerving and irresistible. It is an immaculate indicator of the music to be found past the packaging.
Status as a watershed for rock music that stretched the brain and balls notwithstanding, it would take 19 years for Are We Not Men to reach gold status in the U.S.
"Uncontrollable Urge"--Devo has an image for every album. For their first time out, the iconic hazmat suits. Well done; a positive first visual impression is crucial. Moreso, however, the sonic impression. To this end, the Mark-penned "Uncontrollable Urge" is tattoo-esque. Listeners should take some Q-10 before hearing this one, because you're gonna wanna dance and you may as well boost your metabolism to the maximum rate.
There aren't very many aural similarities between Devo and their fellow freaks to the South, but one thing I've noticed over and over that the bands do share is the desire to get the most outlandish, weeping-wall sounds from keyboards, organs and synthesizers possible. Along goes the song and then, oh shit, your foot just went through the floorboard. Now it's stuck in lava. How did lava get under the house? Your house is on top of a volcano.
While flying the multi-vox flag was a common trick for the airborne B's, "Uncontrollable Urge" features a very rare Mark/Gerald/Bob1 arrangement, with the latter two just averring what their partner-in-crime is telling us with a minimum of enunciation. The ballyhooed call-response section is overrated, and best enjoyed live, when the four non-seated members of Devo converge at the center of the stage and "dance." The accentuation and augmentation of the word "yeah" in all our history is a properly depressing reality to endure.
"(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"--Legendary cover of an all-timer. It even made Jagger dance. 'Course he woulda had to have been a bitter bastard to snarl at Jerry's bubble-butt bass or Alan hitting lily pads or most of all Mark's legless somersaults. Repetition as road to satiety.
"Praying Hands"--Take that, religion! Oh yes, kids, the God squad have been a popular target for the contrary at heart since Judas stuck Christ with the ultimate tab. The least anyone do while in the act of rebelling is be creative and interesting and Devo pretty much had no choice to be otherwise, being all young dumb and death to the humdrum.
Religious faith as a sufficient substitute for self-flagellation, that's a hard sell. Even for Mark, it seems, 'cause he never enunciates the word "diddling." The right hand is what? Shame pervades!
"Space Junk"--Jerry has no such issues in front of the mic. Or behind it. He even says "Tex-ass" and "Kans-ass" to remind everyone that he's a whip-smart, mega-conscious, line-steppin' young fella, but he's still young, after all. Scatological puerility shares shelf space with the erudite evolutionary ethos and neither shall collect dust.
The story is simple enough: girl walks down an alley, gets brained by felled satellite. Turns out earthlings are getting bashed left and right by this wayward space junk. Forget the National Guard, capital punishment, or military enlistment--this is how the government takes its citizens out.
"Mongoloid"--Devo's first single, written solely by Jerry, who handles the vox alongside the nasally Bob1. (Who also blessed "Space Junk.") The very title is now an anachronism, a reminder of bygone days when mental deficiencies were grudgingly acknowledged by polite society, who really were not very kind towards the afflicted at all.
The protagonist is de-evolution in action. He is dressed like a normal everyday man of business, has a nice home for his nice wife and children whom he supports with a nice job, but the guy is an actual idiot. Empirical fact! Yet...no one knows, or even cares. The mongoloid has assimilated nicely into his suburb, his society. What a nice, gentle, contented man. Wouldn't we all like to be like him.
If it seems like the pretzel plot of a black-and-white horror show, the tune itself won't disabuse you of the notion. That Minimoog is gazpacho status. Best served bleeding ice cold into the vocals with thickly-sliced snare blasts for further flavor.
"Jocko Homo"--Monkey one monkey two, we do how monkeys do. In good ol' 7/8 time, the true and actual "Devo Anthem." Inspired by BH Shadduck's anti-evolutionary tract "Jocko Homo Heavenbound" (which you can read here if you really have the time) this song is the crystallization of Devo's raison d'etre. Professor Mark runs a very interactive class, so be ready.
Simian drugs, simian drugs. "The poot" is the worst name for a dance ever.
"Too Much Paranoias"--Weakest song on the entire album, but instead of just leaving it at that, I'll boss up and tell you why I think so.
I admit freely, that smear of a guitar riff is amazing in the way a cat showing its teeth before it attacks an obnoxious child is amazing. You can't listen to or watch it just once. It creates a warm feeling of justice in the pit of the gut. Nasty justice. Tarpit-slick justice.
But, lyrics that quote the Big Mac song win no points in my scoring system. Not to mention when Mark sings the title, it sounds like the chorus to "Viva Las Vegas."
"Gut Feeling/Slap Yer Mammy"--A medley, in the way that mixing melted cheese in with yer mashed potatos is a medley. "Gut Feeling" builds tension with hands shaky from non-prayer, but the prevailing mood is a brutal wind that leaves the heart in the throat. Until verse two, when everything goes askew. "Tongs of love"? How is that an actual thing that was ever said?
The "Slap Yer Mammy" portion of the program is like most of the sex had in the world: raucous and inconsequential.
"Come Back Jonee"--Just a couple years shy of Ronald Reagan's ascension to the highest office in the United States, Devo long for the 1960s, namely the man that America rallied behind as the best of themselves, the handsome young New Englander John F. Kennedy. Privileged, poised, charismatic and fantastically horny (mind you, his chronic back problems meant that he was hardly the most active sex partner), he was a beacon of hope and portal to prosperity.
Then he was murdered. 'Cause only world leaders of true genius think riding in a parade car with the top down is okey-dokey. Still, Devo long for those days. When the President was sexy and being a hippie didn't seem utterly laughable; the days when you and your friends could gather in peaceful protest and not have to worry about taking a bullet in the back. Sonically, they hearken back even further. This is pure cowboy rollicker, pistols at dawn and saloon doors. It all seems so long ago.
"Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin')"--Written with Akron buddy Gary Jackett, this is an insipid yet intermittently entertaining "baby" song. How fucked up does a guy have to be to think he "missed the hole"?
"Shrivel Up"--The most well-constructed song on the album wraps it all up with a plastic prettiness. The bounce is ominous, the alien signal is cryptic, and the spidery guit-fiddle spreads its web in a second flat.
The American worker has rules to abide by: God, family, fast food, corporate America, trends, friends, slogans, logos. Even Devo is this. We are all Devo. If this strikes some people as contradictory and contrarian, limited and limiting, well, "It's at the top of the list/That you can't get pissed." But rules get broken as umbrage is taken.
Jerry delivers this all quite carefree, whimsical voice calling forth from a thin mouth turned up in an empty smile. We're all going to hell, who gives a shit?
Old age will shrivel us all up, exorbitantly-priced desperation tactics aside, but its worse for your soul to beat your body to the punch. Which is the punch line of this song. Get in line, Punch in, punch out.
The B-52's do not have a message for you. If the world really is going to shit, if people really are doomed to get dumber and uglier and fatter and more insensitive, then just try to slow down the regression. Dress up. Dance. Party. Get together with your friends and be happy. Bliss isn't ignorance just because you put the world aside for awhile.
Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson, Keith Strickland, Ricky Wilson and his little sister Cindy Wilson bonded at some Athens Chinese restaurant over a shared mixed drink called a "Flaming Volcano." Jam sessions proved funky and fortuitous, and the B-52's played their first gig at a Valentines Day party in 1977. (So if you think that particular day is just some hokey Hallmark holiday designed to sell more crap and drive lonely people to messy suicide, just think of it as celebrating the first ever live show of a legendary racket-gang. Works for me!) Flamboyant and proud, their entire aesthetic was and ever is a beautiful mess. Like Devo, they visited NYC, blew off heads, and Warner Bros. musta thought they made quite the kitschy coup by scooping up these wigged-out weirdos.
They had no idea.
"Planet Claire"--A Peter Gunn-inspired number that would inspire a like-named rock musical about the B's that debuted in 2002 at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre in the city of Frederick. As introductions go, only "Hello I have money for you" can top it. Or maybe, "I know where you can go and get a pretzel shaped like Snoopy."
Interplanetary communicative transit translated by stentorian yet still silly Fred Schneider. The man has a few "Wow, he just recited this word/line the absolute greatest way anyone could ever recite it" on this album, indeed across the band's oeuvre, and his enraged "WELL SHE ISN'T!" is one of them, if not the one. Good gravy on yer honey biscuits.
"52 Girls"--Conclusive documentation of ball lightning.
Who snatches the show? Probably Ricky. With the five strings of his blue Mosrite tuned to EADxBB, the band's resident reticent visionary conjured up one of my favorite-ever guitar parts. It obeys no speed limits or any other street signs, forgot to shave this morning, had coffee for breakfast and coffee for lunch. Donuts for dinner.
But maybe it's Kate and Cindy? Harmonies clashing so brazenly one crackerjack voice melts into the other, rendering most of the words incomprehensible. In the end, "52 Girls" is less about the names or numbers (they only mention 25 girls, incidentally) and more about that indescribable feeling.
Also, how ineffably cool when they sing their own names in the song. Remember "Chantilly Lace," when dude introduces himself to the girl on the phone with "This is the Big Bopper speakin'!" ? Something about referencing yourself--even if its your artistic alias--in a rock song is so great to me.
Or maybe it's not this version at all, maybe it's the original cut in 1978 as to the B-side to the original "Rock Lobster." Performed faster, and in a higher key, thus the lyrics are much clearer. You ain't missin' any vacuous edicts to drink your Ovaltine or anything, but it's still a fascinating listen.
"Dance This Mess Around"--More Martian Morse code. Lights gone all blue, and dimmed at that. I can barely see the decor to pass judgment!
Fred Schroeder, I mean Schneider, busts out the toy piano for some further ambience, and finally a mean green shines down on Cindy.
The B's penchant for songs that sound like a Captain Beefheart cover band at a beach blowout invaded by little green people just as the dance contest is about to start glows here. Ricky was like a guitar-wielding robot programmed to play the best possible parts at the best possible times, not a note too much, not a second too late. Code: CFxxFF. That acknowledged, this song belongs to his baby sister. When Cindy completes her semi-sultry lamentation of love leaking vital fluid, the boisterous blonde (or whatever wig she had on) waits for her big bro to prepare the piqued crowd with a wicked smirk that says "Oh you have no idea what you're in for."
"WHY DON'T YOU DANCE WITH ME?! I'M NOT NO LIMBURGER!"
(For the first few years of my fandom, I heard this line as "I'm not no limber girl," which confused me, 'cause uh honey, I think that kinda answers yer question.)
Fred and Kate join in as the dance contest is suddenly back on, this time with the little greenies on the judging panel. Fred mentions "all 16 dances," but again, who's counting? Me. And they only mention nine. That leaves seven unidentified. So I have decided to fill in the gaps by naming them all after me and my six siblings. How does one do the Jenny Lee? Oh wouldn't you love to know. I personally want to know the moves behind the Aqua Velva or the Shy Tuna.
"It's time to do 'em right!"
Damn, there's Fred again barking at us, 'cause apparently quite a few partygoers screw these dances up more often than not, then again you see how frequently white folks futz up the Running Man, what hope can there truly be.
"Rock Lobster"--Seven psychotic minutes (at 180 bpm!) guaranteed to separate your party into two distinct groups: the cool and the frigid. Enter the Ricky Robot Code CFxxFF and watch the room divide.
"Rock Lobster" is a legendary song whether you like it or not--the song or the status--and it proves the rule of "the dumbest and/or least demanding work of an artist will invariably be their most popular." So it was that a gleeful Ricky Wilson explained his mood to Keith Strickland with the fateful words, "I've just written the stupidest guitar line you've ever heard." Splash on--don't just sprinkle--maniacal keys, the blatant Yoko-lations of Kate and Cindy, Fred's demented storytelling and you got pure beach blanket bombast that sure beats a bomb blast. Leave that to them other B-52's.
The final two minutes of this virtually-illegal song are beyond the pale. I am appalled at how fucking well it holds up after 30-plus years. Ricky revs it up, the girls decide their throats are now the enemy and the larynx must die, and what the lobster dip is now in the air on the floor and you know what if there's still chips left in the bag...smash 'em! AHAHAHAHAHAHA! This is the best thing I've ever let myself listen to, you can't possibly improve on this, wow I--
Ahhhhhhh! He did it again! I'm hungry! We gotta glue the chips back together!
Henry Rollins once called Fred's exhortation one of the greatest moments in rock music, and dude was not being facetious, nor was he lying, thereby trying to turn you into him. It, and the entire song, is for the ages.
"Lava"--It's west of Java. But I'm sure you know that by now. Also, humans do not use only 10% of their brain. That's an urban legend. Just thought I'd throw that in there while debunking is happening.
Fuck the lyrics, the guitars alone are a sex metaphor. Pour it on me, thick and gleaming.
Why does Fred pronounce lava two different ways? Mysteries of history.
"There's a Moon In the Sky (Called the Moon)"--Earth is so special. Other planets moons have names, like Jupiter's Io and Saturn's Rhea--but our moon is THE MOON. If I get a dog I'm going to name him or her "The Dog." I understand that's a lot of pressure for one animal to deal with, but I want it to grow up feeling unique and confident in its exquisite exclusivity.
The B-52's sure wear those shoes well. They skip craters along the rivers of Mars. They name all the other planets! There's a triumphant "one of us" attitude that's very sincere and caring, like all the freaks are welcome. Gay subtext? Possibly.
"Hero Worship"--Lyrics by band buddy Robert Waldrop for Cindy to tear into her all by her lonesome. Let go of her hand Mama, your girl does just fine.
Okay, now that the mother's gone...this song is about blowjobs, right? "Jerking motions won't revive him/Mouth to mouth resuscitation." Yeah? I mean Cindy for all her ass-smackin' kinda treats syllables like she's molasses and they're popcorn and it's time to make the balls. Oh God I didn't even intend that pun.
"God give me his soul."
"I hero worship/He deserves it/I preserve it!"
I'm kinda scared still, in a way I never was as an innocent chubby-cheeked li'l lassie, so I'll just conclude this by saying "Hero Worship" has the best guitar tone and structure on the album. Bye now.
"6060-842"--Actually, this may have been the stupidest riff Ricky Wilson ever came up with. And guess what, it's also golden. Stay playboy.
Predates 867-5309, with less Jenny and more Tina. It takes all three vocalists to tell the riveting tale of a number written on the bathroom wall. Kids these days don't know not thing one about the time before smartphones. Can you imagine not having all the goddamn answers and options easily accessible, and having to wonder about things, and use your ingenuity? Do they know about the apoplexy one feels in the face of a heartless operator? We coulda had something special! Alas.
"Downtown"--Jus' like Devo, the B's cover a well-worn tune but nowhere near as spectacularly. Cindy sounds a bit English here, and not the refined accent either. It sounds like a house band playing the customers out of the club as the place shutters up. Compared to the vital original material before it, "Downtown" is imminently skippable.