Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Devo: I Can't Get Me No

Devo left their footprints through an awful lot of Seventies and Eighties culture, probably more than you realize, with ties to Neil Young, the Pretenders, Square Pegs, Pee Wee Herman, the Kent State massacre, even the great Toni Basil. They made an early appearance on Saturday Night Live, reinforcing that show’s reputation as a supporter of the avant-garde even while, half the time, they were still inviting musical acts like Meat Loaf and Judy Collins. (Fred Willard was the host.)

I remember watching this live as a wee tot, although I don’t remember my reaction (I probably hated it). It’s pretty amazing, though, isn’t it? I’m a little surprised that they came out with three guitars and a bass, since Devo was promulgating what would evolve into New Wave synth-pop. The bassist is real good, too. 

Devo's label wanted to get the Stones' blessing before they released this, so Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale found themselves sitting down one afternoon with Mick Jagger himself. The New Yorker picks up the story:

As the sounds of the cover filled the room, Jagger sat stone-faced.... “He was just looking down at the floor swirling his glass of red wine,” Casale recently remembered, adding, “He didn’t even have shoes on, just socks and some velour pants [! - ed.]. I don’t know what his habits were then, but this was early afternoon and it looked like he had just gotten up.”

For thirty seconds or so, the men sat in silence, listening to the weird robo-funk coming from the boom box. Then something changed. “He suddenly stood up and started dancing around on this Afghan rug in front of the fireplace,” Casale said, of Jagger, “the sort of rooster-man dance he used to do, and saying”—he impersonated Jagger’s accent—“‘I like it, I like it.’ Mark and I lit up, big smiles on our faces, like in ‘Wayne’s World’: ‘We’re not worthy!’ To see your icon that you grew up admiring, that you had seen in concert, dancing around like Mick Jagger being Mick Jagger. It was unbelievable.”

Let’s take it from the top: Devo was formed in Akron, Ohio, by the Mothersbaugh and Casale brothers, along with a drummer who would later be replaced by the great Alan Myers. Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh had been students at Kent State in 1970 when four protesters were murdered by the National Guard, one of them being Casale’s friend Jeffrey Miller. That helped inspire the concept of de-evolution, which would eventually give the band its name. Chrissie Hynde was there, too, and played in a band with Mark Mothersbaugh before Devo got off the ground.

After seeing the band’s short 1976 film The Truth About De-Evolution, David Bowie lobbied his label to sign them. The uniforms they wore in the film came from Gerald Casale's day job doing graphic design for a janitorial supply company. Neil Young recruited them to appear as nuclear garbagemen in his film Human Highway, which Mark Mothersbaugh ended up scoring. Gerald Casale and Toni Basil began dating, and Devo backed her up on her debut album Word of Mouth (which actually post-dated “Mickey”), including three Devo covers.

Devo itself finally landed on the pop charts with the MTV fave “Whip It,” which went to Number Fourteen on the Billboard pop charts in 1980. In 1982, they played at Muffy’s bat mitzvah on Square Pegs. I seem to remember a character on that show wearing plastic Devo hair, but can't find any references or pictures thereof. A little help?

Unfortunately, that’s about all there is to the Devo story. Mark Mothersbaugh went on to produce the music for Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and turned into a highly successful TV composer, but “Whip It” would be their only Top Forty hit. Their theme for Doctor Detroit peaked at No. 59 in 1983, and they never even made the Hot 100 after that.

The Matched Set It’s gotta be Kraftwerk, right? We’re going to deal with Kraftwerk a little later on, but like Devo, they were as much an art project, deconstructing pop music, as they were a band. They were also a little shy on the hits, with just “Autobahn” squeaking into the Top Forty.

The Verdict I want to like Devo more than I do. “Satisfaction” is brilliant, “Whip It” remains a terrific single, and their commitment to the whole art-project concept is admirable, especially since it’s a really cool concept. Their only problem is the music – aside from those two singles, there isn’t anything in the Devo catalog that I actively like, and a lot of it, like “Through Being Cool” and “Freedom of Choice,” is pretty bad. I suppose I could be convinced otherwise, but for now, I’m voting No on Devo.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Stevie Nicks: Just Like the White-Winged Dove

Everybody loves Stevie Nicks’ songs: “Rhiannon,” “Sara,” “Landslide,” “Dreams.” Too bad we’re not supposed to consider any of those records here, because they were all Fleetwood Mac songs, and Fleetwood Mac was inducted into the Hall of Fame back in 1998. We’re here to deal only with solo Stevie, which means “Stand Back,” “Talk to Me,” “Edge of Seventeen.”

Stevie was also a great duet partner back in the day (which was evident from her Mac work as well): “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” with Tom Petty, “Leather and Lace” with Don Henley, “Whenever I Call You Friend” with Kenny Loggins. That stuff, she’ll get credit for here. But when it comes right down to it, there are really only two strong points in Stevie’s favor: The whole Welsh Witch persona, and “Edge of Seventeen.”

The shawls ‘n’ twirls Stevie has arguably already been inducted; she was doing that crap as far back as “Rhiannon,” from 1976, with Fleetwood Mac. Let’s not kid ourselves that it’s not a huge factor in her mystique, and therefore in her iconic brand of stardom. My feeling is that you absolutely should take that kind of stuff into account. Would Kiss have made it in without the makeup?

Since it’s already been recognized, though, I don’t really feel the need to recognize it again. It’s a little weird to ascribe her personality to her group’s candidacy but not to her solo career, but here we are. Opinions may differ.

Stevie’s other real talking point is “Edge of Seventeen,” which wasn’t her biggest solo hit (it only went to No. 11 back in 1982) but certainly has had the longest shelf life. I saw Stevie at Red Rocks about ten years ago, and “Edge” got possibly the biggest response from the audience (with the chainsaw riff being played by the man who played it on the original single, Waddy Wachtel). The title comes from Tom Petty's wife Jane, who told Stevie she had met Petty "at the age of seventeen," but her strong Southern accent turned it into "edge."

Of course that riff showed up again on “Bootylicious,” Destiny’s Child’s Number One single from 2001. Stevie appeared in the video but had nothing to do with the recording of the song, aside from the sampling, but it’s a killer record. To my mind, though, the rest of Stevie’s solo career doesn’t add up to much.

Fun fact: Did you know that Stevie Nicks considered Joe Walsh to be the one true love of her life? That’s a bit icky, ain’t it? Joe Walsh doesn't come across as the kind of guy who bathes very often.

The Matched Set Don Henley was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as part of Eagles, also in 1998. It’s largely forgotten now, but Henley had a substantive solo career, placing nine singles in the Top Forty between 1982 and 1990. (He and Stevie get shared custody of “Leather and Lace.”) “The Boys of Summer” is still kind of an Eighties touchstone, for good or ill.

But does anyone think that Don Henley should be inducted as a solo artist? I don’t think so.

The Verdict Everybody loves Stevie Nicks, who has evolved from the ethereal spirit of the 1970s to that supercool aunt that your parents kinda wish you wouldn’t talk to. Shoot, I love Stevie Nicks, too. If she hadn’t already been inducted with Fleetwood Mac, and we could consider her body of Mac-work in the current decision, I’d be inclined to vote for her. But her solo career is really thin. I vote no on Stevie Nicks.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Radiohead: This Is What You'll Get When You Mess With Us

Let’s face it, Radiohead should have gone in last year, on their first nomination to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and it’s absurd that we have to consider them again. Leaving them out of the Hall of Fame is like leaving the Kinks out, or Neil Young, or the Go-Go’s. Wait, the Go-Go’s aren’t in?

Radiohead is as important to contemporary rock music as Buddy Holly was to his generation, seeing things in the music that other people hadn’t come across but that would soon become obvious and greatly desired by all. In the early 1990s, they mastered pop music with songs like “Creep” and “Fake Plastic Trees,” and then they decided that wasn’t good enough, so they tore the whole thing up and reinvented it, and sounded better than ever.

The only knock against Radiohead is their relative lack of chart success. They only had two top Forty hits in the U.S.: “Creep,” which went to No. 34 in 1992, and “Nude,” which went to No. 37 in 2008. They did have several hits on the U.S. alternative charts, for whatever that's worth, and they were much bigger in the U.K., where all three of the brilliant singles from OK Computer, “Paranoid Android,” “Karma Police” and “No Surprises,” made the Top Ten.

They don’t need the credit for that, though. Jimi Hendrix had one Top Forty hit. Carl Perkins had one Top Forty hit. If you’re as important and as good as Radiohead, chart success is a bonus, not a central qualification.

Hey, here's one more awesome thing about Radiohead: Their lyrics. They're not exactly Dylanesque streams of stanzas, but more aphoristic and incantatory, in a way that other bands couldn't even attempt. Thom Yorke will find a line he likes, then chew it around until it loses all meaning and becomes something completely different. What I most like about Radiohead's lyrics is that they're formed distinctively and unmistakably like Radiohead lyrics, and you know exactly what I mean by that. 

Take a look at the rhymeless, repetitive, yet haunting lyrics to "Karma Police" 

Karma police
Arrest this man
He talks in maths
He buzzes like a fridge
He's like a detuned radio
Karma police
Arrest this girl
Her Hitler hairdo
Is making me feel ill
And we have crashed her party
This is what you'll get
This is what you'll get
This is what you'll get
When you mess with us
Karma police
I've given all I can
It's not enough
I've given all I can
But we're still on the payroll
This is what you'll get
This is what you'll get
This is what you'll get
When you mess with us
For a minute there
I lost myself, I lost myself
Phew, for a minute there
I lost myself, I lost myself
For a minute there
I lost myself, I lost myself
Phew, for a minute there
I lost myself, I lost myself

The Matched Set I’ve been listening to a lot of Bee Gees lately, from their early days, which span roughly from “New York Mining Disaster,” in 1967, to “Love So Right,” from 1976. After that, of course, Saturday Night Fever happened, the Bee Gees became briefly the biggest stars in the world, with six Number One hits from 1977 to 1979. When people think of the Bee Gees these days, they think of the late-70s, “Stayin’ Alive” era band.

But the music they made before disco blew up was already worthy of the Hall of Fame, a collection of gorgeous, delicate Beatlesque pop that kept them on the charts for the better part of a decade. (Some of the Saturday Night Fever music, like “You Should Be Dancing” and “How Deep Is Your Love,” had actually been released on prior Bee Gees albums.)

Anyway, I think Radiohead suffers from a little bit of the same phenomenon. OK Computer was regarded as such a revolutionary achievement, from the moment it came out, that it overshadowed what they had already done. The Bends is arguably their best album! “High and Dry”! “My Iron Lung”! They made this ridiculously good guitar album, one that would be a career capper for most bands, then they tore up the blueprints and started over again.

Unlike the Bee Gees, Radiohead didn’t have enough material in the can before the career-altering event, but man, were they awesome already. They were one of the world's best guitar bands, then they became the absolute best deconstruction whatever-you-want-to-call-it band. They didn’t need to turn the world upside-down to become one of rock's most important acts, but they did it anyway.

The Verdict I heard of a couple of voters who passed over Radiohead last year so they could vote for Sister Rosetta Tharpe, assuming that Radiohead’s induction was a foregone conclusion. Fellas, in a world where Deep Purple and ELO are considered worthy, Radiohead is not obvious to everyone. Let’s not make that mistake again. I'm voting Yes for Radiohead.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Def Leppard: Look What You've Done to This Rock and Roll Clown

There was a cover story in Rolling Stone about Def Leppard fairly late in the band’s career, when they were down to a collective total of nine arms, that ended on a scene of the band trying to jam together, and failing miserably. They eventually admitted to the writer (the great David Fricke) that if they ever showed up at a bar and tried to take the stage, the only thing they’d be able to play is Def Leppard songs. Maybe. 

That says a lot about Def Leppard’s music, which is often characterized as heavy metal, because of the power chords and the shaggy British hair and the name consciously evoking Led Zeppelin, but to my ears, it's much closer to high-gloss pop. It’s a studio construction, a la Ace of Base, much more than it’s like Motorhead. Pyromania and Hysteria were both recorded by each member individually, with none of them playing together as a band, and that's how they sound to me. That's not very metal.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with that - I much prefer well-constructed pop. But I think it’s the reason why Def Leppard has been characterized as the heavy metal band that girls like (a formulation I believe I first heard from my friend Gavin Edwards). It’s because they were focused so much on creating radio-friendly singles, and because they lacked the misogynistic vibe that so much metal traffics in. And it worked, because they ruled the charts in the MTV era, putting nine singles in the pop Top 30 during the 1980s.

That’s a strong factor in their favor. Also, there’s the fact that “Photograph,” which put them on the map, was really great, a McCartneyesque construction crammed with hooks and gorgeous harmonies, crunched out with those ‘80s guitars. “Photograph” was the band’s first Top Forty hit, in 1982, and they seemed to spend the rest of the decade trying to remake it.

The follow-ups were close enough to the archetype to reach the charts, but I don’t know that very many people are listening to “Rocket” or “Animal” these days. “Pour Some Sugar on Me” seems to be their most enduring non-“Photograph” hit, but points off for stealing its trope from an Archies song.

Def Leppard had a very strong cultural impact in those early days of MTV, with videos in constant rotation and a crossover appeal to the teenage girls of the era. I don’t discount that at all, and I think it’s the best reason to vote for them. But I look at their cultural impact since then, and I just don’t see it. They got outflanked on one side by Guns n’ Roses and on the other side by Radiohead, and by the early ‘90s, there weren’t a whole lot of bands cranking out radio-ready processed metal, vying to be the next Def Leppard.

The Matched Set I liken Def Leppard to Duran Duran, another MTV-ready band churning out pop hits from underneath carefully chosen haircuts. “Rio,” like ‘Photograph,” still sounds great if you come across it on the car radio, but the other hits have a lot less impact, and they didn’t leave a lot of footprints. Also, girls love Duran Duran.

Duran Duran has never even been nominated for the Hall of Fame, near as I can tell, despite a dozen Top Forty hits in the '80s, even more than Def Leppard had. Their image is that of a lightweight, photogenic pop band, and that’s the same bucket I’d put Def Leppard into.

The Verdict Let’s face it, Def Leppard is going in. They were to the ’80s what artists like Chicago and the Steve Miller Band were to the ‘70s, and those acts were voted in to the Hall of Fame fairly easily. 

But I’m just not feeling it. For all their chart success, I can’t say that I’ve go out of my way to listen to their music since "Photograph," was on the charts. I don’t see any bands that appear to have been strongly influenced by them, and that's important to me. Nothing against Def Leppard, but they haven’t earned my vote.