Real Life Rock (10/23/78)

What with Howard Cosell solemnly intoning Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” as Muhammad Ali bumped Leon Spinks into immortality–immortality in the Where-Are-They-Now books–the fall season is shaping up nicely: not the TV season, but the rock season. The Cars, a new Boston band whose slogan, “Top-down music in a hard-top world,” describes their smart, Anglicized sound well enough, have gotten a grip on both the LP and singles charts; Johnny Rotten’s lately formed group, Public Image, should have its first 45 out as I write; Bob Dylan himself will be charging all over the West in November, trying to convince people Street-Legal was a good idea–classic segue for DJs, courtesy of KSAN’s Ben Fong-Torres: Street-Legal’s “Baby Stop Crying” into Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To”–and if Street-Legal wasn’t a good idea, the tour certainly is.

The kicker, however, comes from deep left field–Ohio, to be precise. Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (Warner Bros.) is one of the most exhilarating, not to mention one of the funniest, debut albums in years: a tour de force of Heartland strangeness that moves like pure pop music.

An uncompromising but masterfully accessible record is not at all what might have been expected from Devo, an Ak­ron quintet, now living in Los Angeles, that performs as a harbinger of a bad-dream future: Two extremely self-conscious Born-to-Be-Weird singles, issued independently earlier this year, suggested the group was headed straight for the nether regions of the American New Wave, where it would join even more self-conscious bands (such as San Fran­cisco’s arty Residents) in bug-eyed oblivion. Instead, guided by producer Eno, the fair-haired boy of the British pop avant-garde, Devo took off for Germany, and returned with a set of hilarious, tightly written songs about masturbation (“Assume the position!” cries a voice; “Get spiritual-minded!” replies a second), mongoloids mixing easily with everyone else, the discomforts of cunnilingus, an uncontrollable urge (“It’s got style it’s got class”), an inability to find one’s girlfriend’s vagina, and general urban disorientation. The result is something like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis as scored by Jan and Dean.

Dressed in industrial jumpsuits and wearing plasticine face guards (or nylon stocking masks), Devo is antiromantic to the point of being antisex: Take Devo’s songs seriously, and they come off as addled prophecies of the void. The members of Devo look like nothing so much as happy dada converts intent on turning one of Akron’s famous tire factories into a funhouse from which none who enter will ever return. But the blatant, madly uncool whiteness of Devo’s whole aesthetic recalls nothing so much as the Swingin’ Medallions, who briefly emerged from some forgotten Southern fraternity to slobber “Double Shot of My Baby’s Love” all over the country in 1966–and to take that sort of thing seriously, you have to work for Com­mentary.

It may be that Devo’s music is too much fun to take seriously. Expert, refined, it’s also utterly infectious. Before it explodes into postcoital angst, “Gut Feeling” is as lovely a piece of instrumental rock as the Chantays’ “Pipeline,” and a lot more exciting; the dynamics of “Uncontrollable Urge” bounce off those of the early Who.

Devo is crossing trails cut by a disparate bunch: Tommy James and the Shon­dells, the Trashmen (surely you remember “Surfin’ Bird”; Devo certainly does), English punk bands (the guitar hook of Devo’s “Sloppy [I Saw My Baby Gettin'” is a perfect cop from the Buzzcocks’ seminal “Boredom”) and Germany’s Kraft­werk. But the combination of Old World jadedness and New World ir­repressibility sounds completely new in Devo’s hands–and the confused, magnificently pissed-off tone of the lead singer’s voice could only be American. Best of all, despite its manic doom-saying, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo! betrays not a hint of smugness. Buy it today and be the first on your block to be asked to turn it down.

Over the last months, Gusto Records of Nashville has put out a remarkable series of reissues consisting of fifties rhythm & blues that originally appeared on the King and Federal labels of Cincinnati. There are albums by Hank Bal­lard and the Midnighters, Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson, the Five Royales, the Five Keys and others, but the most entrancing is The Dominoes Featuring Clyde McPhatter (King). The Dominoes were one of the founding black vocal groups, best known for their widely banned “Sixty Minute Man”; McPhatter, who later went on to form the Drifters, joined the Dominoes as lead tenor in 1950. He was seventeen.

McPhatter died in obscurity in 1972; on these first recordings, he sings like an angel. His voice sweeps, moans, caresses melodies no one ever detected in the songs he made over. As Bill Millar writes in his book The Drifters, “It was difficult to believe some of the standards he recorded had an existence independent of him.” All at once, McPhatter went back to the terrifying gospel of Blind Willie Johnson, and forward to the eroticism of Elvis Presley, whose debt to McPhatter was explicit–but what was at stake in this teenager’s music was less a range of styles than an extraordinary range of feeling. The very first word of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” is broken into four, perhaps five, long, lingering syllables: Each one, in its way, becomes a different statement about loss, uncertainty, despair or desire. “Deep Sea Blues” is truly sung from the bottom; “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano” is a quiet, calming, almost unbearably lovely rendition of the end of the world.

The delicate beauty of such music–which is only hinted at in later masterpieces like the Penguins’ “Earth Angel” or the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night”–was something the black vocal groups unfortunately lost very quickly once rock ‘n’ roll arrived to spark the pace of the fifties; the commitment to emotional nuance could not adjust to a hard beat, and it would be years before singers like Sam Cooke came along to solve the problem. More than a quarter century after its time, the old sound cuts through the air like a visitation from another world.

Real Life Rock Top Ten

  1. Jimmy Cliff, Give Thanks (Warner Bros.)
  2. Sammy Hagar, “I’ve Done Everything for You,” from All Night Long (Capitol)
  3. The Cars (Elektra)
  4. The Clash, “(White Man) in Ham­mersmith Palais” (CBS import)
  5. The Five Keys (King)
  6. Bryan Ferry, The Bride Stripped Bare (Atlantic)
  7. Buzzcocks, Another Music in a Different Kitchen (UA import)
  8. The Steve Gibbons Band, “No Spit­ting on the Bus,” from Down in the Bunker (Polydor)
  9. Denise La Salle, Under the Influence (ABC)
  10. Linda Ronstadt, “Mohammed’s Ra­dio,” from Living in the U.S.A. (Asylum)

New West, October 23, 1978


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