Friday, February 23, 2018

Waiting For The Divergent Wasp

Released just a few months after their astonishing debut,  Pink Flag, Wire's new single "I Am The Fly" sounded like nothing before it. Are those guitars? Well, of course they must be. But they sound like some kind of post-modern rhythmic metal machine bearing down on us all. The chorus, as Wilson Neale has written in his 331/3 contribution Pink Flag, has Colin Newman sounding like one of Dr Who's Daleks.

What is the song about? You might think it's a first person account of what it must be like to be a housefly (musca domestica):

I am the fly in the ointment 
I can spread more disease 
Than the fleas which nibble away 
At your window display

But remember: Wire is the smartest band of them all. The tune is actually about the demise of punk rock. And Wire plans to have a role in what comes next:

Yes, I am the fly in the ointment 
I shake you down to say please 
As you accept the next dose of disease

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Run For Cover, Girl

In February of 1977, The Vibrators released the single "Automatic Lover", their biggest UK hit. Peaking at #35, the song earned the band a TV appearance on the prime-time TV show Top of the Pops

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

In The Sodium Glare

On February 17, 1978 the Stiff Records artist Wreckless Eric released his fourth single, "Reconnez Cherie". The song, a remembrance of the romping days of an early love, ("Do you remember all those nights in my Zodiac playing with your dress underneath your pacamac?") would be the opening track to his self-titled debut album, a UK Top 50 hit. 40 years later, Wreckless Eric and wife Amy Rigby are recording and touring the USA and UK together.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Gotta Pooty Poo-Poo

In February of 1978 what sounded like a dream pairing of new wave art rockers Devo with producer Brian Eno was turning into a nightmare for the latter. Eno would later describe Devo as "anal", neutering almost every attempt to do anything other than replicate the demos. Eno described the situation to Andy Gill of Mojo

 ‘They were a terrifying group of people to work with because they were so unable to experiment . . . I’d be sitting there at the desk, and there are EQs, echo sends, all those kinds of things, and my hand would sort of sneak up to put a bit of a treatment on something, and I could feel Jerry Casale bristling behind me. It was awful! He would stand behind me all the time, then lean over and say, “Why are you doing that?” ’ 

You have to listen closely for Eno-isms on Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo!. The pinging sounds at the beginning of "Shrivel Up" and some of the effects on "Space Junk" made it past Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, who later admitted :

"In retrospect we were overly resistant to Eno’s ideas . . . I’d kind of like to hear what the album would have sounded like if we’d been more open to Eno’s suggestions. But in those days we thought we knew everything.’

For more on the sessions at Conny Plank studios in snowbound Germany, there's the following article, written by Jon Savage for Sounds Magazine.


 Devo: the phenomenon and where they're coming from. 

 The first thing you notice on arrival at Cologne Airport is the modernity and organisation. No baggage queues. No prefab ramshackle buildings. Instead you get sweeping architecture and lavish decoration: glass walls, marble, straight lines, expensive consumer items in glass display cages. If you're bored, you can find a chair with a small TV set on one arm: just insert pfennigs to watch.

 Cologne itself was largely flattened by Allied bombing in WWII. The reconstruction of the town around it results in grey, bland uniformity. Not depressing, just hardly there. Not dissimilar to Britain, except Germany seems further on down the Affluence Road: "A fake chandelier in every living room!"

 Conny's Studio is a converted Victorian farm on the outskirts of Wolperath, a small village thirty kilometres east-south-east of Cologne. It's high up and snow-bound: as a greeting, the weather turns and remains its coldest for many winters. The studio itself is a converted stable, its unpretentious façade hiding what would be one of the best computerised desks in the world. 

 Conny - Konrad Plank - has worked since the late '60s producing bands such as kraftwerk in their earlier days, Neu!, Cluster (with and without Eno), La Düsseldorf and Harmonia (Michael Rother and Cluster). His knowledge about this end of German music is virtually encyclopaedic. It was here that Eno mixed down four tracks of Before And After Science last summer: both are now working on Devo's first album. 

 Devo themselves are, to say the least, in an interesting position. No record contract, no production contract (as everyone is at pains to emphasise), no manager - Jerry Casale handles all that - and apparently little finance, yet they're in the middle of recording an album in an excellently equipped German Studio with Brian Eno producing and David Bowie expected to appear.

 Thus far, in the UK at any rate, Devo amounts to two 45s, occasional adulatory press, and a hefty cult. As for now, they're a media phenomenon, a gimmick almost, rather than a band. Sometimes too much press can be counterproductive, but these guys are totally ready for it, all the same. Jerry Casale (bass) and Mark Motherbaugh (synthesizer) have been working together for about five years, while the group as it is now - with Jim Mothersbaugh (guitar), Bob Casale (guitar) and Alan Myers (drums) - have been together for about eighteen months. Hardly overnight sensations.

 But there's a lot of pressure all at once. The pressures of moving out from Akron and Cleveland, Ohio, playing other American cities, emerging into the global spotlight as Bowie takes them under his wing. And apart from the simple acclimatisation from the USA - this being their first time in Europe - they're here working what amounts to twelve hours a day in freezing conditions. It's hardly the most relaxed situation. 

 So who are these people? Devo aren't exactly going to let it all out. This fits in with their chosen image: a corporate unit, with the individual members and their history unimportant - for instance, no pictures were to be taken of them without their Devo suits. It made sense: the strength of Devo as a phenomenon so far has been their consistent, brilliant presentation of the group as a total package: music, visuals, image, ideology, language, films - each referring to itself and each other.

 That said, it's possible to reveal that Devo are in fact human beings. Most communication is with Jerry or Mark, the others being friendly but low profile. Jerry is the principal organisational force - he's taken on the chores of a manager - while Mark could be the spark at the bottom, being responsible, if nothing else, for the pinhead routines and the synthesizer that's at the root of their sound. "It's one of Mark's specialities, projecting insanity."

 Both Jerry and Mark are creators of the band's visuals: familiar elements wrenched out of context, or once-used images re-presented in a different form. They've both been in contact, in various degrees, with the Image Bank, a Canadian art organisation which could be superficially described as working in similar areas. The band are very American, clever, and a paradoxical mixture of sophistication and naivety.

 In all this, the music is easily forgotten, but shouldn't be. Conny's Studio is the first time the band have been let loose on twenty-four tracks. The two singles were recorded on a four-track, Mongoloid on a Revox in their garage in December 1976. There was no heating: the weather was so cold that Mark played with his gloves on. It could be why it sounds slow.

 The 45s are being re-recorded for the album, and even in their unmixed state the versions are very different, Mongoloid for instance featuring a drum snap/slap nowhere to be found on the original. The album will probably contain twelve tracks, including stage favourites Uncontrollable Urge, Too Much Paranoias, and maybe Gut Feeling. Studio time is booked until early March, when the group plan to come to Britain to play a date at the Roundhouse on March 11.

 The studio process in itself is simply unglamorous and very hard work. The group had gone through the first flush of getting most of the basic tracks down, and were in the middle period of getting the tiny elements right, adding overdubs, before the final remixing could begin. This involves constant listening and re-listening, constant decisions as to the prominence the various elements are to take in the mix, quite apart from the choice of the elements themselves. 

 Eno's role as producer is that of intermediary between man and tape, an interpreter almost: with twenty-four tracks also, organisation is all important. It's a difficult task, to balance the almost scientific quality of running through a tape for the hundredth time with the feeling that must remain. So far the results were impressive... 

 The interview took place in between breakfast and lunch in the studio. It was the hardest I've ever done. I felt like the fly in the ointment rather than the fly on the wall. Barring Jerry, the group didn't want to talk in an interview situation, and the atmosphere of unwillingness and suspicion was strong. It was insisted that all the group were present, but unless stated, all Devo replies are by Jerry Casale.

 Can we start with why you came out to Germany to record? 

 "We were told to. We didn't know what we wanted. It was just as easy to be told where to come. It was through the Bowie connection, but we could go further than him, right now, if you know what I mean." 

 Can we talk about the production on the singles? 

 "It was a combination of our degree of organisation and the amount of money we had with what was available. So it represented really a random point in time. Mongoloid was recorded in December 1976, and Satisfaction in August/September 1977.

 I was puzzled by the cover art of [The Rolling Stones'] Satisfaction - no doubt the idea... 

 "Yes. It was a parody of slickness. Those glasses were 3D glasses. Just Hollywood. A parody of sexuality - plastic tits..." 

 So what's the situation now with your record contract?

 "Mmm. We don't want to go too far into it, but don't be surprised if you see a big WB on the album jacket." 

 There's that whole argument that when you enter the business you get sucked in by it...

 "I don't even think that's a question: you get sucked in. But if the choice is between being sucked in and not being sucked in, I'd rather be sucked... I really think that's up to us. That's what becomes the creative process at that point - the creative process then is so inexorably connected with business that it's impossible to separate them."

 Can you explain the idea of Devolution? 

 "Devolution's a big idea about the way things are. Everyone has a big idea about the way things are whether they admit it or not: a lot of people's ideas masquerade themselves as non-ideas, which we find the most dishonest. Devo just has the biggest, best and most interesting ideas about reality that allow people to discover things, which is exactly what other ideas don't allow. Other ideas begin by ignoring what's there so their idea doesn't account for the whole picture. It's like when people thought that the earth was at the centre of the universe, but the movement of certain planets didn't really match because their idea of what was happening was, at basis, wrong. And when the premise is wrong, everything else that follows is sick." 

 Do you feel that our culture is accelerating almost to the point of implosion? 

 "It's in the centre of the most highly industrialised part of the United States. It's hilly, grey, like culturally stripped. There's one thing different about Akron, though, and that's that it's safe. It made it really easy to just watch everything happening that was going on everywhere else but not really to be in it, but be aware of it. It wasn't so isolated that we didn't know what was happening."

 With Devolution, what you're saying is we've reached any limit of expansion? 

 "Right. The consumer attitude can only go so far. When you've eaten everything on the plate, what's next? Goo, Yeah - Evo/Devo, consume/shrivel up. The idea that people have of themselves and their purpose on the planet has got to change."

 Devo to me is an example of a strong undercurrent, a wish to express 1978 disorientation, to break down the way we think...

 "The breaking down musically has occurred - punk and Devo are here to mutate. Devo's just the clean-up squad of the '80s, the Smart Patrol." 

 When did you start playing outside of Akron and Cleveland? 

 "When they wouldn't let us play anymore. April 1977. We went to CBGB's in New York." 

 What was that like? 

 "Perfect. We got on stage at two o'clock in the morning" 

 Mark: "Got into a fight with The Dead Boys". 

 "The crowd loved it. It had nothing to do with music - it was the aliens against the spuds. The Dead boys attacked us onstage during Jocko Homo..." 

 You must have really gotten to them? 

 "Sure. They took it personally. 'If the spud fits, wear it.' And the crowd loved it... we continued to play all through the fight and ended up looking good. Mark offered himself up first, being in the front line."

 (Tape 2, with Jerry Casale the next day.) 

 What was involvement with Iggy? 

 "It was probably a superficial involvement. Iggy's always in a plane slightly obtuse to any kind of tangible relationship. He drifts in and out of focus." 

 Could you tell me more about the origin of Devo?

 "Devolution was a combination of a Wonder Woman comic book and the movie Island Of Lost Souls, the original, with Bela Lugosi, Charles Laughton. That was various things I'd been thinking about - devolution, of going ahead to go back, things falling apart, entropy. It grabbed every piece of information and gave it some kind of cohesive presence - it was a package. Just as our music and our identity exist as a technique rather than a style." 

 There seems to be a new way of approaching rock'n'roll: a few bands are emerging with their own ideology, package. 

 "Yeah. It's the next logical step. It will ensure the existence of vital rock'n'roll. If rock'n'roll is going to maintain its position, its purpose, then the emphasis has to switch, otherwise it'll become a vestigial organ, meaningless." 

 You're in an interesting position now. 

 "Yes. We're like stored energy about to become kinetic." 

 Devo appear sure they have the answer. They are impressive, and make good, clear-headed sense, although some of what they say isn't so omniscient as it seems, and veers on occasions towards sweeping generalisations. It could be the arrogance of pressure, paranoia, or everyone bidding for you on a world scale, or it could be merely to provoke, to polarise. It doesn't matter now. 

 The album so far signifies that Devo are putting their actions where there mouth is, and more. Like the film, the album is already shaping up as an attractive, yet disorientating mixture of the familiar and the cliché, mixed around and stripped to sound like nothing you've heard before: exactly right in its remoteness. They could be THE transitional band as records give way to video discs - they're already waiting...

Sunday, February 18, 2018

When They're Not Polite

On February 18, 1977 the new Talking Heads single, "Psycho Killer" entered the Billboard Hot 100 at #98. The song would peak at #92.  The acoustic version featuring Arthur Russell on cello was the original version, but band members convinced producers Tony Bongiovi and Lance Quinn to let them try a more rocking version. The result is the band's signature hit. 

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Lost On Some Horizon

On February 17, 1978 a teenage Kate Bush released her debut album, The Kick Inside. Kate Bush began writing songs when she was 10 or 11. Pink Floyd's David Gilmour discovered Bush who, at age 15, had already written the future UK#6 hit "Man With the Child in His Eyes". He put up the money for Bush to make a demo and passed a tape to EMI record execs.

The Kick Inside is the debut of a remarkable, other worldly performer with enormous talent, imagination and vocal range. She may, in fact, have been held back by studio musicians with backgrounds in respectable bands like Cockney Rebel and Alan Parson Project.  This has been quite the eye opener for me, having only owned Hounds of Love. I've had a nice time getting familiar with this album. 

From Creem Magazine:

Mary Hopkin meets Emily Bronte, Laura Nyro discovers reggae, Joan Armatrading masquerades as Joni Mitchell -- comparisons with other vocalists are inevitable, but Kate Bush won't be stuck with them for long. Bush is an original; she bends oblique imagery into harmony with frank questions, skitters in and out of character roles and often pairs a munchkin falsetto with charmingly shameless Iyrics.

The chorus of "Feel It" is more erotic than any of Rod Stewart's crude suggestions or Donna Summers' pathetic panting; the mounting tension and banshee vocal on "Wuthering Heights" is more effective than all those freaky teenage death-love songs of the '60s combined.

Kate's singing is decidedly delicately unsettling; her musicians are careful not to tromp their fullbodied arrangements over it. Sometimes her phrasing has the sophistication of a jazz singer's, her delivery joyfully percussive; sometimes Bush's childish enunciation slides into lullaby. She's artificially sweet and nearly punk with "James and the Cold Gun" elated but tremulous an "Kite." A misplaced accent or awkward line occasionally betray her control of her gifts, but they should disappear with time.

Bush's talent for soul-baring would be frightening were it not so ingenuous; she writes from a well of fantasy and feeling with a patina of experience, her concerns universal and womanly -- not the usual wilted kitten yearning or last-rave bathos. She embraces love, sex, creativity and freedom as experience, with all the emotional complications they entail and successfully pulls off a witchingly sly celebration of the menarche and women's intuition ("Strange Phenomena").

With a voice so eerie it's difficult to imagine Kate Bush as a popular taste but then she's already proved quite palatable in England. Sometimes strange is wonderful.

A review from Stereo Review that calls "Wuthering Heights" one of two clunkers on a pro-sex album :

A lot of people are not going to like what they hear Kate Bush saying in her new album THE KICK INSIDE, about being a woman in the Seventies. And perhaps even more are going to object to the way she says it, for in many of her songs she treads on a territory (sex-as-sex-as-sex) long held to be a male preserve. She does so with the same brisk authority and self-possession that has characterized at least some British women since the days of Emmeline Pankhurst, suffragist-extraordinaire, and for this reason she will surely offend a great many men.

But probably as many women will be equally upset by Kate Bush's candor and honesty, though for a much different reason, the gallingly accurate one given by Germaine Greer in her book "The Female Eunuch". Greer says that as far as women's rights and equality are concerned, they are an accomplished fact, that indeed for the last fifty years the cage has been open, but the bird has refused to fly out. Bush's frankness and sense of what a female friend of calls "gut nooky" will hardly endear her to those women who still cling to the perch while making complaining Tweetie-Pie denials of their own sexuality.

What is different, however, about Kate Bush -- and what makes her songs important -- is not agitprop but excellence. With such songs as "Room For The Life", "Feel It", or "L'Amour Looks Something Like You", listeners know that they are in the presence of a real person, a real woman who lives in the here-and-now dealing with life as it is being lived, not as it is supposed to be lived in the perfume ads. Bush's females are fully as hungry as males are -- not in the angry, doomed, and rather dreary way of the romantic-gone-wrong of LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR, but simply as healthy, alive human beings with sensual and sexual appetites to satisfy. And they are as guiltless about expressing their hunger as most males have been for years.

Consider this from "Feel It": "Feel your warm hand walking around/ I won't pull away, my passion always wins/ So keep on a-moving in, keep on a-tuning in/ Synchronize rhythmn now..." Or this from "L'Amour": "I'm dying for you just to touch me/ And feel all the energy rushing right up-a-me/ L'Amour looks something like you." Bush performs these songs with a direct sincerity in an appealing, rather quavery, high-pitched voice that communicates not lubricity but the joy of satisfactory love-making. What we have here is not the eye-rolling lewdness of Xaviera Hollander (the greatest management consultant of modern times), the kinkiness of a Pauline Reage, or even the brittle comedy of sexual manners of an Erica Jong, but a human being telling about one aspect of her humanity.

There is a great deal more to Kate Bush and her album than matters sexual, however, and aside from two clinkers -- "Wuthering Heights", a weary rehash about "cruel Heathcliff", and "James And The Cold Gun", a song about 007 [not!] that seems as deliberately nonsensical as the plots of some of the Bond films -- all her songs have a lively sense of truth-telling about them. In the lovely "The Man With The Child In His Eyes", the protagonist confesses. "And here I am again my girl/ Wondering what on earth I'm doing here/ Maybe he doesn't love me/ I just took a trip on my love for him." Probably the strongest song in the album is "Room For The Life", which in one way is a call to those still-caged Tweetie-Pies and in another is a simple statement of the perils of freedom, liberation, and independence in the life of any Seventies woman: "Night after night in the quiet house/ Plaiting her hair by the fire, woman/ With no lover to free her desire/ How long do you think she can stick it out/ How long do you think before she'll go out, woman/ Hey get up on your feet and go get it now/ Like it or not we keep bouncing back/ Because we're woman."

Nobody's said it better than that in quite a while -- not even Katherine Hepburn, who was asked a few years ago if she missed having a home life because of the demands of her career and replied, "Well, we can't have it all, can we?" Kate Bush seems to know and to believe and, most important, to communicate that what women can have, if they are honest with themselves, is quite enough. You've come a long way, Emmeline baby!

Friday, February 16, 2018

Doo Be Do

In February of 1978, Blondie's "Denis" entered the U.K. Top 50 where it would climb all the way up  to Number 2, prevented from hitting the toppermost of the poppermost by Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights". "Denis" is actually a cover version of the 1963 Randy and the Rainbows Top 10 hit "Denise". Blondie keeps the Buddy Holly-ish sound but adds some of Debbie Harry's "pidgen french" lines.

There was something about the way the former Playboy bunny squinted at the camera and played with her microphone that made boys throughout Europe mad for Harry. The song, from the forthcoming Plastic Letters, hit #1 in Belgium and the Netherlands but never charted in the band's native US of A.