June 19, 2010
Devo Deep Cuts
I had another topic ready for this week’s Hidden Gems, but then Devo went and released their first studio album in 20 years on Tuesday. I haven’t been able to concentrate on much that’s not Devo-related since. So here’s four less-than-obvious Devo songs you should check out.
“The Day My Baby Gave Me A Surprize” (from Duty Now For The Future)
Devo’s second album Duty Now For The Future is often characterized as suffering from the sophomore slump. This is understandable, since the album’s strongest songs are backloaded onto what would have been side two and lazy rock writers probably didn’t have the patience to flip the album in search of the kind of giddy thrills the band’s debut offered upfront. “The Day My Baby Gave Me A Surprize” is one of the album’s shoulda-been hits. It features an oblique tale about a young man’s joy at his sweetheart recovering from some sort of debilitating accident. It also has an unbelievably catchy chorus that is simply the exclamation “Wa-hoooo!”
“It Takes A Worried Man” (available on the Pioneers Who Got Scalped anthology)
In 1982, Neil Young had the crazy-ass notion to co-direct an apocalyptic comedy film with the actor Dean Stockwell, called Human Highway. He cast Devo as nuclear garbagemen. In the film, they sing an upbeat, poppy version of the folk-festival classic “Worried Man Blues” (here slightly retitled) while they cart around barrels of nuclear waste. (The band has also been known to perform the song when they pretended to be Dove – a Christian, leisure suit-wearing opening act for many ‘80s-era Devo shows. Here’s a video of Dove in action.) The movie made it to VHS, but then faded into obscurity. Inspired somewhat by Devo, Neil Young released the synthesizer-driven album Trans… and eventually got sued for it. Apparently, everyone doesn’t appreciate devolved music.
“R U Experienced” (from Shout)
Shout might be Devo’s worst album. I don’t actually know because I never bothered to listen to the whole thing. True to their core idea of De-volution – in a nutshell, humanity is regressing instead of improving – Devo’s music after 1981’s New Traditionalists got crummier and crummier. This synthesizer-and-drum-machine-heavy remake of Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” is one of the few exceptions from this era. It features rat-tat-tat, factory-like percussion but it comes off as less idiosyncratic than the band’s earlier covers of songs like “Satisfaction” and “Secret Agent Man.” Even so, being a cover gives “Experienced” a leg up over the other songs on the album because, despite having a similarly overblown, aggressively ‘80s-pop sound, at least there is strong material at its foundation. Amusingly, the band does manage to tweak the lyrics to fit the Devo mold: Hendrix asked if you’d been “not necessarily stoned, but beautiful” while Mark Mothersbaugh sings “not necessarily beautiful, but mutated.”
“Knock Boots” (iTunes-only bonus track from Something For Everybody)
Being an old fogey, I like physical objects to play my music. So I was mildly annoyed that after getting Devo’s new CD, I had to go online and buy the download-only bonus tracks too. And, to add to the insanity, one of these bonuses – “Knock Boots” – is only on iTunes, where they’re charging frickin’ $1.29 for it! Well, I ponied up the dough, and I don’t feel as much like a chump as I could have, because “Knock Boots” is one of Devo’s very best songs. Erasing quite a few albums’ worth of disappointment, Devo manages to make synth-pop that sounds modern but not annoyingly trendy (although there is a tasteful use of Autotune on this track), and the music is totally recognizable as Devo. Lyrically, “Knock Boots” is a slightly more optimistic spin on an old Devo theme – namely, the world is going to shit – where the Spudboys offer the solution in the song’s title to keep yourself from getting depressed. Hey, we could die any day, so let’s do the horizontal mambo! What better advice could you get?
by Justin Remer