About Ron

Rockabilly guitarist, writer, library technician, Ron fills the daylight hours with dreams of reading, well-behaved pets and the perfect dark beer. Reading interests range from humor to mystery, steampunk to travel writing, historical fiction to surrealism.

Devo Was Their Name-O!

Q: I’ve got a rhyme that comes in a riddle. What’s round on the ends and high in the middle?
A: If you answered O-Hi-O, then you win a red energy dome (pictured below). Energy dome hat

 

Coming out of Akron, Ohio (where the rubber meets the road), Devo made a profound impact on the rock music world. Their first full-length album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, is a veritable smorgasbord of forays into the musical unknown. And while their later albums moved more towards the mainstream, the impact of Are We Not Men? continues to be immense.

But first, a little history. In 1924, B. H. Shadduck published a pamphlet on creationism called Jocko-Homo Heavenbound. This publication coined the term “D-Evolution”. It also contained text and ideas which turn up in the Devo canon. 50 years after its publication, a band of renegade youth in northern Ohio formed a band… Well, you can see where this is going.


Jocko

Starting in the late 1960s, rock music became increasingly slick and, in the minds of some, soulless. Rebellion against this aesthetic is largely what punk and its related genres were all about. Punk, post-punk, new wave, no wave… all looked for ways to take the music back to the people, to make creating music an activity open to one and all. Devo was one of the earliest groups to make the plunge into a new aesthetic.

Enter Are We Not Men?.

Are We

They tell us that we lost our tails
Evolving up from little snails
I say it’s all just wind in sails
Are we not men? We are Devo!

People who talk about music like to use the words tension and release to describe how tonal music moves forward. Tension is created, and then a resolution of that tension creates a moment of peace and relaxation. Devo, however, frequently leaves out the resolution part. Take for example the song Jocko Homo. Most popular music has four beats per measure, so of course Jocko Homo has seven.

Q: But surely the drums, those bastions of stability, provide a measure of comfort?
A: Well, no.

Q: How about if I focus on the vocals, something I can certainly relate to?
A: The lead vocals are hyper-dramatized and the background vocals are robotic, unemotional.

Q: What about those cute synthesizer sounds, seldom used in rock music pre-Devo?
A: The synthesizer brings an even higher level of disturbance to the listener’s comfort.

Q: Are you trying to tell me that there are no resting points, no moments of contentment?
A: Yes. This is what I’m telling you.

I’ll leave this song with my favorite lyric, from a passage that promotes evolution:

God made man but a monkey supplied the glue

Gut Feeling is another song that creates tension through odd numbers, in this case five-measure phrases (four-measure phrases are by far the most common in rock music). A five-chord sequence repeats over and over, each time feeling like it’s one chord too many. There is no respite from this brutal asymmetry.

Something about the way you taste
Makes me want to clear my throat
There’s a method to your movements
That really gets my goat
I looked for silver linings
But you’re rotten to the core
I’ve had just about all I can take
You know I can’t take it no more
I’ve got a gut feeling

At least the guitar and drums behave normally in this song. However, the five-chord pattern goes on forever (so it seems) before vocals enter. And when they do enter, they are once again rather weird. And as the song progresses it becomes more and more chaotic until it breaks into the next song.

Tension.

gut-feeling

Coming in at #442 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, this one is worth checking out. Oh yes. So throw away your preconceptions and postconceptions, relax, and whatever you do, do not Shrivel Up.

X Marks the Spot

LosAngeles

Music is filled with infinite possibilities but musicians use few of them. Hence, a whole lot of music sounds like a whole lot of other music. In some ways, this isn’t a bad thing; listeners take comfort in the familiar. On the other hand, BORING!

But not all composers and performers are boring. Thankfully. Witness if you will the Los Angeles band known only as X. Formed in 1977, one of the first wave of American punk bands, X has forged a unique sound that has yet to be imitated.

For me, the trademark X sound is defined by the harmonies between John Doe and Exene Cervenka. Punk rock generally does not use harmony, and pop/rock in general doesn’t use the semi-dissonant croonings that are part and parcel of X. Take for example the song The World’s a Mess, It’s In My Kiss off of the band’s brilliant debut, Los Angeles. Doe and Cervenka careen between expected and unexpected pitch combinations, creating an extra level of tension that fits the lyrics quite nicely:

No one is united
And all things are untied
Perhaps we’re boiling over inside
They’ve been telling lies
Who’s been telling lies?
There are no angels
There are devils in many ways
Take it like a man

Another piece of the puzzle that is X is found in Billy Zoom, guitarist extraordinaire. You can always find Billy standing on the stage with legs planted far apart, smiling at the audience whilst playing rockabilly-tinged leads effortlessly. Once again, not so much a punk thing. Zoom, whose father played woodwinds in big bands, was 29 when the band formed. He definitely had a different point of view than your average 16-year-old who’d never touched an instrument but wanted to start a punk band. If you want to hear a good example of Billy’s rockabilly roots in the music of X, check out the intro, verse and solo in Johnny Hit and Run Paulene.

Producer and keyboardist Ray Manzarek, formerly of the Doors (yes, those Doors), is also fundamental to X’s sound on Los Angeles. For those not familiar with the Doors, their music doesn’t share much in common with the punk world. Hippy organ fills and aggressive stripped-down rock just do not seem like a match made in rockstar heaven. But the result is fabulous, as can be heard on X’s hyperactive cover of the Door’s Soul Kitchen as well as the relentless punk anthem Nausea:

Today, you’re gonna be sick, so sick
You’ll prop your forehead on the sink,
Say, “Oh Christ, oh Jesus Christ,
My head’s gonna crack like a bank.”

And Nausea finds the organ playing an important role, creating primitive atonal flourishes as the lead-in to verses. Everyone else simply hammers away incessantly, as if to give a pounding headache to the purveyor of the lyrics.

40 years later X continues to tour. Billy is now 69, a cancer survivor, still smiling. John Doe and Exene, married when the group formed, are long since divorced. But the band’s high-octane energy and love for the music still comes through during performances. And if you can’t see them live, check out the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization for a thorough education in the late 70s Los Angeles punk lifestyle.

And be sure to say, “Hi!” to Billy.

It Slices, It Dices, It’s Shonen Knife!

Let's Knife

It’s time to enter the garage. Via Japan.

But first, let me tell you a little story. The year is 1981. In the megalopolis of Osaka, known worldwide for its sake, three young women start a band that’s different from the typical J-pop group. Combining influences from 60s girl groups, garage and punk rock, the trio create a poppy yet punky sound that is unusual in their home country. In less than 10 years they will be hailed by Kurt Cobain and other leaders of the alternative rock scene.

Now it’s 36 years later. And the band plays on.

Osaka Ramones

Shonen Knife is an unusual creature, not really fitting into any convenient niche. Although they are most closely associated with a Ramones-like sound, their poppy and somewhat frail vocals immediately put them in a different category altogether.

(EVERYONE: THEIR POPPY AND SOMEWHAT FRAIL VOCALS IMMEDIATELY PUT THEM IN A DIFFERENT CATEGORY.)

 Er, yes.

Powerpuff

Throughout their career Shonen Knife has delivered their own take on punk, garage rock and 60s pop, creating a unique amalgam. In fact, if there is a Shonen Knife sound, it would be poppy vocals over heavy music. The term pop punk, most often applied to bands that sound like Green Day, is not what I’m talking about here. Pop punk is fast, catchy music with a bit of an edge to the guitars. It’s homogeneous. Shonen Knife combines two sounds that really don’t fit together that well. But, and this is the important bit, they make it work. Recent albums focus on heavy metal (Super Group from 2010, Free Time from 2011), punk (Tribute to the Ramones from 2011), 60s pop (Pop Tunes from 2012) and 70s hard rock (Overdrive from 2014 and Adventure from 2015). Yet they all sound like Shonen Knife.

Lyric content definitely provides some continuity for the group. From early on, songs have focused on food (Sushi Bar, Wasabi, Fortune Cookie), animals (Parrot Polynesia, Bear Up Bison, Like a Cat) and science fiction (Planet X, Riding on the Rocket, Robot from Hell). In fact, it’s safe to say that SK’s lyrics are pretty weak in general. And this is not a criticism! Pop music is built on inane lyrics (There’ll be rainbows reachin’ cross the sky and we’ll both be so happy we will cry from The Monkees song The Day We Fall In Love). It’s practically required that pop music lyrics be absurd!

Overdrive

The 2014 album Overdrive (which was part of the EPL collection until recently) is a good place to start your acquaintance with these ladies. Filled with great hard rock riffs (Green Tea, Shopping), jangly dream rock (Fortune Cookie) and that “typical” Shonen Knife sound (Jet Shot), Overdrive gives an overview (clever wordplay alert!) of the band’s oeuvre. Why, Robot from Hell, a most excellent hard rock tune, is in itself worth the price of checking the album out!

Thirty-six years is a mighty long time for a rock band to successfully exist. Band members have left, been replaced, returned, had babies, quit, got a haircut and returned. They have toured extensively and released 20 albums. And still the music pours out of them.

So if you need a little spring in your step, a little cheer in your soul, get thee behind Shonen Knife. And as you go out into the world today, keep these lyrics from Bad Luck Song close to your heart:

The bad luck song might be my good luck song
This is the best way of thinking
Let’s take it easy
Change the way you’re thinking

I’m Not An Animal!

Ah, once again it’s those lazy, hazy (dare I say crazy?) days of summer when a young man’s thoughts turn to hydroplanes and water cannons. And The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. And lime rickeys. But mostly to the Swindle.

Punk rock was doomed from its beginning. Any art form that’s do-it-yourself, non-mainstream rebellion against commercial art is eventually going to become codified and commercially successful on some level, thus transforming into the very thing that it mocks. The Sex Pistols, who defined punk rock, also defined the death of punk. Formed in 1975, dead in 1978, the Pistols’ influence is immeasurable, but their existence was quite short.

I’ve come to realize that by the time I was listening to the punk rock in Suburbia, USA (which was before most of my suburban contemporaries) it was no longer even a going concern. In January 1978, Johnny Rotten quit the Sex Pistols. He wanted to create groundbreaking music, not something that fit into the punk formula. It was probably another year before I even discovered the Pistols, dead on arrival.

BollocksThe lads only put out one official album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, but it provided fodder for a generation of musicians. Harkening back to a simpler time in the rock & roll world, a time of three chords and reckless abandon, the Pistols’ music provided welcome relief to the ever-more-complex album-oriented-rock of the 70s. Suddenly, it was okay for anyone to make music, to make a record. This above all else provided immeasurable influence on future musicians.

LiveIn addition to Never Mind the Bollocks, a variety of unofficial and semi-official releases have surfaced over the years. One of these is Live & Loud, a recording from the Pistols’ last show (other than reunions), January 14, 1978. Perhaps not the best collection to use as an introduction to the band, this raw recording does give the listener a chance to hear the seminal punk band live, 40 years after the fact!

SwindleAfter this performance Mr. Rotten quit the group, but the rest of the band carried on long enough to record a few songs for Malcolm McLaren’s 1980 mockumentary, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. McLaren was the Pistols’ manager, having created them in much the same manner as the Monkees had been put together 10 years before. The posthumous movie purported to be about the Sex Pistols and McLaren, but it was actually more along the lines of A Hard Day’s Night. And, perhaps most importantly to Sex Pistols fans, it included footage of the band.

The film’s soundtrack is a veritable melting pot of genres and quality, ranging from raw Sex Pistols demos to a disco Pistol medley to Sid Vicious croaking his way through Frank Sinatra territory. It’s not really an album that one sits down with to enjoy song after song. Rather, it’s a spectacle filled with piratey choruses, French folk music and a generous helping of covers. The disc appeals to me in the same way as Eraserhead or a nine-car pileup on the interstate: I can’t seem to look away.

So as the sun rises high in the sky and threatens to boil the whites of your eyes, keep cool with the Pistols. I think we can all agree that they said it best in their song Bodies:

I’m not a throbbing squirm

P.S. Don’t forget the lime rickey.

D-M-U-B, Everyone’s Accusing Me!

Let’s talk about the Ramones, shall we?

Few American bands have made a bigger impact than this group of leather-clad mutants. As early as 1974 their proto-punk cum beach-pop refrains filled the hippest clubs of New York City, poised to influence the next wave of bands. In a way, their music was a return to early rock & roll, simple and short three-chord songs, but with a bit of a buzzsaw edge grafted on for the kids.

RockNRollHighSchoolI don’t know exactly when I first heard the Ramones, but I do know that seeing the movie Rock ‘n’ Roll High School instantly made them one of my favorite groups. They came across as a bad-boy version of the Monkees, riding around in a red 1959 Cadillac with the license plate GABBA-GABBA-HEY. Unlike your typical lead singer, Joey Ramone was a tall, skinny, shall we say less-than-comely example of a man. Leather jackets, long hair, no attempt to be pretty teen idols, low-slung guitars, blisteringly short songs… In short, they created the punk sensibility.

 

Pinhead lyrics

GreatestHitsAs one can see, it doesn’t take much in the way of lyrics to create a Ramones song. Pinhead, from the 1977 album Leave Home, clocks in at 2:42, but the excerpt above contains all of its lyrics except for one sentence. The first line comes from the 1932 movie Freaks, where it’s a phrase used by the sideshow performers. This perhaps is a nutshell view of the Ramones’ appeal to teen me: catchy songs about unusual or disturbing topics. You can find this song at Everett Public Library on a CD that’s an outstanding introduction to the Ramones, Greatest Hits: Hey Ho Let’s Go.

 

Sedated lyrics

RoadToRuinI Wanna Be Sedated, off of 1978’s Road to Ruin, is another strange little pop gem. Apparently focused on an anxiety attack or some other mental issue, beach pop once again melds with a hard and dark edge to create an unholy mixture of proto-punk. I can picture Joey now, unflattering haircut, ugly glasses, ripped jeans, all somehow adding up to charisma and charm. Prepare yourself for 2:29 of leather-clad heaven.

 

Lobotomy
RocketToRussiaThe song that might have forever endeared the Ramones to me is Teenage Lobotomy, featuring the rhyme, “Now I guess I’ll have to tell ‘em, that I got no cerebellum.” And the opening chant of, “Lobotomy! Lobotomy!”? You simply don’t find this kinda lyric in your typical punk rock song. From Rocket to Russia, which was released in 1977, Teenage Lobotomy is one of the Ramones’ most popular songs, and this amuses me highly.

Their long-range influence can be seen in punk bands from the 90s that imitated the Ramones’ sound, and in some cases covered entire Ramones’ albums. Check out the band Screeching Weasel on Physical Fatness: Fat Music Volume III and early Green Day on their 1992 release Kerplunk!.

The Ramones broke up in 1996 after 22 years of practically non-stop touring. In a relatively short time Joey (2001), Dee Dee (2002) and Johnny (2004) died, leaving a gaping hole in the rock and roll world. But fear not! Their music lives on, and you can even see a female Ramones tribute band, The Dee Dees, playing at clubs in Seattle. In the meantime, settle back in a comfy chair, grab a slice of pizza and crank up Teenage Lobotomy. In the immortal words of Johnny Ramone in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, “Things sure have changed since we got kicked out of high school.”

Skanking To The Oldies

Specials

Memory and music travel hand in hand, popping up in strange places, creating feelings associated with a certain time period, song or band. One of the musical high points in my life came in 1979 with the arrival of punk, new wave and ska in my neighborhood. Bands like Devo, the B-52s and Talking Heads are now forever associated with the passion and joy generated during this explosion of musical creativity.

The three-headed monster of punk, new wave and ska (and there were many other exploding heads as well) came at me from many directions. Punk was simple, loud and fast, often political and associated with outlandish fashions. New wave was a bit broader in spectrum but often boiled down to synth-based poppy dance music, often with a quirk, and Flock of Seagulls hair (eyeliner optional). Ska was the least prolific of the three in the US, developing a small fan base of pork-pie-hat-with-black-and-white-houndstooth-clad enthusiasts. This music originated in Jamaica in the late 50s as reggae’s peppier cousin, re-exploding in the late 70s faster than ever (thanks to punk) with a strong emphasis on off-beats. Bands involved in this ska rebirth included The Specials, The English Beat, Madness and The Selecter.

ska fashion

Tastes change over time and 40 years later I no longer enjoy some of the music that made 17-year-old me twist and contort like an enraged emu (some called it dancing). However, certain bands still hit 54-year-old me as hard as they did those many years ago. The Specials are one of those bands. In fact, if I was forced to choose my favorite song ever, it might well be A Message to You Rudy off of The Specials self-titled first album. With the first few notes of the introduction I’m transported to the summer of 1979, a “new wave” dance party and an enchanting time of musical discovery. It’s still one of my go-to songs in gloomy times.

Musically, The Specials features the Caribbean influences characteristic of early ska (especially in the drums and walking bass lines) mixed with fast tempos, percussive guitar, cheesy keyboard, and a general miasma of happiness (even in the face of serious lyrics). Unemployment, poverty and racial tension affected many Brits in the seventies, and youth used music, particularly punk and ska, as a means of illuminating and combating these issues. The Specials were known for their stand against racism, and they actively tried to racially integrate their listeners. Their song lyrics reflected racial and other divisions.

Quote 1

While racism is a topic in many of the album’s songs, clashes between other contentious groups are also addressed.

Quote 2

For those who don’t speak British, teds, or teddy boys, are associated with rockabilly, natty dreads partake of reggae, mods listen to rock rooted in the early 60s, skinheads are militant punk rockers and the National Front is a far-right political movement. Tensions between groups simmered just below a boil. But, ideally, they could all come together in the world created by The Specials.

For me this music is happily nostalgic, but it’s also intoxicating, dance-inducing and highly listenable. Check this one out. Toe tapping is required, skanking is optional.

Quote 3

Skanking

Love Rock Revolution

Love Rock

Generally I assert that all change is bad. However, change within art forms is an exception to this iron-clad rule. The most fascinating moments in the music world happen when techniques change, when new ideas are introduced. In popular music one of those moments occurred in the late 70s when mainstream rock/pop became so bloated and corporate-driven that the unwashed masses started a grassroots movement that became known as punk.

The heart of the punk rock movement was not found in a particular sound or lyric but in an idea: Anyone can make music! Thus, the do-it-yourself revolution came about. Punk bands exploded in the UK, to a lesser extent in the US, and other DIY subgenres such as no wave also reared up their ugly heads. Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music by Mark Baumgarten is a charming book that looks at one branch of the anyones who made and continue to make music in the spirit of the punk revolution.

Led by leather-jacketed anarchists, teens ignited London in a burst of figurative flames. Meanwhile, in a small fishing village on the coast of Washington state… Well, actually in the capital city of Olympia, a different kind of musical revolution began, one that many of us are not so familiar with. ‘Round about 1982 Calvin Johnson began releasing cassettes on his label, K Records, out of Olympia. As a teenager, Calvin was transformed by punk rock, but as a music maker his tastes went in a slightly different direction.

When Johnson put together his band Beat Happening in 1982, none of the members were experienced musicians. This typifies the punk/DIY mindset. But the music that they created, while simple and non-technical, had little in common with punk sonically. Lo-fi recording techniques, the band’s lack of instrumental skills, Johnson’s deep voice – all these factors contributed to a new sound which has been called lo-fi, twee pop and indie pop. Often described as childlike or sweet, Beat Happening’s music is a bit of a love-it-or-hate-it kind of a deal.

As time passed, Johnson recorded other bands, began selling vinyl, distributed for yet other bands, and slowly increased the traffic of K Records. Meanwhile, through national and international connections, he also significantly contributed to the development of independent music, an influence that continues to be strong 35 years later.

To name but a few of the accomplishments that came out of K Records:

  • The inclusion of women in rock music: The riot grrrl movement, which later became associated with the Kill Rock Stars label, originated at K Records. Concerts put on by the label were inclusive of female performers.
  • All-age performances all of the time: Johnson would not perform in venues unless they were open to all ages, and he continued this philosophy when booking concert events for K bands.
  • Artists receive 50% of profits made from record sales: This was an unheard of split when the label started, but Johnson considered it imperative. Also, business is done on a handshake rather than with a written contract.

Love Rock Revolution is highly entertaining and informative, an enjoyable read on one aspect of the PNW music scene. If you’re looking for other related materials, try The Punk Singer, a documentary about Kathleen Hanna and the riot grrrl movement, or The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge. And be sure to check out our selection of Local CDs. Enjoy!

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