“Loud shots from the big spudgun!”
There’s not many records from age 11 that still stick with me—another might be the first ¾ of Abacab—but this unheralded blast from the Devo canon is one. For some, it was the beginning of the end for the band, for me it was the end of the beginning. The Shout that followed in 1984 is a witless, uninspired slog, and I selectively eliminate New Traditionalists (1981)* from an impeccable run of LPs that began in 1978. (*okay, the hits/video tracks are pretty good and “Going Under” was later rearranged into something great, but otherwise there are no songs there). Generally, humor does not belong in music for me, and the early films and videos aside, this is their most overtly silly presentation of the band in cover art and song content, fortunately with some more sinister undercurrents to keep things interesting. Somehow it (mostly) all works, and I’m going to try to find out why.
“Time Out For Fun” is yet another theme song for the band, wherein their namecheck themselves and present a statement of purpose: “Now listen to us, everything’s gonna be alright… remember to take, time out for fun!” I’d call this pat if it wasn’t so infectious, and offered as a respite from mounting tensions and screws getting turned. “Peek-A-Boo!”—godammnit this song is so dumb and great. They sell this thing as if it were the most irresistible dance craze, and I bought it in my youth, thanks in large part to the video. It may be indefensible, but there are other things I loved in 1982 that have since eluded me, so I don’t think I’m an apologist. “Out of Sync” is one of many deep cuts here the band could proudly play today, instead of hewing so closely to the hit book, and fans would eat it up. The lyrics are adequate enough, and the tale of a “girl who skipped a beat” probably spoke to countless non-conforming teens. “Explosions” was inexplicably played live only once, and I suspect another favorite for true spuds. On a casual listen it seems we’re back in classic Devo adolescent sexuality territory, with the oh-yeahs and talk of “some in and out”—but also a stated preference for “ideas that change the world for good.” Bob1 (Mothersbaugh) is an underrated guitar player, and for this record it’s the first I’ve heard him playing something that actually sounds like one. Today, it’s hard to take “That’s Good” for what it is, as it’s been done to death. It was a hit and probably deserved it, but it may be the single least interesting song on the record. And it’s also one of too many songs that have no exit strategy beyond stopping on a beat. Not really a satisfying end to a short side, but there are more goodies and only one turkey to endure.
“Patterns” gives Bob1 a little bit to do, but it’s primarily a synth jam, and it ushers in the darker side of the record, not only in sound, but in its warning of existential traps. “Big Mess” coulda been a hit too, though I’d probably like it a lot less three decades later if that were that the case. I had to look up who the “Cowboy Kim” is in the song—apparently a persona assumed by a writer of strange letters to the offices of a Los Angeles game show, telling them about his imagined (?) life as a DJ. The first indication that not all is right in Spudland—and looking at reproductions of the letters, I’m pretty sure it was Zodiac. I know people love it, but “Speed Racer” lands on the wrong of side of comedy for me, sounding like a nightmare Toy Story scenario where the dolls come to life, their pull strings snapped, and won’t shut the hell up with their catchphrases. Save it for your cartoon music Mark—the album’s only misstep.
The last stretch of three songs are studies in modern angst, with “What I Must Do” exploring dangerous impulses (“lately I do a lot of things that don’t make sense”) and rocking too. It was years later I learned that the ‘Hinckley’ co-writer credit on “I Desire” was John Hinckley Jr.—just a year after shooting Reagan. Arguably a tasteless move on the band’s part, if it had not yielded such a hauntingly empathetic portrait of a deranged mind. Apparently adapted in part from poems he wrote for Jodie Foster, “pledg[ing] allegiance to the thought that your love is all that matters.” (I don’t think I’m a particularly morbid person so I’m a little worried about being moved by this—and being so insistent that Charles Manson wrote my favorite Beach Boys song). “Deep Sleep” is an album finish comparable to “Planet Earth” with an extended instrumental opening incorporating unworldly sounds. The narrator has just awoken from a deep sleep, “been running on remote control,” and after one look at the unbearable reality of the modern world, begs: “push me back, now let me go, into a dream again.” Devolution was a gimmick to many people, but themes of paranoia and alienation lurked under the goofy nonsense and offbeat persona of the band. I’ve low nostalgia for the 80s, particularly synth pop (maybe these were analog synths at least?) but this somehow comes through still sounding human. This is already top-tier Devo in my mind, but replace “Speed Racer” with a better tune or two (the outtake “Part of You” sounds like a similarly obsessive cousin to “I Desire”), let Bob1 play some guitar, and this would be the equal to Freedom Of Choice.