136) Devo, Q: Art We Not Men? A: We Are We Devo album: I was a Devotee from the beginning. I've memories of a costume contest at one Halloween show where a gorgeous tramp in little more than a corset and stockings lost to a guy who could've been Lurch from the Addams Family. He stood, smiling and balding with excruciating nervousness (like it wasn't his idea to get up there) as he waited through his long winning ovation. (Miss Corset had fully expected to win.) And then there was the evening I saw their movie The Truth About De-Evolution projected on a sheet at the Whiskey, the same night my friend got hit in the head with Bob 1's guitar. I owned all of the original self-released singles, the EPs Be Stiff and the rare Mechanical Man. Then, one day, my parents told me to get my boxes out of their garage and I was impelled to sell much of my record collection, including those singles. It was heartbreaking, not so much for the irreplaceable loss of the collection, but for the pennies it'd all end up being worth. (This was in the days before eBay or Half.com.)
You could say I had a PhD in Devo before that the release of the first album. And though the album presented the band under a museum vetrina—nothing like those raw singles—the album was still everything fans could've hoped for. During that time the band was practically a puking cornucopia of ideas, not the least of which was those punchy early songs—Sloppy, Uncontrollable Urge, Shrivel Up, Satisfaction, Clockout, Social Fools. Devo was the It band for my twilight teenage years. The second album was pretty good too—less guitar, more synth, no Eno— but the It factor was gone. I didn't even buy it. Further on, as one of the early fans, Whip It and Beautiful World just weren't what I'd signed up for. That first record said everything they had to say. And even now it still stands as one of the best records of the '80s New Wave.
In the beginning...
137) Robert Gordon, The Way I Walk: Quite simply one of the greatest guitar solos ever. To say Link Wray goes pyrotechnical here is not hyperbole. He whacks those ecstatic dyads with a brutal beauty and the sound is wild and fast like a freebasing cicada playing through a cut speaker. (Wray has been credited for inventing the fuzz tone.) It's guitar playing at maximum volume, no matter how loud he's playing. So many other players have tried to approximate Link Wray; none have ever gotten anywhere close: A guitar masterpiece.
Below, a scorching live version: even at 50 years old, Wray was the coolest guy in the room.
: Ah, the '70s—all of that artistic zealotry and boundary pushing and how music transformed just in those 10 years especially. Peacock's album from 1972 is a time capsule from an historic time when mainstream culture reached out and absorbed some of the avant garde. (Think of the noisy interlude in Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love). Many forward looking musicians of the time were testing a new eclectic sausage recipe. For Peacock, this meant stuffing in a mix of free jazz, Morton Subotnick, Doris Day, Revolution #9, gospel, and R and B. As an example of how pervasive this recipe was, even Creedence Clearwater (!) jumped on the bandwagon. Peacock's pillow-talk voice and slightly flat, nasal tone were an effective vehicle. When my 2nd grade daughter's teacher taught her students to write with words they didn't know how to spell, she called it brave spelling. Call Peacock a brave singer, taking a limited range and depth and courageously squeezing every last morsel out of it. And she can screech if she's in the mood but mostly she keeps it cool and it's good that way: A quirky classic.
139) Cheap Trick, Ballad of TV Violence, Elo Kiddies, Mandocello; Back in the day I saw the band on their first trip through LA. As I've said before, I'm a perfidious fan. I loved the first three albums, forsook them during the punk era, eventually bought one more but already knew that the future wasn't going to work out between us. In his prime, songwriter and guitarist Rick Neilson could conjure up the magic sauce that made for a tasty meat loaf again and again. His songs teased catchy melodies out of crunchy chords and provided an elusive model for many latter-day candy-ass '80s hair metal bands—of course, none of them could tie the masters' shoes. Blonde pretty boy singer Robin Zander was more than a chiseled visage, he wasn't above going straight-jacket apesh*t when the circumstances required. Hear the evidence in the last verses of Ballad of TV Violence. Obviously, humor was a big part of what they did—how Neilson could play on stage while going through all his goofy antics is remarkable—but so was a high craft that betrayed all that fuzz tone. And the rhythm section was distinctive, an absolute prerequisite for a great band. Listen to Mandocello with its two bridges, its cheesy and effective lyrical snares (revisted again in I Want You to Want Me), and its throwing out more hooks than a free beer fishing barge. The early work also had a snotty punk edge that was lost on subsequent albums. They were big in Japan but stateside they just made a living. They should've been way bigger.
Social critique with a pinch of Gary Glitter: 'Elo kiddies/'elo kiddies/Whatcha gonna do when you get religion/'elo kiddies/'elo kiddies/Hope you didn't get it on the television.
Beatle fan Neilson could squeeze out the saccharin quality McCartney ballad when he wanted:
140) King Crimson, Neal, Jack, and Me: The way Link Wray's solo scorches, Adrian Belew's chills here like a martini stirred in liquid nitrogen—stone cold, math-y, with a heavy chunk of the right brain. Robert Fripp's phasing and fastidiously picked rhythms are pure math, like the calculus Newton invented to study the universe and, in his best moments, Fripp can coax the universe from his guitar. But on Neal, Jack, and Me, Belew is the hero. His solo turn (at the 2:24 mark) is tantalizingly brief and doesn't need another second—he's accomplished all that needed to be done. Plus, his sound finds the avant garde angles (with a little psychedelia) that even titans like Coltrane never found. His playing bursts into all directions like a sniper bullet through an apple. Belew learned at Fripp's feet and with this one he may've just outdone the master.
141) Screamin' Jay Hawkins, I Put a Spell on You: Jay—bless him—was what you could call "a world-class fornicator." (Quantity was his game.) He was also a world-class cad. (As you'll see, he clearly preferred bareback.)
Back in the '90s, a national search was underway to locate the progeny of this deadbeat sperm donor. Jay's dying wish was that all of "his" children would get together, children he'd never met, for a gathering. Eventually, 57 of them were found (not counting his two legitimate ones). There may've been more but those are the ones that confessed. The gathering didn't go so well—52 of them didn't show up. (Who can blame them?) For those who did, they got to watch a video of papa saying this: "Yeah, there might be 50 or 60, or 75, or there might be more, 'cos I don't know about the abortions and the miscarriages." In his will he left each of his children $1: A cad and a miserly one at that. (Here's an article from MailOnline.)
Anyway, Jay was a one hit wonder with the good fortune of his one hit becoming an immortalized standard, kind of like the way Nature Boy was for Eden Abbez. A song, like the composer himself, that'd spawn many other versions. Whatever about the song's progenitor, it's still a great song proving that great art is possible regardless of character—even if it's from a world-class turd.
Some of the song's legitimate progeny:
142) Henry Cow, War: Upon her spoon this motto/ Wonderfully designed/ Violence completes the partial mind.
More free-jazzy than proggy, though it can go a little proggy at times, but it's also laden with plenty o' non-prog virtues too: crazy vocals and various utterances (her name is Dagmar), big beat, atonal skronking and meter changes (OK, that's way proggy); "an inherent anti-commercial attitude" (also proggy), and a humor as proof they're not taking themselves too seriously (very unproggy). This is brilliant madness: Ideas are climbing all over this like vines on a crumbling building. And like the crumbling building, it's the vines holding it together. Founded by Fred Frith, Henry Cow is like one of those bands that everybody praises but no one listens to except here you can actually listen. (Frith has been connected to just about every avant gardist from John Zorn to Mike Patton to The Residents to Robert Wyatt and all points inbetween.) Anarchy, sometimes, is just another word for spontaneity. (Whatever happened to Dagmar?)
143) The Buzzcocks, Hollow Inside: Bubblegum punk was the 'cocks and I was slow to warm. Shelley's singing was too cutesy by half, most of their early songs (e.g. Orgasm Addict) were just irritating, and even their best ones ran two and a half minutes on ten seconds of idea. It took this song, Hollow Inside, to break through to me. The minor key riff grabbed me by the collar and Shelley never sounded so much like his former partner, Howard Devoto. It was practically emo. This song too is slim on the ideas, almost five minutes of your life given away to six seconds of ideas, but the idea is a good one. Shelley did have an ear for a hook. After Hollow Inside I gained an appreciation for the 'cocks I hadn't had before. (Even my teenage daughter is hooked.) And they do have an undeniable bounce.
144) Coleman Hawkins, Rifftide: Hawkins is the bridge between the big band era and bebop. If he didn't invent bop he certainly has his DNA all over it. His was a more restrained, buttoned up version of what those cats that followed him played—Monk, Bird, Rollins, Miles. The bop generation gets all the praise but they were also the jazz killers. If they won the cultural battle, it was a pyrrhic victory. Boppers did to jazz what Kline, Pollack, et. al. did to generations of art dilettantes. Like abstract painting, jazz unmoored itself from the pure aesthetic joy of creative communication and lost its audience. (How many times have old jazzers said, "I'm not an entertainer. I'm an artist!") This, my friends, is the difference between expression and communication. Communication is a communal act. It wants to create a bond; expression, on the other hand, is often just a jerk-off—a secret language indecipherable to most. A cultural patois designed to keep the rabble out. Hawkins didn't do that. He respected melody. His tone was fat and clean and he loved the songs he was playing. He was everything the upstarts wanted to rebel against. His music does kind of scream tradition. But then, everybody needs some tradition to go with their avant garde.
Apparently, Rifftide's riff was stolen from an arrangement by pianist Mary Lou Williams. Monk might've used a couple of its bricks to build Well You Needn't. Good ideas deserve high mileage and this one earned a few turns of the odometer. Whoever the daddy was, I think we can all agree it's a bouncing slam of a tune.
King Sunny Adé, Ori Mi Ja Fum Mi: Wiki says that Nigerian Adé is the most influential musician of all time, bar none. So forget Elvis, this King is so king it's his name. Nigeria is a country with an abused history (blame the West) of colonization, civil war, military coups, and 500 different tribes with long memories. It's a country with more than its share of despair and woe. And yet the native jùjú music, as is much of African music, is so goddam full of' sunshine and ecstatic rhythm you have to wonder what kind of superior stuff these people are made of. The racist jokes about putting chains on Africans and hearing them sing was meant to disparage, but the truth is these are people who won't be crushed and are able to find the slivers of joy no matter the direness of their circumstances. (That's not to say they invite or deserve it.) We could all learn from that.
King Sunny Adé and his music are clearly made from that stuff. The polyrhythmic beat goes deep into the chest and lifts (its a crime when some of his later work cuts in programmed drums). The instruments, especially the drums and multiple guitars, weave together like Kente cloth. The band is playing the sh*t out from every corner and there's not a melancholic note to be found anywhere—this is music that dares to be simple in the best way possible. Adé's jùjú takes some of the world's darkness and makes it into one of the happiest places on Earth and that, my friends, is quite something.
146) Frank Zappa, Willie the Pimp: Childhood buds Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart (the Beefheart moniker was Zappa's idea) never had much luck working together. The rare exception was Willie the Pimp. Beefheart's appearance is brief but adds the necessary atomic weight to this rocking molecule. (What are those percussion sounds underneath, a winding clock and a shaking ring of keys?) A great cockfight of sound ensues starting with the riffing violin. Zappa solos, starting sedate before going steroidal when the wah-wah kicks on. Beefheart wordlessly growls and yelps for a few rounds while the bass player plucks some frenzied bowel-clearing low end. Somehow a piano finds a way in and it works, laying down energized whorehouse atmospherics from the back room. (Willie the Pimp is also one of Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time. *Yawn*)