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July 31, 2013

Book Notes - Kevin C. Smith "Recombo DNA: The Story Of Devo, Or How the 60s Became the 80s"

Recombo DNA

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Recombo DNA, a biography of the band Devo, traces the band's 40 year history and influences.

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Kevin C. Smith's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Recombo DNA: The Story Of Devo, Or How the 60s Became the 80s:

One of my motivations for writing a book about Devo was that, as I pieced together their history purely from a fan's perspective, I found it to be singularly fascinating and completely unlike that of any other band. Motivated equally by political action, esteemed high art as well as apparently worthless cultural ephemera, and a desire to overcome their blue collar roots, it was a story that needed to be told.

Another equally motivating factor, though, was, as a lifelong music geek, I enjoyed playing the game commonly referred to as "spot the influence." After decades of reading copious liner notes, articles, interviews with bands, and rock bios, I thought I had gotten pretty good at it. But Devo had me stumped. They had seemingly dropped out of the sky fully formed with no cracks in their facade which would indicate any formative influences. An earlier book about the band did disappointingly little to remedy the situation. As I dug deeper, however, what I found was that many of their influences weren't musical at all.

What follows is a sampling of some of the audio inspirations (musical and otherwise) on the band's early years.

Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band, "Ant Man Bee" (1969)

The fractured, art damaged blues of Captain Beefheart was Devo's strongest early influence. (They arguably began to find their own sound when they stripped out Beefheart's blues elements.) When Devo was later in the ascendency, however, Beefheart's career was experiencing its last gasp and he would soon be all but forgotten in his home country. The curmudgeonly Beefheart would later accuse Devo of lifting the drumbeat for their version of "Satisfaction" in whole from his "Ant Man Bee."

Island of Lost Souls ("Are We Not Men?") (1933)

A classic of Hollywood's golden age, Island of Lost Souls, (a film adaptation of H.G. Wells's novel The Island of Dr. Moreau) concerns a rogue scientist hastening the evolution of animals into more human-like life forms (and their occasional lapses of de-evolution). The film resonated with the band who saw more than a little of their fellow Akronites in the zombie-like inhabitants of the island. The chant of the "strange looking natives" led by Bela Lugosi's Sayer of the Law would later become the refrain of Devo's signature song "Jocko Homo."

Morton Subotnick, Silver Apples of the Moon (edit) (1967)

Morton Subotnick's Silver Apples of the Moon was the first electronic album ever commissioned by a record company and his workshop as part of the 1970 Kent State Creative Arts Festival would be the first time the teenage Mark Mothersbaugh would see a synthesizer in action. Many of the band's early synthesizer parts – before they began carrying prominent melodies – would resemble Subotnick's in their tonality and character. Jerry Casale likened the role of the synthesizer in their early sound to "a poison gas vapor … allowed to come in and swirl around and interject rude and random things that didn't fit a rock'n'roll lexicon."

Lothar & the Hand People, "Machines" (1968)

Lothar & the Hand People's cover of Manfred Mann's "Machines" is striking for its presaging of Devo's signature sound down to its clanging percussion, anemic guitar riffing, snotty vocal delivery, and even its lyrical themes of slavery to a machine (despite the fact that, in an Asimovian twist, "we built them to serve us"). The song's producer, Robert Margouleff, would, twelve years later, produce Devo's mainstream breakthrough album, Freedom of Choice.

Kipp Hamilton, "Feel in My Heart" (AKA "Words Get Stuck in My Throat") from War of the Gargantua (1966)

Devo were also proud to take inspiration from B-grade monster movies as well as higher quality film fare. War of the Gargantua was one of the most ludicrous in a genre built around outlandish themes. "Words Get Stuck in My Throat" would later become a staple of their live shows sung in a falsetto by Mark in the guise of his alter ego Booji Boy (it would only see an official release in 2000 on the compilation Recombo DNA).

Roxy Music, "Editions of You" (live) (1973)

It was Brian Eno's synthesizer solo on "Editions of You" which Mark Mothersbaugh claimed "shocked" and "inspired" him more than anything else. Like Subotnick's Buchla synthesizer, Eno's EMS VCS3 had no keyboard but was equipped with a joystick which no doubt contributed to the sweeping, harmonically disorienting barrage of sound that he produced. Within five years of the song's release, Eno would be producing Devo's debut album.

Burger King jingle (1974)

Devo also found material in the pervasive advertising that bombarded a typical consumer. Lyrics to a popular Burger King jingle ("Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don't upset us, all we ask is that you let us serve it your way") would later find their way into the band's "Too Much Paranoias" (while also referencing McDonald's, "I think I got a Big Mac attack"). This was, in effect, applying the same sort of collage approach to music that Pop Artists including Richard Hamilton had been utilizing for decades, particularly in his celebrated "Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?" (1956) which took famous logos out of context including Tootsie Pop, Armour Ham, and Ford.

15-60-75 (AKA The Numbers Band), "The Animal Speaks" (1975)

Jerry Casale's pre-Devo band (Casale had left by the time of this recording) which shares little if anything in common with his later band's sound. Casale felt constrained by what he saw as their traditional take on the blues and his attempts to push them in a more experimental direction were rebuffed. The bassist was booted from the band after surreptitiously donning a chimpanzee mask during their set one night in 1972.

Neil Young and Devo, "Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)" (1978)

This unlikely pairing occurred when the "grandfather of granola" invited Devo to work on a new song of his before his band Crazy Horse had taken a crack at it. This extended version has the ragged feel of a first time collaboration as the musicians fall in and out of time with each other over its nearly ten minute duration. This footage was part of Young's little seen film Human Highway (his second directed under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey) in which the band also played nuclear waste workers. At some point during their collaboration Devo also provided Young with the title of his next album, Rust Never Sleeps. (Young had also, coincidentally, composed the song "Ohio" commemorating the May 4, 1970 shooting at Kent State University which Jerry witnessed firsthand.)

Billy Murray & International Novelty Orchestra, "Monkey Biz-ness (Down in Tennessee)" (1925)

An entire genre of novelty songs (as well as religious pamphlets including B.H. Shadduck's Jocko-Homo Heavenbound) sprung up in the wake of the 1925 "Scopes Monkey Trial." John T. Scopes had willingly agreed to be tried for teaching evolution in a state-funded Tennessee school, which had been made illegal months earlier (the law would stay on the books until 1967). Mark was an avid collector of these records and even played Turk Murphy's "Evolution Mama" as a guest on Dr. Demento's radio show in 1980.

Hugh Cornwell and Robert Williams, "Rhythmic Itch" (1979)

It was fitting that Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh would make one of their only guest appearances on an album by Captain Beefheart's then current drummer, Robert Williams (along with the Stranglers' Hugh Cornwell). Williams was rumored to have been considered as a replacement for Devo drummer Alan Myers after his departure in 1986. Unfortunately, he had gotten on the band's bad side after requesting credit for the drum pattern on "Whip It" in 1980 (after it became a surprise hit).

Devo, "Recombo DNA" (1977)

An obscure Devo track composed in 1977 which remained unreleased until 2000 (on the eponymous compilation album). It was written after Devo received their first major label interest from A&M Records who arranged a showcase in Los Angeles and its optimistic tone reflects their upbeat mood at the time ("I got a good reason for stayin' alive … 'cos I'm fallin' in love / With recombo DNA"). Its punk-like tempo and lack of keyboards also made it a perfect fit for the band's increasingly raucous live shows. A&M would unceremoniously reject them but the band would stay in California for good.

Kevin C. Smith and Recombo DNA: The Story Of Devo, Or How the 60s Became the 80s links:

excerpt from the book

ClubDevo review

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
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Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
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musician/author interviews
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Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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