As the USA recovers from Covid-19 there are a couple of new releases from today’s finest rock bands to provide a much needed experience of joy.
Weezer and Twenty One Pilots are today’s new/old rock heroes. Sure Weezer has some great back catalog; Twenty One Pilots’ catalog is fewer titles but growing well.
Okay, Weezer has been around over 30 years, but remain vital as ever. Alright let’s start with the newest Weezer platter….
Van Weezer is just the right album for Summer 2021. Vocalist Rivers Cuomo had been wanting to contribute this type of modern rock n roll that salutes his love for eighties metal and hard rock.
Hero is a standout single that is on par with great Foo Fighters tracks.
Blue Dream uses the actual tab from Ozzy’s Crazy Train! And the song is totally original.
There are many flourishes of Eddie Van Halen’s playing style throughout the record hence the title Van Weezer.
The entirety of the set’s thirty minutes is pure cathartic release of why rock fans never stop wanting more no matter their age.
Twenty One Pilots have spent their Covid time recording the follow up to their concept epic Trench.
The new one is titled Scaled and Icy to reflect isolation and the scaled back way of life everyone has endured.
Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun are a great duo. On the current set singles like Choker return them to their earlier form on records like Vessel.
Do not let the surface happy pop sound fool you. The lyrics are just as complex and probing as any Tyler has done previously.
Good Day opens the set with the declaration that it’s hard to believe that today is good. Singing out is the best way to bring joy. Mr. Joseph does just that. He sounds a lot like Mika which is a great thing.
Both albums will provide plenty of happiness this Summer!
Without Buck Rogers there would be no Flash Gordon. First appearing in 1928, the character of Anthony “Buck” Rogers was the first to feature space exploration! As it paralleled the latest advances in technology of the early twentieth century, the space hero would take to alien worlds to defend Earth from certain peril.
The strip made its first newspaper appearance on January 7, 1929.
Later adaptations included radio in 1932, a film serial, a television series (in which his first name was changed from “Anthony” to “William”), and other formats.
Buck Rogers was the inspiration for other comic strips:
The adventures of Buck Rogers in comic strips, movies, radio and television became an important part of American popular culture. It was on January 22, 1930, that Buck Rogers first ventured into space aboard a rocket ship in his fifth newspaper comic story Tiger Men From Mars.
The Buck Rogers strip was popular enough to inspire other newspaper syndicates to launch their own science fiction strips. The most famous of these imitators was Flash Gordon (King Features Syndicate, 1934-2003).
I did not discover this about these 2 serials until I created this entry for Evan’s Gate!
In the 1980’s NBC-TV premiered “Buck Rogers In The 25th Century” based upon the feature film of the same name that appeared in theaters. Starring Gil Gerard as Buck and Co-starring in the series were Erin Gray as crack Starfighter pilot Colonel Wilma Deering, and Tim O’Connor as Dr. Elias Huer, head of Earth Defense Directorate, and a former starpilot himself.
Buck Rogers will getits own entry in this blog at a future date. You just cannot celebrate a Flash Gordon Anniversary without providing this necessary background.
The television series lasted two seasons. The actors strike of 1980 disrupted production. When it returned the show was revamped with new characters and format. The 1980-81 Season was to be its last.
Fun fact: Larry “Buster” Crabbe” made a cameo appearance on the Buck Rogers TV series!
Serial Start For Flash Gordon
Serial adventures were a staple of the American cinema from the 1930’s through the 1950’s. Each week a chapter would appear in theaters. The ending was usually a cliffhanger. Our hero would be caught in some sort of death spiral that left viewers wondering how they would manage their escape.
These serialized adventures were provided as an added attraction at theaters. They did a lot with small budgets.
Based upon various comic strip characters of the day, those serials produced one character in particular that has stayed around for over 70 years—Flash Gordon. A comic strip created by Alex Raymond in the 1930’s influenced the adventures of Batman, Superman, Captain Kirk, and Luke Skywalker.
I saw the original movie serials on Channel Thirteen, a Public Television station here in New York during the 1970’s. The re-runs coincided with the release of Star Wars in 1977.
Later on I discovered that Star Wars creator George Lucas was a fan of Flash Gordon. He inquired about the rights with King Features but found out the expense was beyond his means. Movie fans got a space fantasy filled with characters inspired by Flash Gordon.
I had been enthralled by science fiction and fantasy since the re-runs of Star Trek. Then Flash Gordon appeared and then Star Wars. I could not see the direct lineage of these series until much later.
Summer of 1977 marked movie history being made. George Lucas’ Star Wars changed the popular culture. Becoming at the time the highest grossing movie of all time, its success would lead to the first Star Trek movie in 1979 and Alien in that same year! In fact Alien won the Visual Effects Oscar over Star Trek. And of course launched another franchise.
Then came a big budget European feature film of Flash Gordon announced in the pages of American fan magazine, Starlog. Italian Producer Dino DeLaurentis with Director Mike Hodges created a unique vision of the comic book hero.
The Italian film legend Federico Fellini turned down an offer to direct Flash Gordon.
Putting together an all-star European cast with two unknown Americans as Flash and Dale was an unusual contrast not unlike Star Wars. There were many European stars wearing masks in both pictures.
For example British TV/Film actor and Bodybuilder David Prowse wore the Darth Vader costume for Star Wars; British TV star Peter Wyngarde (Department S, Jason King) wore a mask as General Klytus in Flash Gordon. Mr. Wyngarde’s voice is heard while Mr. Prowse gets dubbed by James Earl Jones.
But I digress. Back to our main focus. The cast of Flash Gordon—
Max Von Sydow (“The Seventh Seal”, “The Exorcist”) was Emperor Ming The Merciless; Timothy Dalton (James bond) was Prince Barin; Brian Blessed (Black Adder) was Vultan; Ornella Muti was Aura; Mariangela Melato was Kala; Peter Wyngarde (Jason King) was Klytus; Richard O’ Brien (Rocky Horror) was Fico; Topol was Dr. Hans Zarkov; Melody Anderson was Dale Arden; Sam J. Jones (“10”) was Flash Gordon.
Coming Of Age
As a gay kid in the 1980’s there were a lot of stimulating images in film. What I mean is that there were lots of films featuring shirtless guys on their posters. “Beastmaster” is a good example.
“Flash Gordon” was a singular phenomena. There are no sequels. At the time it cost $70 million which would probably be over $200 million today.
At the time of release the picture had a PG rating. There are scenes with graphic violence and sexual connotations but nonetheless there was no PG–13 back then in 1980. The blood shown on screen was blue and green.
I loved this film for its tremendous effort to capture the spirit of the original serial. Now seen in rich color of every shade and hue. The skies of Mongo were a awash in red, blue and orange.
It was important for the film to keep to the universe Alex Raymond created in the 1930s. The only update was making Flash a football player for the NY Jets, Dr. Zarkov was a NASA scientist, and Dale is now a travel agent.
As a kid I was ignorant of this paradigm. It’s important to note the exoticism worked both ways in the film. Princess Aura seduces the blonde/ blue-eyed Flash Gordon as her object of exotic desire.
This was strong stuff for a pre-teen gay kid! Then you had Sam J. Jones shirtless in the execution and resurrection scenes, wearing nothing but a pair of PVC briefs!
A ton of art was created for the film and some of it just for promotional purposes. Unknown to me at the time how many posters exist is incredible. Released globally there were images used in various countries to target specific audiences based on region.
Lobby Poster Art
All I knew then was the poster for American release was brilliant. Then I found a small copy of the art in a full page ad in Playbill magazine. I cut it out and put it on my wall. The name AMSEL was signed on Ming’s cloak.
The film’s Tagline, all in caps, PATHETIC EARTHLINGS…WHO CAN SAVE YOU NOW?
Who was underlined to stress that Flash is the hero.
The lightning bolt logo with planet Mongo at its center was an American market image. The font with its Red/Yellow/Orange coloring was brilliant. In Europe as well as in the opening titles the name is stylized in the mode Alex Raymond had used. You see it in the Italian promo posters we saw earlier in this entry.
Also note how Ming is so large like Darth Vader was for the Star Wars posters with Flash and Dale in a similar pose like Luke and Leia!
Instead of a fleet of X-Wing fighters you get a fleet of Hawkmen swooping down in an almost 3-D effect with Vultan’s cloud kingdom seen in the background on the right side of the frame.
All of his works are signed AMSEL with floating periods on either side of his name.
Richard Amsel was a prolific artist who attended the oldest school of Art in Philadelphia. After graduating he went on to create the poster art for films like “The Sting” and “Chinatown”. Following “Flash Gordon” he designed the art for “Raiders of the Lost Ark”!
He also designed album covers including Bette Midler’s Divine Ms. M.
He had an association with TV Guide for 13 years producing over 40 covers. A portrait he did of Lily Tomlin hangs in The Smithsonian. His final movie poster was for “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”.
The collage seen below is just a small sample of Amsel’s TV Guide covers. His first was an image of Lucille Ball upon her retirement from TV and show business.
I put up two of my favourites: All In The Family, Alice, and Richard Chamberlain in Shogun, a mini-series that aired for a week on NBC.
Notice the placement of the cast of Alice and All In The Family is similar to his placement of characters in his film poster work for Flash Gordon.
Richard Amsel died of AIDS in 1985 at the age of 37. I mourn him today. I had no idea he was one of the many awful casualties of that pandemic. His work is amazing.
Critical Reaction To Flash Gordon
The film found appreciation with some film critics, such as The New Yorker ‘s Pauline Kael. Kael described Flash Gordon as having “some of the knowing, pleasurable giddiness of the fast-moving Bonds…The director, Mike Hodges, gets right into comic-strip sensibility and pacing“.
She also stated the movie was “Like a fairy tale set in a discotheque in the clouds.”
On their syndicated TV program Siskel and Ebert were giving films a Yes or No at that time before their now iconic thumbs up or down.
Gene Siskel of The Chicago Tribune did not care for it. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave it a borderline Yes vote citing the fun comic book nature of the movie.
In homage to the serial chapters of the 1930’s the film version was produced in strong primary colors and utilized Chroma Key effects.
Chroma key compositing, or chroma keying, is a visual-effects and post-production technique for compositing (layering) two images or video streams together based on colour hues (chroma range). The technique has been used in many fields to remove a background from the subject of a photo or video – particularly the newscasting, motion picture, and video game industries.
All of the space craft were done this way. Flash Gordon riding a Hawkman rocket cycle was also accomplished with this method as seen below. War Rocket Ajax, Vultan’s Cloud City and Flash with the Hawkmen approaching Mingo City are all Chroma Key images.
The lavishly produced feature included giant set pieces adapted directly from the pages of Alex Raymond’s work partly as homage and because the formula worked!
I love the film as much as Rocky Horror loyalists. I can quote dialogue from any scene. This section brings us to my favourite parts of the film. A bit tricky because I really do enjoy all of it. Here goes…
In The Court Of Ming The Merciless at the point in which are trio from Earth first encounter all the ‘breeds’ of Mongo. This set is enormous. Ming’s throne looks like the inspiration for the Iron Throne on a certain HBO series.
Each ‘breed’ of Mongo gets introduced. Gathering in Court to present their tributes to the Emperor we see rivalries between Hawkmen and Treemen as the two groups argue over who stole their tribute!
The image seen above is a fish-eye view of the court. Unknown to me as a kid but later appreciated as a film student that Flash Gordon utilized the Todd–AO camera system. At the time of filming in 1979 this was the state of the art widescreen format. Everything about the film is grand scale for a timeless adventure.
The Palace of Prince Vultan and his Hawkmen.
Initiation on Arboria where Prince Barin rules his treemen there is a rite of passage that all youth must experience. Within a warren of hollow tree stumps lives a beast in which the initiate must reach all the way in full arms length. If you choose the wrong path the beast will bite injecting the victim with deadly venom. The result is pain so awful the victim begs for death. Barin forces Flash to take this test in order to live.
Above in this gallery a view of Arboria against the colorful skies of Mongo, at the left bottom a birds eye view of Flash and Barin as they begin their duel, and on the right the beast that resides within the stump.
Lorenzo Semple Jr.
The dialogue in Flash Gordon was purposefully done in a tone of high corn. Movie fans always call it camp.
Having written King Kong for Dino DeLaurentiis, Lorenzo Semple Jr. was then asked to write the Flash Gordon script.
The Batman TV series of 1966 was also written by him. The camp humour of that show was revived in Flash Gordon.
To this day every fan of this movie can quote dialogue. The language is comic book affectation in my opinion.
Lines like, “We only have 14 hours to save the Earth” could only make sense in an over the top fantasy.
Original Soundtrack Music By QUEEN
Flash Gordon is the ninth studio album and first soundtrack album by the British rock band Queen, released on 8 December 1980 by EMI Records in the UK and in February 1981 by Elektra Records in the US. It was one of two film soundtracks that they produced along with Highlander. It is the soundtrack to the science fiction film Flash Gordon and features lyrics on only two tracks.
Following the success Queen had with Flash Gordon two other notable rock groups contributed to movie soundtrack albums: Toto’s music was featured in “Dune” and AC/DC’s music was heard in “Maximum Overdrive”.
This was unusual at the time. Rock groups were not generally commissioned to score films.
I walked out of the cinema with the Queen music in my head. Following a trip to a furniture store I went to a local record shop to pick up the album. Dropping the needle onto this record was such a joyful moment for me.
Then to find they had included the dialogue from the film throughout the record was such a bonus. And the package for this record was so different from all of Queen’s previous efforts. It included an insert with a full colour image of Ming on one side and the lyrics for Flash and The Hero plus album credits on the other in red and yellow.
Seen above are the inner sleeve of the soundtrack featuring images of Queen on on side and the international cast on the other with a die cut in the center that lines up with the custom label featuring the logo.
For whatever reason the American version of this record did not have the die cut hole. The center was left intact so you lost the custom label peaking out effect.
Years later DJ Vanguard released a special re-mix of the single Flash.
On what turned out to be Queen’s final American Tour with Freddie & John in the Summer of 1982 Flash opened their shows followed by a performance of The Hero at the top of their setlist.
Flash Gordon Memorabilia
From the original 1930’s film serials to the 1980 feature to today the Flash Gordon franchise has produced a large array of collectibles.
In the 1930’s there were tin wind–up toys of spaceships from Flash Gordon and miniature figures in tins.
In the decades that followed numerous Sunday comic strips were published weekly. Comic Books, Toys, Figures, Posters, Trading Cards, Candy, Mugs, T-Shirts, Keychains, Magnets, and on and on and on.
Above are images of collectibles relating to the Flash Gordon franchise. On the Top Left are Flash and Ming figures with fold out Vultan’s Cloud Palace backdrop from Biff!Bang!Pow!
On the Top Right an early Pop-Up Book.
On the bottom Left a Lionman figure from Mattel based upon the Filmation animated series in 1979 on NBC.
Middle Right is a Viewmaster pack with 21 stereoscopic images also from the cartoon. And the bottom Right is a volume collecting Sunday comic strips of Flash Gordon now published by Titan books. There are 4 volumes in this series.
Flash Gordon books and magazines have been published over the past 70 years. In this gallery seen above notice the Mad Magazine clone Crazy with its parody of the movie!
The 1980 movie spawned several comic book adaptations, a novelization, poster books, and recently a graphic novel from Dynamite press called Zeitgeist.
Both DC & Marvel have published Flash Gordon comics at some point.
Archie Meets Flash Gordon in New Crossover One-Shot. Archie Comics has announced a new crossover one-shot with Flash Gordon, that was to hit comic shops back in June of this year.
Pulp Fiction is a term used to describe a huge amount of creative writing available to the American public in the early nineteen-hundreds. Termed “pulp magazines” because of the low quality paper used between the covers, these publications proliferated in the nineteen-thirties and nineteen-forties and beyond.
Flash Gordon was the subject of several pulp series sold in drugstores and book shops. The gallery seen below features some of the covers published. There were even Flash Gordon Flip-books! There the small sized books that you flipped pages fast to create the illusion of motion! Checker books’ collections of Alex Raymond strips in full color featured The Ice Worlds of Mongo.
Toys + More Collectibles above and below
A pinball machine showed up in game arcades which I got to play several times. It had Queen’s music! The Atari Game Cartridge was less exciting somehow, Mattel sold a toy rocket ship for kids.
Titan Books published a 4 volume set collecting Flash Gordon comics from Alex Raymond to the present day.
There was even a Flash Gordon Colorforms Set! Along with Silly Putty and Yo-Yos Colorforms were a 1970s staple kids toy.
The 1979 NBC Saturday morning series was licensed to comics, figures, and lunchbox/thermos sets.
There was also a program sold at select theaters for the film. I found it years later at a Horror/SciFi Convention.
40th Anniversary of Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon Movie featuring the music of QUEEN
STUDIOCANAL is excited to announce the new 4k, Ultra High Definition restoration of Mike Hodge’s cult classic FLASH GORDON (1980), in honour of the film’s 40th anniversary.
Flash Gordon was scanned from the original 35mm negative to produce 4K files. Over 500 hours of manual restoration repaired serious damage that included image instability, scratches, and intermittent flicker.
The sound was scanned from the original track negative and underwent restoration to improve issues ranging from audio drop-outs throughout the feature and during reel changes, digital clicks and optical distortion.
The film was colour graded for theatrical, home entertainment and 4K HDR release, using previous digital releases and 35mm prints as a reference. In line with the Director’s vision and the original 35mm cinema release, VFX work was applied to remove the strings in all scenes where visible. This restoration was approved by Director Mike Hodges in May 2020 and will include the first 4K HDR Dolby Vision master of Flash Gordon.
This Fall a new coffee table book will be published called Flash Gordon The Official Story by John Walsh.
Originally there were to be 3 Flash Gordon movies to form a trilogy. Sam J. Jones had a falling out with the movie’s producers. The box office in North America was disappointing. At a cost of $70 million (a huge amount in 1979/80) and a paltry $20 million take in America no sequels were made.
While the irony is not lost on me that Flash Gordon up until this movie had multiple chapters including the short lived NBC cartoon, I think the movie is even more appealing because it is the only one of its kind.
A short-lived live action series appeared on the SyFy Channel. Dispensing with the former image of Ming as a caricature of Asian villainy he appeared as a bland modern CEO in an alternate dimension.
Another animated series also appeared on Cable television with less than encouraging results. Flash Gordon went into dormancy again.
The chroma key special effects. The model space ships. The glitzy costume design. Queen’s trademark sense of corn/camp are all part of the 1980 film’s lasting appeal.
This movie has become a true cult classic. Appealing to sci-fi/ fantasy geeks around the globe many of whom dress up as their favourite characters for ComicCon and Halloween.
I have seen the film at least 100 times. It’s my favourite cult film.
Seth Macfarlane, creator of the animated series Family Guy is a fan. His comedies, Ted & Ted2 featured Sam J. Jones and Flash Gordon. Comic book artist Alex Ross loves the movie and also proclaims Queen as a favourite band.
Family Guy episode with the Hawkmen. The Ted movies were packaged with Flash Gordon.
Alex Ross art above for the Blu-Ray of Flash Gordon; The Ming Wants You art came with the disc.
There is talk in recent years of a Flash Gordon reboot with CGI effects but time will tell if this becomes reality.
All I know is that this work combined two of my favourite things: Flash Gordon and QUEEN.
This Fall boss Fight Studio is releasing figures of Flash and Ming to celebrate the 40th Anniversary; Movie posters for the 40th Anniversary Edition.
There is a new documentary called Life After Flash now streaming on Amazon Prime. It tells the story of actor Sam J. Jones’ sudden stardom followed by years outside show business. It will be one of the many extras on the upcoming blu-ray sets.
Thank You Dear Readers! And Thanks Flash!
“Keep your feet on the ground, put your hand on your heart, lift your head to the skies, and the world’s for your taking. Yes, you’re a Hero!”
“Endless unfolding of words of ages! And mine a word of the modern, the word En-Masse.
“I Contain Multitudes” opens the record with a reference to another epic poet whose work, “Song Of Myself”, celebrates every living creature on the planet. The title of this track is a Whitman quote. The ‘I’ is used here inclusively. Evoking the value in all living things.
The songs speaks to the experience of life. Loving and hating in equal measure. Composing, painting, eating, drinking, and our bodies as vessels that contain a universe.
I love Mr. Dylan’s end to this track. You can accept this line as just playing recordings of the classical giants or perhaps it is an expression that his final chapter maybe spent composing classical pieces:
“I’ll play Beethoven’s sonatas, and Chopin’s preludes…”
The cover image for this record is important. Presented in a cinematic letter-box format, anonymous couples are dancing. They are people of color. A solitary figure is hunched over the juke trying to decide what to play or in anguish over lost love or any number of reasons you could imagine.
For the first time Bob Dylan’s name does not appear on the cover! We listeners are to focus only on the image of a juke joint interior. The name of the record seems to pop-up from the floor in vivid technicolor. The color scheme applied is simply the best ever used in his catalog of 42 records.
Once again he is creating a mythic eden seeded in the past but brought into our present. A secret place where people of color went to actually express their humanity. The Queer folk also went to these type of places to do the same. Evoking Whitman’s celebration of humanity and non-humanity alike within the dark spaces of the juke joint where all can be free together.
American Folklore’s Rough and RowdyWays
His choice of title reference classic folk music by way of Jimmie Rodgers. The adjectives of Rough and Rowdy are masculine in nature. Playful but potentially dangerous like people themselves. A Dylanesque wink to the underlying violence packed within the culture. Dylan loves to use folklore and tall tales for referents to his lyrics. This album is more than worthy of his best works. His mystique is intact; here now his innermost troubles are laid bare.
A 10 stanza poem that could have been a part of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” In the sixth stanza he invokes the ‘I’ in repetition:
“I searched the world over, for the holy grail, I sing songs of love, I sing songs of betrayal. Don’t care what I drink, I don’t care what I eat, I climb the mountain of swords On my bare feet.”
Mr. Dylan is baring his soul like never before throughout this record. In the verse quoted above you here his artistic declaration of mission. He once again invokes his religious beliefs too. Willing to climb a mountain of swords in bare feet is a form of stigmata.
“My Own Version Of You”
Expressing his heart’s desire to create his own Frankenstein—like creature in his image to be able to assign it the qualities he feels are required to balance the world. The lyrics here are macabre yet have a restless play about them:
“I’ll take the Scarface Pacino and The Godfather Brando Mix it up in a tank and get a robot commando “
Using fictional toughs from the 1970s in ‘The Godfather’ and 1980s in ‘Scarface’ as his character ingredients expresses the raw masculine imagination at work. A modern American ethos is applied here.
Dylan appeals to Julius Caesar, St. Peter, Mr. Freud, and Mr. Marx. As usual for the Ancients to connect to the Moderns as the basis for a new brain. Politics, Religion, and Philosophy—these are the areas of human endeavor forever swirling around in Mr. Dylan’s grey matter too.
“I wannabring someone to life, turn back the years Do it with laughter and do it with tears“
The strongest desire of all seems to be the return of older values and ideas. The masks of comedy and tragedy must always balance the equation of reality and fiction.
“I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You“
The love poem of the album is addressed to an unknown woman (or perhaps every listener). A nice ballad delivered pretty straight and dry. In contrast to all of the other songs here this track stands out as the least grim.
“I’m giving myself to you, I am From Salt Lake City to Birmingham From East L.A. to San Antone I don’t think I can bear to live my life alone“
Mr. Dylan has had two marriages that produced 2 grown sons. His declaration here becomes clear. He wants to give up his lonely wandering.
A 5 verse poem that reinforces letting go of youthful recklessness. The doppelganger of violent intent is warned to release its grip or be hacked to pieces. The song is the simplest one here.
“Goodbye Jimmy Reed”
A 6 verse poem expressing Mr. Dylan’s goodbye to the blues. Mr. Reed is the most influential bluesman who passed back in 1976. He is the connective blood and tissue to Mr. Dylan’s other friends, Elvis and The Rolling Stones who covered Mr. Reed’s songs.
“Mother of Muses”
A poetic prayer expressed with a selfish desire to have the top muse all to himself.
Mother of Muses, wherever you are I’ve already outlived my life by far
In seeming desperation he lays his soul out for her to see. That life has now gone on too long. He needs her injection of spirit. Perhaps to fill the void if he lets go of his former life.
“Crossing The Rubicon”
Reinforcing his connection with the Ancients via Julius Caesar again, here to express a dedication to a new and risky course. This is a 9 verse poem that Dylanologists will love parsing among themselves. The densest work in this collection. Great poetic phrasing with just the right dose of abstraction.
“Key West (Pirate Philosopher)”
4 Verses of philosophy; 4 choruses describe Key West. This is the second longest track here. It serves as Prelude to Disc 2’s opus, “Murder Most Foul”.
In such simple verse Mr. Dylan crystallizes his ways. Key West is flat land where he can keep his feet planted firmly and listen closely to a pirate radio signal for inspiration and peace.
My favorite lines make up Chorus 4:
“Key West is the place to be If you’re looking for immortality Key West is paradise divine Key West is fine and fair If you lost your mind, you’ll find it there Key West is on the horizon line”
Throughout his years writing songs Bob Dylan embraces places real and imagined as Eden–like. Key West is now his present flashpoint in life. It represents his cohorts: Ginsberg, Corso, and Kerouac; his greatest influencers: Louis, Jimmy, and Buddy.
This song closes out Disc 1. Key West is defined by Dylan as a tonic for life. The epic track on Disc 2 acts as counterpoint to the divine.
“Murder Most Foul” is a nation’s fall from grace as well as an individual’s reckoning.
Due to the length and depths of that track I gave an entire blog entry over to it.
Bob Dylan is that rare artist who continues to be inspired by the myriad roads travelled and the places he has seen. At once worldly and still forever in deep love with his own country, he is able to imbue his work with just the right amount of ambiguity and self—worth. He has become a true Renaissance man. I am a grateful listener.
Tool and Rammstein both returned after prolonged absences to deliver some of their original metal.
Reading is a commercial free pleasure that always offers too many worthy titles.
The long-awaited follow up to “The Handmaid’s Tale”, “The Testaments ” by Margaret Atwood brought an end to the dystopian saga.
Stephen King’s “The Institute” provided plenty suspense while Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys” examined the disparities of our penal system.
Here I briefly remind my kind readers to pick up a good read for a sharp mind.
Music first. In no particular order these are my favorites for 2019.
Rammstein/ Untitled the German steel unleashed their seventh studio effort this year. A minimal art image on the cover of an unstruck match allows for infinite interpretation.
Like previous records in the band’s arsenal they convey their messages in masterfully crafted bursts of metal blended with synth and industrial sounds.
I had to listen more than once to appreciate the sonic aptitude of the music involved here.
Despite the fact that all their songs are in German as a metalhead you come to realize it’s the most amazing synergy with this genre.
Tool/ Fear Inoculum had a lot riding on it’s success or failure. After 13 years the band delivered their most assured set.
Complete with epic length songs, interludes, and fantastic artwork it brought fans new and old into their fold.
Opeth/ In Cauda Venenumis an earthly delight from the doom metal stalwarts.
A funeral trip that engages a sense of hope beyond the grave. This is a band that remains focused from first riff to last outro growl. A true opus.
Dragonforce/Extreme Power Metal I feel energized when I listen to the galeforce delivery here. Infused with great keyboards and tasty metal licks with thick choruses you too will hail our bright future.
Bright and colorful with brilliant musicianship, this album testifies to the kinetic energy inherent in power metal. It’s like Styx on steroids!
Candlemass/ The Door To Doom Death metal has had a strong year. This veteran group released quite a slab.
A tight set that runs 48 minutes. ‘Splendor Demon Majesty’ opens with a grand salute to the dark lord.
The record builds on all the classic instrumentation of Black Sabbath. A 1970s groove permeates. And this is a great result.
In fact, Sabbath founder Tony Iommi is featured on track 3—‘Astorolus-The Great,Octopus ‘. Sludgy and deep riffs abound.
Doomy choral backing vocals add to the impact. You will want to open this door many, many times!
Notable authors provided a feast for readers in 2019. Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Colson Whitehead, Delia Owens, Dean Kuipers, and Elizabeth Gilbert made my cut.
Where The Crawdads Sing/Delia Owens has now been near or at the top of The New York Times bestseller list for over 60 weeks!
It deserves this honor. A great story of survival against all odds. A young girl’s family abandons her in the marsh.
She will grow up alone in their beach shack. And along the way she gets accused of murder.
Teaching herself to become self sufficient she teaches her would be enemies in the art of love and forgiveness.
City of Girls/ ElizabethGilbert is a story set in 1930’s and 1940’s New York City. A young woman drops out of an elite college.
Sent to live with her eccentric aunt in the city who runs a playhouse.
A friend recommended this novel. If you love theater you must check it out!
The Nickel Boys/ Colson Whitehead a story of two boys incarceration in a reform school in Florida. Unknown to out of state authorities the systemic horrors of Jim Crow are alive and well.
The Deer Camp/Dean Kuipers a memoir of growing up in rural Michigan.
How a boy grows up to become an activist in New York only to discover that his estranged father needs him for his own life. His family’s survival depends on it.
A great exploration of healthy masculine ideals.
The Institute/Stephen King Young Luke Ellis is abducted, his parents are killed, and that is just the start of his new life as a subject of the mysterious lab he is now a part.
King keeps the suspense gripping and the facts that cometo light illuminate our current horrifying climate of espionage and black site operations.
The Testaments/ Margaret Atwood the conclusion of the dystopian tale of women’s demotion back into handmaids.
Gilead’s secrets are about to be leaked globally. A runaway becomes the symbol of a final reckoning that will reduce this cruel social to rubble.
On July 27, 1979 an album called “Highway To Hell” was released in America from an Australian rock group that called themselves AC/DC.
Although this entry is solely about their 1979 breakthrough, I talk about their origin. I do not assume everyone will know about their history.
Formed by brothers Angus & Malcolm, produced by their brother George, the record was licensed to Atlantic records for release in the US.
The entire Young family lived in Scotland until 1963 when the worst freeze in history dropped 8 feet of snow. The Young clan emigrated to South Wales, Australia.
Everything about them would seem unremarkable until you hear their blues boogie driven by memorable riffs and solid backing rhythm. Angus Young likes to hit his audience directly with memorable riffs.
I think their music is deceptively simple. Harking back to the origins of rock n roll their music was influenced by their brother George who scored hits with his group, The Easy Beats. Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Pete Townsend, Jimi Hendrix, and The Kinks were their idols.
The brothers Young had a sister named Margaret who saw ac/dc on her sewing machine. The lightning bolt between the letters signifying alternate and direct current denoted high voltage. She gave them their name. This moniker would prove genuine as the group was a personification of high energy electric rock n roll.
Angus Young went through a few ideas for his stage look. The funniest was a parody of Superman called Super Angus. Again, Margaret suggested he just wear his old schoolboy uniform.
My first encounter with this Aussie quintet was in 1979 at a store in Cross County Shopping Mall in Yonkers, NY. Pickwick Village was a shop that sold rock music memorabilia. T Shirts, posters, framed photographic images of bands, and lots of other goodies.
I came across an image in a frame unlike any being previously seen. His scowl was not scary but kind of cool. The frame had a simple label at the bottom that read: Angus Young of AC/DC (the band’s name was in logo form). Although I did not buy the item since I had never heard of him, it still made an impression.
Because of the band’s high place in rock history today it’s important to remember how most bands endure hardship to earn this status.
“Highway To Hell”, the sixth studio album from AC/DC, was produced by Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange. Bon Scott on vocals, Angus Young on lead guitar, Malcolm Young on rhythm guitar, Cliff Williams on Bass and Phil Rudd on drums.
It was the first time they recorded outside of Australia. The studio was in London. All 10 tracks were written by Angus, Malcolm, and Bon. Sadly, this would prove to be the final recordings of Bon Scott as lead vocalist/frontman for the group.
Despite Atlantic records not being happy with the band’s choice of title they released “Highway To Hell” with a photograph by Jim Houghton on the cover different from the Australian release.
They subtracted the image of the group engulfed in flame to a portrait. Angus wears his devil horns for the first time becoming the eternal problem child. Below on the left is the album cover in Australia. To the right a t-shirt with the American album cover.
In America, AC/DC broke into the top 40, hitting #17 on Billboard’s albums chart (U.K. #5). This put the band’s image in the spotlight in a culture that had many detractors.
The satanic implications were attacked by various authorities in America. This enabled the record to get more coverage. In fact, Atlantic Records embraced the commercial success of the album in print ads with copy that declared “an album worth selling your soul for.”
You may have noticed Angus is holding a tail! The song titles set the course for future releases. AC/DC became famous for their prankster approach to simple lyrics. This hard rock music was new at the time. The melodic strains would influence the coming decade’s groups like Van Halen and Motley Crue.
If you think hard rock is just purile and sexist you are missing the devil may care attitude of most artists. Along with the lust driven “Touch Too Much” is the counterpoint of “Shot Down In Flames”. Mischief is their midas touch.
In 1979 there was a heavy metal movement in Britain that brought Iron Maiden and Def Leppard to these shores. AC/DC’s image was assumed to be part of this culture. I know they are a solid hard rock outfit. This is fine. They were never a metal band.
Listening back to “Highway To Hell” for the first time in years I was surprised to find I heard how similar Def Leppard are in their sound to AC/DC. Sharing the same producer gave them a mutual vibe. On this album producer Lange instructed them to use backing vocals. This approach added new layers to their sound.
The tour for this record gave them exposure to arena sized audiences too. They opened for Styx, Kiss, Kansas, & ELO. Co-headlining a show with Cheap Trick was the next step up the ladder of rock stardom.
Prior to making the record Angus Young clarified that years spent on the road performing was its own kind of hell. Producer Mutt Lange (Def Leppard, Celine Dion, Shania Twain, et. al.) challenged them on every note. Their studio schedule was grueling.
Instead of their usual 3 weeks to record they spent 8 weeks at Roundhouse Studios. The now famous opening riff was almost lost. The demo of the track got damaged. Angus remembered it note for note. Each day was 16 hours of recording and re-recording.
Sexual innuendo has been a part of rock n roll since its inception. In the early 1970s, AC/DC had a glam image back home. In their pub gigs they were outfits of satan trousers. That would be stripped away to match their clothes with the raw power of their music.
Bon would don leather pants on occassion, but nothing glittery. Angus in his school uniform would prove to be the stuff of legend. AC/DC went through many changes before they got attention. They had a punk like attitude too. Bon in rough denims and no shirt.
“Girls Got Rhythm”, “Get It Hot”, “Touch Too Much”, and “Love Hungry Man” were all cut from similar cloth. Like Kiss, their music would be decried as too sexist and simple. Their response was to just play. The music was meant to be foreplay for a new generation.
They developed stage antics with Angus on Bon’s shoulders running all over while performing. Both would end up shirtless for the duration. In the middle of the show Angus would perform a striptease. Fans love them for their rock n roll bravado.
Their concerts would grow into spectacle. New songs would add props to the proceedings; better equipment would lead to lighting and sound unimaginable in the 70’s.
I read interviews Angus gave over the years in Circus magazine and Rolling Stone. He said the band always made the record they wanted to hear.
As long as they sold enough to satisfy the label they were happy. This humble approach paid off tremendously. Artists never know how a record will be received.
Alongside Queen, Kiss, Def Leppard, and Cheap Trick, the band hit the big time with this record. Because of significant sales their ability to make records without too much interference from their label continued to this day.
As of May 2005, the recording industry has certified “Highway To Hell” as 7x Platinum in America. This translates as 7 million copies sold.
The tour never played The Garden in New York. Their only stop here was up in Buffalo. Their fan following would soon enable them to play to larger audiences.
Like the other groups mentioned here, decades after their births in the 70’s, the Rock Hall Of Fame inducted them.
I did not start listening to AC/DC until my teen years in the 1980’s. Every record was on compact disc including this one. It was my 2nd AC/DC record. I have listened to them ever since seeing 4 concerts too.
The film “Let There Be Rock” played theaters in America in September of 1980, just 7 months after his death, it features Bon Scott’s final live performance in Paris on “The Highway To Hell” tour. This film is now a dvd/blu-ray set.
Bon Scott died from alcohol poisoning in February 1980. There was speculation they were finished. They recorded the 7th album with Mutt Lange. In tribute to Bon, it was called “Back In Black”. That album now famously sits atop the rock n roll heap as the 2nd biggest studio album ever sold in America.
Today, the band are about to announce plans for a new world tour and album. The death of Angus’ brother Malcolm kept them silent for 2 years. With this anniversary the group are showing renewed signs of life.
Over the decades of recording and playing concerts around the world Angus Young’s image has been at the core of their album cover art.
The school uniform image has been refined to fancier silk suits. In their youth Angus also wore a satchel style backpack. He has evolved into a rock icon. He remains the sole founding member of the group.
A high school dropout who has had the same occupation for almost 50 years! He would be the first to tell you not to follow this example.
On the left is the refined version of the logo; On the right is the debut album, “High Voltage”, not available in the US until several years after the Australian release since there was no label interest.
AC/DC have never rested on their laurels. In their infancy the band recorded the track, “It’s A Long Way To The Top” (if you wanna rock n roll). Nearly 50 years on they are still exciting the world with their high voltage sound and image.
Thanks for spending a moment here! Please follow if you enjoy Evan’s Gate.
To my regular readers, I appreciate your shared presence. We are all misfits that belong together.
August brings the 50th Anniversary of Woodstock. The music festival became a historical moment for many reasons. Time to celebrate this main event.
The above comes from the Merriam—Webster dictionary definition of Weird. For myself this was the word that always popped into my head when I thought about Frank Zappa. Not surprising that a single word could then be translated in many colorful ways. Much like the sonic experiments Mr. Zappa created, his listeners would receive a bounty that would never get exhausted.
This entry is happening now because on Friday May 31, 2019 for the first time on vinyl since 1976 comes a re-issue of “Zappa In New York” on 3 Lps. Recorded during a 4 show stint at The Palladium in New York City. Originally a double LP, the third record is a bonus!
Before I delve into my thoughts about the work, how did it come to be?
In 1964 Frank Zappa took over leadership of the American band The Soul Giants. He renamed the band The Mothers, referring to the jazz compliment of mother for a great musician. However, their record company, Verve Records , objected to the insinuation (i.e., “motherfuckers”) and by necessity Zappa had to change the name, creating (and defining) The Mothers Of Invention.
Necessity is the mother of invention” is an English-language proverb. It means, roughly, that the primary driving force for most new inventions is a need.
Mr. Zappa’s need drove him to create music that would provide new pathways for musicians and listeners.
As a music lover I am relieved that my appreciation of his work comes after my obsessions with mainstream groups. Music is exploratory by nature. As a listener I need to be challenged. Following the former years of passive media consumption I want to be more actively engaged. Music does this for me. But like many of my fellow countrymen I listened to what was put before me, not what I actually made an effort to get. In an age where over produced pop is drowning us in simplicity I need complexity.
Now, in this age of information, the legacy of his vast body of work can be understood as a rigorous expression of subjects Mr. Zappa cared deeply about. Nothing to do with easy access or top 40 popularity. This music is label free. Fusion is the word used to describe what is the core of his output. He puts styles together to form a new sound.
Remaining outside the mainstream culture of mass consumer popularity Mr. Zappa is being reached for the first time by people like myself who remained in a fractured mindset. Applying self-made restrictions on what to hear or think about prevented finding this revolutionary sound.
Tellingly, Mr. Zappa spoke openly about the damaging effects of television that enable a crippling passivity. People become narrow and confused, bogged down in just one form of expression. Taught to consume without much thought. Creativity becomes necessity in such a culture. In his lifetime he released 60 albums of original work. The Zappa Family Trust, since his death in 1993, has put out 62 more works.
For a complete list of the 112 studio albums and 40 tribute albums use this link:
Even back in the late 1960s the idea of free thought was constrained by profit. His albums beginning with the debut, “Freak Out!”, sought to obliterate this filter. Without a filter he put out a record titled, “We’re Only In It For The Money”, with cover art that mocked the lionized “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. The rock era is filled to overflowing with artists that sought nothing more than commercial acceptance. Nothing wrong with it. There is more to art than just profit.
I admit that my first impression of him was typical of a kid too young to understand anything more than top 40 drivel. Here was a guy with looks I found peculiar playing music that had sounds I could not readily decipher or pigeonhole. My prejudices were taught. Today there are more people with Zappa’s looks of otherness. I think this is encouraging. He brought humor into forms considered serious like jazz and blues.
Way-out experiments are not the commercial fruit bearing endeavors record companies want from their talent. Frank Zappa did it because there was within him a strong need to invent sounds that could not exist otherwise. He sought out musicians that could play this no boundaries music.
On YouTube there are several hours worth of interviews from different countries and years. His opinions were direct, smart, and well thought out. Knowing full well that America’s self-deception was the thing hurting the nation from era to era, Zappa spoke about our deep backwardness regarding sexuality and free expression.
“The American dream is to always be young, always be rich, and always be cute”— Frank Zappa
Sexuality was the pressing issue. He felt strongly that sex is as natural a function as going to the bathroom. In American culture many are taught to repress sexual expression. Look at what the result of this has been. Zappa did not believe in pornography or dirty words. Filters like religion and television have done damage in dictating that there is something wrong with sex. Notice how absent most expressions of sexuality are from our media. He recognized most license holders in television are right-wing.
I admire his tenacity when expressing these things. I agree with a lot of it. To fix the economy he stated that churches should be taxed. Then legalize prostitution and drugs. Both should be highly taxed and regulated. Make sure our politicians get what they need, especially sex.
Everyone in the country would have better jobs because America would be manufacturing goods. The economy would then be quite strong. And stop overfunding the military. I think this is why so many wanted him to run for President during the 1980s. Boldly put, do you really want sexually repressed people in places of power?
Speaking of power nobody was more aware of television’s deliberate consumer mission: to sell products. His 1978 appearance on Saturday Night Live was my first exposure to his music and personality. “Dancin’ Fool” was the catchy number I remember most. Re-watching it I discovered how relevant the other two pieces were in presenting his ideas. Click here to see it: https://youtu.be/PGWE7t3qO1I
Actually, after seeing it again now as an adult I think of Frank Zappa on the simple level of a George Carlin type with musical talent. Intellectual, probing, and skeptical of what we as a society think culture should be.
Mr. Zappa was a champion of First Amendment rights. In the 1980s when the Parent’s Music Resource Center, a group made up of politician’s wifes including Tipper Gore tried to censor rock music, Mr. Zappa testified before Congress. He defended the rights of all. He knew an attack on any form of music was an attack on him as well.
I think he would find the current state of things typical. We are still fighting over race, sexuality, gender, censorship, and inequality. The continuing legalization of marijuana would be progress, slow, but a forward step he might have been happy to see. Just imagine the Zappa response to ‘reality’ TV and ‘social’ media that do the opposite of what they pretend to be. Zappa was quite real and social. A real mother.
Details of the 40th Anniversary release of Zappa In New York set (seen above) are here:
Getting back to how I started this entry. Can we define Zappa? I think we cannot. Fluidity is the main thing in art. Zappa the musician. That’s enough for me.
I have started listening from the beginning with the first 4 albums by The Mothers Of Invention. The first two solo albums were added too.
There may be more entries about Frank Zappa in the future. Although I still need to write about the albums and artists that were at the core of my love of music, the boundaries are ever expanding. The gate is always open.
Nearly 50 years ago a young would be singer appeared on the rock n roll landscape performing his first ever top ten single, “Your Song”. His first record, “Empty Sky”, was not released in the U.S. until 1975. He has 32 albums, over 300 million records sold worldwide, and currently performing live in arenas all over the world for the last time.
Reginald Dwight was his name. He played tennis. Piano lessons came at an early age. He performed a lot as a kid then eventually wound up in a group called Bluesology. Then he changed his name to become a rocker. He took the names of two bandmates in his former group, Elton Dean (Saxophonist) and Long John Baldry (Vocalist) to come up with his new name, Elton John. The name was a tribute to his mates. This would become a lifelong trait.
On Friday, May 31, a new biopic, “Rocketman” will hit theaters. Telling the story of his formative years including a difficult family life and his initial rise to rock stardom. The R-rated film stars Taron Egerton as Elton and Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin. I am quite excited about the film. Presented as a ‘real’ fantasy, the film will surely be a fanciful trip.
My listening over the years regarding Mr. John’s output has been quite spotty. Honestly I prefer much heavier rock than the pop he composes, but cannot deny his success. Quite frankly I feel he deserves his name to be singular like Cher or Sting. When researching for this entry I re-discovered how I first came into contact with his music.
Each listener comes to an artist’s work in different ways. Whenever I heard his name I pictured the oversize eyeglasses he sported. I learned about his name change and the construction of his public persona later on in books and magazines. I was a kid in the seventies. I was seduced by the camp and androgynous rockers of the time. Marc Bolan of T-Rex, Freddie Mercury of Queen, and Elton John are my favorite three of those days. Sir Elton is the sole survivor of that raucous era.
In 1967, Dwight answered an advertisement in the British magazine New Musical Express, placed by Ray Williams, then the A&R manager for Liberty Records. At their first meeting, Williams gave Dwight an envelope with lyrics written by Bernie Taupin, who had answered the same ad. Elton would compose the music to fit the lyrics. He would send the music back to Bernie in the post. The two men’s partnership endures to this day.
During the 1970s I was certainly aware of Elton John. ‘Crocodile Rock’, ‘Bennie and the Jets’, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ were performed on “The Muppet Show” which he hosted. It was not until the 1980s that I would listen to a full album of his work let alone purchase one of his albums. Then came the second moment of impact, a concert in the park, attended by 400,000 people and aired on HBO within 3 months of John Lennon’s death. This was a show that included Lennon’s song, “Imagine”.
Elton John’s Concert In Central Park (Fall 1980)
On the left Elton John started the concert in this flashy suit. On the right side he came out for his encores dressed as Donald Duck! I never forgot this show. When his next album appeared I bought it.
However, it was not until the appearance of his May 1983 release that I would be a fan for life. This was to become his best-selling album of the 1980s. “Too Low For Zero” was quite personal too. Mr. John’s turning point from over the top excess in the 1970s to a more conservative approach. The album was his arrival on MTV with hit videos made for every single released. ‘I’m Still Standing’ was his declaration of survival.
A cocaine habit and bulemia almost cost him everything. He was closeted until 1988 when he officially came out as gay. His AIDS foundation has raised countless millions for people afflicted around the globe.
Sadly, ‘Empty Garden’, a tribute to the late John Lennon had him reflecting on the loss of his friend. Unfortunately there were many to come. I came to understand him as a pop star with a defined mission to help those in need and never stop trying to reach new listeners. His longevity is remarkable.
During the 1990s his image and career would change considerably. After the tragic death of Princess Diana he re-released ‘Candle In The Wind’ with new lyrics from Bernie Taupin. It became the biggest single of all-time.
The Disney Company hired him to perform original songs for their animated film, “The Lion King” which proved to be a global smash. Mr. John would win an Oscar in the process. He was now a film composer! With Tim Rice he wrote, “Can You Feel The Love Tonight”. Now kids of all ages were fans too.
Staying relevant is always a challenge for famous people. Elton John has managed to do so after many ups and downs. Following The Lion King would be hard. The movie “Billy Elliott” would be the ticket. The movie featured the music of T-Rex. Elton saw the film knowing in his heart it could be made into a stage musical with original music.
“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, “Too Low For Zero”, “The One”, “Made In England”, and “The Captain and the Kid” are my favorite albums. They cover 4 decades of pop and rock.
I have seen Elton John perform many times. I worked at Tower Records in the 1990s. I got to meet Elton in person! He always shopped for new music every month. Always interested in what is happening in the current musical culture has kept him alive.
His performance Co-headlining Shea Stadium in New York City with Eric Clapton in support of “The One” was one of the best shows I have seen. Elton covered Queen’s “The Show Must Go On” in tribute to his fallen friend, Freddie Mercury. It was the first time I had heard a Queen song live!
Elton John & Billy Joel would tour together. I went every time. Each sang the other’s songs. Selling out football stadiums in this era was standard for the piano men.
Elton John encouraged Mr. Joel to tour. Today, he is his own music franchise at Madison Square Garden in New York.
At 72, Elton John can be proud of a life well-lived. Everything comes at a price. He knows his persona will be public property forever. Following his Goodbye Tour he wants to settle with his children and husband.
I think he will return for special events. His songs have been featured in movies, musicals, radio and television. The unkown Reginald Dwight became Elton John. He has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. Sir Elton Hercules John. I will just call him ELTON.
I love music. My parent’s had records and a victrola when I was a kid. There was a piano in our house. It’s still there. I should have been more vocal about wanting lessons on piano and guitar. I was the youngest of three boys. I wanted to be a rock musician.
In my childhood anything expressed in an artful way or generally non-conformist method was simply called weird. Unfortunately this allowed truly visionary artists like Lou Reed, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Pattie Smith to slip past me. Then there was Devo.
A group who dressed alike to make a point about conformity, consumerism, and politics. I saw them on Saturday Night Live. I was not buying records yet. In matching jumpsuits with the name of the group in bold block letters they seemed so….weird. There is that blanket word of dismissal again!
Following decades where I listened to every major rock group on the planet I re-discovered the aforementioned artists like they were new. I found out why their look and sound seemed so outside the norms.
After decades of dominance by the guitar then electric guitar Devo’s music placed the guitar outside the groove. Replacing it with the new technology of the synthesizer. The synth would be at the core of this music. The recording industry labeled this sound New Wave or Post-Punk. I do not think Devo were ever really pigeonholed by their fans.
Thanks to David Bowie and Iggy Pop, the group from Akron, Ohio who met at Kent State University where they were students got signed by Warner Brothers records.
They believed that succumbing to a group think mentality the culture was de-evolving. Hence the name Devo.
Devo consisted of two sets of brothers, the Mothersbaughs (Mark and Bob) and the Casales (Gerald and Bob), along with drummer Alan Myers.”
I began listening to the 6 records the band made with Warners because of Record Store Day 2019. Each year the music industry’s record labels put out a list of titles to feature as exclusives to celebrate independent record stores around the world.
Warner Bros decided to issue a box set of all 6 Devo albums on color vinyl. I have been listening to the digital versions of each release. These are new records to me. I must admit after being such a static listener of guitar oriented music the sounds made by this group were fresh. I literally fell back in love with the pure joy of finding something that excitited my ears, my mind, and my heart.
The first 2 records have been my focus for now. I think it stood out with their approach to their art. Appearing like aliens from The Twilight Zone sent to observe life on earth, the music of Devo satirized our conception of gender, power, and work. I argue they were presenting a sneak peak of the future.
If you missed it like I did you were doomed to just go along with the crowd. Arguably most of us did just that in the 1980s. Punk or Metalhead? Freedom of Choice or conformity of a new tradition? Each record raised these questions of what direction society might take.
The title of their debut had the audacity to be a Q & A. Seen below are the first 4 albums on the Warner Bros label. A fem but masculine male framed in the whiteness of golf, a straight laced image. The answer was a defiant No, We Are DEVO.
Challenging our norms right from the start with songs like “Mongoloid” and “Jocko Homo”. The first of these two songs was about a man with Downs Syndrome who fit into society because he “wore a hat, had a job, and brought home the bacon”. A theoretical critique describing how those who might be perceived as different must find a way to fit into the proscribed norms of the day.
The latter song title refers to de-evolution. Humans are ape men. The call and response track is anthemic. The band’s artful delivery back in the 1970s were often seen as a new form of fascism or clowning or both. But I think Devo was being clever in presenting their satire and opinions as a new form of music that a listener could find on their own terms. The questions are interesting. We may never have all the answers. But we have in our hands this unique artform.
On “Freedom Of Choice”, seen below the third record from left to right included “Whip It” which became their biggest hit, peaking at #14 in America. The song is a sincere cynical laugh at the cockeyed optimism of Americans. All our problems can be solved if we just simply whip them. The whip is a loaded symbol of repression and brutality used here as the over simplification of universal problem solver.
Making fun of all the self-help tropes of the day (still in use today) are the lyrics:
Try to detect it
Listening to their music for the first time (except “Whip It”) I could understand what they were trying to say. In a lot of ways we were getting the future in preview. A world where a selected group would make the majority feel like the world is beautiful and we just need to conform to be happy.
Devo made videos at a time before the launch of MTV. Their clip for “Mongoloid” made use of stock footage to create the first video that used the art technique of collage. I would argue that this is part of what makes Devo a worthy candidate for the Museum Of Modern Art as well as the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame. The latter institution failed to induct them again this past year.
Devo in my opinion were a kind of prologue to our new century. Their theory of Devolution is seen in the ‘smart’ screens that have us in their grip daily. Societal behaviors are changing. We have regressed into a culture of looking down, sticking to the tribe, and thinking we just have to be optimistic all the time.