Thursday, February 20, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Devo "Freedom Of Choice" (1980)

Cover of "Freedom of Choice Deluxe Remast...
Cover via Amazon
"The beginning was the end..."  - Devo, "Gates Of Steel"

Guitarist and founding member of Devo, Bob Casale (a/k/a Bob #2), passed away on Tuesday at the far too young age of 61. In his memory, there's been a lot of the Spudboys' music being played around Ruttville this week.  If you can manage to sidestep 1984's misbegotten Shout and the contemporarily released non-LP single "Theme From Doctor Detroit," it's pretty tough to go wrong anywhere in the Devo catalog (and even Shout has its moments: the title track, "Here To Go" and the wacky re-imagining of Jimi Hendrix's "Are U Experienced?")  Of course, Devotees will tend to lean heavily on the first two albums, and it's tough to argue with the simply classic opening salvo of Devolutionism, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo or its lesser-known but every bit as wonderful follow-up Duty Now For The Future.  But for me, their third album, 1980's Freedom Of Choice, remains the go-to record when I need a good shot of Devo's unique lunacy.

Part of my affinity for this album lies in the fact that in a collection that now boasts close to 3500 titles, Freedom Of Choice was one of my earliest additions.  The record has been getting airplay in my home for over thirty years!  Beyond that, the album is just flat out excellent from start to finish.  Not a clinker to be found here.  And while it was not an obvious grab at commercial acceptance or mainstream radio airplay, it is Devo at their most "pop," their most accessible, and it does contain their most well-known song, "Whip It."

Jerky, robotic rhythms are still the rule on Freedom, but the sound is less antiseptic than on the first two albums.  The yellow radiation suits were abandoned in favor of the famous flowerpot hats, a more humanized visual to match the more accessible sound.  While traditional guitars are certainly background players here, Devo had not yet gone fully synthesized. (That would happen with the next album, New Traditionalists.) The result is a fuller, tougher sound than is heard on any other album bearing the Devo name.

"Whip It"  is only the centerpiece of the album because history painted it that way.  It's buried in the middle of side one, just another track on album full of hook-laden, energetic, synth-heavy tunes.  If "Whip It" scored so big, it remains a puzzle why similarly styled tracks like "Girl U Want," "Freedom Of Choice" or "Gates Of Steel" weren't every bit as big.  For those looking for the expected Devo goofiness, "Ton O' Luv" and "That's Pep!" fit the bill nicely; the surprisingly touching "Snowball" shows that the previously emotionless Spuds know heartbreak as well as any of us.  Even apparent throwaways "Cold War" and "Don't You Know" are good enough to be lead tracks on virtually any other New Wave bands' albums.  And the final one-two punch of "Mr. B's Ballroom" (with its hiccuppy "whoa-whoa-oh-oh" chorus) and "Planet Earth" (not the same song as the identically titled Duran Duran single) is simply excellent.

Unlike many other New Wave albums of its time, Freedom Of Choice really doesn't sound terribly dated today.  Well worth adding to your own collection if you don't already own it.

R.I.P., Bob #2.

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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Throwback Thursday: The Fleshtones "Hexbreaker!" (1983)

Yesterday, the mighty Fleshtones released their newest album, Wheel Of Talent, on Yep-Roc records. This is the 22nd album for the boys from Queens, and the first track from it to reach the light of day is a bit of a nostalgia/tribute in honor of another pretty damn good NY band:

Haven't picked up the new LP myself yet (soon...soon), but I have been giving some airtime to my favorite from their vast catalog, 1983's magnificent Hexbreaker! 

The Fleshtones' brand of garage rock has always been about the party.  They're having fun singing and playing and they want to make sure you're having fun, too.  You can't not smile while listening to the Fleshtones, and you better not try and sit still in the corner - this is get up and dance around like no one is watching music, and it never shang-a-langed so brightly as on this, their second full length album for I.R.S. Records (a debut album was recorded circa 1979 for Marty Thau's New York-based Red Star Records, but only the "Amercian Beat" single saw release before that label collapsed. I.R.S. snapped the band up; those original Red Star masters were later released as Blast Off!)

With echoes of sixties nuggets like The Blues Magoos, The Standells and The Animals (Peter Zaremba's voice at times does sound a bit like Eric Burdon's) yet still reflecting the sounds of contemporaries such as New York Dolls, Suicide and, yes, The Ramones, The Fleshtones carved out their own sound, dubbed "Super-Rock!" That sound is immeditaely defined by the jarring guitar crash leading up to Zaremba's shout of "CHA!" that kicks off the opening track, "Deep In My Heart." Launching into a reedy farfisa-driven rocker that shakes you awake and culminating in actual crashes of thunder, the opener seems tough to beat.  But there are plenty of party tricks up these guys' sleeves.

Care for some bubblegum? "What's So New (About You)?" is stick-to-your-teeth sugary.  A fuzz guitar, a clap-along melody and that ever-present farfisa will leave you wanting more of this gooey sugary confection, but instead you're being whisked downtown on an ambulance ride: "Screamin' Skull" is a mildly harrowing account of a drug trip gone bad, but damn if you can't sing along with it.  After a wailing-sax instrumental break ("Legend (Of A Wheelman)"), you're hit with the punk rave-up "New Scene" and then the absolutely excellent title track. In another, more perfect world, "Hexbreaker" could have been "Louie, Louie."  A basic, repetitive guitar line, a bit of a soulful strut, and a recording that sounds like it's taking place at an actual party - it's wonderful stuff, and by the end of side one, you'll wonder if they can top what they've done so far.

The answer is immediate, as side two opens with the incredible "Right Side Of A Good Thing," perhaps the most Fleshtones-sounding song The Fleshtones ever did (and that is saying something, my friends!)  With its hysterical falsetto chorus and bubbling bass, it's a nearly perfect distillation of everything The 'Shtones stand for: fun, positivity, and damn good music.  "Brainstorm"  and "New Scene" keeps the party going, while "This House Is Empty" slows things down about a half step between them.  The album ends with the only non-original, John Lee Hooker's "Burning Hell," which is given the full Super-Rock! treatment and as a result is the perfect way to close out the album.

Few albums are as strong start to finish as this one, and while The Fleshtones can sometimes be guilty of retreading the same sounds, there's a reason why you stick with what works.  On Hexbreaker!, everything works.  Toss it on the turntable and you've got yourself an instant party - what more could you ask for?

(Hexbreaker! was issued on CD as a 2-for-1 with Speed Connection - Live In Paris '85 in 2010.)

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sometimes You Can't Go Back

For three years, from my first grade through third grade years, my family lived in Shillington, PA, a suburb of Reading.  Governor Mifflin Apartments, the development where we lived during that stretch, looked every bit of the year we moved in, 1973: long brick buildings in the style of colonial mansions (set along cleverly named thruways with names like Colonial Drive and Mansion Drive...ahem), at each end of which were three floors of four apartments each. First-floor communal laundry rooms and halls of storage lockers tied the two ends together.

The central playground where we kids spent most of our time would terrify the safety-conscious parent of today, but in the 70s it was perfectly fine to have metal monkey bars, a metal swing set, a metal sliding board and a metal merry-go-round all baking in the summer sun on a canvas of macadam and surrounded by chicken wire fence.  We seared our skin, scraped knees and elbows regularly, lost teeth, got mildly impaled by bare ends of chicken wire, cracked skulls and more, but we all came out of it OK.  Builds character, right? There was even half a basketball court and a volleyball court in the back of the playground. Ever play volleyball on macadam surrounded by chicken wire fence?

Behind the playground was a small wooded area, with a path that led down to a little creek. It was a great place for us kids to build forts, climb trees, learn how to curse and how to smoke cigarettes and how to throw a punch. We were Tarzan swinging through the jungle; we'd make little ramps and jump our bikes over the creek in our best Evel Knievel impersonation; we'd make small fires and watch dead leaves burn.  If we were really lucky, some of the bigger kids would join us and tell us stories about how the world worked, but more often than not they'd just be there to chase us away so could use the woods for whatever the bigger kids did there (coming of age lessons I wouldn't be old enough to learn until after my family moved back to Lancaster).

There was, as there always is in each chapter of your life, a cast of characters, but 40 years on the names and faces grow hazy. Friends like Mike Magaro, who is one of the few whose last name I can remember because when we referred to him it was always as if his full name were one word: Mikemagaro.  There was an Indian girl, Shefali; a kid about year older also named Brian (I spell mine with a "y," but that wasn't the differentiator at that age - he was "Big Brian" and I was "Little Bryan"); Harry, who was always unfindable when we played hide-and-go-seek in the storage lockers; Adriene, the girl I walked home from school with each day and was my first grade "crush."  There was my first bully, Barry Winkler, who would chase us smaller kids around with rocks or his BB gun and relentlessly picked on me, sending me home in tears more times than I can count.  There was my first best friend, Steve Yoder.

Steve Yoder and I became friends in the second grade, and it was in my runnings around with Steve that I did many of the things already listed.  I taught myself how to ride a bike thanks to Steve letting me ride his before I actually had one of my own.  We'd spend hours playing air hockey at Steve's apartment, throw a football or baseball around on a weekend afternoon (or gather other kids and try to get a game of kickball going).  We had dinners with each other's families. Typical best-friend stuff.

After third grade, my family made the move back to Lancaster.  Soon, a new cast of characters replaced that Shillington crew, and as I got older memories of Shillington faded deeper into the background - never completely forgotten, but rarely thought of.  Not quite a year ago, I was digging through a box of some old school papers and other scribblings from my youth.  I had always written stories, back as far as kindergarten, and I was fortunate to have some teachers along the way - specifically, in Shillington, my first grade teacher, Miss Londeen, and third grade teacher, Mrs. Voigt, - who actively encouraged my writing and creativity.  Hidden in this box were stories I wrote back then, often using myself and my friends as the characters.

It made me a bit nostalgic, and I decided I was going to try to see if I could find any of the folks I would have known back in Shillington online.  I fired up Facebook, and the first name I thought to look for was my old friend Steve Yoder.  Well, in this area of the country, Yoders are as common as Smiths, and Steves are all over the place.  At least a hundred Steve Yoders popped up.  OK, let's see...what if I did a search for what would have been my graduating class had I stayed in Shillington? Sure enough, there is a group page for Governor Mifflin School District Class of 1985!  I figured this must be paydirt! Would I recognize any names?  If I joined the group, would anyone remember me from my three-year stint at the beginning of that class's journey through school?

I began to scroll through the page, and stopped about five posts in.  It was a link to Steve Yoder's obituary. Steve had been killed in an automobile accident in May of 2011.

I had not spoken with or even seen Steve Yoder in nearly 40 years; I had barely thought of Steve in that time either, save for brief bouts of nostalgia.  Yet, it was like being punched in the gut.  The first best friend I ever had in life had reached the end of his, more than a year before I had stumbled across this link to his obituary. There would be no "hey, remember me?"  No getting together for a beer after 40 years.  No finding an old friend.

That pretty much put the immediate brakes on my nostalgic search.  I didn't want to to know who else might be gone.  I tried to join the group's page, but it seems that group has been inactive for some time - no one appears to be moderating the page and my request to join is still languishing there.  Somehow appropriate.

That night, I sat quietly in my living room, with no TV or music, and raised a toast to my friend.  I don't know where we go when we're done here - the traditional concepts of Heaven and Hell seem far too cut and dried to me, yet I'd like to believe there is something more, some better place. Wherever that is, I hope that when my time to go there comes, I will finally get the chance to meet up once again with my old friend for some air hockey or to toss a baseball around.  Until then, I wish him peace. And, I have had reinforced in me that it is worth it to take the time to tell those you consider friends - good friends, best friends - how much you value their friendship. You never know when someone you'd least expect to be gone, will be.

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