Tuesday 14 July 2015

May 1980

Watch With Mothersbraugh

Devo are wearing Bill and Ben flowerpots on their heads when I meet up with them on a movie set at Universal Studios in Hollywood. I don’t like to say anything -- the daft todgers might take offence and boot me in the flubberglub.

It’s perfectly obvious to them what those pillar-box red plastic hats signify. 


Or, to be more precise, Aztec Winkies! Hats, it seems, are merely penile projectiles in the Devo dictionary of daffy definitions. 

‘They are the sign of a man’s sexuality. They represent the energy of the organ,’ says Gerry Casale, without the slightest hint of a smirk. Brings a whole new meaning to giving head. And, like all Devo concepts, the hat-wearing has a dualistic connotation, or the Tweedledum and Tweedledee syndrome. 

‘They are festive hats,’ continues Gerry. ‘We wear them to create a party atmosphere. We want to be the life and soul of the party, like the guy who gets drunk and sticks a lampshade on his head to get a laugh.’ 

Mark Mothersbraugh gives one of his customary tag lines that always seem to crystallise a particular facet of Devo psychology in one searing, succinct sentence. ‘David Bowie used to wear a plastic hat too . . .’ 

I’m being treated to my own personal preview of their new show − the final one before they embark on a world tour to promote their new album, Freedom of Choice. It’s remarkable. The speakers double up as the light show to produce some stunning monochrome effects and the encore, a medley of songs from Stevie Wonder’s The Secret Life of Plants using the flowerpots to maximum advantage, has to be seen to be believed. 

After they finish, the band wander up and down Sunset Strip wearing grey vinyl suits. It’s so hot you can actually hear their feet squelching in their pillar-box red shoes. And naturally they wear those hats. They’re posing for a photo session and attract the attention of T-shirted LA types noticeable by their dumb expressions and limited stoned-clad vocabulary. 

‘Hi. Hey. Wha’ . . .? Hey. Hi. Devo, huh? Shit. Hi. Hey. Mind if I, er . . . Yeah? No kiddin’. Hey. Hi . . .’ 

The articulate Devo, gleaming metallic sex pistons of techno-brash, provide a sharp contrast to this ring of mediocrity. 

What lurks behind the clinical, boiler-suited exterior? Do their hearts pump blood or BP? Are they just a bunch of Dunlops rushing in where angels fear to tread, or are they the harbingers of a duty free Tomorrow’s World? Devo are an exquisite enigma. Or is it enema? 

Whatever, they have confused and confounded the British press who seem incapable of accepting them on any serious level. And nobody could believe it when these strange, fragile-looking beings appeared not to see the joke. 

Oh, sure they would, as they do now, sit with you and mock a quasi-intellectual article rejoicing at their ‘reductive synthesis’, but if you went away and wrote a piece with tongue firmly in cheek, they seemed to get hurt. 

‘We answered questions in earnest,’ says Gerry, sipping a glass of Californian champagne. It’s now midnight. We’re in a downtown bar and they’re still wearing fucking flowerpots on their heads. 

‘The British seem to lack a sense of humour about it all. We were just stirring things up for fun. Devo are just playing with reality. In the end, everyone resorts to religion, right-wing politics and disco. Devo are observers of the human condition. But the joke is, we’re part of that condition too.’ 

What does Devo-lution mean, Gerry? 

‘Stripping away the shit. When Bob Seger writes, “I like to watch her strut”, you tell him that’s a fucking joke. You tell him that’s a fucking stupid line. That’s my freedom of choice. Don’t expect me to wear gypsy leather trousers and go out and sing, “I like to watch her fucking strut”. I’m confident that there’s a whole segment of society that doesn’t want to hear about girls strutting or pulling triggers on devils’ guns. 

‘Devo’s programme is the alternative to sock-in-the-crotch rock. Our sexuality is more like Henry Ford and the assembly line. We are sexual in a powerfully clean, technological way. Devo is the cleansing agent for all the awful records out there. Devo presents you with a pure and healthy sex. I’ve never been able to understand why a woman wants a man with a great big hairy belly. They must have a perverted and demented view of sex. 

‘A lot of people represent the medieval kind of sex, like Rod Stewart, while we represent the new sex. Girls in Spandex pants are turned off by Devo because they are into medieval sexuality. After the A-bomb and A-rseholes, Devo will emerge as heads of the post sexual revolution.’ 

And now we must go because the man from the house is walking down the garden path and will be here any moment. Hurry, he’s about to open the door of the greenhouse. 


© Barry Cain 2015

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Thursday 2 July 2015

December 1979 

Damn the torpedo… 

Old soldiers never die. 
Take Alex Harvey who’s once again on the glory trail after a year in the wilderness. His new album released this week, The Mafia Stole My Guitar, shows that, despite all the health rumours, Alex is fighting fit. 
‘I can run half a mile and swim half a mile right afterwards,’ Alex tells me at his north London home where he lives with his wife and two children. ‘I know some people think I’m a bit of a nutcase but, let’s face it, the oldest cliché in the book is you have to be a nutcase to play rock ’n’ roll. And that’s the only life I know.’ 
Alex was plagued with problems after his manager, Bill Fehilly, was killed in a plane crash three years ago. First the Sensational Alex Harvey Band split, then Alex became involved in a series of legal battles that still continue and which have made him a very angry man. 
‘I’m 45 and I’ve been through an awful lot. Can you imagine how bad it was for me when Bill was killed? But you know something − I’m winning. I loved the band, loved ‘em − but I mustn’t get over-emotional. It’s finished. ‘When I started in this business I knew a lot of kids. Now they’re all dead. I’m the only one left. I’m unique.’ (Alas, Alex ain’t so unique any more. He died of a heart attack a couple of years after that interview while on the road. So much for running and swimming). 

From Flexipop! 1980

The Damned have gone off the radar, love. 
‘New Rose’ is now as dry as a bone, ‘Neat Neat Neat’ has lost its lovin’ feeling, Brian James is living on Dead End Street and even love couldn’t keep Captain and Tennille together. But Rat Scabies’s knob is a sign that the best is yet to come.
It was when he pulled it out in front of a bunch of open-mouthed studio technicians during a session for Capital Radio that I realised just how much I’d missed the Damned. 
Noticing its lack of petrification, I remembered how flexible the band were − eccentric one minute, devout rockers the next. Its jaundiced appearance reminded me of how colourful they were; the presence of varicose veins was redolent of their energy; the lack of any noticeable discharge their discipline (for, despite views to the contrary, the Damned never indulged in more than a controlled chaos); the odour their strength. 
Yes, the Damned were, and are, unique. Forget what critics would have you believe: Messrs Scabies, Sensible, Vanian and new boy ex-Saint Alisdair Ward, are back in business with the release of their new album Machine Gun Etiquette. 
The Damned always did defy the rules, not because of an adopted pose but because the individuals themselves defied description. If any band deserved the appendage ‘punk’, it’s this collection of crazy pavings. Other bands who hiccuped during the winter of ’76 only got so far before drinking water from the wrong side of a glass and regaining their equilibrium. The Damned had no equilibrium. They didn’t hiccup, they BURPED. A thick, rheumy, brown ale of a burp that rejoiced in its own noise. 
It was tragic to see them go. It’s glorious to see them return. The sight of Captain Sensible sitting alone in the Capital Radio studio playing lead guitar would have been little short of miraculous two years ago. 
One thing the Damned never got was praise for their musical capabilities. ‘You look around at other people,’ says Sensible, ‘and then you think, Who’s better than the Captain? Nobody.’ 
Dave Vanian cups his black-gloved hands around a glass of Scotch and Coke. ‘We’re so much better than we ever were. We actually talk to each other now. I never knew we would get back together again. But I’m very glad we did. We haven’t got the limitations we had before when we were stuck in one little hole. Even though the reviews haven’t been that favourable for the new album, I
know we’ve shocked people into realising that we can play. I wouldn’t change a thing.’ 
It’s at this point that Rat brings forth the spider from the fly. ‘I’ve written eight songs this week,’ he says, accompanied by the sound of Sensible’s guitar and the crackle of a downward-moving zip. 
Ex-Saint Alisdair, recovering from laughing at the sight for sore eyes, sits next to me. What did you do when the Saints split? ‘Got drunk on all the money.’ So that’s two pints and a Scotch. ‘Now I’m in a band I like. I really am.’ 
‘Shit,’ interrupts Rat. ‘He won’t even talk to us. He costs us a fortune in extra hotel rooms cos he refuses to sleep in the same room as the rest of us.’ More laughter. 

‘Nah, this is a band I can talk to,’ says Alisdair. ‘We all speak the same language, have the same sense of humour. The Damned is more like a religion among its fans. And there ain’t much humour around these days.’ 
Alisdair is convinced music goes in seven-year cycles. ‘We’ve got another four years to go before something new comes along.’ So, who’d have thought it? The Damned, the first punks to make a single ‘New Rose’, the first punks to make an album, The Damned, the first punks to tour the States, the first punks to split, the first punks to re-form. And maybe the last punks. Ever. But the burning question remains: would you let your daughter marry one of them? And will plonkers be next year’s big thing? 
Er, you can put it away now, Rat. ‘It’s nice out today, ennit?’ 
A few days later, Rat sips tea in a North London caff − and I do mean caff. The sandwiches have as many cracks as the cups. He looks healthy, which is amazing, considering his lifestyle. Rat probably instigated the Demise of the Damned Mark One, which followed the release of their second album Music For Pleasure. Why?
‘I got bored with it all. Oh, sure, it was great being a pop star at first − but it ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. It got to the stage where I just couldn’t go out in public. In fact, it got so violent I wasn’t even able to go down my local boozer. I took a bird down the Hope and Anchor one night and she got glassed in the face by someone who had a grudge against me. And I got beaten up twice through no fault of my own. But I was drunk both times so maybe it was my fault. I can’t remember now. 
‘The songs were rotten, too. Brian James, who’d written most of them, had achieved his aim and, in my mind anyway, dried up. I reckon we’d all got as far as we could musically. After all, you can only take a nurse’s uniform so far. And our reputations were getting out of hand. I was being accused of the most ridiculous things.’ 
So Rat vamoosed. ‘I needed to get completely away from the rock world. I thought I was gonna have a nervous breakdown. My whole personal-defence mechanism decided it was time for me to call it a day.’ For Rat to pack it in is rather like Hartlepool winning the Cup − it just ain’t gonna happen. So he formed Whitecats. Flop. Meanwhile, across the teeming metropolis, Captain Sensible formed King. Flop. The two flops joined forces. 
‘Captain wanted to work with me again. So we had a walk round the block and decided to do a tour. The only problem was, who could we get as a singer? We looked around, then finally came to the conclusion that the best we were ever likely to get was Dave Vanian.’ Vanian had left the Doctors of Madness and spent his days reading the grotesque in his Islington house with the black walls and blacker ceilings, and remembering yesterday. He was ripe for a reunion. 
‘My attitude has changed now,’ says Rat. ‘You get used to people staring at you. You stay in places where you’re known.’ On their last US tour Rat banged nineteen girls in twenty-two days. ‘That’s my record. The only nights I missed out were when we arrived − I had jetlag − and when we had to drive to a gig. If I wasn’t in the Damned I wouldn’t pull nearly as much.’ 
An honest man is Rat…

From Flexipop! 1982

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copyright Barry Cain 2015


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