Maybe many people, like me, had their first taste of Devo in the late 70’s. As a teenager on study leave for GCE exams and with Britain’s top Radio station, Radio 1 keeping me company, I was exposed to Devo’s, somewhat challenging for the times, take on the Stones’ “Satisfaction”. It had a certain novelty value, but with the mighty Grease storming the charts, it was quickly forgotten yet Devo remained on the edge of the memory banks.
Released by Jawbone Press to coincide with the groups 40th anniversary with the claim that “Recombo DNA is the first book to evaluate in the proper context the innovations and accomplishments of this truly groundbreaking band” there has been some criticism elsewhere that the contents have been rehashed from Jade Dellinger and David Giffels’ first study of the band "We Are DEVO.” Nonetheless, author Kevin C Smith has put together a thorough and well-presented biography of a band who carefully crafted their image as “a thinking man’s Kiss” which certainly gives food for thought using a range of source material referenced in some detailed end notes. What is missing is the degree of authenticity which comes with the co-operation and support of the band which has resulted in the main criticisms of the work. A major emphasis is placed on the May 1970 shootings at Kent State University as the backdrop for what band member Jerry Casale has called the date Devo was born. Following up a life changing experience by initially taking his musical direction into playing with The Numbers Band and then onto less orthodox sounds with the addition of the Mothersbaugh brothers, the evolution of Devo slowly continued, based on a philosophy of “Looking for sounds that were outside of the clichés of rock ‘n’ roll.” A refusal to have damaged instruments fixed as long as they produced an interesting sound was typical of their philosophy.
There is an overriding feeling throughout the story of swimming against the tide and taking a leaf from the European and in particular German image and philosophy as they considered their performance art and began to perform live in 1976-1977. It was perhaps no surprise then that they became championed by David Bowie who was in the midst of his Berlin phase, and that their first album would eventually be produced by his partner in crime Brian Eno. In fact, hobnobbing with some of the big players – including some rather off the wall film making with Neil Young – their love of experimentation seemed to mark Devo as a band who were doing something a bit different, none more so than the various record companies who chased their signatures prior to the release of their debut recordings. Their influences and inspirations from the likes of The Residents and Pere Ubu (even The Stranglers) and the general upsurge and interest in German music lead into rather lengthy and off topic assessments before bringing the subject back onto the Devo story – a wider context something which an enthusiast might appreciate, although maybe less riveting for those readers dipping into the book to find out a little more about the Devo phenomenon.
On the other hand it’s amusing to read anecdotes such as the one about how the band had to seek the approval of The Rolling Stones before releasing ‘Satisfaction’ and how a little drink or several might have coloured Sir Mick’s opinion. However, the description of Mick breaking into a full on Jagger dance there and then as the record played, is priceless.
In covering the first 2 albums “Are We Not Men?” and Duty For The Future, with some attempt to deconstruct and analyse the songs in some depth, the story is brought up to the 1980’s and ends with Devo’s original vision becoming reality whilst at the same time sees them becoming what Smith terms “simply another contender in a rapidly overcrowded fray.” Quite appropriately it sets the scene for what was about to transpire musically in the next decade; with Devo, it was maybe a case of potential unfulfilled and as such, setting the timeframe to end with the dawn of the 80’s makes Devo’s contribution to the annals of rock history that much more significant.
Witches Hats & Painted Chariots - (The Incredible String Band and the 5000 layers of Psychedelic Folk Music) – Shindig
“Dylan, The Beatles and The Incredible String Band. When it comes to the three most important and influential acts of the 60’s, that’s about it.”
With a preamble like that it’s perhaps no surprise that Shindig magazine has produced a 100 page special issue devoted solely to The Incredible String Band. Authorised by original band members Mike Heron and Robin Williamson who also provide enlightening forewords, the publication contains a plethora of articles, reviews and retrospectives as well as giving a slightly broader perspective on the psychedelic and progressive folk scene in which the Incredible String Band made their name. Over a dozen contributors lend their thoughts and insights to the collection of chapters broadly split into The Albums, The Friends and The Stories. The album retrospectives give a fresh insight into the catalogue, from the unassuming and understated (although winning Melody Maker’s Folk Album Of The Year) debut album of 1966 – the only one featuring Clive Palmer – to the ground breaking and what some might say was a masterpiece of a second album in ‘5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion’, onto and into their less critically acclaimed early 70’s output. It was however the early albums on which the reputation is based as Jeff Penczak points out in his coverage of 1969’s ‘Changing Horses’ that it was not only a case of losing focus, but also “a rather ignominious way for one of the decade’s most creative bands to end the 60’s”
Further chapters explore the influence of the Incredible String Band and their genre upon bands such as Dando Shaft, Forest, the strangely titled Dr Strangely Strange and Spirogyra whilst the offshoot bands, Heron, Clive Palmer’s Original Band and solo releases from Heron and Williamson are explored in not so much great detail, but manageable and digestible chunks. It’s interesting to read in particular the short piece by fan Allan Frewin which gives an insight into his personal story of discovery and the thrills which all music fans will recall when they first unearth a band who will provide much of the all-consuming soundtrack of their lives. A day trip to Hastings proved to be his life changing experience and his is a tale to which many readers will relate as he waxes lyrically about listening booths and foot square album covers (not to mention the gatefold canvasses).
Jeanette Howlett’s piece on the July 2009 celebration of Island Records 50th Anniversary brings the Incredible String Band story right up to date. The event was a chance to pay tribute to the music and influence of the ISB with a concert at London’s Barbican. Contributions came from contemporary luminaries such as Richard Thompson and Robyn Hitchcock with additional name checking along the way by the likes of Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, it gives some credence to Mill’s bold opening comments. To bring the story bang up to present day, the likes of Glasgow’s Trembling Bells, who in currently touring together with Mike Heron and his daughter Georgia Seddon, have found the arrangement to be a true collaboration and meeting of minds coming out of mutual admiration. In a nutshell, the ISB story still seems to have some legs.
In a perfect accompaniment to the words and visuals presented in this one off magazine, Jon Mills has used the mixcloud website to present a selection of tracks from the career of the Incredible String band. Well worth a click for casual observers or for those who enjoy an over view while thumbing their Shindig special.
Reviews by Mike Ainscoe