There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Roughly 20 years ago, I worked in an office with a woman who had a personal connection to the Nurses, a D.C. punk band now little remembered. (To make a long story practically meaningless, this woman was then married to Nurses singer-bassist Howard Wuelfing.) One day, a group of co-workers went to see the trioa typical excursion to hear somebody’s friend’s band. One of the members of the expedition, a punk novice, later reported to me that the Nurses sounded like Devo.
I tried to be polite, but I took this verdict simply as additional evidence of mainstream suburban 20-something Americans’ abject ignorance of punk (or New Wavethe terms were more or less interchangeable at the time). Of course, the Nursesa rough-edged punk band whose style was brushed by Bob Marley, Trouble Funk, and Hot Chocolatedidn’t sound like the cartoonish Devo.
I’ve been thinking about both the Nurses and Devo lately. The former because I’m toiling on a history of D.C. punk for all-too-imminent publication by Soft Skull Press, and Wuelfing is a significant character; the latter because I’ve been listening to the recently released Devo anthology Pioneers Who Got Scalped. I still don’t think the two bands sound very much alike. But something did happen that links these groupsand almost everything else since.
In fact, the beat shifted in the mid-’70s. Some punk or New Wave or whatever bands clanked more robotically than others, but every one of them knew what Ultravox meant when it proclaimed “I Want to Be a Machine.” Blame it on the Ramones, who developed the hyperspeed bubble-gum rhythm that John Piccarella dubbed “forcebeat.” (Robert Christgau, who did much to popularize the term, describes it as “a flat four-four that moves faster than your body thinks it should.”) Within a few years, hardcore bands like Bad Brains, Black Flag, and Minor Threat would take forcebeat to the Nevada Salt Flats to see how fast it could really go.
The blitzkrieg bop wasn’t purely the Ramones’ invention. It can be heard in glam-rock, notably Gary Glitter’s undying thump hit “Rock and Roll Part 2” and the supercharged mid-period Sweet tunes that could all be called “Ballroom Blitz.” You can trace this beat to Bo Diddley, of course, but it also owes something to the Velvet Underground’s meld of African rhythms and Indian drones, the primary source for forcebeat exemplars the Feelies.
Forcebeat doesn’t swing. Even when punk went funk, circa 1979, it wasn’t quite funky. It was android dance musicwhich suggests the influence of Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder. Synth-pop, which grew from glitter, New Wave, and, of course, disco, was brisk but mechanical. Earthiness was not the goal.
Yet there’s one other crucial factor in rock’s mid-’70s rhythmic shift, and that one’s not automated at all: reggae. Punks started copping that distinctive cadence as early as Patti Smith’s “Redondo Beach,” and soon the Clash made reggae its essential change-up, while Public Image Ltd. drove dub to abstraction. Dub’s wide-open spaces even shaped the sound of class-of-’77 bands that didn’t flaunt their
rhythmic eclecticism, notably Television.
That’s worth noting because not all of Pioneers Who Got Scalped is forcebeaten. Such originals as “Uncontrollable Urge” and “Girl U Want” pulsate punkishly, but Devo found new freedom in covers. Thus the band’s version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” has a reggae-ish lope, and its “Secret Agent Man” takes its cop-show propulsion from the work of Henry Mancini and other soundtrack composers (as rediscovered, of course, by the B-52’s).
Stiffness and artificiality are Devo’s hallmarks, even its ideology. This ethos expands on glitter’s anti-rock instincts, notably David Bowie’s theatricality and T. Rex’s playfully gawky beats. It also presages the Dead Kennedys, whom I always considered Yes on speed until I heard this collection. “Come Back Jonee,” with its hepped-up cowboy-music gallop and rockabilly-castrato vocals, could be the blueprint for the DKs’ entire output.
Devo’s crackpot premise was explicitly (if vaguely) futuristic, and its vision promised a Tomorrowland that would be both mechanical and animalistic, technological and primal. Now what does that sound like? Yup, rave culture is Devo played straight, at least by its most earnest followers. (I suspect that many ravers neither buy all the genre’s philosophical trappings nor believe that techno-house-electro-jungle is music’s one and only possible path.) Duty Now for the Future, the title of Devo’s 1979 album, is now being upheld by the advance troops of turntablism.
Of course, the line from “Jocko Homo” to Grooverider is not a straight one. Hiphop, disco, non-Euro music, and a century of electronic/minimalist experimentation are among synthesized dance music’s other influences. Still, there was a moment when the rhythm changed, and everything that came after has more beats in common than any one subgenre’s partisans are willing to admit. If techno is the new punk, as some British electro advocates claim, it’s not just that both were devised by revolution-minded amateurs who worked outside the music industry. It’s also because of the way the rhythms streamline, mechanize, and denature their blues and funk models. Call it forcebeat or speed garage, pogo or trance, it’s descended from music that sounded robotic to unknowing office workers two decades ago. If we’re not all Devo yet, we’re a lot closer than we used to be. Mark Jenkins
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