Welcome to week 3 of our latest book club! This time around we are tackling the book, Mad World, chapter-by-chapter. The chapters we will be discussing feature the bands ABC, Devo and Echo and the Bunnymen. Read and join in on the discussion!
I absolutely had to laugh at the story about how Martin Fry got involved in a band. I loved that he was writing for a fanzine and went to interview a band before joining it. So, if his story and author, Lori Majewski’s, story didn’t prove it already, there definitely can be a future after writing a fanzine. Maybe, the same could be true for bloggers…
Martin starts his story by saying that he realized that he could never be as punk as the Sex Pistols or the Clash. Instead, he loved disco and decided to focus on the opposite of punk. I think a lot people can relate to this, whether it is about music of this era, music of another era or even another type of art form. I think whenever anyone in the arts wants to be creative, there is a push to find a niche, a spot in which one could really make a mark instead of just following a trend. It is interesting that a lot of bands of this era all seemed to have the same push and all focused on dance related music. Martin goes on to describe a mania of sorts that seemed to exist in the UK at the time with these bands as they were all trying to make it and make it first. Truly, this reminds me of periods I have studied in Art History class where artists are all hanging out with each other or near each other, developing similar styles and pushing creativity to a new level. I always had a sense of this as a fan about the level of musical creativity at this time but reading this confirms it.
He goes on to discuss the meaning behind the song, “Poison Arrow” and how many people could relate to the idea of having someone walk away from you. Yet, despite his attempt to write songs from the heart, he felt that he was “hiding” rather than “showing” in his writing. I can relate to that. While I might try to be open in my writing, I never quite feel like I get there. What is interesting to me is that he thinks that songs are more open now. I’m not sure I agree with that, especially with the number of songs written by one person and sung by another.
Admittedly, I was surprised to read that Martin Fry was a fanzine writer. Lori Majewski wasn’t kidding when she said (to me) not to sell that (stuff) short!! Who knew??
I think that much of the 80s for bands was finding a way to insert themselves into the narrative that was already being written. No one wanted to sound like everyone else, and plenty of bands were willing to take chances in order to find a way for their voices (or music as the case may be) to be heard. I don’t think there’s any denying the disco influence in ABC’s music – particularly what can be heard in “Poison Arrow”, but others as well. I also should probably come clean and say that this particular song was never a favorite during this time period for me, but again – that’s really the one thing about the 80s that I adore: no two songs really sounded the same. Yes, it was all a type of dance music (and even I spent a fair amount of time dancing to “Poison Arrow” over the years at various clubs), but that’s pretty much where the similarity ends. Look at Spandau Ballet or Haircut 100…both are bands that Martin Fry mentions as being of the same musical vein, yet they’re incredibly different, and within those bands themselves, every album they released was different from the last. You can’t help but applaud that.
Quite a quote to start the chapter on Devo about how society was “devolving into a state of passive, drooling idiocy” and how anything was okay as long as “it was wrapped in a bright package”. To me, this summarizes the exact criticism surrounding New Wave, that it was just a bright package. Yet, Devo was created to express the outrage about this. I had no idea. I had also heard/read somewhere about how “Whip It” was really a criticism about society and culture, but didn’t make all the connections until reading this chapter with the connections to propaganda.
As someone who is fascinated by social activism and social movements, I find it incredibly fascinating that the disillusionment of the late 60/early 70s protest movement in the US helped the members of Devo think about how to really create change. Instead of doing what most activists do, they decided to use the system itself to try to change things. More specifically, they wanted to use advertising and marketing to affect change. To me, this is a very radical notion. Their radicalism clearly continued in not only how they performed but also the relationship with their audience. They didn’t like the people coming to see them and vice versa. It is like they wanted to create anti-fans.
Mark Mothersbaugh said that their goal wasn’t to piss people off…and I have to take a little issue with that. When you’re making statements like what Devo did, taking stances and trying to create some awareness and force some change; your goal is 100% to create emotion, cause a reaction. That’s what art is all about, isn’t it? That IS the goal, so for him to say that…well…I’ll admit I’m not completely buying it. Gerard Casale goes even further, saying “If these people hate us, we’re on the right track because we don’t respect them either.” Not that I think they were wrong for feeling that way, but it’s been my own personal experience that having no respect for people (particularly the audience you’re performing in front of) does very little to diffuse anger.
What I find most interesting about Devo, through reading this chapter and other things I’ve seen over the years, is that listeners must keep in mind that this is a band that sees what they do as performance art – and rightfully so. While they are definitely making their own statements about the world, they follow that up with the movies they created, and their own special brand of propaganda. You can’t forget that this is a band who was highly influenced by the Communist propaganda of (then) Soviet Union and China, and they saw what they were doing here in the US as the American version of all that. Say whatever you will about “Whip It” or any of their music for that matter, they were an intelligent band who knew how to broadcast their message back in that day, cleverly disguising it as something quite different (S&M, etc.) from what it really was mocking. And now, every time I see a Swiffer commercial that uses the song…never mind Disney being the “geniuses” they are known for being in the industry and using child stars to create Devo 2.0. I have to smile just a little. If people only knew…
Echo and the Bunnymen:
I admit it. I simply adore this song so I was very excited to read more about it. The introduction to the band is dead on the money, I think. Echo and the Bunnymen was all about despair, for the most part. Then, my mind gets blown when I find out the truth behind the “him” in the song. It isn’t about Ian McCulloch, the lead singer, but about a higher power. As he talks about the lyrics, I could see that, but I would have NEVER guessed that in a million years. Perhaps, this is partly because this song entered my life when I was dealing with a difficult relationship and I associated the song with the relationship.
The other thing that this chapter made me realize is how each city in the UK, during this time period, seemed to have its own culture. I love how Liverpool’s scene is described as filled with a mixture of lost souls whereas previous chapters talked about places like New Order’s Manchester. It fascinates me, in a broad, social science way about how this musically creative time period had all these artists who had a broad consensus about things like influences, the desire to be unique, etc., while having smaller geographic areas had what seems more like their own subcultures. Fascinating.
Then, I absolutely adore the story of their first show. I wonder if all bands/artists had shows in which something like failing equipment happens or something similar. Yet, they managed to turn the show around and fell into a “flow”. Lesson there, clearly, is that one moment of failure isn’t failure.
So, Echo and the Bunnymen. I must have been the one person out of my group of friends who was not completely bowled over by this song. I don’t know what it was, I don’t know why…I just know that while everyone else was writing “Echo and the Bunnymen” on their Pee-Chee folders, I was still writing interlocking DD’s all over mine, along with a few Spandau Ballet’s, TFF’s and of course a bunch of DM’s. I suspect I just didn’t want to fall in line with my friends. And truthfully, The Killing Moon didn’t really speak to me (back then) in the same way as Blasphemous Rumors or The Hurting, and no – I really don’t know why. So when Ian McCulloch says it was the greatest song ever written…I’m sure my friends from high school would all agree, but I’d still be waving around The Hurting or Mad World and calling it genius. I love the song now and I wish I had taken the time back then to really listen to the lyrics, but I was honestly more keen on Lips Like Sugar and Dancing Horses then, and more of a Killing Moon fan now. Funny how that works.
One thing that makes me a forever fan of this band? One simple fact: Ian McCullough is easily as irritated by Bono as I.
Til next week – happy reading!!!
-A & R