Through Being Cool
Three Rock Dinosaurs Milk Old—and New—Audiences For All They’re Worth
Dinosaurs may have been cold-blooded creatures, but every year they wait until the weather warms up to reappear on Earth as the stars of massively lucrative tours. The biggest event in dinosaur rock this summer might be the Road Rage Tour, which brings to casinos and corporate-branded venues across the country a pair of seminal new-wave acts: Blondie and the Cars. Well, not the Cars—the New Cars. The reconstituted band features only two original members, guitarist Elliott Easton and keyboardist Greg Hawkes. Todd Rundgren fills in for frontman Ric Ocasek, who opted out of this nostalgia trip; Rundgren’s old Utopia band mate Kasim Sulton fills in for bassist Benjamin Orr, who died in 2000. And drummer Prairie Prince of the Tubes mans the stool for David Robinson, who realized he had no chance of holding his own against a guy named Prairie Prince.
It’s unclear if the New Cars are on tour in support of a new live album they released earlier this month, or if they released a new live album earlier this month in support of the Road Rage Tour. What’s more definite is that, like Prairie Prince, the CD sports a great title—it’s called It’s Alive! (Eleven Seven Music). Two reasons this rules: 1) It’s as obvious a title for a live album as the New Cars is for a new version of the Cars. 2) In quoting James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein movie, it openly acknowledges the fact that some Machiavellian management team cobbled together the New Cars from assorted bits of baby-boomer debris.
Unlike Frankenstein’s monster—who’s good for both scaring little kids and demonstrating the virtue of the black-market human-organ trade—It’s Alive! is totally useless. Rundgren’s not necessarily the problem—dude sounds enough like Ocasek to pass whatever credibility test you might subject the CD to. But this is a live album that consists of thoroughly OK versions of great songs played by two-fifths of the band that originally recorded them. If you hit your local megaplex to see The Break-Up and discovered five minutes into it that Kevin Dillon had subbed in for Vince Vaughn—and that the director had reshot the movie with his Handycam—you wouldn’t stand for that, right?
Though it’s the band’s second best-of since 2002, Blondie’s new CD/DVD Greatest Hits: Sound and Vision (Capitol) is much more useful than the New Cars disc, largely because it offers the opportunity to watch Deborah Harry writhe around in a bunch of the New York band’s classic music videos, most of which look like they were shot with somebody’s Handycam—but in a good way. Plus, you’re never gonna go wrong revisiting a catalog like Blondie’s. Nearly 30 years after the original release of many of these tunes, only a handful of bands have managed the group’s blend of punk, new wave, disco, reggae, and heady frivolity.
Of course, Greatest Hits can’t stay away from superfluity forever: A bonus track tacked onto both the CD and the DVD, “Rapture Riders,” is a legally sanctioned mash-up pitting “Rapture” against the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm.” It’s so perfectly evil that it must have been created in a top-secret dinosaur-rock laboratory hidden away in the desert. Not to say the thing’s not funky: Jim Morrison might’ve been great in one of these throwback punk-funk bands you can’t enter a major metropolitan area without hearing these days. But considering the fact that the Road Rage Tour is being presented by VH1 Classic, “Rapture Riders” feels an awful lot like a promotional item—even more than your average music video does.
It’s hard to say what Devo 2.0 (Disney Sound) feels like. Another new CD/DVD dinosaur-rock package, it offers a dozen songs by Devo, the deranged Ohio nerd-rock band, re-recorded with a group of fresh-faced kids (complete with flowerpot headgear) on vocals. The idea appears to be that Devo’s music—appealingly dorky, very rhythmic, loud but controlled—would find favor among children if they could find a place for themselves in it, à la the dark genius of Kidz Bop. But as happens so often in that series of kiddie-karaoke CDs, most of Devo’s stuff feels wildly inappropriate for 9- and 10-year-olds. (At least 2.0 doesn’t include “Buttered Beauties,” where Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh sings of being covered in female ejaculation like “glossy tallow.”)
Whatever sanitizing effects a goofy new music video affords, “Whip It” and “Uncontrollable Urge” are songs about Reagan-era paranoia and the dangers of sexual repression. Makes you wonder if Devo 2.0 is less of a cynical cash-in and more of a bizarre conceptual coup—especially considering the involvement of four of Devo’s five original members. And though the kiddies man their keyboards for the cameras, much of the music is played by Devo itself. The lyrics have lost most of the misogyny, misanthropy, and bodily fluids. It sounds exactly like what you think it does—a Radio Disney version of Devo—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Unlike the good-time guys (and gal) in Blondie and the Cars, Devo prized social satire above all else; its new-wave kicks came from a place of alienation, not celebration. When Devo’s young protégés rock elementary-school cafeterias and suburban shopping malls, as they’ve been doing intermittently all year, are the four aging misfits there observing the scene? Are they marveling that they’ve managed to sneak another one by the cultural gatekeepers? That they’ve managed to find a new audience without dragging themselves out on the nostalgia rock circuit? In the land of dinosaurs, Devo might just be the tiny mammal lying in wait.
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