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Verse-Chorus-Verse: The Mutant Blues of Devo and James Blood Ulmer

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Monday, Mar 1, 2010
Artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats.

An earlier version of this V-C-V first appeared on on March 28, 2006.

“Satisfaction (I Can’t Get Me No)” - Devo
Written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
From Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo (Warner Bros., 1978)

“Woman Coming” - James Blood Ulmer
Written by James Blood Ulmer
From Tales of Captain Black (Artists House, 1979)

I’ve got two names for you: Alan Myers and Denardo Coleman. These are the names of the drummers on these two songs, and to me, they are the undeniable connection between song one, a Stones cover by art-pop freakboys Devo, and song two, a surreal chunk of progressive jazz-funk by blues-futurist James Blood Ulmer.

Devo’s cover of “Satisfaction” (produced by Brian Eno) is still distinctive and fresh, 31 years later. In my opinion, Jagger’s always been an underrated lyricist. Critics often dismiss his words because of his relative lack of street cred (the London School of Economics and all that), and many listeners are likely not looking for depth from his over-the-top, strutting persona. A closer look reveals that the lyric captures an existential restlessness in the face of mass-media messages, something which is just as applicable in today’s information-saturated world as it was back in the heady ‘60s. As a reminder, dig these excerpts from the verses, which most of us know by heart, anyway:
“When I’m drivin’ in my car /And that man comes on the radio / And he’s tellin’ me more and more / About some useless information / Supposed to fire my imagination…. / When I’m watchin’ my TV / And that man comes on to tell me/ How white my shirts can be”...

These are sort of mutated blues lyrics, really, directly dealing with frustrations of someone’s daily life (in relation to modern media), and quite in keeping with the traditions the Glimmer Twins generally acknowledge as key influences on their writing. In the mid-western, postmodern hands of Devo, the message (significantly) stays the same, but the raunchy blues-rock of the original vaporizes, and is replaced by a robotic lock-step groove, stepping up the feel of frustration and distance. The result is a twisted new-wave masterpiece that may even convey the restlessness of the lyric better than the original.

At the heart of it all is Alan Myers’ whacked-out drumbeat, with its cymbal-bell, quick hi-hat accent, and steady, syncopated snare. He stays in that pocket, fills and all, while guitars and synth slither around the groove. It’s a marvelous display of the potential for forward-thinking new-wave artists to merge pop with the avant garde, to do something fresh and unique while also delivering something as familiar as “Satisfaction”.

In 1979, a year after the release of the Devo album which contained “Satisfaction”, guitarist James Blood Ulmer released his Tales of Captain Black album, which features the dazzling instrumental track “Woman Coming.” Ulmer is a longtime cohort of renegade music conceptualist Ornette Coleman, and Coleman, as well as fluid-fingered bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma are all over the record. Ulmer’s music, like Ornette’s, is not rooted in traditional, European-derived notions of harmonic development. Lead lines are angular and abstract, player solos are occasionally simultaneous and seemingly continuous, rhythm follows melody (and vice-versa), and texture and vibe rule the day. “Woman Coming” is especially notable for the responsive, polyrhythmic kit-drum attack by the devastating Denardo Coleman (Coleman’s son, 23 years old at the time). There’s not one ride-cymbal spang-a-lang to be found here—it’s all pulsing kick, seemingly random snare and tom hits, and accented cymbal smashes, making for a dense, futuristic funk which still sounds completely unique.

I connect these two songs because of the relatively cozy timeframe of recording and release, and because of the herky-jerky tendencies of both drummers, who happen to come from very different places and traditions. Did Denardo Coleman and Alan Myers know each other, or of each other? No idea. But the great thing about music, as all musicians and music-lovers know, is that its mystical power transcends all human-imposed boundaries, and often touches like minds and spirits in like ways. Personally, I love the idea that something about the musical climate (and the creative collective unconscious) of the late ‘70s spawned a quirky synchronicity in the approach of these drummers and these releases; a synchronicity that connects the Stones to James Blood Ulmer, and Ulmer to Devo and Brian Eno… and all of them to the blues.

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