Arts and Culture

Alan Myers, Devo's Most Mechanical Man

A look at the late drummer and the band's recently unearthed demo compilations.

By Gregory Adams 11 Jul 2013 | TheTyee.ca

The summer started off with sad news for mutant pop band Devo and their devoted spuds when it was announced that former drummer Alan Myers had passed away June 24, following a long battle with cancer. He wasn't the first drummer for the band, nor was he the last, but his run with the group in the '70s and '80s left the biggest impression via iconic, oddball hits like "Whip It."

Though Devo formed in Akron, Ohio in 1972, Myers was the third drummer in the group, replacing Jim Mothersbaugh -- brother of band founder Mark Mothersbaugh and guitarist Bob -- in 1976. He worked early tunes using a homemade electronic drum kit, and he later helped Roland develop MIDI technology, but Myers managed to make his organic limb-swinging sound just as mechanized. On "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," for instance, his clanking groove feels factory-produced, and, along with Mark Mothersbaugh's nervous yelps, helped morph the cocksure Jagger/Richards sex anthem into a pressure-cooker of pent-up perversion.

"People watching him thought we were using a drum machine. Nobody had ever drummed like that," founding bassist Gerald Casale recently told The Associated Press about the late percussionist, who was affectionately dubbed the "human metronome."

Despite his eerily precise presence on singles like "Come Back Jonee" and "Freedom of Choice," Myers left the group in 1985 following the release of their sixth album, Shout, citing creative differences as the band headed back towards drum machine sounds. Prior to his death, he played in the band Skyline Electric with his wife Christine.

In a bit of timing both fortuitous and sad, a glimpse of Myers' more obscure work with Devo is highlighted on the recent rereleases of the group's two Hardcore compilations. Originally issued in two separate volumes in 1990, though recorded between 1974-77, the demo collections were repressed as a 2CD package this week by Superior Viaduct. The two volumes remain apart for the vinyl reissues.

Keeping the time period in mind, much of the material features the primitive computer clank of Jim Mothersbaugh, but Myers' is present on energetic numbers like "Uglatto" and deceptively crystalline punch-up "Fountain of Filth." He also helps plunk out early, generally slower takes of classics like "Jocko Homo," "Clockout" and, of course, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction."

Not for the casual fan

Elsewhere, you'll find the rawest recordings of the band ever. While the processed, Mr. Roboto voice on 1975's "Mechanical Man" hints that the band's futuristic vision was cemented early on, there are a surprising number of motifs that offer a much subtler skewing of pop's then-recent past. "Goo Goo Itch" is a sticky-sweet subversion of '60s bubblegum, with Mark Mothersbaugh rifling off lip-smacking come-ons about wanting to "twaddle with you." With its twisted shuffle and squealing solos, rip-roaring rave-up "A Plan For U" plays like the Grateful Dead's "Truckin'" as blasted through an interstellar AM dial.

Keeping in line with the jittery sexual tension the band wrought throughout the rest of its career (see "Jerkin' Back and Forth" or "Love Without Anger"), there's plenty of naughty business to be found on Hardcore. The art alone finds the quintet posing with a pair of nubile models while rocking oversized 3D glasses and foam breasts of their own.

Awkward, herky-jerk arrangements and bizarrely uncouth couplets like "cucumbers ripe and rude/bend over fixed to shoot," ("Be Stiff") are part of the band's nature. In regards to the titular character of "Soo Bawls," she apparently has men ready to "trade their brains for one taste of her toilet water." The oozing synth-and-vocals piece "Golden Energy" is a salve for those "expected to meet the demands of an energetic mate."

A very rare misstep comes in the form of "I Need a Chick." While the chicken-wire bar band arrangement and Gerald Casale's aggressively misogynist commands are so far from the group's general aesthetic that the song can't be considered much more than a piss-take on hard rock's decidedly male gaze, its straight-faced delivery still makes it hard to swallow. Subversive or not, tracks like "Mongoloid" and "Bamboo Bimbo" likewise come off more insensitive as the years go on.

At 40 songs long, Devo's Hardcore collection isn't an easy listen for the casual fan, but the gritty recordings and occasionally grittier subject matter still make it a must-have for any spud willing to drink deep from the fountain of filth.  [Tyee]

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