Public Enemy 1989

Trashed! Public Enemy

 

Pioneering hip-hop legends Public Enemy always could divide opinion. Back in 1990, at the height of their popularity, they celebrated this fact on their third album, Fear of a Black Planet. The track Incident At 66.6 FM, which samples a radio phone-in during which the presenter cheerfully laughs off one caller who invites the band to “go back to Africa” while another refers to their fans as “scum”.

Nearly three decades on from that, they’re the uber-influential elder statesmen of rap, continuing to inspire musicians working across genres. Their material is considered uplifting enough to be chosen as theme music for British Paralympic coverage, they’re well enough established to have been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and they’re popular enough to have sold millions of records worldwide.

Doesn’t mean everyone likes them though. Opinion is still divided, as these ruminative and considered one-star Amazon reviews show.

“dull, dreary, repetitive dribble”

That’s the title an anonymous UK reviewer give to his/her review of PE’s debut, Yo! Bum Rush the Show. This seems pretty decisive, but he/she immediately gets oxymoronic:

“Never have i had to endure such a droll album.”

So either they don’t like their albums amusing or entertaining, or they don’t know what droll means. Undaunted, they go on to fall back on their maturity to emphasise their credibility:

“at 29 yrs old i really am past this rubbish with a more mature ear able to appreciate a far greater spectrum of contempary [sic] sounds”

Ooh, so close to pulling it back there. Drat! RH has better luck using good old-fashioned sarcasm and irrelevant references:

“Why have I been wasting my time listening to Charlie Parker and Claude Debussy all these years? What ever made me think that Aretha Franklin and Gundula Janowitz could actually sing? I must have been high. THIS is the great work of true musical genius that all mankind has been waiting for.”

Gunula Janowitz, as we all know without resorting to Google, is one of the highest regarded opera singers of all time. RH is on safe ground suggesting that she (and Aretha) can sing, so that proves Public Enemy are shit.

VV is another grown-up who disapproves of PE. Admittedly, his 2003 review of It Takes a Nation of Millions… gets off to a dodgy start with the title, “You call this music? Maybe on Planet Suck-ville”, which could have been written by six-year old, but VV soon more than redeems himself. He takes maturity to new levels with this statement:

“Bashing the government is not cool, I don’t think George Bush is listening to this record right now. And if our president can’t listen to it, who should be allowed to? Certainly not you.”

No, you’re right, VV, bashing the government is not cool. Conformity, compliance and respect for authority are what’s cool. That real rock and roll. What was Chuck D thinking of? Leave that nice Mr Bush alone. And he’s not even listening anyway, so there!

At the other end of the maturity spectrum is J, reviewing Fear of a Black Planet in 2010. He’s just desperate to hear naughty words being uttered:

“Funny that there’s an advisory label on the cover but they beep out the cuss words on Fight the Power. Wish I knew this before I bought the CD.”

He feels so cheated he awards the album the lowest, one-star rating. J would appreciate HJ’s review and the way it cleverly hints at a swear word:

“Anybody who likes this type of music should see a psychiatrist… when they called it rap they left off the C”

See what he did there? Not everyone goes to the trouble of using such ingenious wordplay in their negative reviews. KR just says Public Enemy are “Not a patch on NWA. Lyrically or musically”, an anonymous Nation of Millions reviewer in 1999 says it’s “just plain bland” and MS went full street in 2005:

“This album is WACK and BORING! BORING! BORING! BORRRRRING!”

At least KR got his point across with his crazy urban slang. Not everyone manages that trick.  Here’s TA‘s review of Black Planet in its confusing entirety:

“Head Cruncher by TA, February 15, 2005

“I wish I could put into words the disdain I have for RAP. But I can’t so all you get is the title. Music????? Don’t make me laugh.”

“All you get is the title” – Does anybody have any idea what that means? And what about the last bit? “Music????? Don’t make me laugh.” Maybe TA finds it all a bit too droll as well? Maybe they should take a leaf out of that 29 year-old anonymous UK reviewer from earlier and try something else from the “spectrum of contempary sounds”

Finally, here are two conflicting but equally scornful reviews of PE’s peak output. First up, DW on Nation of Millions:

“Let’s not beat about the bush. This album is a pile of tripe. Some prat with a silly watch and some other guy are angry and shout a lot instead of inspiring people to change things for the better. Maybe I’m too white and middle class to get what they are trying to say but whatever my social and economic background I just couldn’t find any redeeming qualities in this album.”

While AKR says, of Black Planet:

“The irony being that P.E.’s core audience were white suburban kids (remember John Connor from Terminator 2?), not angry urban black youths.”

Now I don’t know who to believe here – DK or AKR. Sure, you have to admire DW’s withering description of Flavor Flav as “some prat with a silly watch”, but AKR has cold hard facts on his side; young John Connor from Terminator 2 was a white kid and he did wear a Public Enemy t-shirt. You just can’t argue with that. And that means Public Enemy are sell-outs! Don’t believe the hype!

 

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‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ by The Rolling Stones covered by Devo – Magnificent Cover Version No.38

In a 1995 interview, Devo founder Gerald Casale was asked to name the ultimate rock and roll song. Afer giving this due consideration for several moments he gave the perfect answer – Sympathy For The Devil by The Rolling Stones.

With this in mind, it’s worth reconsidering Devo’s quirky, ironic and iconoclastic take down of The Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. It may be a barely recognisable reconstruction of the original, but it’s not a piss-take. It’s not a rejection of a classic, it’s an update. They even had to play it for Mick Jagger in person before they could release it as a single. He loved it.

Devo leave out the song’s central component, Keith Richards’ legendary riff, and replace it with bent guitar strings, jerky rhythm, stop/start beat and that agitated bassline. The vocal line is close enough to hint at the original but other than that it’s a complete reimagining of Satisfaction for a new era.

Resolutely looking to the future was part of the Devo philosophy.  It was also part of part of what separated them from their punk contemporaries. Devo didn’t like to be associated with the punk scene which they saw as musically and aesthetically backward looking. Their refusal to adhere to these accepted norms sometimes led to conflict, notably with The Dead Boys who attacked them onstage at CBGB. Devo’s beliefs were absolutely central to them and dated back to the inception of Devo as an abstract concept, long before they began dabbling in music.

As a student in 1970, Casale had witnessed the Kent State shootings and subsequent media reaction first-hand. Profoundly affected, he changed overnight from a pot-smoking hippie into an angry, politicised individual. It wasn’t until seeing David Bowie on his 1974 Diamond Dogs Tour that things began to make sense again for him and Devo was the result. In partnership with Mark Mothersbaugh they founded the artistic movement with the plan of combining the high ideas of classical art and literature with the crassest and most absurd elements of popular culture. This was a comment on what they saw as the de-evolution of mankind – the species having peaked, some way short of perfection and now heading steadily backwards – with the exception of themselves of course.

Casale and Mothersbaugh developed the idea in their physical art, short films and what would now be termed performance art. All the time they would consciously tread a fine line between appearing smart and stupid. They termed this ‘Ironic Idiocy’.

Both Casale and Mothersbaugh played music as a hobby – blues and hard rock, respectively. Eventually they began to think about what Devo music would sound like. Continuing with their commitment to ‘Ironic Idiocy’, they took their influences from Bowie, early Roxy Music and ‘bad TV and movie soundtracks’. A line-up which eventually included each of their brothers began playing music in a basement and recording it on four-tracks. It was several years before they performed live, by which time they had a large repertoire of original songs down, as well as their cover of Satisfaction.

Devo Satisfaction sleeve

Eventually, one of their short films won a prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, which brought them to the attention of Bowie himself, who tipped off Brian Eno. While in New York, Eno took himself to Max’s Kansas City to see Devo performing their inimitable brand of high/low brow pop while dressed in matching janitor overalls, clear face masks and toy hard hats. Plans were made for Eno to produce their first album.

Devo flew to Cologne for the sessions with Eno. It was the first time they’d been recorded professionally. When they heard the tapes back they were appalled to hear themselves sounding like a real band, having spent so long trying to undermine real bands. Regardless, the result of this was their debut LP Q: Are We Not Men? We Are Devo!, a record which perfectly captures their obsessions and brought the band to the world’s attention.

For my money, the band peaked a couple of albums later with Freedom Of Choice, a masterpiece which featured the classic Whip It and the even more fantastic work of genius, Girl U WantBut Are We Not Men was a great LP in its own right and the cover of (I Cant’ Get No) Satisfaction became a minor hit single in the UK. In addition, Freedom Of Choice introduced their highly original sound and their unique viewpoint; knowingly merging the cerebral with the trivial and always looking forward. It took the astute and fertile minds of Casale and Mothersbaugh many years to fully develop this attitude and their idiosyncratic update of Satisfaction was a pretty good expression of it.

 

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