Now that we're a few years into the New Wave explosion, the ante has been raised considerably in the outrageousness game. What used to flip the respective wigs of radio programmers and conservative columnists is now only slightly left of center. The pioneer bands of the movement are faced with the choice of settling down and making traditionally solid music or trying to keep up with the latest song-slingers. And the newcomers find that it's much tougher to make a big splash when everybody's heard it allbefore.
Devo, three-year veterans of the New Wave wars, seem to be trying to shake off their total-weirdo image by shedding some of the gimmickry that made their 1978 debut such a success. True, Devo's music still resembles an electronic pinball machine controlled by metronomes. And the Akron boys' dress habits are as ecentric as ever. But Devo's third record, "Freedom of Choice" (Warners BSK 3435) begins with a shockingly conventional pop song, "Girl U Want." In fact, the tune sounds a bit like the Knack's "My Sharona." It's goofier, of course, but just as catchy. And ultimately, just as vapid.
It takes a while to realize we are in familiar Devo-ground, and the song -- too many of these songs, in fact -- are mechanical expressions of the lobotomized life the Devo thinks we lead. This approach to existence (culminating in a what-the-hell) view of planet Earth: "It's a place to live your life") wears thin, and the monotony with which Devo renders its songs does not have us panting for more of these simple-minded ditties on simple-mindedness.
Devo, of course, has an excuse -- it's all a joke, see? To prove it; the band has transformed the record sleeve into a catalog of different Devo items you are urged to purchase -- a Devo radiation jumpsuit for $12.95, a Devo T-shirt for $6.95. Musically, Devo has gone stale, and is grasping at anything to sustain its brief stay in the New Wave timelight.
Just stepping into that limelight is a group called Gang of Four, from Leeds, England. Unlike Devo, they do not devote much of their energies to evoking chuckles. As the name implies, politics is the order of the day, and the Gang strives for revolutionary achievement in lyrics and execution. The title of their debut album, "Entertainment" (Warners, BSK 3446) springs from their lyric line: "Guerrilla war struggle is a new entertainment."
Yes, there are pinko polemics here. Sometimes the lyrics resemble the shrieking broadsides one might find on Red Chinese walls. The music, too, aims for a calculated avant-garde disruption of rock-business as usual. While the drums play in a militaristic fashion, guitarist Andy Gill cranks out harsh, dissonant chords. When it works, he provides a startling drama for these tunes of subjugation and capitalistic degradation. When it doesn't work, it all sounds like the soundtrack to a bad Japanese horror flick.
Cliches, and cliche thinking sometimes undermine the Gang, as does their tendency to talk at listeners, instead of communicate with them. (Here, they could learn a lesson from the more successful, equally political Clash.)
But the Gang-sters are fascinating when dealing with their obsession -- sex. At times they scorn it as a tool of oppression, but they can't dismiss it. On the best song, "Damaged Goods," they struggle against it -- and against love. The tune moves hypnotically as the singer tries to deny the obvious: Love is better than politics. Politics wins the round, but the Gang of Four protests too much.
At the bottom of all these revolutionary slogans is the heartbeat of a romantic. The Gang's fight against this latent romanticism provides all the intrigue, fireworks, and certifiable outrageousness of "Entertainment."