PHOTO: Michael Heeg/Courtesy of Devo
Living Legends: Devo Subverted The Herd Mentality Beginning In The '70s, But Their Art Punk Aesthetic Is More Relevant Than Ever
Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale discuss the evolution of devolution, and the video revolution they helped whip into reality: "We drew a line in the sand, and either you hated Devo or you loved Devo"
Presented by GRAMMY.com, Living Legends is an editorial series that honors icons in music and celebrates their inimitable legacies and ongoing impact on culture. This week, GRAMMY.com sat down with Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, members of seminal new wave/post-punk band Devo, who challenged the status quo with irreverent, catchy songs.
The average music fan thinks of dome-shaped headpieces and whipping it good on the dance floor when they hear the name Devo, but for an entire generation of music lovers, the four-letter moniker means something much more.
The Akron, Ohio art rock band formed in 1973 to spread a message about societal regression, driven by herd mentality and negative cultural influences (the name is short for "de-evolution"). The music they created was infectiously fun, with catchy choruses and a synth-driven futuristic energy that fit in perfectly with the new wave genre that was becoming popular in the early '80s. But behind the campy outfits and colorful videos, there was a nonconformist message — which the band managed to maintain even at the height of their popularity.
From the science aesthetics of Q: Are We Not Men, A: We Are Devo! (1978) and Duty Now for the Future (1979), to the subversive empowerment of Freedom of Choice (1980) and
New Traditionalists (1981), Devo approached their output as a sardonic experiment. Their sometimes deceptive lyrical simplicity and sonic nuances created alchemy, and their charisma individually and as a unit made for a compelling blend of nerd rock meets post-punk.
Devo’s dynamic videos always had a message driving the madcap imagery and ideas. Maybe even more than Sparks, who were touted as "your favorite band’s favorite band" in their recent hit bio-doc, Devo’s influence on music is substantial, with everyone from Talking Heads to David Bowie (who helped discover them) taking obvious cues over the years. If some thought Devo a novelty act, they proved otherwise a long time ago.
As Devo celebrates the 40th anniversary of their fifth album Oh No! It’s Devo this month (as well as their third nomination for consideration into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame), they are also cementing their legacy as a band who call out the ills of the world in their music and actively work to change them, too. Throughout the month of April, Devo will donate all proceeds from their catalog to aid Ukraine. The band also have a top slot on the highly-anticipated Cruel World music festival in Los Angeles this May, which some have nicknamed "Gothchella" thanks to its darkly nostalgic, '80s-heavy lineup.
The story of how Devo emerged as a force in music includes some very big names, including David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Can you share how they and others had a hand in your early success?
Jerry Casale: We popped up on the radar through many efforts that we made, and they finally succeeded in paying off, where Iggy became aware of us and we spoke with him in Cleveland, when he was playing on the Idiot tour and David Bowie was playing keyboards for him. We got him a demo cassette, and you would assume those things go in the wastebasket, because I know how that is when you're on tour…. He actually listened to it and Dean Stockwell and Toni Basil, who I had also gotten to, they talked to Iggy about it. He played it for David Bowie.
So then David Bowie heard it, and told Iggy to put me in touch with David's lawyer Stan Diamond in L.A. and we started a dialogue. Then Toni and Dean played it for Neil Young in San Francisco about the same time. So then [Young] called up and wanted us to be in his film, Human Highway. And it all started snowballing.
We did everything we could, and that was a do it yourself aesthetic. Back then, there was no internet…. We sent packages to Saturday Night Live over and over too, with the videos and the songs because we loved that program and we wanted to be selected to play on it. Of course there was no chance in reality that Devo was going to be able to do that then. That took having a manager and a label. We got on Saturday Night Live in October of 1978.
It’s been over 40 years since Devo became hitmakers and you are still getting recognition for your work. In a general sense, what do awards and honors mean to you at this point in your career?
Mark Mothersbaugh: You know, it's nice to be recognized. We're in a business where there's always somebody younger, somebody cuter, somebody who got there faster, somebody who's getting paid more, somebody who had a bigger hit — there's all these things that figure into people wondering, Where am I? How am I doing? Did anybody pay attention? So it's kind of really nice.
Casale: I think that any artist would have to be a bit dishonest if they said they didn't like the fact that they are being recognized by some official organization or outside body of self-proclaimed gatekeepers. Yeah. It does mean something. I mean, my God, when you're a performer, you get up in front of people. Think of the nerve it takes to get up in front of people, like, why should people watch you? You were looking for approval, right? From the time you're a kid, you're looking for approval.
In 1985, Devo was nominated for a GRAMMY for your video work, which was always such a big aspect of what the band was about.
Casale: Yeah, it sure was. I directed all those videos, and from the beginning, was kind of spearheading the visual aspect of Devo. We had agreed that it was going to be a multimedia kind of experimental art collective. So from the beginning that was very intentional.
For those of us who belong to "Generation X," Devo are a very significant band, especially the album Freedom of Choice and the releases that came after. Do you hear a lot from fans of different ages about how formative you were to them?
Mothersbaugh: I have two daughters and I watch them and what things help them figure out what's going on in the world. Music plays a big part of that. I do get those letters and I meet those people at our shows, and, yeah, I like that. That's kind of sweet. For me, it was the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And, you know, for them, it's Devo and that tickles me.
Casale: We were very polarizing without even wanting to be, but we just were. Because of the way we looked, the way we sounded, the way we acted and what we said. We drew a line in the sand and either you hated Devo or you loved Devo. So a lot of young fans would all tell us the same story about how they got harassed or beat up or made fun of in school because they liked Devo. We inspired a lot of people to start bands, and a lot of bands that came after us that we respect have cited us as an influence. So we were an artist’s artist. That's heartening.
How did you two come together?
Mothersbaugh: When I met Jerry at Kent State University, he was a grad student and I was a sophomore. We collaborated early on on visual things. He had come up to me and said "Are you the guy that's sticking up pictures of art and astronauts holding potatoes standing on the moon?" And I go, "Yeah, what of it?" He goes, "What does a potato mean to you?" I really liked that for an opening conversation.
Before there was a word for posting up art or graffiti, before there was Shepard Fairey, I was a teen who was posting artwork around school at Kent State. I don't know why I did it, but I had to do it for some reason. So that's how we met. We were visual artists, and we collaborated on visual projects. He liked that I was making these decals that stuck on things, and he liked that I liked potatoes. So I made these potato decals for him for his senior graduation class project… that he hung all over photos he’d blown up from his high school yearbook of different kids he didn't like.
What is the significance of the potato?
Mothersbaugh: We were trying to figure out, who are we? And how do we fit into the world? We were both the kids of working class parents, and we decided we weren't asparagus people or part of the elite or the rich, we were like potatoes. We were like spuds. We were like asymmetrical, not very good looking vegetables that came from underground. But they were a staple of everybody's diet in the USA.
The interesting thing about potatoes for us, it's like, potatoes have eyes all around, so they see everything. So we called ourselves spuds, and we used that term in exchange for comrades or mates.
In terms of presentation and imagery, including costume, your most iconic has to be the red dome hats. How did the idea for those come about?
Casale: The inspiration for the design came from an Art Deco 1930’s ceiling fixture. So imagine a milk glass-like fixture that looked like a dome hanging from three chains on the ceiling with a bowl. But upside down, right? I used to just stare at that when I was a kid in my grade school and I always thought it was such a cool image.
And so years later, when we were talking about Devo wearing some kind of headgear, I kept thinking of that. Making them red and making them plastic and wearing them became a thing. Then we could make multiples and we could sell them to people because people wanted them. In fact, people were stealing them. So we started selling them.
Devo had chart-topping success but the project was always sort of out of the box and different, even weird to some. Now bands like yours seem to finally be getting the recognition they deserve.
Mothersbaugh: Because Devo had content. A lot of the bands that were out at the same time as Devo, you could just kind of group them together. We had a concept that was unique, not just only for the time period we were in, but actually, for a much bigger time period of rock and roll.
Just even questioning man's central glory on the planet. We kind of pose the question that maybe humans, we're not the best species on the planet; maybe we’re the only insane species. We might be the only organisms out of touch with nature and destructive, as opposed to being a symbiotic part of everything. And you know, that didn't win friends and a lot of people took offense to that. They're usually the people that should take offense to it, because we were probably talking about them.
So we had a pretty unique concept, and it was what we wrote our music about. I think there are a lot of artists out there that respect that or understand that.
Casale: The test of time proved that those bands weren't so weird after all. I mean, look in the '60s, '70s and '80s: Those three decades, there was an explosion of diversity — of creativity, of technology, of new ideas, new sounds, and groups who performed a body of work well. If you bought a record because you liked one song on that record, you probably ended up liking five or six songs on that record, because it was a piece and all connected.
I think that's what kids today miss. They miss that reality. There were real groups, and real artists that did something with a whole body of work that mattered. And it was exciting. The packaging mattered and what the artist said mattered. We had MTV playing the videos. So [the '80s were] like the last decade where this explosion of Western culture was exciting, at the top of its game. That was the end, then it started to devolve and decline.
In addition to its statement- minded subtext, your early stuff was so atmospheric and that seems to have led you both down cinematic paths later in your careers, Mark with your scoring of shows like "Pee-Wee’s Playhouse" and "Rugrats," and appearance on the kids show "Yo Gabba Gabba," and Jerry with your directorial work.
Casale: Devo was kind of put on ice in the '90s and Mark wasn't interested in doing anything except scoring and composing for TV. Because I had directed like 20 Devo videos, [I started] directing videos for other bands.
So I had a whole music video career as a director for bands like Rush, Soundgarden and Foo Fighters — the first video they ever made. They were anti-video because all the grunge bands were anti-video, but Dave Grohl said, "You know what, if we have to do one, let's get that guy from Devo because I can trust him because he's been in my position as a band member on stage, so he won't make us do foolish things." That led me to commercials. So then I had this whole directing career doing TV commercials up until about 2005, when it kind of trickled out as the business changed a lot and the money went away.
Mothersbaugh: I can tell how old somebody is when they say, "Oh, I really like your music," and they're talking about they're talking about "Rugrats" or "Pee Wee's Playhouse." And if they're talking about Devo, they probably have gray hair. Except for kids, because the internet is this amazing place. They’ve got the whole world right there in their hands.
So yeah, now we get people of all ages, asking about Devo, who are knowledgeable about it. So that's kind of interesting. In the early days we sounded like some sort of outer space version of Captain Beefheart mixed with Sun Ra or something like that. Jerry and I always thought about sound and vision.
One of the things we learned at Kent State was protesting isn't the way to change things in this country, because when they get tired of you, and when the government finally is irritated enough, they just shoot you. Like they did at my school. So we thought, who's changing things…and we were looking around and we thought… Madison Avenue, that's who changes the world. They get you to buy stupid cars, eat food that's not good for you, buy clothes you don't need and you're happy at the end of it.
We just thought well, what if we use those techniques in reverse, and figured out a way to talk to people about reverse evolution, talk to people about how to change the trajectory of the planet. We looked for ways to add hooks into our songs but our whole idea was just to get people to come in, find out what we were. If they liked the song, they’d buy the album, and then they'd listen to the album and hear “Jocko Homo” and or they'd hear “Too Much Paranoia,” or they'd hear the last line in a “Beautiful World": "It's a beautiful world for you, for you, but not for me." And the videos were made to show that.
Your devolution message has sadly never been more relevant.
Mothersbaugh: I agree that the world has devolved. It's even more complicated than ever to find out the truth about things. Jerry likes to call Devo, "the band playing on the Titanic while it goes down."
I'm the eternal optimist. I keep wanting to think that between technology and just people becoming aware of where we are, you know, that they can figure out ways to turn things around. So I like that our music is being listened to and I hope it has a positive effect on people.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photo: Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic via Getty Images
Morrissey, Bauhaus, Blondie, Devo & More To Play Cruel World Fest
The new Los Angeles music festival will also feature Echo & The Bunnymen, the Violent Femmes, The Psychedelic Furs and Gary Newman
The one-day fest will take place at the Grounds at Dignity Health Sports Park on May 2.
Other acts include Echo & The Bunnymen, the Violent Femmes, the newly reunited Psychedelic Furs and Gary Newman.
Presale starts Thursday, Feb. 13. For more information, visit the Cruel World Fest website.
Photo: Brian Cooke
Living Legends: How Roxy Music Went From "Inspired Amateurs" To Art Rock Pioneers
Fifty years after their debut, Roxy Music's eight studio albums have been reissued and the band is embarking on a tour. GRAMMY.com spoke with guitarist Phil Manzanera about the band's art rock origins and long tail of influence.
Roxy Music has always been a few steps ahead, and a few degrees to the side, of many of its contemporaries. Helmed by GRAMMY-nominated vocalist/songwriter Bryan Ferry along with Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Paul Thompson (with Brian Eno as an early member), the British group is credited with birthing the art rock movement by infusing glam into rock '70s. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Roxy Music's eponymous debut album.
Inspired by film and fashion, painting and photography, Roxy Music’s output is an aural and visual amalgam that blurs the lines between musical styles. From the group's formation in 1970 to Avalon, its last studio album in 1982, Roxy Music has informed and influenced genres — from experimental prog and glam rock, to new wave and electronic pop — and created an enduring impact.
This year, the group’s eight studio albums — Roxy Music, For Your Pleasure, Stranded, Country Life, Siren, Manifesto, Flesh + Blood and Avalon — have been reissued as special anniversary editions with a new half-speed cut, and revised artwork with lyrics., The Best of Roxy Music was released on vinyl for the first time on Sept. 2. The reissues arrive ahead of Roxy Music’s North American arena tour, which kicks off in Toronto on Sept. 7 at Scotiabank Arena. The last time Roxy Music toured was over a decade ago.
Still, the 2019 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees have remained active, with and without Roxy Music. This year, Ferry has released a four-track EP of iconic love song covers, Love Letters, and published a book. Mackay, who plays oboe, saxophone and keyboards has released a number of solo albums, written a book on electronic music and studied theology. Drummer Thompson left Roxy Music 1980 and joined an array of other bands, including Concrete Blonde, before returning to Roxy Music in 2011. Guitarist Phil Manzanera produced for Pink Floyd, David Gilmour and John Cale, among others, is currently working on an album with Tim Finn of Crowded House and Split Enz.
From his home in the English countryside, Manzanera spoke with GRAMMY.com about his teenage dream of leaving his exotic world-trotting upbringing for a boarding school in England, where he could connect with fellow musicians. "Through music, you can meet people, you can have fun, you can have an adventure," he says. "I didn't want to learn too quickly. I wanted to spread it out over a whole lifetime. Touch wood, still here."
What was the musical landscape like at the time of Roxy Music’s formation?
In the UK, we were coming out of the period where the big guns, Led Zeppelin and all those bands were to the fore. It was the tail end of the hippie jamming period and the start of prog rock. The drugs had done a lot of those bands in; People were on heroin, so it was very gray and introverted. A bit drab really. The time was ripe for a new bunch to emerge.
By complete happenstance, Bowie and us came to the fore in 1972. On the same day that we released the first Roxy Music album, he released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The next week, we were supporting him in a pub in Croydon [South London] called the Greyhound. There was only about 40-50 people there. Every time I used to meet David, we used to have a big banter about it because everyone claims they were there. He was incredibly nice to us. He loved what we were doing. He asked us to be at his support act at the Rainbow Theatre, which is a big deal. He couldn't quite believe that we'd just come out of nowhere, whereas he was [on] his fifth album.
The '70s were such a time of experimentation and new sounds.
We called ourselves inspired amateurs. A bunch of guys who didn't particularly want to be technically brilliant, but wanted to play interesting music. Some of the people in the band have been to art school, so there was this visual side to the whole thing. Music and image are explosive, which we all learn from the Beatles. New fashion designers and photographers were coming up to the age where they were going to be influencers, and they all had a similar aesthetic with the films they liked and visual art and bands that were influential on them. We stuck it all together and presented it in an attractive fashion.
What was the reception for Roxy Music like in the United States at the time?
We went to the U.S. in December '72. We were a bit early. People didn't understand the look of the band. When we got to Fresno, people threw water bombs at us and said, "Get off you faggots." But we were going to continue playing this music regardless of what you throw at us.
It took us a long, long time to have any kind of impact in the States. But what was great and cool was that in San Francisco or L.A. or New York, we attracted the freaks. We were supporting Ten Years After or J. Geils Band, totally not our audience, but all the freaks knew [we] were coming to town and they would be partying at our hotel after the gig.
Roxy Music was very prolific, sometimes putting out two albums a year — originally all written by Bryan Ferry — but you started writing from the third album, Stranded?
The way the band evolved, the first two albums that Eno was involved with were the first period. By the time it came to the third album, Eno had left, and, in no way can you do the same stuff again. There was a desire to do something different. We needed to expand our musical palette, and so me and Andy [Mackay] started contributing music.
The way we write songs in Roxy was so different because we had no idea how to write a song. We did all the music first, which is really dangerous, and then Bryan [Ferry] would try and work out some lyrics. Sometimes it was fabulous. Sometimes it was rubbish. Out of the 80 songs of the Roxy catalog, I would say 70 percent hit the mark and perhaps 30 percent we won't talk about. It's a very different way of working, creating a musical texture and musical world behind this singer with a strange voice, but good looking, so we could get away with it.
You had a whole host of musicians playing on later Roxy Music albums. How was that different for you as far as writing and recording and realizing musical ideas?
There's definitely a difference between the first five years and second five years of Roxy Music. We'd worked with so many other musicians in between, we wanted a bit of that flavor. Bryan, especially, had lived in L.A. for a bit and worked with a lot of American musicians. When we got back together for the second phase of Roxy, which is '77 to '83, by that time, I had my own recording studio and we were using that as our base. Technological innovations affect the way you work in a studio. If you're doing what we're doing, you can use the studio as an instrument. It happened organically because we had the means of production.
But we were coming to New York, and working with Bob Clearmountain at Atlantic Records and at the Power Station, and having these amazing American bass players and drummers, because Paul [Thompson] had left toward the middle of that period. Bob would mix it and he would just get rid of all the s—. He would say, "I'm going to focus on this, and it's going to rock." Thank God for him, otherwise it would have been airy-fairy, and all over the place. He mixed Avalon in one week. Ten tracks, five days, two tracks a day, three hours a track. boom, boom, boom, boom. Done. He just knows what to do. He just had it.
The first half of Roxy Music was hinged on a strong artist/producer relationship with Chris Thomas in the producer’s seat.
We were so lucky to get Chris Thomas. He came on board from the second album. As you know, he assisted George Martin with the Beatles. The whole tradition of recording from Abbey Road was passed on to us via Chris Thomas. Everything I've ever learned to do with production — and I've produced loads of people, was a mixture between what Chris Thomas taught me coming from George Martin and my experiences with Eno. Two totally different approaches.
You seem to get along very well with both Ferry and Eno.
After Eno left, when we were doing Stranded, we were up at Air Studios until 6 o'clock. And then I would go to work on Here Come the Warm Jets with Eno from 6 o’clock onwards. We continued for another three years. We had a band, 801, who played live and all sorts of things. But then he just disappeared.
Your guitar riff from the title track of your solo album K-Scope was sampled on the GRAMMY-winning "No Church in the Wild" by Jay-Z and Kanye West.
That's the only GRAMMY that I've ever been associated with, so cheers Jay-Z and Kanye, and 88-Keys, who was the person responsible for playing it to them.
Did your Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination, and induction, come as a surprise?
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is not on British musicians’ radar too much. I didn’t realize how big a deal it was for us. We hadn't played together for six or seven years. We thought, we’ve got to have rehearsals. We rehearsed for a week because we want to do a good job and acquit ourselves well — especially in front of all those top musicians who are going to be watching us, particularly Fleetwood Mac and Def Leppard, the Zombies and Radiohead.
On the night, at the Brooklyn Center, when I saw 30,000 people, I realized, this is actually a big deal. I’m about to get scared now. We loved it. We had such a great time. When Bryan said, "Shall we do 'In Every Dream,'" which is about an inflatable doll, I thought, I don’t think that’s going to be shown on telly, and it didn’t make it, but it was really great fun to do. I had a great big guitar solo, which wasn’t shown, but I got to show off in front of Brian May and Fleetwood Mac.
How did this 50th anniversary tour come about?
I had done bits and pieces on Bryan’s new solo stuff. We were having a cup of tea at Christmas, and he just said, "Do you fancy doing some gigs?" I said, "Do you want to do them?" And he said, "Yeah." I said, "Well, in that case, I'm always up for the crack."
We don't have management. If we want to do something, we just ring each other up, and say, "You want to do it?" I also thought, these songs don't get an airing by us, the original people, very often. When we come to the U.S., it will have been 20 years. That's not exactly overdoing it. If there's ever a time to do it, it's at 50.
What does the ongoing impact of Roxy Music feel like for you?
I don't think about it at all. We never thought we'd do this tour, but we’re doing it. We're really putting in the hours to make it as good as we possibly can. What I want to see when I look out into the audience is people glammed up. I want to see glam out there: heels and feathers — for men and women.
Photo: Jeff Vespa/WireImage.com
The Week In Music: Miley's Ear Tat
And the award for most painful celebrity tattoo goes to...
After learning that Miley Cyrus had inked her ear with a tattoo of the word "love," PopEater asked Steve the tattoo artist at Fun City Tattoo which celebrities have the most painful tattoos. Steve leans toward Katy Perry's inside bicep tat and the decoration on the top of Britney Spears' foot. Lil Wayne's inside-the-lip tattoo elicits a mild response from Steve, but to Travis Barker's full-body ink job, Steve says, "If you want something bad enough, you get through it."
Speaking of Katy, is there trouble brewing between her and everyone's favorite bad romancer? Following the premiere of Lady Gaga's controversial video for "Alejandro," Katy took what some fans perceived as a swipe at Gaga. "Using blasphemy as entertainment is as cheap as a comedian telling a fart joke," Katy tweeted. She later clarified her remark, "Lately, I've just been seeing some things that are kind of like, I don't know, in my own personal feelings, a little bit like not something I would do, I guess." Outside of kissing a girl, what would Katy actually do, you ask? Well, as evidenced by her own new video for "California Gurls," roll around on cotton candy clouds, take bites out of live ginger breads, bury Snoop Dogg in the sand, and even dish out some whipped cream. Check it out, but keep the popsicles in the freezer.
In yet another sign of the synergy between music and social networking, MTV announced it is on the lookout for its first Twitter Jockey. The network will have 20 candidates compete against one another in a mini-Twitter Olympics of sorts designed to display their tweeting aptitude, with five finalists selected to compete on a live show in August. Fans will ultimately select the network's debut TJ, who will be charged with reporting on MTV events and appearing on-air periodically. No specifics were revealed but it's a good bet on-air time will be limited to 140 seconds or less.
Justin Bieber has been doo-wopped. Utah rockers and labelmates Neon Trees have a turned in a doo-wop-tinged version of the Bieb's Top 10 chestnut, "Baby." Asked about their cover choice, Neon Trees frontman Tyler Glenn said, "We might as well cover something people are enjoying right now…[and] we thought it would be kind of a nice shout-out. Hello Justin Bieber!" Could this possibly spawn a rash of Bieber cover fever? A disco version of "First Dance," or perhaps a grunge-rock take of "Up"?
File this under the category Worst Use of Horns. Earplug makers report huge sales at early FIFA World Cup rounds thanks in large part to the constant honk of vuvuzela horns at stadiums in South Africa. The BBC has registered 545 complaints about the annoying bleats during its TV coverage of the games. Ear Plugs Online reports its sales are up 121 percent and Sheppard Medical says sales have jumped 20 percent. For a slightly more musical approach to the squawking horn, check out the Vuvuzela Orchestra.
What's the secret to surviving years of (alleged) drug and alcohol abuse? According to Rolling Stone, scientists may be about to find out. Genome researchers at Cambridge, Mass.-based Knome will perform a full DNA analysis on iconic rocker Ozzy Osbourne for the purported purpose of discovering how the self-proclaimed madman has withstood years of heavy-metal partying. Knome's services don't require the famed garbled articulation of Ozzy to render them difficult to understand: "novel allele identification, multi-genome comparative analysis, predictive functional analysis, and causation targeting." We're hoping for the best for Ozzy's allele.
In comeback news, new wave synth punkers Devo released their first studio album in 20 years, Something For Everybody, this past Tuesday. And when they say they have something for everybody, they mean everybody. The band whipped it up good with a live cat listening party for a cadre of Devo kitty enthusiasts. The feline album reviews were apparently mixed, but an unidentified partygoer said a chorus of vuvuzela-like hisses erupted when the album was ejected.
Katy Perry's "California Gurls," featuring Snoop Dogg, is once again the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, as well as tops on the iTunes singles chart.
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Last Week In Music
Photo: David Sutton, courtesy of the David Sutton Collection
Living Legends: Nancy Sinatra Reflects On Creating "Power And Magic" In Studio, Developing A Legacy Beyond "Boots" & The Pop Stars She Wants To Work With
Nancy Sinatra is more than "Boots" — the singer and actress has recorded over 20 albums during her six decade-long career. Sinatra spoke to GRAMMY.com about her canon of pop records, recording with Lee Hazlewood and her dream collaborators.
Presented by GRAMMY.com, Living Legends is an editorial series that honors icons in music and celebrates their inimitable legacies and ongoing impact on culture. GRAMMY.com caught up with Nancy Sinatra, whose work is receiving the grand retrospective reissue treatment through Light in the Attic Records.
Nancy Sinatra is barefoot.
The woman whose most enduring hit is an ode to footwear — and the power of female — of course, doesn’t wear shoes inside her home in California’s low desert. But one need not speculate that she once had a closet full of supremely fashionable kicks.
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Sinatra, now 82, was a fashion icon and actress with a powerful pop voice to boot — pun intended. While she may be most known for singing 1966's "These Boots Are Made For Walking" and the theme to You Only Live Twice, Nancy Sinatra has a sizable catalog which boasted new material through 2013.
Sixty-something years after "Boots," Sinatra is still being celebrated. Seattle reissue label Light in the Attic Records launched a retrospective effort on Sinatra's career in 2020, and has released multiple solo and duet albums since. In May, the label reissued the 1968 duet album Nancy and Lee, with additional tracks, for the first time.
But when Sinatra picked up the phone to chat about the release and her career over the summer, her mind was on more serious pursuits. Sinatra was in the middle of watching the January 6 hearings on the attack on the Capitol, and she had visions of the massacre at Uvalde. "It’s just a scary time in many ways," Sinatra says with more than a hint of sadness and exasperation.
We go back to another turbulent time: 1968. Vietnam raged, Nixon took office, the Chicago Democratic Convention became bloody, and the country mourned both MLK and RFK. Amid the turmoil, Sinatra was in studio with singer/songwriter Lee Hazlewood recording Nancy and Lee, the first of their three duet albums.
Lee and Nancy were paired together in a last-ditch effort by Reprise Records — a label owned by her father — to get Nancy a hit. It seemed an odd pairing; Hazlewood had been working with rock guitarist Duane Eddy and his productions effused a Western twang, while Sinatra was a pop icon who studied classical piano. Yet, the combination worked, and Hazlewood would write and produce several of Nancy’s efforts.
While the pair collaborated on several of Nancy's solo efforts prior — and worked together well into the '90s — Nancy and Lee is worth close examination for its stories in folk, country and pop traditions. Their first album of duets melds Hazlewood’s Johnny Cash-like vocals with Sinatra’s adaptable and often sugary-sweet timbre, is an unlikely masterpiece with a Wall of Sound quality.
Nancy spoke to GRAMMY.com about the album’s creation, her fruitful partnership with Hazlewood, and her list of fantasy collaborators.
From what we were discussing about January 6, let's bring it back to another time that was also very tumultuous. There was a lot going on in 1968 when Nancy and Lee came out. Did you feel that in the same way as you do today?
Yeah, you were either pro-war or anti-war, so it was politically challenging. I knew one thing: I was pro-troops. None of it was their fault; they were stuck, and they had to be supported. No doubt about that.
You've recorded so many records over your career; I'm curious why Nancy and Lee is so enduring in your mind.
You know, I wonder that too. I have to credit Lee, because he's the added factor in those recordings. The arranger was the same for most of my work. The songs were mostly written by Lee, so I don't know. Maybe it was the chemistry that people were attracted to, or Lee’s voice itself. I mean, nobody sounded like him; Johnny Cash was the closest vocally.
You’ve described your relationship with Lee as "beauty and the beast" and have said that your voices didn't blend, but you have this really distinctive vocal harmony; it sounds like you're having a lot of fun. How did you create that
There were times when we actually sang together on the mic, and there were other times when Lee was in the booth when I was singing.
He didn't like singing with somebody. He would prefer — even though they were duets, a contradiction in terms — to have us sing separately. Which is why we have that verse, chorus, verse, chorus thing most of the time. There were very few times that we actually sang together.
I think we did do ["Ladybird"] in the studio together. I think that the chemistry reflects that. It was fun.
Did you find that challenging?
No, it was a very comfortable process. The studio was familiar; we were all friends. The challenge was trying to create vocals that had power and magic to them. It wasn't easy to do, but Lee’s songs were really fairy tales — and telling stories was what we did.
It really does seem like you're having fun throughout the record, especially on "Greenwich Village Folk Song Salesman."
[Laughs] It was a piece of s—, it was awful! It was just a crappy song.
Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood | Photo by Paul Ferrara, courtesy of Boots Enterprises
You were paired with Lee as sort of a last-ditch effort by Reprise Records, right?
The problem was I wasn’t selling in the United States. I sold a lot of the early bubblegum records around the world but nothing in this country. Jimmy Bowen, who was the head of the A&R department, wanted me to stay on the label. I mean, it was my dad's label after all, and it kind of would have been embarrassing if they had to let me go!
I don't know why Jimmy thought this — because Lee was not working with a vocalist; he was producing Duane Eddy. I guess Lee must’ve assured him he could do it. So [Jimmy] put us together, and it was just magic. The "beauty and the beast" thing came joking about how we sounded together. We were pretty self-deprecating.
Did you have to develop your creative relationship actively or was it instant magic?
It really was instantaneous. I had heard the record that Lee had made with Suzi Jane [Hokum, 1967’s “Summer Wine”] and I thought they were so cute.
It was something different about the two of us that captured the fancy and the imagination of the public. It’s weird how those things happen, those unexplained magical pairings.
Did you at least stay in touch with Lee until he passed? Were you friends?
Well, we were touring in ‘95 and he was part of our touring group. The only time we weren't in touch was when he disappeared and took off for Sweden at the height of our recording careers. I never understood that and I was hurt so.
One day he just up and left. [Aftward] I struggled, floundered. I made a few albums with Billy Strange.
Did you and Lee ever have to hash it out when he came back to the States?
No, not really. We got along on the surface, but deep down I think it's still a love-hate thing. I didn't hate anything specifically, except that he would disappear. [I loved] his talent.
Where were you personally in your musical taste and desires as a performer in the mid-60s? Your first two duet albums with Lee have really big pop production, country elements and even Baroque traits. "These Boots" has a country feel if you listen closely, and then you're putting out bubblegum songs.
I studied classical piano for 12 years as a kid. Frank Sinatra was my father and my friends were his friends. There was a lot of influence from that side of the musical spectrum. I also grew up with soul — LaVerne Baker and Ruth Brown were favorites of mine early on, and I loved Johnny Mathis better than anybody. I had an eclectic background, musically.
I guess it would only make sense considering your father and the musical world that was around him. Back to your collaboration with Lee — it was so fruitful, and I'm curious why if at all, this Nancy and Lee reissue is particularly special to you.
Well, first of all, Light In The Attic is incredible, they do amazing remastering work. To save these recordings means a great deal to me. I like the fact that they are protected and will be around for decades to come. After all, that's what we hope for with whatever work we do — we want to be remembered and valued in some way.
They are saving, in a brilliant way, a lot of my recordings. I hope that they go deeper into my catalog and pull out hidden gems that people haven't heard in years, or maybe never. Because I recorded so much rich material with great arrangers. It's exciting to think that that will be part of my legacy, not just "Boots" and "Sugartown."
A lot of press releases have highlighted the fact that you're personally involved in these reissues, and Light In The Attic has done quite a campaign over the past two years. How were you involved?
I actually was not involved. I was delightfully surprised when they launched this project. Both my daughters have been working to ensure that my legacy lives on. It's wonderful, they are amazing — AJ and Amanda — they're so helpful with this process.
Let's face it, this stuff could have just died in the world. But they're not letting it. They’re promoting it and the beauty of it all; it's really quite a remarkable collection. I'm excited that people will be able to hear things they may never have heard before.
You had such a prolific recording career, 20 albums or so overall. Is there a record, or records from your catalog from the deeper collection, that you are most proud of?
I love the self-titled album from 1995, where a lot of '80s artists contributed songs and actually performed them with me. My California Girl album, which is great fun; it was not an album, per se. It was recorded over a couple of decades and we just pulled it all together, realizing that there were so many songs about California in my catalog.
When did you move to California?
My parents moved to California from New Jersey when I was about 4 years old. I still live in California, in the low desert. It's a wonderful place. It's peaceful and mostly quiet. When you get to be my age, those are important things.
Speaking of neighbors — I read that you used to live near Morrissey and consider him a mentor. What was it like working with him?
Oh, he's just brilliant. He's very tender and kind and sweet and funny. He’s the main reason besides my two daughters that the Nancy Sinatra album came to life. He’s on the track "Let Me Kiss You." He wrote the song and sent me his recording of it, and that’s how the whole thing started. It was a real resurgence for me, which was a surprise that changed my life, really.
I was just a rumor before that came out. Whatever people thought of me was history. I was traveling with my little band and doing clubs and that sort of thing, nothing big. It's just a gift to have people — like Kim Gordon, for example — just approach me. My daughter AJ had to pull them in from everywhere, and they gave me these wonderful songs.
Wow, that must have made you feel so good. You also had another resurgence or when Kill Bill used your cover of "Bang Bang" prominently.
Yeah, that was thanks to Quentin Tarantino. He apparently had always wanted to use the song. I got messages from people saying they had no idea it was me on the soundtrack until they saw that credit on the screen.
[I remember recording it] very well. It was Billy Strange and me in the studio. We tried to do the occasional duet with his guitar and my voice; that one was an idea that we had batted around a little bit and then we decided to pull it off. It was quick; the wonderful, magical tracks tend to happen quickly.
I read somewhere that you would like to collaborate with Billie Eilish — why her? Is there anyone else you would like to collaborate with?
I think she’s great! I’m too old for that now, but I think it would be fun. I’ve always loved Avril Lavigne and think she’s great, very fun. I also love Adam Lambert. He'd be a fabulous duet partner, and Bruno Mars… there’s a whole list of people, we could do a whole new album! Hello Bruno!
I also want to ask you about owning your masters; that is no small feat for any artist. Why is that important to you and how it's influenced your career over the decades?
Owning your masters is vital; that’s something that every musician should aim for. If there's a label involved, you've got to make a deal where at the end of a certain amount of time, the masters would revert to you. You have to have control of your work.
With "Bang Bang," for example, Quentin was able to have free reign because I owned it. He didn’t have to battle with a label.
Are you working on anything right now?
I have a book coming out that my daughter Amanda is pretty much responsible for. Because of Covid we got delayed by about a year, [but] it’s going to be a really wonderful picture book; it captures a lot of my career and my life and pictures. It's by David Willis [and is called] Nancy Sinatra: One For Your Dreams.