Graded on a Curve:
Claw Hammer,
Q: Are We Not Men?
A: We Are NOT Devo!

In 1991, California punk heavies Claw Hammer decided to pay tribute to one of their influences, and not with a mere cover or two, but by tacking an entire album from the band that helped shape part of their ragged musical vision. The record just happened to be Devo’s rather magnificent first LP, a choice that certainly befuddled more than a few at the time, but after inspection made perfect if truly twisted sense. For Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Not Devo! isn’t a tame and ultimately forgettable exercise in slavish devotion, but instead stands as a prime example of the rewards to be found at the intersection of (Claw Hammer’s) inspiration and (the Spud-Boys’) invention.

By the dawn of the ‘90s, Devo was in need of a serious reconstruction project in terms of both general image and more importantly the substantial musical worth of their early work. While they were never a band to inspire widespread levels of acceptance, in the late-‘70s/ early-‘80s Devo did find themselves with a rather fervent fan-base that cherished them as a real alternative to some of the more knuckle-dragging tendencies of the lingering Dinosaur Rock-era.

Thusly, they became quite popular as part of the New Wave, even if the group’s intense conceptual strategies were probably lost on the majority of the folks who bought “Whip It” and “Working in a Coal Mine.” Devo ended up playing such a major role in the whole Wavy scheme of things, getting on national-TV numerous times as late-night performers and even appearing as characters in the doomed New Wave-themed youth sitcom Square Pegs, that an eventual backlash was inevitable.

Many of the folks that dug them when they first emerged surely continued to recognize Devo’s worth and valued the ambitiousness of their prime stuff, but many younger listeners considered them to be little more than a flash in the pan and even more curiously as an MTV-relic, this assessment either ignorant to or ignoring the fact that the group’s integration of sonic and visual stimuli pre-dated the music channel’s debut on cable-TV by several years.

The band’s reunion in ’87 was a pretty anticlimactic situation; for a large segment of the music buying public Devo was as out of touch a decade after the appearance of the “Be Stiff” EP as Billy Haley was during the period of the British Invasion. And reliably, scores of rookie punkers either gave them short-shrift as sell-outs or identified them as the antithesis of punk-rock’s supposed musical purity.

Both of these rather knee-jerk judgments sidestepped the lasting significance of Devo’s first LP, ‘78’s Brian Eno-produced Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, which remains a true classic of left-field punk invention even if it’s rarely categorized as such. And it totally disses the music of their formative ’74-’77 phase, but that was probably due to the naysayers not even knowing that this early material existed.

Two CD volumes titled Hardcore Devo hit the racks in ’90 and ’91, and they did a fine job of correcting some of the less-enlightened dismissals that had been thrown the group’s way. Of course, scores of listeners who subscribed to these unfortunate notions weren’t exactly lining up to purchase said offerings. So when Claw Hammer’s second album hit the racks in 1991, the reaction included more than few scratched heads.

It’s been said that one of those initial doubters was Long Gone John Mermis, the man behind the ridiculously prolific label Sympathy for the Record Industry, his imprint having issued Claw Hammer’s self-titled debut full-length in 1990. I’m unsure exactly why he changed his tune, but thankfully he did, and Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Not Devo!, featuring a back cover blessing from Mark Mothersbaugh himself, became one of the nearly 800 entries in the Sympathy discography.

Claw Hammer was formed in Long Beach, California in 1986 by vocalist/guitarist Jon Wahl (formerly of The Pontiac Brothers), guitarist Chris Bagarozzi, bassist Rob Walther and drummer Rick Sortwell. They specialized in a rare variety of punk (particularly for the era in which it appeared) that was as heavy and dense as it was rip-roarious and often flailing.

Folks have occasionally described Claw Hammer as being bluesy, and at times that terminology fits them pretty well. But just as frequently the band simply plunged head first into a rich pool of influences that were sourced almost entirely from the pre-hardcore era. That they cribbed their name from the opening cut on side four of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s eternally zonked Trout Mask Replica was the first sign that Claw Hammer were up to something other than HC-derived blandness.

They even went so far as covering Trout Mask’s “Moonlight on Vermont” on the b-side to a superb ’89 single, turning the original into heaving, thundering hard-rock behemoth with an attached mouth-harp solo that sounded like Little Walter Jacobs in the throes of ‘roid-rage. So, bluesy yes, but it was far from holding any sort of mild-mannered reverence for the form, which was definitely a good thing. Also welcome were Wahl’s loose and emphatic vocals, which seemed to derive from the Richard Hell School of Zealous Spouting.

Cover-versions became frequent on Claw Hammer’s early records. Their debut ’88 7-inch included a flip-side rip of The Beatles’ “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” that’s nearly as tasty as the one by The Feelies’, and the first LP held versions of “Hey Old Lady and Bert’s Song” by Georgia titans of the weird, the Hampton Grease Band and “Sundown” by Gordon freaking Lightfoot. But it was a 1990 twin 7-inch release titled “Double Pac Whack Attack” that really cinched-up Claw Hammer’s rep as true cover-song specialists.

That doozy featured the band grappling with Eno’s “Blank Frank,” Patti Smith’s “Pumping (My Heart),” Pere Ubu’s “Final Solution,” and Devo’s “Gut Feeling.” As a tribute to some of the smartest and all-around finest punk-aligned stuff to have spewed from the guts of the ‘70s, it was rousing success. And they must’ve had so much fun doing it that the idea of tackling an entire LP from one of their influences was impossible to resist.

A big part of the inspiration for Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Not Devo! came from Pussy Galore’s ’86 scuzz-rock demolition as tribute to The Rolling Stone’s Exile on Main St (and notably PG also covered Devo, doing great harm to “Penetration of the Centerfold.”) Like that New York unit, Claw Hammer throws veneration off the nearest cliff, though they do smartly retain the structure of the originals.

While Pussy Galore’s Exile smacked largely of the band whizzing darts at what they perceived as a sacred cow, one that also just happened to be hugely influential upon their sound, Claw Hammer’s album, thrown-down live in the studio with Bad Religion’s Brett Gurewitz as producer (though credited as Brett Eno), impresses as a bunch of passionate music-nuts tipping their flowerpot hats to one of their favorite records and in the best of all possible ways; through the spazzed oomph of their collective voice.

New drummer Bob Lee (going under the handle Bob One) makes his presence known right from the start, giving his kit a thorough brutalizing throughout the torrid reading of “Uncontrollable Urge.” And the throaty talents of Wahl (here christened as Jon Mothersbrother) immediately prove a great fit for extending Mothersbaugh’s rather eclectic style. The guitars of Wahl and Bagarozzi (aka Chris Mothersbrother) roar and spit, and the bass playing by Walther (or Rob Two for this LP) throbs mightily while somehow managing to hold all this mayhem together.

Those with a deep allegiance for the original LP (especially those that never dove too deep into the nastier side of the whole punk experience) might find Claw Hammer’s endeavor to be an ill-informed and destructive exercise, but that’s probably how lots of folks felt about Devo’s radical reassessment of the Stones’ “Satisfaction.” The version here remains as herky-jerky as that one, but is significantly more pummeling, and it’s immediately clear how much preparation went into the making of a record that often radiates like a very casual, even tossed-off affair.

Lee is at his best on “Praying Hands” with Wahl braying at times like a demented donkey. That’s a compliment. And Claw Hammer rightly identified Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!’s value as a guitar album and turned up the amplifier heat accordingly, but they also didn’t neglect the keyboards, with guest Dan McGough contributing “obnopiano.”

That’s one of the best aspects of “Space Junk,” though the song’s original tempo is a splendid fit for the band’s raw intensity. “Mongoloid” manages to highlight the inherent punk simplicity in Devo’s version. In the end however, this LP could only be as strong as its take on “Jocko Homo,” and it proves as tweaked and disheveled as everything that preceded it. The use of keyboard is increased to sizeable effect, and they wisely stretch out Devo’s brief instrumental section, building up to a massive payoff.

Wahl’s yowl and the frenzied energy of the whole band are well-matched, with the original’s call-and response vocals losing their robotic feel and gaining a sense of fatigued consent. They take “Jocko Homo” to the structural brink, and it’s testimony to the strength of Devo’s material that it can withstand such a lovely beating.

The second side continues without a glitch. “Too Much Paranoias,” a spectacularly weird tune, is a swell fit for a bunch of Beefheart acolytes. “Gut Feeling,” perhaps the most jam-friendly cut in Devo’s arsenal, reveals the sweet-spot where the source material synchs-up with Claw Hammer’s disruptive sensibility most naturally, and it’s the better of the band’s two attempts of the song.

By this point, nothing less than a jack-hammering of “Slap Your Mammy” is to be expected, and these gents don’t disappoint. Neither does “Come Back Jonee” and “Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin’”), both tracks handled with the same breakneck zest as “Uncontrollable Urge” and “Space Junk.” That leaves closer “Shrivel Up,” and it’s subject to the record’s most extensive reworking.

Where the original features a vocal that’s always reminded me of a three-way split between lounge-ham, advertizing shill, and New Age motivational speaker, Bagarozzi’s turn at the microphone is delivered with such raspy punkish desperation that it begins to impact the ear as legitimately unhinged, and it provides a superb ending to an excellent LP.

Additionally, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Not Devo! served as a distinguishing entry in the Sympathy label’s mountain of releases, a whole heap of which often sounded like the aural equivalent of a sleeveless denim jacket with biker patches sewn all over the tattered fabric. Claw Hammer cut one more album for the label titled Ramwhale, the disc also appearing in ‘91, before jumping over to Epitaph for ‘93’s Pablum.

From there they landed on major label turf for two LPs, ‘95’s Thank the Holder Uppers and ‘97’s Hold Your Tongue (and Say Apple), both for conglomerate Interscope. Along the way they did a grand job of not stepping into the tricky puddle of diminishing returns, though the early junk is where any interested parties should start. It doesn’t look like they’ve done much of anything as a unit since around 2000 or so, but in ’09 the Spanish label Munster did issue a promising-looking 2LP set of the band playing in Dallas circa ‘95 titled Deep in the Heart of Nowhere! I can’t wait to wrap my ears around that one.

These days, Devo’s rep is significantly and deservingly higher than it was when this LP was released. It’s doubtful that Claw Hammer had all that much to do with this turnaround in fortunes, but the record continues to be a very bonus gesture. The aspect both bands share is creative nerve. While in no way eclipsing the original, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Not Devo! does stand as a minor classic, and many a band would benefit from an injection of just this sort of scorching enthusiasm.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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