Everybody laughed when that nutty Pentacostal reverend in Arkansas warned about America’s youth being turned into mindless, automated, sexbot FREAK-A-ZOIDS by listening to the lyrics of Midnight Star:
‘I AM NOW A TOTAL AUTOMATION…YOUR EVERY WISH IS MY COMMAND…TAKE ME TO YOUR DANCE FLOOR…’
And now he had proof. Midnight Star were about to be arrested for inciting a riot.
The Columbus, Ohio fairground lay in ruin. The police had surrounded what appeared to be the black Jetsons, and were interrogating their leader, who seemed equally amazed at the destruction:
‘All I was doing was singing about Freak-a-Zoids!‘
Could an 80′s pop band actually incite a riot with a song about funky robots? Did the group use their musical technology to create an environment of hostility? For more clues, let’s teleport back to the scene of the crime for Midnight Star’s soundcheck . The band are are testing out their vocoder, the electronic gizmo responsible for that robotic Freak-A-Zoid voice:
Shortly after their War Games soundcheck, it was showtime. The waiting was over. Midnight Star hit the stage. Preparing to kick off the show with their Zapp-influenced #2 smash hit, the group assumed attack position behind their endless rows of synthesizers. keyboardist Vincent Calloway commanded the audience, through his vocoder:
‘FREAKAZOIDS…ROBOTS…PLEASE REPORT TO THE DANCE FLOOR…FREAKAZOIDS…ROBOTS… PLEASE REPORT TO THE DANCE FLOOR’
The crowd obeyed, rushing the stage and tearing down the surrounding fence. The fairground erupted into funk-induced pandemonium.
True story, according to Dave Tompkins. Such was the excitement produced by the mutation of P-Funk and Kraftwerk. Drum machines, and synthesizers, instruments once deemed cold and clunky, were now making music that was hot and funky. Throw in the sounds of lasers and robots, and a whole new genre was born.
In many cases, the music of the future was being created in bedrooms using, rented equipment, 4 track recorders, tape loops, and pause-button cassette editing. With ‘space’ as the central theme, artists such as Twilight 22, Cybotron, Planet Patrol, The Megatrons, Jamie Jupiter, Reggie Griffin, Egyptian Lover, and Channel One let the machines take over, and their imaginations run wild. Even Jazzbo Herbie Hancock got in on the act.
But being a bionic funkateer didn’t stop with sounding like you were from outer space. It was also a great excuse to raid the wardrobes of Sun Ra and George Clinton. A prime example being The Jonzun Crew, a band who, along with realizing that saying the word ‘SPACE’ into a vocoder was lyrics enough, knew that silly space duds and videogame name-dropping sold records, creating one of the coolest 12-inch single cover sleeves, ever, for their debut single, ‘Pac Jam‘, which had a riff that sounded an awful lot like Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force‘s, ‘Planet Rock‘, which had a riff that sounded an awful, awful lot like Kraftwerk‘s ‘Trans-Europe Express‘. ‘Pac Jam‘ was The Jonzun Crew’s biggie, but the whole ‘Lost in Space‘ album is great, especially ‘Ground Control‘, a full-on rock starcruiser that would make Hawkwind nod their beaks in approval. Crew member Maurice Starr displayed his market savvy again and again, releasing teen pop smasheroos New Edition and their genetically modified clones, New Kids on the Block upon an unsuspecting planet.
One of the happiest moments of my life was the day I bought ‘Jam on Revenge‘ by Newcleus from the Sound Warehouse on San Pedro. I’d never heard of the group, but the eye-catching album cover art and photos of the group performing in full-on Clockwork Breakboy spacesuits on the back made that fact irrelevant. I sped home , dropped the needle, and after a half-minute of synthy space-squiggles, heard the following narration:
‘This is the story of Newcleus. A band of musicians from a far off galaxy, from a place where music and dancing are against all cosmic and computer law. NEWCLEUS: For many years they searched the heavens. This is the story of their search for, and their discovery of a place where they can be free to be themselves…A place like EARTH.’
So, not just a band from space, but an honest-to-Will Robinson family from space! Like an elektroboogie version of The Partridge Family, Newcleus featured the older kids providing the devo-bebop, while the tots spun around on their heads, center stage. Their debut album, ‘Jam on Revenge‘ and its follow-up, ‘Space is the Place‘, are both well worth hunting down, for their consistently jammin’ cosmic grooves, and fantastical comic book cover art.
Not unlike that ranting Arkansas preacher, The Jam On Revenge album continually warns us against becoming automatons. According to the prophetic lyrics of lead singer Cosmo (now a self-proclaimed ‘hypocrite’ computer designer), as we sit here 27 years later, gazing into our screens, reading Fuzzy Warbles, we very well may be too late:
‘Computer age is now. Everyone must have a machine.
They say it’s gonna make life easier, well, I can’t stand it.
They say we should put them in control. Well, maybe next we’ll give them a soul.
I guess we must now think that we’re gods, while we’re less men than ever.
I know the Lord cannot be too glad. In fact, I’m sure he must be quite mad
to see us take His role from our lives a and give it to computers.
For here we sit in our easy chairs, as our machines decide how we’ll fare.
Who will suffer? Who will survive?
It’s up to the computers.
NEXT WEEK: LOVING THE ALIENS