The eighties wasn’t going to be your daddy’s rock and roll kind of decade. This became clear , if it wasn’t already, by this day in 1980 when two of the quirkier bands of the decade made themselves known to the American masses. Granted Springsteen and the Stones were still around and on the charts, but so too were the new sounds – like Devo, and The Vapors.
Northern Ohio’s Devo were hardly newbies. By this time, they’d already been around for 7 years and had a couple of albums out, but they remained unknown to all but a select group of “underground” music aficionados until their strangely alluring “Whip It” came out. They had their signature tune up to #14 on the Billboard charts at the time 38 years ago, the highest it – or anything else by them- would make it in the U.S. They came close to matching the success of it elsewhere (Canada and New Zealand especially) the following year with their industrial dance take on the ’60s Lee Dorsey hit “Working in a Coalmine”, but the home crowds had already moved on by then. Although they’ve only put out one new album since 1990, the quirky “one hit wonders” are still going. And yes, still wearing those “energy dome hats” (red flower pots to the rest of us) 45 years after they were founded. They still feature founding singer Gerald Casale, and guitarist Mark Mothersbaugh. Mike’s brother Bob, another guitarist, also is part of the lineup, joining them about two years in.
Surprisingly perhaps, Devo is on this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot and are doing OK in it. Although they’re not going to get voted in by fans, this year at least, they’re a respectable 7th in voting, ahead of noteworthies like Roxy Music and Radiohead. The Hall of Fame say they earn recognition for being “equal parts art project, rock & roll satire and punk band- (they) produced a sound that was fresh.”
Another quirky new wave band debuted in the Top 40 that day – The Vapors. The guitar-based new wavers’ “Turning Japanese” was a top 10 hit in Canada, Britain and Australia but not quite as big in the U.S., where it only crawled up to #36. The band out of The Stranglers hometown of Guildford, England owed a lot to The Jam. They were “discovered” by Bruce Foxton of the band who helped them get a record deal and got singer Paul Weller’s dad to manage them. Their first live shows after signing a record deal were, yep, opening for The Jam. The fun and possibly politically incorrect single is not about masturbation, says Dave Fenton who wrote it, but rather about “cliches about angst and youth.” Whatever it was about, it was funny and danceable.
The Vapors were never able to find a similar level of public interest again, and quickly disbanded after one more year and album (although they’ve done a handful of “reunion” shows in the last two years.) They put their short-term windfall to use though and didn’t entirely abandon the world of music. Drummer Howard Smith owns and operates a record store and Fenton went to law school and became a lawyer who mostly works for the Musicians’ Union representing other artists.